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23 Apr 2009

Entrepreneurs Unplugged: Boris Silver

Last night I attended the first Entrepreneur Unplugged event sponsored by Philly Startup Leaders. I think it’s a great idea; people from the front lines sharing war stories. Insights and advice abounds. From their description of the event:

Entrepreneur Unplugged will extend the spirit of Founder Factory by bringing successful Entrepreneurs "on stage" to share their personal stories of risk taking and decision making. The format will be a 30 minute presentation followed by question and answer. The series will be streamed live, recorded and distributed online.

The first presenter was Boris Silver who, along with a partner, built a series of fantasy sports Facebook apps under the banner Sport Interactiva. Their apps grew to over 1 million users, had ad deals with big names like Adidas and Time Warner, and sold it off 9 months after quitting school to work on it full time. His blog title says it all: “20 year old, sold a company, and now an undergraduate student re-enrolled at The Wharton School.” Helluva resume for not even being old enough to have a Bachelor’s.

Boris provided a very insightful hour and a half, and was open to just about any question on his experience (he couldn’t comment on the financial details of the sale). Some of the key ideas I jotted down from his talk and Q&A time…

  • Surround yourself with people who are “genuine, honest, and long-term.”
  • Stay fanatically focused on your product, to the point of ignoring related opportunities. A startup demands all your attention, and it’s easy to over-leverage yourself.
  • Really know your working partners. Boris didn’t do adequate upfront investigation into his partner. Later on, he realized how lucky he got, as the entire business could have tanked had their relationship gone sour.
  • Avoid the all-star CEO, CTO, etc. You got into your business because you really understand it and see an opportunity. There’s no one out there who will know your business better or do a better job running it. Seek advice, but never release the reigns due to a perceived lack of ability.
  • Contrary to the stories out of Silicon Valley, being an entrepreneur is not a glitzy job. It’s a huge amount of time and work. Your friends don’t get it, and you don’t have time to spend with them anyway, so it’s lonely. Startup ideas naturally go against accepted trends in an industry, so you are typically your only source of confidence, making for an emotional rollercoaster. To top it off, there’s absolutely no guarantee of financial success; you could be left with nothing to show for the effort.
  • Commitment to starting a business must be a “binary decision:” success or failure. Take it all the way until one or the other manifests itself. Halfway isn’t good enough.
  • When dealing with advertisers and the inevitable back-and-forth push, at the end of the day you get their money, making them the customer. All the usual rules for treating customers properly apply.

For my part, it was great to see concrete proof that age means absolutely nothing in business. Here I felt wary of my chances starting out at 27! If you know enough to get started, that’s good enough. It’s obvious from Boris’ extremely intelligent responses to detailed business questions that you can learn a lot as you go.

The only point of contention I had — if you can call it that — was in Boris’ evaluation of what happens if and when a business fails. He seemed to be of the opinion that you walk away completely empty-handed. Financially speaking that may be true, however the experiences gained are often worth their weight in gold. A failed business teaches a lot about what doesn’t work on a plethora of levels: expansion, hiring, capital, customer service, delivery, internal structure, the list goes on. And unless you were completely incompetent, you probably picked up a few things that worked really well too. You also cannot discount the new contacts and networking, which often lead directly to the next opportunity. Again I’m not sure Boris discounted these ideas entirely, I simply would have mentioned them.

So hats off to Boris for providing an example of success, we all need them to keep going. Overall it was a very informative evening, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

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