Last Wednesday I went up to Hanover, NH, to give a talk to a group of Thayer students and faculty at an event called Celebrating Thayer. Thayer is the engineering school at Dartmouth College, where I graduated with a Masters in Engineering Management in 2004, after completing my undergraduate engineering degree at Dartmouth as well.
I have transcribed as much of the talk as I remember from memory, based on my notes. When I give talks our speeches, I think and talk in outlines, not in fully written text. So I actually wrote this after the fact, not before. If you were actually there, let me know if you find any inconsistencies.
“How Thayer prepares you for entrepreneurial endeavors”
Thank you Ashley for the wonderful introduction, and for inviting me to speak here tonight. Now I won’t stand here and apologize for delaying your dinner, or promise to be as short as possible. Instead, I’ll promise to try to make this talk interesting and useful.
As Ashley mentioned, a little over a year ago I, along with two other Thayer grads and a fourth founder, started a company called YouCastr. It started with a basic idea, and continued progressing one step at a time. First we began meeting with the full team every week, then we started building the actual website. We incorporated sometime in June, and every step of the way it became more and more real.
Last summer we were working consistently around 120 hours a week between our day jobs and the startup. Most of that time was spent coding, building the website, working towards launching our private alpha. The day we finally launched our small private alpha, it was a truly exhilarating feeling.
It was a bit like the scene in the Matrix, towards the end, when Neo gets up after being shot, raises his hand to stop the bullets, jumps into Agent Smith, explodes him, and then flexes as the hallway bends around him. Well, that morning, on my walk to my day job down a tree lined Commonwealth Ave in Boston, I closed my eyes, flexed a little, and felt the corridor of trees bending around me.
A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with my sister and some friends, and we were recalling that story. They, along with everyone else who I’ve told the story to, thought I was a bit of a freak. My response was: “I understand, but I believe”. I understand that I’m not really actually bending the world around me, but I believe in the abstraction.
On that note of entrepreneurial thinking, I wanted to talk about three key skills and areas that are extremely important to entrepreneurial endeavors, and how Thayer does a great job of preparing you for those.
Intellectual Flexibility and Curiosity
First of all, when you’re starting something new, you are most likely doing something you’ve never done before. If you’re being really innovative, you may be doing something that nobody has every done. In order to succeed in that type of situation, you have to be willing to get outside your comfort area, and to learn new skills. You need a desire and willingness to learn and become an expert in something new.
Dartmouth in general approaches education with a liberal arts approach, which is one of the main reasons I came to Dartmouth. More specifically, Thayer does a great job of fostering this intellectual flexibility with its multi-disciplinary approach to engineering. There are no departments in Thayer, so you are forced to study a range of engineering fields, some of which may be outside of your comfort area. Mechanically focused engineers study controls and electrical engineering, and vice versa. This really fosters an ability and desire to learn new things, which is critical for a startup.
Willingness to get your hands dirty
The second key thing that is required is the willingness to get your hands dirty, to actually do work. In a startup, there is no marketing department, no PR department, no engineering department, no janitorial department. Everything that gets done has to get done by someone on the team. Nothing is beneath you. For example, last summer I spent most of my time coding, even though I’m not a developer. As a team, we do all of our development in house, which has given us an ability to innovate quickly and more effectively.
At Thayer, this focus on doing and getting your hands dirty is reinforced from day one, starting when you machine your own Stirling engine in Thermodynamics, all the way through the graduate school classes. Don’t take for granted the fact that you actually machine your own components in the machine shop. I have plenty of friends at other engineering schools that never machine their own parts. Instead they make a nice drawings, with correct tolerances, and give it to the “black box” machine shop to get a final part. The danger with that approach is that you don’t appreciate the manufacturing aspect, and you don’t learn how to make that aspect of it better. When you get your hands dirty, you have a deeper understanding about what you’re doing.
The last and probably most important trait is confidence. When you are doing a startup, the odds are against you. Sometimes it feels like you are taking on the world, and sometimes you actually are. You are going to be fighting against bigger, better financed, more established competitors, and in order to do that, you need to believe in what you are doing. You need to believe in your team, your abilities, and the reason you can do this. Having the confidence to move forward among these risks and uncertainties is incredibly important.
Thayer reinforces this confidence by focusing heavily on projects. When you do a project, you really own it, you can wrap your head and hands around it. When it’s done, you can hang your hat on it. Whether it’s designing and manufacturing a suspension for the DFR car, or building a satellite to launch into space, the success or failure of that project is in your hands. That is incredible rewarding, and builds a lot of confidence. The faculty here puts a lot of faith in the students. This allows you to fail, but when you succeed, you can really take satisfaction and ownership in that.
One final point to keep in mind is risk. Startups are inherently full of risks. The key is not to take risks blindly, which is reckless, or to avoid risks entirely, which is very limiting. The key is to understand the risk, and understand what your comfort level is. And remember, that there is a risk in NOT taking risks.
Thayer has fostered an intellectual flexibility and curiosity through it’s multi-disciplinary approach to engineering; has created the desire and discipline to get your hands dirty and do the actual work, and has engendered a deep sense of confidence through a project based curriculum. Given Thayer’s unique approach and the skills you gain here, you should realize that you are extremely well prepared to go out there and succeed.
So as you all go forward, into entrepreneurial and other career paths, I would implore you to seek to understand the challenges, understand the pain, understand the risks you’ll face. Understand that the odds are against you, that you’ll be entering charted territories. Understand all of that, but believe.