Startup Spotlight: VentureLab

It takes a lot to start a company. Long hours, little sleep and a ton of work – all of which is part of the job, hence the rather high failure rate. In order to be successful, it takes intense commitment and a passion for what you’re doing. A position at a startup is much more than a job. It really is a way of life. In this series of blog posts, we shine the spotlight on startups both new and old. Each one has its own unique tale of sweat, tears, perseverance, and, ultimately, success. For this post, we sat down with Nick Honegger, Director of Programs at VentureLab, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that focuses on entrepreneurship education.

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Kids are great, right? They run around, scream, giggle, jump, dance…all without a care in the world. And it is just adorable when they start their own successful companies. Yup, you heard me right. VentureLab, an NPO founded just last year, is helping kids K-12 to create their own unique tech startups. Tailwind sat down with Nick Honegger, Director of Programs, to talk a bit about VentureLab itself and startups in general.

What is VentureLab?
VentureLab is a non profit that focuses on what Nick calls “entrepreneurship education.” Essentially, this comes down to teaching kids and young adults to create their own businesses. This is done through an application of the ESTEAM framework, wherein VentureLab provides experiential learning in Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. So a kid that loves computer games can learn not only how to code and create a game, but also perform market research and learn about price points, channels of distribution, and more. ESTEAM allows kids to connect business fundamentals to something they think is cool.

VentureLab was founded in 2013 by Cristal Glangchai, head of entrepreneurship education at Trinity University. In the course of her tenure at the school, she realized that there just weren’t a lot of girls, or really people in general, participating in entrepreneurship. She took her collegiate curriculum, tailored it for kids, and left the University to start VentureLab. She wanted to get people excited about entrepreneurship at an early age.

But starting a company isn’t easy. The biggest issue, Nick tells us, was the incredible amount of work necessary to startup a business. Everyone was wearing multiple hats, pulling all nighters, and drinking a LOT of coffee. But it was all worth it because it was an awesome cause. To make real differences in kids lives. VenturelLab hit the ground running, and was lucky enough to do tremendously well. That very first summer, one of their alums was featured on the cover of Texas Young CEO. VentureLab was a success.

And who better to give startup tips than a success? It also helps that Nick essentially teaches how to successfully build a startup for a living.

Stayin’ Alive
One of the hardest things for a startup to do is stay alive during that all-too crucial funding period. How do you keep from becoming another statistic? Nick tells us the single biggest mistake he sees would-be entrepreneurs make is being stingy with their ideas.

“A lot of people think they have this awesome concept, so they won’t share it with others,” he says. “But in reality, ideas are a dime a dozen. I’ve had tons of people come up to me and pitch the same ideas a million times.”

This over-protection can turn off would-be investors. “If you think you have this cool app idea, don’t make me sign a ton of stuff just so we can talk about it. Then use my feedback to grow it and make it successful. Launch it. The more people you talk to about your idea, the more chances you get for funding.”

The Unique Challenge of the Tech Startup
Next, we asked Nick what types of obstacles were unique to tech startups, as opposed to businesses with physical products. His answer surprised us.

“You can talk about challenges if you want, but tech startups have a good amount of advantages too. You could say it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Your product isn’t physical, so there isn’t any manufacturing time. All that matters is how fast you can code it. Development is super flexible.”

However, tech startups also have a dark side. “There’s a downside too. Sometimes you can be too flexible. It can be so easy to just add those 10 extra features that your customers suggested. Before you know it, you’re lost in one big complicated product. A physical product forces you to focus. Software doesn’t. You have to focus on a few key features, rather than trying to add as many as you can.”

Now and Then
We also wanted to get Nick’s perspective on how startups have changed over time. It really comes down to methodology.

“The biggest thing is probably the methodology of what a startup is. Back in our parent’s day, if you started up a business it was a physical plant, restaurant, store, etc. Now it generally means something tech-related.”

But that isn’t the only difference. “The methodology behind starting a company is also different than it used to be. The idea of ‘running lean’ has become more popular. Instead of starting out in a garage, building a product and then selling it, the order is kind of reversed. Now it’s about pitching an idea, getting money, and only then building the product. You build a product with customer’s feedback.”

Forever a Startup?
The last question we asked Nick was something that had been on our minds for a while. We wanted to know his opinion on when a startup is no longer a startup. You don’t exactly see Walmart or Best Buy running around and calling themselves a startup.

“It’s not really an issue of when. It’s not so much of a time thing. There’s probably a definition out there somewhere. But its really more of a cultural difference. A startup is when everyone wears multiple hats, where there are no real set rolls. A team of people passionate about an idea” he says. So what changes?

“A startup stops being a startup when the passion is still there, but everyone has their own box. A few years ago everything was disorganized, but now theres a CEO, a CFO, etc. Managers know exactly what their role is. If I’m a salesperson, I only really need to know about sales. In a startup, if all that you know about is sales, you’re screwed. As the company gets bigger and roles solidify, you lose that know-everything mentality. Everything starts to be more role driven, as opposed to a ‘lock ten of us in a room and hopefully build a company at the end of the day’ mentality.”

So, how would Nick describe the startup life in one sentence? “You sprint as fast as you can and hope that you’re alive by the time you reach the finish line.”

Starting a business isn’t easy. “Yeah, it’s hard. You have to really, really love what you’re doing. The job requires sleepless nights, not eight hour days. There is no lunch break. You’re always working.”

That’s the main reason so many startups fail. An idea is easy. The road to realizing that idea, however, is full of blood, sweat, and tears. “Startups fail because of two major reasons: either they run out of capital, or they just don’t wanna work fourteen hour days. They want weekends. I’m not saying that its like that forever- you just have to get to that stable point. Until then, it’s a hard cup of tea.”

So there ya have it folks. Get rich schemes do not successful startups make. You have to have vision, a goal, something to keep you going on those days when it seems like the whole world is out to kill your dreams. But it’s all worth it in the end, when you take that hard cup of tea and trade it in for a nice tall glass of lemonade.