I started my first real business while in college. Using the tagline, A Good Thing To Crave, I sold nutritious, organic, chocolate-dipped energy bites. I conducted product testing and market research, legally established my company Biré Nutrition as an LLC, got barcodes for my products, hired a production team, rented commercial kitchen space on the weekends, sold product online and in many retail locations around my area, and accomplished many, many other things.
Though I’ve fallen out of love with this particular business since college and moved on to a new startup, the process of launching a business in college was quite possibly the best decision I’ve ever made. I learned priceless lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom. I also fell in love with entrepreneurship, which has completely changed my destiny.
I’d love to convince you why your college years are the perfect time to start a business so you can discover skills, values, confidence, and passions you never knew you had. But before I tell you why college is the perfect time, let’s briefly address your greatest hesitations to launching a startup in school...
Hesitation #1: I have no time!
For one, you probably don’t feel like you have any extra time with all the classes, homework, projects, and exams. I know what college is like. Been there, done that. I really do get it. It’s a major period of transition full of stress, mounting responsibilities, and independence.
But are you really strapped for time? You can’t find an extra 10 hours a week to launch a business that allows you to do something you truly love for the rest of your life, never turning into a corporate drone whose results fill someone else’s pockets? I did very well academically in school and found time to start a rather successful business, but my “overwhelming” schedule looked like this more often than I’d like to admit...
Once I started my business, an amazing thing happened. All that free time I didn’t think I had suddenly appeared. I made time for building my business because I found that it was something I truly cared about. Yes, you’ll have to learn seriously good time management skills, but you can always make time for the things that are most important to you.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-fun or anti-relaxation or even anti-partying, but if your go-to leisure activities include watching an entire season of House of Cards on Netflix, binge drinking every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, and spending hours scrolling through your social media accounts, then I suggest you reframe your idea of "fun" and "relaxation." Activities that you regret doing afterwards are not fun or relaxing. Go on a hike, go out to your favorite lunch spot with friends, read a bestselling book, and work on plans for your world dominating, super awesome business that inspires you grow and create the life of your dreams.
When it comes to distractions, most people struggle with wasting time on the internet. I know this all too well first hand - I am one of the worst offenders I know! And I have not met anyone who doesn't struggle with this from time to time. I have found the best way to prevent myself from wasting time online is to block my access to the places where I waste it. Plain and simple (and slightly pathetic). I use two apps to restrict, or totally eliminate, my internet access:
StayFocusd (no 'e') allows you to set daily time limits on certain websites or block them completely. Find it on the Chrome web store here (I think it is only available on Chrome).
Freedom allows you to totally block your internet access for any length of time you want. Find it here.
Hesitation #2: So maybe I have enough time, but I’m not sure I can succeed as an entrepreneur. How do I know if entrepreneurship is for me?
I believe everyone is born with the capacity to be an entrepreneur. Why? Because we are all born with an inherent curiosity and wonder for the world. When you were young, you likely wanted to be an astronaut or Olympian, rockstar or President of the United States. We dreamed big, unconfined by the self-imposed limits and defeatist mentality that society would soon pass down to us.
But while I believe we were all born with the capacity to be entrepreneurs, it’s not for everyone. And that's okay! Here are what I believe to be the top indicators that you are an entrepreneur at heart:
You see opportunities everywhere. Entrepreneurs are opportunistic by nature. Every idea is shiny and every industry is ripe for disruption. Entrepreneurs often have difficulty concentrating on a single project because they see potential everywhere. We see opportunity when others see impossibility.
You were an enterprising kid. You mowed neighbors’ lawns, sold lemonade on your street corner, and loved to sell things at the neighborhood yard sale.
You can’t stand the status quo. You don’t like following the herd. You aren’t interested in getting a “good” job with a comfortable salary, 401k, and dental coverage. Blah!
You resist authority. Similar to not being able to stand the status quo, you don’t like following rules. You are a natural leader who is confident in your abilities and exudes ambition in all your endeavors. You tend to break rules, but not the law.
You take massive action on the things you really care about. You aren’t afraid of hard work or late nights. Once you set your sights on a goal that inspires you, you make it happen. Period.
You are scared of not achieving your full potential in life. Entrepreneurs feel driven to create a name for themselves, even a legacy. We love doing meaningful work and creating real change in the world. Entrepreneurs believe there should be more to a career than trading time for money.
If you found yourself nodding your head while reading these, then you might just have entrepreneurial DNA. But whether you are set on becoming an entrepreneur or still unsure if it is the right path for you, let’s examine the 9 reasons why college is the perfect time to test-drive entrepreneurship.
NINE REASONS YOU SHOULD START A BUSINESS IN COLLEGE
Reason #1 – You don’t have any money
As a college student, you learn to make things work on a budget. Give yourself some credit! You’ve mastered the art of buying a $300 textbook for $42, finding “free” versions of the latest movies online, and showing up at the right place and time to snag some free beer and pizza.
Why is this resourcefulness so important in business? A bootstrapped business (bootstrapped = started with little-to-no money) is resilient to everything from poor product sales to production delays to failed marketing campaigns. The process of bootstrapping your business forces you to be very resourceful. When I started my organic energy snacks company, I went out to get a quote for the graphic design work for my packaging and website. After recovering from the shock of the designer’s $18k quote and acknowledging my modest $3k checking account balance, I decided it would be up to me to design my own packaging. I downloaded Adobe Illustrator the next day and set to work learning the program and creating my first design iterations. The final result wasn’t about to win any design awards, but I sold out of product from my first retail location in less than a week, so the packaging design couldn’t have been too repulsive...
This is my final design after 6 months of tweaking my packaging
Beyond graphic design, I learned how to buy a domain and set up my website, manage the back end of WordPress, fund production runs with purchase orders, photograph my products, create barcode labels for my products that could be read by grocery store scanners, source high quality raw ingredients, hire a production team, market my products online, and many other things…all on the cheap.
Reason #2 – Easy access to professors, smart peers (who might make great additions to your start-up team), and lots of other resources
There’s no question about it. The most important part of starting a successful business is the process of surrounding yourself with the right people. An entrepreneur's team is their driving force, sales machine, sounding board, and cheerleading squad. A poorly chosen team will set fire to your dreams and spread a cancer through your business.
Beyond team talent, there are many resources through your school that you can take advantage of…
On-campus incubators and accelerator programs: Even if there are no incubators or accelerator programs with office spaces, you can find free space to headquarter your business elsewhere on campus.
Alumni network: Access to your school’s alumni network can be a game changer. Connections to like-minded partners, advisors, mentors, and venture capitalists through your alumni network will be the rocket fuel your company needs to get off the ground. You should know that cold-calls and cold-emails to alumni will generally be more warmly received while you are actually in college. So start now!
Business plan, business model, startup idea, etc. competitions: Many schools run business plan competitions with grand prizes (including money, connections, etc.) to get your business off the ground.
Free or reduced cost technology software and apps: Most schools offer students access to expensive technology, everything from design software to film equipment to 3D printers. Designing graphics for your business, shooting promotional videos, creating prototypes, and recording podcasts can all be done with university supplied equipment.
Entrepreneurship classes: As interest in startups grows, there continue to be more and more opportunities to take entrepreneurship classes. While in school, I knew that I wanted to start a business, but I felt too overwhelmed with my finance and engineering classes to dedicate time to building a business. Thankfully, I found out I could take entrepreneurship classes, which allowed me time to grow my business while receiving credit for it! My entrepreneurial pursuits were no longer a luxury that I didn't have time for, they had became a graded priority. (For any Lehigh student readers, the entrepreneurship class I took, and highly recommend, is Professor Josh Ehrig's ENTR 311. The following semester I took ENTR 312, which I also highly recommend.)
Utilize these key resources while you have access to them!
Reason #3 – Everyone wants to help you
It’s amazing how almost everyone is willing to help a broke, ambitious college student. I believe it is a delicate mixture of pity, respect, and college nostalgia that drives people to lend a helping hand, but whatever the exact mixture is, I didn’t know and didn’t care. Regardless of who I was approaching, my pitch went something like this…“Hi, my name is Leif. I am a student at Lehigh University working to launch an organic snack company as part of a school project. As an accomplished expert in ABC, I’d love your input on YXZ. Blah, blah, blah…”
Most of the time, it was too easy. The second they realized I was an ambitious, aspiring entrepreneur working on a college project, they began bending over backwards to steer me in the right direction. It never hurts to acknowledge their expertise and it never hurts to ask for help!
If you are genuine in conveying your ambition, passion, and desire for guidance, cold doors will open warmly and cold emails will receive a response (even from people you think are too far out of reach).
Reason #4 – You learn A LOT about yourself
You can test drive things that interest you (through clubs, classes, and extracurricular projects) and figure out what you want to do - this also steers your major concentration and internship/job hunting. As a budding entrepreneur, you learn a lot about your risk tolerance, priorities, life goals, and passions. This personal exploration is incredibly useful. Even if your product doesn’t sell, even if nobody wants your service, even if your business tanks, the knowledge you learn about yourself is worth the investment of your time, money, and effort. Trust me.
I would like to challenge the idea that the point of college is to find a great job. I believe the fundamental purpose of college is figuring out what you love to do and learning the basic skills necessary to excel in this pursuit.
Reason #5 – You might not have to hunt for a job!
Oh the memories…there’s nothing quite like the stress of finding a job during your senior year (especially if you're a little late to the game like I was). Just when you think you can sit back and count the days until graduation along the home stretch of your school career, you’re blindsided with a frightening realization! You just remembered the sole purpose of going to college was to get a "good" job, and you have zero prospects! Ahhhh!!
The process of job hunting can be overwhelming to say the least…spending hours tweaking your resume, figuring out how to apply for jobs, deciding where you want to work and what you want to be doing, sifting through available positions, realizing there are no entry-level positions offering a $100k starting salary, applying for dozens of jobs that all require unique cover letters, preparing for job interviews, anxiously awaiting your prospective employer’s verdict, praying, and stomaching the sting of numerous rejections can be overwhelming to say the least. What if I told you there’s another path you can take? Yes, the process of “job hunting” as an entrepreneur is not free from its own set of challenges, but you do have a lot more control.
Reason #6 – You have nothing to lose
Taking risks was something that didn’t bother me. I mean, what did I really have to lose? I was living in a 150 sq. ft. dorm room with a hundred dollars to my name (after investing the majority of my savings). And if my startup crashed and burned? I’d still have the 150 sq. ft. dorm room and maybe a couple bucks to my name. Is that really so bad??
College is your runway and your safety net. If you fail, what is the WORST that can happen? You get your degree and pursue the career you went to school for. That’s pretty much worst that could happen! And the best scenario? You walk away with your first company sale under your belt, a flush bank account, and a valuable college degree to hang on the wall of your next startup's office.
So here's the deal...
You could stay in your head and create countless "what if" scenarios about whether or not things will work. Or you could just JUMP IN FEET FIRST AND TRY IT OUT. Stop waiting cautiously on the edge for the perfect timing and idea. Jump in and make it happen!
Reason #7 – You develop highly useful “real world" skills
The arts of selling, managing, hiring, and leading cannot be learned in a classroom. Mastering these invaluable skills, and many others, requires hundreds of hours of trial-and-error application.
One of the worst parts of my college career, actually of my entire school career, was learning all the formulas, definitions, theories, blah blah blah that we all know aren’t applicable to real life in any meaningful way (unless you aspire to be an algebraic geometry professor or supersymmetric quantum mechanics physicist). Don’t get me wrong, I did learn a lot of useful information and a handful of truly valuable skills. But just because I was good at taking tests and scoring an “A” or “B” doesn’t mean I would be able to apply these theoretical “skills” later in life.
I can confidently say that I learned more by starting and growing my own business than I did in my four years of business and engineering courses at a well-known university. Most important of all, in your pursuit of startup success, you learn skills that matter to you and your future career (or business!).
Let me be clear, I’m NOT suggesting you drop out of college. During my college years, my interest in entrepreneurship blossomed and I developed close friendships with some outstanding professors and peers (two of whom I have partnered with to launch a new tech startup). I have spent quite a lot of time wondering if I would have been better off forgoing college, and although it would be really, really nice to have zero student debt, I have always arrived back to the answer “no.” College provided an incredibly supportive, fun, and resourceful atmosphere that I doubt I could find anywhere else. And should I decide to pursue a traditional corporate job later in my career, I now have the degree that many corporations consider a valuable necessity.
Reason #8 – Learning to disregard failure and just go for it
In school, especially in math, science, and engineering courses, we learn there is a right answer and there is a wrong answer. I believe this is a limiting mindset that hinders our ability to face new challenges and solve complex problems. Throughout my school years, this right vs. wrong mentality greatly influenced my thinking and scared me into inaction. I didn't want to do something "wrong."
The process of starting a business in college freed me. Through entrepreneurship, I learned there is no "right" way of doing anything. In fact, doing things the "wrong" way and temporarily "failing" is almost always more beneficial than getting them "right" the first time. I learned to disregard "failure" and go for it with everything I've got.
Beyond learning to accept failure, I grew an incredible self confidence from my venture. When it comes to building a business, I don’t care how difficult it is or how long it will take. If I set my sights on achieving a particular goal, I will make it happen. This tough-as-nails mentality is easily the most valuable takeaway from my entrepreneurial endeavors to date.
Reason #9 – It does NOT get easier after you graduate
Do NOT wait until after graduation to pursue your startup dreams! It is too easy to become comfortable after school, to lose your ambition and drive. You start off with a salary that is likely double, triple, or even quadruple the hourly rate of any previous job you’ve had. With a set schedule, set hours, and set paycheck, it can be easy to grow comfortable, or worse, apathetic.
But don’t mistake being comfortable with having more time. After graduation, life does not get easier. There are way more responsibilities. When I was still in college I thought, ‘my academic work must be more difficult than anything after college.’ I was pulling all-nighters, trying, and often failing, to stay on top of all my classes, counting down the days until my next break. There were many days in college that I was simply miserable. While the academic crunch may go away, the magnitude of responsibilities increases exponentially after graduation.
So what does my post-graduation list of responsibilities look like? I am launching an enterprise software start up and this blog while working full-time as an engineer (45 hours per week), staying in touch with my business partners and mentors, consulting a handful of entrepreneurs, paying down tens of thousands of dollars worth of student debt, trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, working out 7-9 hours per week, buying and preparing all my food (I rarely eat out), keeping my house clean, and all the other little things that come with being an ambitious entrepreneur. I'm exhausted just thinking about all the things I need to do this week and I don't even have a girlfriend!
A word of caution
Many employers are reluctant to hire students who have demonstrated a strong desire to become an entrepreneur. Why? Because entrepreneurs generally do NOT make good employees. Entrepreneurially wired individuals do not fit into the ‘corporate box’, and employers often view such individuals as risky, unteachable, and noncompliant.
Therefore, if you start a business in college and decide entrepreneurship is not for you, then I do not suggest you highlight your startup experience on your resume or during your job interviews unless you acquired relevant knowledge or expertise for the position you’re interviewing for through your entrepreneurial work.
TAKE MASSIVE ACTION NOW
If you have had an idea nagging at you, make it happen! Don’t overthink or overcomplicate the process of becoming an entrepreneur. You don’t need to design a fancy logo, legally establish your company as an LLC, or make a Facebook page. You don’t even need an idea for a revolutionary product or service!
When people overthink and overcomplicate entrepreneurship they tend to never start. Here are two questions for you:
What are you waiting for?
And why can't you start right now?
If you're not satisfied with your excuses to these questions, start making your dreams a reality! Not tomorrow. Today. Unsure where you should start? No problem! Check out my 1-page BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR.
Read this! Interested in starting a business? There is one book I would HIGHLY recommend: The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster by Darren Hardy. I have read a couple dozen books on entrepreneurship and The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster is by far the best. In fact, I think it is so incredible that I am currently halfway through my 14th reading of it! Get it here.
To your business success,