For the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to mentor a very talented team of young people through VentureUp - a six-week entrepreneurship programme for students.
I can't speak highly enough of this initiative, and really want to share a little about my experience and the journey we've all been on.
So, What's VentureUp Exactly You Ask?
VentureUp is a full-immersion entrepreneurship accelerator for students who have left secondary school, and in a lot of cases are about to start (or have started) university studies.
Students form teams to take an idea for a product or service through a structured process to evolve the idea into a business venture, culminating in a showcase at the end of the six weeks.
Throughout this they are supported by a number of experienced coaches, of which I was one.
Why Would Someone Do VentureUp?
Leaving secondary school and starting university is a big life juncture for students as they start preparing themselves for employment in the big wide world. VentureUp is an unparalleled preparation tool.
Looking back on when I went to university all those years ago (it feels like a few centuries have past), I did the standard thing of finishing secondary school and going straight into university studying my 'trade,' which for me ended up being software engineering, followed by starting a job in IT.
It wasn’t until mid-career that I found my calling in hi-tech product development, having the opportunity to work in Navman and then working for a range of tech companies helping them bring new products and technologies to market. I then started Velox Innovation with my co-founder, Colart Miles (the one with the mo) coaching a range of companies around New Zealand to improve their innovation capabilities.
In addition, Colart introduced me to the startup ecosystem with StartUp Weekend, firstly as a participant and then as a volunteer. Then with Lightning Lab, R9 Accelerator and now VentureUp. Think i'm catching the entrepreneurial bug!
But, What If I Had Done VentureUp As A Youngster?
If, in between secondary school and university, I got the chance to do something like VentureUp (and caught the bug then) my university experience would have been significantly different.
Instead of learning how to write a programme to do something and pass my courses, I would have viewed it as solving a problem that a potential customer has and recognised the value that it would provide to that customer.
This could lead into developing a product and bringing it to market – wow – the possibilities! Don’t underestimate how significantly different that perspective is and what direction I could have taken career-wise – I could have started my company straight out of university, found my calling much sooner and could have built a number of tech companies by now.
While most of the VentureUp participants would have gone onto university anyway, what a different perspective they will take in their studies and they would get even more value and learnings from the university experience. And then the world is their oyster!
The other thing that drew me to VentureUp is that I have 2 kids, one of which, my daughter Mikayla, will be at that same juncture soon.
In fact, when I got involved in VentureUp, I found out about VentureUp Boost, which provides YR12 students the opportunity to spend a week alongside the Venture Up teams to get a taste of the accelerator and help “boost” the teams. Mikayla was able participate and she absolutely loved it (and the teams seemed to appreciate her participation) and is really keen to do VentureUp when she gets to that point.
The Important Stuff I've Learnt
While I’ve got lots of industry experience which I was able to offer to my team, this was my first formal mentoring opportunity. So as I said in the VentureUp wrap-up, I (and I think that other mentors say the same for themselves), we learnt a whole lot as well.
I was asked by another mentor to provide her team with a bit of advice around the technology aspects of their venture. However, as the team described what they were doing, the problem they were addressing as well their solution, I got drawn into the problem and solution and starting to question the direction and provided them with a few other options.
However, the team had already been swirling around and were trying to narrow down on the solution and product fit, so it seemed that I was only adding more options to the mix.
I felt really bad afterwards – had I made it even harder for them?
But thinking back retrospectively, I thought about my own experience with something similar to VentureUp - Startup Weekend. When you're dealing with a problem and solution that you are really passionate about, there’s so much to think about. Mentors are there to provide you with, no doubt, really good advice. But often it only gives you more things to think about, and even more options. Argh – what are we to do! But it wasn’t until nearing the end that we realised that advice was right (whether we had followed it or not).
A mentor isn’t there to provide the answer, but to provide guidance from their own experience, question assumptions that the team might have and provide their differing perspective on the venture. Often we are just about as passionate as the team is (hey, that’s one of the reasons we love mentoring) and like me can bounce off the wall with ideas.
The challenge that the teams have is what to do with that advice. That’s one of the entrepreneur's dilemma’s: do I stay on the same track because I’ve already invested a lot of time and effort in (and in the real world, lots of money). Or do I take the mentors suggestion and pivot?
What I find interesting are the successful entrepreneurs that are celebrated because they stuck at it and ignored the naysayers. But what we tend to forget are the many more entrepreneur that also stuck at it, but failed and fell under the radar. And that’s why we don’t hear about them; just the successful ones.
And we just hear about where successful entrepreneurs ended up, not the many unsuccessful pivots they made before they achieved success.
So it’s not easy. But hey, if it was easy everyone would be doing it!
It’s All About Who You Know
If you've ever seen me at event, you'll know i’m a serial networker. Which is a bit strange, because networking is often something people say they hate.
But it wasn't always so easy. Back when I started university I was extremely introverted – I had Aspergers Syndrome. People with this are often the shy/geeky/nerdy girls and boys that aren’t very confident talking to other people, and often more at ease on the computer. That was me.
Earlier in my career, I joined a few Project Management groups, and knowing it was something I desperately needed to work on, I started practicing networking. I found that once I started talking to people, often they were interested in what I was doing with ! They would even introduce me to others who were interested in the same stuff. Not only was I learning more, I was helping my career.
Now networking is a critical part of what I do to grow the business, and my daughter often comes along (she actually enjoys it as well!).
My advice? Be bold. Walk up to someone who looks like an overly confident professional and introduce yourself. Actually, also make a point of picking out the shy introverted ones like I was and make their day, giving them the confidence as well.
I ended up inviting a number of the VentureUp participants along to TAP Lab (a makerspace in Te Atatu Peninsula), Hardware Meetup AKL (photo's above and below) as well as at IOT Auckland Meetup. After a bit of encouragement, they all became great networkers. They even pitched their ventures to the audience, who were very impressed with what they had achieved after such a short period of time.
Anyway, that’s a couple of thoughts from me. There's a whole heap of other interesting things to talk about from the experience, so I might feel the need to blog again.
BTW - A big thanks to the VentureUp team (Nick, Liv and Lingy), CreativeHQ for powering VentureUp, the other mentors and all of the participants, giving us the privilege of seeing them grow in experience and confidence over the last 6 weeks. Well done and I look forward to hearing about you when you become world-beating entrepreneurs. No pressure ;)