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How to Reach and Connect with Your Target Market

By Jennifer Bennett, Communication and Program Director for the Center for Entrepreneurship

When you hear the name Planet Fitness you immediately think of the brand. Planet Fitness understands the saying, “You can’t be everything to everyone.” And because of it, you know exactly who they are, and you also know how (or if) you can connect with them. However, many entrepreneurs fail to realize that they can’t be everything to everyone. This is especially true in the beginning stages of their startup. In an effort to appeal to everyone, they offer nothing that makes them stand out or that makes them unique.

Planet Fitness caters to a very specific audience. When you consider all of the gyms that exist in your area of the world you may observe that in most cases there is nothing substantially different between one gym and another. Yes, one gym might offer more classes than another, one might be a bit less expensive, one might have an indoor basketball court, etc., but the reality is, when it comes to the marketing of those gyms, there really isn’t much that differentiates one from the other.

Planet Fitness, however, not only has a very distinct target market, but they have studied and know their target customer well. And because they know who their customer is, they have found unique ways to market to them and ultimately to connect with them, both online and in person.

Here are some of the key, foundational steps they have mastered that you, as a founder of a start-up, should master as well, especially when it comes to reaching your target market and connecting with them through your marketing:

  1. Planet Fitness is focused on their customer: If you conduct a Google search about Planet Fitness, you will find a variety of articles. The opinions within the articles range from stating that Planet Fitness is not a real gym. Most of the opinions are written by fitness enthusiasts. However, that is NOT who Planet Fitnessis trying to reach. That is NOT who their target market is. “Planet Fitness got its start in 1992 when Michael Grondahl acquired a struggling gym. He reduced membership prices to compete against better-known brands and focused on serving “occasional or first-time gym users” (Entrepreneur.com). Did you catch that? The target market of Planet Fitness is “the occasional or first-time gym user,” not the “fitness enthusiast.”
  2. Planet Fitness has a unique message: Planet Fitness has a very unique message, that is different from what you see in other gyms. They are all about having a “Judgment Free Zone.” That is the primary message that they convey and they are not afraid to broadcast it on a regular basis. It’s this one message that you see throughout their marketing and the message resonates with their target market, “the occasional or first-time gym user,” not the 5-7 day a week fitness enthusiast (although, you will find fitness enthusiasts in Planet Fitness also). Visit a Planet Fitness and throughout the gym you will see signs that read, “Judgment Free Zone,” “Planet Fitness = No Critics,” and of course, the “Lunk Alarm.” Because Planet Fitness has thoroughly researched their customer, they are able to create a message that resonates with them.
  3. Planet Fitness has a unique price: Unlike most gyms, you only pay $10 a month for a gym membership at Planet Fitness. Again, this goes along with who their target market is, “the occasional or first-time gym user,” who (a) doesn’t go to the gym as often as a fitness enthusiast would, (b) isn’t quite sure yet if the gym is for them and (c) doesn’t want to spend an arm and leg to go to the gym.Walk into any Planet Fitness and you’ll find that their gyms consist of basic equipment. Why? Because Planet Fitness caters to the “occasional or first-time gym user” who may not have a lot of experience using upgraded Planet Fitness has created a unique price point that not only keeps their occasional gym users as long-term customers but also allows them to provide what those customers need and want, at a price point that works for both the customer and company.

What does all of this have to do with you, your start-up and marketing?

  1. To experience success, you have to know your target market, inside and out: You can’t be everything to everyone. If you want to move from idea to concept, venture to scale and then to harvest, you have to hone in on who your target market is. Customer discovery is one of the first and most vital steps you should take. Who are you trying to reach? How can you reach them? What keeps them from connecting with you and what you have to offer? How are you providing the solution that they are looking for? Additionally, a key component to success as a startup is knowing that your budget is different and will be different than some of the big box companies. As Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship says, “Market with a dart, not a shotgun.” Your goal is to hit the target as best as you can. You will have to be very efficient with your resources.
  2. You have to have a unique message: What is your primary message? What differentiates you from your competitors? Planet Fitness states that they are a “Judgment Free Zone.” They have created a unique message that speaks to their target market and as a start-up, you should consider doing the same thing. You need a unique message that causes you to stand out from your competitors. You have to offer something different and it all begins with the core message that you will share on social media and throughout all of your marketing materials.
  3. Their price point matches their target market: Pricing your products and services can be tricky. But if you don’t know who your target market is, then your pricing won’t click with them and you’ll find yourself lacking sales. Planet Fitness has created a unique price point that keeps their occasional gym users as long-term customers and allows them to provide just what they need and want for their fitness needs.

Remember: The key to reaching and connecting with your target market includes knowing from their viewpoint what really matters. This happens when you take the time to engage in customer discovery which will lead you to create a unique message that resonates with your target market and will allow you to create a price point that fits with the customers you want to reach.

Understanding the Entrepreneurial Mindset

By Executive Director, Dan Cohen

(Note: This is a blog, and not an academic paper. If this topic interests you, please read Cognitive mechanisms in entrepreneurship: Why and when entrepreneurs think differently than other people, by Robert A. Baron. This post draws heavily on that paper, particularly the downsides of entrepreneurial mindset section)

Entrepreneurship is a hot topic and stories about Sarah Blakely, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Tory Burch, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos abound. People want to know more about the people who have changed the world through their inventions, innovativeness, drive, belief and passion. Much is said about their possession of an entrepreneurial mindset—almost to the point of inferring that it is something one is born with and which cannot be attained by mere mortals. In addition, it is typically framed as a purely positive thing, such as ‘she’s so entrepreneurial’ or ‘he sees opportunity where others see only risk.’ While there are many admirable and positive facets that encompass an entrepreneurial mindset, there are also some drawbacks and negative attributes that are in the makeup of an entrepreneurial mindset. This blog post is designed to tease out the entrepreneurial mindset—examining first what it is and then probing into both pros and cons of this way of thinking.

First, let us start with a definition of the entrepreneurial mindset: Entrepreneurial mindset refers to a specific state of mind which orientates human conduct towards entrepreneurial activities and outcomes. Individuals with entrepreneurial mindsets are often drawn to opportunities, innovation and new value creation. Characteristics include the ability to take calculated risks and accept the realities of change and uncertainty” (http://on.ft.com/2CHFjSF). Central to this mindset is the pursuit and exploitation of opportunities (Shane & Venkatraman, 1997). Entrepreneurs spot opportunities that are there for all to see yet most do not see and then, even more rare, they pursue them and take action. How many times have you said, “I had that idea first’ or ‘I thought of that five years ago’ only to see someone else stake a claim to it. Entrepreneurs are willing to take the financial and psychic risks necessary to pursue an opportunity and are okay with the fact that a successful outcome is far from guaranteed. They pursue opportunities because they see something (technically called pattern recognition) that others miss. It is said that successful entrepreneurs live five years in the future—they share a vision for what is to come and are not tethered to how it is or used to be. They believe they will add value to the world and simply want to see it through to fruition. If they are wrong, they can live with it. What they cannot live with is NOT pursuing it. They often feel like they ‘have to do it.’

The positive attributes of an entrepreneurial mindset include spotting and exploiting opportunities regardless of resource constraints, mitigating financial and psychic risk, and taking action, which are all good things. There are some downsides, though, to an entrepreneurial mindset which are known as cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, self-serving bias, the planning fallacy, and escalation of commitment.

  • Entrepreneurs believe in their ideas wholeheartedly and this belief and passion is necessary while undertaking the immense challenge of getting an idea successfully to market. The downside, though, is that they often have blinders on when it comes to any type of negative feedback related to their idea. They hear what they want to hear from prospective customers or investors. This is called confirmation bias (Baron 1998). If a customer were to say, “I wouldn’t buy that in a million years” an entrepreneur with confirmation bias concludes that they want it but the timing is not right! Simply put, entrepreneurs hear what they want to hear. If it is something positive about their idea or startup, it is confirmation of their beliefs. If it is something negative about their idea or startup, they can be dismissive.
  • While all humans have the self-serving bias (Baron 1998), entrepreneurs are particularly prone to it. Self-serving bias is simply—if something positive happens it is attributed to your action or doing. If something negative happens in the mind of the entrepreneur, it is due to some external factor beyond the control of the entrepreneur or the fault of someone else entirely. This can cause friction in a startup when entrepreneurs claim all successes and blame failures on others. Like the famous John F. Kennedy saying, “victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Effective entrepreneurs share victory and defeat with team members and partners.
  • Entrepreneurs can fall prey to the planning fallacy (Baron 1998). Entrepreneurs are optimists by nature and often believe they can accomplish much more in a shorter time-period than they actually can. They are future oriented, given the nature of entrepreneurship, and lacking current experiences, make plans about the future that have very little basis. They ‘make it up as they go along.’ It can be difficult to work with entrepreneurs if you expect cohesion to a plan due to the planning fallacy. Effective entrepreneurs learn to course correct if they go off track with poor planning. They also communicate changes to plans well with team members and customers.
  • Entrepreneurs typically have very strong identities tied to being entrepreneurs. It is hard to separate the venture from the venturer! This is one reason why entrepreneurs are known to have such grit and persistence. They do not quit because they quite literally would be quitting on themselves. This makes them susceptible to escalation of commitment (Baron 1998). Entrepreneurs who find themselves in a failing venture often think they can save it by working harder or investing more money (or enticing others to do it). This occurs because it is hard to admit failure; it is hard to give up on a dream, the loss of ‘face’ or image that occurs when admitting a mistake (Baron 1998). Entrepreneurs are often overly optimistic and believe things will get better despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, entrepreneurs often ‘throw good money after bad.’ The lean startup movement has helped this issue because entrepreneurs are learning to value evidence and validation that only comes from a market. Still this is a cognitive bias that plagues entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs know when to ‘shoot the dog early’ and call it quits when market validation does not materialize.

In conclusion, there are many positive attributes to developing an entrepreneurial mindset. While in the process of developing this mindset, please also be aware of cognitive biases that can negatively affect entrepreneurs, their team members, and their families. Maximizing the positive aspects of an entrepreneurial mindset (spotting and exploiting valuable opportunities without regard to resource constraints) while controlling the negative aspects (cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, self-serving bias, planning fallacy and escalation of commitment), will help nascent entrepreneurs cultivate an effective mindset that can truly be a personal competitive advantage.

“Be a horse, not a unicorn.”

Although this might seem like strange advice to give a young entrepreneur only months into his journey of building a business, this is the essence of the feedback I received from Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Professor Greg Pool. With hair beginning to sprout my bald head and a new bill of health after a year and a half battle with lymphoma, I was returning to Wake Forest eager to make light of my experience in treatment. Resilience Gives had a little bit of traction and I was ready to take it to the moon, but Dan was quick to remind me that horses didn’t go to the moon.

Surrounded by stories of software companies going from dorm room to Silicon Valley, my generation of entrepreneurs is often disillusioned that every company follows a similar trajectory. Pushing me to better define my own ideas of success, mentors throughout the Wake E-ship department, business school, and around the university helped me understand that my intentions with Resilience Gives were rooted in values of changing individual patient experiences. Although overtime this may translate into changing millions of lives, it starts with one. In effect, my mission of empowering the patient and affecting positive change through our business practices, was more about building a solid brand like a horse than it was building a software company preparing to fly like a unicorn. Building a brand rooted in strong values, just like healing, takes time.

Jake Teitelbaum, Founder & CEO of Resilience Gives.

Jake Teitelbaum, Founder & CEO of Resilience Gives.

One year later, we’ve worked with 20 patients and are on track to do over $125K in revenue and donate over $50K, helping patients pay for medical expenses and fund research. We aren’t a unicorn doing Facebook style growth, but we are a brand having tangible impact on real lives.

About the Author
Jake Teitelbaum ’17 is Founder & CEO of Resilience Gives, a social enterprise helping patients retain dignity throughout their treatment experience. Through their platform, patients design custom socks to wear during and after treatment. Those same designs are sold to the general public on their website www.resilience.gives and half of profits are donated back to the patients to help with treatment expenses.

5 Tips on How to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed as an Entrepreneur

Written by Susan Barrett, Administrative Coordinator for the Center for Entrepreneurship

There are certain times when we all face stress and pressure in our lives. Sometimes it’s a regular daily hassle, such as having the alarm go off for an early class when you feel like you’ve just fallen asleep. But other times the pressures of life, school, and work seem to be overwhelming and it’s difficult to know how we’ll manage to get it all done. You’re not alone! This is a common experience shared by people in all stages of life and in the midst of many different circumstances. Here are some ideas to help you as you navigate your years as a student…and beyond.

  1. Take a break now and then to clear your mind and refresh your body. Go on a short walk by yourself or sit in a quiet spot (silence your phone and don’t look at it!). Enjoy the beauty of nature, notice small things that you’d normally not see amid your busyness, breathe the fresh air, and close your eyes for a moment and just rest. If you can do this for just 15 minutes now and then, it will help your mind to relax so that you can focus more readily on the task at hand.
  2. Keep a good list of your priorities, and constantly revise it to reflect what you’ve already accomplished, and what you still need to do. Sometimes the act of crossing out something on a list gives a great sense of satisfaction and motivates you to move on the next thing. Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
  3. Talk with someone who is a good listener, who has more experience and wisdom than you do, and who can help you sort out your priorities and weed out the things that are obstacles to completing the main things you need to do. Sometimes just talking with someone can help because they will likely have insights and ideas that you might not have thought about. If there’s something you don’t understand, find someone who can help you to figure it out. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.
  4. Pay attention to what you are telling yourself. Self-talk can be helpful, or it can be destructive. No one else will hear what you’re telling yourself, so talk away with the most encouraging and motivating words and phrases you can think of. “I am making progress!” “I’m closer to getting these things done than I was yesterday!” “Even though it’s difficult, I will keep going!” “I will not give up, even when I feel like quitting!”
  5. Often when you feel overwhelmed by many things that you must do, it helps to organize and neaten up your space. When you work or live in messy and unorganized surroundings, it makes it difficult to think clearly and to organize your thoughts.

Feelings of being overwhelmed can be good motivators to help you to get back on track, to work harder on the things that are the most important, and to perhaps reevaluate your to-do list. Don’t give up! You will experience these feelings on and off throughout your entire lifetime. Learn now how to see this as a challenge, and to keep working toward your goal. Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

Mobile Apps and Entrepreneurship – A View from The Trenches

Written by Paúl Pauca, Ph.D, Faculty Director

Back in 2010, three students and I decided to publish an app in Apple’s Appstore that turned the recently released iPad into an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device for people with speech and communication disabilities. The app was called Verbal Victor and was developed around the needs of my then 5-year old son, in consultation with his teacher and speech pathologist.

Since we knew that a full-blown AAC device cost approximately $7K, my son’s low-tech AAC device was around $380, and the most complete AAC iPad app was around $250, we decided to price ours at $6.99. We purposefully wanted to make it accessible to anyone, anywhere. Hoping to get around 100 downloads to be called successful, we put Verbal Victor in the Appstore and went on our merry way.

What happened next blew us away. We had several thousand purchases within the first three months including some from many countries around the world. It was an exhilarating feeling to know that there were people out there using what we created and so we were encouraged to update Verbal Victor several times over the next few years. We released Verbal Victor 2 under “Apps for the Greater Good, LLC”, and we worked hard to meet our customer’s needs by listening to their questions and suggestions. To date, Verbal Victor has been download over 15,000 times from nearly every country in the world.

By many accounts our little venture was successful. We had more downloads than we ever imagined and users began asking for additional versions. However, by other standards we were likely failing from the start. Let me elaborate.

  • When Verbal Victor was released, we avoided creating our own company for specific reasons and let someone else use their company to release Verbal Victor. We were eager to see the app be used and so never paid much attention to the financial agreements and obligations. By the time we realized this, we were essentially working for free and it was too late. Lesson 1: Form a nonprofit, LLC, or corporation and have a vision for where your organization is headed. Know where you are, where you want to go and how you will get there.
  • Once we created “Apps for the Greater Good, LLC” to sell Verbal Victor and to develop more apps, we again failed to look beyond our own circle of tech-oriented individuals. We all knew how to code and how to add value in terms of new ideas and new technology. In addition, we also shared a heart and vision for helping people with disabilities by providing low-cost solutions. But this was not enough. Over time, the motivation for continuing to work on new code and new updates of Verbal Victor We had no plan or the right team to make our venture scalable. Lesson 2: Work on developing a team of people who complement each other and who are willing to engage in healthy discussions and constructive criticism. 
  • While we listened and communicated with customers, we missed the chance to really learn about our users, to test ideas, and to discover additional needs. We started with good assumptions but never really tested them properly in our effort to converge into a sustainable business model.Lesson 3: Dedicate more time to gathering evidence to test your assumptions about your product, your user’s preferences, etc. and let this evidence guide your decision process. Lean startup or evidence-based entrepreneurship is the leading methodology for going beyond the small-business mindset towards sustainability and scale. Learn it and use it!

In conclusion, are there things that I would do differently if I had a chance to redo my experience with Verbal Victor? Absolutely (see above)! Do I regret having experienced this failure? Absolutely not! I would do it again in a heartbeat.

8 Creative Ways Startups Can Use Instagram

As a student entrepreneur, you have a lot on your plate. Not only are you juggling classes and extra-curricular activities, but you’re also working hard to launch your startup.

One of the key components in launching a startup includes creating a social media presence that attracts and engages your target audience. But the reality is, building an effective social media presence takes time and it takes work. There are no overnight successes. “If your social-media plan is to just wing it, your fans and potential customers are going to know,” says Amy Porterfield, social media strategist.

Today, let me introduce you to the Instagram presence of one of our #WakeEntreprenurs, Updog Kombucha. Updog Kombucha was founded in 2016 by Yoga enthusiasts Lauren Miller and Olivia Wolff, who had a passion for healthy living and natural products.

Throughout the year, they have worked hard to build their presence on Instagram, a presence that attracts and engages their target audience. Here are some of the key takeaways from their profile that you can begin implementing online for your startup:

  • Share colorful, vibrant pictures: One of the first things you will notice when you go to the Updog Kombucha Instagram account is that they inspire through their pictures. Instagram is all about picture sharing and one of the best things you can do for your startup is to share top notch photos that immediately grab the attention of those who see it. You want colorful, passion-filled images that tell the story of your startup.
  • Keep it real: One of the best things Updog Kombucha does is share multiple photos that include people; people who have become their brand ambassadors and people who love their product. Not only will you come across photos of people who are enjoying Updog Kombucha on a beautiful day, but also people who are wearing the Updog apparel all around the world. As you launch your startup and build your brand online, you too will have brand ambassadors who will share their photos with you!
  • Be Creative: I love the creativity behind Updog’s pictures. Why? Because their creative pictures do the selling without them having to be “salesy.” They share their product in a variety of settings and seriously, who wouldn’t want some Kombucha after viewing those photos? Their pictures do the selling.
  • Incorporate video: Another component they add to their account are video snippets which helps change things up a bit. And all of their videos are FUN!
  • Use hashtags wisely: If you want a successful Instagram presence for your startup, it’s vitally important that you know what the top hashtags are for your industry, your niche. Hashtags on Instagram expand your reach and allow you to be found by new people. And as you will see, Updog uses just the right hashtags on each of their posts.
  • Tag others wisely: Far too often what ends up happening on Instagram is that businesses tag multiple people in their posts, in the hopes of increasing their engagement. But truthfully what ends up happening is that they annoy the people behind those businesses that they are tagging. Updog is very wise in who they tag and when. Every time they tag someone, it’s because that person/business has something to do with that specific post. They are not just randomly tagging others. By tagging those who are a part of the post, they are creating a community of brand ambassadors.
  • Host a giveaway: You would be amazed at what a giveaway will do for your engagement. People love free stuff. And Updog has implemented this strategy, perfectly. They hosted a giveaway which increased their engagement while also helping them to create a brand awareness amongst their current followers and new followers.
  • Be consistent: Ultimately, it comes down to being consistent with your posts. The more consistent you are, the more others will view you as a “real” startup. There is nothing worse than coming to a social media account and realizing that they haven’t posted in the last 3-months. If you want to grow your brand awareness, reach your target audience and create a community of brand ambassadors, post on a consistent basis.

As you look through the Updog posts, did you notice a theme? Did you notice a very specific “voice” that is shared through all of their photos? Updog has stayed true to who they are, a fun, energetic company that is making a difference in the world of Kombucha!

We are living in a time where as a start-up, you have the opportunity to create an awareness all over the world and Instagram is a great platform that allows you to do just that. And that’s exactly what Updog Kombucha did. What began as an online store via their Instagram account, has turned into a full-fledged business which has spread across North Carolina and beyond.

The Blueprint for Making an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

I was excited to be named Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship on July 1, 2017. Prior to Wake Forest, I was at Cornell University for eight years. While at Cornell, I taught entrepreneurship and business strategy at the undergraduate, graduate and executive levels.  I was also the founding director of eLab—Cornell’s startup accelerator program hailed by Forbes Magazine as a major driver of Cornell’s rapid ascent to a #4 national ranking in entrepreneurship. Students go through the program, they develop a strong entrepreneurial orientation and mindset, launch a company, succeed, sometimes fail, and then come back to guest speak in classes, mentor current students, join the entrepreneurship advisory council and remain active, highly engaged alums.  This intoxicating, vibrant and thriving ecosystem is exactly what we strive to accomplish at Wake Forest.  Here’s the blueprint for making it happen.

Philosophy
Research shows that students learn entrepreneurship by actually doing.  Central to this notion of practicing entrepreneurship is helping our students develop a keen eye for spotting valuable opportunities and then exploiting these opportunities even if resources are constrained.  Alumni with relevant experience (entrepreneurs, investors, and business professionals with domain expertise) figure heavily into this equation as they add tremendous value via guest lectures, mentoring, and connecting our students with the wider community.  We seek to graduate students who have experienced the entrepreneurial life cycle; they will go from idea (exists in minds of founders), to concept (early adopters or initial target market has validated idea with financial commitment) to scale (how to sell beyond early adopters to main stream clientele) and then to harvest.

Methodical Approach. There has been a paradigm shift away from thinking of entrepreneurship as a process (a process has known inputs and predictable outputs and does not fit the uncertain, ambiguous landscape of entrepreneurship) to that of a method. The table below succinctly summarizes these differences and we wholly embrace the notion that entrepreneurship is a method that requires practice rather than a cut and dried process that is to be followed.

Method vs Process_Wake Ventures.png

Credit: Neck, H.M., Greene, P.G. & Brush, C. (2014). Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach, Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing. http://www.e-elgar.com/


Evidence-Based
.  The antiquated way of teaching entrepreneurship as a process went something like this: form an idea, raise capital, build the product, build a brand and then offer the product to the market. This approach of introducing new products or services at the end of the process led to catastrophic financial failures such as the Segway (It never really did replace walking!) or Webvan, an online grocery delivery concept that raised $800M in VC money.  When Webvan went bankrupt, it was in the midst of building 26 distribution centers across the US.  Only one thing was missing: customers! The new approach is evidence-based entrepreneurship, and that approach works this way: idea, engage customer for learning and feedback to validate idea, build the product if evidence amasses, and then build the brand.  Rather than teach students that they must raise money to prove their concepts, we use all manners of testing prototypes (customer-funded development or vapor testing, for example) to determine if customers are willing to make a financial contribution to the startup.  Buoyed by evidence, the entrepreneurs move forward based on market response.

Entrepreneurism without Walls. Finally, in terms of philosophy, we fervently support our students in their practice of entrepreneurship regardless of their choice of creating economic, social or environmental value.  Given the Pro Humanitate mission of Wake Forest, many of our students are interested in making the world a better place.  They may be interested in an idea that solves a social problem.  Or they may want to solve a problem that helps the environment or makes us a more sustainable community. Or they may want to create economic value by creating a valuable startup.  Or some combination of the above. Regardless, we will enthusiastically support our students using their abilities and efforts to bring valuable innovation to the world.

Application
We will apply our philosophy in our entrepreneurship minor and have reworked the curriculum to teach the practice of entrepreneurship via evidence-based entrepreneurship and across the entrepreneurial life cycle from ideation, to concept, to venture, to harvest. This is based on best practices at universities that are leaders in entrepreneurship education (see Morris, Kuratko & Cornwell 2013, Entrepreneurship Programs and the Modern University).  Our students will rigorously test their ideas with real target market customers, build prototypes based on feedback from customers, make sales to real customers, and identify potential markets to determine ways to scale a venture. In short, they will become adept at practicing entrepreneurship in order to bring social, environmental or economic value to the world.  Further, we have developed programs such as Deacon Springboard (helps students spot and develop valuable ideas into concepts and provides access to mentors or seed capital), Humanitech (helps students develop problem solving skills and solve real world issues under faculty direction) and Startup Lab (helps our most fervent students develop concepts into ventures).

Thus, we have all the components necessary to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.  As the saying goes, we need the straw that stirs the drink.  We need alumni to engage with our students, to mentor and coach our students, to take these bright, capable entrepreneurial thinkers in as interns, and to be a regular presence on campus. In short, we need you to really make our entrepreneurial engine go! I would love to connect with you.  Please reach out to me (cohenda@wfu.edu) or our awesome Admin Coordinator, Susan Barrett (barretsf@wfu.edu) to schedule a time to talk.

– Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University

Entrepreneurship is Contagious

Nikki Azzara, Founder & CEO of PS Snacks Co., Class of 2014.

The question I get asked most as a 25-year-old entrepreneur: “How do you know how to do all of this?”

My response, always with a laugh: “I don’t!!”

There’s something exciting and liberating about this truth. I take risks because I don’t know any better. I think unconventionally because nobody has taught me the rules. I pivot when necessary because I am listening to consumers first, not a boss. I pave my own path for success because passion leads the way, not money.

I am the founder of P.S. Snacks Company, and I created a recipe for nutrient-dense, plant based cookie dough – a healthy snack or treat alternative, meant to be enjoyed raw anytime of day. I decided to turn my Wake Forest University dorm room passion project into this full blown entrepreneurial venture upon graduation in 2014 and I have not looked back since. It started as a healthy food blog during my senior year of college, and fast forward 4-years, I am now the CEO of a food brand competing with healthy snacks on the shelves of Whole Foods Markets and stores across the country.

Full transparency: I loved (and still love) Wake Forest University. Following the footsteps of my older sister, Alex (’11), I transferred into Wake as a sophomore and immediately felt at home. I spent my undergraduate career in the business school with a Business & Enterprise Management major, opting to take marketing and entrepreneurship electives. My academic experience was incredible, though I always felt a slight disconnect from the typical corporate structure. Success has always been dictated by grades, job placement, salary, title, and the ability to move up in the rankings. I knew early on that I was not made for this rigid lifestyle and therefore decided to shape my own version of “success.” After all, I believe this metric is all relative. What is the true meaning of success? For me, it was finding passion and purpose in my career. By that measure, I know that I have achieved the greatest success I could imagine: I love what I do every single day, and feel completely fulfilled by a job that directly impacts the well-being of my own life and the life of consumers all across the USA.

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” they said. Hard to come by, for sure, and often unattainable due to personal restrictions, financial situations or a genuine lack of interest in the entrepreneurial grind. But as I continue along this journey, I am making a conscious effort to encourage any aspiring entrepreneur that has the opportunity to pursue a product, vision, invention or idea to take that risk early on. Yes, you will stumble, you may even fail, but the day-to-day rewards outweigh the risks and challenges by a long shot.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far:

Entrepreneurship is Contagious

Your vibe attracts your tribe. You’ll form relationships and deep friendships with fellow young entrepreneurs because of these shared passions, interests and absurdities that become your everyday life. They “get it.” They are the ones you call at 8:30AM to vent about your already long morning, they are the ones you bounce ideas off and they are the ones that become your only sense of consistency. These fast-friends become your best friends, your family and your peer mentors, three things you’ll realize are needed to keep your sanity (shout-out to my buds at Swizzler & UpDog, fellow WFU-born ventures). You’re instantly bonded and inherently connected in more ways than often explicable.

Moreover, your support system really shines through as an individual embarking on this type of venture. I cannot even put into words how wonderful my family and friends have been, and to say that I would not be where I am without them is an understatement. There’s nothing more humbling than members of your family, close friends and acquaintances stepping up to make an impact – whether that includes small favors, manual labor, an extra set of eyes, a store purchase, or just a nice message saying they are proud of you. Having more than 25 Wake Forest friends help you make 2,000 pounds of cookie dough in eight days does not go unnoticed, nor does your best friend turning down a “real” job offer to be your first hire. These are just two of many examples of feats made possible by my tribe, feats that keep the wheels turning.

Being Naïve is a Good Thing

You don’t know what you don’t know, and being young and inexperienced has actually worked in my favor. I strive to be fearless when it comes to networking, seeking help, finding mentors, and looking to those that have done it. Not only do people appreciate your vulnerability, but they are excited to help you.

One of my biggest recommendations would be to ask questions. Ditch the ego and excel faster by getting answers and learning from peoples’ experiences. You’ll determine what works and what doesn’t work. Forget textbook learning, become an expert at applying real life scenarios in ways that can impact your own business. Everyone loves a great success story, so take advantage of the time and energy people are willing to give to help you succeed.

Fail Fast

I received this advice early on: if you are going to fail, do it quickly. Pour your heart and soul into it, be willing to take criticism and advice, get ready to pivot, and continue assessing the market. You’ll need to sacrifice as much as it takes to validate your idea, or you will soon realize that there may not be as positive of a response as initially anticipated. The best part about taking the leap of faith early on is the risk-taking comes at a time in your life when you have little to lose. At least for me, my obligations were minimal having just graduated from college: no mortgage on a house, no child’s tuition, under my parents’ insurance plan and able to live at home. Entrepreneurship will always have its sacrifices, but jumping on the opportunity to pursue the venture right after college was the best decision I have ever made. Take the chance, you will regret it otherwise.

Achieve the Utmost Personal & Professional Growth

In the thick of it, I rarely have the time to step back and think about what I have learned as an entrepreneur. But when I do, I know this experience is shaping my entire life, both on a personal and career level. This type of education will not be found in a textbook, likely not even from an MBA. The best way to learn is to be thrown into the trenches: you will be forced to act quickly, keep your cool, take responsibility, think critically, interact with all types of people, wear many hats, touch every aspect of your business and find work-life balance. These are life lessons that are applicable in ways I have yet to even understand in full. I know this experience is invaluable, and I am confident it is setting me up for success in every aspect of my life.

I often joke that my current life motto is “fake it till you make it,” but the fact of the matter is you do not always need to have the answers. Not knowing makes entrepreneurship dynamic, challenging and best of all, fun. My advice for any entrepreneur on the fence about their next step is: do it, and do not look back. Living the unconventional life is worth every ounce of energy and every minute of time you invest. As long as you have passion, courage and the right people alongside you, you are destined for success.

Sharks are dangerous, especially on TV!

 

Why Shark Tank Skews Reality for Nascent Entrepreneurs

Written by Dr. Dan Cohen, Executive Director, The Center for Entrepreneurship

First, reality doesn’t matter as much as the perception of reality. If you are like most people, your exposure to entrepreneurship and investors may be limited to watching Shark Tank on TV. While entertaining, the show can have some negative impact on the realities of entrepreneurship in my opinion. Second, I am not out to bash Shark Tank—I just would like to point out some obvious differences between the show and entrepreneurial reality. Here goes:

  1. The nature of the relationship between entrepreneurs and investors is really very different in reality that it is on the show. First, the whole nature of the show is based on an exploding offer. In other words, the deal is only on the table for a few seconds and it is a take it or leave it deal for the entrepreneurs. As I advise my students, always walk from an exploding offer. If you have a compelling value proposition—that is, if you bring something to the world that it really needs and have developed a business model that can yield higher customer willingness to pay than overall costs, then you do NOT need to make a decision on the spot. Nor should you. If you create value, you should be able to attract multiple investors. In selecting an investor, fit matters a great deal. Just as an investor will vet an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur should vet an investor. What else do they bring to the relationship other than financial capital? How strong is their network? How much expertise do they have investing in your particular space? What is their track record of making investments in your space? These are vital decisions and should not be made impulsively or on a take it or leave it basis.
  2. The show leads people to believe that after the deal is made, they go off and build companies together. According to a Forbes article that analyzed seven seasons of Shark Tank data, 73% of the deals made on the show changed significantly after the show aired. And 43% never came to fruition at all. This is not a criticism of Shark Tank—things change and terms change. However, the Hollywood nature of the show leads people to believe that they go on to riches together when, in reality, almost half of these deals fail to materialize.
  3. The terms typically are quite skewed in favor of the investors. This is damaging to nascent entrepreneurs that often tend to undervalue their ownership stakes to begin with. The show does help startups get exposure and PR, and that is really valuable, however, it also comes at too steep a price of giving up too much equity. Early on, it is really hard to determine the value of early stage startups. We advise the use of Y Combinator’s SAFE (simple agreement for future equity) approach to raising capital in early stages when real valuations are hard to predict accurately.
  4. Sometimes the best stories and not the best ideas/opportunities win favor on Shark Tank. Someone with a hard luck story often gets the sympathy (and a deal) from one of the sharks, while a better idea sometimes does not get the attention it deserves. In entrepreneurship, the most valuable opportunities rise to the top.
  5. Shark Tank can be very intimidating for nascent entrepreneurs to watch and this is not reflective of actual investor/entrepreneurial relationships. If you have watched even one episode of the show, you have no doubt seen Mr. Wonderful or another Shark denigrate an idea or insult an entrepreneur resulting in an Internet meme that brings even more unwanted attention to the situation. Investors and entrepreneurs are partners and treat each other with a great deal more dignity and respect.

To close, I think Shark Tank is entertaining and it seems to get good ratings. It also brings significant exposure to startups that really can use help building a brand. And I’m sure they have had some success stories. On the whole, though, it is really not at all based in reality. Unfortunately, perception is reality and many people believe what they see on Shark Tank as reflective of the entrepreneurial experience. It really is much better in reality and certainly more dignified for the entrepreneur.

Evidence-Based Entrepreneurship—the tie that binds in the Entrepreneurship Minor at Wake Forest University

A paradigm shift has occurred in the discipline of entrepreneurship that has replaced the “build it and they will come” mentality that preceded the current approach known as evidence-based entrepreneurship (also known as lean startup or lean launch pad). The outmoded approach looked something like this: create a novel idea, sell the vision to venture capitalists (or angel investors or other investors) to raise capital necessary to build the product and the brand of the company before ultimately offering it to customers. Only one fault with this approach, called the “startup loop of despair” by Diana Kander, author of All in Startup, and that fault was that everything was invested prior to offering the product or service to a paying customer. How big of a fault one might wonder? Webvan, for example, raised $800,000,000 from a cadre of well- respected investors and was in process of building 26 distribution centers across the US when it went bankrupt. How did such a well-financed company go bankrupt? Well, they seemed to be missing one small part of the equation: paying customers. They were constructing 26 large scale distributions centers without any evidence that paying customers wanted online grocery delivery in mass. Isolated example? Not really. Another spectacular failure that followed this approach was the Segway—a motorized replacement for walking that raised $90 million in venture capital, built thousands of units, expended millions on branding only to find out that customers did not WANT a replacement for walking!

A new approach to entrepreneurship was sorely needed and Steve Blank and Eric Ries were the early leaders in evidence-based entrepreneurship. This new paradigm shift also began with an idea—typically the identification of a problem that people would pay to solve and the creation of the simplest model or mock-up of a solution designed to elicit learning and, ultimately, buy-in from the customer that they would be willing to make a financial commitment to the fledgling organization (the startup) in exchange for solving the aforementioned problem. Only then, with enough evidence of paying customers, would the startup invest in building the product to any sort of scale and begin to build the brand of the company. Prior to this market validation, such major investments do nothing more than bring unnecessary risk into the equation for entrepreneurs.

In our entrepreneurship minor at Wake Forest, we embrace evidence-based entrepreneurship for three reasons: 1. it is the cutting edge best practice and represents the latest thinking in the field. 2. This approach is accessible to anyone with a good idea and the passion and grit necessary to pursue it. Very few people have the connections and experience necessary to raise venture capital (less than 1% of startups do so) or angel investment, so that approach vastly limits the learning opportunities that evidence based entrepreneurship affords. And 3. This approach gives nascent entrepreneurs a real shot at launching a venture. This last part is a real key to our pedagogical philosophy at Wake Forest, because research indicates that the entrepreneurial mindset is best developed through the practice of entrepreneurship. Waiting around and trying to raise capital in order to test an idea severely limits the practice of entrepreneurship. Rather, we want our students to solve a problem that customers will pay to solve and to find the target market customers that feel the pain of that problem most severely. If a startup cannot get traction with the customers that feel the most pain, then that startup will likely fail fast with minimum wasted resource. Then they can try again with another idea. Evidence-based entrepreneurship allows entrepreneurs to develop an idea, test it with customers, before they build the product to any sort of scale or invest in building a brand. Those important activities happen later—with sufficient evidence gathered along the way. This thinking allows our students to develop their entrepreneurial mindset by practicing entrepreneurship and gain knowledge via experiential learning.