Matt Ackerson wrote a different chapter for his life after graduating from college: He started a business.
By John Exley
May 2009: most college graduates are in full panic mode [https://www.naceweb.org/spotlight/2009/c052809.htm]. The ‘lucky ones’ have accepted jobs with big corporations. Very few are taking a stand against the status quo. Meet one of the exceptions: young entrepreneur Matt Ackerson [https://www.linkedin.com/in/mattackerson]. Having started a couple businesses as a student at Cornell University, Matt is determined to conclude his collegiate career by doing one thing: following his dreams of building a successful startup.
He did just that.
As summer comes to an end, Matt Ackerson has experienced the full-time life of a young entrepreneur. Matt is the Co-Founder & CEO of Bluesky Local, a startup that offers an innovative restaurant marketing software solution. He also writes daily articles on his entrepreneurship blog, Venture Kid.
Matt shares some of the most valuable lessons he’s learned since entering college and from his recent experiences building a startup company.
1. How do you pitch your startup, Bluesky Local?
Bluesky Local offers the world's first Slow Sales Response (SSR) restaurant marketing solution for independent local businesses and chain restaurants. The problem it addresses is plummeting sales caused by external factors such as time, weather, and seasonal changes. It tracks and responds to these factors in real-time by delivering coupons to local consumers via email, text-message, and Twitter.com, thus boosting sales. (You can follow Bluesky Local on Twitter: www.twitter.com/blueskylocal).
2. What kind of advice would you give someone in high school who is struggling to find his or her passion and can’t figure out what to major in at college?
The only way to fail is not to try. First, figure out your options in terms of adventures to embark upon or, in the case of school, classes to take. Take on whatever sounds cool and interesting to you, even if you think it will be tough to get a good grade. Grades aren't everything. They count for so little by the time you're ready to kick-off at the end of your life.
3. What is the #1 piece of advice you would give someone entering college or graduating and entering the ‘real world’?
There are two questions here so I'll give two answers. For someone entering college my advice is not to worry so much about grades. College is about having new experiences and meeting extraordinary people, whether they are your classmates, professors, or guest speakers. Be like a sponge and soak it all up. Of course, don't try to cram too much in, it's better if you can be like a "focused sponge" rather than running around like a chicken with its head cut off, from club to class to another extracurricular activity. If you fill your life with constant movement, you'll miss the joy of so many little things that only happen with patience and on slow, empty nights where there's nothing to do but stay up late and talk with your roommate about some random business idea you're thinking of...
My advice for someone leaving college is not to get sucked into the mindless group-think about the need to compromise to do something (such as taking a job, or going back to school) when maybe that's not what you want to do. Because, you know what? One day you'll wake up and you'll be old and close to the end, and you'll have to live with the decisions you've made about your life. What will you be thinking of that day as you reflect on your life? On that day I know I'll be smiling, probably looking forward, thinking of some other crazy idea or challenge that I'm excited to embark upon.
Money and grades are important, but you don't have to comprise your dreams for them. If you're passionate in life and smart about when to quit and when to stick, you'll be happy and you will succeed.
4. What is the first story you remember of yourself that foreshadowed your future entrepreneurial aspirations?
When I was a little kid I didn't know anything about business or investing or start-ups or any of that. I did have this vague idea that I would do something on my own and that I would take risks and work hard in order to see it through. Since I didn't know anything about business, but I did like to read and write, I started writing novels. I started and stopped writing at least ten different fictional novels over the course of the next 10 years. The year before I transferred to Cornell I took an independent study where the goal was to produce a first draft manuscript of a novel.
I still plan to write a complete novel someday but I've put that to the side for the time being. My focus and ambition is solely for the company right now. In the meantime I'm "taking notes" for that future novel.
5. If you could go back to your freshman year of college, what’s the one thing you would change?
I wouldn't change anything.
6. If you could go back to the moment you started your first business, what is the one thing you wish you could change?
I still wouldn't change anything, but if I could go back and have my current self meet my past self I would yell at him and say "Hey! Your revenue model sucks! What are you thinking?" Then I'd laugh. My first two businesses were horrible when it came to making money and creating any real value.
7. In the next 5 years, how will you personally define or measure:
If we were to cross paths at that time and you observe me to be a traveling bohemian on a motorcycle, who paints and writes daily, you can ask me this same question and I will say, "This."
8. What does the typical day consist of for Matt Ackerson?
It's a mix of talking (with my business partner, clients, and advisors), writing, web design, cooking, exercise, sleep--wake the next day and repeat. I wouldn't have it any other way.
9. What is your best time management advice for someone in start-up mode who just recently graduated?
Make short lists of the goals you want to accomplish everyday, write them down, declare them publicly to your business partners or a friend that's willing to listen, then do them. If you have time, add one or two extra goals to get done for the day.
Also, this is something I'm sometimes bad at, but make sure to get lots of sleep and take steps to maintain your health. You'll burn out otherwise.
10. Do you have any tips on how to focus and not become inundated with too many opportunities? For example, I love the quote you once told me, “You’re more likely to die from indigestion of too many opportunities, than starvation of too few.”
Yes, that quote came from a business mind greater than mine, but it's generally true. The days that I am the most productive are when I am very focused on accomplishing one thing at a time. To repeat, you will be the most effective at getting things done and getting them done well if you focus on only one thing at a time. Avoid distractions like television and spending all your time on writing emails. If you determine that time spent on Facebook or Twitter is going to help your business, then include in your routine; but be strict with imposing limits on the time you spend on it compared to the tangible results it produces.
11. In today’s world of social media and technology, what do you recommend spending more time on, and what do you spend more time on personally: creating content (i.e. writing blogs) or consuming content (i.e. reading books, articles, other blogs)?
In the context of running a successful start-up and also keeping in mind my answer to the previous question, I would recommend evaluating the value created for your business based on where you decide to allocate your time, especially when it comes to social media and email. Networking and communication via those mediums is great, but incessant communication and making yourself available 24/7 will turn into a time sink. It will be a distraction from other pressing tasks that have to get done if your company is to be successful.
For example, if you run a website business I recommend spending lots of time on optimizing the site's design to make sure it communicates the right message in the right way to customers.
I try to allocate most of my time to reading at night and writing during the day. Both are important because you want to understand your competition, what is happening in your industry, as well as offering free help and advice to potential customers as a thought leader within that industry.
12. Given your experience thus far with your start-up, do you have any regrets?
No, though I do worry that sometimes I am not pushing hard enough. The truth is, with entrepreneurship, the journey is the destination. If you're going to build something like Bluesky Local that is potentially groundbreaking and a value-machine for customers, it takes time to build and patience to maintain your steady, forward momentum. I've had the last three years of college-based entrepreneurship to prepare me up to this point and to help me find the right business partner and Co-Founder for my ventures (Angel Villegas is my business partner). It's early still, but I know we're on to something.
13. Do you think it is a better strategy for a recent graduate to get a job with a big corporation or try to join a (or found his or her own) start-up?
Lots of people will try to give you good advice, including me, but as Oscar Wilde wrote, the only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.
Evaluate your own situation and do your best to follow your passions. Don't spend your days trying to live up to someone else's expectations and compromise as little as possible.
14. Which do you value more: experiential learning or academic learning?
Experiential learning. It's supposedly a fact that the human brain retains much more information garnered from hand-on experience, though there is definitely some value in academic learning as well.
Just remember two things: anything you can learn in the classroom you can also teach yourself through independent study. To paraphrase Galileo, you can't teach a man anything; you can only help him to find the answers within himself. The second thing to remember is that anything you learn in the classroom you might not have had the motivation to teach or learn on your own.
15. Looking back on your college experience, how important do you think your classes were?
Some were a joke, some were very useful, others boring. The irony is that the class I got the most out of was a speaker series on entrepreneurship. It was only 1 credit and once a week. You would come in and listen to the story and lessons of each entrepreneur and then you could go up and talk to them about anything you wanted to after the class was over. Mind you, these were multi-millionaires. I took that class three times, and sat in on it for a fourth.
16. Would you say you spent too little, too much, or the right amount of time on your homework and grades?
The right amount, I suppose. I was very tempted at times to just blow it off and work on the business. I managed an okay balance of both though.
17. If you could have anything (at all) right now, what would it be?
I'm pretty happy right now with how things are going in my life. However there is one thing I would like right now. I recently had my tonsils removed, so my voice still sounds a little funny over the phone. I would like my throat to heal faster so I can buckle down and go make more sales calls!
18. What is your mission in life? What is the purpose of life?
You ask some tough questions, John. I don't really know, but that's part of why I'm working hard right now. In the future I look forward to the time that financial security will provide me with so that I can sit down under a palm tree in tropical paradise (or where ever I happen to be) with a pad and a pen and ponder questions like that.
is an aspiring entrepreneur with a unique background who loves his
family and friends more than anything in the world. He is a junior
Engineering & Management major and is President of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization
at Clarkson University in northern New York. Born in Rochester, NY, his
passions include fashion, networking, technology, working out,
hustling, and helping others to achieve their dreams!
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