A lot of other college students are trying to start a business on the side, during their study. I’ve sat back and watched the fireworks fly, and I have a few lessons to share from my anonymous friends. They’ve had some successes, and some failures, and I’d like to pass on the knowledge.
The first thing to note is that a lot of my friends who started businesses, imagine themselves to be like Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, who is so successful that he has to drop out of college. “Classes? Exams? Boring! That’s not the life for me, I’m an entrepreneur. I get all the ladies and don’t even have to study.”. Reality is of course different, but here is a much needed reminder: even if your side business were to succeed, you probably won’t drop out of college in victory. It’s much more likely that your grades will dip and that you’ll have to correct course. And, that’s under the big assumption that your business succeeds! So let’s not lose sight of the goal here: It’s to study and graduate from college. You can go full time on your business after that.
Startup or side business
Another mistake that I saw unfold is thinking that you’re a startup. What even is a startup? That’s a topic for another blog post, but for our purposes, it just means that you have investors and employees. Unless you’re really rich already (are you?) then you can’t afford to hire someone. Even if you can afford it, will someone who is good want to work for a kid who is still at college? I’m not sure that they would. And even if you get over that hurdle, I will argue that it’s not really your business, since the other person is spending more time on it than you are! You’re really outsourcing the majority of your business leadership to someone else. Another ingredient to call your business a startup is that you have investors. I am obviously not an investor, but I don’t think that you will find someone who is willing to give you a million dollars so that you can work part time on a business idea in between classes. So I think you have to be honest with yourself, you’re not starting a startup with an army of employees, with an office, with investors, and you’re not the CEO. You are a student who is doing a side business, and that is perfectly okay. In fact, I think it’s something to be proud of. In some ways, it’s even harder than starting a startup, because of the time and money constraints. If you succeed at making your side business profitable, that’s an amazing thing. Please reach out to me and I may write about you here!
Product or service
At the moment, everyone wants to make the next cool product. We all want to design the next Airpods, the next laptop, or the next yeezys. It’s natural to want to make a physical product and have it in your hands. But actually, most businesses are services. Think of the biggest businesses you know, Apple, Google, Microsoft. They all make services, and they make money by being better at running those services than anyone else. If you want to be like them, you need to make a service. If you want to make a physical product, you need to make a million sales, because that’s the only way to make any money. That’s very hard, especially when you’re starting out. You will be much better off if you can sell a service, because you can sell it once and then sell it again and again. Look at me, I sell a service online, I started it once, and am now able to make money from it again and again.
Please note that this doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream of making a physical product. After all, you have many years ahead of you after graduating. I’m just saying that it’s harder when you’re first starting, and probably impossible if you’re first starting, have very little money,and are part time. So do yourself a favor: start a small service business and try to repeat it, rather than trying to make a product. You can even use a freelancing site like Upwork.
I’m not going to write about how to start a business, that’s a topic for another blog post, but I will tell you something that is common between all of my friends who have made money and didn’t fail or give up. Basically, you have to provide a service that people are happy to pay for. One friend is an illustrator, an other is a writer, and there are two other friends who do programming/IT work. That’s the common secret thread. It’s easy to keep going and not give up if you have a client who is urgently emailing you asking for the next job to be completed so they can pay you more. That kind of motivation keeps you going, even when you have papers due.