Joshua Collins is the founder of Catapult Ideas, a New York City-based incubator program, which grooms promising young students into entrepreneurs.
So Josh, tell us about Catapult Ideas and how long you have been operating.
Catapult is a startup incubator for high school students. Think Techstars, but for high school. We source and develop the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs (300+ students representing 35 states and seven countries). Over the course of 3 months, students gather for three four-day intensives monthly, each time in a different entrepreneurial-focused city. To date, Catapult alumni have generated over $3 million and have gone on to attend top universities such as Stanford and MIT.
I initially came up with the concept for Catapult in the summer of 2013 when advising my brother on his startup, who at the time was in high school, but was struggling to be taken seriously because of his age, and didn’t have access to resources older entrepreneurs have. After structuring a partnership with the Harvard Innovation Lab to host our first program, we launched our first program in November of the same year with our Demo Day taking place in April of 2014.
What did you do prior to Catapult and what drove you to quit your former job to pursue entrepreneurship?
Prior to Catapult, I was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Ashoka’s Youth Venture. I was very fortunate to have a role that allowed me to explore and experiment various ideas around youth and entrepreneurship. Catapult was founded within Ashoka and then spun out a year and a half later, and it was an incredible opportunity to be incubated by one of the pioneers of the social entrepreneurship space.
How did it feel making such a big decision?
It was certainly scary for me to leave the security and brand recognition of this larger organization. In my gut, I knew it was the best decision for Catapult and for our next phase of development, even if it did involve me taking a huge amount of risk and personal liability.
Talk to us about the early days; how did you start, get people on board, and raise capital?
We only survived the early days by leveraging the human capital of my network and friends. These people are specialists in both entrepreneurship and in working with high school students, which is rare to find and sets Catapult apart from other educational experiences.
The approach we are taking with these kids is risky and for the long-term – we are working with students both now and years down the road to support them in future ventures. So an investment in Catapult was an investment in this vision: long-term, high-risk, and ultimately in the belief that some of these kids are really going to change the world. We were fortunate enough to have two investors who believed in both me personally and and in this vision.
Every entrepreneur makes at least one big mistake. Tell us what that most impactful mistake was in your journey and how did you right it.
Well I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes, but my most impactful one was what caused me to have to close down my first startup in 2009. We raised all this money and came up with this rock solid business plan of what we were going to do, but we never stopped along the way to reevaluate if that plan was even working or right for our customers. It was too late when we realized our plan wasn’t going to work long-term, and we found ourselves without a long enough runway to course-correct. With Catapult, we are constantly pivoting, constantly changing and adapting our model, and we teach our kids to do the same. Many of our teams come in with an idea for a business that completely changes by the end of the first session.
What was your first triumphant moment at Catapult?
The first triumphant moment at Catapult was during the Demo Day of the first cohort, the day where students pitch their ideas to a room full of judges, entrepreneurs and investors. Not only was it a relief to finish that first program that I was essentially running alone, but it was also an incredible feeling to see the impact that the program had on the students’ ideas and on them personally. It was the first moment of affirmation Catapult received, especially from these judges who had seen hundreds of pitches, that these high school students could start viable businesses. We felt like this experiment we were running was something that could actually work.
How about your first moment of crisis?
The first and most recurring moments of crises involve ordering meals for high school students. We constantly underestimate just how much food these kids can eat.
Has your management style evolved since launching? How so?
In the beginning I was involved in every decision, big and small. Over time, I’ve become much more comfortable in giving that responsibility up. Other team members now have ownership of different elements of the business and solving the problems that come along with it. The company is definitely better for it.
You’re working with some incredibly bright, young entrepreneurs. Have you learned anything from working with them and observing their mistakes? What has been the biggest learned lesson?
I’ve learned so much about resilience from these students. They come in to the program with such strong convictions about their solution to some problem without fully understanding what the problem really is. After the first session of diving deep into this problem, oftentimes they find out that their solution isn’t the right or best one. Their ability to bounce back after this perceived defeat with the same amount of energy, if not more, than older people facing the same situation is astounding.
Entrepreneurship has been a hot topic for a while now. Do you think it’s something which should be taught in schools, prior to the start of college?
Yes! We should start them as early as elementary school with lemonade stands! We teach lessons on empathy, leadership, teamwork and creative problem-solving through the lens entrepreneurship, and every student should be learning these skills at various phases of their educational journey. While elements of entrepreneurship should be taught in school, we think the most valuable lessons in entrepreneurship are learned through real-world experiences, outside of the classroom.
Where is the road leading for Catapult?
We have big plans! I think the area we are most excited about is developing programs and opportunities for our students after they leave Catapult. We would ultimately like to get to a spot where Catapult can have a seed-level fund set up to invest in alumni or current students.
Alright, let’s talk about NYC. How long have you been living in the city and where did you move from?
I’ve lived in New York off-and-on for 9 years. I initially moved here after graduating from Westmont College in Santa Barbara. I had never visited NYC before and followed my best friend who was moving here to be a bike messenger. We crammed three guys into a one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side just so we could afford it and I could work on my first startup.
Have you achieved work-life balance? How did you manage that?
Not exactly – I typically operate 100% on or 100% off. When I’m unplugged, I’m fully unplugged, fully present and that helps me feel rested and ready to jump back into things. I think it also helps that I work with a lot of my friends, so work doesn’t feel like “work” all the time.
Outside of the office, where in the city can you be found hanging out?
My wife and I live in the West Village and spend most of our time there or picnicking on the West Side Highway. We love riding bikes and spend most weekends exploring the city on two wheels.
So fashion, are you interested, any thoughts? How about brands, which ones do you like?
And grooming; do you have a skincare routine? What products do you use on your skin?
I’ve been experimenting with different brands lately, so I’m all over the place! Currently, my regimen starts with Kiehl’s Facial Fuel, followed by a Clinique for Men Face Scrub. When I shave, I use a L’Occitane Cedrat Shaving Gel and L’Occitane Cedrat After Shave Cream Gel. I just bought an Aesop Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Hydrator, but it’s pretty strong on the parsley, so the jury’s still out on that.
Binge-watching TV shows. Once I start a series, it’s hard to stop, which is why I only watch TV after programming sessions.
Key takeaway – what is something you wish someone would have told you when you were starting out and you would like to share with someone who is about to start their entrepreneurship adventure?
I now know that it is so important to have a partner in your business – someone who complements your weaknesses, who can help you make decisions and challenge you when you need to be challenged. Doing a startup can be a lonely journey, but it doesn’t have to be! I am thankful for the people around me who can share the burden but also help celebrate the little victories along the way.
Joshua Collins was photographed by Caio Ferreira for BONNE New York and styled by Khahlil Louisy