From Death Valley to Silicon Valley

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A Clemson grad and entrepreneur shares lessons from a national venture capital conference

 

Everywhere you look, millennials are seen as a group that would rather play than work. However, as a millennial myself, I believe we value enjoyable work. That was my reality long before enrolling at Clemson University or starting my company, Bandwagon. To make this a reality, I studied innovation and entrepreneurship in graduate school knowing that play would be at the center of my work. After graduation, I was full steam ahead. We spent a year testing and surveying, launching our minimum viable product (MVP) last September. The results were encouraging; we discovered thousands of fans interested in what Bandwagon set out to accomplish. Our next step was to get resources (read: capital) behind us. Enter The Founder Institute.

The inaugural cohort of The Founder Institute (FI) in South Carolina was started in Greenville, which seemed serendipitous. The Founder Institute is a global idea-accelerator. Their goal is to identify talented entrepreneurs, provide training and mentorship, incubate teamwork and give businesses like Bandwagon a better chance of success.

Last November, 12 entrepreneurs in my cohort graduated. Among them, I was now equipped with the tools I needed to take Bandwagon to the next level: FounderX.

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FI invited the top 10 percent of their global graduates to apply to FounderX, a new conference hosted in Silicon Valley designed to showcase the best of their best. Of that 10 percent, 40 companies were hand-selected for the FounderX event, with Bandwagon and tForm representing Greenville and South Carolina. My journey from Death Valley to Silicon Valley came at the perfect time. We were now seeking funding to scale and, with moderate success in the Upstate, it was time to look elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” happened to be Silicon Valley, home to top venture capital (VC) firms. On Day One, we met with VCs from the 500 Startups to Founders Fund, which just closed a sale that returned a record $1.7 billion. The gems that I took away from these meetings were invaluable. Understanding the metrics that VCs use to analyze a startup before investing helps me know how to better position my company against the thousands of companies they see each year.

On Day Two, we were privileged to sit in an audience as Jason Calacanis, Dave McClure and Scott Painter gave candid thoughts on the future of entrepreneurship, building a scalable business and what they don’t tell you about building a mega company that raises millions (and billions). I noted dozens of takeaways, but here are the three I reflected on the most – and subsequently kept me up at night:

 

1. Look the part.

 

Marvin Liao of 500 Startups shared that he personally reviews over 100 pitch decks a week. As such, it is easier for VCs to rule out entrepreneurs that don’t take the time to polish their pitch deck and marketing materials before distributing them. As a founder seeking funding, it is important to present your company in the best light. Oftentimes, that means following a traditional format.

 

2. Start with the end in mind.

Scott Painter, Founder of TrueCar, is starting his 38th venture and taking everything he learned from his first 37 with him. Scott has notably raised over $2 billion and spoke freely about the importance of building your company with the end in mind. Do you want a lifestyle business? Do you want a franchise? Do you want to take your company to IPO? Starting with the end in mind helps you identify your path and mitigate risks.

 

3. Believe you will win. Now convince them.

 

Jason Calacanis, investor in companies like Uber and Wealthfront, talked about investments he overlooked and why he makes the investments he does. When evaluating investments, Jason needs to know two things: Do you care passionately about what you’re doing, and are you executing at a high level? Once answered, the deal takes care of itself.

Jason also left us with this nugget: “I don’t need to know that the idea will succeed. I need to know that the founder will win.” Believing you will win is the easy part; hubris is common in entrepreneurs. Convincing “them” – a customer, an investor or even a business partner – is the true task. Being able to express your passion and display your ability to execute at a high level separates the “wannabe entrepreneurs” from those that will succeed at whatever they touch.

 

On my red-eye home, I had a lot of time to think about what separates Bandwagon from other companies and what separates me from other founders. “The No. 1 skill of entrepreneurs today is the ability to acquire new skills” echoed in my mind as I assessed my own strengths and weaknesses. The resources being created in the Upstate are definitely in the strengths column. This Tiger went west and came home with a renewed passion to build a meaningful company in the Upstate.

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