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This Guy Made The Forbes 30-under-30 From The Middle of Nowhere

Late last year I made an outlandish goal for myself: Earn a spot on the Forbes 30-under-30 list one day.

I know how crazy it is — trust me — but I thought there’s no harm in having big dreams for my future.

Spoiler Alert: I haven’t made the list yet, but I’m still working on it.

That’s why I was so excited to get Ben Christensen on the phone to do an interview. Ben made the list this year at just 24 years old (my age), which is absolutely astounding. What’s even more astounding is how he came out of practically nowhere — upstate Michigan — into the national spotlight because of a business he started three years ago.

Fast forward to 2017 and Handshake, the company he started back in 2014, helps connect 6 million college students to better internships, jobs, and opportunities across America. In fact, nearly 98% of Fortune 500 companies use their platform to post jobs for new graduates.

I reached out to him (pictured left below) a couple months ago to do an interview for my upcoming free magazine.

Surprisingly enough, he obliged me (even though I only created one previous edition before it). I was elated.

Before the interview I sat in my room wondering how I even got this guy on the phone. After he picked up, it became clear why.

He just likes to help.

This is how you go from Houghton, Michigan to the Forbes 30-under-3o list.

Make It About The People, Stupid

“The right moral compass is trying hard to think about what customers want.”

-Sundar Pichai

Multiple times during our conversation, Ben made it clear that his efforts were always about the students.

We started building Handshake while we were still in college, and the inspiration was really being in the middle of nowhere in Houghton, Michigan,” he says.

We had a great school and great programs, but it’s really nowhere near anything. The one airport in the area — fifty percent of flights into it are cancelled or delayed. It’s two hours to the nearest town or city and even that city is pretty small.

It was hard for employers to get there, so unless you really built up a relationship with them, they weren’t going to pay much attention. The access to opportunity was just so tough sometimes.

I watched friends take jobs they were just content with but weren’t helping them feel fulfilled and pushed and helped them to grow. So we really wanted to make a difference with that.

Ben really just paid attention to the problems of the people around him and THEN thought of a solution in Handshake.

We hear this lesson all the time from entrepreneurs around the world! Start at the problem, and THEN work on a solution.

If you focus on people from the start, it’s much harder to go wrong.

Explore The Problem Significantly

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”

-Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Ben and company discovered the problem, but if they didn’t dive deeper at the outset, Handshake wouldn’t be what it is today.

“During school we started talking with our career center AND employers.

As an employer, you want to find these students, but you can only go to five, ten, fifteen schools depending on how big your staff is.

There’s just not enough time to reach everyone. So we realized by working with the Universities and Career Centers that there was a great way to help both of those different entities.”

If Ben would’ve just focused on the student’s issues, the problems from the employer’s point of view would’ve been lost in the fray. It was only after researching the problem further that Ben found he could create a solution for both parties.

Find Time To Put In The Work

“Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.”

-Ann Landers

As full-time students, Ben and his co-founders didn’t have a lot of time to work on their new business.

But they found time.

We just worked after class, in the library, and a couple other different classrooms just meeting up. We ran user testing with our friends, and flew out to other different schools to get their advice on things.

We’d sneak into career fairs to book interviews with employers about the challenges they were facing. We ended up raising a seed round in 2014 after we graduated, and around that time we finally moved out to the Bay Area.

Flying out to other schools when you have school work of your own seems pretty dedicated. It was. At the end of the day, Ben got a lot of different perspectives and just put the work in with his co-founders.

To Proof Your Idea, See How Many People Are Affected

“Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work though difficult problems.”

-Gever Tulley

One other important aspect to Ben’s success is how open he was to talking with employers, colleges, and students about this issue.

When you have tons of people getting involved and relating to the exact same issues across the board, that’s a pretty good sign that your idea is rock solid.

The problem with most businesses is that they design a product or service that people didn’t really want in the first place.

However if you’re communicating with large groups of people, and they’re all adament about the same problems, this is a sign you shouldn’t ignore.

How To Grow With Your Business

Ben and his co-founders originally said if they could sign up five schools in three years, they would continue on with their venture.

By the end of their third year, Handshake had 400 schools signed on.

To grow effetively as leaders with their business, Ben and company had to call in a few experts.

You can’t figure it all out on your own. You can try, but it’s really all about learning and adapting to other people. So we would try to find smart people and ask them questions, get their opinions and try to learn from them. There’s so many ways you need to work on yourself that show up time and time again while you’re running a business.

Things are going to be constantly adapting. Once you learn how to deal with 10 people, you’ll be at 20 people and it’s a different story at that point. Then you’ll be at 50 people and it’ll be a different story again and then you’ll be at 80 people. You just have to be ready to constantly revisit yourself and keep learning and growing and never feeling like you always have it fully figured out.

Ben’s company, Handshake, is headquartered in San Francisco and works with schools like Stanford, Princeton, Michigan State, and Cornell.

To find out more about Ben and the challenges he faced building Handshake, check out my interview with him in our free Post-Grad Survival Guide digital magazine.

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Tom Kuegler

Tom Kuegler

Travel blogger. 29 years old. Currently in Mexico. Get my free 5-day Medium course via email → https://bit.ly/35yyIIu