We love to think about Bill Gates, Steve jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg – they are our heroes, especially if we are in college and thinking that we are wasting our time when we could be “out there” with the next Google, Microsoft, or Apple. We left high school and got prepared for going to college. We said goodbye to our former lives, furnished our dorm rooms or apartments, and signed up for our classes. Now, however, we are wondering if it all makes sense – lots of people make it without a college degree, and startups are the wave of the future, aren’t they? Maybe we can make our “mark” now. Yes, you can, actually, if you have the right “aha” idea and you have the wherewithal to turn it into a marketable product or service. Here, then, are 11 things you need to think about as you contemplate a startup.
- Don’t just decide you want to launch a startup and then go about thinking up ideas for products or services. This is not the way it happens. You can’t “force” an idea into fruition. The idea has to come, almost out of nowhere. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft were not conceived by their founders sitting around and trying to think of an idea for a startup. They were actually side projects about which the founders had extreme passion – projects that turned into monumental startups.
- Don’t think in terms of world-changing products or services. Think about solving a problem – a single problem. Maybe you are socially aware and want to support educational improvements in an African nation. How can you turn that into a startup that addresses the problem and makes money for you too? Recently, a college student started “Headbands of Hope,” a company that produces headbands (a simple product), announcing that every headband that was purchased would help support her specific cause – cancer research and making life a bit easier for children with cancer. It took off, the product line has expanded, and the founder has followed her passion to profit.
- Do the paperwork up front. Don’t even think about a launch until you have your paperwork in place. It’s find to follow your passion, but the government has a say in all of this too. You must register your business with the state in which you are located. This entails some forms and a small fee. You must also file for a Federal Tax ID number, if your business is going to be anything other than a sole proprietorship. If you are clueless about this stuff, find a business student on campus who can help you. It’s not that hard, but you need to make some decisions. Do you want to be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, an LLC or an S-corporation? If you can’t find a business student, contact the SBA (Small Business Association) or your state Secretary of State website, and just do what you have to do!
- Dropout or Do Both: Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg were the exceptions to the rule, and you should know that. A lot of students have dropped out to pursue their startups and have failed miserably. Before you make that kind of decision, understand that there are “middle ground” positions for you. Under no circumstances should you dropout unless your idea is fully baked, you have tested your market, you have tested prototypes, and you have a reasonable assurance that you have the funding you will need. In the interim, if your startup work is really impacting your coursework, then consider laying out for a semester or reducing your course load.
- Don’t Go It Alone. Successful startups that have occurred while founders are still in college have not been “one man shows.” There is at least some type of partnership, some type of mentoring. When the going gets tough, you need to have support – a “partner in crime,” mentors, etc. You will need this support when you get discouraged or overwhelmed.
- Take Advantage of Free Consulting. You are on a college campus, for heaven’s sake! Think of the expertise that exists right there. There are grad students; there are professors – people who love to share their knowledge and their expertise.
- Test Your Market. You can do it right where you are. Headbands of Hope began right on campus. The founder began to market her product only on campus, in order to see if it was a “winner.” Once she knew it was, she expanded!
- Bootstrap for the limited funding you may need in the beginning. Hit up friends and sympathetic family members first, for the initial startup costs. If you can sell them, you can probably sell crowdfunding sources and angel investors later. Get it off the ground; prove there is a market. Then go for the larger investors.
- Focus only on need of your market niche first. You can get too scattered if you keep envisioning possibilities for expansion and additional products and services that you want to add. Slow down! Get one idea and one product or service launched, targeting only a specific niche. You will have plenty of time to grow into other market niches later. Part of the reasons for startup failures has been trying to do too much in the beginning.
- Be prepared to lose sleep when you are student. A startup is like a baby – something that demands so much of your time, passions, and energy. It can become all-consuming, and, if it takes off, the demands will not decrease – they will increase. So, make sure you really have a passion and that you are willing to give up other parts of your life for this – turning down party invites, weekend trips, etc.
- Don’t expect your parents to be excited. Your parents understand the value of a college education. And, especially if they are contributing their hard-earned money toward that education, they want you to focus on your studies, not your “pipe dream” which is what they may call your startup. Be diplomatic, and don’t talk about it too much. Let them think it is just a little side project until you have some success under your belt.
Lots of college students launch successful startups. You can be one of them, if the passion is there. Along with that passion, however, stay grounded in reality. There’s lots of hard work ahead, and you cannot avoid it.