Mid-Career Start-up Advice

On doing a start-up mid-career, with Andy Palmer T’94 

As told to Jonathan Riggs @ Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

Serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer T’94 has lent his expertise and enthusiasm to more than 50 start-up companies, particularly those at the intersection of the computer and life sciences. Named 2013’s Angel of the Year by the New England Venture Capital Association, Palmer recently founded Koa Labs (http://www.koalab.com), a start-up club located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is in the process of developing a new company, Tamr (http://www.tamr.com), dedicated to revolutionizing how the combination of machine learning and human insight can unify and curate diverse data. He encourages any would-be entrepreneur to take his or her dreams seriously. “You have to listen to your heart and take that leap when it’s right for you,” he says. Below are his tips for starting a venture mid-career.

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Start by asking yourself the right questions. You have to figure out the size of the market you are creating—how big is it? Could you survive the long period it might take to get your product from bench to test to market? Can you attract a team of bright people you can trust to dig in as hard as you want them to? Can you identify that first customer, and the next few? Most importantly, if you fail, will you be able to say it was worth a try?

Realize that nine out of ten new companies fail. If you’re not comfortable with sitting on the edge of a cliff, venture creation may not be for you. In addition to the risks, there will be sacrifices across many important parts of your life: family, friends, leisure time, and even health. You have to understand this before you even begin.

Be driven, not a dilettante. The only way to get over the almost-insurmountable hurdles every entrepreneur faces is to be 100 percent emotionally committed. You have to feel that if you don’t do this and someone else does, you’ll kick yourself. You must be compelled to seek the risk, not just bored at your day job or running away from something.

Don’t try to pursue the opportunity alone. By yourself, you do not have all the skills you’ll need, save perseverance. Consider what you are good at and seek out what you need to complement it. When it comes to advisors, choose as wisely as possible. A good mentor can alert you to potential pitfalls and guide you to what’s necessary to bridge them.

Your family is a part of this, too. The stress of a start-up is enormous, especially if you’re already juggling personal and professional responsibilities. Your success very well might depend on having a strong support network in your spouse or children. All family members should be aware of what you’re attempting and willing to help back you up so you have the time and energy you’ll need.

Go all in: hard and fast. Attempting to create a venture “part-time” is where the greatest mistakes occur. Entrepreneurship is a full-contact sport. Investors are not going to feel you are committed if the effort is “part-time.” Has it been done? Yes. However, the odds of success are reduced significantly. This is why bootstrapped resources are necessary to get started, so you must be willing to take on the financial burden.

Your network won’t happen on its own. It’s up to you to develop relationships by playing to your unique gifts. For example, if you are naturally introverted, don’t look at that as a weakness—often a techie or scientist is more reflective, too. Play your individual strengths to your advantage by surrounding yourself with people who know and like you and can help expand your network.

Look ahead thoughtfully. In a start-up, what gets accomplished is what counts—not what you did in the past. That’s not to say that past experience isn’t useful. What makes you special is your ability to call on what you’ve learned to apply to the right time and place going forward.

Never lose sight of the bigger picture. No one wants to fail, but you have to believe that failure brings the blessings of increased knowledge that make the whole adventure worthwhile. Experience tells us that many venture creators failed several times before achieving success. So don’t give up. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” is a cliché for a reason: it’s true.

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