Lucy Wang, HBS Class of 2017, interviewed Qasar Younis, COO of Y Combinator, on his route to becoming an entrepreneur and the lessons he learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Just Do It
“If you are a student at HBS, do it [entrepreneurship] now. You won’t have a chance like this, where you have time and no other competing obligations. There are ample resources around you: 1) classmates who worked in similar industries or functions for advice and help; 2) access to professors and faculty for guidance and 3) access to investors for pitch practices. The risk is less. If you fail, you can pick yourself up easily because you are in school.”
In 2007, coming back from a summer internship after his first year of business school, Qasar knew he wanted to pursue a start-up, but didn’t know how. He tried to go to different mixers in Boston, looking to MIT and other schools. Relentlessly he searched for a team, but to no avail. The breakthrough came by chance. Qasar went to a concert in Chicago and met up with some friends from his undergraduate college who were working on a start-up idea Cameesa. Seeing the potential, Qasar offered to help on the business side, and leveraged the opportunity of using his independent project at HBS to work on the start-up. After a few months, the team could see the effect his unique skills and business background contributed to their user acquisition efforts and Qasar was brought on as a co-founder for the company.
HBS students can be somewhat risk averse, and Qasar faced the same dilemma as many entrepreneurs currently on campus. Should he continue working on the start-up after graduation or take the traditional path of corporate job security? The solution was a compromise: Qasar opted to hedge his risk, moving to Chicago to work at a hedge fund (Sears Holdings) while working on the start-up on the side. However, those two years proved unsustainable. In a bold move, Qasar quit the security of his finance job, and moved to Silicon Valley to start a new idea with two new co-founders. His advice to current MBA students is to take the leap. To not wait or hedge. To become an entrepreneur now and to commit fully.
Lesson 2: Finding a Good Idea
It is essential to leverage the unfair advantage of your experience. Use what you know (job, geography, etc). Ask yourself the question: what makes you unique in building this start-up? Following this logic, Qasar ended up working on an idea based on retail, leveraging exposure he had in the industry from his time at Sears Holdings. His next company, Talkbin, was a messaging tool connecting consumers to businesses through text, iOS and Android apps.
Talkbin was soon accepted to Y Combinator. At YC, Paul Graham helped Qasar and his team refine their business model and advised them to focus on small businesses as customers rather than large enterprises. After incorporating the advice and adapting the product, Talkbin graduated from YC, and the team went to Facebook and Google looking for partnerships. Little did they know, Google was interested in buying the company! Shortly afterwards team joined Google and Qasar led business-facing products inside of Google Maps including launching google.com/business. Today Qasar Younis is a partner and COO of Y Combinator.
Lesson 3: Avoid the Three Key Pitfalls of MBA Founders
According to Qasar, from YC’s perspective the key pitfalls for MBAs as founders are:
1. Poor selection of co-founding teams
You are looking for a team, not a band. You need to find people that complement you and you respect.
2. Lack of clarity in explanation.
Don’t use jargon, too many words, or marketing phrases in your pitch.
Instead, choose a concise description of what you do. For example, ‘on-premise server for SMB’.
3. Hiding from the truth.
MBAs tend to speak elaborately about company growth, when sometimes simple truth and honesty is what investors are looking for.
Lesson 4: Ask ‘Why’
Be wary of why you want to pursue a start-up. It’s important to ask yourself “are you doing a start-up because you want to do a start-up? Or is there something you want to change about the world? Is there a specific problem you want to solve?”
Talking to Qasar, it is clear that becoming an entrepreneur is not easy. Like everything MBAs have done up until this point in our lives, founding a company requires full commitment. But it also requires an appetite for risk, a willingness to adapt and to be completely honest with yourself and others. We are lucky to have a wealth of alumni who have successfully navigated the path from MBA to successful entrepreneurs, and hopefully their advice will spur more innovators at HBS. So the next time you wonder when or if to start a business, remember that your time is now.
Lucy Wang (HBS ’17) worked at Microsoft and has a passion for entrepreneurship. Her interests include education, fintech, and big data.
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