Can 23 and me identify the mutant entrepreneurship gene? Hope so.

Another lovely synopsis from this week’s visit to the Raleigh, NC, this time for a discussion with 25 student entrepreneurs and their faculty/coaches at the terrific NC State “Garage” for startups.


by Beryl Pittman, NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative

This article first appeared on the Entreprenuership Initiatives News Section

“There’s a mutant strand in our DNA that says ‘I just have to do this.’” And with that, Bob Dorf summed up his belief of why some people become entrepreneurs. Dorf, a successful serial entrepreneur, author, and professor, spoke yesterday to a group of about 25 NC State students at The Garage, an Entrepreneurship Initiative-sponsored campus facility that provides resources for student start-ups

Dorf began his story by recalling his parents’ dismay when, in 1972, he left a great job to become an entrepreneur. “They wanted me to see a psychiatrist,” he said, laughing. And he realizes now that they may have had good reason. “I had sent out several hundred beautiful cards, announcing my business. And then on the big day, I put on a tie, drank my coffee, and went to my office – ready for the calls to start coming in.”

“Instead, I stared at the phone till 11:30 when the phone finally rang,” he continued. “It was my mom. Very quickly I learned that sales is the Number One job of any entrepreneur: to investors, landlords, partners – and most of all, to customers.”

With this realization, Dorf developed an approach to entrepreneurship that governs every venture, every book, every presentation: nobody’s opinion of your product matters like the opinion of your customers. “You’ve got to drive that into every element of your business, not just product development, because it de-risks the start-up.” Dorf emphasized the need to talk first to customers about the problem, not the solution. “You’ve got to find out how serious the problem is, how often it bothers your potential customer. Is your product a must-have or a possibility?”

Dorf also pointed out that any idea that a potential entrepreneur thinks of has probably been tried “20 or 30 times before.” His suggestion is “to become the customer. Spend at least a day ‘googling’ any way possible to find out more about what’s available as it relates to your product. Print each screen. Put the pages on the wall and organize them.” And then, he said, “Ask yourself ‘Where do I fit into this ecosystem?’”

Responding to a student’s question about what he learned from failing, Dorf responded, “The importance of balancing self-confidence with needing the help of others.” He pointed out that self-confidence is both an entrepreneur’s greatest asset and greatest liability. “Always hire your polar opposite,” he advised. “You don’t have to be friends though you do need to respect each other.”

But, if you’ve got the entrepreneurial bug, you don’t have to act on it immediately. “Falling in love with your start-up doesn’t follow a schedule,” Dorf explained. “But you do need to put yourself in a position to make it happen.” To that end, Dorf suggests working at a strong start-up with a well-respected entrepreneur.

Much of Bob Dorf’s experience, along with that of successful entrepreneur Steve Blank, is reflected in their book, The Start-up Owner’s Manual. It provides a step-by-step guide through the customer development process. Dorf, who was in the Triangle for the CED Venture Conference, closed with advice to read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and to visit and the website of the Kauffman Foundation for lots of free resources.


Which of these has proven most important in your startup? What did I miss?


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