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14 lessons from entrepreneurs on starting your own business

Have you had your light bulb moment?
Have you had your light bulb moment?
Image: Vera Cho/Unsplash
  • How can entrepreneurs turn their ideas into successful start-ups?
  • We spoke with 14 entrepreneurs in the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers community.
  • Lessons include testing your assumptions, being open to new opportunities and never stop learning.

Start-ups play an increasingly important role in the global economy, transforming innovative ideas into real-world solutions.

But founding a start-up isn't easy. Less than 1% of start-ups receive funding from external investors. And only a handful of these ever become a unicorn or achieve a successful exit.

So, what's the secret to turning bright ideas into successful start-ups?

We spoke with 14 entrepreneurs in the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers community about how they founded their companies and what they learned.

Start with purpose

Sean Hinton, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, SkyHive

Prior to launching SkyHive, a cloud-based workforce management and reskilling software provider, in 2017 I was a very successful corporate CEO. In 2016, I had no aspirations to become a founder and was perfectly content running the company I had been hired into. In early 2016 I attended a conference in the Middle East, and on day one of that conference a group of Syrian women spoke on a panel. They had escaped Syria and were living in the UN refugee camp in Lebanon. For an hour they spoke to us about the atrocities of the treatment of women during the civil war in Syria.

I had a stream of consciousness during that hour, and when the panel ended I knew right then and there that I had to dedicate the rest of my career to helping the world; that was the genesis of SkyHive. The most important thing I learned from that experience was the true definition of purpose and how important it is to live and work with purpose.

Ensure business is a force for good

Joaquin Villalba, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Nextail

The fashion industry, while beautiful and much beloved, has inherited many operational efficiencies, from a reliance on legacy approaches to aligning supply and demand. Given the complexity of today’s retailing, limited tools make it impossible to meet customer demands and reach business goals, and, worst of all, they often lead to unnecessary waste.

I have a passion for improving complex processes. So, after a few years in fashion as Head of European logistics of Inditex, I identified an opportunity to push the industry forward. By placing tech and data science at the heart of decision-making, I knew we could better meet demand through improved predictions and automated decision-making.

Since founding Nextail, a smart retail platform that empowers fashion merchandisers, in 2014, our mission has been to make the retail world a better, more sustainable place. We help retailers become more agile and predictive so they can use less of the world's resources while maintaining the same, or better, product availability. My greatest lesson has been that business truly can be used as a force for good. In fact, it’s been easy to create a team of like-minded industry professionals with a passion for data and tech that want to make a positive, tangible impact on the world.

Promote human-machine collaboration

Andreas Koenig, Chief Executive Officer, Proglove

Things changed dramatically for ProGlove, a developer of a smart glove designed specifically for industrial applications, when co-founder Paul Günther made several critical observations during a guided tour through BMW’s central plant: Barcode scanning literally happens one million times per day and plant, and almost everybody wears gloves when working.

What if there was a way to connect the barcode scanner with the glove? This would eliminate the time needed to pick up and drop off the scanner. To make a long story short: His answer was ProGlove’s wearable barcode scanner which saves up to 4 seconds per scan. This accounts for 4 million saved seconds per day and plant. In addition, this translates to more than $4 million saved per day because one second is worth a little more than one dollar in the automotive industry. Needless, to say the idea works almost everywhere where barcode scanning is a factor.

So, what are the learning here?

  • Human centered design augments the workforce and delivers immediate results.
  • Micro-efficiencies are extremely powerful because they can scale massively and are more likely to be implemented.
  • Technology is most valuable when it promotes human-machine collaboration.

Learn what you do best. Repeat

Ben Lamm, Founder and Board Member, Hypergiant

I've been a serial entrepreneur now more times than I can count. I knew the day I set foot in my first job that I was never going to be happy unless I was chasing down my vision of the future and building companies that would enable that future to be realized.

My most recent company, Hypergiant, an enterprise artificial intelligence (AI) company focused on critical infrastructure, space and defense, is a clear product of that drive. It was founded because I could see that industries that were foundational to society (space, defense, critical infrastructure) were not scaling like other businesses because they were not employing the latest technology (namely AI). In short, we were nowhere near the future of our dreams because the systems running our worlds didn't have the technology to power those dream ideas of flying cars, living in space and underwater homes.

Building Hypergiant has been an honor but the biggest lesson I've learned is in handing it over to the new CEO. The secret to doing something in a serial fashion is knowing when to step away. Hypergiant has become the realization of my vision - now it's time for it to scale. And scale beyond the initial growth path just isn't as interesting to me as building something new. So my big lesson? Learn what you do best. Repeat that and don't be afraid to let others take over.

Be open to new opportunities

Katrina Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Civic Ledger

Mapping the blockchain and bitcoin ecosystem in 2015 was an easy feat. The ecosystem was small, and I could see the networks emerging. I learned so much from Primavera De Fillipi, whose focus on blockchain technology from the governance and regulatory lens was brilliant and so different from the discourse at that time. Vinay Gupta was another person I followed with great interest.

Any opportunity is waiting for you if you are willing to see the path and do something about it.

—Katrina Donaghy, CEO, Civic Ledger

But it was Leanne Kemp, Founder and CEO of Everledger (Technology Pioneer 2018) who challenged me to do something with blockchain technology. It was because of Leanne that in April 2016 I went to my first Bitcoin meetup, where I met my soon to be co-founder, Lucas Cullen. Civic Ledger, a provider of blockchain solutions for government and industry ecosystems, was founded a few months later. This month Civic Ledger will commence working with Everledger on the Australian Government’s Critical Minerals blockchain project – the largest funded blockchain project to date.

So, the most important learning from my founding experience, is that any opportunity is waiting for you if you are willing to see the path and do something about it.

Solve the problems that matter most to you

Tania Coke, Chief Executive Officer, Tellus You Care

Before Kevin Hsu and I became co-founders of Tellus You Care, which aims to improve eldercare with dignity and privacy by combining advanced sensors with AI, we would meet every month or so and discuss articles, research and technology. From the beginning, we were focused on hardware and health technology, and it's one of the reasons we became fast friends at Stanford. I remember the exact date, time and dining hall we were sitting in when we discussed the idea for Tellus.

What stood out from our other conversations is that we were discussing a problem we both experienced firsthand: how we couldn't find suitable technology to help our aging family members. When I left that conversation, I could not sleep and started writing out a business plan. By the time I spoke with Kevin the next day, he had started an engineering plan. We knew that Tellus is what we'd be working on for the foreseeable future.

Look for the potential of tech

Andre Yoon, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, MakinaRocks

Our company name, MakinaRocks, a start-up specializing in industrial machine intelligence, means to transform technology and the industrial sector. Working in the manufacturing sector as IT and business specialists, my co-founders and I saw the potential of AI and the implications it had for the manufacturing industry and started the company to help transform the industrial sector. In our first venture, we were able to successfully improve anomaly detection performance with our multivariate autoencoder-based approach, and one by one, we tackled various challenges of the industry.

However, we realized that to unlock the unlimited potential of AI, rather than tackling the challenges ourselves, we needed to empower the domain experts of the manufacturing industry with the tools to create and innovate. Thus, our ML platform was born—a platform built incorporating the use cases and expertise we had acquired during the earlier stages of our growth. With our ML platform, we hope to help further advance the industry and continue to make technology intelligent and deliver it as transformative solutions.

Test your assumptions

Audrey Cheng, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Moringa School

Knowledge is constantly evolving and never fully set in stone.

—Audrey Cheng, CEO, Moringa School

I started Moringa School, a multi-disciplinary learning accelerator committed to closing the skills gap in Africa's job market, in 2014 after being a frustrated recipient of traditional education for more than 15 years. While I worked on supporting entrepreneurs at Savannah Fund, a venture capital firm investing in early-stage tech companies across Africa, I found myself repeatedly brought back to a central challenge they faced around finding ready-to-hire talent. That led to numerous conversations, which converted into a deep-rooted passion for solving a pervasive problem which would lead to catalytic change among individuals and the broader tech ecosystem.

Through Moringa, a key lesson I've taken away is how critical it is to test my assumptions consistently. Knowledge is constantly evolving and never fully set in stone. Our stakeholders were also changing in mindset, behavior and beliefs, and we needed to continuously check in to make sure our solution was solving an important problem in a meaningful way.

Use data to connect the dots

Jeff Katz, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Journera

I don’t know how to describe it other than something was gnawing at me. After a long career in travel as an executive at American Airlines, president of SABRE, CEO of Swissair and an incredible experience as founding CEO of Orbitz Worldwide, it was clear that there was a new problem that needed to be solved and I had to be involved in it.

I saw that the travel industry was still as compartmentalized as ever. Airlines were concerned with flying travellers to a destination. Hotels were concerned with them only once they walked through the lobby door. Ground transportation companies - rail, bus, rental cars and ride sharing - all lived in their own world too.

If I had an initial insight, it was this: travelers are on a journey - all the pieces need to fit together, and no company or technology really makes that happen for them today. I saw that the solution to make seamless travel happen was in the data underlying all those pieces of a journey, knitted together using tools made possible by the Cloud, machine learning and modern cryptographic security tools.

These insights drew me back to the travel industry like a magnet. It started with conversations with the CEOs of three of the world’s largest airlines and several of the CEOs of the world’s leading lodging companies. They sponsored some fundamental research and even a seed investment for the start of a business. I assembled a team of the best and brightest data scientists, developers, and commercial operators I knew. We built a data platform that could weave together all the travel providers that make up the traveler’s journey – from the car to the airport, the parking, the flight, the rental car, the hotel and beyond. Lo and behold, we found that our approach works! And it can scale globally for millions of travelers, thousands of brands and hundreds of millions of journeys.

Hire people who believe in the vision

Maria Fujihara, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Sinai Technologies

If I want to build a successful company, I need to build a team first.

—Maria Fujihara, CEO, Sinai Technologies

While at Singularity University’s Global Solutions Program, I identified a gap in the climate tech market - bundling carbon accounting and software. Fast forward to 2018, I had solidified an offering for corporate buyers: software to measure, analyze, price and reduce carbon emissions. After dozens of conversations, the world’s largest steel manufacturer, ArcelorMittal, agreed to be SINAI’s first customer. All that was left was to conceptualize and build SINAI, which develops software to cost-effectively measure, analyze, price and reduce emissions.

Through colleagues, I was introduced to two people who made SINAI seem like a possibility - product manager Olena Klivtsova and CTO Alain Rodriguez. Both agreed to take an enormous risk - defer a salary and take all equity, rooted in their belief in the vision for SINAI.

Finding the first few people who believed in the vision as much as I did was what made the product come to life. Conceptualizing SINAI was a daunting and lonely task. Finding Alain and Olena made me realize, if I want to build a successful company, I need to build a team first.

Ignore competitors and focus on value

Amos Haggiag, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Optibus

I grew up with public transit as a major presence in my life because of my father’s work as the CFO of a mass transit company. He explained that fundamental decisions, like how many buses and drivers to allocate, were being made very manually, and he challenged me to use my math and computer science skills to solve the problem with technology. I met my co-founder, Eitan Yanovsky, at university, and we founded Optibus, which develops a high-tech mobility platform to improve mass transportation in cities, in 2014. We developed a working prototype in my basement on weekends and evenings. After we sold it to several major transportation operators, we acquired more funding and began expanding.

Focus on creating the best product and bringing genuine value to the people who will use it, and customers will follow.

—Amos Haggiag, CEO, Optibus

What I learned was that bootstrapping can work really well by reducing the risk and enabling you to come to the market much more prepared – as long as you recognize it will take time and you are able to put your efforts into building super-strong technology, without being afraid of how hard the problem is. After all, the harder it is, the lower the chance that someone else will solve it the same way. You have to ignore a lot of the noise, like how big your competitor’s booth is at a trade show. Focus on creating the best product and bringing genuine value to the people who will use it, and customers will follow.

Invest time in building relationships

Kasim Alfalahi, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Avanci

Avanci, which provides one-stop access to essential patented technology for connected devices, was born from a belief that sharing technology through patent licensing could be more efficient. From my time as Chief Intellectual Property Officer at Ericsson, I’d seen the challenges first-hand, including the lengthy and complex negotiations needed to agree licenses between individual companies, and the costly disputes of the so-called smartphone wars. There had to be a better way.

We formed Avanci with the vision of being an independent, solution-driven marketplace. With a small team of experts, we spent months meeting with many of the world’s best-known companies. We worked hard to find solutions that were fair and transparent, and that all companies, large and small, could agree to. In 2017, we welcomed BMW as our first licensee, and since then we’ve grown to 16 auto brands (including Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo) and 42 patent owners with portfolios of all sizes (including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Sony and Vodafone) as Avanci members.

This continues to be a journey of discovery, one which motivates me every day. It also reinforces lessons learned as a youngster, helping in our family furniture business in Baghdad in the 1970s. Fundamental to success, whatever your industry, is investing time in building relationships, truly understanding what your customers need, then finding compromises that work for all while treating everyone with fairness and respect.

Never stop learning

Karim Engelmark Cassimjee, Chief Executive Officer, Enginzyme

Moving ahead in difficult times requires great teamwork.

—Karim Engelmark Cassimjee, CEO, Enginzyme

As a student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, I early found a passion for enzymes. They provide a key towards sustainable chemistry but are difficult to use in industrial manufacturing as the processes usually become far too expensive. Large-scale production is then not an option. I realized that I wanted to strive for revolutionizing the chemical engineering sector and develop environment friendly chemical engineering for mass production. EnginZyme was founded in 2014. We enable the production of the chemicals and products that modern society relies on (for example, paints, coatings, plastics and even fuel), in a truly sustainable way.

The learnings I have made during this journey are many. First and foremost, having a good team is crucial. To be inspired and to learn from each other is what it is all about. Moving ahead in difficult times requires great teamwork.

Empower others with your creation

Charles Bark, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Hinounou

Our HiNounou dream is to empower elderly people to have longer, healthier and happier lives at home, which would also bring greater peace of mind to their children who live far from their parents. This dream was born from my pain. I live in Shanghai while my mother lived in France alone. Eight years ago, I called my Mum to ask her how she was doing. She told me she was fine, and not to worry. Afterwards, however, I got a call from my brother and learned that our mother had had a bad fall and had gotten surgery. This shocked me because I realized that I was completely blind about her health status at her home. The second thing I realized was that if my aging mother ever faced any future health issues, finding out after the fact might be too late next time.

As the third generation working in healthcare and as IT system architect, I found that this global world aging issue was a good opportunity to create an integrated health data preventive platform that collects data at home, and use AI algorithms to mitigate main chronic diseases risks to promote healthy longevity.

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