Inside the Mind of Student Founders

Ten Student Founders at Rough Draft Ventures Share Advice on Starting a Company While in School

“First, start selling — there’s no limit to solutions that people want for free. The solutions that people are willing to pay for are far, far fewer. Bringing money into the conversation will help you develop product-market-fit far, far sooner. Second, be decisive, but flexible — at any given point be resolute in what you’re doing. At the same time, be willing to turn on a dime if you become assured that it’s not working. This dichotomy is one of the hardest ones to balance.” — Slater Victoroff, CEO, Indico

“First, character and values are important. You should be empowered to qualify all new hires, investors, partners for whether they are good people or not. Second, entrepreneurship is a selfish endeavor. Building a business is hard; early-stage entrepreneurs receive invaluable support from a myriad of constituencies (family, friends, mentors, customers, etc.). When you’re successful, be mindful of the ‘debt’ you owe these people as they supported you.” — Alok Tayi, Co-founder, TetraScience

“Being student founder can be a difficult juggling act, but it can also be a ‘hall pass’ of sorts. What I mean is that it’s such a great time to leverageyour academic status (i.e. your .edu email address, the willingness people have to talk to students) to really define a problem, figure out how painful of a problem it is, learn how folks are overcoming that problem today, tinker around with a solution, test out what *someone* will pay for your solution, etc. — all the organic things that will make pay dividends the rest of your startup journey.” — Nate Ie, Co-founder, Parable

“The great news for student founders is that universities are concentrated communities of early adopters, both the students and the faculty. Work that to your advantage. Practice building a community around your startup at school before you grow it beyond.” — Ted Benson, Founder of CloudStitch

“The hardest thing for me has been building a solid team, so thinking about it from very early is important. I didn’t do this very well. Apart from that, being prepared for many things that have a high chance of success to go wrong is important. I learnt this the hard way. I was too confidant on a few things and made a few assumptions because I was too confident — it proved costly.” — Anant Bhardwaj, Founder, Instabase

“In my view, universities are the most resource rich places to launch a startup. All sorts of resources: people, financial, alumni, workspace, knowledge. These resources were key to getting Getaway off the ground: a walk across campus yielded three designers to help on our house designs, the ROCK Center for Entrepreneurship provided a summer stipend that really helped in the early days of the company, the Harvard iLab is our home base. The people we’ve been able to meet just because we’re students has opened many doors. Being a student founder is not without downsides — you have to be vigilant to manage the distraction factor and be willing to give up other things of the student experience, but in my view its a pretty incredible privilege to be gaining a traditional education and building a company at the same time.” — Jon Staff, Founder, Getaway

“Stick with it, work on it, and you may eventually get it. Before history-changing products like the light bulb were invented, there were 2000 possibilities. The only way to get there was to try the other 1999 possibilities first. Even more, turning it into a business has even more challenges along the way: there’s no infrastructure for power generation, people are pretty happy with the state-of-the-art gas lamps, and no one knows how “dangerous” electrical light bulbs could be. Well, stick with it and eventually you may get it.” — Wen Sang, Founder, Smarking

“First, optimize your life for flow — you’re 5 times more productive ‘in the zone’, meaning one day of flow is a week’s worth of ‘normal’ work. Be in flow a couple days a week and you’ll race past everyone. Next, be insanely interesting — read great books. Learn fascinating things. Share those things. Be known in your group of friends as the “philosophical one,” crazy things start happening to you. Finally, it’s about who knows you — there’s an old saying that stings all those striving for meritocracy, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know.’ This is incomplete. ‘It’s not about what you know, or who you know, but rather about who knows you, and what they know you know.’” — Charles Huang, Founder, Panda Pay

“If you’re having difficulty straddling both studying for school and building your product, strongly consider dropping one and focusing on the other. Doing one really well is better than doing both poorly.” — Conrad Kramer, Co-founder, Workflow

“Someone once told me in college that in order to grow a business, you have to target a small audience before you can target the masses. If you are trying to make a product viral, or something that everyone can enjoy and find useful, you have to start by providing value to a specific community who is dying for that product to exist. Before working on Cymbal, I worked on an app called Marko with my co-founder Amadou and a few other friends from Tufts. The idea was a social network made up of location-locked photos. So you could only view photos if you were in the location where they were taken. It’s a cool idea, but I think part of why it did not succeed was because we were not targeting anyone specific. Marko did not provide lots of value to photographers, even though it was a photo app. We were trying to sell Marko to the masses, before the hypothesis of the app was tested. Cymbal is designed for music fanatics. I think part of the reason it has worked out it has is because we made it knowing that we could target people who are obsessed with music discovery before we target the rest of the world. If you can succeed in a small circle, that small circle can expand. That small circle of people can bring friends in and it can become mainstream. Facebook did not go viral overnight. It started by providing extreme value to Harvard students. And then as time went on, more and more people wanted a piece of the cake. If Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook for Harvard students, would it be where it is now?” — Gabe Jacobs, Co-Founder, Cymbal