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Entrepreneurs offer tips on starting a business | Medill | Washington
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Entrepreneurs offer tips on starting a business

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WASHINGTON — Fail fast. That was the unconventional advice from Ed Rensi, former chief executive of McDonald’s Corp., to young people just starting out in business.

“Take a risk. Try something. Do something,” he said to more than 100 young business types at a recent event called “Buy Young” — an initiative created by Washington nonprofit Our Time to bolster companies founded by people aged 30 and under.

“Do not stand by and let the rest of the world dictate how you’re going to live your life. It’s no fun living that way,” Rensi said.

In addition to the veteran business leader, the crowd got tips for success from their own generation — young entrepreneurs who shared their stories and advice.

Aaron Batalion, age 31, co-founder of LivingSocial

Aaron Batalion and his colleagues tested dozens of ideas before landing on daily-deal site and Groupon competitor LivingSocial, which recently launched its new “adventure” category. The company is based in Washington, D.C.

Batalion’s advice: If you have two cool ideas, build both of them. “LivingSocial started as a totally different company doing something entirely different,” Batalion said in an interview.

“What we learned early on was it was more important to understand and respect the process of building a business and finding out how to scale a business, than to believe that we had the exact right idea from the beginning,” he said.

Other tips from Batalion:

  • Nothing is real until a customer touches it. “You can spend a year trying to build something, but you’re wasting a year of time,” he said. “Get that thing live and get people touching or using your product.”
  • Believe that you’re wrong. An entrepreneur’s first idea is probably wrong, Batalion said. “If you keep testing things and you keep trying new things, then you’ll get it. You’ll figure it out, eventually.”
  • Understand your consumer. LivingSocial tests and measures their customer interactions.

Jennifer Fleiss, age 27, co-founder, Rent the Runway

Jennifer Fleiss described her two-year-old, New York-based company as “Netflix for fashion.” Rent the Runway, with more than 1 million members, allows women to rent dresses online for about 10% of the retail cost.

Despite Rent the Runway’s growing customer base, Fleiss said she does not believe in having a business plan and never wrote one for her own company.

It “doesn’t help as much in an early stage company when you need to be really flexible, dynamic and nimble,” she said.

Other tips from Fleiss:

  • Find a partner. Fleiss said entrepreneurship has many highs and lows, so “having someone by your side who can lift you up or provide that support is a really important aspect.”
  • Take any and every meeting offered. Even if it’s not clear what the outcome of a meeting will be, every person has something to offer or teach.
  • Give yourself a deadline date to test out your concept. “When you’re starting a company, there is an opportunity cost,” Fleiss said. “You are deciding not to do something else.”

David Schottenstein, age 27, founder of Astor and Black

Astor and Black, the Columbus, Ohio-based company founded by David Schottenstein when he was 21, specializes in custom-designed suits and clothing. Schottenstein called his company the fastest- growing custom-clothing line in the United States, and he said starting it was not much different than convincing his wife to go out with him in high school (they’ve been married eight years). Confidence was key.

“To this day my wife maintains that what eventually got her to reconsider and go out with me was my confidence and unwillingness to take no for an answer,” he said.

Other tips from Schottenstein:

  • Scale it down and wait before you approach investors. Schottenstein said that hard work will make a business grow big. “After you can prove that your idea does have sea legs and you can prove your idea does work on a smaller scale, then you go to the venture capital guys,” he said.
  • Pick one idea and stick with it. “When you divide your attention…into three different things, it’s not 33%, 33%, 33%,” he said. “You end up giving each thing 15%.”
  • Speak to those older and wiser. “Out of all the different opinions you’re going to hear,” he said, “there’s certainly going to be a common theme that you can take away from people that have more experience than yourself.”

Julie Smolyansky, age 36, president of Lifeway Foods

Julie Smolyansky took over Lifeway Foods Inc. when she was 27, making her the youngest female chief executive of a publicly traded company.

When Smolyansky first took the helm of the Morton Grove, Ill.-based company, she said, there was an attitude that as a young female, she couldn’t hack it. It was emotionally challenging, she said, but “it also gave me a stubbornness to prove them wrong.”

Other tips from Smolyansky:

  • Know your skill set. Spend most of your time doing what your good at. Find good people who are knowledgeable about the areas you don’t know as well.
  • Be an expert networker. “There are just all these really great accessible tools that you can connect with people and spread your message and get help,” Smolyansky said. “It’s so surprising when you ask for help how many people want to help you.”
  • Follow your heart. “I found that most of my ideas always came from my gut, my intuition,” she said. “I know within the first five minutes if I’m going to hire somebody or not.”

Terica Kindred, age 28, Out Estate Investments

Terica Kindred, chief executive of real-estate investment firm Out Estate, launched the company when she was 23 years old and had her first $1 million by the time she was 24.

“I was going to give up, and then I didn’t,” Kindred said. “Next thing you know, I’m a millionaire.”

Kindred said although it sounds cliché, do not give up. “If you stay there it will just happen, because people will start to know you,” she said.

Other tips from Kindred:

  • Never underestimate the power of family. Kindred said her first round of business capital came from her mom and her brother, and the second came from friends. From a capital standpoint, be creative.
  • Staff up when you can. More people are necessary to help grow a business, she said. “My business shot out when I started hiring more people.”
  • Write it down. Don’t keep it in your head because you’ll forget, and share your ideas, so others can ask you about it, Kindred said.

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