I was talking to Marcy this morning. Marcy is the Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, and she had defined entrepreneurship and the act of building a startup very succinctly as, “You come in with a well thought-out plan, but you have to be flexible enough to throw everything out the door if needed.”
So true. A lot of the hard work behind creating a startup is finding the product-market fit. What this means is being able to create a product that clients and customers actually want. Finding product-market fit means talking to many, many people to learn what their pains and needs are before designing the product as a solution for it.
You have a plan. In fact, a lot of your time is spent planning and replanning as you learn more about your customer’s needs. But then, you have to be willing to throw out that plan in favor of another if things don’t work out. It is a process called agile product development. You develop and plan enough to move forward, but not too far so that you can get feedback to inform your next steps.
That balancing act comes from keeping your nerves intact as you move forward into the unknown!!! What it means, though, is that it takes the guesswork out of product development. Rather than guessing what people want, you ask. Then, you design. Eventually, you’ll come to that product market fit!
In addition to talking to people and accessing networks, prepare to spend days and weeks consuming YouTube videos, watching courses, and of course, reading books. Here’s the books that I’ve found that were most helpful to me on my journey:
Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start, is next on my list. This book gets your head in the game, and gives you the mindset that you need to be an entrepreneur. You’ll get a surface view of entrepreneurship, and links to help you dive deeper.
Startups run on a completely different model than other companies. The Startup Owner’s Manual will help you truly understand what running a startup entails, and it includes great advice and guides for building your company and how to get started. I also highly suggest that you take the free complimentary course by Blank called, “How to Build a Startup” which is hosted on Udacity. Chock full of great advice, and it will give you more details than the manual.
Well, that’s my top 3 book picks to start you off. There’s tons of other books out there, and you’ll need to choose them based on the style that speaks to you. However, I’d say that I built my business foundation from the three books that I’ve mentioned right here. Happy reading! ~Y
In my last post, I shared how you should share your ideas with friends and family. Once you’ve got a fairly good idea of what you want to do, and have practiced communicating this idea clearly to others (incidentally, clarifying what you want to say about your business is an ongoing process that never ends), it’s time to leverage your local community support systems. Here, I list a few places you can go to help you get started.
Connect with your local Small Business Development Centers (SBDC). You can go to the website, and find your state and region. Reach out to them, and schedule an appointment to come in and talk to someone. They will give you really good advice on how to move forward on your business. The local SBDC gave me a complete step-by-step guide on the applications and technical pieces for getting started. You’ll also find that they have experienced business people who can give you good advice on starting your company.
Tap into your local university or community college business networks. Oftentimes, academic institutions will have services to help out entrepreneurs. For example, Iowa State University has the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship that acts as a hub to connect entrepreneurs from across the state. See if your local institutions may have similar things.
Tap into your state resources! See, states realize that growing local business is good for local economies. That’s why they all have resources for getting entrepreneurs started. For example, when I Googled, “Legal assistance in Iowa,” I found a site that had links to affordable legal help all over the state. Believe me, at some point, you will need a lawyer to trademark, protect your intellectual property, or get your business paperwork in order. These resources help to get you started. If you Google the term, “Entrepreneurial support for (put your state name here),” you’ll find a host of localized state links to help you. D
Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to people for help. Oftentimes, you’ll get connected to a whole host of other resources and people who will be there to support you. Plus, the more people hear about your business and what you’re trying to do, the more they can spread your message through their own connections. So, get out there, and get connected!
I’ve had a few friends of mine who have been interested in my entrepreneurial journey reach out to me about their ideas. While there are a lot of resources out there, it can be very difficult to vet out good information, and info that is specific to what you need. Because there’s so much advice I could tell you, I’ve broken up this blog into 3 parts so that you can get that red pill in smaller doses (because you are about to embark on the journey down the rabbit hole). Here’s how I got started:
Talk to friends, family, and people about your idea.
The goal of talking with others is that it will help you solidify your concept and clarify just exactly what you want to say about your business idea. However, do it with a grain of salt, and be selective about the advice you take and don’t take. You’re going to get SO MUCH advice, it’s going to be scary, at first. Listen to everyone with a critical lens, and as they give you advice, evaluate it based on:
How much expertise they actually have on the subject. If they’re not an expert, then be careful about taking their advice as if they understand your market. I had two businessmen lecture me about what education really needs, even though they’ve never taught in a classroom. Yeah, thanks but no thanks.
Whether they actually understand the concept you’re trying to convey. Some people will totally understand and advise accordingly. Others will understand your concept in a completely different way, and their advice may not fit what you’re trying to do. In these cases, you have to ask yourself two things: (a) Am I being clear (and not confusing or vague)? and (b) Have I already considered what they’re saying (or is this some aspect that I really need to give some thought to)?
Whether they are encouraging you OR discouraging you for the wrong reasons. You’re going to get a lot of naysayers and cheerleaders on this path, and you’ll hear plenty of advice from both sides. Some of it may be helpful, and some of it will be total BS. Listen with an open mind, but then see whether their information will help you.
As you talk to people, give yourself time to think and reflect on these conversations. Each convo, whether good or bad, should help you think more deeply about what you are trying to do, and it can help you grow if you are willing to change.
Also, don’t take things personally (even if the person you’re talking to had intended for it to be personal). Entrepreneurship is rough, and you will find yourself frequently in a Shark Tank environment where, if you haven’t grown a thick skin by this stage, it could spell disaster for your business. Remember, the criticism is about your ideas/business, and not about you, personally (and if they are, then stay away from people like that).
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog in how to leverage your local resources and networks.
I used to be an avid roleplayer, and have roleplayed for years. In fact, throughout grad school, roleplay and writing were ways to escape the stress of real life for a while, and become the person I wanted to be. Little did I know that all the things I loved about my roleplaying alter ego were things that were already inside me all along. It wasn’t until after I passed my dissertation defense that I realized that I had become the person that I had envisioned — and my roleplaying self sort of…merged with me.
However, this is not the subject of this blog. Rather, it is the background to explain why it’s almost half past midnight and I still haven’t been able to get to sleep. See, after graduation, a lot of my writing stopped. Whether it was for roleplay, prose, or grad school, I used to write every day, and I loved it. No one told me — or I should say, no one could prepare me — for the existential crisis that blindsides you once you finish and they start calling you “Doctor.” For a short, unpleasant while, I was in a space where I had finally become, after all those years of grad school, the person I wanted to be, and now I had to figure out the person I wanted to be next! In other words, I spent seven long years trying to become a “Doctor,” and not that I had received the title, I had to quickly figure out life after. Was I going to be a professor? A post-doc? A researcher? A consultant? For over a year, I had to push back that nagging in the back of my mind that I had to become an entrepreneur. However, once I graduated I knew that the only way to fulfill my life’s goals and dreams was to pursue it and create my own company.
Again, this is more background, and not the subject of this blog yet, but I’m getting to it (I promise that it will be in THIS paragraph). My point being that once I decided to become an entrepreneur, it left me with very little time to do anything else but panic, reach out to any and everyone for help and advice, and to basically get my sh*t together (I can’t curse in this blog, because my mother reads it). So here I am, and on April 5, Qi Learning will be a year old. Tonight, I’ve been reflecting on this, and I realized that in the past year, I really stopped writing. I mean, I write reports, professional papers and blogs, but not writing like I used to — writing with heart and with the “me” of the writing in it. ..and I miss writing this way.
I miss the addiction of staying up late, writing that one roleplaying passage about my alter-ego facing some challenge and somehow conquering it with wit and guile. I also miss writing about theory, staying up late talking and learning about people, and writing to feel free.
Writing, to me, used to be as addicting as coffee, and I asked myself tonight: (because I’m in my head a lot) WHY DONT YOU WRITE ANYMORE? And my answer shocked me. It was because I had forgotten to include myself in that writing. The work I’ve been doing, even though it’s a labor of love and a mission for me, has been missing the ME in it.
Why, you might ask? I think it’s because I’ve spent all this time trying to be an entrepreneur, and trying to be this person that I’ve had little experience being. I thought that I had to act a certain way, and show myself in front of the public in another way, etc. etc. But in doing that, I left out the part of myself that loves to have fun — the person who writes passages to make people smile or laugh. That used to be left for roleplay, and real life was oh, so much more serious. But since I’ve become my alter ego, in a sense, I realize that it’s time to come back to my roots, again. I need to write for myself, and I need to write for fun.
Thank you for staying with me, if you’ve read up to this point. This is my long way of saying that tonight, I stayed awake because I’m starting to grasp an important life lesson. While I’ve been pursuing the things that drive me professionally, I also need to pursue the things that make me laugh and smile. I’m in a whole different place than I was last year. However, in roleplay, in grad school, or here, sitting in a dark room after midnight, I need to remember to write things that make me addictively happy.
What I mean by addictively happy, is that I need to find things to write that make writing addicting, again. That means writing about the things I love to talk about — like theory, education, and crazy things that happen in life (as opposed to my old way of writing about the fictional life). Life has become such and adventure, and while I love it, writing about it will make me love it even more, I think.
It might take me a few tries (well, maybe more than a few) to get into my groove again, but hopefully I will find it soon. Wish me luck, and I hope to be writing with you. Thank you, and write on, everyone! Write on!
People wonder about what I do, so I decided to make a short video on at least one aspect of my job: instructional design.
Instructional designers help people structure information in a way that makes it easier to understand. They also help instructors reframe how they teach so that their lessons are more interactive and relevant to students’ interest. While I don’t talk about it in this video (but I’m sure it will come up in others), I have a unique spin on instructional design because I think in terms of the ways that we learn; and, as we have all experienced, how people teach isn’t necessarily the same as how people learn. But, if you can structure information (and activities) to take advantage of natural learning processes, teaching becomes much easier, and the lessons are far more meaningful to students! Do you have a question about instructional design, or teaching that I can answer? Go ahead and put it in the comments.
I’ve been taking large breaks from this blog in order to focus on where I was going, and what I needed to do in order to get there. During that time, I’ve had tons of support from people, both old and new. I had to think about my personal identity, and how it relates to the company and brand that I want to build. I am at the point now where I’m ready to share again. I wanted to say, though, that in sharing this very new chapter in my life, I’m out of my element. Entrepreneurship, content marketing, and business are all very new to me, and because of that, I will (and am) making lots of mistakes – rookie mistakes – along the way. But, to take a quote from a colleague, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not going fast enough.” So here’s me, going very fast!
Below is a video I recorded this morning. I will be making a lot more of these in the up and coming days, because people have been curious about what I do, now, and what my entrepreneurship journey is like. I had been wanting to make one for some time, but had always been waiting until that time was perfect. However, 2018 taught me a huge lesson about perfection: perfection is really just a set of standards or expectations that we use to view the world, others, and ourselves. When I took on this perspective, I realized that perfection is transient, and it’s different for everyone. So, I changed my idea of perfect for these videos. Here’s what I will try to do:
Post spontaneously – no scripts (although I’ll focus on a point or two so that I don’t ramble)
Keep it to 15 minutes or less (unless it’s an instructional video, in which case, I’ll break things up)
Enjoy the video, and let me know in the comments if there’s stuff you wanted to see, or questions you had that you think I could answer. Thanks for reading and watching, everyone!
Two weeks ago, I attended the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. During that conference, I met my fellow Misk Grand Challenge awardees in person. Out of 3000 applicants, only 15 were chosen for this grant. As I stood in the same room with my cohort of Grand Challenge winners, I felt like I had been elected to an elite group of people from all over the world. I admit it, I felt like an Avenger! Over the two days of the forum, I learned a lot from my cohort and realized that we, as entrepreneurs, had several things in common. I share here three of those characteristics and how they reflected in my life, although I am eager to hear over these next few months the stories from my cohort.
We all have a commitment to change the world. I’m not talking about changing the world by doing little things like recycling or giving my old clothes to Goodwill. What I mean is that all of us have dedicated our lives toward bringing positive change in a global way by empowering our youth. For many of my colleagues, they work directly with youth in their countries. For others, like myself, we work at supporting our teachers and changing the system of education.
We use fear as our compass toward success. From graduate school, I learned to recognize that the goals that scared me the most were the ones I had to face, overcome, and accomplish. We recognize and acknowledge that paralyzing fear that keeps most people from accomplishing anything — the fear of failure, humiliation, and/or stepping on social toes. That fear never goes away. Yet, we do it anyways. I think many of us in our cohort can agree that entrepreneurship is downright terrifying — yet, we would never ask for anything less. We learn to embrace and love the fear, because it tells us we’re on the right track.
We are highly functional, passionate introverts. I remember sitting next to one of my cohort members at dinner, and sharing how there are times when we feel so alone. Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely place when there are no other entrepreneurs to connect with. Most people don’t understand that our mindsets are different — we jump into rabbit holes and break things. Our work is motivated by the passion and fire in our hearts. We work alone first to hone our vision before we seek others for help and support in making our vision even better. During the Forum, I talked about how I wanted to be alone in my hotel room for the evening, until another cohort member mentioned how this was a once in a lifetime chance to network and meet others. I think all of us have learned that being social and collaborative is necessary for our projects to succeed, although our ideas and our work is first done quietly, in the spaces of our heads.
I’m still processing that amazing experience of meeting others who have the shared vision of changing our world. They are all over the globe, and yet Misk found them and put them together. I also remember another entrepreneur who attended the forum but was not a part of our cohort. When he told me about his project, I asked him if he had applied for the Grand Challenge. He said something to the effect that he felt his work was insignificant compared to the work from members of our cohort. Yet, to me, he was also a visionary. I asked him, “Why not you?”
It’s been a few months since I successfully defended my thesis and received my Ph.D. I convinced my dear classmate, Marcy Berger, to walk on the stage with me as we received our degrees and hoods on May 19th from the University of Rochester.
On graduation day, doctoral candidates are “hooded” by our advisors. Here, my advisor, Professor Jayne Lammers places the hood over my head and on my shoulders, which signifies indoctrination into the academic community.
However, I did not wait until graduation day to pursue my ultimate dream, which is to change the world through education. On April 5th, I started my company, Paragon Learning Research Group. Although the company is new, it represents the culmination of my lifetime of work in biology, education, business, learning theory, and program evaluation. In a nutshell, I built this company to bring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education to elementary school teachers through a digital community platform. What I’ve learned through my research at the Builder’s Brewery, I am using its best practices to design a new interactive space to help support elementary school teachers with STEM. I will save the long story of this development for another post, because it took me many months (and it is a continually evolving project) to figure out my new identity as an entrepreneur and as a company.
To bring everyone up to speed on my work since April, I am now learning business entrepreneurship at an accelerator program through the ISU Startup Factory. This one year program is designed to help new business owners develop and grow through a network of mentors, events, and classes. Every six weeks, a new cohort begins at the factory. I am in Cohort V. Each week, we present on the work and progress we’ve made to our businesses while receiving a host of mentoring advice on moving ahead.
Thanks to my mentors at the Startup Factory, I was able to have a very successful presentation about my business at One Million Cups in Des Moines. You can see the presentation below, which gives you a good idea of what I’m doing now, and why I’m doing it:
This month represents the sixth month that Paragon has been in existence! Upon reflection, I’ve already made some pretty significant milestones in the company. The large milestone that we’ve accomplished is that last week, Paragon was awarded a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation- MiSK Foundation Grand Challenges Grant, which helps to kickstart our work moving forward! This has been such an exciting journey, and next month, the MiSK Foundation will sponsor my travel to the MiSK Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia!
I hope to be able to free up more time to keep this blog updated on my new adventures, and to share lessons learned on this journey into entrepreneurship! Until next time, live your dreams, and speak your truth. You’ll people there to support you!
For the last 6-7 years, I’ve worked from home as a freelance writer, project manager, and editor. A lot of people think that working from home is all about being in your pajamas and binging Netflix in the background, but it’s actually a bit more involved than that (though I do have some friends who… Continue reading 5 Tips To Help You Stay Sane While Working […]