Elliott Hauser is the founder of Coursefork, a group of university and online educators building open teaching tools. Coursefork were winners of Triangle Startup Weekend – EDU in March 2013 and were accepted into The Startup Factory in August 2013
At the most recent Triangle Startup Weekend, we were graciously invited to give an update on how we’d fared since winning the event in March. I, of course, gave a mini version of our pitch (because as a CEO you’re ALWAYS pitching), but at the end I shared four lessons we’ve learned. It’s been about four months since we incorporated Coursefork and started working on it full time in May, so here are the things we’ve learned, at a rate of about one lesson per month:
Lesson 0: Give your idea away
This is Lesson 0 — because if you don’t do it you’ll never get started. If you really want your idea to become a reality, you’ll need others to own it. In the process, they’ll change and improve it. Your idea becomes a living thing, separate from you — which is what you wanted, right? So what’s the problem?
I’ve written before about how as a founder with an idea it’s perhaps instinctual to cling to your idea tightly, and want the last say on everything about it. Our startup Coursefork began life as “Syllahub,” an unfortunate portmanteau of Syllabus and Github. As much as I hate the old word now, it was the name of the company I started pitching to investors and describing to founders. The name was confusing to many, and I realized that the idea had a much broader scope than syllabi.
The word Coursefork hit me like a bolt of lightning one day and has been a natural fit ever since. But I would never have come up with it had I not been giving “Syllahub” away to everyone I met. And in the months since, I’ve given the idea away to my cofounders, our investors, and our customers. As each new person takes ownership of the idea, it gets stronger.
Lesson 1: Be Open to Change
Now that everyone around you owns your idea, be open to the changes that will happen to it.
A simple example is Coursefork’s three forks logo (see above). I originally thought of it like a tree, to indicate the branching process we wanted to enable for open education. So when I came to Triangle Startup Weekend, the logo had the arrows pointing up.
Midway through the weekend a disaster occurred. A company offering free T-shirts to the participant companies printed the logo sideways, with the arrows pointing to the left. I brought these t-shirts to our group and before I could announce the calamity, someone said, “Hey, the logo looks great like that.”
At that point I stopped and actually looked at it. Once I stopped seeing how the logo was different than what I envisioned, I saw, with the rest of the team, that the logo looked better the way they’d printed it.
Be open to change and you’ll find that sometimes the world does your work for you.
Lesson 2: Startups are about PEOPLE
It’s important to understand that your startup is made of people, not product. The founders are the first ingredient.
As a founder, it’s easy to get caught up your idea and your product. Your focus on either of these can turn you inward, making you less responsive the the people who matter most to your startup.
Lesson 3: Be Something Bigger than Yourself
My original plan with Coursefork was to take the summer, go into a room with lots of Red Bull, and code a prototype. I’m not an amazing coder, so I estimated it would take me 2-3 months to get an alpha. In that alternate reality, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, I’d be trying to test out my prototype in front of users.
By building a team and giving the idea away to them, I was able to see a proof of concept built in a weekend, deploy an alpha in June, raise angel funding, and end up here at The Startup Factory.
This lesson is embedded in our business strategy as well. Instead of going off into a room and trying to make the world’s best open courses, we’re instead giving that challenge away to our users. They’re the ones who will get the credit for the open education revolution, not us.
By focusing single-mindedly on being a part of something bigger than ourselves, Coursefork is already a much more exciting business and community than it would’ve been if we’d tried to take on this challenge alone.