Entrepreneurship across college campuses has grown in the past decade. Now more than ever, students around the world are trying to put their ideas in motion. Even with the boom, college is still a tumultuous time on it’s own, and many of the challenges you’ll face as a student entrepreneur are often compounded. Four students, Mica Sloan, JoCee Porter, Mohan Sudabattula, and Parker Andriese, shared what it’s actually like to be a student with a startup, and eleven tips for how you can do it, too.
1. Ask Yourself if You Actually Want This
Before you begin, you have to decide what matters to you. Running a startup will take time. You may expect a few late nights, or having to cram for a midterm or two, but it’s much more than that. Every entrepreneur I spoke with said: If you’re going to start up, you can’t plan to eat three meals a day and sleep for eight hours a night.
“It’s risk-reward,” said Mica Sloan, executive engineer of Portal Power. “How late can you stay up and still function the next morning? I would finish my homework around 12, and my co-founder and I would hash out business stuff until 3 in the morning, just to wake up for class at 7.”
And it’s not just the late nights, either: “I ditched O Chem every Wednesday morning during fall semester to meet with Sustainable Startups at 7 a.m.,” admitted Mohan Sudabattula, CEO of Project Embrace. “I had to for the workshop. Knowing that I was going to miss a third of class, I read the textbook. I married that textbook.” Many of the entrepreneurs had rigorous class schedules — Sudabattula, for example, is a triple major who ran for student body president last year.
“The only way that all of this was possible was passion,” he said. “If you’re forcing yourself to get a task done, then that should be a sign that you shouldn’t be there. If you’re up and you care about what you’re studying for and want to turn the page, if you’re excited about the dreaded hours of staying up in the morning, then you know that you’re doing the right thing.” In order to survive running a startup, your heart really has to be in it.
2. You Have an Idea, but it Might Not be the Idea
After sacrificing a class grade, hours of sleep, a handful of meals, and, according to Sloan, “sometimes literal blood, sweat and tears,” it’s likely that you’ll value your project even more. Still, you have to know when to cut the cord. The end goal is all that matters, not necessarily the path you take to there. “Don’t fixate on the mechanisms of your project,” Sudabattula said, “stay locked in on your outcome. Be able to say that it didn’t work or it’s not going to go any further.”
A common downfall of an early startup is a lack of humility. “Early on, I found out that the path that I had laid out to achieve my goals was not going to happen,” said Parker Andriese, founder of Andriese Entertainment, where he DJs under the stage name “DJ Alive.” “It was so far from it. I was dealing with noise ordinance, police at every outdoor event at 10 p.m., capacity issues, people not taking me seriously because I was so young. I had to be open to taking less than ideal events and routes for exposure, revenue and networking.” If you aren’t willing to listen to legitimate criticisms or adjust your course from its original layout, you won’t succeed.
However, leaving your “baby” vulnerable to rejection and flak can certainly be painful. “One of the hardest things you’ll face as an entrepreneur is separating your ego from your company,” Sloan said, “but you have to. You are not your company, and your company is not you. Just like how legally they’re separate entities, they need to be emotionally as well.” You might end up with a somewhat successful startup if you ignore every pitfall, but it will be shoddy, and nowhere near how cool it could have been.
3. Try Typing Things into Google
What’s even worse than getting attached to a faulty idea is getting attached to something that already exists. “People, I think, will have this idea that they can start something right now, and they’ll get excited and say something on social media, and everybody will say, ‘Oh, you’re a CEO!’ but they don’t even have a viable idea,” said Sudabattula. Criticisms will carry over, and you’ll have plenty of people asking you questions, trying to poke enough holes to sink your ship. Sudabattula researched his idea to reuse mislabeled medical waste before finally presenting it, to guarantee that no other companies were already set on reaching Project Embrace’s goals.
As a younger entrepreneur, professionals may often dismiss you, or, alternatively, try to take your money: “While looking into trademarking a name and logo,” Sloan said, “we met with an attorney who wanted $3,500 to do it for us. During the meeting, I looked up the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website to see how much it actually cost — approximately $350.” But the internet isn’t just for fact-checking. “I printed business cards online and turned them into flyers, because business cards are so much cheaper, and you can get five times the amount,” Andriese said. If you’re resourceful, taking 15 seconds to look into something can save you time and money.
4. Eventually, though, You’re Going to Need More Money
Being a college student is overwhelmingly expensive; you need to pay for tuition, books, housing and more. Even if you’re a good saver and are able to go into your startup with some cash, assuming its success, you’ll eventually need funding to keep growing. Of course, the scale and source differ for non- and for-profit organizations.
JoCee Porter, CEO of Celebrate Everyday, operates a non-profit organization. “I run entirely off of donations. Like most nonprofit charities, I spend the large majority of my time fundraising for Celebrate Everyday and writing business proposals and grant requests. I still have to pay for school, so I also work part-time.” Celebrate Everyday couldn’t exist without the support of the community and the dresses they donate. Project Embrace, Sudabattula’s non-profit, is also largely dependent on grants and donations in order to continue to function.
Andriese started his DJing business after saving a thousand dollars when he was 16. “I wrote a business plan, and my parents cosigned me a loan for my first professional sound system. I started out playing music off my laptop with simplistic lighting, doing any event that would come my way. I was taking events to obtain exposure and accumulate income to pay off my loans and grow my business.”
In either scenario, no matter your goals or business type, you’ll need a loan, investor or grant at some point.
5. Get Used to Paper Cuts
Part of your research should include knowing what kind of paperwork you need to file or present to be consistent with the law and the people you do business with. The amount and style of paperwork differ by company type, of course, but is present all the same. Both Sudabattula and Porter work with nonprofits, which, apparently, require more paperwork than you’d think. “There’s a ridiculous amount [of paperwork], and I had no idea. You need to get a permit to solicit for donations, you need to be 501(c)(3) with the IRS, the list goes on,” Sudabattula said. The process of becoming 501(c)(3) was Porter’s largest roadblock. “Online there are resources, but the process is different for every state, and I couldn’t easily find a reference guide for the state of Utah. I spent hours at the state department and on the phone with the IRS to learn the process.” It’s not easy to ask for help, either, Sudabattula said: “In the world of business, and especially nonprofits, people tend to be very secretive about what they’re doing because they don’t want the light taken away from them, even for just a minute.”
Sloan’s company had to handle business agreements, loan documents, patents and more, while Andriese has to produce contracts and invoices for each customer. No matter what, you’re going to be faced with plenty of paper.
6. Now is Not the Time for a Kickstarter
It’s important that you take things slow. Diving into an idea before the foundation is built is risky, and will hardly ever produce a successful startup. Sloan corroborated Sudabattula’s counseling against running to social media before you actually have anything: “Don’t jump straight into the Kickstarter phase. If you’re just starting out, you only have one chance at crowdfunding. You need semi-organic growth on social media and an email list, at least, for a successful Kickstarter. You need to make sure you have your product ready to go — it’s more for pre-sales than funding now.” After you’ve put hours into your idea, money and research, don’t lose it all by jumping in before you’re really done.
7. Write Things Down (or Type Them, Whatever is Easier for You)
An important part of a successful business is knowing what, exactly, is going on within it. You have to plan your next steps, schedule meetings, keep your social media up to date, and follow your money. Andriese, Porter, Sloan and Sudabattula all recommended some sort of data tracking.
“There was a point last semester to where I had every 15 minutes of my day from travel time, to doing this, executing that, being here planned out,” Andriese said. “If I showed you my planner, you would lose your mind. My planner’s not by me right now, and my life feels like a mess.” Sloan felt similarly, and said, “Always have a notebook. My executive engineer notebook, with the fancy little Portal Power logo on it, did not leave my backpack or person. It’s never more than 10 feet away from me. It’s full of ideas.” Porter likes to keep a running Google Doc of the happenings for Celebrate Everyday, and uses an app called Asana, which is a lot like Google Calendar, to keep her to-do list updated. Log your days and data into whatever you know you’ll check. The busier you get and the more successful your start up becomes, the greater the need for organization in all things.
8. Be the “Capable Kid”
Most college students are young adults, who are generally new to being on their own and supporting themselves. While the idea of going through that stage while also balancing classes, friends, work and a startup may scare you away, it’s that balance that actually makes it easier. As a college student, you reside in a type of “bubble,” where you spend most of your time learning and studying, incredibly close to the “real world” but not yet fully in it. This gives you the chance to take risks and pull your startup in unique directions that you couldn’t pursue otherwise.
Many of the entrepreneurs I spoke to are studying things vastly different than their startups, but were able to bring their passions to business, too. If the combination flows, you can rack up credits and experience, too. “A big part of my company’s success was making it part of my curriculum,” Sudabattula said. “I wanted to build a brand of an academic non-profit. I spun this whole idea into a research project, asking questions like, how do we know this is actually going to help? Is this the right thing to do? It turned into this humanities, social and behavioral science research. It actually will be one of my theses.”
People also love to talk about a kid who’s going somewhere: “there’s this optimistic perspective of you as a very capable kid,” Sudabattula said. It’s impressive to see a young person balance a computer engineering degree and a non-profit, like Porter. While doing something big in college, you attract positive attention; organizations like the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute write articles about you and colleges and competitions want to help you take off.
However, it’s important to remember that “balancing” doesn’t mean perfection in everything. “Do the minimum to get the maximum,” Sudabattula said. “If a 93’s an A, get a 93.” It all circles back to your priorities, and knowing what you can do to meet your own expectations.
9. Your Company Becomes who You Surround it With
Guilty by association applies to companies, too. By letting the wrong people influence your business decisions or play too big of a role in its conception, you make your startup vulnerable. Still, while you may think you can definitely run every part of your startup alone, you can’t — Porter already tried. “For the first year, I ran Celebrate Everyday on my own, and it was a much larger task than I realized,” she said. “Celebrate Everyday did great when it was just me, but then I found a vice president and secretary who both came in with so many different opinions and ideas. Now, Celebrate Everyday is doing even better: Just this summer we have served almost as many girls as we served during last school year.”
Even with the benefits, letting go of what you’ve built can be terrifying. It’s risky to share your company, its successes and failures, with someone else, to have to count on another person. Andriese said the best solution to this is to be transparent and professional, both internally and externally. “I’ve learned to always have a guard up. I tackle all the details and communicate as efficiently as possible. Expectations should be very clear on both ends. I hire people to help that I communicate with very well, who know my expectations and like to have fun.”
Those you choose to get involved with having the same expectations for the company as you do seems to be the most salient part. A little head butting is alright, but when two entirely different visions are both trying to steer a ship, it sinks. When looking for a team member or partner, you must keep in mind that you’ll be in nearly constant interaction. Porter said, “Find someone you enjoy spending time with, who will challenge you more than anyone else, and help you out in any situation.”
Like Porter mentioned, it’s also much easier to become friends through working together. In order to keep your startup professional, it’s a good rule of thumb to not involve your personal relationships with your business, rather, allow new ones to develop through your work. Roping friends and family into an early stage startup almost never plays out well. “It strains relationships. Thanksgiving gets really awkward when Uncle Bob got you $20,000 in debt,” Sloan said. You have to be very selective when appointing members to your team, as they decide whether you make it past the startup stage.
10. Say Thank You
The opportunity to even attend college, much less start a company, is one that few are granted. A student entrepreneur’s ability to be in a position to launch a startup initially is amazing, and they should take full advantage of it. While it is also challenging to put yourself out there, nurture and represent a company that will no doubt receive criticism almost instantly, you have to remember how far you’ve gotten and who helped you get there. “Truly appreciate and be grateful for those who are there to support you. Acknowledge people taking interest in what you do,” said Andriese, even down to those who simply like your Facebook page or comment on an Instagram post. “Be grateful for the milestones in your business, because I think that’s fuel to your engine.” Vocal appreciation will keep you in a positive space, and will help retain the support you’ve already gained.
11. And if it Fails… It’s Okay
Failure is a scary thing, frequently interpreted as a sign of incompetence or inability. However, it’s just the opposite. “People say it all the time, that failure is a good thing and you can learn from it, and they recite it to themselves, but then when it comes to living it, no one actually believes it. But you have to, you have to bounce back,” said Sudabattula. If your startup doesn’t play out the way you hoped, if you don’t see a future with it, it’s okay to let go. But that doesn’t mean giving up. “Do something while you’re here. If it doesn’t work out, great, put it on your resume and say you tried something. Don’t waste your time thinking of things — try something.” It’s the nature of business to fail, try again, fail, try again, fail, try again, over, over, and over again. Regardless of the outcome, it’s the experience that matters and changes you not only as an entrepreneur and a student, but a person.
Ultimately, being an entrepreneur in college is a very unique experience with its own set of challenges. Tackling a degree while also launching a startup might seem scary (and it is), but it can also be fulfilling and life changing. “I think those that have a genuine passion for what they’re doing, who are fueled by it, who handle things professionally, are grateful for what they’ve been given, acknowledge those companies, clients, friends and family members who have supported them, those are the ones who are going to succeed and stick around,” Andriese said. While it would be impossible to compile all of the advice and experiences Sloan, Porter, Andriese and Sudabattula had to share, these eleven tips and tricks will help you get the ball rolling.