Startup to learn, learn to startup

A Computer Science student wrote to me: “I want to be a successful entrepreneur and often read your blog for advice. I would like to start my company but want to make sure that I could be successful and avoid risks. Please advise.”

Answer: There is no guarantee in any start-up because it is a risky business, and unless you are willing to take a risk, you should not start a company. Start-up demands more efforts and commitment than most people think. All successful entrepreneurs had failed several times before they succeed. And their success is mostly based on what they learn after making mistakes. Each time they start, they make a new mistake and continue to learn from it, that is how they succeed. The entrepreneur process is full of ups and downs, with mistakes after mistakes, it is not as easy as many people say. To be successful, you must learn “how to learn from mistakes” and not give up your determination.

There are many books written about start-up and entrepreneurship. Some are good, but many are not. A successful serial entrepreneur once told me: “The people who write books about entrepreneurship or teaching workshop on how to create a startup is actually entrepreneurs. Their product is about selling “Dreams” to the “want-to-be” entrepreneur. Some are making a lot of money doing that. However, many successful entrepreneurs are busy starting and learning. They do not have time to write a book or teaching anyone.” In his view, no one can read a book and become a successful entrepreneur, but they have to learn by doing. He said: “Mistakes are a part of any entrepreneur’s journey. Although you may learn something from others, you may ask for advice from people who have done it, but most of the thing you do is unique, you need to learn from your own mistake.”

Of course, there are common factors that every startup must have such as finding the right people for your team.This is the most important factor for success. Every startup team must have a visionary leader who commits to pursuing the idea and willing to change to meet the market demand. The team should have some technical people who can write code and build the product quickly to meet the customers’ requirements and salesperson who can sell the product and build the relationship with their customers. How these team members interact, how they support others in the ups and downs of the entrepreneurship journey, will determine how long the team last.

Another necessary factor for success is you must be conservative with the money. Do not spend money foolishly until the company is making a lot of money. The company should only grow in accord with the revenue that they make. Many entrepreneurs have an “Early-success” optimism and start spending after they receive some money. This is a disastrous path that sinks the company quickly. In most cases, you should ignore the temptation to rent a nice office and have beautiful furniture because you believe that you will succeed. Wait until your company has a lot of revenues else you will learn a bitter lesson of failure. Although there are some “hypes” about startup must grow fast, the fact is most startups do not grow fast as you expect. You could get into problems if you expand without some revenue to back it up then you will spend more than you need.

As an entrepreneur, you will make mistakes. I hope that my advice will help you avoid some problems that other people often make. Regardless whether your start-up is still an idea or ready to go, you must be willing to learn whenever the opportunity comes because you never know what will happen next. But as long as you learn, you will do well.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University