Interview with Tom Schryver Entrepreneur in Residence P2
Tom Schryver is Cornell’s own Entrepreneur in residence.
If you have not availed yourself of his expertise in the past, you owe it to your start-up to make an appointment.
Schryver, ’93 AB ’02 MBA, has a long vita worth of valuable experience and is a very approachable guy. Make an appointment and see what tid bits you might come away with. He has office hours on Wednesday afternoons in Sage 320.
I sat down with him to glean some of the insights he had on student entrepreneurship and the process getting a start-up off the ground.
What if your skills don’t match the problems or what if you create a need in the customer like Apple or Twitter?
Twitter is probably the best example of that. I don’t know if people were aware that they had a 140 character micro-blogging problem until Twitter told them they did. There is something magical about what they did in identifying the need. With Twitter they just found something that is really easy to initially deploy – so they were able to get traction in the marketplace and get revenue and they had the resources and money to do it so that was the key thing for them. They had the right combination of skills and talent to do the research and capitalize on the need. Steve Jobs had the opportunity to sit on a couple million dollars of other people’s money and so he too had some resources he could deploy. Without those assets, if you’re just somebody with an idea, how do you break through? Maybe sometimes you should just choose the path of least resistance and choose to move onto something else for a while. There’s these fake success posters that says that winners never quit and quitters never win but people who never win and never quit are idiots. It’s the balance between the two. For every person who fought through adversity and succeeded, there’s someone else out there who’s still out there trying to invent the perpetual motion device, still in their garage. Identifying which one you are is very critical.
In terms of sitting on money, we all know that students don’t usually have access to venture capital or other people’s investments. What advice do you have for students who want to go about getting funding?
I find that students often misunderstand the role of risk in funding. People are willing to take certain risks and others they are not willing to. There are some risks that should be funded with capital and others that should not. One area where I’ve seen people screw up when it comes to funding is that they fail to test something when they can test it cheaply. The advice I give people is if you think you’re going to go ask an investor for money to move your idea forward, before you take a dime of their money, do all the things you can do to take all the risks you can off the table, in as cheap a way as possible. Do all the things we talked about – speak to potential customers, put together a cheap prototype, and test out the product in front of customers. You can only know whether a million dollar marketing campaign works when you try out the million dollar marketing campaign – but there’s other testing you can do to preempt that. I’ve seen it time and time again with companies that have raised millions of dollars only to realize that ‘‘you know what – we’re not getting over this hurdle and we could have known that a couple of million dollars ago’. So what I’m saying is if you do a good job of taking all the cheap risks off the table, you’re actually going to be that much more able to raise money because investors are going to know much more clearly what risks they are taking with their money.
What skills are needed to get a business off the ground?
I think the one thing that’s most critical of all is humility and it’s really about understanding that you’re never going to know 100% of the things you need to know to run the entirety of a business. If it’s a software business for example, maybe you’re the backend guy or the design guy but you’re still going to find it hard to do all the accounting, marketing, and sales of the business all by yourself. Understanding what’s most important and then filling in the gaps yourself or finding other people to do them. The other thing that really the board who used to work at Dow Checmical for 30 years and he knew everybody in the industry and was tremendously helpful in introducing you to the right people. There’s no way as a young entrepreneur that you will be able to have all that stuff so being able to leverage the experiences of those people is absolutely critical.
Did you have some indepth knowledge of the drug industry going into it?
In terms of the chemical and drug knowledge my partners had those boxes filled and I had a lot more of the corporate, legal, funding, and IP boxes covered.
I’m an aspiring student entrepreneur at Cornell, what steps should I take to go about realizing my idea?
Well first of all there are some really good classes that you can take all over campus. Then some classes on Business planning etc. The Popshop is a great place to meet people and share ideas with like minded entrepreneurs. The eLab is growing in prominence as an incubator for startups in Cornell. Finally there are a host of clubs and events such as Startup Weekend etc. Ultimately for undergraduates my advice would be to put yourself in an opportunity to get as much experience as you possibly can.