Doing College Like an Entrepreneur: Why The Most Effective Path to Founding a Startup Is Probably Joining A Great One First
Fed up with her underwhelming courses and experiences in college, the entrepreneur inside Antonia Liu knew she needed to either suck it up or figure out a better way to learn from the best and the brightest. Through writing her book Hack College Like an Entrepreneur, due out in fall 2017, Antonia discovered not only how others leveraged college to build successful startup careers but also began her own startup career at one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, MasterClass.
“I got it — I got the job,” Antonia Liu said barely holding back a gigantic smile.
“I guess that means you’re not dropping out,” I replied with my own smirk.
She laughed and held her hands out and moved them in a balancing motion. “Work at MasterClass.com, like one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley or drop out and take my chances all on my own? Pretty sure it’s an easy choice.”
Indeed. Certainly didn’t look that way a few weeks before, I thought.
Antonia Liu is a startup founder at heart — so much so that she struck me as a bit of a fish out of water when I first met her, different than other young people I’d met in my career. She was already thinking and acting like one, asking if it was okay to miss our second class so she could do simultaneous translation for Tony Robbins at one of his events in Florida.
If you have any doubts about her career path, within the first four paragraphs of her book, you get a clear picture into the internal conflict of an entrepreneur in college.
In her book Hack College like an Entrepreneur: 40 Surprising Secrets for Success from Top Startup Founders due out in fall 2017, Antonia Liu doesn’t pull her punches. Within the first five pages she offers a look at famous startup founders who dropped out of college.
As much as her book is a collection of insights from everyone from Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to Tony Robbins and Seth Godin, the journey of writing it was largely a way for Antonia to convince herself not to drop out; that college actually could be a valuable step on her own journey. Hack College Like An Entrepreneur takes aim at the ‘cult of the drop-out founder’ by examining the stories, insights, lessons and successes of dozens of founders who themselves struggled with being an ‘entrepreneur trapped in a university.’
Antonia synthesizes their lessons into forty bite-sized, actionable nuggets that offer moments of humor (“I would recommend you get drunk more”) to moments of sage wisdom (“The collection of talent in a university is huge — meet great people because they could be your future cofounder, investor or spouse.”) But more than anything, it offers a roadmap to experience and grow through the stereotypical aspects of the college experience without losing what it is that makes you a startup founder. It’s a book designed to show you how you can have it all — and that the vast majority of successful startup founders did make it through college.
She was able to interview another Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport, a longtime hero of hers, who pushed Antonia to think deeply about developing your passion through actions rather than hoping to find it.
He wrote “How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students” and later, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”
“I loved his work and book since high school, but didn’t get the courage or motivation to ask to meet him until deep into the writing process.”
Follow a Career Passion? Let It Follow You
As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But…
And as she’d soon find out, her process of writing the book would convince her that her own book’s message actually applied to her too.
Research shows that 98% of startup founders had a “job” before they started a company, and 70% or more of successful startup founders actually got their idea for their company AT the job they had right before they founded their company. In short, if done right, you can greatly increase your chances of startup success by leveraging your job correctly.
For Antonia, that meant she’d need to find the right role with the right company with the right management to help her accelerate her future career as a founder. Interviewing startup founders for her book actually meant she was also interviewing THEM to find a perfect place to start her career as a future founder.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that this process would eventually lead her to her own dream job — working for MasterClass, a fast-growing, Silicon Valley based, venture-backed startup company with a founder who himself had ‘done college like an entrepreneur.’
Antonia had set out to interview as many successful founders, entrepreneurs and creative executives as she could find for her book. It was partially a chance to talk to her heroes and partially a chance to get some needed inspiration not to drop out of college.
She started her outreach by writing a list of startups she admired and then began to hunt to find the founders behind them. Near the top of her list was MasterClass, a startup that has raised nearly $50 million from top tier venture capitalists in support of its “celebrity taught classes” model. The startup features courses taught by Serena Williams, Gordon Ramsay, Christina Aguilera and dozens more.
Antonia loved the lessons and potential influence MasterClass offered by enlisting experts in an immense range of fields to teach students — but she had no connections to the founders. She decided to send a cold email to an email address she hoped would reach Aaron Rasmussen. This was not someone she met at a speaking event or an alumni connection. It was the co-founder of the MasterClass himself.
“I reached out to the co-founder, Aaron, and he got back to me in an hour, which was surprising since the email was sent out pretty late at night. And he mentioned in the email that we should talk the day after since he’s leaving the country soon.”
Aaron scheduled the call during the middle of her midterm (an ominous sign for a woman considering dropping out) — fortunately for Antonia, her professor was fine with her going into the exam 20 minutes late the morning of her call. During this call, she both asked Aaron for his advice for young entrepreneurs, and shared how she hoped her book would amplify the wisdom of his experience to benefit as many other students as possible. “The interview actually happened when he was at the gate at the airport, waiting to board the flight,” she remarked with a chuckle.
Networking in this way sounds contradictory. But then so might the advice that Aaron passed on to Antonia,
“His advice: “go party.” Super drunk is not going to be fun. What you should try to do is meet people. This is the skill that you’ll use business every day.”
Through this process Antonia was certainly looking for ways Aaron’s experience and expertise could benefit her. But this interview and initial interest was equally motivated by respect for an existing model, and a hope of sharing advice she resonated with, with people in a similar situation to her. She was able to connect his words to her own experience and recognize the value in immediately implementing his advice,
“And I really should make a point because I was too shy in freshman year in college to enjoy parties in my free time. I started to challenge myself to hang out with people, get comfortable eating with people, and get others’ different perspectives, and learn about them.”
Aaron went on saying, “This is incredibly helpful because everyone spends most of their day working with people, especially when being an entrepreneur. Whether people will follow your vision or cheat on you in a partnership all rely on your ability to connect and communicate with people. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to spend your free time socializing, even though normally people think that’s not right.”
Socializing. Not communicating and connecting for the sake of networking. Stepping away from the professional, and recognizing that even work is rooted in the personal both in terms of connections, and goals.
Antonia loved this advice, and the entire conversation she had with Aaron Rasmussen.
“I got to know the good culture and mission of the company (I already loved the product they create). That’s when I thought about joining them this summer, but they had no formal internship program on the website or anywhere else.”
Antonia decided to do some digging. If the interview for her book had taught her anything, it was to meet people and seek out new opportunities even (and perhaps especially) when they were outside of her comfort zone.
“I came across the profile of the CMO of the company on LinkedIn, and I was very impressed because he started and was in charge of paid media at Netflix before he joined MasterClass. I thought to myself this will be a cool person to learn from.
Then I reached out to him on LinkedIn via message saying I had a great time chatting with the co-founder, and I would love to know if there’s an internship opportunity for the summer.”
But hearing back from the Chief Marketing Officer required a little more patience and effort on Antonia’s part.
“He didn’t get back to me in a week. After a week, I cheered myself up and sent him a short reminder. He got back to me in a very nice and friendly manner, apologizing for not getting back to me sooner, and offered me to jump on a call with him.”
They had a “good chat”, and a couple more phone interviews later, she got her offer.
“Since I didn’t tell Aaron I was applying for an internship there, I get there was not direct connection. But the interview triggered my desire to apply, and definitely helped me to get the interest of the team members to interview me.”
A willingness to reach out to the co-founder for his perspective and share her own passion has been vital for both Antonia’s book, personal growth, and now an opportunity to intern for a company she admired, but didn’t really think there was a pathway to becoming involved with this early on in her life and career. Her book was a vital tool that caught Aaron’s interest in the first place, Antonia quipped “I’d say he’s impressed judging by the fact that he agreed to an interview in an hour!”
We often convince ourselves there is a “right” way to network. Conferences, recruiting events, parties, on-campus interviews, applying constantly, career fairs, and then keeping in contact with those you meet. I would hope those searching for a killer job or internship check off certain boxes, participate in events, or reach out to particular people because doing so is exactly what is needed for success.
But think about it.
If everyone is going about more or less the same thing as you to network, how is that effective? It becomes much more difficult to not only distinguish yourself, but identify why you’re doing what you’re doing, (or even if you really want the position you’re shooting for) because you’re spending so much time trying to get it. What happens when you completely rethink networking?
What if, instead of reaching out for the narrow goal of a job or internship, aspiring professionals reached out to the people they are most inspired by to not only learn from them, but to share their own perspectives and purposes in setting out to create something epic — a book, a podcast, a conference, or something else altogether.
What if you become a creator rather than a consumer? That’s how Antonia wrote a book and landed her job in one fell swoop.
What I love watching with students like Antonia is her ability to take a simple suggestion — reach out to people you want to meet and interview them for your book — and turn that into her own startup-focused career hunt. Worst case you meet and learn from incredible people. Best case you find a place you want to be at with people you’re inspired to know and learn from.
Antonia was willing to embrace controversial and unconventional paths from the beginning.
As I’ve followed her Facebook feed, it’s obvious she’s in the right place and is already loving her summer internship. As Antonia seeks out unexpected and nontraditional paths as she puts together her books — whether not getting caught up in the simultaneous frenzy and confinement of traditional networking or striving to present an actionable path for budding entrepreneurs within a university setting — she is still open to, and thrilled by, the unexpected.
“I am surprised that the CMO offered me a chance to jump on a call with him without much difficulty and landing at this opportunity since the other marketing interns are all MBA and grad students.”
The courage to reach out to individuals common knowledge would say she’d be lucky to get a cursory response from an assistant, or being vulnerable enough to first discover and then work towards realizing her ideas and goals is what has set Antonia apart, and landed her a dream internship at a place she respects alongside people with, funnily enough, a lot more schooling than even she has.
Just as much as Antonia aims to disrupt how collegiate innovators operate within the status quo of higher education, she has proven to be an entrepreneur in networking. Willing to invest herself fully in risks, and own unexpected challenges just as much as victories.
To connect with Antonia for speeches, presentations or consulting work, email email@example.com. Her book Hack College Like An Entrepreneur will be published in fall 2017.