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Duke Basketball & Entrepreneurship: What Can We Learn?

What do Duke men’s basketball and entrepreneurship have in common? A bit more than you may think! Read on to hear about lessons you could learn from the culture of Coach K and 2017 ACC Tournament Champions.

People advise you to read books and articles about entrepreneurship when considering starting your own company – learn about the lean startup, delve deep into business plans and financial models, consider product market fit and customer needs. But sometimes, you need to look outside the typical startup environment for good examples. What better place to look than to the Duke men’s basketball program? Here are a few startup tips you can learn from the 2017 team.

Recruit the best. Duke men’s basketball consistently is a top 10 recruiting program. 2016-2017 was no different – with the program seeing ratings as high as 5 or 6 in the country. In order to compete for championships, you have to compete for the best players. Same goes for your company – who are the best people doing the work you want to do? What can you offer them that is different (and better!) than what they have now?

Hold team members accountable. The 2016-2017 season had some rough weeks. Coach K was out for back surgery, players missed games for injuries and suspensions, and things started to unravel from their early successes. During that time, players were told not to come to the locker room, and not to wear their Duke basketball apparel – until they could live up to the program’s standards. Set high standards for your team – and then expect that they live up to them. What are the values by which you want your company to operate? How will you confront team members whose actions don’t align with those values?

(Sports Illustrated, 2017)

Don’t get too confident. The Duke men’s basketball team started as the preseason #1 team in the nation. By mid-season, they fell as low as #17 before ending the season as ACC Tournament Champions. With the nation watching and expecting great things, the team knew that the rankings didn’t matter – they had to stay humble, work hard, and great things would happen. Hopefully, as you start a company, you too will see early success, but know that there will be bumps in the road. How can you be proud of your accomplishments while also staying humble? What are things you know you still can improve upon?

Communicate. That commercial of Coach K texting emojis to Kyrie Irving wasn’t far off. Coach K knows the importance and value in strong communication with his team – he leads the way. By connecting to the players in ways they prefer and in places they are already communicating, he garners greater respect, which in turn leads to a stronger and better team. And a team that then communicates with each other in similar ways. Consider the methods by which you will communicate with your team. Can you be sure you’re showing genuine interest in their success and well-being? How can you demonstrate to them that you care?

Share the wealth. After Duke beat out Notre Dame for the ACC Championship, Luke Kennard (Naismith College Player of the Year Candidate) was interviewed. Kennard had an outstanding game – but his interview focused on their team growth and team success. He talked about how much they had overcome together, and how much he could see them growing moving forward. Consider ways you can also share successes as a team. How can you recognize people who work hard? How can the team celebrate accomplishments and milestones?

Study effective teams – regardless of industry – and you can always find some things to learn. Study teams like Duke basketball and you may end up with some national championships!

Perfecting the Pitch

You may know the content of your pitch backwards and forwards, but what about your presentation? What about your tone of voice or body language? Are you giving the most persuasive pitch possible or is something distracting the audience from your presentation?As part of our I&E Academy series, Andy Roth, co-founder of RocketBolt, led a session on pitch preparation. See the slides below for tips on all the things you can control when getting ready for your next big pitch.

Guest Post: The College Entrepreneur

College is a time for learning. But why limit that learning to a classroom? Many would argue that there’s no greater time to experiment with entrepreneurship than during your college experience. Whether it’s launching your own startup or just validating some ideas, there’s so many reasons to get started while still a student.

Here’s the top five:

  1. Incredible Access to Resources

For most, at no other time in your life will you be so connected to such a concentrated set of resources than during your time on a college campus. At Duke, we have a plethora of such resources at our disposal. Be it world-renowned faculty, dedicated I&E advisors, or facilities like the CoLab and Bullpen, it’s crucial to take advantage of these amazing resources while one can. With everything from the Duke Startup Challenge to the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program available for funding student ideas, there’s even financial resources available for the taking. Impossible to take advantage of them all, it’s up to each student to decide how they they’ll make the most of the opportunities.

  1. Alumni Connections

Particularly at a school like Duke, there’s an incredible alumni network of widely successful individuals within reach. When you’re a student, you even have an advantage when trying to connect with these individuals. Many alumni love fostering conversations with current students and see it as a great way to give back to their alma mater. These individuals can help with everything from growing your idea to opening up their own networks for your benefit. Beyond that, regardless of the success of your work, it’s never too early to begin growing your professional network and setting yourself apart as a motivated individual.

  1. A Time to Learn (and Fail)

We all know that college is a place where you come to learn. More than that though, it’s a time for you to learn to fail. Compared to the rest of your life, it’s a time of relatively low risk. Given you remain committed to your degree and classes, you will always have that to fall back on, regardless of the result of your entrepreneurial endeavors. Under these forgiving circumstances, there’s no reason not to take bold risks and learn from your mistakes. These shortcomings will pay dividends in years to come and will put you ahead of the pack in your professional growth.

  1. A Step Beyond Your Classes

Why not apply the learnings from your classes and turn them into real-world lessons? Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate allows you to learn a number of real-world applications for entrepreneurship inside the classroom, but it’s up to you to apply them yourself. Experimenting with entrepreneurship allows you to convert lecture material into tangible examples that you can experience and later recall. Especially if you’re someone who is tired of learning material only to find yourself forget it months later, try converting that new knowledge into something that can’t be forgotten. You won’t be disappointed.

  1. The Win-Win

No matter how your entrepreneurial endeavors fare, there’s no downside in terms of your professional development. Whether your startup takes off and you can pursue it full time after school, or your idea never gains any meaningful traction, you will be able to proceed with the skills you have learned, the experiences you’ve had, and the connections you’ve made. Beyond that, it allows you to pursue your interests in a way that no other internship or college experience can. You are at your own freedom to choose whatever it is you wish to discover, and you can pursue your own specific passions to create meaning. It’s a win-win that provides for an incredible experience far beyond that of the average student.

There’s no denying the benefits of starting your entrepreneurial journey as early as possible. Get out there and get started.


Alex Gottwald is an Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate Ambassador and sophomore computer science major. He’s also the founder of AskAlex Tech Experts, a startup he launched as a fellow of Duke’s Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program last summer.

I Have an Idea! Do I Need a Lawyer?

As part of our I&E Academy series, Duke’s Start-Up Ventures Law Clinic led a session on entrepreneurship & law. See the slides below for some tips & tricks on when you may need a lawyer during your entrepreneurial journey!

Getting the Most from an Informational Interview

People tell you that informational interviews are important – but why? How do you do them without it being awkward? Read on for tips & tricks to getting what you want from an informational interview.

The informational interview is different than a traditional interview – you’re not asking for a job, you’re just asking for advice. They’re helpful in providing first-hand information about industries of interest, as well as offer tips on how to prepare for a given career. Moreover, in a world where your professional network is important, informational interviewing can widen that net and expand the relationships you have with others in your field.

So how do you conduct an informational interview? Here are six easy steps to follow.

  1. Research Career Fields. Consider what you hope to do beyond graduation. Are there typical pathways that people follow from your major? Are there companies or cities that interest you? What type of role do you want to acquire in the long-term? It’s important to identify a few career paths – and write those down.
  2. Identify Potential Interviews. Once you have identified potential companies or industries, you need to identify potential people. Consider people within your own networks – professors, fellow students, family friends – they may be able to connect you to professionals in your field of interest. Leverage your Duke connections by reaching out to alumni via LinkedIn or the Duke Network. Look to see if any professional associations exist in your field of interest, and contact them.

    The Karate Kid, 1984

  3. Make an Ask. Reach out to those people! In an email or phone call, introduce yourself – what are you studying, where are you from. Share that you’re exploring different career paths, and that you’re interested in what they are doing. If you were connected to them by a person, name that person. Then, ask for 20-30 minutes of their time for a meeting. Express that you’re looking for advice about their particular role or company, and would like to hear how they got where they are today.
  4. Prepare. Once they (hopefully) say yes, you have some prep work to do. Develop a few sentence overview of yourself – why you’re interested in this particular role or company, what you’re involved in at Duke, etc. Then, plan some good open-ended questions that allow you to get good advice from them. These could be things like, “What skills do you think are most important for this role?” or, “What part of this job is most satisfying? Most challenging?” Spend time brainstorming (a Google search will help, too!) questions that you think help you learn more about their industry or company.

    Saturday Night Live, 2004

  5. Have a Conversation. On the day of the interview, be sure to stay on time and be on track. Thank them for sharing information with you, and reiterate that you’re looking for advice (not a job!). Share the brief background you prepared – this should be no more than a few minutes long – and then get to questioning. Know that this may turn into more of a conversation than an interview, and that’s okay. But it is your job to guide the conversation, since you asked for the meeting. Be sure to listen well, show genuine interest, and take good notes.
  6. Follow Up. At the end of the conversation, ask if you can contact them again with further questions. You can also ask if they would be willing to introduce you to others within their company or profession. The goal is to develop relationships and learn more – so ask how! You’ll also want to spend some time after the call looking over your notes and thinking about what you can identify as key takeaways from the conversation – and what else you need to learn. Be sure to send a sincere thank you within 48 hours of the interview.