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So you want to start a company? 7 tips from the pros

As the EIT Awards contest continues, the institute assembles some expert advice for those who want to launch their own company. The top tip: Just do it.

Richard L. Hudson, Science|Business

KRAKOW - The economic news is grim these days. But so what? If you have a dream to start a company, just do it anyway - or so say some experts that the EIT invited to discuss the do's and don'ts of starting a business.

"Don't let the environment of the economy stop you; just do it now," said Bruno Claude, a Belgian entrepreneur and former CEO of Swiss Cablecom. "There's a lot of risk in being an entrepreneur. When you're young you can pick up the pieces and move on. So don't wait."

That advice, from one of the international cable-telecommunications industry's most successful entrepreneurs, was among several tips offered at an entrepreneurship conference organized here Oct. 21-22 by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). Promoting entrepreneurship is central to the institute's mission - and is also why it recently launched its first EIT Awards contest. For that, nine start-ups have been nominated for three prizes, to be awarded at a conference and awards ceremony on 21 February in Brussels.

Here are seven tips that emerged from the discussion in Krakow:

  1. Just do it. "Do it regardless of the economy. You can't time the market, either as an investor or as an entrepreneur. The most successful businessmen are persistent in any conditions." (Barbara Nowakoska, managing director of the Polish Private Equity Association.)
  2. Get a good team, and lots of outside advice. Inside the team, variety is key: "The earlier you realize you need a team of different skills, the earlier you will succeed," said Anna Czekaj, a business angel with S&E Impact Group and Go Beyond Ltd. Agreed Claude: "VCs don't want to invest in a one-man band." And outside the team, they added, expert advice is always needed: "Don't be shy to ask experienced people," said Czekaj.
  3. Think global. Avoid getting stuck in local expectations. "It's typical in startups to think of a small domestic market, but in today's economy that's not enough, "said Nowakoska. Look abroad - especially to China, India and other developing markets. "There is a huge opportunity in emerging markets," said Jan Mühlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe. "Sixty to 70 per cent of economic growth in the next 10 years will come from emerging markets."
  4. Invest in your own venture. "When you start a business you need to put your neck on the line - put your money in it," said Claude.
  5. Diversify your funding. "The expectation of startups is that somebody large will finance them," said Nowakoska. "That comes with a lot of risk: dependence. Startups need to have independence, not under corporate control." That's lucky, because as a matter of fact you will probably never have the luxury of ceasing to recruit new investors. Said Claude: "Running a high-growth company is like feeding an alligator. Raising money will be part of your life."
  6. Balance the dream with the reality. On one hand, you have to think big to inspire others to back you and work with you: "Martin Luther King was not saying 'I have a plan.' He was saying 'I have a dream,'" said one panelist. But at the same time, the panelists advised, don't get carried away and promise more than you can possibly deliver. "The temptation is to oversell" to investors, said Claude. "Don't. Be a hero at the back end, not the front. Better to have realistic expectations."
  7. "Be persistent," said Czekaj. "Don't give up."