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Why I Wrote The Navigator: Develop Founder Skills to Lead Your Startup Successfully

I wrote The Navigator because I wanted to help new entrepreneurs start their venture well prepared in their founder role. I am a firm believer that new entrepreneurs need to develop their business idea in tandem with their founder skills.

I’ve spent two decades in the startup trenches as a serial founder and collaborator with founders and co-founders. I’ve worn different hats during my entrepreneurial career: startup strategist, brand strategist, product developer, researcher, team builder, client relations director, operations manager, and crisis manager.

Time and again, I’ve witnessed first-time founders fail not because they didn’t have a great product idea. Some did. There was a founder-CTO who developed a software that was the precursor to Google Street View. Another founder came up with a community-building platform called Circles, a few years before Google added Google+ to its product portfolio. A third founder developed a service that delivered private and trackable messages.

These entrepreneurs failed because they had spent most of their time in the Product room and missed the big picture: a successful startup operation comprises many components that need to synchronize and move forward as one engine.

Most first-time founders employ the conventional product-centric startup approach, placing most if not all their efforts and resources on their product idea. They believe that if they can build a prototype or even a complete product (whether this is a physical product, a service, or a software) and show that they can sell, scale and raise money, they’re on their way to entrepreneurial success.

They’re either unaware of or choose to delay the need to create a structure and processes to support their product and operation through their entire entrepreneurial journey. By the time they decide to focus on infrastructure building, they have to backtrack to incorporate all kinds of data and knowledge into their execution plans.

More important, product-centric founders overlook the need to develop their founder role to lead and build not just their product team but their entire company successfully. Most new entrepreneurs don’t know the questions to ask and don’t perform self-analysis to determine their own competency for the founder role. Many are insecure about taking the helm so they have this default plan to improvise in their founder/CEO/President role until they can afford to hire a qualified individual to take charge. They often believe that they are smart and can figure things out as they move along, but the startup environment is not a dress rehearsal; it can be very unforgiving.

The one major difference and advantage that successful serial entrepreneurs have over first-timers is experience: seasoned founders know how to take short-cuts and be effective. For new entrepreneurs who decide to wing it, it’s like taking command of a vessel and leading a crew without having studied seamanship and planning resources for the long journey.

After one of my startups that I was advising failed in spite of possessing many winning attributes, I took time off to reflect and review my experiences in the trenches with founders and co-founders. I decided to share my insights to help new entrepreneurs prepare well for their founder role and avoid many common missteps committed by product-centric entrepreneurs.

The Navigator employs the metaphor of an entrepreneurial journey as a sea voyage with the founder at the helm as skipper. The book reflects my belief that a new entrepreneur needs to allocate time to take stock of where she’s been; what qualities, skills and resources she’s bringing onboard as captain of her own startup vessel; and what she needs to cultivate and prepare well for the journey.

A product idea may evolve or change completely over time. The one constant in each venture is the founder, who shoulders immense responsibility and wields great influence over outcomes. The Navigator offers an integrated process to help new founders train and develop competency prior to launching their venture. Proper planning prevents poor performance.


My-Tien Vo (Brown ’87) is a San Francisco-based founder coach, startup strategist, brand strategist, and author of The Navigator: Develop Founder Skills to Lead Your Startup Successfully and The Founder’s Manifest: For Anyone Starting a New Business

Roundtable Recap: Grant Gurtin ’12 Encourages Students to Take Advantage of the Entrepreneurial Energy at Brown and Beyond

Roundtable Recap: Grant Gurtin ’12 Encourages Students to Take Advantage of the Entrepreneurial Energy at Brown and Beyond

On Friday, April 13, 2018, Chuck Isgar ‘20.5, a student member of Brown EP proudly hosted the inaugural Roundtable Discussion with Grant Gurtin ’12, founder of Fanium and It was an exciting opportunity for student entrepreneurs on campus to have a candid conversation with an active angel investor and fellow student entrepreneurs.

Several students discussed marketing difficulties involving their products and services. To this point, Grant emphasized the importance of having someone on your team whose specialty is marketing. He explained that in this day and age, marketing is very quantitative, which helps to explain why it’s all the more important to have a team member or advisor who can help a startup talk through how they can best market their product or service.

Students at the roundtable also shared their own startup perspectives, such as their positive experiences with Facebook ads as a means of testing marketing strategies. It was a unique environment to have students receiving advice not just from Grant, but also from fellow student entrepreneurs.

Grant revealed that his experiences have taught him that to be a successful entrepreneur, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather do something better and market it well. A common issue is that there’s often a lack of authenticity in a certain space, which presents itself as a ripe opportunity for an entrepreneur.

Right now is an extremely exciting time for entrepreneurship. Grant encouraged all students who have a passion for entrepreneurship to consider working at an early stage venture this summer. He explained that the experience of working at a startup will throw one right into the mix of the daily madness that occurs in the exciting and unpredictable environment of launching a new business.

Grant explained to students that being on College Hill is a unique place for entrepreneurship — he encouraged students to appreciate the array of talented students on campus, and to take advantage of the “bubble” of entrepreneurial energy and skills that surround them.

Students were left with not just specific advice for their businesses, but also some words of wisdom from Grant: he emphasized that students should not worry about their lack of entrepreneurial experience, but rather focus on their passion for creating something new. He explained that you have to believe wholeheartedly in your passion to make a startup succeed.

About Brown EP: Brown EP is the student-run entrepreneurship group on campus, overseeing the planning on various entrepreneurial-related events on campus. Brown EP supports student entrepreneurs by connecting them with resources and mentors on campus.

About the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship: Our mission is to make entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown University experience. We offer curricular, co-curricular, and venture support to students, staff, faculty, alumni and the local community. Learn more here.

Roundtable Recap: Rip Pruisken ’10 Encourages Students to Approach Entrepreneurship as a Means of Experimentation

Roundtable Recap: Rip Pruisken ’10 Encourages Students to Approach Entrepreneurship as a Means of Experimentation

By Chuck Isgar ‘20.5

On October 12, 2018, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EPproudly hosted Rip Pruisken ’10, co-founder of Rip Van, for a roundtable discussion. The discussion is a part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5.

As Rip discussed how he got his business started at Brown, a clear theme emerged: the importance of experimentation. Rip advocated to students that they should think about entrepreneurship as a series of scientific experiments. At the start of the process, an entrepreneur should view their idea as their hypothesis.

Pruisken explained that early on, the entrepreneur is in the information gathering stage to determine whether there is data out there signaling that the hypothesis has merit and is worth testing. Once convinced of the hypothesis, Pruisken recommended to students that they should go into ‘doing’ mode quickly into their process to test their hypothesis.

Based off the outcome of tests, the entrepreneur should continually be asking themself whether the process or the hypothesis needs improvement. In other words, the entrepreneur needs to determine if they have discovered a real need, pain point or problem and solution thereof. Pruisken explained that business strategy can also be viewed through the lens of experimentation, where measuring the results of a strategy implemented can help one assess whether the strategy needs to be improved or the execution thereof. Doing this over and over again will help the entrepreneur get better at operating their business.

Not only are Rip Van Wafels products tasty with 55% less sugar than a candy bar, but they feature intriguing branding. Many participants were interested in the brand that Pruisken has built. He explained that the packaging of Rip Van Wafels products has been designed to match the consumer’s expectation of the product. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “does my packaging represent the value proposition?”

When asked by a participant what his motivation was, Pruisken explained his love for building great products that are impactful. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “what’s my drive? Do I have a clear definition for myself?” According to Pruisken, if you want to excel, you’ll have to go through a lot of hurdles to get there. As such, he encourages entrepreneurially-minded students to really think through what it is that drives them so that it will help them persevere through thick and thin.

Pruisken acknowledged that a distinct part of the success of Rip Van Wafels has been positioning the product as a better-for-you sweet snack for on the go and uniquely delivering on that value proposition. The Rip Van Wafels positioning is especially relevant because there is an increasing demand for better convenient foods to meet the needs and health preferences of students and professionals with increasingly busy lifestyles.

Pruisken is constantly innovating, and shared with the participants that his business seeks to improve their product every two years. He made it clear that even if the business is doing well, you have to continually be reinventing your brand in order to remain fresh in a competitive marketplace.

So far Rip Van has launched 3 Rip Van Wafel iterations, reducing sugar levels from 14g to <9g, without sacrificing on taste.

The next iteration, which is slated to launch in Q1 of ’19 will only have 3g of sugar!

Whether you’re just starting your venture or well into development, Pruisken emphasized that you need to take your ego out of the process. He explained, for example, that if you haven’t done something before, such as branding, you probably don’t have the experience to effectively do it on your own. Along these lines, Pruisken shared the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are experienced in their respective fields. Pruisken emphasized the opportunities that students on College Hill have to collaborate with other students, Professors at Brown and RISD and Industry Professionals.

We will soon be having Rip Van Wafels available at a variety of Brown campus dining locations, including the Blue Room and Jo’s. Perhaps the next time you bite into one of the tasty snacks, you’ll have a better appreciation for the experimentation that went into creating the treat.

If you are interested in participating in a future roundtable discussion, visit the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s event page and sign up for the next one!

Matt Paknis ‘84, Is combating bullying, the quiet epidemic in organizations around the world

In the summer of 2017, Matt Paknis, ’84, compiled and circulated a manuscript with cases describing how his global clients embrace healthy management practices and thrive.

Within weeks, Post Hill Press contracted with Matt to write, Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies; How to Stop Abuse at Work and Build Exceptional Organizations. It was released on September 25 and was distributed by Simon & Schuster.

“It was like writing a, “what I did last summer” essay, but based on 27 years of working for, and consulting with, a broad variety of organizations.” Matt helps clients remove obstacles to desired results, processes, and relationships. He also helps identify, select, and transition high potential technical people into leadership roles.

Matt explained to us…

“Collaborating with Barrett Hazeltine, an exceptional role model, on various projects since my undergraduate days is significant.” To contrast surviving from thriving behaviors, Matt also compared his 6 years of college football coaching, his ten years of playing football, and his playing or coaching on 5 championship teams. He was also a manager in financial services and telecommunications companies.  Being president of Delta Tau when it became the first fraternity at Brown to return to campus housing after losing this privilege also sparked his fascination with organizational behavior.

“I pursued a coaching career after graduation because some of my Brown coaches suggested it.  It made sense.” Football influenced him (he was the sole three-year starter on three consecutive, undefeated, NJ high school state championship teams) and was key to Matt transcending childhood setbacks including the illness and death of his young mom.  “I wanted to help players the way I was helped.”

Growing up, Matt experienced a variety of good and bad influencing styles. Shockingly, as an adult, he witnessed similar bad approaches by officials in organizations projecting stellar appearances.  Matt was a former assistant coach at Penn State under Joe Paterno and has spoken publicly about being abused as a child.

Bizarre behaviors, power and control dynamics, bullying, selfishness, narcissism, and all the deceptions of Paterno and his staff soured Matt to college football coaching. It did motivate him to earn an MBA to focus on how healthy team principles impact organizations. He had a great experience coaching football and earning his MBA at the University of Rhode Island (URI).

His consultancy started with clients he met while offering team-building and leadership courses for over ten years at URI’s W. Alton Jones Campus, and from designing and offering an annual fifty-hour Practice of Management Certificate Program with Brown’s extension program. His practice then flourished with referrals.

Matt believes bullying, including sexual harassment, is a quiet epidemic in organizations around the world. Victims may not realize they are being bullied, or they may not know where to turn for help and advocacy. In most countries, including the United States, bullying is not against the law; however, in extreme cases, it can be considered assault and battery, and discrimination.  “Bullying seems to be kept secret because people are afraid of the ramifications of dealing with ugly secrets instead of celebrating and addressing the truth. In the memory of my good mom, I want to free the oppressed from their bullies. I hope this book helps.”