Running a startup vs. a school club
I recently finished a book called The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz (of Andreessen Horowitz). It’s a good book that gives you a small taste of what’s like to build and run a startup, and how hard it really is. You don’t need to be a founder to take something away from the book but I think founders would still benefit the most from reading it. For me it also informed my thinking on how to evaluate a founder.
I have never been a founder myself so couldn’t fully personally relate to many of the things mentioned in the book, but many parts of the book regarding management made me think about my experience so far as president of the business school’s Asian Business Association (ABA), a 250-person school club that brings together Asians of all backgrounds to socialize and develop professionally. Horowitz’s book gave me some good insights that I will definitely think about this upcoming school year, and made me reflect on the differences and similarities in management challenges of running a startup vs. a school club. The top ones:
- You have almost no power over your board as club president. We have a board of seven second-year students (and will add seven more first-years this fall) to execute our vision for the club. They are responsible for planning events, building relationships with partners, and helping to create the club culture. The challenge for any club president is that these students are volunteers who applied during the board application period and have a million other priorities outside of your club. This means you can’t fire them and find a replacement, can’t ask them to do too much, and have to find ways to motivate them to do work for free. They can literally walk away at the cost of burning a bridge. Yet there is a lot of work to be done, so you have to find a way for your team to execute. As a startup founder you can at least get a basic level of effort and commitment from employees from the fact that you are providing them with monetary compensation. And if the fit just isn’t there, you can replace people.
- Results are harder to measure for clubs. Our club’s first goal is to bring together the school’s fragmented Asian population (Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, plus the American-born/Westernized of each) together at social events so people get to know more, different people, instead of hanging out with just their own people. The second goal is to develop our members professionally so they can become more successful in the Western workplace. These results are hard to measure on a monthly basis unlike business results for startups, but they are clearer to measure at the end of the year, as people reflect on the people they’ve met and the ways they’ve grown. So you don’t get feedback on how you’re doing until the very end when you’re getting ready to graduate and the first-year candidates running for ABA president are explaining why they will make the club better (i.e. why they would make a better president than you, the outgoing president).
- Running a club is not a soul-consuming management endeavor like a running a startup is. This is the obvious one — founders have to go through the Struggle — sleepless nights, questioning their life and wanting to give up, and making ends meet. Every management decision matters. It’s about survival, of the business, of the employees, of their self. But if the club fails, you will probably be remembered as the failed ABA president, but that’s not so bad. Clubs are just one of many parts of the MBA experience. Also the term is only one year, so there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
- Culture matters. To accomplish your goals, you need to have a culture that preserves your key values and makes it easier to create the output you want. The board culture has to be such that people enjoy what they do and are willing to go above and beyond, and the club culture has to be such that people feel like they belong and are welcome, or the club will certainly fail. This is on the founder/president and early employees/board to create.
- Finding talent is hard, and critical. I’m just gonna say it: despite the MBA admissions committee’s best efforts, many students have no interest in serving the community through club leadership, because to them getting a good job is the only thing that matters. So good talent is hard to find, and you have to compete with other clubs to secure it. But without people who can get things done, your club is nothing. Same with startups or any company. It’s a competitive market for talent, a wrong hire can set your company back, and you can’t afford to have the wrong person in a position for very long.
- Nobody cares, just run your company. This was a powerful line for me in the book. When things don’t go your way, when some of your board members decide they don’t want to spend time on your club anymore, when the guest speaker has to drop out at the last minute, nobody cares, and they are right not to care. When things go wrong, all the energy you spend feeling sorry for yourself needs to be spent on figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances and continuing to deliver results for your customers, investors, or club members. At the end of the day, it’s the results that matters, and no one will care about the rest.