Tak Lo: How business guys/MBAs guys can break into the startup ecosystem

This is a guest post from Tak Lo, one of our curators in London and a program manager at TechStars.

Getting to know your startup community through helping at a program like TechStars is one way to break into the ecoystem.

Two years ago, I was one of many MBA graduates wanting to break into the startup ecosystem. I tried consulting for startups, I tried applying to work for startups and even offered to work for free for startups. After struggling to find any traction, I made the one rational choice I felt available to me – I started my own company.

My startup journey was tough. My wife and I downsized our apartment, from a grand loft near Old Street in London to a run-down house shared by four other flatmates. We got accustomed to ramen again after years of eating good food. Our telephone bills were slashed by reducing who had 3G access, and by utilizing an iPhone 3G that had clearly seen better days.

I am not advocating that everyone go down this approach, and thankfully, there are other paths. The following is a culmination of some of the strategies I have seen and done myself.

Consult Thyself

Most every MBA/business graduate have considered a career in consulting and have down at least a few case interview sessions during their time. And there is no better case to crack then to take stock of where you may potentially fit in your startup ecosystem.

Ask yourself – what is your competitive advantage? What are your assets and how can you leverage them to benefit the ecosystem? Are there other players in the ecosystem that offer similar skillsets and experiences? If so, how are you different or how can you differentiate? Lastly, how much runway do you have, or in other words, how much cash do you have to survive?

Give yourself some KPI’s to define success. Does success mean a job, a consulting contract, or an internship? Or just a number of key contacts within the startup world?

Give First

One of the biggest secrets of the startup ecosystem is the “give first” mentality, which Brad Feld, Managing Director at the Foundry Group, has written extensively about in his blog. This cultural trait is remarkably consistent across many of the startup ecosystems across the world. What this means practically is giving your time, experience or skills to other startup individuals or companies without asking for a reciprocal benefit.

I’ve written some ideas on possible activities on my blog, and they include:

  • writing a WordPress or Tumblr blog
  • developing a PowerPoint presentation and posting it on Slideshare
  • contributing to discussions via Twitter, Hacker News, or other blogs
  • volunteering for the Startup Genome Project
  • making introductions and helping people find solutions to their problems

I truly understood “give first” when I became a Techstars Associate in the Spring 2013 NYC class. Working alongside some of the best mentors and entrepreneurs made me realize that the secret to their success was an altruistic “give first” mentality. The Associate experience is something I encourage anyone to do.

Evaluate Ruthlessly

It is important to evaluate on a very regular basis whether a journey into the ecosystem is truly working or going disastrously. There is a certain bias to keep trying – come what may – but don’t. Consult back to your KPI’s and see where you rank.

Decide Logically

After the evaluation period there are essentially three possible directions to go – continue with the current plan, pivot or quit. If the decision is to continue with the status quo then nothing much needs to change. If the decision is to quit then the action is fairly straightforward.

The pivot decision is the hardest and requires the most thought. Think through what you did well and what you didn’t. Most importantly, ask yourself whether your contribution is valued in the ecosystem. If not, find another way to contribute, really draw deeply into your skillsets and experiences and find other ways to add value. Even if the alternative is something that you didn’t imagine doing, if you are serious about jumping into the startup ecosystem, you must choose that alternative.

I initially started a consulting practice fully expecting that startups would purchase my expertise after graduating from London Business School. After an evaluation period, I realized that I offered no additional value as a consultant and the only alternative was to create a company leveraging my Army small-team leadership skills. As apprehensive as I was starting my own business this was the only alternative and I haven’t looked back since.

The journey into startups isn’t easy but with determination and a relentless focus on “giving back” I believe the path is there for the taking. Hopefully these lessons serve well in helping others join into the community.

Based in London, Tak Lo is a Program Manager at Techstars. He is a curator at the Startup Genome Project and previously founded two companies after graduating from London Business School. When not focused on startups, Tak tries to improve his baguazhang.

Connect with him on Twitter (@tak_lo) or his blog at taklo.co

Photo Credit: Andrew Hyde on Flickr.

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