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Building an impact focused startup

In an industry dominated by the Zucks and Spiegels, the biggest returns will come from the most unsexy problems.

Current landscape

Painting a non-statistical picture of most student-level startups seeking investment is not difficult. They fall into one of two categories, hyper prevalent social media upstarts and uber-niche, college campus specific startups aiming to make student life more efficient. But this isn’t an indictment — entrepreneurship in any sector and of every scale is to be celebrated. This is a question of impact. One of broadening the scope of ideas and execution and using a time unburdened by non-academic responsibility to solve the biggest problems first.

Thinking big

Big problems don’t always translate to the big ticket, existential issues that occupy the mindshare of our entire generation. They can be conundrums that lurk in the shadows. Think fintech for the post-secondary financial illiteracy compounding the student debt crisis. Consider how the web of municipal bureaucracy and construction labor shortages are primary drivers of urban rents increasing much faster than incomes. There are thousands of formidable problems like these, and many of them go largely unaddressed. If you feel incensed by social media’s declining gratification (thank you, digital advertising), then by all means, build the second wave of photo sharing apps.

But don’t build a company just for the sake of it. Build it because at your core, you know that making a bet on yourself is the only viable option. Build a company not because you have a backup, but in spite of it. If you’re anti-status quo, disrupt it. If you’ve implored your university to divest of fossil fuels, build a software solution to help them track their endowment’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Put more simply, contextualize the problems you’re trying to solve and find out if they exist in a larger context. If a problem exists on your campus, it likely does on hundreds of other campuses, but what about the world at large? Solving the underlying problem can potentially be more rewarding than building band-aid solutions to address the symptoms.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

There are surely examples of this in AI, edtech and other verticals but one delicious example is Sweetgreen. The founders, all Georgetown undergrads at the time, sought to address the conspicuous lack of healthy eating options on and around campus. They raised $300k from friends and family to build a new, hyper-local salad concept geared towards the student market. 13 years later, Sweetgreen is a rapidly growing $1.6B juggernaut revolutionizing supply chain transparency and sustainability at scale (and not just on college campuses).

This is all to say that even if you don’t set out to solve major problems, you can still build something impactful. Consider at the outset what your business could grow into and don’t sell yourself short. If you’ve ever listened to successful founders speak, you know many probably weren’t thinking like this early on. That’s OK — just don’t beat yourself up, rather, use large scale thinking to grant yourself a competitive edge. Study disruptive playbooks and deploy them to solve problems in industries you care about.

photo: Erwin Sommers

The dot-campus bubble

Campuses are confoundingly insular by design, in the sense that they simultaneously encourage you to broaden your horizons but oblige you to live in a bubble. Our challenge to you is to let your entrepreneurial itch burst forth and build things that matter. While the bubble may be insulating it’s also a magnifying glass, so talk to peers, professors, mentors and advisors. Talk about little issues that are emblematic of big ones. Your opportunity to bask in the frontier of new research and discovery is time limited. Thinking about big problems is hard, solving them is even harder, but doing difficult things often yields the greatest outcomes.

TL;DR — Broadening the scope of your impact is imperative. Go after niches that matter, solve problems that are existential, long lasting and difficult. Your time horizon is your greatest strength.

Written by Scott Smith; edited by Carlo Köbe and Matthew Fairbanks

If you’re interested in building difficult things, apply to join FoundersXcel, a global remote community for entrepreneurs.



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