Presented by Thomas Jefferson University Online

There’s a lot of romance around the idea of launching a startup: Jeff Bezos founding Amazon with just a dime and a dream, Jack Ma going from rejection by every employer to one of the wealthiest men in the world, the buzz hovering over Silicon Valley, and the cheerful VCs who live to throw money at the next big thing.

But in reality, entrepreneurship is so much more complicated, so much more interesting, and so much more exciting than that. Here’s the real story.

Standing at the precipice

The stories of success are inspirational, but aspiring entrepreneurs need to understand, even before they decide to take that leap, that launching a startup begins and ends with the person who is leading the charge. Every potential entrepreneur has a different perspective, and every company has its own path to success. Those outsized success stories can be dangerous, leading you to believe that there’s only one way to succeed, and that failure is never an option. But entrepreneurship is a wild ride, says Caryn Pang, professor at Thomas Jefferson University’s iMBA program.

“You have to strive to want it, and you have to strive to be in the long haul,” Pang says. “Sure, a VC could hit you up and boom, you’re going, but that’s hardly a guarantee. You have to believe in yourself.”

More than any other career choice, entrepreneurship depends on your ability to believe in your own vision without getting distracted by the noise that will surround you and the messages that will come your way.

“It’s self leadership,” Pang explains. “You have to understand your own strengths and skills, the type of person you are. And it sounds so cliché, but remember that it’s okay to stumble as you take those first steps. That’s the only way through.”

It can also sometimes be sweaty and unglamorous and can take a lot of hustle and hands-on effort. But in the end, you’re creating work that you love, that fits your personality, satisfies your love of a challenge, and lets you build the life you want to lead.

Looking before you leap

Your success revolves around how well you understand the market, from developing a potential business idea to figuring out where your customers are and what they really want.

The most important questions are, ‘What are you solving for?’ and ‘Why should we care?’ Is there a white space or void in the market? Is there a way that you can innovate, evolve a common product into a consumer must-have?

Your message has to be powerful, though; there are millions of other messages out there, and to cut through the noise, you have to focus on your ideal customer. Market research is key, and the insights you gather can help you shape a successful business plan or help you pivot smoothly if necessary. Start with a well‑designed market research plan, which will keep you focused on the things that matter and make sure you’re asking the right questions, in the right way, of the right audience.

It may go without saying, but never rely solely on free information from the internet, which could be inaccurate, out-of-date, or not dive deeply enough into your subject. You need to collect data in a systematic way. Map out what you need to know, what you’re hoping to learn, and how you expect it to impact your business decisions.

Field research, or primary research, is a valuable tool. Survey the stakeholders in your business — sales prospects, customers, suppliers, frontline employees who can give you first-hand reports of your product in the field. Online surveys, telephone surveys, direct mail, and focus groups will yield concrete data to analyze.

Secondary research is still highly valuable, though — one of your most important tasks is creating a market profile to contextualize your product. That means looking at consumer demographics, industry trends, market share, and more. Look at census data, articles from top-tier magazines and trade periodicals, analyst reports, and the annual reports from your closest competitors. Don’t be afraid to shell out for professional industry research and analysis, which can yield far deeper insights than you could gather working alone.

Also, make sure you’ve vetted the field to ensure you’re not rushing to market with an idea that’s already been done or in a space that’s already packed with potential competitors — or make sure your idea is good enough to disrupt that space.

Once you’ve nailed your business idea, where do you go from there?

The big launch

A lot of people have great ideas, but when it comes to the execution part, they bow out without ever taking that leap. The first step, and also one of the best ways to help push your idea and your company further into the realm of reality, is building a great team.

Surrounding yourself with good people is key — and it’s especially important to work with a subject matter expert who can help you clearly assess the actual need for your vision in the real world. They’re the person to tap when you need to understand best practices in your industry, how it works and the most important considerations to keep top of mind as you execute.

The second thing to remember is that it’s important to begin showing your product early. Some entrepreneurs feel that they need to perfect their product, polish it to a flawless shine, before they ever let anyone have a peek at it. But getting your product out in front of potential customers as quickly as possible is important, because feedback is essential to creating the product most likely to succeed.

Trust your gut when taking in feedback. Know when you can ignore negative feedback and recognize where it will help keep you iterating as you work toward creating that final version of your product. The more feedback you get, the more iteration you can do. The more iteration you do, the closer you get to being market-ready. And since you’ve gone through all those iterations, you have a higher chance of being successful when you ultimately go to market.

Finding your mentors and team members

Part of being an entrepreneur is networking. You have to have a thick skin because people won’t always agree to meet when you ask for an exploratory conversation, but when you connect with folks who can give you the advice you need to realize your vision, or even better, someone who recognizes your vision and is on board with your idea, you’re another step closer to launching a successful business.

Part of being an entrepreneur is not just leading yourself, but leading others. People should want to be on your team, and they should believe in you. But if you want that, you have to get out there.

“A closed mouth does not get fed,” Pang says. “That’s especially true for entrepreneurs.”

Again, it connects back to self-leadership. If you don’t believe in yourself, other people won’t believe in you. People sense that right away.

Classes, workshops, and certifications will put you in a room with people who want to do the same thing as you, who have the same energy and enthusiasm as you do, and it’s a cohort of support right off the bat. It’s fuel for your ambition, and you’re all in it together, regardless of what the outcome of the business may be, and that will have a residual impact moving forward.

Your instructor will also almost certainly have owned their own business or worked at a major company and have connections to people you can network with.

Keeping the faith

“You have to be fearless,” Pang says. “I know it sounds so cheesy, but you really have to. You can’t be afraid.”

There’s clearly a chance you’ll fail, and no one wants to fail. But it’s more important to take that leap, pitch the next new thing, find out how it actually feels to be an entrepreneur. Look beyond the legendary success stories and start to write your own with an online innovation MBA from Thomas Jefferson University.

Learn the marketing skills needed to identify your audience and to develop effective business plans in a fully online platform. The innovation and real-world skills-focused program means you’ll be prepared for roles like marketing manager, CEO or COO, management consultant, financial analyst, and strategy operations manager once you graduate, which can be in as little as 18 months. Experience a world-class education at your fingertips.

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