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Q&A: Kamal Hassan reveals his top 3 tips for entrepreneurs

The Founder Institute global director tells us how would-be start-ups can grow into successful companies, and why business plans aren’t everything.

He’s been the CEO of three start-ups, has invested as an angel in ten more and is the global director of the Founder Institute. Now, Kamal Hassan tells us about the organisation’s latest programme – and why entrepreneurs should sign up. He also reveals three must-read tips for tomorrow’s company founders.

The Founder Institute describes itself as “the world’s premier idea-stage accelerator and start-up launch programme”. How does it work? 

“Every major accelerator programme expects you to walk in with three basic things: a full-time team of two or more people, a product of some sort and demonstrable sales or traction. 

“The Founder Institute takes people who are missing one or more of these three things. We actually help you get to the stage whereby you have a real business that everyone else will be interested in. It’s an idea-stage accelerator because you may come in with as little as an idea.

“We’re the premier because we are in 100 cities in 50 countries, which actually makes us the biggest accelerator programme bar none. We’re really doing something that no-one else wants to do.”

How do you decide who to accept on the programme?

“Instead of looking at somebody’s business plan we look at the founder themselves. We have a detailed entrepreneurial aptitude assessment, which predicts your likelihood to succeed as an entrepreneur. 

“You could be a very good founder who’s simply working on the wrong idea, and that shouldn’t be a handicap to starting a business. The idea is actually the easy part – success really depends on being committed enough to do the work required to succeed.

“About 60% of Founder Institute applicants get through. Our median age is 33, though I’ve seen people taken in as young as 19 or 20 – so you don’t necessarily need lots of experience.”

Why should entrepreneurs apply, and what can they expect to get out of it?

“Well, I should point out the obvious and say that it’s perfectly possible to start a successful business without the Founder Institute – it’s simply harder and slower. The Founder Institute is an accelerator, and the whole point of an accelerator is to get you where you’re going faster. 

“If you enter our program you’ll have 40 different mentors giving you feedback over a 14-week period. We help move your business move ahead by pushing you and holding you accountable. People really want to do what it takes, and that’s what allows us to push them to higher levels of performance.”

How and when should people sign up?

“Our programme deadline is this Sunday – June 11th. It’s a one-page application, and you just need a LinkedIn profile – that’s it.

“The programme will run one night a week from June 19th until early October, and you’ll be asked to do 20 to 25 hours of work a week in addition to attending obligatory weekly sessions. To apply you simply need to go to fi.co/join.”

Is the programme only available in certain locations?

“The 100 cities include everywhere from San Francisco to Kabul. You can apply to any city, anywhere, so long as you’re willing to spend four months there to do the programme – which, incidentally, is identical all round the world.”

Could you give an example of a start-up that the Founder Institute helped to make a success of?

“We do have a few with unicorn status, like iCarsclub – a ride-sharing platform that launched out of our Singapore campus, and which recently expanded into China.

“There’s also RealtyMogul.com, which launched in Los Angeles. It does crowdfunding for real estate, and it’s had a couple of hundred million dollars of transactions on its website. Speaking of which, over in France we’ve got an airport parking company called TravelCar – it’s raised something like $24 million and is now expanding to the US.” 

What are your top three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?

“One: venture capital is the wrong place to look for money. Everyone who goes to venture capitalists goes because they’re the most obvious and you can find them the most easily, but venture capitalists will only invest in your business when you don’t need the money anymore. In the early stages you’re most likely to get money from people who know you, trust you and believe you can run a business. 

“Two: don’t try to do everything alone. Instead, build a network of people who can help and support you. One of the things we advise is setting up a mailing list of 20, 30, 40 people who care about your business. Send them an email every two to four weeks saying how everything is going – and asking for help if you need it.

“Three: don’t get hung up on your idea. A business is actually really simple: you need to have something that people want to buy. It’s fine to put up a webpage describing what you’re selling and getting people to sign up. All you have to do is spend a weekend making a webpage, and then if people do click to buy a message can pop up saying ‘Oops, we’re still building that’ – but at least you’ve had the click. It’s validation.” 

And finally, why should entrepreneurs want to keep up with innovation-related news?

“When you’re in the ideas or early stage, it’s important to be exposed to a wide range of sources to stimulate your thinking. You should always stay up to date with what’s going on in your industry – if only to keep tabs on competitors.

“So if you have time during the ideas stage, look around and get stimulated. When you’re building the business you’ll find you have less time – but then as it grows, your vision may grow and get broader again. So start off thinking broadly; then narrow and focused when you’re getting off the ground; then broad again as you start to speculate.”

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