I was recently contacted by Cory Levy, a
16 17-year-old aspiring entrepreneur from Houston. He was looking for guidance on career-related issues and posed some interesting questions. With some minor edits for clarity, here's our exchange:
Cory: What is your advice in regards to starting up a company in high school?
I think starting a company in high school could be a great experience, because it will put you in a position where you'll have to make decisions quickly with imperfect information. We all do this all the time, but CEOs and solo entrepreneurs have to do it when the stakes are higher and the pressure is greater, and delaying a decision to gather more information--which many of us do when we're uncertain--is sometimes actually worse than a "bad" decision. This process will compel you to test and hone your instincts and help you decide if entrepreneurship is truly for you. All that said, I also think you have to ask yourself why you want to start your own company. Because you need to be the final decision-maker? Because you want to run something? Because it sounds appealing? There's no right or wrong reason, but you should be clear on just what your reasons are.
Cory: What are your views on the information overload problem?
Information overload is life. Don't worry about trying to capture all the information you possibly can. The anxiety from feeling overwhelmed will outweigh the value of the marginal information you're gathering. (See my comment above about gathering more information as a substitute for instinctive decision-making.) And don't get caught in perpetual process-improvement cycles, trying to perfect your knowledge management practices. There will always be more information than we can possibly manage. Follow your hunches and your curiosity, and find regular practices that work for you.
Cory: What is your biggest failure?
My biggest failure was not taking full advantage of the career planning services that were available to me as an undergrad at Brown. I had an incredible learning experience there as a student, but I didn't really think through what I wanted to do after college. In a sense, that's OK--I've enjoyed many aspects of the unusual path I've taken since then, and my life may be more interesting as a result. But I also feel that I wasted time in my 20s because I wasn't clear on what my skills were, what motivated me, and how I could best add value. (Read Peter Drucker's "Managing Oneself" to learn more.)
Cory: Were you an entrepreneur at an early age? If so, what were some of the ventures you participated in?
I've had a very entrepreneurial career, although often via non-traditional vehicles. I helped to start three nonprofits--they weren't my conception, but I was the first employee at all three, tasked with turning plans into viable organizations. I succeeded at two, and I learned a lot at the third. I've also quit jobs without knowing what I was going to do next 4 times--not out of frustration, but because I was excited about the prospect of something new and better around the corner. And although now I work at Stanford [and academic institutions often struggle to cope with the rapid pace of change demanded by new ventures], I'm in a very entrepreneurial unit that's building a new program as we go along.
Cory: What is your definition of success?
Success is feeling that I've made the most of my talents doing work that's intrinsically satisfying while creating real value and being of service to others.
Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Cory, and good luck with your venture (and/or the one after that!)