Thinking About Starting a Business in College?

October 20, 2015

If you're a senior in college, congratulations! You're in the home stretch. The main question that comes up each day with classmates, friends and parents is "What are you doing after you graduate?"

You know the answer is supposed to be, "I'm working at a big well-regarded company" or "I'm going to grad school." But what if, in your heart of hearts, what you REALLY want to do is start your own business?

In some respects, college is the perfect place to start a business. You have time on your hands. You're surrounded by potential collaborators and customers. You're young enough to be endearing anytime you ask for advice or support. There are resources on campus to access. And if it doesn't work out you can put it down, graduate, and it won't appear on your resume. It's like a risk-free trial run.

There are many legendary entrepreneurs who got started out of their dorm room. Michael Dell started Dell Computers at the University of Texas. Billionaire Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos as an undergrad. Kevin Plank came up with Under Armour while sweating on a football field at the University of Maryland. Investor Josh Kopelman started his first company his sophomore year - and has now founded the Dorm Room Fund to support student entrepreneurs.

That said, starting a business is never easy - most businesses never really find their market or reach critical mass. Realistically, it's a steep hill to climb.

If you're thinking of starting a business while on campus, here are some things that might help:

Find a partner. One of the main ways for you to learn while you start your business is to work with someone who knows things you don't. Maybe you have an idea for an app but don't know how to code. Or you have a food idea and your friend loves to cook. Try to enlist that smart friend of yours you've always wanted to work with as your partner. You'll pick up a lot from him or her. You may even make a friend for life. And if it doesn't work out you'll at least get a better sense of the people you want to work with in the future.

Network off campus. This depends a little bit on where your school is, but most universities have real businesspeople located nearby that are eager to help mentor. They are often looking to source talent for their ventures. If you reach out, you'll be surprised by how easy it is to get meetings. Sitting with a CEO of a local company is a phenomenal way to learn and meet role models. There may be some people who are already affiliated with a university program - but go beyond campus. The world won't come to you.

Build on your experience. What have you spent the past summers doing? What skills have you picked up or industries have you been exposed to? Does your family run a business? What do you see as your strengths? Chances are that there's something in your background that will lead you to the sort of company you might want to start. Reflect on what motivates you - you'll be more likely to succeed and stick with it if it's something you care about.

Start small. Kevin Plank's first business at the University of Maryland wasn't Under Armour; it was Cupid's Valentine, a business that sold roses on Valentine's Day. He made $17,000 from Cupid's Valentine that he used as seed money for Under Armour. Mark Cuban ran a bar, gave dance lessons and hosted parties while he was at Indiana University. The principles of running a business - delivering a service, getting the word out, managing people - are universal. Don't sweat the big picture. Embrace the real opportunities in front of you. They may lead to surprising places.

Don't fixate on investment. A common approach for first-time entrepreneurs is to spend all of their time obsessing over meeting and finding investors. Try to avoid this by either figuring out what you can do without lots of money, or find ways to make progress in the meantime. Bootstrapping a business is often the best approach. As one investor said to me, "the companies we want to invest in are the ones that don't need our money anyway."

Share your idea far and wide. You may think that your idea is a homerun - and it might be. But the real danger your business faces is not getting the resources it needs to have a chance to succeed. Hiding your idea or requiring non-disclosure agreements is generally going to hold you back more than help you. You should take the other side and shout your idea from the rooftops. You'll have a better chance of getting support, partners and customers if you tell as many people as possible.

See it as an education. You're at college to learn. What better way to learn than to see what it takes to start a business? Win or lose, you'll have a much better sense of what you want to do, the kind of people you like to work with, the roles you're good at, how to talk to potential partners and customers, etc. People spend tens of thousands of dollars getting credit towards a degree. Business experience is often many times more valuable. No matter what, your time trying to start and run a business is going to make you a savvier and more knowledgeable and desirable employee for whatever firm you join.

Starting a business can seem like a daunting challenge, but entrepreneurship is like a lot of other things - you tend to get better at it over time. If you start now, there's no telling what you'll be able to do five, ten, or fifteen years from now. Take advantage of your time in college. Keep your eye on the future and just resolve to learn and grow. And remember that a dance teacher or bar owner and party thrower today can be a world-class entrepreneur tomorrow.

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