Learning Success: The Ultimate Non-Recipe

The Duke in Silicon Valley program is always busy. From 8:25am bus departures, three-hour classes, site visits, and guest speakers to dinners, Giants games, and hectic rush-hour Caltrain rides, no day is uneventful. Yesterday, however, was even more eventful than usual. The normal morning class at Plug and Play was supplemented with not one but two VC guest speakers and topped off with two site visits, to Apple HQ in Cupertino and 500 Startups in Mountain View.

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For a Wednesday, yesterday was pretty fantastic. Class went really well – we came up with ways to innovate around demographic changes like higher online college enrollment and later marriages. The speakers who came afterwards were funny and engaging. I had to contain my geeky excitement at meeting Eddy Cue while simultaneously hiding my Samsung Galaxy deeper and deeper in my pocket. And 500 Startups gave us a look at some cool up-and-coming entrepreneurs and some even cooler ideas. But yesterday also offered us something else: the sought-after answer to a question many of us have wondered for years – “what makes a successful company?”

We’ve all asked ourselves this at one point or another. What makes a Zuckerberg? A Gates? A Jobs? What makes the companies that succeed over the ones that fail? What makes the entrepreneurs that thrive over the ones that go bankrupt and give up? Ultimately, what’s the recipe for success?

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Now, success is certainly not in short supply here; everyone we met yesterday was successful in one way or another, whether it be leading VCs to high growth, helping startups scale to an exit, or pioneering innovation at Apple. At the same time, however, we’ve seen a lot of failures – companies that are barely hanging on, or entrepreneurs that needed six tries to get it right. So when these questions were raised yesterday, I anticipated at least some degree of disagreement between speakers. But even I was not prepared for the level of disagreement we saw.

One VC partner told us about the power of social entrepreneurship just an hour before another shot it down as impractical and unsustainable. Eddy Cue talked about a CEO’s influence on culture while a business leader at 500 Startups put more emphasis on ideas. 500 Startups talked about the importance of investing in many companies in the hopes of landing one ‘unicorn’ (worth over $1 billion at exit), while the second VC partner slammed the technique as foolish and akin to hoarding lottery tickets. Eddy talked about the importance of team members gaining specialty in their own exclusive areas, while the VCs talked about the importance of broad knowledge and interdepartmental collaboration. One VC railed against corporate tech and another defended it as a valuable learning experience. 500 Startups advocated for young entrepreneurs while one partner discussed his refusal to invest in younger executives due to inexperience; and 500 Startups had a hands-off approach post-investment whereas that same VC insisted that post-investment mentorship was essential to success.

Even the characteristics of the speakers and companies were different. Eddy Cue has been at Apple for decades, whereas the 500 Startups staff member had been there only a few years. One VC invests an average of $5 million in its startups, while 500 Startups uniformly puts in just $150,000. And while 500 Startups focuses on providing networking tools, that same VC puts more emphasis on regular meetings and acting as a soundboard for ideas.

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At this point, our recipe for success wasn’t looking too good; four successful chefs in four different restaurants couldn’t even agree on the core ingredients. But something strange happened. Rather than ending the day with a sense of dissatisfaction, we all felt as if everything from the past two weeks had come together. It was as if we now understood: there is no recipe for success because every successful company, every successful entrepreneur, does it differently. Age, team size, investment size – it all varies from one to another. The best thing we can do, then, is take away some general cooking conventions that contribute to a better end result.

Work in teams effectively. Be a creative problem-solver. Stay convicted but respectful. Value collaboration over secrecy. And lastly, as they all said, get *stuff* done. So now we know – that, combined with a bit of networking, mentorship, randomness, and a hell of a lot of luck, is the ultimate non-recipe for success.

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Justin is a rising sophomore from New Jersey double-majoring in Computer Science and Public Policy with a certificate in Markets and Management. He is deeply interested in cybersecurity and technology policy, and in his free time, he loves reading, running, watching movies, and hacking.

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