Reposted with permission from Michael Karnjanaprakorn's blog.
“Creativity is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” – Thomas Edison
In the corporate world, there’s a standard ladder to climb to get to the top. In the world of entrepreneurship, there is a similar ladder to climb. Entrepreneurs should start with small ideas and learn how to execute those ideas. Learn how to gain traction, learn from your mistakes, and learn how to make something out of nothing. And, eventually, the ideas you pursue get bigger and bigger.
I’m a firm believer in execution and follow the Thomas Edison quote pretty closely. The secret behind launching your startup idea is to always move the ball forward on your ideas through execution. Every journey for an entrepreneur is completely different, but I’d like to share the process that eventually led to the launch of Skillshare.
1. Exploration & Execution. This is a time for the entrepreneur to creatively explore his/her personal interests, ideas (small or big), and consume as much of the world as possible. For me, this involved traveling around the world, reading as many articles/books as possible, meeting as many interesting people I could fit into a day, and executing ideas.
I also knew that I wasn’t ready to be an entrepreneur, so I gained startup experience by working at Behance and Hot Potato. On the side, I launched a ton of small ideas including The Feast Conference, By/Association, World Series of Good, TBD, and Lovely Day. By executing all these smaller ideas, the filter for what I wanted to work on got higher and higher.
The idea for Skillshare didn’t happen overnight. It took five+ years of climbing the ladder of ideas and immersing myself in a lot of different experiences. There is no rush in understanding yourself and your passions. Keep in mind that most entrepreneurs get stuck in this stage because they never execute anything. The more you execute, the more your learn about yourself and your passions. Your goal at this stage is to find a problem you are truly passionate about solving.
2. Brainstorming & Validation. While I was exploring, I wrote down a list of startup ideas, which quickly became a list of over 100. From there, I narrowed it down to a few ideas and flushed them out extensively. I brainstormed ideas, sketched wireframes, and did everything else I could to understand the opportunity with Malcolm Ong (Skillshare's Co-Founder).
We fell in love with one idea around democratizing education and turning cities into huge campuses, which eventually became Skillshare. Rather than spending nights and weekends fleshing out the idea even more, we let the idea sit and marinate for a pretty long time. I personally spent a lot of time validating the idea, as I didn’t want to fall in love with it too easily. In other words, I did all the research I could to convince myself this was worth my time, which is the true goal at this stage.
3. Feedback & Commitment. Once I convinced myself this was an idea I’d like to pursue, I asked a dozen really smart people I knew what they thought about the idea with a small twist. Rather than asking them if they liked it, I asked them why the idea wouldn’t work, why it would fail, and why I shouldn’t work on it. Malcolm did the same thing and we eventually had a list of 20-30 huge holes in our idea.
We hit the drawing board again and came up with solutions to plug all the holes. We went back out to a dozen different people and asked the same questions. We repeated this until almost every hole was plugged in our startup idea. We eventually had rebuttals for rebuttals and felt very confident that we should commit to working on this for the next five or so years of our lives.
Your goal at this stage is to “go all in” on your idea and put your stake in the ground. This was the hardest part of the process for me, but once you put your chips in the middle, it’s the best feeling in the world. Remember that you’re running a marathon, not a 5K.
4. MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Malcolm and I agreed that we wouldn’t write one line of backend code unless we knew this was something that people wanted. We did this by setting two really simple milestones: a) 1,000+ e-mail addresses for our alpha page and b) selling out all of our initial classes (three per month for three months). We didn’t want to spend too much money on the idea so we set an overall budget of $5K.
I bought the URL and hired Ed Nacional to design the brand identity around Skillshare. From there, we put up the “alpha” version of Skillshare, which took less than a day as it was HTML/CSS. We used Campaign Monitor to capture e-mail addresses and Eventbrite to power all of the ticket purchases. I taught the first Skillshare class around poker, which you can still view on Eventbrite. We needed some marketing juice, so I wrote a controversial article on “Why College Is Overrated” for GOOD Magazine and we put up a Kickstarter project around the same topic.
We ended up getting over 5,000 e-mail addresses from folks that signed up to be notified about Skillshare. All of the initial classes sold out (huge validation) and our Kickstarter project got fully funded. If you follow the lean startup methodology, you’ll know that most startups don’t fail because of the technology; they fail because they are solving a problem that no one cares about. Our goal at this stage was to see if anyone on this planet wanted Skillshare to exist. We passed that initial test, kept hitting our next milestones, closed a seed round led by Founder Collective, and launched a full beta site in early April.
This was a very long process for me. It didn’t happen overnight. If Biology 101 is the weed-out class for doctors in college, launching your startup idea weeds out the majority of new and aspiring entrepreneurs. I failed over and over; but as long as you make the best decisions and take calculated risks, you can successfully launch your idea and make the world a better place!
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