Course overview
Explaining startups
Being an entrepreneur

III.Being an entrepreneur

One of the essential effects entrepreneurship has on society is impact. The macro impact of entrepreneurship adds up from every single individual entrepreneur who operates in their own field. But what is it like to be an entrepreneur? There are many different forms of entrepreneurship and countless ways to become an entrepreneur. Every individual setting is unique, but we tried to summarize some commonalities.

It’s about responsibility

When it comes down to it, being an entrepreneur is about ownership, responsibility and being proactive. As an entrepreneur you get to choose when, where and how you work. You also have a say in who you work with. Nobody is going to tell you what to do. Of course when looking at it from a different angle, entrepreneurs also have “bosses” telling them what to do, in the form of customers (at least if you want to make a living out of entrepreneurship).

With responsibility comes power, but you also have to use this power. By this we mean that entrepreneurs have to constantly make decisions. Not making decisions isn’t really an option. You can’t do everything for everyone, and in many cases new businesses don’t have the problem of “what to do” but “what not to do”. There are everyday small decisions and sometimes very big decisions. Of course it’s smart to get advice, but at the end of the day it’s the entrepreneur who has to make the call.

Being an entrepreneur is about creating something of your own. If you succeed, this can be very rewarding: you’ve made the correct decisions, built something from nothing and made it in the way you wanted it to be.

The risks

With decisions also come risks. Entrepreneurs need to be able to work in risky conditions. The first and biggest risk is to start doing something, but along the way entrepreneurs will constantly face risks. In most cases, doing something in exactly the same way as someone else won’t be good enough – instead you have to find your own angle and believe in it.

Entrepreneurs with financial ownership carry personal financial risk. Something to also acknowledge is the social risk entrepreneurs carry, which also applies to intrapreneurs. It’s always quite likely that a new business (or some other new initiative) won’t take off. Thankfully people have started to change their attitudes toward failure, but failing is still not a nice feeling.

Networks matter

Especially in the beginning, entrepreneurship can sometimes be lonely. You’ve chosen what you want to pursue and you have to convince others to believe in it. Gathering people around you is smart psychologically (and also business wise) as discussing your ideas with many different people can offer new angles you haven’t thought of – or at least validate your thinking. It can be great to connect with peer entrepreneurs and others from your domain.

Networks can be beneficial and nice to have, but the most important people are your potential co-founders. As said, being an entrepreneur in the beginning can be lonely and hard work, so actually many successful companies have been founded by a team.

As an entrepreneur, you have to also take care of yourself as the list of things you could do will never end. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. If your company succeeds, it’s likely that you will spend at least 5 to 10 years working with it.

To summarize, while being an entrepreneur is not easy, there is also nothing limiting how you shape the future for yourself as an individual and the society as a whole.

What it means to be a startup entrepreneur

Startup entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Many startups fail, which is why as an entrepreneur you need to be prepared – most likely the future won’t look bright in the beginning.

A startup begins with a story, something you dream up and then make into something real. Startup entrepreneurs carry the burden of making these stories a reality, no matter how difficult the road there is. That’s part of the reason why startups are our best chance of adapting to a fast-changing world.

Startup entrepreneurs often share great curiosity and desire to create something new. To create something new, entrepreneurs need to be ready to step out of their comfort zone as the path can be unexpected.

Startup entrepreneurs should be ready to do almost anything, which makes being a generalist who can also learn fast very beneficial. Your tasks also vary at different stages. For example, in the beginning, entrepreneurs should often be product enthusiasts working hands on with everything – but as the company grows, this changes to more of a leadership role.

There is no single set of skills that tell us who can be a good startup entrepreneur. Every startup is unique and requires different capabilities. People can become successful startup entrepreneurs with very different backgrounds. One misconception is that the most successful entrepreneurs are university dropouts or recent graduates like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. In fact, statistics actually show that the most successful startup entrepreneurs are just over 40 years old.

That said, one shouldn’t take the statistics too seriously when deciding to become a startup entrepreneur. Your startup is your startup. You’re developing something new, and statistics only tell you about the past.

Though anyone can become a startup entrepreneur, it’s scary to jump in. Becoming a startup entrepreneur is never a safe bet, which means that entrepreneurs should truly believe in what they do. Even if the founder journey ends in bankruptcy, entrepreneurs can at least feel like they are creating something new and meaningful while trying to stretch the limits of the potential that lies within all of us (but which many never try to reach).

The lessons learned as a startup entrepreneur can be used in any organization, and the mindset and learnings can also be harnessed to shake a more stable company into rethinking their offering.

It’s also good to remember that founding your own company and running it or working at a startup can be extremely inspiring and exciting. The feeling of working through the jungle in the front line of pioneers is elevating at its best. The thought of doing work that has the potential to positively affect the whole world is also one of the best motivators.

As mentioned before, one thing that is always extremely useful as an entrepreneur is having a proper network of your own. When you’re getting your business going, it can be invaluable to know people and have the possibility to ask questions and find out about the most common pitfalls before they happen to you.

An entrepreneur should also pay attention to their well-being – when you’re working for something you want to spend time on, it can be hard to find a good work-life balance. Entrepreneurs often have a higher risk for mental and physical illness, and should take special care in this area. You are in it for the long run.

Three examples of becoming a startup entrepreneur

Insights from an entrepreneur – RELEX Solutions

Johanna Småros is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of RELEX Solutions, which provides solutions for the retail optimization. Today RELEX has roughly 800 employees and operates in Europe, the US, and Hong Kong.

How did you end up founding RELEX?

“RELEX is a research-based company, and me and my co-founders Michael Falck and Mikko Kärkkäinen were all in the same university research group at the time. We studied several topics and one of them was automated retail store replenishment. It was a new thing in the beginning of the 2000s, especially in the grocery field, which is often a forerunner in supply chain optimization because the volumes are high and companies have a lot of money tied to the goods. At that point, the industry had been able to automate replenishment in the easy categories – meaning dry food – where there are not many campaigns or seasonal fluctuations. Nobody had been able to automate fresh, nor highly seasonal, nor promotion-driven products. We started studying this and built forecast models and soon concluded that the replenishment of fresh goods can be automated as well. We also learned that, the harder the goods are to forecast, the bigger the potential benefits are.

“Then I developed a very simple simulator where you could submit historical demand data of some goods and then simulate how the replenishment could happen automatically based on the model and what happens if you change parameters. I went to present the tool to a company who was one of our research partners. I want to emphasize that we thought that the tool is super simple and rough, but the company was amazed by it. Previously they had no real way of testing how much to buy and when, so they had to do all testing in real life in stores which is very risky. In addition, testing in one store didn’t mean that the outcome would be the same in other stores. We were surprised how a leading company could get great value from something we thought was so elementary.

“I think the idea of founding a company began there, but we didn’t start a company yet. We finished our doctoral studies in August 2005 and stayed on as researchers at the university. But at the same time, I was thinking about what I want to do in the future. I could either continue as a researcher or for example go to the corporate world to work as a consultant. Then Mikko started talking about how he has always wanted to be an entrepreneur and what if we started a business around our research? I had experienced the freedom of academia for so long I felt that, instead of working in some big organization with a strict role, maybe doing my own thing would be better. The idea of not having a boss sounded tempting. I eventually found out that as an entrepreneur you also have bosses – your customers are your bosses – but at the time that was what I thought. That was the point we started moving forward, first part-time while still doing some research before we eventually started working full-time for our company.”

Insights from an entrepreneur – Yousician

Chris Thür is the co-founder and CEO of Yousician, a gamified music education service. Their goal is to make musicality as common as literacy. Today, their service is used by millions of people around the world.

How did you end up founding Yousician?

“I met my co-founder Mikko Kaipainen at the university as we worked together in a project-based business simulation course. It was quite intensive and we got along pretty well – we are really different personalities: he’s systematic, analytic and very intelligent, where I’m more outgoing and creative, but we worked very well together. At one of these courses, there was a competition between student groups. We ended up winning that competition and our teacher handed us a €20 bill for the prize money – he said ‘use it wisely boys’. We went across the street to get a beer. That’s pretty much how it started, and we became friends along the way.

“Mikko had a pretty clear career path ahead of him and I had a pretty clear career path ahead of me. We were something like 26 and were thinking that should we try to do something of our own. We had a couple of ideas, then we wrote a business plan about one idea and it was a lot of fun actually. I think at some point Mikko said to me that do we want to be those guys who talk about business ideas in the bar and in 20 years say ‘yeah we had an idea or two’ or do we want to at least try. So we were like hey, let’s do it. And soon I realized that even though I liked my job at the laser research center, I couldn’t wait for 5 pm so I could meet with my friend and work on the startup. I realized that maybe I should spend more time on this and eventually I quit my job. When I now talk about this, it sounds straightforward, but this was quite a process.”

Why did you choose music education?

“We had a couple other ideas, but music education was something that was close to our hearts – we both wanted to play instruments and failed when we were young. I took piano classes for a couple of years and Mikko took guitar lessons. We wondered why isn’t anyone solving the main issue of music education, which is that people lose the motivation to practice in the early phase because it takes time and repetition. When you’re an impatient person like myself, that’s hard. And that’s how the idea got started – if we could make practicing in the early phase as addictive as playing computer games, people like us would probably learn to play an instrument. The idea isn’t very innovative because anyone who has ever played guitar hero has had the same idea: why don’t they do it for real guitar? And at the time no one was doing that, so we decided to.”

Do you have a background in music?

“Neither of us had any experience in this area. One investor was asking about our backgrounds, like ‘are you music teachers or are you software developers’ etc. We answered no, no, no and he said ‘so you have no experience with the topic – that is fantastic! Just a couple of fresh minds to think about an old problem, that’s exactly how to find innovations.’

“Many startups are started by senior people in the industry who understand the problem and have dealt with it for 10 years and can say ‘we can do better by starting a company to solve a problem they we really know about.’ But then again, many startups are started by an outsider with fresh thinking asking 'can we change this radically?'”

Insights from an entrepreneur – Equality Check

Isabelle Ringnes is the co-founder of Equality Check, a technology-based company that helps companies improve diversity and drives transparency and accountability in the workplace.

How did you end up becoming an entrepreneur?

“After getting my Master’s degree, I was working at Schibsted Media Group. I was fortunate to win a scholarship to attend Singularity University Global Solutions Program in Silicon Valley, where I got to spend three months learning about exponential technologies and how they can be used to solve the most pressing challenges of our time. After Singularity University, I continued working for Schibsted for six months, after which I finally decided to quit my job and start my own venture.

“I believe that, for our generation, the working environment is and will be very project-based. Every new experience and task that you do makes you a better employee for the future. So I wasn't afraid of leaving the corporate world and doing something on my own, as long as it is sustainable.

How did you found Equality Check?

“I founded TENK, a technology network for women in Norway, in 2015. Around that time, my co-founder Marie Louise Sunde and I started a campaign in addition to our day jobs. In the campaign, we wanted to address unconscious bias and gender stereotypes with a new approach – we wanted it to be inclusive, we wanted it to be positive, and we wanted it to be solution-oriented. So I had done projects previously on the side and, after leaving Schibsted, I joined and started a variety of projects to figure out how I could solve a problem that I was so passionate about.

“During 2017, we realized that in society today, there is a general acceptance that gender equality is not a reality. But even though companies want to do something about the problem, they really don’t know how to act. There is a lot of research on the problem, yet very little on the solutions. So we wanted to find solutions to help companies improve gender equality and diversity, and embarked on a research project with CORE (Centre for Research on Gender Equality) to find and validate solutions to improve gender balance and diversity in the workplace. In the beginning of 2018, we decided to put everything else aside and work full-time on this.

“We had 3-4 years of experience in the domain, we had talked to many businesses, and we had written a book about the problem. So we knew the problem very well. We are not 100% sure if the solution we have now will be the solution we have in five years, but we are continually in a testing phase.

“My recommendation for entrepreneurs is to really dig down and understand the problem. It’s also a huge benefit if you are passionate about finding a solution to the problem – and we are definitely passionate about this.”

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AVP is the entrepreneurship education program at Aalto University. Students in multidisciplinary teams do hands-on exercises and gain tools, ready to be used to construct a startup or to renovate an existing company. We teach students to build like an entrepreneur.

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