Survivor Meets Shark Tank: A Review of the Founder Institute

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founder-institute-list-chicago-fall-2015-winter-2016-by-kevin-victor-zhou

Wide-eyed, ambitious, and optimistic, 28 people enroll in the Founder Institute last October hoping to make the move from employee to entrepreneur. They endure hard work, long hours, and brutally honest feedback. During the next 4 months, Founder Institute students have to handle skepticism from investors, battle their own self-doubt, and shield themselves from spoilers for the latest Star Wars movie.

In the end, only 7 resilient (and/or crazy) individuals remain. I am one of them. Building upon my startup knowledge from the Startup Institute, I use the Founder Institute to create EarlyWise, which offers customized job applicant screening systems to help engineering managers identify top talent and reduce hiring costs by up to 50% with technical testing and engineering project challenges. This is my review of the Founder Institute.

The Good

I learned a great deal in a short time. Some of this knowledge came from lectures (given by local entrepreneurs who serve as mentors), but most of it resulted from trial-and-error during the experience-based homework assignments. Here are some of the biggest takeaways:

1. Revenue is king. A business cannot exist without revenue. You need money to pay your employees, afford rent, and buy fancy Aeron chairs.

2. An entrepreneur is truly a jack of all trades. There are too many tasks and not enough people. I’ve had to plan business strategy, write pitches for investors, design marketing brochures, develop a website, write sales scripts, design a logo, edit corporate headshots, and keep the fridge stocked with Mountain Dew – a necessity in any tech startup.

3. There is no formula for entrepreneurship. There are many equally right answers (and many more wrong ones). Everyone has different opinions. The challenge is deciding which advice to follow. One mentor suggests using an analogy to make your new product seem familiar. For example, Urban Leash calls itself “Uber for dog-walkers”. However, during another lecture, a different mentor advises against such analogies because they’re overused and because coming up with an original description of your startup will make your pitch stand out. But everyone agrees it’s not a good idea to call your company the Radio Shack of anything.

4. Everyone has a different opinion on the ideal company name. Would a rose smell as sweet if it were called a r0ze? A name a fusion of what your company does, what emotions you want to evoke, and what .com domains are still available. For example, the company Xobni has a name that’s “inbox” spelled backward. One guess on what they do is that their software has a Pok√©mon character that reads your emails backward.

5. You must provide an appealing value proposition to your customers. For example, Rolex doesn’t sell watches; they sell shiny things that infer status and impress girls. If someone merely wanted a watch, they could buy cheaper and more functional products from another brand.

The Bad

“I’ll keep it short and sweet. Family, religion, friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business. When opportunity knocks, you don’t want to be driving to a maternity hospital or sitting in some phony-baloney church. Or synagogue.”

– Charles Montgomery Burns (The Simpsons)

Starting and running a business requires a massive time commitment, especially if you’re a first-time entrepreneur (which is the case for most Founder Institute students). It always seems like there is too much work and and enough time. Building a new company often requires 40+ hours a week, especially if product development is required. Add these 40+ hours with another 40+ hours from a dayjob. Then add time spent commuting, networking (really important for an entrepreneur), cooking, shopping, cleaning your home, and showering (really important for everyone). Make sure you have enough money in your budget for an IV machine that dispenses coffee.

You cannot have it all. You have to set priorities and make sacrifices. You’ll need to figure how to do things more efficiently. I had the benefits of a flexible schedule and an understanding supervisor but most aren’t as fortunate. Most can’t adapt and keep up so they are asked to leave the program.

The Ugly

Sleep deprivation. No food at sessions. Not a good place to meet single women.

The Verdict

The Founder Institute has given me knowledge and helped me expand my network in the Chicago startup community. I’d highly recommend the program to anyone with enough ambition (and free time).

Again, check out EarlyWise.

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