By Tiffany Pang
When my business partner approached me with the idea of starting a social venture for bullied children in November 2011, I immediately googled find out what being an “entrepreneur” meant. As a Neuroscience major with few aspirations to start a company, I wanted to find a consulting job for after college – as sane senior undergraduates are wont to do – I had to make a choice between a job after college and the enticing, new opportunity to start my own business.
Before I decided, however, I had to answer a daunting question that, throughout the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute summer fellowship, has now been asked of us multiple times and in various forms: Are the idea and company worth it?
Depending on who you ask, “it” may mean different things. “It” may be time, money, attention, or opportunity cost. For me, it was all of the above, and my partner and I had ten weeks to decide.
Learning the Startup Process
The very first day of the boot camp, we began to learn what questions we needed to ask to understand whether we had a business—the science to go along with the art of starting a venture. The inaugural event, the 48-Hour Challenge, prompted all fellows to identify and survey potential customers to validate whether there was a need for their companies. Following the customer discovery principles of Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, my business partner and I set off with an idea and hypothesis to find our customers.
The need was easy to find: we wanted to help victims of bullying in the wake of recent student suicides. Where we stumbled was three weeks into the fellowship, when we tried to validate the financial side of our business. After our first check-in meeting with our staff mentors at YEI, our company faced its first major setback: it sounded too much like a non-profit, and it was difficult and costly to prove its financial viability.
While schools and students had a clear problem that needed to be addressed, we could not build a business around it.
Back to the Drawing Board
And as tough as it was to admit, it was time to go back to the drawing board and ask our guts whether continuing was worth it. In this moment of duress, I found that starting a company – as daunting as it may be – should never be a lonely journey. We learned to not only look to our gut instincts but to also turn to our network of friends, family, and YEI staff and mentors for advice.
A few days later, we decided ultimately to pivot to a different idea – to bring autism therapy augmentation online. The incubator’s stress tests had pressure-cooked our previous idea to death but brought a new, better idea out of us.
And, in the topsy-turvy world of entrepreneurship, early failures were good. There was much to celebrate of our first failure: we failed fast, lost little, and learned a great deal from the process that would carry over in our new venture.
Taking the Next Steps
With fresh ears, learned eyes, and hungry hearts, we tackled our new venture with greater ferocity. Throughout the fellowship, speakers – from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists – came to speak on their experiences. Like re-visiting a favorite book, their stories began to resonate and take new meanings as I started to understand entrepreneurship and my own venture—some immediately relatable, some eventually but inevitably. Through the culmination of their stories of hard-won battles, our experiences, and the advice of YEI mentors, we learned to ask the right questions to find the answer to whether or not our venture was worth it.
One week prior to YEI Demo Day, the penultimate fellowship event and the metaphorical Olympics of budding Yale entrepreneurs, we decided the venture was worth it, and we will continue on this path to see its end.
In the past ten weeks with YEI, I went from wanting to be a consultant to being an entrepreneur and learned more about companies, entrepreneurs, and myself than I did at any other job I have worked. And the journey has only just begun.
Tiffany Pang is the cofounder of Specially, a 2012 YEI Fellowship venture.