Why Mentors Need To Stop Telling College Entrepreneurs To Focus on “Billion Dollar Ideas”

Ask any college student that wants to start a company what piece of advice he or she is given most, and it’s bound to have something to do with tackling “big, real world problems”.

As a college student I’m the first to admit that our view of the world is admittedly limited. Most student’s will say their top priorities include food, social media, and of course schoolwork. That’s why it makes perfect sense that the vast majority of startups coming out of colleges are related to these three industries. Just explore any campus’ startup scene and you’ll quickly realize that far more students are trying to build the next great food delivery app or tutoring service then are developing the next revolutioary B2B service.

This imbalance of product ideas often leads mentors (entrepreneurship teachers, industry advisors, or college investing funds) to highly discourage entering one of these familiar industries, instead focusing on a “billion dollar idea”. This advice is wrong, and unfair to the student.

The most important trait of a founder building a company is passion. We all know the road to success for a startup is hard, and often pure passion is the only thing that keeps founders going when things get rough. This passion often comes in the form of an intense interest in the industry, prior experience, or best of all a strong desire to actually use the product you are building.

This is why telling a college student to build a company in an industry unrelated to their interests will actually hurt them in the long run.

The vast majority of students who start startups in college are getting their first real-world experience in building a company. They need to learn how to build a product, nurture a strong team, and manage finances. While these tasks are essential for becoming a successful entrepreneur, they aren’t easy to learn. Learning them requires a tremendous deal of focus, trial and error, and exposure to failure — all things that can only come with being passionate about a product or industry.

In other words, people who advise students to focus on an industry they aren’t passionate about are showing that they don’t value the learning process and development that come with starting a company at a young age. They are teaching entrepreneurs that the small chance at a gargantuan payoff is more important then learning the basics of entrepreneurship.

What these advisors need to understand is that students aren’t building tutoring apps or food-related services because they think these ideas will change the world. Students are building these companies because they have a genuine passion for the product, and want to combine that with their passion for entrepreneurship.

College startup advisors need to start thinking long term, and realize how important the benefits are that come from building a company you are passionate about. The student will have the rest of his life to expand his horizons and “disrupt” billion dollar industries. For now it’s important to expose them to the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, even if it reduces the (already minuscule) chance at a great payoff.

So while this may mean the trend of food, tutoring, and social media apps on college campuses is here to stay, we need to remember that the goal of these companies isn’t always to change the world. As long as students are growing as entrepreneurs and building business skills they can use later in life, mentors should be supportive of their decisions.

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