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Finding Inspiration from Dropouts: 4 Lessons for Start-ups

Mark Zuckerberg’s and Steve Jobs’ graduation speeches ring loud and true

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BY Adelle Chua - 13 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs. One is living, one has passed. Both were college dropouts. Both delivered graduation speeches in top-tier universities: The former at Harvard, just a few weeks ago, the latter at Stanford in 2005.

We all know their stories, and are familiar with their flashes of genius. We have tracked their success in terms of the popularity of the products they gave rise to—Facebook now has a billion users across the globe and Apple's products are deemed superior devices.

During their respective speeches, however, both Zuckerberg and Jobs spoke not only to the graduating students they addressed, but to anybody who had an idea and had the guts to see what becomes of that idea.

Here are some of the lessons start-up entrepreneurs can pick up from the speeches of these famous dropouts – and entrepreneurial giants.

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously

In Harvard, Zuckerberg said that if he finished his speech without incident, then that would be the first time he would finish anything in the university. This obviously elicited a chuckle from the audience, largely because Zuckerberg took himself lightly enough to joke about the fact that he was accepted into Harvard – but dropped out.

Many with great ideas are stymied by their fear of failure. Those who took the leap do not often succeed at first try. But what the heck? Anne Cheng, an entrepreneur from Singapore, used to ask herself: “What if I screw up?” And always the answer comes: “I won’t die!”

2. It's purpose that gives meaning to life

Zuckerberg described purpose as being part of something bigger than ourselves, and this is also what creates true happiness.

Vietnamese entrepreneur Phuong Nguyen, for instance, used to be a marketing officer for a bank in Hanoi. She was earning comfortably and was, by conventional means, successful.

Secretly, however, she felt something was missing – and it was in the pursuit of this meaning that she found the courage to establish her own business arranging flowers for various occasions for her clients. She took orders online and sourced her materials abroad. Now her business has expanded into a wedding and events planning outfit.

3. Everything looks better in hindsight

In his Stanford speech, Jobs looked back on the various experiences – highs and lows, both – he had before he realized some measure of success in Apple.

“You cannot connect the dots looking forward,” he said, assuring his audience that there is always a pattern and a reason why we are on a certain spot at a certain time.

Plenty of entrepreneurs had to learn their lessons the hard way. Practically nobody succeeds on the first try. Nikhil Kapur, for instance, now an investment manager for Singapore-based venture capitalist company Gree, remembers the struggles in his own entrepreneurial days in his native India and uses the things he earned when he mentors start-up founders in their portfolio.

4. Stay hungry. Stay foolish

We are all going to die, anyway, Jobs told the Stanford graduates. “Remembering this is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have anything to lose.”

Today’s start-up generation is composed of young people who make bold decisions – like moving halfway across the globe to a foreign country, even when they knew no one and did not speak the language.

For example, Dominik Weil moved to Vietnam from Germany to try out his bitcoin idea on a market he believes is ready for it. Adrienne Ravez left a secure life in France to establish a digital marketing company in Cambodia – and ended up helping build a thriving, dynamic, and young entrepreneurial community. Aaron Everhart had a stable career in the U.S. but moved to Hanoi anyway to mentor young and hungry entrepreneurs. And nobody among them says he or she regrets taking the great leap.

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