Harvard Undergraduate Venture Capital Group Entrepreneurship Summit

Last weekend, I, along with entrepreneurial-minded students, flocked to the Boston Park Plaza Hotel for the 2023 Harvard Undergraduate Venture Capital Group Entrepreneurship Summit hosted by the Undergraduate Venture Capital Group. The event, sponsored by the Lemann Program on Creativity and Entrepreneurship, began with a keynote address between Steve Fredette (co-founder of Toast) and Sarah Leary (co-founder of Nextdoor). The two explained their respective trajectories and lessons learned, among which were a few key pieces of the startup dogma that they stressed.

First and foremost is talking to users. Both Sarah and Steve stressed that no skill is more important than finding product market fit. For Steve, that meant working at companies, iterating, and finding something that sells itself. For Sarah, it is largely the same thing. She began her career at Microsoft as a PM for Microsoft Office, building successful companies, pivoting from companies that failed, and establishing her space as an entrepreneurial titan. Through it all, it was about being in touch with users. When interviewing users to gauge interest for your product, Steve says that there are two main checks: 1) the user being willing to talk to you 2) the user being willing to talk to you again. That is the name of the game. However, it’s not just about getting users; it is about keeping them. Sarah had a company with 15 million users within two months. Nevertheless, the users were not coming back. She had the foresight to go back to the drawing board rather than pursue a company that may not be successful.

The second idea is to do what you love. Startup culture is about doing what you’re passionate about, so this is no surprise. Sarah’s story is a perfect example of this: after graduating with a degree in economics from Harvard, she didn’t go to a bank or consulting firm because that didn’t inspire her. Instead, she went to a little tech company that was her “lowest paying offer” that she interned for during her junior summer. She loved the culture and felt that everyone was excited to go to work. She followed her instinct and ended up at that little company in Seattle: Microsoft. But that optimal track is not the same for everyone. For instance, Steve knew he was not looking to get an MBA while Sarah knew that that was an ideal path for her. I guess it worked out for both.

The third idea is to pitch to VCs as if you were selling to yourself. Both Sarah and Steve said that there was a lot to learn from VCs as a founder and vice versa. Learning what investors want to invest in helps you pitch and learning how to build companies helps you invest in and help companies. So, what do VCs want? Not a moonshot idea with “no competitors.” They want 1) a great team, 2) good unit economics, and 3) someone that they can work with. That makes sense, right? If you or I were an investor, I think that is exactly what we would be looking for as well.

After this keynote, there were breakout sessions about building companies, breaking into PE/VC, and starting a team among others. Much of what the experienced speakers said in the individual breakout groups was affirmed and expanded upon these main lessons.

So, what would someone wanting to start a startup get out of this conference?

Meet people and learn a lot. When you are building a team; it is like marriage. 3-4 co-founders with great chemistry is an ideal team. Learn about what the problem is, very deeply, before you build anything. Then, build a good tech stack and keep building until you find product market fit. Building a company should be urgent but not rushed. Trusting the process that you hear about from all these successful entrepreneurs is the name of the game. It’s going to be hard, but it’s worth it.

(Photo credits: Harvard Undergraduate Venture Capital Group)

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