Introducing the Disposable Startup

It’s top secret.

We were so young then… (OK, I’m somehow not in this picture.)

Today it seems every college student is either working on a business or knows someone starting one.

But when I was in college, no one I knew was starting a business.

No, when I was in college, people started bands.

The main reason for the bands is that they are (or were, for me) so much fun. For most of us, any dreams of musical influence ended at the campus gate or at best, the local community. And most of us were fine with that since we didn’t think we were building enduring acts. We wanted to play music and so we did. “Startup” costs and time to market: next to nothing.

Your ability to join a band was based on musical ability and whether people knew about your ability. Your ability to put together a group was based on those factors plus whether you could find and manage people. Your success as a group was based on your ability to find good gigs to play, get the word out about them and keep the group together.

Like I said, none of us (well, few of us) were doing this because we thought we’d be big stars making serious money. We did it because it was fun; we had something to say. There were also no adults telling us that there was a structured way to optimize our song writing or to grow our target audience. So we just did it. The term “helicopter parenting” had yet to be invented. Likewise, the startup incubator had yet to be developed.

Today, now that college bands have turned into startups, the scene is different. There are a lot of adults running around telling the kids how to play.

I know. I’m now one of them…

I have a funny thought.

It’s the kind of thought that makes you pause in front of the bathroom mirror, faucet running, toothbrush in hand…

Speaking of teeth, remember what Frank Zappa said in response to Tipper Gore’s claim that music can incite deviant behavior? He said “I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?” It was a good point.

Of course, Zappa also said that “All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff,” but I wasn’t going to hold him to that one.

Back to the funny thought.

The funny thought is that maybe we’re pushing college founders in the wrong directions, in the wrong ways. We push them as though they are already out in the world trying to build something big and enduring. Perhaps we should just let them build their generation’s college bands. Minimal expectation of business survivability. But real experience executing.

Back to my experience playing in a college band. First of all, it was the most fun I had in college. I learned a ton about music and in ways that I couldn’t have had I stuck with the larger official music groups on campus.

“When I say that Juilliard didn’t help me, what I mean is it didn’t help me as far as helping me understand what I really wanted to play… I didn’t feel anything when I left Juilliard in the fall of 1945. Anyway, I was playing with the greatest jazz musicians in the world, so what did I have to feel bad about? Nothing. And I didn’t. Never looked back.”— Miles Davis

If I stretched the history a bit, I could also say that I learned about team dynamics, marketing and running events.

In that ancient era, in the days before Facebook or MySpace (since we’re speaking of music), we didn’t think the same way about promoting our work. Then again, we didn’t think of it as work either.

Promoting our music happened in a few ways. First, we would just tell everyone we knew about upcoming shows. Since the shows were all local, there was no need for any extended media presence. So what if we could reach people around the world if they weren’t going to come in to hear us play? All of our recordings (shows, studio sessions) were on tape (a CD was always in the works) so there wasn’t an easy global distribution model.

But there was a great local distribution model. Our “customers,” though we never thought of them as such, were college students and we were surrounded by college students. We had no problem getting people to shows or even to stop by and play when we were in the studio. For an electric free jazz group (my best attempt at categorization) consisting of bass, drums, saxophone and a spoken-word artist (this was the 90s after all), we didn’t really fit any mold.

If I had to apply today’s startup seriousness to my earlier college band experience, I may never have gotten started. If I had gotten started, would I have been pushed into more marketable music?

College entrepreneurs just starting out — build a Disposable Startup

Given all of the above and my growing experience working with university entrepreneurs, I have these suggestions for first time college founders. Think about these points before you begin.

  • Get experience delivering a product or service (rather than dealing with problems of distribution or getting a team that can build).
  • Only build for the college market (at least in the beginning).
  • Ignore others who tell you that your chosen market is too small, which is often a poor factor of evaluation. (They also might not understand what you’re trying to do).
  • Use the opportunity to learn essential skills, which you may then apply at the next thing you choose to do.

Let’s hit each of these points one by one.

Get experience delivering.

Remember that the first (and most secret) goal of the Disposable Startup is to get experience doing something. The goal is not to deal with the common problems of business models, looking for customers or elements of design or development beyond the capabilities of the current team. If you run this business into the ground over the course of a couple semesters, as long as you also delivered on the above points, then you will learn.

Again, this relates to your choice of market. If you choose a market that you are a part of and are surrounded by every day, you’ll be at an advantage over those who choose a theoretically more attractive market that they cannot easily reach or serve. Also, if you choose a market where cycle times are short, you’ll also be able to iterate faster than those who must deal with lengthy decision-making.

In some cases, you’re also in a semi-protected market. One student-run food delivery business I know can compete on college campuses simply because they have access to campus buildings.

Even if you think you’re not building a business that will endure, these steps will help you build your next business better. And since I’m now largely working with student and alumni founded businesses in which I cannot hold equity, I have as much of an interest in their current learning and future success as anything today.

Only build for the college market.

As a college student you understand this market in a way that others even a few years older do not. Your professors, even if they went to the same institution, probably had a very different experience from yours, simply by attending at a different time. The tools and platforms used were different; the interests were different. I, for one, am constantly bewildered by the behavior of college students. That’s fine — I’m not the target customer of a Disposable Startup.

Today, many of the more quickly successful businesses I see founded by current college students serve their own market. Again, this is not to say that you can’t build something for a different market, just that if I were to choose, I’d build something for the customers that I understand better than any other.

Ignore those who tell you your market is too small.

Advisors mean well but often lack an intuitive sense for how markets develop and for how companies can grow into new markets. As such, they may warn you against going into a small market. An easy example of this is judging Facebook in 2004 as restricted to the small market of college students.

The other problem with being swayed by market size is that experience in what starts out as a small market is real experience. I put a higher value on real experience operating in a small market than the theoretical ability to one day operate in a large market (while most likely not lasting long enough to get any operational experience at all).

If things go well for your business, you can grow into a new market. If things don’t go well, you’ll still get more experience than most other college companies, because you’ll be surrounded by your customers and delivering value, rather than searching for customers and theorizing about the value you could deliver.

One student-run career startup I know is so close to student demand for internships that they are already delivering relevant internships to students and talent for their member companies. By first entering the internship market at their home school and now others, they’ll be able to expand to the larger career market.

Use the opportunity to learn other essential skills.

These skills include how to stand up and deliver a presentation, how to network, knowing when and how to ask for help, how to write well, developing a following, and becoming fluent with numbers.

The saddest presentations I see are decks for theoretical businesses. That is, businesses that only exist in the classroom.

Isn’t this dangerous advice?

Yes.

Take it at your own risk. Do not brag that you’re running a Disposable Startup. But if you do it, you can tell me how it goes at @porlando.

Paul Orlando is Incubator Director & Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at USC. If you want to be updated on the development of this idea, sign up here for an infrequent mailing list and recommend the article by clicking the heart below.

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