I originally published this blog post on July 9, 2017 on the Changenuity Medium channel. Changenuity was a startup my friends and I built to help people find jobs with a social or environmental impact.
For the past year, we’ve had the unique experience of being student entrepreneurs. It’s been a bumpy ride juggling startup work, life, and school.
Many students out there have a vision of the future they are passionate about. Oftentimes, they also have an idea for creating that future. But most people are hesitant to take the plunge; there’s too much at risk, and as students we always feel much too inexperienced.
For that reason, we’ve compiled below the top 10 lessons we’ve learned through our own experiences as student entrepreneurs. We hope it clarifies what it’s like after diving in.
1. Don’t expect to drop out.
We’re going to be the next Zuckerberg. The next Bill Gates.
We’ll start something groundbreaking and then drop out of university.
Said every student entrepreneur ever, right?
Circumstances rarely align such that you can drop out and magically build a legendary startup. Until your company’s successful enough to be eating away all of your time, don’t expect to adios the education system just yet.
You don’t build a successful startup simply by dropping out.
2. Startup culture is over-glamorized.
Just as there is a certain misguided image of beauty in popular media, there is a certain, glamorized view of startup success. How do we mean?
Is it the next Google?
Will it be a unicorn*?
Have they been able to reach 100 000 users in 6 months?
It can be tempting as student entrepreneurs (and probably non-student entrepreneurs too) to get carried away by the ambition to attain insane wealth and fame through a startup.
But thinking in this way is not what creates true value for people — especially customers. Is your startup’s vision to become famous, or is it to change the world in a meaningful way?
So tune out the popular “startup dream”. Focus on realizing your startup’s vision, and success will naturally follow suit.
*unicorn: a startup that reaches $1 billion valuation (ex. Pinterest)
3. Be relentless.
Make time for your startup every day. It doesn’t matter whether you have a project due or a final exam the next day. Always put in the work to progress by at least 1% every day. Your startup does not build itself.
If you’re expecting to build a company that will be around in 10–15 years, you have to realize that it’s not something you do on the side; it must be as natural and necessary to your daily life as eating or sleeping.
For ourselves, it was persistence that got us from:
4. No one is going to steal your ideas.
The most common worry we hear from student would-be entrepreneurs is that their startup ideas will be stolen if they tell anyone else about them.
The thing is, ideas are pretty useless until you actually build something out of them. You can say that you’re programming a search engine to beat Google, but unless you tell people how you’re writing the algorithm for that search engine, they are probably unable to steal your idea.
In fact, you should freely share your ideas. It’s through the roughing action of pitching your ideas to others and receiving their feedback that you can polish them.
5. Competition can be good.
Peter Thiel will probably call us losers for saying that competition can be good. (One of his talks is titled “Competition is for Losers”)
But competition, whether direct or indirect, is inevitable. There are three reasons why competition is good news:
- Your competition can make mistakes before you do. Learn from their mistakes.
- If other companies are springing up in the same space, it suggests that the market has promise.
- If you find yourself in direct competition, use that as a sign that you need to differentiate or improve your company’s offering.
So, don’t panic if you discover that your company has a competitor, no matter how ahead of you they may be.
6. Don’t do everything by yourself.
No one is capable of doing everything. In the beginning, we tried to learn everything on our own: front-end development, Adwords marketing, etc.
However, we quickly realized that we had neither the time nor the ability to do a very good job. We had to delegate tasks; we had to recruit more team members.
It can feel strange to recruit as students, but it is necessary. We would not be at our current startup stage (albeit still early-stage) if we had not brought dedicated people on board. Especially if you are building your startup part-time as a student, you will need additional manpower.
7. People like helping students.
Seasoned startup founders often tell us that we are lucky as students, because we can access resources (i.e. mentorships, workshops) that they cannot. Hell, these founders probably wouldn’t have had these conversations with us if we hadn’t been students.
They’re right — a lot of things are free for student entrepreneurs. Anything from on-campus workshops to small-scale seed funding, universities often supply student entrepreneurs with resources which which to get started. At the University of British Columbia (where we study), students have access to venture-building events, startup workspaces, and even an incubator (e@ubc).
Student finances are unforgiving, and that means it’s essential to capitalize on the free resources available.
8. Business models are important, whatever you do.
In the beginning, we thought that business models were for purely for-profit ventures; as a social impact company, we didn’t need to worry as much about them.
With a world that runs on $$$, however, realizing a vision without cash flow is tough. Coming from non-profit backgrounds, we can attest to the difficulty of securing sponsorships and fundraising. By creating a reliable (and ethical) monetization strategy, we can make people’s lives better while still making the money necessary to scale up our company.
So what if you’re not from a business background and have no clue how to make a business model (like us, initially)? It takes some time, but what really helped us was to experiment with the Business Model Canvas (by Strategyzer) and study how existing startups (via AngelList) structure their businesses.
9. Really, really know why you’re doing this.
If you’re only doing it for the glory, you will have a hard time.
As Elon Musk said, beginning a startup is like “chewing glass and staring into the abyss”, and this is no less true when you are in school at the same time. If you choose to start a company in university, realize that you will sacrifice your academic performance, social life, and sleep. It is not trivial.
So don’t have a good reason to start up. Have an amazing one.
Because in those tough moments when you are burnt out, slogging through school, and still grinding the startup slope, you will need a powerful reason to drive you.
10. You become an entrepreneur by being one.
This is the most significant lesson we learned.
We can better understand entrepreneurship by studying past entrepreneurs and successful startups. We can learn skills and gain experiences that would make us more capable as entrepreneurs.
But there is no classroom substitute for developing the vision, hustle, and pluck that is demanded by entrepreneurship. We only acquire those elements once we dive in.
You become an entrepreneur by being one.
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At the end of all this, you may be wondering what our company (Changenuity) does. It’s a freelance platform for sustainable development; where the world goes to solve its own challenges.