Why You Should Start a Company as an Underclassman

My cofounder David Spratte (right) and me (left)

Why should you start a company as an underclassman? In short, because you don’t quite have to get it right.

The summer after my freshman year at Duke, I cofounded Carpe Lotion with my friend David Spratte. We developed an antiperspirant lotion, a solution to sweaty hands and feet, and have been selling it with growing success since the summer of 2015. The better Carpe does, the more people ask me for advice about their own companies — and unfortunately, in most cases, the honest reply to their questions is “I have no idea. I think our business is somehow kind of working right now? I’m trying to figure out why that is”. The reality is, growing a company is a messy and confusing affair, full of squishy math and gut calls, even when you try to approach everything as empirically as I do. It’s only after you’ve done something and seen the consequences play out over months or years that you can even begin to speak to whether or not that was a good decision. And for the first time, I think I’m ready to say that a decision I made was a good one: The decision to start Carpe Lotion, to start a company as a college underclassman and stay in school, instead of dropping out or waiting until after graduation.

It’s taken three years of perspective and stories to get to the point where I’m confident enough to put that conclusion in writing, but I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what I’m doing, what others are doing, and most devilish of all, what I could be doing. I truly believe that I’m doing (more or less) the best possible thing I can right now for my growth as an entrepreneur and as a person.

So here’s my argument: That if you’re interested in a career in entrepreneurship, you should do your best to start a company as an underclassman, especially if you’re going to stay in school. And that you should do this because the unique context you’re in allows you a tremendous amount of opportunities without much risk. I’ll outline the three reasons I believe this and then delve into each one a bit deeper.

  1. Everybody loves to help college students, so you want to maximize your window to take advantage of these opportunities before you go off on your own.
  2. There’s not really any better use of your time.
  3. You can afford to fail, and stand to gain nearly as much doing so as if you succeed.

So let’s get into it.

Everybody loves to help college students

I cannot begin to describe how many meetings I’ve gotten, how many deals I’ve closed, how many connections people have made for me — simply because I’m a college student. It makes PR so much easier (“Two local college students coming together to make something new” rather than “two boring 20-somethings trying to do something with their lives”), it opens you up to tangible resources (a lot of universities, Duke and UNC included, are creating programs and workspaces to help undergraduate entrepreneurs), and it makes most people you encounter really want to help you succeed.

Unfortunately, most of these perks disappear if you drop out or graduate. And it takes a while for any startup to get going — so if you start as an underclassman, you get three or four years of these perks rather than a year or two. You really ought to take advantage of these perks as much as you can, especially since…

There’s not really any better use of your time

If you want to be an entrepreneur, you should be working on companies. Period. If you want to be a pilot, you should by flying planes, if you want to be a yoga instructor, you should be doing yoga, if you want to be a researcher you should be doing research — entrepreneurship is no different. One of the saddest things I see in college is droves of students getting majors in entrepreneurship or business without learning anything but some abstract theory. Yeah, there’s theory in business, but I can assure you, it’s about 10% of what you need to know when you’re growing your company.

Am I saying that you should never major in business or entrepreneurship? By no means — there have been countless instances where I found myself wishing I knew some more about accounting or marketing best practices, or ROI analysis. But all the knowledge in the world wouldn’t come close to preparing me for the day-to-day of running a company. And running Carpe has prepared me.

Which gets me to the crux of my argument. I’m not saying you should start your lifelong passion company as an underclassman. I’m saying that you should start any company, not as a play to graduate college as a millionaire, but as a learning opportunity. And with that approach to it…

You can afford to fail

If you’re out of college and dropping everything to start a company, that company better do well. Yes, everybody says you should be ready to fail, but if you’re counting on your startup to put food on the table, you can’t really afford to pursue a half-baked idea just to learn some skills. You can’t afford to learn from one of life’s best teachers — you can’t afford to fail. As an underclassman, though, you can do just that.

One of the single toughest parts of running a company is deciding what you should be allocating your precious time and effort to. And this is a challenge that begins when the company is just a twinkle in your eye, when you’re wondering whether this is the best idea to be working on — because there always is a better idea out there, but you could spend your entire life searching and still not find it. So you have to divorce that notion of perfect, you have to turn from the attitude that got you into a great college, that got you this far in life, and finally say “let’s do something that’s good enough”.

Starting a company as an undergraduate makes that a little bit easier. You’re still growing through school, you’re still advancing your career prospects, even if you realize that you were wrong about your potential company having any market viability. So you can stop worrying about ideas and start working on action. Because that’s one of the first lessons you’ll learn as an entrepreneur: The people who think they have the next big idea will, 99 times out of 100, do nothing with it. Ideas are nearly worthless in the real world: it’s putting them into action that matters.

So let’s say you find an idea you think will work, you find a team you think will work. Will you grow it into a successful company? Probably not. But if you commit yourself, if you say “I am starting a company right now, and I’m going to do everything I can to make it a success”, I promise you that you will learn more than you can imagine. You will go from liking the idea of being an entrepreneur, to actually being an entrepreneur. You will gain the knowledge and skills to actually create a competitive company, to actually be a valuable asset to a startup.

Why am I saying that you’ll probably fail, when Carpe’s been nothing but a success so far? Two reasons. First, if I had planned to stake my life on Carpe, I would’ve probably buckled in the first two months, as soon as I began to realize all the things that would have to go just right for this company to work — I would’ve been on the search for more ideas. Instead, I committed myself fully and fearlessly to Carpe, with all its flaws and promises, win or lose. And that’s why we’re winning. Second, Carpe wasn’t my first pony. I’d worked on a “startup” (it didn’t get far enough for me to use that word outside of quotes) through my freshman year, a DJ lighting system called Mantis. It was a spectacular failure, but even though we barely got to the prototype stage, it taught me dozens of lessons that allowed Carpe to succeed. Some of these lessons were conscious, and I can speak and write about those — people could possibly learn those in a classroom. But far more were unconscious, lessons that I could’ve learned only by working on a startup and living through all the associated risks and rewards and pain. And I’m certain that Carpe would’ve been a failure within its first year if I hadn’t learned those lessons from Mantis. If I hadn’t been in a position where I was allowed to fail. Being an underclassman allowed me exactly that.

So if you’re wondering whether you should start a company as an underclassman who plans to stay in school, I say do it, do it, do it. You may win, you may lose, but above all, you will learn and grow as an entrepreneur more than you possibly could by doing anything else with your college years.