5 Business Lessons From A Peter Thiel Fellow
At 21, Ben Yu got $100,000 to drop out of college and start a business. Here’s what he learned along the way.
SEPTEMBER 10, 2013 Ben Yu is 21 years old and launching his second company.
In 2011, Yu decided to leave his studies behind at Harvard University to become a Peter Thiel fellow, a two-year program that gives entrepreneurial minded young people $100,000 as an incentive to drop out of college and make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality.
During his time as a fellow, Yu worked on launching his e-commerce business, which he says ended up failing. But the lessons he learned during his fellowship allowed him to launch his second project, a topical caffeine spray called Sprayable Energy.
“It pretty much impacted everything I’ve done in the past 2.5 years,” Yu says of his fellowship. “The experience has been extremely formative.”
What were the top lessons he learned?
1. Make a connection with your business partner.
“Starting something with friends has a success rate so much greater than any other agreement,” Yu tells us. “If the only thing holding you together is the company, when the company breaks apart, so will you.”
Yu’s relationship with his first co-founder wasn’t good for business, but the entrepreneur says that he found his match with his current co-founder, who he met on a trip to Alaska. Yu attributes their close relationship to traveling together.
“You need to find someone that you can mesh with, and traveling is a great case study. When you travel somewhere, it removes you from the the daily life, and it compresses a ton of stress that creates a bond that usually takes years to develop. Since we bonded so well on our trip, everything else was easy to get over,” he says.
2. Think small to achieve big results.
“Start humble, and let it blossom into something big,” says Yu, who believes “ultimate breakthroughs” come from having a small idea and working hard to research and develop that idea.
Starting a business is exciting and rewarding, but also challenging and risky. If you start with a small problem you want to solve, and you become successful in coming up with a solution for that problem, you will achieve big results.
On the other hand, if you’re only focused on solving big problems, you may have a harder time solving the smaller ones along the way.
3. Think about what you want in the long term.
“The decisions that we make in the short term change dramatically depending on how far down the road we’re thinking,” Yu says about his decision to learn how to program.
When working on his first company, Yu brought in people with technical skills that he didn’t have, but when he thought about where he wants to be in the next decade, he realized that he should learn those skills.
“In the past, I always thought the ultimate move for me is to bring someone else with more experience in,” he says, “but then I realized that if I always take that kind of perspective … if I keep having these ideas and keep bringing someone else on, there will be no point in my future that I will grow those skill sets.” And if you want to grow those skills, you should stop waiting for the right moment to do it. There is no “right” moment, Yu says.
4. Do something mentally satisfying.
When you do something you love, it will show. You will be able to explain to others why your idea is great. You will be able to recruit loyal employees.
“It makes it easier to delegate tasks because people know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Yu says. “It’s very liberating and freeing to know that you don’t have to be dependent on anyone or anything else.”
5. It’s always a lot harder than you think it is.
When he started his current company, Yu had no idea how much red tape he’d have to go through and says the entire experience was “exhausting, but also an immensely rewarding experience.”
“A lot of times, if we knew how hard things would be in the end, we wouldn’t try to tackle them,” the entrepreneur says.
Photos from top: iStockphoto, Courtesy of Yeluguri VFX