Note: This article was originally published on FORBES in FORBES Entrepreneurs.
This is the fifth article in a series about how a group of students at Penn created a company commercializing a product that empowers the visually impaired by helping them recognize what they are looking at. Check out the first article here about how we created our first prototype, and the second article about how we converted that prototype into a product.
If running a company that you’re building up full-time is hard, then running a company while being a full-time student is excruciating. Nothing is working, you have no customers, you’re getting no sleep, you have to put up with classes and homework (that you already paid a massive tuition for), and perhaps most importantly, many times it seems like your own team isn’t inspired enough to convert your vision to a reality.
In my own experience building up ThirdEye during school, there were times when it seemed like nobody was on my side. We all shared a grand vision for the future, but for some reason, it seemed like we weren’t making much progress on the product or on business development.
Problems arose when one of us didn’t complete something. It was very easy for any of us to think, “oh he’s just not doing anything because he’s not motivated anymore.”
More probably though–as we later realized–there was just a lack of communication; the other member just had an upcoming midterm, he just had a different timeframe in mind, or there was just overall miscommunication.
In my own scenario, very early on I made the mistake of assuming that since I wanted to build the company up to be huge, everyone else on my team also shared the same sentiments. In fact, that assumption was completely untrue.
See the problem with working with students while building up a venture is that everyone has differing short term goals. Some truly want to focus on education and see the venture only as a side project. Some want to use the credibility from building up the startup to find internship opportunities. Some want to use the experience as a launchpad for a future venture.
Plus, since no one is being paid (something true for most student-run startups), once a particular individual has accomplished his particular goal, his level of motivation drops off dramatically.
After realizing that maybe everyone wasn’t as self-motivated to put 10 hours a day into the business (in addition to chugging though school of course), I learned how much communication really is necessary, and how even a minor lack of communication can result in huge inefficiencies.
And so, as the unofficial leader, I tried to step up my “leadership,” something neither high school, nor any of my formal “leadership” positions in high school organizations, nor college taught me.
All in all, I sucked at almost every aspect of modern business leadership. I made every mistake in the book: I micromanaged, I messaged my team members on a daily basis, I asked them to do things without asking for their opinion, and I assigned unreasonable “due dates.” Very quickly, it seemed like the friendly relationships that my cofounders shared were disappearing and being replaced with all-too-formal business relationships.
And so for the next two months, I read every single business leadership book I could get my hand on, watched as many YouTube interviews with CEOs as I could, and reached out to successful founders for advice.
Soon I started to learn. Rather than telling a team member to do something, I learned to ask more questions. So what do you think is the next step? Why do you think this will work? What do you think about using strategy X over Y? As soon as each member felt in complete control, our productivity tripled.
Now there’s no doubt that Dale Carnegie’s lasting words in How To Win Friends and Influence People are applicable to college students, but college students, in particular, seem to have some peculiarities. One of them is the importance of having at least some face time, rather than just working online remotely.
Since we were all taking classes throughout the day, we often worked independently and communicated at times almost exclusively though Slack. Thus, there would be weeks (sometimes even months) when we would talk for hours online but never see each other in person. Needless to say, there was still a lot of misunderstanding between our divisions.
As a potential solution, we started a Sunday dinner and meeting initiative where we would have an all-hands meeting and talk about all our updates, everything we need to do in each department for the next week, and any concerns we had. Because of these, we manufactured time to stop working and meet face to face, ensuring that each of us was on the same page.
Transparency was what kept us going in these group meetings. We were almost brutally blunt with each other and didn’t hold anything back. And so, it didn’t take long for questions like “are you sure you have time to keep working on this?” or “you’re not bringing the company enough value to have X% equity,” or “I know you’re focused on this business…but I ned time to focus on school” or “why are you criticizing him so much?” to arise.
Still, even though we were very critical of each other, by being very honest, we all knew each other’s standards and were prepared for any potholes in the near future (such as a team member leaving).
Plus, these dinners allowed us to connect at a level beyond work; even though we had tough conversations at the after-dinner meeting, getting to know our team at a level beyond work was incredibly effective and satisfying. Sure, we could have spent that time working and building the business further; but repeatedly realizing that everyone we’re working with was an incredible individual made it even more inspirational to work with them.
In that regards, I learned the power of celebrating short term victories (and of celebrating them with people rather than alone). For example, in our regards, press of our story founding ThirdEye during school turned out not only to be a formidable distribution channel to the family and friends of the visually impaired, but it was also a phenomenal motivation to keep our team going forward. Same goes for major partnerships with visually impaired organizations and any other short term victories.
Let’s face it: we’re all terrible managers our first time around. That’s especially true for college students who’ve never had experience working in the “real world.” At the same time, one thing’s for sure: there’s no way that school could have taught me any of these skills; and yet as my experience shows, they turned out to be the most vital part of our venture. The only way to improve at this skill is to do it and fail miserably.
Why not improve on it during school, when you don’t have much to lose anyways? Maybe soon enough schools and colleges will catch on and encourage project-based learning as well.