The past couple weeks I have been volunteering at a student accelerator through the University of Colorado called Catalyze, and it has really made me think, what makes a great student entrepreneur? And is it even possible to find business success while pursuing a degree? When I hear stories of undergrad students in their sophomore and junior year, I think “Wow! This is awesome!” Then I hear about their interviews with big companies and plans to study abroad, and I think, “Why are they starting this business now?” The most successful entrepreneurs, like Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates, dropped out of school to chase their dream. And if your idea dreams of being the next Facebook or Microsoft, you will likely have to drop-out too to make that dream a reality. So before you start your next big idea, ask yourself if you are willing to quit school, spend every dime you have, and work your tail off for a very long time? If you are, great! Go for it!
For me, I was not ready for this. I was neither ready nor confident enough to just say “ciao” to my professors and go out on my own. Do you know for certain this what you want to do after graduation? I was a finance major who still had dreams of working for a big bank or management consulting firm, so when I landed a dream internship during the middle of my company’s life, I took it without hesitation.
My careless approach to starting a company was not fair to my business partner, customers, or the countless others who supported the attempt. If I wasn’t 100% committed and 100% certain that this was the path for me than I shouldn’t have attempted a business like CollegeCanvas.org, that depended on a reaching a large scale to be successful.
But, that is not to say I do not support student entrepreneurship. I support it whole-heartedly! After-all, inspiring artistic students to be entrepreneurial was a central mission of CollegeCanvas.
Not all businesses were created equal. And not all businesses are good for student entrepreneurs. And most importantly, a “small” business isn’t a “small” experience.
My first business actually wasn’t CollegeCanvas. If I go back, my first business was shop on Etsy selling pillows and dreamcatchers. And I made a good bit of extra spending money doing this. With CollegeCanvas I didn’t make a dime… in fact, I lost a lot of dimes!
With a small scale businesses that brings in revenue from the start, you will still gain all of the operations, marketing, accounting, tax, and business development experience.
If your business idea depends on gaining millions of users or requires a large amount of investment, and you are not ready to drop-out and dedicate yourself to the business then rethink what kind of business you start.
For example, if you are great at design and developing blogs, then start a blog design company. Make it an LLC. Design a website. Market yourself. When you are looking for a job or getting ready to start a different company post-graduation, the learning experience from this company will be tremendous! Keep track of your progress, total revenue, ect, to blow people away in interviews. Or are you familiar DropShipping? Start a niche e-commerece site without inventory risk.
There are 100s of possible businesses to start before you graduate, gain experience, and earn extra income.
The media and blogosphere idolizes the “big entrepreneurs.” They have a large market, a lot of traction, and a lot of interest, so it makes sense that they receive the praise rather than a successful seller on Etsy. However, I believe “small-scale” entrepreneurs are equally as admirable. The lack of fame and glory shouldn’t deter you from starting a small company. In fact, if you are attempting to start a company for the fame, you should watch this TedTalk, and reconsider your motivation for being an entrepreneur.
I had the chance to speak with the CU students who started Shinesty, a website that helps people who want to look awesome find unique and outrageous clothing for themed parties and events. First of all, I love themed parties and the guys starting it are great, so I think I am a little bias. Regardless, this is the perfect company to start as a student. Why?
They are after a market they are familiar with (college students). They had revenue from day 1. They can operate at a small scale. It is a unique business model operating in a niche market.
Will they ever be acquired for $500 million? Doubtful. Is it a valuable experience? Of course! And is it just really cool and a lot of fun? YES! What does this mean? IT’S PERFECT.
Another great student business was our best seller on CollegeCanvas: Lazy Cradle Hammock Company, a custom made hammock company. Phillip Henry, a student at the University of Georgia, is an entrepreneur at his core. He has started multiple companies since high school, and they all have generated revenue since the beginning. He knows the math of what it costs to make each of his hammocks, how much time it takes, and the price he needs to set for it to be worthwhile. He has gained valuable operations and marketing experience while generating extra income for himself. If he decides to start a company later in life that will operate at a larger scale, I have full confidence he is much better prepared because of his previous entrepreneurial endeavors.
I do not want to discourage any student from dreaming big. If you have the next billion dollar idea and you are not afraid to chase it, go for it. But if you are not certain that you are ready to drop-out, rethink your business idea or spend time during school fine-tuning the idea and interviewing customers.
And most importantly, don’t undervalue the niche, small business. You are an entrepreneur no matter what size market you are chasing.