Do you like metaphors?
One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, in his essay “Mediations in a Toolshed,” relates the experience of seeing a ray of sunlight cast inside a dark and dusty shed through a small hole at the top of the doorframe. He reasons that there are two ways a person can ever experience this beam. They can either stand back and observe it as simply a thin rail of light illuminating the blackness, or they can align themselves with the beam, looking along it to see the outside world from which it shines.
It is my wager that if you’ve landed on this page, you are one of those entrepreneurs marveling at the bright light cast by the buzzing and budding tech scene. It is my hope that this rudimentary guide into the basics will set your feet moving, so that you, too, might come to bring your eye a bit closer to looking along that light, and so experience the larger, more awe-inspiring world that lies beyond it.
/Metaphor mode off. See? That wasn’t so painful.
Let’s get down to it. You want to be an entrepreneur. Of course you do, who doesn’t? Unfortunately, you are not alone. In fact, according to this 2013 infographic from oDesk, 72% of the current workforce wants to quit their jobs and pursue an entrepreneurial career. With that kind of competition, you’re going to need an edge, and staying informed and knowledgeable about the scene and all its happenings is the best edge a budding entrepreneur can have. Of course, for all that, you’re going to have to understand what the heck people are talking about. So let’s start with some vocab.
T E R M S
Some of you might have a grasp on these words already. Some of you might be eyeing “infographic” in the above paragraph with dubious glances. Whatever your familiarity, here is a list of buzzwords you will absolutely encounter time and time again. Know them well.
Easy peasy. That’s the glowy-hat thing with wings you put on top of your Christmas tree each year right? Wrong. Angels—short for “Angel Investors”—are wealthy individuals who provide both financial and intellectual capital to startups, mostly in their early stages. Angels tend to form up in groups, either as a network who collaborate under liked minded interests, or as funds that pool their resources together when investing. A list of notable Angels and Angel groups can be found here.
As a general rule in life, you’ll want to avoid disruption or being disruptive. In startups, you’ll find that the opposite is true. Disruption in the entrepreneurial sense refers to innovation that reimagines, challenges and even improves existing markets and/or technologies. You might say that “disruption” in the tech scene is disruptive to the traditional understanding of the word “disruption.” Hmmm . . .
I know this one! Plants, animals, microbes, habitats: all that good stuff yeah? Nope—but at least with this one the concept is the same. The ecosystems you’ll hear talk of in the entrepreneurial world refers to the resources and infrastructure existing around the startup community. This include the investors, talent, educators and events that surround, support and perpetuate the scene. It probably will not include algae . . . but anything is possible in a disruptive market. See how this works?
Are you sensing a theme here? These terms have all been adopted and adapted to fit their entrepreneurial counterparts. “Accelerator” refers to collaborative bodies designed to provide startups with the essentials they need to grow and thrive. Accelerators offer founders a package of workspace, mentoring, training, and even funding. Think of them as little hubs that wrap logistical bubbles around budding startups. And don’t call them incubators. That’s something different and the two terms are not interchangeable.
This one is actually what it sounds like, and it almost always one of the first questions investors ask. “Do you have scalability? What is you scalability?” In other words, investors want reassurance that the model, service, or system a startup implements on the local level can be applied on a much larger scale. Since growth is usually the most important aspect determining whether or not an investor will see a return, it is imperative that a given startup can handle that growth, if and when it happens. Scalability should always be on a founder’s mind when determining the future of the idea.
Short for “Venture Capitalist,” VCs are another grouping of investors not unlike those who ascend to Angel status. Traditionally, a VC will look to invest in a startup at various stages in its later growth. VCs are more focused on profit than Angels tend to be, and are thus more discriminatory when it comes to investing. The upside here is that VCs are poised to offer a much larger investment—supplying serious capital for the companies they choose to back. A list of New York VCs and their profiles can be viewed here.
L O C A T I O N S
Now that you know the terms that you’ll be hearing, you should probably know where you’ll be hearing them. If you live in NY, no doubt you’ve heard of “The Alley,” or more specifically, Silicon Alley—the East Coast counterpart to Silicon Valley in San Francisco. Silicon Alley originally referred to the stretch of startup accelerators, Venture Capitalists, companies and educators running through the gut of NYC on Broadway between Canal St. and 23rd, although the community has been expanding northward. AOL/Facebook, NYU, among a series of tech companies and VCs are all centered along the “alley,” creating the ecosystem necessary for NYC tech to grow and thrive. Take a look at page 46 of Venture Capitalist Steve Schlafman’s “Guide to NYC Tech 2.0” for a detailed map.
R E S O U R C E S
Of course, no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. For that, the internet has you covered. Below, I’ve compiled the very best resources to keep you up-to-date and in-the-know on everything entrepreneurial and tech related.
1) AngelList (@AngelList)
Search jobs, seek talent, research, locate and identify startups and investors. There is little you can’t find on AngelList. A great tool for analyzing startups within any given space, no matter how you want to enter the startup scene, AngelList will provide you with the background information to do it.
2) Inside Startups (@InsideStartups)
Another resource for pairing talent with startups, Inside Startups is a more visually appealing interface helping to filter the torrent of startup companies by location, focus, space, size and investment stage.
3) CrunchBase (@CrunchBase)
An enormous database featuring the “who,” “what”, and “wheres” of the technology industry, think of CrunchBase as the Wikipedia of tech sites. Search for detailed profiles on investors, as well as contact and business information on over 225K different companies. CrunchBase is one of the best resources for finding basic information on the most important names in the technological community.
4) Tech Crunch (@TechCrunch)
The news affiliate to CrunchBase, TechCrunch offers insight into all the major moves, trends, and stories taking place across the tech world. TechCrunch is an ultra reliable and pertinent source for keeping up to speed with tech news.
5) AlleyWatch (@AlleyWatch)
A conglomerate source for all things tech, AlleyWatch acts a central hub, pooling the best resources from across the web to aid and inform entrepreneurs in their journey. Read detailed profiles on NY Angels and VCs, keep up to date on the latest news and trends, and stay informed on the hottest events taking place across NYC. AlleyWatch is a great source for finding startup and entrepreneurial advice.
Speaking of which . . .
A D V I C E
Now that you’re armed with the who, what and where, you might be wondering about the how and why. Well think of that as the fun part. One of the finest perks of entrepreneurship is that it’s completely up to you how you proceed from here. That’s not to say there isn’t some sound advice to be had by paying attention to those who’ve done it before. In fact, one of the greatest advantages in keeping yourself updated with the scene is that there are always events, talks, and meet-ups happening where you can pick up loads of great advice. Here are two lessons I’ve learned.
It’s About More than just an Idea
Just about everyone thinks they have the next Dropbox floating about in their heads. If so, great— but not only is this highly unlikely, but even if it were true, it really wouldn’t matter. Around 2006–2007, when cloud storage was the next hot idea, there we many companies rushing to market varying services that stored data across a cloud. What made Dropbox the billion dollar success it is, was how Drew Houston managed to implement the service into the seamless user experience that you know and love today.
As VC David Teten said at a recent talk, “There is no marketplace for ideas. Try and sell your great startup idea. No one will pay you for it. It’s all in execution.” Execution is action. Action is the second half of conception. It’s important to find an idea that you think will resonate and gain traction, but the only way to make that idea matter is to make it tangible. For that, you’ll need a lot of skill and a lot of hard work.
Make an Impact Now
There are a million reasons why, once you finish this guide, you shouldn’t start working toward your dream right away. Maybe you’re hungry, tired, or you’ve already finished work for the day. I’ll give you one reason why you should —because most people won’t. Entrepreneurship, despite being so popular, isn’t easy. Those who go the extra mile are the only one who stand a chance at entering the pool of those who might succeed; those who go halfway don’t stand a chance. Start making an impact now.
At a talk with VC Steve Schlafman he invited prospective entrepreneurs to ask themselves, “What can I do right away to make an impact? That is what will grab people’s attention.” He continued, “learn to code or design, get coffee with someone you admire, help people you meet, blog about your experiences, engage on social media . . . speak up and try to be helpful. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t ever hesitate to offer what you are good at. Don’t get discouraged.” Building a startup may not be easy, but that doesn’t mean that starting to learn how to do it has to be as well. There are any number of things you can do this instant that will make you better poised to head down the right path. The trick is to actually do them.
Remember, anyone can be an entrepreneur, and these days, just about everyone is. If you want to succeed, you need to be one step ahead. Start small, but start often. To build a startup, you have to be an upstart. This means action. Get informed. Get connected. Get moving. Don’t hold back and look from afar at the bright lights and exciting world of tech entrepreneurship. Start your feet moving and step into the light. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. The time for meditations in the dark shed is over. Stand up now and startup your future.
Image Credit: CC by Paul McRae