There’s been a lot of talk as of late regarding young entrepreneurs and the paths available to them; PayPal cofounder Peter Theil is going as far as to give 20 teams of entrepreneurs under 20 a two-year $100,000 fellowship on which to fund their next big ideas. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t that many investors out there to fund ideas from mostly unproven young adults, so it remains up to the entrepreneur to do it on their own.
For young adults, the best place to flex your entrepreneurial muscle is while you are in college — or at the very least when you are young enough to not be bogged down with a career.
College is a great place to start your venture as you have lots of free time, access to a large pool of human capital and your school can provide much-needed support. The following six points are what I have based my college endeavors around:
1. Plan for the “bridge” between college and real life
One of my main goals as a student entrepreneur was financially bridging the gap between college and the post-college world, better known as “real life”. I made it my goal to find a way to make just enough money on my own to not need a traditional job once I’m out of school.
Once you get a job, starting your own company is much harder. You’re committed to working full-time and it’s easy to become comfortable with a steady salary. I understood the chances of hitting a home run with a successful start up was low, but also that getting a full-time job lowered the chances of ever becoming a successful entrepreneur even more.
In my teens I began creating websites for fun, and eventually turned towards making websites for profit. While the sites were functional and cash flow positive, I knew they would never get big enough to sustain me. I used these ventures successively as springboards to my next idea, gradually creating more complex and successful sites.
I knew that if I kept moving, and kept thinking bigger, I could get to the point where I am today — 22 and the owner of an angel-backed start up. The odds of you hitting it big with your first venture are stacked against you, make sure you have experience running a venture, no matter how small, before you begin investing in a big concept.
2. If you’re not technical, NETWORK!
Every campus has teachers and other students that you can learn from. Find them. Find the teachers that are willing to help you create your business plan, marketing plan, or set up other introductions. If you’re not technical, network with peers who are. Sell them on your start up idea and offer equity in exchange for their services. Stop by the computer science building and post some fliers about your project. Someone is bound to see it and catch some interest.
In my case I looked for students who saw themselves as entrepreneurs. I didn’t need someone who could do a task, I needed people who were creative and innovative. One of my team members, Andrew Chalmers, was a semi-finalist in a business concept contest for Entrepreneur Magazine, obviously this was someone who has outstanding business talent and I’m excited to have him working with me.
Also, start networking outside of your campus. For example, you could work as a volunteer at a conference in order to get free admission. I did this for the Techcrunch Disrupt conference this past fall and ended up working speaker registration. I got to meet Peter Theil, Gina Bianchini, Kevin Hartz, and many other CEOs of large companies. I doubt they remember me but it was still an awesome experience to say the least! Opportunity is everywhere, go out and find it.
3. Take advantage of the business competitions on campus
I’ve never really been a fan of business competitions, primarily because of their notorious emphasis on business plans. Your business idea will change so much it’s mind blowing — so much so that writing a business plan could be counter productive.
This year, however, I won first place in the Fall 2010 CSU Chico Business Competition for my current start up, Bizness Apps, which led to my first angel investors. Two teachers involved in the competition were so impressed with my start up that they set up a lunch meeting with my current investors. Take advantage of these opportunities – even if the first place cash prize is only $300 bucks!
You never know who will be in attendance at these events, and at the very least it gives you valuable experience in pitching a concept in a professional setting. By entering business competitions you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Don’t worry about people stealing your idea – if you don’t win the contest why would a contestant want to steal a losing idea? On the flip side, if you win people will look to you as the person who can pull the concept off.
4. Learn outside of the classroom
Build a library full of business books and read all of them. Learn to read a book in a day or two. Scan through the parts that you’re already familiar with in order to get through the book quickly. I usually aim to read 3-4 books a week. Teach yourself everything you need to know in order to make your start up successful.
Be very selective and know what you are looking to take away from every book. I wanted to focus on effective simplicity, which led me to the book Rework by the founders of 37Signals. When I wanted to learn about the early stages of startup life, I read Founders at Work by Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston, a collection of interviews with largely successful entrepreneurs.
When you set out to acquire knowledge, be sure it’s relevant to your situation.
5. Use your surroundings for business idea inspiration
It only makes sense when setting out on your venture to immerse yourself in something you are knowledgeable and passionate about. In my case I looked towards my obsession with my iPhone, and I began paying attention to how smart phones were changing the way people interacted with businesses.
It wasn’t very long before I realized that there was an enormous opportunity to help the average business owner connect with their clientele on a mobile level. While I knew that a business would love to have a presence in the pocket of their customers at all times, I also wanted there to be a significant value for the person using the app as well. By looking towards my own habits, and that of my peers, I was able to develop a solution that was beneficial to both the business and consumer.
Talk often with your target markets to be sure you’re on the right path. It is so easy to get carried away with an idea that you think is great but offers little to no real value to your clients. It seems obvious, but always pay attention to feedback and structure your decisions around what your environment is telling you.
6. Just do it
This is probably my biggest piece of advice for college entrepreneurs: just do it! There is no better time in your life to start a company. You have little to no responsibilities, you’re surrounded my people who can help you, and now is the best time in your life to take on risk!
Got a business idea you’ve been bouncing around in your head? Just do it. Don’t wait until tomorrow, next week, or next month. Start building traction today.
In my experience, the biggest hurdle of starting a business is actually doing it. When you start a business, it’s fine not to know everything or even have a ‘solid’ business plan. In fact, most companies deviate significantly from their original plan! These things will fall into place and the things you learn along the way will last a lifetime. To get to this point though, you have to stop planning and start doing.
I’m a huge supporter of the “minimum viable product” business strategy, which advocates to move quickly, get your product out fast, and improve your product with feedback. You shove your product out into the market knowing it has bugs, knowing it could be improved — but you do this to simply start building your business.
By implementing this strategy you are building traction everyday. You stop thinking and you start acting. This is the single biggest step for an entrepreneur. Just do it!