Issues, Tech

Three Things I’ve Learned As A First-Time Entrepreneur

By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan

Unlike most of my peers at Ross School of Business, I shunned the traditional sophomore internship or job this summer to work on my startup, Fetchnotes. With the start of classes yesterday, I wanted to share a few lessons I learned this summer in my first four months as a “full-time entrepreneur.”

1) Experience is overrated.

When I started recruiting, I had created this false divide between types of developers. I thought we needed someone who specifically knew the platform they were working, especially on mobile. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Out of the 5 developers that worked for Fetchnotes for the entire summer, 1 had experience with the platform they were primarily responsible for, and even that was just from a single course on Android development. Everyone else learned the languages and frameworks necessary as they went along. This had three distinct advantages:

  1. They were generally grateful we gave them an opportunity to prove themselves and learn a new skill
  2. They were willing to work on a basis we could afford because they were getting value out of the experience in addition to the compensation we offered
  3. They showed an extremely high level of passion and engagement because it was never really “work”

Whenever I get the chance, I always tell people the best advice I can offer is to hire the smartest, hardest-working people you know rather than an “iPhone rockstar.” Besides, I had ZERO experience as an entrepreneur. How could I demand that my employees have experience in their field when I didn’t?

None of this is to say that experience doesn’t matter at all or that it isn’t helpful. But don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something because you don’t have the right experience or because you’re too young.

2) You can be involved in multiple startups, but one will take priority.

When I first made the decision to act on my ideas, I didn’t think about workload. I mean, it can’t be that hard, right? Besides, it didn’t occur to me not to act. So I made moves on all of them and ended up being a co-founder of three startups, a student, and a high-level employee. Cue snickering from the audience.

Call it naïve, call it down-right stupid, but that left me in panic when I realized how much work a startup is once you move from the idea stage into action. It is so hard to get a product out the door — no matter what it is. As a result, I had to prioritize and draw back my promised involvement (and stake) in the other two and focus on Fetchnotes. I felt like crap about it because I knew I was letting people close to me down in a big way. While I still a play a very hands-on and active role in The New Student Union and Agent Boomerang, I ceded the reins (well, my share of the reins anyway) to two very capable entrepreneurs.

For those of you that are facing that choice now, there’s a simple way to decide. When people hear you’re an entrepreneur and ask about your startup, which one do you tell them about first? Which one makes you giddy with excitement when you talk about it?

3) Don’t work with people you don’t like or who don’t like you. For any reason. 

One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is that you have complete control over who your co-workers are. I love my teammates now, but our team composition has changed a lot over the course of our summer. Some people left because of other opportunities, others we fired because they were not reliable, but others left in shouting matches.

A startup lives and dies by the people who drive it forward. If you don’t have solid chemistry, it won’t be able to execute and get off the ground. And if you outright don’t like each other, you’re never going to last working with each other every day for no immediate pay. In fact, you’ll probably end up telling each other off on more than one occasion when the pressure rises. Startups are hard enough as it is — don’t make it more frustrating for yourself by working with people who make you want to punch a hole in the wall.

I now have the pleasure of being part of an absolutely amazing team. But that took more trial and error than I’d like to admit. When I first started out, I tended to think I had to take whoever was willing to join me in such a risky venture. Eventually I learned (the hard way) that it’s far better to be paralyzed than to found your company with a poisonous work environment.

My decision to take the entrepreneurial leap seemed relatively straightforward — I never really thought not to.  As I return to the lecture halls of the University of Michigan, I know I have a tough road ahead balancing a startup with a college education. But as my peers are flurrying about in suits and ties interviewing with investment banks and accounting firms, I’ll be on the other side of the table, building the next multi-million dollar brand with a team even Google would kill for.

Alex Schiff is the co-founder of Fetchnotes, Agent Boomerang and The New Student Union. Follow him @newstudentunion and @alexschiff



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


3 thoughts on “Three Things I’ve Learned As A First-Time Entrepreneur

  1. These are all great points Alex. I think these early lessons learned by new entrepreneurs are also the first lessons forgotten. There’s plenty of aged entrepreneurs in the world that need to get in touch with these lessons again. You should keep this post somewhere handy so you can always look back at it.

    Great post though. I think it helps de-mystify entrepreneurship for those who find it intimidating. Hopefully it will encourage those with some good ideas to just give it a shot and stop worrying about the factors they think matter…like experience.

    Posted by Kenny Wohl | September 9, 2011, 12:52 am
  2. You just referred to your Agent Boomerang co-founder as a “very capable entrepreneur.” And it’s in writing…

    Posted by Ken Schiff | September 9, 2011, 1:01 am

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