5 Important learnings as student entrepreneurs

Create a business, they said. A brainstorming session, a bottle of whiskey, and about a hundred post-it notes later, we decided that we were going to help people find recipes that fitted their personal preferences. Now, 1,5 years later, we’ve won 2000 euros, lost some other pitches, and learned a ton of things. Let’s discuss some of the most important learnings we had as student entrepreneurs.

Meet Yosa

Before we start about these learnings, let us give you a little bit of background about the business concept. Yosa stands for ‘Your online shopping assistant’. As a chatbot -- or as we prefer to call it: a companion bot -- Yosa acts as an online conversational assistant for consumers that are trying to answer that one annoying question: “What are we going to eat tonight”?

A research in 2017 -- 20 years after the domain google.com was registered -- showed that this was, in fact, the most asked question on Google in The Netherlands (within those 20 years). Of course, you can go onto one of the thousand recipe websites, but is that as effective as it could be? Instead, you could ask Yosa for a recipe, she makes sure it contains only cuisines and ingredients you like, tells you the exact amount of ingredients you need for your family size, and makes sure you’re able to finish the recipe within your preferred time frame. Sounds a lot easier right?

Okay cool, so what did you learn then? Well, let’s dive into that now!

Winning and Losing Learning

Thursday afternoon, we are anxiously waiting till the phone rings. Once the phone rang, the room filled with joy. We had won 2000 euros as part of a student entrepreneur competition. As this was the first entrepreneurial price either of us had ever won, you can imagine what kind of a boost that gave us.

A couple of months later -- whilst battling our classmates -- we ended up fourth in a different competition. Ouch! That must have hurt. It did, but most importantly it was a good wake up call and an even better moment to reflect on what had happened.

Yeah, it felt like we lost, but losing, failing or whatever you want to call it is part of the process. The ideas that ended on top, were ideas with low risk and a short time to market. Our idea didn’t score high on those two factors at that time.

Alright, so maybe we should focus our time and attention on competitions where ideas like ours are valued more? Maybe there is something in our pitch which we can do differently the next time? Should we focus more on talking about how we plan to mitigate risks or how we are going to shorten our time to market? Those are the questions we tried to come up with whilst reflecting on what had happened and what we could or should do better next time.

Failure is not a problem. It is how you deal with these failures that determine whether your business will benefit.. Made a mistake? Lost a pitch competition? Lost a client? Take a moment, reflect on what happened, and use those moments to learn and make your business better.

Focus on the core

We need OCR technology or AI to improve the back-end of the system! Well, but is your user already able to just ask for a recipe when he needs it? Uh, no? So why are you focusing on all things but finishing the core functionalities of your solution?

As a beginning entrepreneur, it is very easy to lose focus on what’s important. Whilst building and testing our initial MVP there were a ton of directions to explore. It is very tempting to put as much as you can into the first version of your MVP, but it is called a MINIMAL viable product for a reason.

If you start building a business and going to launch something very quickly, try to focus on what’s important. Do I need a very specific filter option to test my idea or can I just add functionality that allows people to ask recipes from certain countries and add more filters from there?

Focus, one of the most important words while building a business. Continue to ask yourself if what you are currently doing is necessary to achieve the end goal. Start by making a list of priorities. This is a great and simple methodology to keep your focus on the things that are the so-called must-haves for that particular phase of the product. Also, try to always ask yourself if there isn’t a smaller and more effective step to take. Try to make iterations as small as possible, test them as fast as you can, evaluate and then pivot if necessary.    

The importance of coaching

When we started Yosa, we were 20 years old. As a 20-year-old you are this enthusiastic young professional with great ambition. Also when it comes to your ideas, it is very easy to become biased. Combine ambition, enthusiasm, and biased opinions and you will have moments where you find yourself going to fast too soon without grounded reasons. Guidance is necessary to slow you down or give you a nudge you in the right direction, still this won’t mean you aren’t going to hit a wall (because you are stubborn). But, if you have no one to guide you, you will most likely hit that wall at full speed.

We had the fortune of having people around us who would always make time to sit down with us. During these sessions, we would present where we stood, what we had planned, and what was next. More often than not we came out of those sessions thinking we should rearrange our plans and make some tweaks to not lose that focus discussed in the previous learning.

Externals are more likely to say what they think and help you to keep your feet on the ground. When you think about starting a business (or have already started one), try to find someone willing to help you now and then. This might not be the easiest thing to find, but it is certainly worth the effort and you will not regret spending time finding someone who will help you build a better business.

Validation, validation, validation

We started Yosa to complete an assignment. But for us, it wasn’t just an assignment we had to complete for our study. We wanted to try and actually build a business whilst we got the time to try and experiment. On the advice of one of our coaches (outside of the university), we decided to not just write a business plan but to build an MVP and validate our assumptions.

We asked users to send us their receipts so that we could understand what they liked and send them recipes according to those perceived preferences. After a while, users started to forget to send their receipts which made it harder for us to help them. So, we called them up and had a short interview with them to understand their needs. We quickly found out that analyzing the grocery receipts was not the ideal method to get to know the user’s preferences.

Now every user that joins gets a questionnaire when they first start a chat. In this questionnaire, we find out what preferences they have and how many times a week they want to receive recipes. This way we have a better understanding of their preferences from the get-go.

Using small iterations like these are a great way to validate your assumptions, see how your customers respond, and to decide if you’re on the right track or a necessary pivot is around the corner. This method requires you to actually talk to your customers and hear what their needs are. Building a business this way allows you to understand what your target audience needs and build the product not only for them but with them.  

Have a bit of fun along the way

While being a business owner can be stressful, please do not forget to enjoy the ride. We know that this sounds a bit cheesy or cliche, but it is really important. You are doing something not everyone can or is willing to do.

Having a couple of beers every now and then to realize that what you are doing is actually pretty cool, will help you put things in perspective. This is also a great time to find out if everyone is still on the same page.

Outside of your work environment, new ideas can come to mind. During a diner meeting, we had a while ago, we came up with a new approach for the next Yosa MVP. This time we aim to keep it even simpler. As described above we added too much complexity in the previous one, which led to a limitation of around 30 users. Yep, you read that right, 30 users, is way too little.

Now we’re approaching the MVP in such a way that there are limitations when it comes to scaling. Well.. that is not quite true, for now, we do have some limitations when we reach more than a hundred thousand users. We hope to have that (luxury) problem one day.


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