Eric is an entrepreneur, a lawyer, a professor, and a rad dad. Over the years, he said `yes` when a new opportunity popped up, and went with the flow. In the process, he came up with an great outlook on the future of work and education. Eric now believes that in the future success is going to be defined by what you create and not what your associate with.
The story of how Prof. Koester got to here, successes and failures, and what the future looks like, all in this episode.
What does it feel like to be an entrepreneur?
There are a lot of emotional ups and downs and it is incredibly isolating. You are constantly feeling afraid, which is both good and bad. The positives of constant being afraid is it keeps you focused, encourages you to keep iterating, trying to learn, but the other side of it is like that feeling of being afraid can also just be wearing on you.
As a founder, you live in uncertainty and there is always information you just can't share. You also have a sense of responsibility to everyone: employees, investors, customers. Having co-founders becomes extremely important to help figure things out.
It's not something for the faint of heart for sure.
Being an employee at a startup is incredibly risky as well, there are a lot of challenges to it, but it doesn't have some of the mental burdens that come with being a founder.
How does being a lawyer compare to being a founder?
The joke about being an attorney is — it's a pie eating contest, where the prize for winning is you get more pie.
Eric was in a top 50 Law Firm in terms of size, and he really enjoyed it, working with entrepreneurs on M&A and IPOs. But as an attorney your clock starts over at the end of the next year, you start at 0 hours, and you work your way up to hit your hours and rinse and repeat. There's no sense of winning.
Being an attorney can prepare you to be an entrepreneur, to deal with the uncertainty, to think through problems.
The Zaarly story.
Startups is it is a team sport, an opportunity to bring a team together and to fighting for something with an uncertain outcome, an opportunity to create something unlike anything else. High-growth venture-backed startups in particular are a contact sport, no flag football. You got to put on your big kid pants everyday.
Zaarly started out of Startup Weekend, circa 2011 when Twitter was on the rise, and mobile was just getting started. Uber was just breaking out and mobile commerce and services were still young.
The founders met at the Startup Weekend and formed the idea for Zaarly, a marketplace to get anything you want - you could get a sandwich on our platform, you could get a house cleaner…etc. Ashton Kutcher provided seed funding, a million bucks, and the founders went after it.
There was one tiny problem - they were not experts in the space yet, and did not know local commerce very well. No one knew the way that things would shake out so they ran after it. Launching at South by Southwest, they raised millions more, got Meg Whitman to join the board, hired an amazing team, and kept plowing. But the craziest part of all of it all, they still did not have product markets.
The problem was, a huge team was not conducive to moving fast and breaking things, when you don’t yet know what it is that you are building. Time when by, the product didn’t grow. Eric sort of started to lose faith in it. He stopped listening, he stopped using data to make decisions. This got complicated.
At the end of the day, something had to be done, and so Bo, one of the cofounders, took over the company, downsized, and move away from the bubble of San Francisco to figure out what to do next.
As a founder founder you're supposed to have everything figured out, but you don’t, you just can’t. The reality is there are always challenges and struggles, and nothing is certain. It’s really important to have people around who you can trust, and to talk to and share these feelings and challenges.
[For the full Zaarly story and all the juicy details, please check out the audio version of the podcast].
The Georgetown Experiment
Although Eric fell into teaching by another happy accident, he started because he did not know how to process the startup failure, he has done remarkably well at it. Thanks to Eric, 30 entrepreneurship students have published books in the last year and 30 more will be published by April.
His teaching career began when Steve Blank suggested that sharing Eric’s experiences would be a great way to analyze his own failure, while also helping other entrepreneurs succeed. One thing led to another, and Eric was now teaching at Georgetown, five classes per year. He loved engaging with students, but at some point, once again lost the way. Hundreds of students were graduating his classes, but few went onto starting companies of their own. Was there even a point? Was he helping them succeed in life?
Prof. Koester was about to quit, when a last minute phone call with his friend Shane Mack changed everything. It was a wake-up call to stop soaking in one’s own pity, and to turn this challenge into an opportunity.
[Remember how every founder needs a few friends to share thoughts, and to get raw and unfiltered confidential feedback? Well, this was a prime example.]
Shane and Eric started to chat about their own experiences as entrepreneurs. After a lengthly discussion, they both realized that writing a book was a great learning experience for both of them. So then maybe, instead of teaching students to start a company, maybe Eric could teach them to write a book?
It would be an experiment, but so are many startups.
Before all of this, Eric was teaching the way it was done most everywhere else, standing in front of the class, lecturing, basically pumping information at people. Students consumed and regurgitated it back. No wonder he was about to quit!
Now he was coaching people through an experience where they had to learn, and grow, and figure out how to solve real difficult problems. Not only was the class exciting for students, it revitalized Eric and gave him a whole new sense of purpose. What could be more rewarding than to help people to create a representation of them?
Fast-forward to a few months later, the books were done, and they were so good that Tucker Max, a New York Times bestseller and the founder of Book in a Box, helped the teams publish. Turns out, a book was a great proxy for starting a company, with a added benefit of only taking short nine months. Woah!
How to be fulfilled as a dad and as a parent?
Before you have kids, you can spend all your time working. In fact, your competitors might be smarter than you, or better prepared than you, but as long as you can work harder, you can maximize your chances of winning by shear brute-force. Work 24/7 and you will crush them.
One you are a parent though, If you want to be working on hard problems, but also want to be an engaged dad, it is a lot more challenging. You have to figure out what’s important to you, and prioritize that. Maybe that’s less travel, or to be home by dinner to put your kids to sleep. Whatever it is, you have to figure it out for yourself and make it count. You can do both, but you have to make choices. Also, don’t forget to be an equal co-parent to your partner and to enable them to succeed, not just you.
Warren Buffett says that a great way to figure out your priorities is to make a list of 25 most important goals you have in life, and then to avoid doing anything past the first few. Success comes from deep focus. Kids provide a great forced constraint that helps to to get these priorities right.
What would you say to someone about to have a baby?
There is so much information out there that you could start to question everything, and be afraid of everything, but you know what, you just have to do the best you can and know that there is no right answer.
We've been doing kids for a long time and the most important person that you have to satisfy is yourself. Raise them to be happy and healthy, it is hard to screw them up anyway.
It helps to figure out a set of guiding principles to make decisions by, and so long as they are happy kids and you are happy with the progress, that is all that matters. So many things can change and be outside of your control, you just can’t plan now for what they would be 20-30 years from now. It’s just not going to work out as expected.
What is going to set kids up apart from their peers in 20-30 years from now?
Success today is driven so much more by what you create versus where you associate, like it used to be in the past. Whether it is writing a book, doing a podcast, doing improve comedy or anything like that, we should foster activities that enable critical thinking and creativity. You could certainly strive to do something powerful, but it may require taking many little steps to get there.
… To be continued…