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:
Projects are Not Startups: The Problem
- Do not think of your company like a school project.
When I started Alight Learning Inc. education software with some fellow students, we began it very similar to other school design projects. There were 6 of us. We worked together as a team, set design goals, all discussed design decisions, divided up the work, put it together, and had a well thought-out deliverable within a month or two. That is how school projects work. It took us a while to discover that is not how a business should work.
- The goals are different.
In school, the goals are learning, mutual understanding, fairness, process, and a good experience. Very rarely are there hierarchies, bottom-lines, and a singular mission to grow the company. In a school project, the deliverables and project goals are there to serve the learning needs of a team. In a business, the team is there to deliver on the business’s product or service.
- Project team members don’t get fired.
Have you ever “fired” someone on your school project’s team? How many times have you complained about someone not pulling their weight and not doing anything about it? These are the norms for projects, but are unacceptable in the business world. Business and projects have a fundamentally different outlook on people. It was this shift that was really difficult for us to make in transitioning from working on a project to running a business.
- Schools teach projects.
Even the entrepreneurial classes still have you work on a “project.” Unless someone has the authority to fire someone else, it’s still a project. As a student, your mental model of the project world will be shaped by this mentality. Schools with project classes teach you how to work on projects, not run businesses. This you must learn on your own.
Projects are Not Startups: Solutions
Half of the solution is your mindset, the other half is the mindset of your team.
·It’s all about what’s best for the company:
Think of the company as a separate person (legally it is). Ask the company what would be best for it right now. Usually this doesn’t happen with school projects, since the deliverable isn’t usually the exclusive goal. If the company says that it needs different people, than as the chief, it’s your job to make that so.
·Build a company & mission focused culture:
If the place that you and your friends work feels like a startup, then this whole issue can organically disappear. Building that culture while balancing team happiness and company mission is the ultimate holy grail of a founder. Being honest, empathetic, authentic, and genuine are some key words I pass through all actions before taking them that generally helps that culture stay intact.
·Have mixed perspectives from your team:
College students are AMAZING startup employees. However, if you are also a college student, and your team is full of nothing but college students, it will feel a lot like a school project. Other students are trained with the same project mentalities that you are trying to avoid. Having someone from the “real world” on your team, will help balance this.
·Separate work from school and home:
We glorify the dorm-room hacker environment. While it works for some, beware that this environment where you play, do homework, and work on projects may make your company feel like a project. A separate space will give you and your team a fundamental context switch that can put you in the mindset of company, not project.
·Be clear about your goals and expectations:
Problems only arise when there is a mismatch in expectations. There is a spectrum of project to business and as long as everyone in the team is aligned on that spectrum everything will be okay. It’s okay if your goals are more project-focused, but just be sure that everyone knows that.
Changing the mindset from college projects to your startup can be difficult, but it's essential to the results of your efforts being a startup...and not just a project.
How do you recommend avoiding the project mindset on your startup?
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.