An Interview with Cam Houser

Cam Houser

Cam Houser is the CEO of 3 Day Startup, a company that delivers the world’s best entrepreneurship education in an extreme hands-on environment. Cam closed multiple six figure sales to universities, governments, foundations and corporations in 2014. He has successfully developed and delivered 3DS Enterprise Innovation program (corporate innovation) and 3DS Springboard (Stanford/NCIIA partnership virtualizing elements of the 3DS model with 9 schools).

3 Day Startup (3DS) programs have produced entrepreneurs that achieved successful exits, raised almost $90 million in investor capital, and received acceptances to accelerator programs such as Y Combinator, TechStars, and Capital Factory. When he’s not in CEO-mode or teaching as a professor at the University of Texas, Cam spends his time producing rap beats and electronic dance music.

In this interview, Cam goes into how they got started and what 3 Day Startup is up to today, along with sprinklings of his personal philosophies mixed in. Enjoy!

So, Cam what’s your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?

Making impact. Entrepreneurs make outsized impact and big changes in the world because they have to, that’s what startups are about. It’s all about scale. And that means making big impact with smaller amounts of resources. We at 3 Day Startup exist to teach this force that we think is so powerful. It’s really exciting to be able to use entrepreneurial techniques to teach entrepreneurship.

How’d you get Up & Running? any ‘aha moment’?

3 Day Startup was initially a student project. It was just some grad students who had experience in the startup game and were frustrated with how slow it was happening inside the university. So our approach was to take matters into our own hands and see what we could do with all this talent and potential sitting around to channel it towards startups.

Our first program was pretty messy. But one of the companies that came out of it raised a lot of money pretty quickly and a huge percentage of the students that participated not only gave us amazing feedback, but volunteered to help us run subsequent programs. It became clear to us that we were really doing something special.

I’m a guy who likes to get eight hours of sleep, I’ve always been that way. After the first 3 Day Startup program, it was Sunday night, my eyes were bloodshot, and I was dead tired. But I couldn’t sleep. I just had so much energy when I shouldn’t have had any.

For me, it was a really powerful experience that I was just shaking with energy on a Sunday night and barely slept any that entire evening because I had never experienced that much excitement and potential and collaboration before.

How did 3 Day Startup get off the ground? Did you bootstrap it?

It was a student project that was trying to explore how entrepreneurship could happen better on a university campus. We felt like the amount of brains in any given university weren’t getting channeled towards startups, so we wanted to channel more energy to that. So we just picked a date and ran a program.

It was definitely bootstrapped. We did get some great support from the community though. A lot of people spread the word and there were some sponsors who payed for food. But we didn’t start making money from programs for years into it. We ran extremely lean, and that strategy has been incredibly useful to us to this day.

What roadblocks did 3DS initially face?

The list of that is way too long. From people not understanding our value and thinking we weren’t worth anything to people thinking it was very easy to copy. That was a pressure we faced a lot before we built a brand and ran programs at places like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford.

We definitely got punched in the face by roadblocks and obstacles. But in the end, they always seemed to benefit us and make us better at what we did. We had competitors who seemed to be growing faster, but we just kept our heads down and kept focused on being the best at what we do.

What’s been your most epic moment so far as an entrepreneur?

I don’t normally believe in epic moments or that there is one peak of it. There are so many amazing components that make up a life or make up an experience. And as an entrepreneur, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of those. Whether it’s on a plane to Chile getting ready to put on one of our first programs in the southern hemisphere or developing our engagement with the government of Queensland, Australia alongside people driving and dictating entrepreneurship policy for that region.

The fact that they recognized and valued our experience building entrepreneurship ecosystems all over the world; it just feels really good. The fact that a leadership inside a government came to us and said “we respect you, we respect your lens and your perspective.” For them to call on us to help steer their approach to entrepreneurship on the university level was pretty incredible.

What makes 3DS unique & how did you find your niche?

As far as what makes us unique, there are a lot of things about us that people don’t do. But one thing in particular is we have an almost unreasonable approach to time. We believe we can give students most of the value and learning from four years of studying entrepreneurship in three days through the experience of it. So that’s a pretty crazy idea.

Telling them, don’t worry about textbooks or articles about entrepreneurship, just go do it. The best way to learn how to start a company is to start a company, and 3DS is unique in it’s approach to letting students do that. We’ve been able to refine that over the past few years. Ultimately, time is everyone’s most precious commodity, so part of 3 Day Startup’s approach to this is an understanding and value of that.

This is a big one, how do you balance your personal/professional time?

I do it pretty well now. I did it very badly in the first few years. My life was pretty much inseparable from 3 Day Startup. Now, I try to set up pretty strong walls between those things. I try not to do too much work on weekends. I’m one of those people who is answering emails when I’m in an elevator or at a stoplight, which I know is not best practice. But I do it so that, when I’m home, I’m actually home.

What’s your greatest fear as a brand owner?

You know, as a brand owner, a fear has kind of got to be having people misinterpret or misconstrue your brand. We believe that we are the best in the world at what we do and the impact we make. But we have to worry that that won’t always be the perception.

And we have run into instances that would cast doubt on it where something kind of stupid happens. For instance — and we laugh about this now because the brand has come a long way since then — but one of the first programs we ran outside of the country was in Germany. They wanted to do a themed program and often these themes will be “the sharing economy” or “big data.” But the theme they chose (and ran the program with) was “sex, drugs, and javascript.” And that’s not really what we wanted to hear as brand owners.

Can you explain how your personal mindset influences your life and business?

Stoicism is my personal philosophy, so I pretty much believe that when roadblocks get thrown at me I should see them as advantages or opportunities. The book, “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday had tremendous impact on me.

So everything for me, whether it’s in my life or with 3 Day Startup, it’s all about an opportunity for growth. But I believe in excellence. I want to be the best entrepreneurship educator in the world and I want our organization to be the best at doing so. So it’s a very personal thing for me. Entrepreneurship has done so much for me that I want to be sure I give something back.

What are your top 3 bits of advice for starting a business in Texas?

Texas is a very unique and a very special place. One of my favorite reminders of this is Lonestar Beer, where across the front of the can it says, “The National Beer of Texas.” And this is a nod to the independence that Texans feel and a nod to the 12 years where Texas actually was its own country (a fact that many Texans will remind you of to this day).

But the larger principles of how to be a successful entrepreneur are useful in any region, in any place. And as long as you are good about following those principles, you’ll be successful. I think three of those principles are:

  1. Make sure you’re solving a problem, you don’t just want to build a solution because you think the technology is cool or the product is cool.
  2. Understand your market and your customer, you need to know their habits and what they’re like and how they perceive that problem and if they are open to a solution.
  3. Make sure that there is customer willingness to pay.

If you follow the first two steps, you’re going to be creating value, but creating value isn’t sufficient. As a business person, you need to capture value. You need to understand your revenue model and how money comes in the door.