I receive a lot of emails from students wanting to do a “startup” or bring HackCville-like initiatives to their schools. Here are my thoughts on comments I hear regularly.*
1. We need University buy-in.
Do you need permission to be an entrepreneur? Then why do you need university buy-in? The common complaint I hear is, “Universities should support student entrepreneurs!” Schools don’t need to draft a declaration of support and recognize you as a brave entrepreneur. Is your university standing in your way? Doubtfully. You are surrounded by experts on all imaginable subjects who are in the profession of helping you. Go soak it up!
I often hear students and administrators express the need for classes as the vehicle to serve student entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is not something you study, it is something you do. You do not major/minor in entrepreneurship, you major in computer science, toss in some anthropology, and a dash of design-thinking because you’ve come to a place that builds minds, not ventures.
Taking entrepreneurship class is like saying you study football. Do you think you will be ready to go play football at the end of the semester? You need to lace up, get out on the field, and walk off with some bruises. You need to join people who actually play football and ask them to show you the ropes.
Entrepreneurs must lead. That’s you. Universities are invaluable assets. Use them appropriately. But do not spend your precious years in meeting gymnastics with administration to “foster the entrepreneur ecosystem”. Instead, just do your project. Organize a meet-up for like-minded students and hack your way to building the coolest projects at your school. If you have more students starting projects, and failing, and starting more projects, then you will be creating the necessary culture around curiosity, resourcefulness, and persistence.
2. Access to funding.
I always hear, “we need better access to funding.” The fact is, most projects are poorly conceived concepts with partially committed teams. Go prove your concepts. Get a real customer to believe in you. You dont need money. At least not right away and probably not for many months and maybe never at all. Did you know that only 14% of Inc 500 fastest growing companies take on venture funding? Stay relentlessly resourceful. Don’t get me wrong. I support investor funding, but having money doesn’t magically make your project valuable to people. To this point, please stop hosting “investor” pitch events and absurd cash prizes for concepts.
If you really want money, a semester’s worth of tuition goes a long way. I took a semester off from college and it was easily the most valuable experience of my undergraduate career.
3. I need a programmer.
If you tell me you have a project that requires a programmer, then I’m going to respond by saying, “First, learn to code. Second, how do you know you need a programmer?” This confuses everyone. “Weren’t you listening? I just explained the concept, it’s software…” I heard you, but how do you know your software product is actually solving the problem you describe. Have you identified the problem correctly? Is someone knocking down your door for your solution? Go explore the problem by leveraging the skills you already have. While you are at it, learn to code. Visit one of a dozen free or nearly free online courses. Start a learning-to-code group. Use off-the-shelf tools to hack together a solution. Software might be eating the world, but there are many opportunities for innovation that do not require the software that you cannot build.
4. I have this idea for an app.
Do not start with this line. Ever. If you tell me you have an idea for an app, then you have half my attention. If your follow up comment is, “I need to find a programmer,” then I’ve totally stopped listening. I’ll usually ask, “how do you know this is an app?” How does an app solve your problem? Mobile is big. I get it. I use apps too. But I probably won’t use yours. I’m guessing you are not passionately driven by the app itself, but rather the problem it presumably solves, and this is where I’m going to quickly steer the conversation.
5. Not “up”, just “ing”
I’m sorry to break it to you, but you don’t have a start-up. You are simply start-ing. Stop worrying about building the next, great, fast-growing tech company. When you come to me, the emphasis will be on doing. Go start doing what you are most curious about. Hack problems you have and see if others share those same problems. Be open and flexible. Follow a curiosity. Most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas, they discover them.
*Originally published Spring 2013