Co-written by Stephen Soward
My co-founder Stephen and I have had the opportunity to see a lot of student startups start, grow, fail, and succeed throughout our time founding and growing Campus Insights and working with various startups at Boston College and University of Michigan, in addition to my time investing in student startups at Dorm Room Fund.
Based on our observations and experiences, we’ve put together a few pieces of advice we wish we had known prior to founding Campus Insights. This list is by no means comprehensive or profound, nor does it apply to all situations or startups, but we hope you find it helpful.
If you have additional tips for student founders, or disagree with any of our advice, please comment below!
1. Don’t get stuck in the idea phase
It’s easy (and comfortable) to spend months mapping out your business model and every single product feature. But if you never get momentum, you’ll probably get bored and eventually move on. Once you have an idea you’re really excited about, identify the tangible steps between your idea and getting something in front of users, and execute on those steps. The sooner you get something out, the sooner you can get feedback and iterate.
Anecdote: Prior to Campus Insights, Stephen and I worked on an app idea for eight months. We had mapped out an incredibly elaborate three year product roadmap, but the startup went nowhere because we never actually executed on anything. Learning from this, as soon as we got the idea for Campus Insights, we immediately bought a cheap video camera and ran around campuses paying students $5 to give feedback on apps. We then sent these sample interviews to companies and soon had our first paying customer!
2. Play the student card to get advice and introductions
Reaching out as “a student founder curious to get your advice on X” is an awesome strategy for getting in touch with potential clients, investors, and advisors. It’s especially effective if you target alumni from your school. That said, make sure to be respectful of people’s time: do your homework beforehand, follow-up with a thank you email, and pay it forward.
Anecdote: 25% of our clients during the first two years of our business were referred to us by Boston College alumni we had cold-emailed for advice. We spent a lot of time on Boston College’s LinkedIn page, filtering through alumni by title, industry, and company.
Email etiquette is sometimes hard to get right when you’re new to the game, you can read more about tips for emails here.
3. Don’t spend too much time on pitch competitions, accelerators, and investors
It’s easy to spend a majority of your time applying, practicing, and pitching at competitions, accelerators, and investors. All three of these can be quite helpful as you grow your company. However, at the end of the day, focusing on your product, customers, and growth will help your startup more than anything else. If you have good traction, they (investors) will come.
Anecdote: A student startup I know in Boston spent the majority of spring 2017 pitching various competitions and summer accelerators. After a couple months, they realized their business hadn’t grown at all because they had been so distracted. They decided to completely stop all pitching and go truly heads-down on their business. A week later, they felt they had accomplished more in that week than in the entire prior two months.
4. Know where school falls on your list of priorities
How much time you should spend on school is situation-specific. We recommend considering factors such as:
- How much you enjoy school vs. working on your startup
- How much GPA matters to your fallback career path and to any scholarships you might have
- How serious you are about your startup
- How important it is to you that you fully apply yourself in school
- You and your family’s financial situation
Based on these factors, decide how you want to prioritize school relative to your startup and set clear guidelines for how well you want to do in school (e.g. as long as I’m above X GPA, I will prioritize my startup). And then stick to your prioritization and guidelines.
Anecdote: Early on, a lot of my stress of being a student founder was because I constantly switched between prioritizing school and prioritizing my startup. Once I had a clear guidelines, I eliminated the stress caused each time there was a decision such as “should I not study much for this exam or should I reschedule this important business meeting?”
5. Consider taking a leave of absence only if you feel it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
When I was thinking about leaving school to focus 100% on Campus Insights, a mentor of mine asked me if I thought this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I asked myself:
- Is this a startup I know I want to be working on for 5–10+ years?
- Is the market timing perfect and unique (i.e. would waiting to graduate cause us to miss capitalizing on the opportunity)?
My answers for both were “no”. And I’m grateful I didn’t leave school for Campus Insights. But if the answers had both been “yes”, leaving might have been the right move.
6. Don’t automatically say yes to all of your classmates who want to help your startup
It’s hard to turn down friends who think your startup is cool and want to help out. But helping hands who are “not bad, not good, just okay” will distract you and have limited impact. Even talented teammates can slow down your startup if you hire too aggressively and don’t actually need them, or if they aren’t committed to working hard. Here’s a checklist to ask yourself before you bring someone onto your team:
- Do you really need this role?
- Is this person a rockstar?
- Is this person genuinely passionate about what you’re doing?
- Will this person make your startup one of their top priorities?
Anecdote: The Campus Insights team ended up being half people we already were friends with and half people we hadn’t known previously. We kept the team small and interviewed our friends with the same rigor we used when interviewing someone we didn’t know (multiple rounds of interviews, reference calls, and trial projects). And it paid off: we’re lucky to have had such an awesome team and to not have needed to let someone go.
7. Be careful about equity and IP
Legal stuff can be very time-consuming and costly, especially when you’re a broke college student! That said, equity and IP are two things absolutely worth handling the correct legal way. Have signed contracts for your equity and make sure it’s vested (the standard is often 4 years with a cliff) and have signed contracts that assign IP created by your team to your company’s legal entity. Student entrepreneurs often want to avoid these hard conversations, but messing up equity or IP can have serious ramifications for your company down the road.
(Disclaimer: We’re not lawyers and you should absolutely consult a lawyer on any legal decision.)
8. Be proactive with planning around your student loans
For this tip, we spoke with a few founders who graduated with loans and went full-time on their startup. Here is the advice they shared:
My approach was that I saved enough to pay for student loans for a year. Plus the 6 month grace period that gives me 1.5 years to pursue our company full time. If after a year and a half we aren’t generating enough for me to pay my student loans, I’ll either pick up a part time job or look for something else.
Another element that helped me is that I was able to graduate a year early, so I am viewing this year as a bonus year to learn as much as possible and take a risk. I think it is good to have honest conversations with parents and dive into if this is something you really want to do at this stage of your life.
“There are ways you can defer or change payment structure so it makes it easier to start a company. Check out income based repayment.”
Take an honest look at your situation. How are you paying for everything in your day-to-day life, how much will you need to make, and are you able to pay yourself that with your business alone? If not, how will you make up the extra income and will the stakeholders in your business be okay with that? If it’s not possible, it may be best to reconsider where things sit with your business, get a job that will pay the bills, and work on your company in your spare time. If you’re able to cover everything, then congrats and good luck!
It’s a tough journey that I’m still on, but very rewarding.
9. Solicit lots of advice, but don’t follow it all
Throughout your journey you’re going to have impressive people who’ve sold a company for billions or invested in hundreds of companies give you advice. It’s hard to not follow someone’s advice when they’re so successful and you’re just a student. But you know your business better than anyone else does. Your job as a founder is to seek out many different perspectives and then use them as data points to inform a decision that you ultimately make yourself. It’s okay if you only follow 5–10% of advice you receive (including the advice in this article!).
Anecdote: If we had always followed experts’ advice, Campus Insights wouldn’t exist. Right after we came up with the idea for Campus Insights, we explained it to a retired Fortune 500 CEO who told us it was a bad idea because no one would pay college students to conduct user research. We’re glad we didn’t listen to them :)
10. Take advantage of all the awesome resources for student entrepreneurs
There are so many great resources for students! Ideas for stuff to look into:
- Student VC Firms: Dorm Room Fund, Rough Draft Ventures, Contrary Capital, and others.
- University law clinics and law professors: All of the legal work for our acquisition was done for free by BC’s entrepreneurship law clinic, saving us about probably about $50,000. See if your school has something similar!
- Independent Studies — This isn’t an entrepreneur-specific resource, but a lot of schools will let you do an independent study related to your startup for course credit.
- Professors — Whether you need advice on coding, accounting, management press, or anything else, there’s probably a world-class professor at your school who will help you for free.
We wish you the best of luck on your journey. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it – reflecting back on our college experiences, the biggest highlight and thing Stephen and I are most grateful for was the opportunity to work on Campus Insights. Go get ‘em!