April 27, 2013

BUSINESS: Cultivating Entrepreneurship at Cornell Through Startups

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The Sun’s business news, which launched Monday, features stories about entrepreneurship, finance and job outlooks. The feature’s editor, Manu Rathore, may be reached at mrathore@cornellsun.com.

Being smart, hardworking and affable may get you a job and even an early promotion. But it takes more to become a startup entrepreneur, according to John P. Jaquette, Jr., executive director of Entrepreneurship@Cornell.

“The value proposition we endorse is that entrepreneurship is a way of thinking about things,” he said. “The point of entrepreneurship from my viewpoint is helping people identify how they add value other than simply being smart and being able to do a job. How do you bring something to the equation that is not necessarily expected of you and makes you stand out? What’s your competitive advantage?”

So what does it take to make a successful startup entrepreneur? To begin with, entrepreneur hopefuls should develop a “concept” — a more holistic approach than an “idea,” according to Dan Cohen, the director of eLab, an organization that helps accelerate business concepts using Cornell entrepreneurs.

A concept, according to Cohen, is formed after going through discussions with a target group of customers and confirming that they are willing to pay a certain amount to buy a product. “An idea, [in contrast,] is that maybe there is a market out there and maybe they will buy the product,” he said.

Furthermore, a startup becomes more valuable if it possesses dedicated and able startup founders, a committed team and a quality product, according to Cohen.

“There are two major things that we look for. The first one is that we believe that the founder, the person who created the idea and put the concept together, has the ability to build a company that is valuable. Number two is how good is the team, because you won’t do much without a good team,” he said. “And the third thing we look at is the quality of the product or service: how good is the product or market fit?”

At eLab, teams have worked hard to adopt these qualities, according to Cohen.

“We are not just incubating the best startups on campus. We are incubating the very best concepts across the state,” he said. “We had a team that worked consistent 90 hour weeks … and it paid off.”

However, just being smart and working hard will not set a startup apart, according to Jaquette. A startup needs to define its competitive advantage in order to make it big in the market, he said.

“Does [being] smart set you apart? No! Everywhere you turn it is like ‘Gee, everyone I meet seems like they are smarter than me?’” Jaquette said. “So, [being] smart is not going to define your competitive advantage.”

In addition to working 90 hours a week, thinking apart from the traditional grocery shopping experience is what helped Rosie — a Cornell startup developing web and mobile shopping platform that learns and predicts a shopper’s purchasing behavior for household goods and groceries — define its competitive advantage, according to Matt Ford ’13, head of business development for Rosie.

“There are two main things that differentiate Rosie from current market offerings. The first is our item-tracking functionality,” he said. “Rosie will learn your purchasing behavior for groceries and household items and help your order your items you need before you run out.”

Ford said the concept of dynamic aisles also helped Rosie win a $200,000 grand prize at Startup Labs, New York State’s largest business competition in early April.

“When you go grocery shopping for a barbeque, you have to go through eight to 10 aisles to find everything you need,” he said. “With Rosie, simply search barbeque, and Rosie will return a dynamic aisle with everything you need, curated to your preferences based on your purchasing behavior.”

However, launching and maintaining a startup comes with its own set of challenges. The biggest challenge facing student startups is uncertainty, according to Cohen.

“You don’t know who your target market is going to be; you don’t have unlimited resources to reach that target market and serve that market,” he said. “Startups live in an uncertain place. I think dealing with that uncertainty is very difficult.”

Another major challenge facing startups is moving from an idea phase to a market phase, according to Ford.

“I think that the biggest challenge that we face and any other startup faces is moving from an idea or concept phase to a market phase by actually gaining traction; getting people to use your product and showing that it accomplishes what you initially set out to do,” he said.

Because of the challenges startups face, entrepreneurs should have reasons other than financial gains behind working on a startup, Cohen said.

“I would tell [students] to have a secondary reason as to why you are doing it. If you are doing it just to get rich, then Wall Street is a better option,” he said. “Do it for reasons other than money because there is a high chance that you might not end up getting rich. Focus on solving a problem or doing something that is compelling to you.”

An opportunity to make a direct impact on communities is one of the main reasons for many startups, according to Jonathan Ambrose grad, co-founder of Rosie.

“Potential financial return is one motivator, but honestly, that won’t come until many years down the road,” Ambrose said. “I think the real reason people are so passionate and motivated to build companies is because it provides the opportunity to make a direct impact on large communities of people, and that is a truly rewarding feeling.”

Cornell students are cashing in on academic diversity on campus to create startups ranging from software, hardware and sustainable tech concepts to consumer products and service businesses, according to Cohen.

“When I talk to directors of other [startup] accelerators, they say that you have to specialize: pick one thing,” he said. “But to specialize at Cornell is to ignore the broad diversity that exists across the campus with different colleges, skills and programs.”

Original Author: Manu Rathore

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