Every student studying entrepreneurship MUST start their own company while in school. Hands down. No question about it. There is no way to learn the skills necessary to be a successful entrepreneur, except to just do it.
Yes. There are a lot of great books every first time founder should read, student or not. Professors who have actually built a company themselves can be a wealth of valid information. However, all of this knowledge has to be hung on a framework of real experience. This just so happens to be my (and many other’s) philosophy for education in all sorts of fields. In the case of entrepreneurship, it therefore inherently makes these students into student entrepreneurs.
There’s a whole different level, though, beyond being a student entrepreneur. If things go well for your company, at some point, you’re forced to become a professional CEO running a startup with real customers and employees, revenues and expenses. Simultaneously, you’re still a student on the side if you get around to it. As you get to that point, there are some new questions to ask yourself and you’ll have a decision to make, just as I did last week.
The Tipping Point
My company, Internpreneur, is an education company. Well-planned internships are a key component of regional workforce development initiatives and they serve as the experiential learning to bring relevance to traditional classroom education. We work with companies to create truly exceptional internship programs and build the regional networks to connect students and employers. The students get valuable experience, the opportunity to execute on real work, and industry networking. In turn, companies get projects checked off, connect with, test and train their future workforce, and we supply all of the support to equip them to successfully work with this fresh talent.
As the list of placements we’re working with began filling up more each semester, and so did my calendar. My biggest mistake thus far in building Internpreneur is that I tried to do it all on my own for six months. In a marketplace business with this many stakeholders, that was foolish. I’ll never do that again for anything beyond an idea and a landing page.
Lesson learned. Moving on.
We’ve now expanded our team, including bringing on our own interns to help with recruiting. (Are you still hiring, you ask? Why, yes we are!)
After finals were over in early December, my productivity shot up dramatically. With no more classes to distract me two days a week, I was in productivity heaven! Shortly after this, I had an end-of-year call with Cal Dhubaib, a friend and fellow millennial entrepreneur running a big data healthcare company while also juggling school at the same time. I shared with him my boost in productivity, as well as the fact that I was physically sick at the thought of returning to school full time in January. Sure, we now have a team to work with, but with that comes a whole new set of responsibilities.
Cal gave me “The Talk.” No, not that one. This “Talk” originated from one of Cal’s mentors who was worried about him keeping up with school and managing priorities at his company. His mentor shared the list below from a response to a question on Quora regarding balancing university and business success.
The Seven Questions Student Entrepreneurs Must Ask:
- Are you generating revenue?
- If not, how close are you to generating real revenue?
- Do you have investors or are you seeking investment?
- Are you able to pay yourself and your team? (If you’re not paying yourself, it’s just a hobby)
- Any of your team work full time?
- Does that team depend on you to make ends meet or support their families?
- Do you have traction?
He said those questions and it was obvious. Being honest, meant answering “Yes” to nearly all of these questions. The right decision became clear, but I still didn’t like it.
I turned to my mom. They know best, right? She used her life coaching skills to walk me logically through what I thought my ideal outcome was by graduating on time. We quickly discovered that all I was really striving for was a fairytale ending to college. Without being extremely intentional from the start, student entrepreneurs miss a lot of college life, and I wanted one last hurrah of graduating with all of my friends. Perhaps you feel the same way? Digging deeper, I understood that moving to part time, and postponing graduation to August, was a better decision. Here’s why.
The time I have available now allows me the space to think and be at peak effectiveness during traditional business hours. I feel like a real entrepreneur taking classes at a local university for continued professional development instead of attempting to balance the two worlds equally. Over the next four months, I can spend time with friends growing relationships a few nights a week, and that will have a far greater impact on my life than two hours at graduation.
I chose part-time instead of dropping out for a few reasons. First, running an education startup based on the idea that we need something in addition to what exists means I should probably finish my own degree to see what’s really out there. Consider it research. Second, the remaining five courses all directly pertain to making me a better entrepreneur and CEO of this specific company. Finally, I can complete the courses in a schedule that will have minimal impact on my work.
For every student founder, there is the possibility of your venture gaining traction while you’re still in school. I wasn’t initially prepared to make a hard decision about who I wanted to be. I could have continued as a student, or I could have become an entrepreneur. The emotion behind the choice may be difficult for you, as it was for me, but if you can answer “Yes” to even one or two of the questions above, the decision should be clear.
Whether you stay in, drop out, or go full time, you may be feeling fear. Let’s face it, even at the point of traction, our startups could fail. We’d now be college drop outs with a failed company and, by current corporate standards, you’re uneducated without that piece of paper. No need to get into consideration of the grand lessons we might learn through failure. We’re not dealing with whether or not failure is a good thing in this post. That’s been beat to death everywhere else online. The fact is, you want to build a world changing company, and so do I, and we’ll fight day and night to do it.
“What happens if I drop out, my company fails, and I still don’t have a degree,” you ask? Here’s my perspective. Any student seriously considering these questions has built their company to the point that you’ve gained invaluable experience and skills. A startup or entrepreneurial company would love to hire you. You’ve built your own company, had customers, raised funding, hired people, developed a product or service, and handled sales, marketing and customer service. You have nothing to worry about. For those companies that won’t consider you, you probably wouldn’t enjoy working for them anyway as a former entrepreneur.
Action Steps for Students Running Companies:
- Consider the seven essential questions above.
- Ask yourself “Why” you want to stay in school as many times as necessary to get to the core reason driving your decision to stay or go.
- Remove emotion from the decision and determine which course of action will really get you to your desired outcome.