STARTUP

5 Things Every Graduate Should Know

The start-up life is yours for the taking. But on your way, don't forget these five pieces of advice.
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Recently I sat on the stage at Babson College’s graduation and watched the speakers exhort the graduates to greatness. (Babson is home to the No. 1 undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the U.S. every year since 1993, according to U.S. News and World Report.)

I started to think about what advice I would give those graduating seniors, about 100 of whom I have taught business strategy over the last few years. Since I don’t follow rules very well, my graduation speech would not just focus on how to build successful careers

Instead, I would give a speech on how they can make themselves happy and in so doing serve their family, customers, employees, investors, and communities throughout their lives. Here are the five things I’d want to impart to graduating seniors:

1. Find your passion.

Some people know exactly the work they want to do as soon as they enter college and they never deviate from that path.

I was not like that at all. I started off wanting to be a poet and ended up in my junior year with an ambition to be a strategy consultant.

Many of my students are confused about their career objectives, but there’s an easy way to dispel that confusion: Get internships in fields you think you want to pursue. Network with people who do the jobs you think you want.

And based on those experiences you’ll figure out what you like and don’t like about the field. If you’re not passionate about it after you’ve seen how the field really works, pick a different one and repeat the process.

Ideally, students discover their passion before they graduate but realistically your self discovery will continue into your post-college jobs. Research even suggests that it takes about 10 years of post-college experience before someone is ready to launch a start-up.

2. Build a family.

Work is not the only thing in life. For some people, the whole point of working is to help provide the cash flow and structure that enables them to build a family. For those who want to focus mostly on their work until they hit it big, a family can help fuel that ambition.

I have no great advice on how to pick the right life partner. But my experience suggests that you should pick someone whom you love and respect and whose faults you know and find at least tolerable.

If you choose to have children, make sure you are there as your children grow up. Parenting is a big responsibility and great fun, but the time goes all too fast.

3. Embrace risk.

Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. In the last few years, I have interviewed over 200 of them and I am confident that some of my students will run successful start-ups.

The ones who win combine unquenchable determination with an appetite for risk. Their passion for their work helps them to develop a powerful vision of what they want their start-up to become. And that vision drives them into risky waters, making them do things that older and wiser people tell them will never work.

If you are such an entrepreneur, you know this already. But if you are the kind of person who wants to start a company that makes iPhone apps while you work a full-time job with a big company, you are at a decision point in your career.

One way to make that decision is to test out your product idea on potential customers and see if they clamor for more. If so, then the risk of staying in your big company career may be greater than the risk of starting your venture.

4. Relieve customer pain.

How do you create a product that will make potential customers eager to buy? The short answer is that there is no guaranteed formula. But you can identify some of the biggest reasons why they would not buy it, and apply a process that will strip away those risks.

Find customer pain that no companies but yours are relieving. If you’re lucky, you’ll keep solving that problem better than the competition and your customers will only want more.

5. Never stop learning.

In March, my wife and I visited her 95-year-old uncle. He has never stopped being engaged with the world around him. For the last eight years, he has been volunteering in the emergency services office of the Florida town where he lives.

He loves posting his views on the latest political tiff on his Facebook page and after spending a few hours with him, I kept thinking he was in his 60s rather than closing in on 100. He told me that without his involvement in the community, he would have long perished.

Those are my tips. What are yours?

Last updated: May 28, 2013

PETER COHAN

Strategy consultant, startup investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author of 11 books, Peter Cohan has invested in six startups, three of which were sold for a total of $2 billion. Before founding Peter S. Cohan & Associates in 1994, he worked with HBS strategy guru Michael E. Porter.




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