15 Essential Tips for Building a Great Business

We picked the brains of 15 accomplished Stanford GSB alumni entrepreneurs and asked them to share their best advice on how to build a great business. Read their insights below:

ON STARTING OUT

Jessica Jackley

Don’t be afraid to jump in

"I meet so many individuals who have great plans, but they take way too long to do anything about them. Just put something out there. It will be imperfect. The real work is in figuring out how to make it better. Wake up each day and say, “Now what?"

— Jessica Jackley (MBA ’07), Cofounder of Kiva
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Denise Brosseau

Figure out if anybody cares about what you are doing first

"It can be exciting to start a business but I have wasted a lot of time building businesses around solutions to problems no one else thinks are worth paying for. You should start by saying, I have a hypothesis, and then go out and get feedback. Don’t stop or get paralyzed when you get your first “no,” but listen to the underlying reasons. Let people react to the hypothesis."

— Denise Brosseau (MBA ’93), CEO of Thought Leadership Lab
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Denise Brosseau

Be mission-driven and authentically connected to what you do

“The first and most relevant thing I can say is that being an entrepreneur must be your calling. It sounds lofty and grand but building a business takes so much commitment and effort. Only if you love it can you levitate yourself over the obstacles that stand in the way of creating a business.”

— Jessica Herrin, Founder of Stella & Dot
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Andy Rachleff

Don’t bother doing something if you can’t win big

"What makes a great entrepreneur? Someone who wants to change the world, build a great company, and make a lot of money. You need all three. People who are in it just for the money don’t do great things."

— Lecturer Andy Rachleff (MBA ‘84), Cofounder of Wealthfront Inc
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Beth Cross

Visualize your company as a fully formed entity

"Study the leading companies in your industry and learn everything you can about their structure and go-to-market strategy. Sketch it out by function so you know what you will be competing against, and also have a sense of what relevant organization structures look like as you’re building your team."

— Beth Cross (MBA ’88), Founder and CEO of Ariat International
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Beth Gerstein

Test early and test often

"Start on a small scale, iterate, and course-correct."

— Beth Gerstein (MBA ’03), Cofounder of Brilliant Earth
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Ellen Siminoff

Learn how to sell

"I have never seen entrepreneurs do poorly when they are good salespeople. You need to learn how to reach customers and get them to buy."

— Ellen Siminoff (MBA ’93), CEO of Shmoop
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ON FINDING A COFOUNDER

Ian Kazi Shakil

Look for cofounders you can spar with productively

"It’s like getting married. You want to find someone who brings to the table skills you don’t have, but who is not so different that you have different core values. You have to be able to be brutally honest with each other and then heal from it."

— Ian Kazi Shakil (MBA ’12), Cofounder of Augmedix
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Jay Alabraba

Make sure that your cofounders are people you can work with long-term

"You need to be able to confidently and comfortably disagree on important issues. You should also genuinely like each other."

— Jay Alabraba (MBA ’07), Cofounder of Pagatech
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ON COMPANY CULTURE

Trae Vassallo

Get the culture right, and do it early

"It’s like putting the wrong engine in a car: If you don’t do it right the first time, everything else will be wrong."

— Trae Vassallo (MBA ’00), General Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
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Trae Vassallo

Invest time and mindshare into your company culture

"Building a great culture from the start is important. Don’t put it off until later! We invested a lot of time and mindshare into culture from the beginning. We recruited people who were like-minded, and we made sure all our partners were aligned in values and the type of company we wanted to build, as well as the personality of the company."

— Laura Ching (MBA ’00), Cofounder of Tiny Prints
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James Gutierrez

Align a winning culture with a sense of purpose

“Build a winning culture. Define winning so that it has a sense of purpose. Great people are more compelled by a great purpose than by making money or being part of a new trend. If you can align a winning culture with a sense of purpose, you can attract the best people and build a place where people are proud to work and where they enjoy working with each other.”

— James Gutierrez (MBA ’05), Founder of Progreso Financiero
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ON BUILDING A TEAM

Ronald Taylor

Focus on the people

"Find the best people you can find and nurture them. We looked for people with unusual backgrounds who did not fit the corporate mold and put them together in an environment that was not typical. We ran contests, and everybody was very competitive. It became an interpersonal game to succeed individually, and in the process we succeeded as a group.”

— Ronald Taylor (MBA ’71), Cofounder of Devry
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Rob Forbes

Keep your ego in check

"Surround yourself with people you trust who complement your skillset, and then encourage debate and dissention. Keep your ego in check. Everyone at the company should feel comfortable having their own opinions. I don’t believe in blue-sky brainstorming or design by committee. I like to come in with ideas and ask individuals to challenge them."

— Rob Forbes (MBA ’85), Founder of Design Within Reach and PUBLIC Bikes
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Steve Poizner

Build diverse, high-quality teams

"Small problems can take as much time as big problems, so you should make it all worthwhile. With every organization I have ever built or run, the key to our success was putting together diverse, high quality teams. Taking on big problems that impact the world requires massive amounts of intellectual power, and that can’t be done by a couple of people who have the same viewpoints."

— Steve Poizner (MBA ’80), Founder of Empowered
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