This is something I debate with myself a lot. Many of the articles I’ve read suggest that college students should start a startup in college because of reasons like the resources available in school, abundance of potential co-founders and how it is alright to fail.
Last night, I watched a video of Paul Graham giving a lecture titled, Before The Startup, where he discouraged college students to start a startup in college. I was quite surprised because he started Y-Combinator, an accelerator for startups, and that advice is the opposite of what most people say. After listening to his explanation, I realised that his advice makes sense.
It made me think about whether I want to start a startup now while I’m in college.
Why Do I Want To Start A Startup In College?
There are 2 reasons why I am so eager to do it now, instead of after I graduate.
The first reason is that I don’t want to get a regular corporate job. I’ve done it in the past for 8 months and it was really boring. Also, I’m not quite sure if my work has an impact on the company as a whole. The idea I have is that if I am able to start a successful startup in college, I do not have to worry about finding a regular corporate job after graduation. (Of course, there are other ways to avoid a regular corporate job.)
The second reason is that it is way cooler to graduate while having a successful startup and go straight into working on something that matters to me than to try to find a corporation to hire me and build my resume. To me, working on a startup is better and more interesting than working in a large corporation.
Should I Start A Startup In College?
So going back to the debate, should I start a startup in college?
After watching the lecture by Paul Graham, I went to read his essays. There are 2 advice in Paul Graham’s essays that made me feel that his advice against starting a startup in college makes sense.
Startups Are All-Consuming
That brings us to our fourth counterintuitive point: startups are all-consuming. If you start a startup, it will take over your life to a degree you cannot imagine. And if your startup succeeds, it will take over your life for a long time: for several years at the very least, maybe for a decade, maybe for the rest of your working life. So there is a real opportunity cost here. — Paul Graham
I ask myself if I am willing to go all in for my startup, if I have one. Not really. I can’t see myself quitting school for it, unless it is making thousands every month. Realistically speaking, the chances of that happening is small, especially without a high level of commitment. It is still possible if I am super lucky but I don’t really want to leave it up to chance.
Desire To Prevent A Startup From Failing
I now realize that something does change at graduation: you lose a huge excuse for failing. Regardless of how complex your life is, you’ll find that everyone else, including your family and friends, will discard all the low bits and regard you as having a single occupation at any given time. If you’re in college and have a summer job writing software, you still read as a student. Whereas if you graduate and get a job programming, you’ll be instantly regarded by everyone as a programmer.
The problem with starting a startup while you’re still in school is that there’s a built-in escape hatch. If you start a startup in the summer between your junior and senior year, it reads to everyone as a summer job. So if it goes nowhere, big deal; you return to school in the fall with all the other seniors; no one regards you as a failure, because your occupation is student, and you didn’t fail at that. Whereas if you start a startup just one year later, after you graduate, as long as you’re not accepted to grad school in the fall the startup reads to everyone as your occupation. You’re now a startup founder, so you have to do well at that. — Paul Graham
Paul Graham feels that graduates have a greater desire to succeed when they start a startup because there is a pressure on them to do so. When they fail, people around them would judge them differently from how they would judge undergraduates.
I don’t see myself being able to give up everything to prevent my startup from failing because I prioritise other commitments at the moment. While I’m happy to study less to work on a startup idea, I won’t give up my exams to save the idea from failing without having any certainty the idea would work.
So I concluded that it would be better to wait till I graduate. I am not being unambitious or deterred because it would be hard. I am being honest with myself, being pragmatic and choosing what seems to be the best path for me now.
Of course, these are my own considerations. I don’t want to stop anyone from starting a startup in college if they have a huge desire to do so and would sacrifice some things in their lives for it.
What Should I Do Now?
If I don’t want to start a startup in college, what should I do now?
1. Stop Thinking Of Startup Ideas
The very first thing that always comes to my mind is that I should think of startup ideas which I could work on after I graduate. I would always be thinking of what would the Next Big Thing be and become frustrated when I could not think of any. However, it seems like that is not the best thing to do.
The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. — Paul Graham
Paul Graham suggests that this is the counterintuitive thing about startups. He wrote a long essay on this. He suggested to think of problems, instead of solutions. In the essay, he gave many other advice as well.
2. Learn Skills That Would Be Useful In A Startup
I think that one of the best ways to prepare for starting a startup is to equip ourselves with skills that would be useful in a startup. There is a huge range of skills that a startup would require — coding, marketing, writing, designing and so on.
It is always handy to have some useful skills than to learn from scratch when I want to work on my startup idea in the future. It would help to speed up the process too.
The verdict: it takes a while to do this stuff [starting a successful business]. In fact, to build anything valuable will take years. So if you’re young and have no experience, spending 6 months learning skills like programming and design and sales isn’t a waste of time. It’s an investment. — Dan Shipper
Having a skill would also allow me to freelance and make some money on the side. It would be helpful if I’m bootstrapping my startup.
Also, I would suggest to learn things that you are interested in, not simply whatever seems cool and to focus on one or two areas, instead of spreading yourself too thinly. I’ve tried to learn many things at once and I ended up not learning much.
3. Work On Side Projects
An alternative to starting a startup is to start side projects. However, I feel that the mentality has to be different. Work on side projects for the sake of learning, instead of trying to create a successful startup eventually.
Otherwise, it would be the same as trying to start a startup. Side projects are meant to be free of any pressure while starting a startup is very stressful. Kevan Lee from Buffer wrote an article about The Science of Side Projects, which I would recommend reading.
4. Avoid Entrepreneurship Classes
I’m very bad at this. Since 14 and only until recently, I’ve been signing up for such classes which gave me a taste of starting a business using the very traditional method (eg. having a business plan first) but not much on making a startup successful.
Based on the classes I’ve attended, I feel that the way we are assessed in class is very different from how the market would assess a startup. Scoring well in an entrepreneurship class is likely to have zero relevance to how well my startup would do.
Also, I think that students are not given enough time on work on their ideas before they are being assessed. Usually, classes are a few weeks long or at most a year long and students’ work would be assessed by then. However, as we know, startups usually take some time to take off.
Hence, I’ve learnt to avoid such classes as I feel that they would give me a distorted image of starting a startup.
5. Make More Friends
This is something I need to work on more. College is a good time to make more friends and there are 2 benefits to this.
First, having like-minded friends would allow us to inspire one another to keep up the desire to start a startup in the future, to encourage one another to keep practising our skills and to keep one another accountable. Also, to me, it’s simply more fun to work with friends.
Second, we might find a potential co-founder.
Because of group projects in college, we can get a sense of others’ working attitude. We can then decide if they are people whom we are willing to work with. Through projects in my school, I’ve gotten to know people whom I will most likely not work with on any of my startup ideas.
Another great avenue for making like-minded friends is Twitter. I have made many good friends through Twitter and then meeting them face-to-face. While it might not be possible to meet people on Twitter physically, I found that it strengthens the friendship much more.
6. Find A Job In A Startup
The last but definitely not the least thing I could do is to find a job in a startup. Working in a startup would allow me to experience the pace and pressure of a startup. Communication and teamwork skills from working in a startup would be valuable for running a startup in the future.
Most startups are flexible enough to allow students to work part time, as long as they produce work. Having an useful startup skill (point 2 above) would make one more attractive to startups.
Here’s Paul Graham’s advice for getting a job in a startup:
The way to learn about startups is by watching them in action, preferably by working at one. How do you do that as an undergrad? Probably by sneaking in through the back door. Just hang around a lot and gradually start doing things for them. Most startups are (or should be) very cautious about hiring. Every hire increases the burn rate, and bad hires early on are hard to recover from. However, startups usually have a fairly informal atmosphere, and there’s always a lot that needs to be done. If you just start doing stuff for them, many will be too busy to shoo you away. You can thus gradually work your way into their confidence, and maybe turn it into an official job later, or not, whichever you prefer. This won’t work for all startups, but it would work for most I’ve known.
The debate on starting a startup in college would never end. I think ultimately, it is dependent on the individuals. While some might choose not to start a startup while in college, like I’ve decided, there are several things that we can do at the moment to prepare ourselves for the journey ahead.
Do you have any advice for college students who want to prepare themselves for starting a startup after they graduate? I would love to hear them ☺
(This is my 18th blog post of my 30in30 challenge — 30 blog posts in 30 days. Through this challenge, I hope to feel comfortable and more confident with writing and become better at writing.)