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Why Building a Startup in College is the Smartest Thing You Can Do

College.

Commonly described as the four (sometimes five) best years of your life, college is a whirlwind of new experiences, social interactions, academics, partying, all-nighters, and so much more. However, amidst all of the shenanigans, the underlying reason to enroll is to eventually work your way to that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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That your sleepless nights in the library will translate to a superior GPA, and by bolding that number and throwing it in the top left corner of your resume, perhaps it’ll land you an above average starting salary in the ultra-competitive ecosystem of corporations. If all goes well, with a few years of dedication and hard-work, your tenure may earn you a few pay raises, which may land you a six figure salary before you would describe yourself as ‘middle-aged’.

The 1% continue starting businesses and building fortunes, while the middle-class settle for steady paychecks and miss out on the opportunity to accumulate great wealth. It’s not rocket science; it’s statistics. Take a look at the world’s wealthiest people – they took risks, started businesses, and accumulated success by recognizing opportunity. Not everyone succeeds in starting a business on their first attempt, in fact it’s far more common to fail.

I am going to tell you why building a startup in college is the smartest thing you could do, regardless of the outcome. 

Timing 

I view college as the pinnacle of opportunity in your life. You are young, immersed in a stimulating academic environment buzzing with opportunity and carry little to no baggage. By that I mean – you aren’t expected to have a salary, provide for your family, pay your insurance, bills, etc. Compare your life circumstances as a college student to a 35 year-old with a spouse, two kids, a mortgage, and two car payments. Did I mention your older son is about to start applying to colleges? Try quitting your job and forfeiting your salary then.

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Starting your own business is difficult and stressful. I can’t imagine having an entire family depending on you to put food on the table would make the situation any better. College represents the golden years where you’re mature enough, you’ve accumulated enough knowledge and general life experience, and you’re fully capable of starting a business. They are the years just before you inherit your phone bills, insurance, rent, and the myriad of other responsibilities that quickly accumulate post graduation. Low risk, high reward. 

Campus Life 

You are a product of your environment. Each and every university is interlocked in competition with one another to develop the newest technologies, boast the highest graduation rates and test scores, and publicize their greatest discoveries and scholars. The entire university ecosystem is driven by competition. The end result produces a substantial community of intrinsically driven, self-motivated and educated students.

Building a Startup in College

Being immersed in such a community day in and day out, I found myself wanting to distinguish myself as well. I began to explore opportunities in industries in which I believed it would be possible to return a sizable profit. During my sophomore year in college, the app store was exploding with new apps every day, and each new business had some sort of online facet to it. However, my soon-to-be co-founders and I recognized that while most of these students with these abstract app ideas may be able to write a thorough business plan, they had absolutely no background in computer programming or app development. Another advantage to starting a business in college: you have access to an extremely large demographic of students practically at your fingertips.

By identifying the disconnect between the business minded entrepreneurs and computer science students/hackers on campus, we went on to create VentureStorm, a web application that connects entrepreneurs and startups to talent young software developers within proximity to help advance their venture. 

University Resources 

Entrepreneurship and innovation is all the rage on college campuses these days. These higher educational institutions are pouring more and more of their budgets into providing resources, faculty, technology, co-working spaces, equipment, etc. to increase the possibility of stimulating and incubating the next breakthrough company.

Speaking from my University of Maryland biases, founder of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, started the apparel company out of his dorm while playing football for the Terps. What has that done for the university? He recently donated $25 million to the university to help pay for the new athletics and academic complex on campus, he hosts the annual Cupids Cup entrepreneurship competition at Maryland, and the athletic teams sport some of the most distinguishable Under Armour jerseys in the country, which contributes to tons of revenue in ticket and jersey sales for the university.

Brandon Iribe, another former Maryland student who co-founded Oculus (which was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion), recently donated $31 million to the university to fund a new computer science building on campus.

Building a Startup in College - ycombinator

The point being, universities want students to build successful companies while in college, in hopes that they will eventually see some sort of return. Starting a business in college provides you FREE (after tuition which you were paying anyway) access to your university’s network of faculty, their facilities, their resources, entrepreneurship centers, organizations, clubs, and so much more. If you wanted to learn how to code iOS apps, there’s probably a club for that on campus. If you were interested in building a hardware startup, not only is there probably a club to help you, but there’s most likely professors with years of experience in the industry to offer assistance as well. The resources are there, it’s a matter of taking advantage of them.

My co-founders and I were able to take advantage of both the entrepreneurship center on campus and several living-learning programs to obtain the mentorship we needed to start our business. Our earlier business models were focused primarily on college students, and we just so happened to have access to nearly 30,000 of them within walking distance. We were able to spread the word about VentureStorm through our classmates, set up tables in the computer science building to advertise to our target market directly in person, partner with several university clubs, and receive feedback from our early users by simply walking down the hall of our apartment building. We were young and not worried about the money. Instead, we were focused on building a great product – and being situated in a large university surrounded in what seemed like unlimited resources significantly aided our success. 

Network 

Oftentimes in life it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Building an expansive network of colleagues is vital no matter what career path you choose. If you were to study engineering in college, it’s likely most of your network would be focused in a similar field. However, in the startup world, you need to become a jack-of-all-trades (at least during the earlier stages of the company).

Building a Startup in College - next gen summit

You need to learn how to build your product, how to market it, how to scale your business, the legal necessities of your industry, how to build strategic partnerships, and so forth. You usually end up accumulating a ton of contacts and growing your network significantly along the way. Building this network of professionals while in college will provide you several points of contact for any future endeavor you may pursue. Even if your startup fails, those connections could get your foot in the door somewhere down the line. 

Learning 

At the end of the day, life is just one big learning experience. If there was ever a time to fail, doing so during your collegiate years would still leave so many doors open for you to take advantage of. In fact, you may have opened more doors along the way due to the increasing repertoire of skills you learned while pursuing your business, and the connections you made along the way.

Building a Startup in College - learning to code

From learning how to code, to understanding the legal necessities of creating a business, networking with people in various industries, running advanced advertising campaigns, leveraging new technologies to build our platform, marketing and creating a brand, traveling and sponsoring events around the country, public speaking, and even writing blog pieces like the one you’re reading right now; the experiences and skills I’ve obtained while working on VentureStorm are invaluable.

I view building a startup in college similar to playing with house money.

If you succeed, you can begin accumulating wealth being your own boss, working on your schedule, and living the lifestyle you choose to live. If you fail, your probably didn’t lose much, if anything at all. In fact, I’d argue that you probably got way more out of your college experience than you would have otherwise.

Photo credit: wiki; The Umbrella Syndicate/Next Gen Summit; flickr

Written by Tyler Denk

Tyler is the co-founder of VentureStorm

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