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unCon 2013 Session: Hack the Cost of Entrepreneurship

We first brainstormed cost
challenges that startups face. We named many practical issues, costly either
financially or time-wise, including: prototyping, manufacturing, marketing,
administering healthcare and payroll, legal costs and intellectual property
issues, finding enough people to test products on, finding mentors, office
space, and living cost. However, the topics the group was most interested in
were less concrete, like attracting and retaining talent and finding the
shortest, most efficient path for your business.
The talent cost involves finding,
attracting, retaining skilled employees. A favorite concept of the group was
that companies should recruit based primarily on values, secondly on abilities,
and thirdly on skills.
Recruiting is a problem for large
and small companies. Recruiting engineers is particularly difficult because the
demand is so high and because engineers who have recently earned degrees may at
first seek only CTO positions. Now, the concept that talent would start as an
engineer and move eventually move up the ladder is considered less and less.
How can companies attract talent in
a competitive market? The group thought a company’s culture plays a large role
in both attracting and retaining skilled employees. While small companies
cannot offer as secure a job as a large one they have the advantage of
innovation, an attractive factor for much younger talent. Large companies like
Constant Contact address this issue however, with internal innovation programs.
For two days, Constant Contact shuts down the traditional work and get
together, somewhat like the unConference, to build something. With uninhibited
creativity, they can create a finished result either related or unrelated to
Constant Contact’s products.  This innovative culture attracts young
talent who want a workplace with both innovation and stability. Talent will
come and go between less predictable work in startups and more predictable jobs
in larger companies, depending on their current life situations, for example
balancing family and work.
However, companies should not take
the first skilled employee they can find. They must consider how a potential
employee fits into the company culture, particularly with start-ups. Start-ups,
we discussed, must focus on hiring people they’re comfortable working with—even
living with.
We then explored non-traditional
ways of finding talent. Co-ops at universities like UMass Lowell and
Northeaster require mentorship, but are ‘awesome’ for both students seeking
experience and companies seeking talent. We can even grow our own talent by
bringing people up to speed in coding if they don’t have credentials but have
the potential and the ability to learn. Programs like LaunchCode and Summer
Qamp operate in that way to help draw in new talent. Someone also suggested we
tap the over-forty talent; we both can benefit by retraining them for modern
technologies. In fact, everyone should learn coding. Then, entrepreneurs can
better predict issues and plan out time and costs. That “the dinosaurs are
gone, soon the non-engineers will be killed off’ elicited a great laugh.
The most important factor in
attracting and retaining talent, we agreed, was a value connection, matching
their purpose to their company’s. And, the feeling that employees are adding to
the company definitely helps keep them there.
We then moved on to discuss how
companies can find the most efficient business path, as someone stressed, by
going as fast as they can learn, not as fast as they can go. Learning
encompasses how fast one can determine that their startup is a failure; someone
then raised the question, how do we define failure? Objectively defining
failure is challenging but necessary. Using a scientific method, companies can
create a list of their falsifyable hypotheses and risky assumptions, then rank
them from most to least risky.
Discussing lean company development,
we talked about minimum viable products and market research. Starting with what
you think is the ultimate product, entrepreneurs in the early stages must think
down to simplest thing that people would still pay for. For example, when
Zappos began, the founders wondered if people buy shoes without trying them on.
To test this, they simply uploaded pictures of shoes at a store and, when
people ordered them, they bought the shoes from the store and sent them to the
customer. Another example of quick market research from the people in the room
was paying people a dollar to discuss with them while waiting at the T or in a
line. Such simple market research is a helpful component at a time when too
many entrepreneurs are jumping in too soon, asking someone to build their
product before refining the concept.

Ellen Askey

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