I invested in my first early stage company when I was nineteen years old. It was my own start up, Collegiate Student Storage. The idea was simple and there was no business plan. I was a student at Syracuse University who lived in Brooklyn, New York. I had accumulated a ton of sh_t?!@ over the year and did not need my winter clothes, books and dorm room furniture, nor did my parents want it cluttering up their home when I came home for the summer. The minute I left for college, it became their home again and I was a guest.
I figured I could save some money by getting a few other friends together and split the costs. A few casual reach outs became over 100 customers. And it was no longer about splitting costs – it became driving trucks, carrying boxes, being paid and making more in a week then I did all summer.
Believe you me, at the time, I had no idea I was an entrepreneur, had never driven a truck, incorporated a company or signed contracts with others – I was just trying to save money on storage of my own stuff! Eventually the company expanded to over 100 college campuses – storing several thousand student’s personal belongings a year and employed thousands of students nationwide.
I woke up this morning, passionately committed to sharing some of the lessons I learned as an aspiring entrepreneur many years ago so here goes:
1) Simple ideas make good businesses – execution is everything, so make sure you’re clear on they key drivers of the business and focus on doing them well – fewer things better
2) If you have a need or want, ask around and see if others do too – from storage of boxes to the addressable market for storage of data – there is a market for everything. Remember that market size does vary
3) Sometimes the best thing to do, is to Just Do!
4) Be willing to work hard and then work harder – intelligence grows with experience. Driving trucks and stacking boxes in warehouses is not glamorous but it did pay. When everyone is sleeping and you’re working, and when all are working and you’re resting, remember that it’s a circle which comes around and evens out – run your race
5) Ask friends and family for help – whether lifting boxes, reviewing legal contracts, answering phones or licking envelopes, everyone is an asset
6) As you see success and hit roadblocks – embrace the “AHA” moments to learn and grow from them. Work on, adjust to and test your vision and assumptions – stay loose
7) Never confuse age with ability – I was nineteen when I started. The term Young Entrepreneur was not mainstream. I know because 5 years later I was one of 500 original charter members of YEO. And, a nineteen year old BU student wrote our first access 2.0 database/CRM, logistics and routing system from scratch and ran operations while managing to get good grades
8) Be self aware. If I only knew then, what I know now……. read a lot, network, keep an open mind – we’re always learning about ourselves and who we are
9) Ask questions and listen closely for feedback from mentors, customers, vendors, staff. All of my ideas and businesses became better with the input and actions of others. I also avoided many costly mistakes by asking before acting – especially when it comes to legal, finance, IP and insurance matters
10) Find mentors and communicate with them – I had great ones – Ted Wallin a professor of Transportation and Distribution management at SU and my dad. The networks are great today and mentors want to help
11) Maintain focus – but look for the bigger themes and adjacent opportunities. Keep your eye on the prize but don’t lose sight
12) Pay attention to what’s going on around you – From the storage company, we developed and leveraged an on campus representative agency to conduct market surveys for other companies, launched Jones soda in the United States with our student teams and more. I discovered the internet while visiting tons of college campuses and watching people go online many late nights at Kinkos, which was a mainstay in every college town in the 90s
13) Commit to making a difference and having some fun. I have had over 10,000 college students work for my companies. Many of which I still am in touch with. My proudest achievements are seeing what thy have achieved. I love the “I knew you when” moments and laughing at the stories
14) Every problem has a solution, so stay in the solution and be proactive. I remember one summer in Boston when the trucks that we contracted did not show up to deliver over 1000 student’s belongings. I thought I was done, finished in this town so to speak. At first, I was paralyzed by fear, but then we rallied. Leaders need to lead. We huddled and took action – called everyone we knew to answer phones, rented trucks and vans, apologized, delivered candy and snacks to our customers, offered discounts for next year – we survived and thrived
15) Never confuse activity with results and be accountable. I have my rule of 3-5 things for this. (Reach out to me and I will tell you what this is and why it works)
These are only a handful of experiences and lessons learned. I have stories about the stories. Here’s how I sum up how and why I invest in early stage companies and hopefully, some take away value to take action on for your investment in reading this:
1) The next and way smarter Drew Koven is out there with a great idea and the ability to execute it – and I’m looking for him or her. I love learning and learning from others
2) Making a difference and remembering those who took the time to take my calls is something I reflect on daily
3) A little bit of my time can make a world of difference to another and maybe even help change the world – give not to get back even if you do
4) It’s not always about the money – our world works on the principle of expansion and contraction – knowledge is gained and relationships are forged in the best and most challenging of times by advocates and adversaries alike
5) Singles and batting for average wins more games then swinging for the fences every time
6) I invest in people and relationships – good people are more fun to work with and will build great teams and retain them
7) I always get back more then I give – I’m amazed by how many super smart and sharp people I have met – talk about humbling and inspiring
8) If my experience, resources and networks can help increase the chances of success – save the entrepreneur time, provide access to money, help to problem solve, gain access, lift spirits, whatever – help because it’s the right thing to do
9) It’s exciting to help people realize dreams – we will all get our fair share – so share
10) I believe in the golden rule and do the right thing. – think good, do good and it will be good. I look for people that put people first. I’ve learned that the rest will most certainly follow.
Drew Koven is a Managing Partner at LDR Ventures in Los Angeles
Selected LDR Investments and Advisories include: