Student by Day, Founder by Night! How to Become an Entrepreneur While Still in College
Let me introduce you to a new breed of entrepreneur, and a new breed of student.
A studentreprenuer, if you will, is the kid in the back row half asleep and looking completely burnt out. That kid may seemed stressed, but don’t feel bad for them. They’re having the time of their life. That’s because starting your own project is the most inspiring, exciting, and exhilarating feeling you will ever experience—even if you’re fitting it in between lectures.
Increasingly often, students around the world are launching a business as an integral part of their college educations. They side-hustle between classes, compare conversion rates in the student union over lunch, and launch their own student entrepreneurship clubs.
What is it exactly that motivates these college students to launch startups, all while trying to study for finals and go to the occasional kegger on the weekend? As one myself, people ask me this all the time. In particular:
“Why don’t you just start a business, and not go to school?”
Don’t get me wrong—that has crossed my mind a few times. However, besides a few elite examples (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc.) this is not necessarily a good idea. In my case, attending one of Canada’s best business schools was an opportunity to gain connections, network, and learn proven processes. What I mean by proven processes is traditional textbook learning. This learning yields benefits that experience in the field simply cannot replicate.
I believe there is a place for both forms of education. Learning academically, and going out and getting your feet wet both have separate ROIs. For me, staying in school was both a safety net, and an opportunity to learn from industry professionals while taking advantage of unique benefits students enjoy. But I have to say, I have also learned immense amounts as a student entrepreneur that I would have never learned in school. From incorporation procedures, vesting schedules, burn charts, all learned by trying to build something awesome on my own. People also wonder:
“Why not wait until you graduate?”
The short answer is, I could not wait. I was that little kid waking up his parents at 3:30 a.m. to open presents Christmas Day. I wanted to start as soon as possible. I’m not alone. A lot of great entrepreneurs went to school and also started their first ventures while enrolled. Mark Cuban went to Indiana University, while there he started a few businesses, the most prominent being Motley’s Pub. He did so to pay for school, but also because he was eager to do something more and wasn’t satisfied with a part-time job, as he explains here. It is doable, and the reasons are going to be discussed throughout this article.
But make no mistake, it’s no walk in the park being a student entrepreneur. That’s why I wanted to share with Foundr’s readers, many of whom may be in similar situations, some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Here are a few techniques and insights that I developed and learned, mostly through my mistakes, on how to tackle all of those deliverables that your competing commitments demand. They may seem obvious at first glance, but you would be surprised how easy they are to overlook.
1. Take advantage of the student advantage!
Being a student and attempting to start a venture has many advantages that are unique to your student status. Here are some of the key benefits:
Finding a Mentor:
Mentors are easily accessible for students, maybe more so than at any time in your life. It is crucial to have one as a student. Not only do they provide professional direction, they also have access to a bounty of resources, and experiences that will most definitely be useful for a young entrepreneur.
Mentors open doors and provide opportunities—when starting up, it is all about who you know. Cold-calling is so much warmer for students. We can leverage our intentions to learn, and the reception is always a positive one. Industry professionals and leaders are more eager to teach and help you progress.
So how do you approach that awkward stage of popping the question, “Will you be my mentor?” For starters, please don’t explicitly ask that. Finding a mentor is a process. It is like finding a co-founder. You have to make sure your values and future expectations are congruent. Furthermore, you have to bring something to the table.
There are online networks like FindAMentor, however, as this Forbes article advises, it’s never a good idea to ask a stranger. That is not to say you can’t approach someone you admire, you totally should. Just make sure you have a very strong relationship before approaching them as a potential mentor. The key is to be “mentorable.” Be personable, eager to learn, open to criticism, and don’t sell yourself short.
Bootstrapping is the act of starting a venture with little to no capital, and finding innovative ways to finance the business. It’s the foundation of student startups, and a great learning experience. Anything from using your parents’ printer to print off company brochures to using a student loan to finance that $15/month domain fee. This lack of cash demands creativity, and in that demand innovation is born!
“What if I just can’t afford it?”
I created a process called Contingent Investment/Spending. It’s a process of making capital expenditures only if there is a 100% guaranteed return on risk. Check out this snippet of an Excel sheet that simplifies the idea:
So for example, say product ABC is t-shirts, then XYZ would only place the order once the t-shirt has been sold either on some e-commerce solution or in person, etc. That means the only starting expenditure is an online market that companies like Squarespace or WordPress offer for small amounts. These are non-technical, drag-and-drop website builders to get you started!
Your university’s pool of resources:
This is a big one. Universities are full of entrepreneurial resources. Many universities are even adapting in-house incubators aimed at fostering student growth. You should also take advantage of your professors’ knowledge. This is a rare opportunity for free consulting.
On-campus clubs based on entrepreneurship are becoming increasingly prominent. Join like-minded people, and talk about your ideas! If your university doesn’t have one, perfect—start one! Take my school, for example, the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. They have multiple thriving entrepreneurship clubs, and even have a very innovative incubator offered right on campus. It is called e@UBC, how cool is that? They continue to foster huge projects like Tangoo. This support offered right on campus is a major reason why it’s one the most innovative universities I have ever come across.
“Is it really necessary to have an entrepreneurship club on campus?”
Most definitely. If there isn’t a space, place, or even a Facebook group for discussion, support, and networking then any entrepreneurial spark can easily be smothered. It should also be mentioned that these kinds of support networks alleviate the hardship of trying to find a co-founder. For example, I needed to find a technical co-founder, but my network outside my faculty was small. So I attended an event thrown by one of the many entrepreneurship clubs on campus, and sure enough, I found someone perfect for my project.
A/B testing made easy:
Here’s another hidden resource for student entrepreneurs: Your university is the perfect test market. A/B testing with the startup community in your university is the perfect way to address the feasibility of your idea. A/B in the technical sense is comparing multiple websites or applications that have slight differentiating CTAs or site maps, so you can track the conversion rates between the differences. This can be done through third party sites like Optimizley.
Technical A/ B testing example- based on having a control and experiment.
However, I am talking about the non-technical sense. It’s basically validating your idea and asking potential customers what they want/like/need out of your product/service. This can be done through focus groups, connecting with your market research department to design a study (I tried this. It works!), or just heading to a local coffee shop and offering to buy someone their coffee for five minutes of their time (the classic)…students love free stuff, and coffee.
Your campus is the perfect test market. It provides an accurate sample size of your customer base’s population. You can also reiterate and modify your product until you master this sample size, then from there you can expand your segment with your newly validated idea.
2. Make your agenda your best friend.
When you embark on being both a student and an entrepreneur, you’re beginning a never-ending juggling act. As smart as you may be, you’re just not going to be able to wing it. You’re going to have to get good at managing your time, deliberately and with a dedicated system.
There are many techniques out there on how to rank and prioritize your everyday life. First thing is to assess your priorities. For example, you may think school, then startups, then friends, then exercise is the order of importance. Once the prioritization is complete you can disseminate your tasks accordingly, ranking each task by your level of prioritization. Further organize by color coding each task by segment.
Be specific—write down the room, the time, and who you are meeting with. Whatever planning system you set up should be a seamless collection of all your daily tasks. A one-stop shop to keep you updated. Back it up digitally (come on it’s 2016) using Chrome extensions or Google calendar APIs that allow for seamless integration. And of course, there is always an app for that.
There are tools that exist to facilitate easy organization, and a streamlined approach to the classic “to-do” list.
- Todist – A powerful platform for managing tasks
- Any.do – An iPhone application
- PushBullet – A device integration software
3. Choose a co-founder carefully.
When starting up, you may feel obligated to allow your friend to tag along. Just because you make a good team on Call of Duty does not mean you should start a venture together. If you believe your friend would be a good addition, make sure to vet him or her. Talk to people, get to know them, this is a big decision.
The next step is equity allocation, which can be done with a vesting schedule, or a variable-pay method. However, if potential investors check your capitalization table and see an equal 50-50 split, they will not be impressed. Do not just give your co-founder 50% right away. That is a substantial amount that they haven’t earned yet. Here is a good article that further discusses equity splitting.
And of course, before going down these roads, validate your idea!
4. Weekends are for playing catch up.
Unfortunately, working for the weekend is not something the student entrepreneur experiences. The weekends are for grinding and attempting to finish your daily deliverables. To help be more productive on the weekends, try finding a study cafe, just to mix up the scenery.
And remember, as you start putting in endless hours into your project, it doesn’t always mean you’re being effective, and might actually be making things worse. So be careful not to overdo it. I particularly like this take on productivity, that it’s all about being concise, efficient, and keeping things simple. A great Foundr article does an awesome job summarizing ways to handle the dreaded burnout.
Another thing about weekends, you want to find balance, but don’t be afraid to stay in Friday night. It is during those nights when you will differentiate yourself. It may not seem worth it, and you may have some serious FOMO, but there will always be another party.
The time you take to better yourself, learn that extra language, gain proficiency in that software, will pay off in the long run. This time allows you to find what motivates you, and allows you to define your goals. Self-reflection will keep you motivated. I highly suggest taking this time for yourself, maybe take a walk alone, and think about what motivates you, what is your 5-year goal, your 10-year goal?
Try using this template. Self- evaluation is key to success!
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs
Do what others won’t tonight, so you can do what others can’t tomorrow. At the end of the day, you are allowed to fail. It is almost expected. But it’s 2016, and the tools needed to start a business can be found on your very laptop. There is nothing holding you back! Why wait until after commencement?
Any student entrepreneurs out there in the Foundr Family? What are the best lessons you’ve learned, in or out of class?