Four Lessons I Learned from the Trenches - Mung Chiang

Professor Mung Chiang -  Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering. Director, Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. Director, Program in Technology and Society. Inaugural Chair, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council. Director, Program in Entrepreneurship.

Four Lessons I Learned from the Trenches - Mung Chiang



Each day, entrepreneurs try to push, pivot, persist and not perish. That’s challenging.

Startups from universities are particularly challenging: mindset mismatch, experience gaps, and incomplete teams…all these draw a chasm between students and faculty innovators and potential economic and social impact.

As an Engineering professor and over the past several years as an entrepreneur in the IT space, I learned counterintuitive lessons in the trenches, lessons that transformed my entrepreneurial mindset:

  1. Customers before technology

It’s not about the hammer, it’s about the nail. But who exactly is your customer? This is a deceptively easy question. There is a natural tendency for student entrepreneurs to automatically zoom in on the consumer market, even when B2B2C may be more promising. There is also confusion between the ultimate recipients of value created and the direct customers who will actually write your startup checks. Somewhere along the industry food chain, aligning value with monetization is an elusive art.

  1. Listen before selling

Ask customers questions before you start preaching to them: what’s their bottleneck pain point? Startups can’t win by selling vitamins, they must sell pain killers. How do startups solve customers’ problems today and why isn’t the present solution good enough already? For enterprise customers, which line item in their budget will they use to pay for your new stuff, and how long is that sales cycle going to be? Why can’t they wait for your bigger competitor to produce roughly the same stuff a year later? And why should they continue to pay you after the first time?

  1. Who before what

The number one fatal deficiency of university startups is the lack of a stable, balanced and experienced team. That goes for both student startups and faculty startups. At least in the lane of startups I swim in, ideas are only worth that much; it’s all about execution, which means dealing with crap every single day: star engineers leave, lead sales defect, competitors claim they’ve had everything you’re selling since two years ago, customers suddenly stop returning your phone calls, investors get cold feet…endless piles of crap. Everything comes and goes, only your core team stays. Do you have a core team who can execute through the thick and thin?

  1. Failure before success

Fail fast is no joke. Fail faster than you run out of money, so that you still have some cash left when you hit on the right execution to get recurring revenue with the right customers. The tricky part is trusting your gut, believing in yourself and juggling with the psychology of pivoting. The good news is on the bottom line: entrepreneurs themselves cannot fail, by definition.

— Mung Chiang
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.