There’s no better time than college to start a business. You’re old enough to apply for a credit card without help from your mom (ahh, the bane of every high school wantrepreneur), but you’re still young enough that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
In college, having a side business that brings in even just a few hundred dollars a week is pretty cool. A thousand dollars a week and you’re ballin’.
After college, having a business that brings in a few hundred dollars a week means you’re basically unemployed and living in mom’s basement. A thousand dollars a week and you’re probably still barely making ends meet after business expenses/costs of living, and probably wishing you had a steady paycheck like your working peers.
In college, failing in business gives you an interesting story to tell. After college, having a business fail when it’s paying your bills can be absolutely devastating.
Why You Don’t Need A “Real” Job Even If Your College Business Fails
When I was 21, the e-commerce business that funded my spending through high school and college failed. Instead of pushing forward and building something else, I gave up on entrepreneurship. I worked at a bank for a year then went to law school, because I started believing what I kept getting told – that I needed to get “real work experience” and a “real job”.
After I graduated from law school at 25, I went down the entrepreneurial path anyways, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be. Now, as a 31 year old with a decade to reflect on what went wrong with my college side business, here are a few things I would go back to tell my 21 year old self.
1. People won’t take you seriously, but that’s ok
Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, most people won’t take you seriously if you want to be an entrepreneur after college. You’ll get a lot of “that’s a cool project, so what about your career?”
So far in life, you’ve mostly believed what older people have told you. You might be tempted to think that they’re right about getting a “real” job as well – especially if your business is going through a rough patch.
You’ll start thinking, “maybe I should focus my energy on getting a good job after school”, because a lot of caring, smart people will keep telling you the same thing. But you don’t have to listen to them.
Start getting used to people not taking your business seriously. Start getting used to shrugging it off, because it doesn’t get any easier after college.
After college, even paying your bills with your business isn’t enough – you’ll still have people saying “that’s nice, but if your business fails, you’ll have nothing to fall back on!” Until you show overwhelming success, people won’t take you seriously as an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs just don’t fit the conventional narrative and so you can’t accept conventional career advice. Be humble and open to different perspectives, but if the person giving you life advice isn’t doing what you want to be doing, then maybe their advice isn’t right for you.
2. You don’t need permission to learn
Our education system conditions students to believe that if it’s not on the exam, it’s not worth learning. We learn that the degree we graduate with determines what we get to “be” when we “grow up”.
As a result, when most of us encounter a situation that tests the boundaries of our knowledge, we step back from the edge and run away.
In my college days, there were so many times I found myself facing business problems that I didn’t know how to solve, and way too often I just accepted that it was something I didn’t know. I missed many chances to improve my skillset and push my business forward.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t wait for permission to learn. You can’t wait for the right credentials. When you run into a problem you don’t know how to solve – the fact that you don’t have credentials or haven’t taken the right classes shouldn’t even cross your mind.
You don’t need a teacher or a textbook to slowly spoon-feed you one semester at a time. If Elon Musk can teach himself rocket science by reading books and talking to smart people (and having a genuis IQ, but that’s not really under your control), the very least you can do is figure out how to drive traffic to your Shopify store.
Instead of accepting the limits of your knowledge, you need to be constantly learning. Here are some simple ways to learn business skills if you don’t know where to start.
- Google is your friend. You’ll read a lot of BS, but you’ll find occasional gems.
- Talk to other entrepreneurial students and help each other out. Build a support network.
- Read credible blogs and articles from people who achieved what you want to achieve.
- Use Feedly to build an RSS feed of the best business and marketing blogs.
- Follow industry experts on Twitter.
- Listen to business and marketing podcasts.
- Find successful businesses and reverse engineer their success. Again, Google is your friend.
- Join an online forum for entrepreneurs.
- Borrow business books and biographies from the library.
- Watch the How To Start A Startup series from Stanford/Y-Combinator.
- For a non Sillicon Valley perspective on how to start a business, read the Bootstrappers Bible.
- Check out Foundr magazine
- Find a mentor.
Keep learning while you work on your business and before you know it, you’ll actually know a lot.
Speaking of mentors…
If you’re lucky enough to find someone successful who is willing to share their experience with you, remember that college is a safe little bubble where professors tell you that “there are no stupid questions”. In reality:
- There are questions that demonstrate your ignorance.
- There are questions that are uninteresting.
- There are questions that are irrelevant to what you’re trying to accomplish.
- There are inappropriate questions.
- There are questions that you should already know the answer to if you just take a moment to RTFM.
It’s not that there are no stupid questions, it’s just that in college, there are no consequences for asking stupid questions.
The truth is that most successful entrepreneurs love to share their knowledge and experiences (especially with students), but they’re also too busy to help someone who can’t help themselves.
3. The skills you use to win in college are not the skills that help you win in business
A lot of very respected business thinkers – Seth Godin and Peter Thiel for instance – make convincing arguments that post-secondary education is fundamentally broken, especially if you want to be an entrepreneur.
In college, achievement depends on your ability to follow success criteria laid out by someone else. This involves a lot of rote learning through cramming and memorizing. College trains you to be the best at being told what to do and repeating back information.
The problem is that in business, no one will tell you what to do. Waiting for someone to tell you what to do is a roadmap for going nowhere.
College trains you to think that being busy and doing tedious work is good. You’ve been trained to see progress as something that is achieved linearly, based on someone else’s timetable.
But if you’re an entrepreneur, being busy is not the same as being productive. If you’re an entrepreneur and find yourself doing repetitive tasks, it’s a sign that you need to systemize the work and hire someone. If you’re an entrepreneur and your business doesn’t have the potential to grow exponentially, then you might need to rethink your business model.
4. You can (and should) hire people as soon as possible
This point should be obvious, but one of the big reasons my business imploded was that I insisted on doing all the work myself. Eventually, I got overwhelmed by a combination of final exams and a massive amount of holiday orders. Since I had no one to help me, this resulted in a huge backlog and many angry customers.
I had enough revenue coming in that I could have systemized the work and hired people to help, but I didn’t have the confidence that anyone would want to work for me and I didn’t know how to get started.
In hindsight, there was never a better time to start hiring. College gives you a huge network of labor you can tap into for cheap, though the downside is that your workforce might disappear during exams and spring break.
Even if you’re not hiring students or you don’t have the revenue to support full-time staff, the continuing rise of the gig economy means there are more talented freelancers available now than ever, and many charge very affordable rates. Nearly 54 million Americans are now freelancing, as well as tens of millions of workers offshore. Hit up sites like Upwork, Freelancer, or even Fiverr to find them.
There’s never been a better time to be a college entrepreneur
There has never been a better time to be a college entrepreneur. Even though there was a ton of opportunity in the early-mid 00s when I was a studentpreneur, it’s only gotten easier.
You don’t need to configure servers or beg the bank for a credit card merchant account. You don’t need to know any HTML. Domain names are $10. Social media has democratized content distribution. There are websites, podcasts, and courses that will teach you virtually any digital marketing skill. E-commerce stores, blogs, and payment processing can be setup on 3rd party platforms with just a few clicks.
Best of all, people are comfortable buying things online – yes, there was a time when most people were scared to use their credit cards on the “information superhighway”.
If you’re in college and running a business (or thinking of starting one), you’ve got an exciting journey ahead of you. Sure, you will make mistakes and fail along the way, but that’s ok.
Just try not to make the same mistakes I did.
This is a guest contribution from Nate Tseng. Nate is a serial entrepreneur and editorial director at InvestmentZen.com. He loves everything that has to do with business and investing.