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What does the process of launching a start-up look like?

(Answer from David K. Park, PhD, Senior Advisor to the EVP & Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences)

There are many paths to launching a startup, but let me highlight one framework here. The process has three broad steps:

1. Customer Development Before Product Development. Speak to as many potential customers as possible and see if your “solution” actually solves their pain point. At this stage, you do not need to write a line of code. Steve Blank has written two books on this topic:

2. Lean Startup. Now that you're ready to develop a product, rapidly iterate to develop a useful product. Even for the beginning part of this process you don’t need to write a line of code. Instead, use programs like BalsamiqMockingbird, etc to wireframe a prototype. After you have received useful feedback, then think about the best tools to rapidly develop a working prototype. This is where you’ll need to starting writing code or working with someone who does. Eric Reis has written one of the better books outlining this process:

  • The Lean Startup
  • Steve Blank actually has written a nice HBR article on the Lean Startup process. He and Eric are quite good friends. 

3. Product Market Fit. Now that you’re iterating to find product market fit, when do you know it’s a good time to start charging for your product? Start charging too early and you’ll lose potential customers but start charging too late and you’ll be losing potential revenue. Sean Ellis, in a short blog post, lays out a good framework on when you can start charging for your product.

There are many really good VCs who blog, such as Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Paul Graham, etc, about the startup process, however, if I had to pick one person to read it would be Mark Suster - http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/.

In the past few years, there's also been a few books from founders that may be worth reading:

If you want to get a glimpse behind all the interpersonal dynamics (both founders, employees, board members, etc) that can happen when you're growing the company, the one by Nick Bilton on Twitter is not a bad read.

How can I find a programmer to help me with my idea?

(Answer from David K. Park, PhD, Senior Advisor to the EVP & Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences)

There are many paths to launching a startup and we’re all familiar with great tech companies being founded with at least one or more technical founder(s) such as Microsoft (Gates, Allen), Apple (Jobs, Wozniack), Google (Page and Brin), but as noted above, I would learn how to wireframe or find a UX/UI designer to first wireframe what you want to build and then recruit that technical co-founder. There is a lot that a non-technical founder can do to advance their idea without writing a bit of code.

However, it’s never too early to start recruiting and building that dream team so if you are interested in teaming up with students from Engineering with skills in programming or other technical skills, email SIPA.Challenge.Grant@columbia.edu

Can students receive academic credit for their participation in the Challenge Grant?

Students do not receive academic credit for participation in the Challenge Grant.  The Challenge Grant program is an extra-curricular program designed to foster and support student-led ventures. Challenge Grant teams do not have a formal faculty instructor, and they do not complete graded assignments. 

May I add people who are not Columbia students as team members or advisors?

Each team must have at least one current SIPA student.  Other team members may be either currently enrolled Columbia University students or recent Columbia alumni (within the past five years). Advisors do not have to be Columbia students, but advisors should be advisors (not team members). The roles that each team member and advisor plays must be clearly stated in the description of the team.

What guarantees do we have that our idea will be protected? If I were to pitch this to a venture capital firm, an NDA would most likely be involved.

The SIPA Challenge Grant Program will not widely distribute proposals (beyond, for example, judges, mentors and special faculty advisors).  Judges will be asked not to share materials with third parties.  Judges will not be asked to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).  Abstracts of winning proposals will be publicized, but not details.

If I can secure financing from a VC in conjunction with this would that be permitted?

The SIPA Public Policy Challenge is designed to foster new solutions.  Projects that already have received financing may apply, although they will be requested to disclose the amount, and Challenge Grant judges might expect projects that already have received financing to have achieved commensurate progress in development.