The Background of the Entrepreneur
The media perception of what a great entrepreneur is, is a 23-year-old brilliant guy, coming out of school and deciding to start a business. The misconception is that what gets written about people like Bill Gates and Michael Dell, who started these companies at 18 and who simply came out of high school, is for the majority of the people a very unrealistic expectation. The typical entrepreneurs are people who have experience in the industry, who are rather in their mid-30s or 40s, who are often serial entrepreneurs, who have an industry track record and relationships with people in the industry. They have often worked for the most renowned companies such as GE, Intel, Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, Lotus, Netscape, HP and Apple, or McKinsey and BCG, before they decided to be an entrepreneur and launch a venture.
Most entrepreneurs get ideas while working in these large companies. The recognition of customer needs and technological solutions to these problems derive often from something you are working on while you are with a large company. The challenge is that you have to be already high enough up in the hierarchy to understand the big picture, but still low enough down to be close to the customer. Working with customers and spending time with customers as a product manager or marketing person is key, because it enables you to see an idea and to realize that the need is there. Being a product manager proves to be very valuable, because you will have to work with all the functions: engineering, development, marketing, sales, support, finance. You will learn, how to coordinate these functions and how to deal with the mentalities of the people in these functions. A lot of entrepreneurs have an engineering background, but you do not necessarily have to have an engineering degree to run a technology company. You just have to have a certain affinity, have to understand and like technology. Whatever your background, early in your career you should try to get an experience as broad as possible. To start a venture breadth of understanding a business is more important than particular functional skills.
Also, you need to try actively to get an educational background and experience that supports the venture. This really has to be an active approach. You have to put yourself in a position where you get involved in startups, you have to go to the places where entrepreneurs are, you have to go to places where you can get inspired, you have to meet people of similar spirits and build a network. In school you might participate in the business plan competition, take the classes where you will write a business plan, and take the entrepreneurial track at business school. That is where the people who want to do it are. I met the two guys that I ultimately ended up being partners with, we were standing outside the Entrepreneurship Lab at MIT (Eric Spitz, Trakus). Through such activities you will be meeting partners and ideas incidentally.
You should always go and associate with the best companies, where you can learn the most. The first entrepreneurial activity is often a great learning experience because nobody really knows what a startup is, unless they have been involved in one. You should be spending some years in gradually smaller environments to learn the dynamics of markets and company development that you need to know. And eventually you should try to gain experience in another startup before you start your own and make mistakes when you are still an employee.
Proposition: Try to get an educational background and experience that support the venture. Go to gradually smaller companies. Always go to the best companies, try to be on the cutting edge all the time, whatever you do.