How to Start a Startup

Three women entrepreneurs discuss perseverance, funding, and honing your concept

Mar 11 2022 | By Jenna Kornicki
Daniela Duron Garcia, Erin McNulty, and Maya Joudi

Daniela Duron Garcia BS’20, Erin McNulty BS’23, and Maya Joudi GS’22

Most entrepreneurs would agree that the most difficult stage for any startup venture is getting the idea off the ground. You might have a good product, you might even have a target market, but there are a million questions that come up on the way to turning a great concept into a solid company.

At Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship, fellow startup founders are here to help. Recently, three women entrepreneurs from Columbia hosted a Q&A session Feb. 24 as part of Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship’s ongoing Ask me Anything series. The series debuted in 2020 as a space for students to learn about entrepreneurship from fellow founders at all stages of the process.

The panel of three undergrads gave participants a glimpse of potential early pitfalls, and offered advice on how to come out on top. Erin McNulty BS’23, a junior studying computer science who’s working in tech entrepreneurship, talked about her time with startup Timesort during a Columbia Hackathon her freshman year. Daniela Duron Garcia BS’20, a technician in the Columbia mechanical engineering lab, discussed getting off the ground with her startup FLOW, which is designing a compact and transportable cleaner for menstrual cups. Finally Maya Joudi GS’22, a senior with a background in global entrepreneurship and experience with the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, described her time working with startups in her home country of Tunisia and how she brought that into her role in CORE.

Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

Q. Startups can be risky. How do you make your project stand out from the crowd?

McNulty: In tech, the thing that sets your startup apart from the rest isn’t material. It’s not your code, unless you have something truly revolutionary. It’s more likely to be your market savvy. I found this out when working on my first startup, Timesort, which was a program to aid time management. As a student, I was lacking real world experience and wisdom in the tech field. Timesort didn’t work out for other reasons—turns out, people don’t like to be told what to do with their time—but I decided it would be wiser to gain a few years of experience in the field first and then circle back to founding a startup.

Garcia: So many people fall in love with their ideas, and when they don’t work out, they can't let them go. If there isn’t enough demand for your idea, you have to pivot. Talk to people. Watch people. Sometimes people don’t know what they want. They understand that there’s a problem and there must be a better way, and if you can find that better way, you’ve got a winning idea. Watch people confront the problem, then devise a solution. Tweak your idea so that it better reflects how people naturally want to solve the problem.

Joudi: User feedback is extremely valuable, even if it alters your idea.

Q. How did you persevere through the pandemic?

Garcia: In my case, my co-founders and I were out of work, the pandemic was in full force, and we had the time and motivation to put work into FLOW. The pandemic had set back our access to labs, delaying our first prototype, but we were determined to see the project through. We knew our idea was in demand and it was gaining traction. Our feedback was extremely positive and FLOW was earning praise from the academic community, so we didn’t let the pandemic stop us. Now, my co-founders and I are working in different locations across the country, but we still meet regularly to move forward with our startup.

Q. How can I find the right co-founders to partner with?

Joudi: Columbia has many students who are interested in entrepreneurship. My advice is to attend every entrepreneurship event you can. Talk to others at these events, pitch your ideas, and gauge interest. Furthermore, make sure that your team works well together. Your skill sets and personality traits should be complementary to one another. Investors don’t only invest in the product, they also invest in the team, so a strong team is the foundation for a successful startup.

Q. What are some good ways to raise money during the early stage of a startup?

Garcia: Kickstarters are a great way to raise money. My team and I spent the early days of the pandemic scouring the internet for fundraisers because our funding had fallen through. We participated in an Indiegogo fundraiser and raised around $3,500 over a period of a few months. Columbia also has startup grants that I recommend you apply for.

Q. What are some other ways I can get involved in entrepreneurship at Columbia?

Joudi: CORE runs a design-a-thon competition around March which is available to everyone. There’s also JADE, a week-long program for first-year students, and Founder School, a two-month entrepreneurial course offered twice a year. There are also a few semester-long courses in various schools at Columbia that focus on entrepreneurship skills and intellectual property.

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