Start a business while in college! It's a great opportunity for many reasons. However, be aware of some nasty challenges that are hard to accept and hard to deal with. Here are the one of the four greatest ones I have faced:
Time Hates You: The Problem
Time’s a bitch. I feel like I really don’t need to elaborate much more than that. I was running an education software company called Alight Learning that I and some friends started during a year off between my sophomore and junior years at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. During the year off, we had more time than we knew what to do with. We then took advantage of Olin & Babson College’s Summer Venture Program, hired some students, and cranked liked nobody’s business over the summer. However, Last fall we came back to school and realized how different things would be.
100 to 200 Man-Hours per person per SEMESTER!
That’s the estimate we came to when calculating how much time each one of our still-student employees with a full course loads could put into the business. In the real world, you’d sink that much time in 2 weeks and change. After a semester of believing that we were more productive than this rule of thumb, I audited our time logs and found that it was relatively accurate. If your businesses require several thousand man-hours of time, I’d think a lot harder about where you’re going to find that time.
Time Hates You: Solutions
Lots of students make the time to make their businesses work. Here are some trends I’ve seen.
·Scope the Business Better: This is the most important!
Be frank & realistic about the amount of time you are willing to put in, and design a minimum viable product that matches!Small web apps fundamentally take less time than huge platform applications or long R&D product dev cycles. Successful student businesses have scoped their time-ambition ratio correctly.
·Integrate into Classes:
An Olin team making coffee equipment used several project classes at Olin to work directly on their device. They got A’s from the classes and left with prototypes, life cycle assessments, and professors willing to help. If your school has classes you can piggy back onto, then take full advantage of it. Professors are also great mentors & advisors!
·Use the summers, spring break, thanksgiving, winter, etc:
There are several times in the course of your school year when classes won’t get in the way. If you add them ALL up, and crank through every one of them, you can get a fair shot at a medium-sized project.
·Get other people to do some of the work:
This very obvious statement is difficult in a school setting. Management requires lots of time that falls victim to the onslaught of time. Unfortunately, unlike development, if management gets skimped on then more than code breaks; people get angry, stress ensues, and your team could fall apart. The more people that get added on to help, the worse these problems become. People hate working for bosses that work considerably less than them, so be frank about time available for management duties.
·Work more efficiently & Value your time:
This actually is NOT obvious contrary to how it sounds. College kids have a huge propensity to be cheap. One of the easiest ways to be cheap is to do everything yourself. I’ve seen teams do things like sink tons of time to build their own motor controllers instead of buying ones just to save a couple of bucks. Do not underestimate the value of your time! Even if you’re not paying yourself, pretend that your time is worth something like $20/hour and ask if whatever you’re doing is worth it. Remember, an hour or two wasted is about 1% of your entire semester’s available time!
·Believe that school is less important than your business:
If you take the lightest load possible and do the least amount of work possible, and do nothing else except your business, you can likely double or triple the rule of thumb estimate. This is a big decision though since it affects the rest of our college career. This is a real test to see how much you care about your business
·Drop out of school:
Paul Graham of YCombinator thinks so; Bill Gates had to; Seth Priebatschfrom SVNGR did it; Zuckerberghad to, and when I asked Zuck’s co-founder Chris Hughes (who stayed in school) about it, he said that it would not have been possible without dropping out. If you’re seriously considering raising money, but yourself in the investor’s shoes and ask yourself if you’d invest if you could only put in 100-200 man-hours per semester. If your school lets you take very extended Leaves of Absences, then do it. Unfortunately Olin does not, and I had other plans with my degree.
Successful student entrepreneurs that make it work while in school have to hit just about all of these categories. If you think about them a bit harder you may realize that some of these may be hard to swallow or follow through on. I will say that there is no greater reward than pushing the time aside and making real value happen. Hours are hours – be an entrepreneur - bend them to your will and go for it!
What advice do you have for managing your time?
Evan Morikowa is CEO & Co-Founder of Alight Learning Inc., An online education startup making collaborative and personalized learning easy for middle and high school teachers and students. He is also a student at Franklin W Olin College of Engineering and director of Olin's student entrepreneurship program, The Foundry.