This is a letter originally published on March 22, 2019 that Alex Kosyakov, CEO of Natrion, a sodium-ion startup based out of Greenwich, CT wrote to high school students that aspire to be entrepreneurs.
Here’s some background: I’m Alex and I’m a high school senior from Stamford, Connecticut. Since my sophomore year, I’ve been working in my school’s chemistry lab on a new cheaper, safer, and more efficient battery for ensuring 24/7 power reliability in renewable energy power grids. In September of 2017, I began Natrion based off of this product in my school’s LaunchX club with five of my friends, and we were very fortunate to win the LaunchX New England Demo Day and make it to the Global Demo Day. We’ve since continued to grow Natrion and attain new heights, and I figured that the lessons that we have learned from our experiences can be of use to other aspiring high school entrepreneurs. Disclaimer: we are still high schoolers, so don’t expect this to be an Admiral William H. McRaven speech. Nevertheless, here are the four most important lessons that we’ve learned.
Lesson 1: Know the reason why you started your company.
Another disclaimer—this lesson can’t help you if you began a startup just to fill another “Activities” slot on your college application. If that’s the boat that you’re in, you’ve got the wrong “why.” This lesson is a page right out of Simon Sinek’s book; if you want to dedicate yourself 100% to something and have other people believe in you to the point that they’ll dedicate 100% of themselves to the same cause, you have to know why you are doing what you’re doing. At Natrion, we hate inefficiency. We hate watching the implementation of renewable energy become slowed by battery technologies that are optimized for other applications. Our idea is quite simple: “there has to be a better way to build batteries.” What keeps my coworkers and I up late at night while working on Natrion is this idea and the implications that it has for the world (and, of course, lots of coffee). Knowing the “why” behind your company is also necessary for investors and customers to believe in you. As one of Natrion’s advisors would put it, “Americans like a story—they like to be inspired” (this advisor worked in Switzerland and Asia before coming to the U.S.). You can have a great product, but unless there is a central idea to your product that other people can identify and internalize, they won’t buy it or invest in it. Find your “why,” and let it inform every aspect of your company.
Lesson 2: Work with what you have.
The essence of innovation is finding a way to circumvent an obstacle or limitation. The essence of entrepreneurship? Innovation. My favorite question that I get from people is, “how did you guys come up with this battery?” The three years of early mornings, late nights, weekends, and school vacations spent in the chem. lab have not been the easiest. Buying custom battery cell casings for my prototypes was too expensive, so I emptied the casings of old commercial lithium batteries, filled them with my own battery components, and resealed the casings with a repurposed leather crimp. The prototypes ended up looking like they had been left on the floor of Grand Central Terminal for all of New York to trample or—as a venture capitalist at the National Business Investment Forum noted—“beautiful in their own way.” Discovering creative solutions to problems might be the most rewarding part of the entrepreneurial process. At the end of the day, you can’t change what you have. However, you can change what you do with what you have.
Lesson 3: Be thorough.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover—known as the father of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered fleet—was infamous among Navy submarine equipment suppliers for his “radiator test.” If a manufacturer labeled a product as being durable, Rickover would verify the claim by throwing a sample against the heater radiator in his office. The lesson? Thoroughness, which for Rickover meant researching and verifying every supplier to ensure that the U.S. Navy never suffered a nuclear accident. Thoroughness in all of its forms should be adhered to in a startup as well. At pitch events, for instance, you will receive dozens of business cards from all sorts of investors, advisors, etc. At Natrion, we transfer the information from the cards into a database and then proceed to follow up by reaching out to every new contact. It’s tedious work, but you can’t know which contact is another dead end and which one might invest a million dollars until you’ve sent them an email. You can’t be too much of a perfectionist when it comes to starting a business, be it when writing your business plan, putting together a pitch presentation, or developing your product.
Lesson 4: Be professional.
This one is pretty simple. When you’re a high school entrepreneur, it can be hard to get adults to treat you seriously. The fact of the matter is, though, that if you act professional you will be treated like a professional. For instance, procuring a set of business cards—even if it is only a starter pack of 100—is critical. You will quickly find that being able to exchange business cards with someone will instantaneously level the playing field with that person. Another quick professionalism tip: get a domain and email addresses that match it. As for building your actual website, please don’t use an online template that’ll say “Theme by Nick” or something like that at the bottom. If you want something done right, do it yourself (look back to Lesson 3). That means that if you need to learn HTML and CSS to code your own website, do it. There are plenty of free online ways of learning how to. Be professional in your emails, too. Natrion goes about this by drafting all emails on separate documents and editing and re-editing until they are 100% ready to be sent. A single typo might as well be the end of your business, and never address an email to someone with just their first name until they reply back that it is okay to do so. Finally, consider getting a LinkedIn; it’s a really useful resource as long as you act professionally on it (don’t link your Facebook account to your LinkedIn account!).
One of my favorite quotes is by the great playwright George Bernard Shaw, who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I think that anyone who tries to start a company has to be a bit crazy—especially if you try to start a company in high school. Think, however, where the world would be without such crazy people. I can guarantee that starting a business will be one of the most challenging things that you will ever do. At times, you may even question whether it’s worth it to keep moving forward with a startup (I know that I have). However, if you identify why you decided to start a business, work with what you have, and hold yourself to the highest standards of thoroughness and professionalism, starting a business might very well become the most rewarding thing that you’ll ever do.
To contact Alex Kosyakov, reach out to him on LinkedIn here.
Natrion was founded by Alex Kosyakov, CEO, and 5 classmates at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, CT. Natrion is a sodium-ion battery company currently in the R&D phases. Their goal is to provide safe and affordable energy storage solutions for clean power grids through advanced battery technologies. Natrion recently was selected as a semifinalist at the Diamond Challenge competition in Baltimore and has been nominated for the CT Entrepreneur Award. Natrion also won Startupalooza NYC which was held at Serendipity Labs in the Financial District in August 2018. For more information about Natrion, go to http://natrion.co.
About LaunchX Clubs:
LaunchX Clubs is a recognized 501(c)(3) organization that expands the reach of high school entrepreneurship to students and schools globally. For more information about LaunchX Clubs, go to http://launchxclubs.org.