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How to Start a Business: Case Studies in Entrepreneurship

Never show up to a small business event wearing a tie. I learned that—along with other, more valuable pieces of wisdom—last month at the Atlantic’s Small Business Forum. The event boasted successful founders from online, blue-collar, fashion, non-profit and restaurant businesses sharing the story of their start-ups and key advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. By the time the event was over, I wanted to grab a few friends, go to a local waffle house and start a business on the back of a napkin. Watch the first few minutes of this video (start at 12:15; waffle house story just after the 15:00 mark) to see what I mean: That was Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of reddit. From the idea of giving the internet a “front page,” he created a site that now attracts over a billion pageviews a month. Alexis sold reddit in 2006 but continues his campaign to “make the world suck less” by giving musicians a second chance, reimagining travel sites and funding other startups. His advice to entrepreneurs is simple: Start with a problem you have, and then see if others have that problem too—especially if they’ll pay money for the solution. The case studies at the event offered excellent examples of this behavior. Dave Gilboa of Warby Parker scoffed at paying more for glasses than an iPhone, so he and his friends started selling prescription glasses for $95 online. Nick Friedman of College Hunks Hauling Junk transitioned from borrowing a friend’s truck to make some extra cash to running a nationally franchised business. Nicolas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru of Sweetgreen saw the need for an enjoyable lunch-time experience in downtown DC. And Rachael Chong of Catchafire learned how to connect expert volunteers with nonprofits. We must protect these business owners and the culture that empowers them. When the interviewers tried to turn the conversation to government, each of the entrepreneurs shied away from the topic. Sweetgreen briefly discussed learning to work with lawyers, and Nick Friedman explained a peculiar law that gives existing moving companies the power to decide if more competitors should be allowed to operate. But by and large, even in the heart of DC, the founders talked very little about the government—because they didn’t have to. Continued uncertainty could change that. Small business owners can’t plan around eleventh hour deals that increase their taxes or new employee healthcare laws. These changes shift their attention from hiring employees and improving business to deciphering laws and avoiding costly employee thresholds. Startups will always require risk (and according to these case studies, a few sleepless months), but the government must work to limit—not aggravate—that risk. Founders should have the guarantee that, if successful, they will reap the reward of their investment and hard work. Then they can get back to their constant pursuit of innovation that spurs our society to thrive. Watch the interviews when you get a chance. They’re worth your time and provide a taste of what the entrepreneurial life looks like—along with a healthy dose of inspiration.