What starting a Student Organization taught me about Business

During my time at UT I had the opportunity to start two student organizations and watch one fail. Those experiences taught me a lot about how to work with people and what it takes to make it in a large “marketplace.” I think that everyone with any interest in starting or being a high level executive in any business should either start, if the opportunity arises, or take a leadership position in a student organization. Student orgs, are great practice for the real world. When my friends and I started the Pre-Health Experience, PHE, we went through and learned a lot! We learned things from how to decide which target audience to focus on, to how to”fire” people – that was a hard decision to come too, especially in a student org where everyone is working for free. These are some of the main business lessons I learned.

Hone your Vision/ Idea

If you now me, you know I love innovation and creativity. BUT one thing I learned through working with some super detail orientated people is; a half-baked idea needs to be put back in the oven. That sounds so country, but it’s true. When you are dreaming up the idea of your business or student org, write everything out. Completely develop your idea. Now, I never said you have to do this alone or you have to plan out every detail, but make sure that you have a grasp of the who, what, where, and most importantly WHY. Jesus, I can write an entire blog about the word “why.” Who knew one small three-letter word can strike so much fear into the hearts of millions. It’s a hard question to answer, because for most big picture thinkers like myself, it forces us to come down off our cloud and focus on the details. I wanna stay on my cloud where I can see what I want to happen and how everything is going to fit together, but the details matter… a lot. Without the details there is no big picture or at least not a very good one.

It is extremely important to know why you are starting your org. If you don’t know why you are starting your org. getting people to buy in to your vision will be impossible. When I started PHE we constantly were asked why do y’all wanna start another Pre-Health org, we have like 50 of those. What makes you different? Every business must answer this question, because in our capitalist economy we have multiple companies that literally do the same thing. The same thing goes for student orgs, especially at a large school like UT. You have to know what makes you different and market that like crazy. In business it is called competitive advantage. If you seriously think about and can’t come up with anything, consider not starting a new organization. In that case, find the org that aligns with your ideals and join them. If you discover that you indeed have some type of viable competitive advantage… that’s when the real work begins.

Teamwork makes the dream work 

If I didn’t have my PHE team around me, PHE would have remained a note on my iPod Touch. I seriously thank God for them.

Find a  strong second in command. That sounds weird, but I honestly don’t know what else to call that person. This person is almost more important than the idea. Actually yea he/she is. This is the person you can be weak in front of. That person, along with the rest of your team, will help you bake the rest of your idea. I can’t tell you amount of times I called my SIC (Korbin Evans) and just freaked out, still do. There was a time when we almost ended our organization because we didn’t think anyone would run for officer positions. This is what Korbin told me.

This was a light version, I’ve literally lost my mind in front of him. Korbin was the initial part of my foundation. He has skills that I don’t and a calm, cool attitude that kept me going when I just wanted to give up. I remember when I first told Korbin about my idea in the PCL(UT’s main library). I think I got like 3 sentences in and he had this huge smile on his face and was like, “ight, let’s go!” He doesn’t know what that meant to me, it gave me hope. Then it all started. We started to build our team. I can’t tell you who should be on your team, but I can tell you this. Look for people who will be honest with you no matter what, and have a talent that you and others on your team do not. That’s how we built the initial PHE officer board and it was by no means perfect, but it worked…mostly.

How to work with a team. Know your people. Understand what makes them tick and don’t do that, on purpose at least. I got blessed with some amazing people, so I just asked them; “What do you hate about working in a group.” This worked great for us. The trick is to create an environment in which your team feels they can be honest without consequence. I understand that I may have had it easy, because I was not in a “business environment” where people can be more concerned about making a good impression on the boss than being honest, but if that’s the type of work environment you have, you’re going to want to take steps the change that, because no. Figuring out what makes your team tick, will make understanding team dynamics a lot easier and make your team more effective.

Communication is everything! Communication is more than just talking to your team. It’s about finding the best way each of them communicates. You’ll find that once you communicate with your team in the way they prefer things will go a lot smoother and you’ll stop feeling like you’re talking to yourself.

Empathy is the key! I actually learned this in Leardershape, but it was reinforced through my work in PHE. The only way for your team to work is if your people feel like they are wanted. Showing empathy is a big part of this. It shows that you care about them as a person more than you care about the talents they bring. So the next time you’re about to blow up at someone for missing a deadline, talk to them. Figure out what’s going on with them, you’ll be surprised what you find. I am by no means saying that you shouldn’t correct bad habits or that you should be a doormat; just make sure you have all the facts before you act.

Have fun with your team. My favorite part about my PHE team was that they were my friends. We cracked jokes, we studied together, and we were are family. I know this may be hard in the “real world,” but you can still have fun with your team. You don’t have to force them to have drinks with you after work or take them to some deserted cabin the woods. I believe that it’s as simple as allowing time in your meeting where y’all can talk. Not as CEO to CFO or whatever, I mean as Josh and James. Be open.

Last thing on teams: As a leader, be prepared to give a lot of pep talks. A lot. Most of the time you’re going to be speaking to yourself, but is important you get it out. You are the visionary, it’s your job to steer the ship.

Running an Organization is Hard

It is. It’s time-consuming, you feel like running into a wall, and on top of that you have other things to do. I could go on for a while about all things I learned about how to structure an organization, how to govern it, and all that other fun stuff, but I’m just going to hit on couple of things.

Know your audience. This is the “who” part of your idea. Figure out who will be interested in joining or buying your product. If your answer is, EVERYBODY, kindly place your idea back into the oven and wait 25 mins. I don’t know if I can think of a single idea that works for everybody. It just doesn’t exist. Find the audience that will benefit the most from what you have to offer and go after them. You can change your audience, it’s called rebranding. We had to do it. When we start PHE it was called MMH, Minority Men in Health, but after we saw that majority of membership were women and realized that we could help more people, we changed our name to be more inclusive. When rebranding remember: same product, different packaging. That is you can change the way you market your product/idea, but your vision should remain the same.

 You will grow. Being small sucks. You’ve put in all this work and 8 people show up. In my case, you plan this huge meeting with all this food and 1 person shows up. It’s a sad, omg I’ve wasted all my time moment. Be patient. It gets better. You know why you’ve started this. It’s up to you and your team to get out there and advertise on what makes you special. Oh and stop comparing, you just started. Facebook didn’t kill MySpace in a day. Chill.

You need money. Money is important. That’s it. Find out how to get money, and do that.

Collaboration is everything! Find other organizations that share similar values with yours and think of ways that y’all can work together to make something great. You’ll find that working with other orgs, you gain invaluable knowledge to move your shared cause forward. I see this at the company I work for, Sunquest Information Systems. We are a founding member of the CommonWell Health Alliance, I won’t go into detail, but click on the links to find out more information, it’s pretty interesting.

Planing…planing only gets you half way. Be prepared to change on a dime. We literally had to create a new agenda 10 mins before our meeting. This is why it is important to have a good team around you. Planning is important, but being adaptable is super important.

Mentors can save you. A mentor will help you to avoid mistakes and help you advance your organization. In the “business world” you could hire a consultant to do this, but they cost a lot of money. I would just find a mentor, they are hard to spot, but once you find someone who is willing to pour into your life and business; nothing will ever be the same.

Know when your time is up. This isn’t always a bad thing, but there is going to come a time where you’ve taken your organization to the highest you can take it. Then its time to pass it on, or watch it burn, your call.

Founding PHE equipped me with a lot of the skills I will need to be successful in business. I know I still have quite a bit to learn, but PHE and just being a part of student organizations has given me a head start.

J is alive

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