Quick: Name a company founded by a college student.
You said Facebook, didn’t you?
The social media giant’s dorm room origins may be the most familiar of college startup stories, but it’s hardly the only one. In fact, entrepreneurship on college campuses is booming, thanks to confluence of factors, including the economy, technological advances, and even the popularity of Shark Tank.
While achieving long-term business success at a young age, especially while juggling a full course load, isn’t easy, college campuses do offer some unique advantages for launching a new venture.
For one thing, you have a network of resources at the ready, from actual networking opportunities with alumni, to professors’ industry expertise, to specialized classes in technology or finance. About a third of business incubators are based at universities, according to the Kauffman Foundation.
There’s a freedom in youth, too. As a college student, you have time to play around and figure out what your startup looks like, says Ryan Gourley, director of TechArb, the student business incubator at the University of Michigan.
And “If you think you won’t have time in college, wait until you have three kids and a mortgage,” says Scott Gerber, co-founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council.
Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
To take advantage of university resources, Gerber recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs look for programs where you can get your hands dirty from day one and see what it’s like to actually run a business. Talk to students on campus to learn what consumers like or dislike about your product. Take computer classes to make sure you’re at least technologically proficient, even if you plan on hiring a chief technology officer.
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Find mentors and don’t make decisions in a vacuum, Gourley suggests. Confident, quick decision-making is a skill that’s developed over time.
“There’s this myth of the entrepreneur who does it on their own, but really to start a successful startup, I think it takes a village,” he says.
And familiarize yourself with funding opportunities on campus early on. Wharton Entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, offers a variety of funding opportunities, including an award for seed funding and an intern fellowship. But don’t move too fast when applying for funding, Clare Leinweber, managing director of Wharton Entrepreneurship says. Make sure you have a firm concept of the problem you’re solving or product you’re offering, how that can make money, and solid team members in place.
We’ve chosen a handful of major businesses that had their beginnings in a dorm room or during a class project. Some you likely knew about; others may be news.
The majority of student-founded businesses will never reach the fame and, in some cases, considerable fortune of those in this group. But, Gerber and Gourley stress, you don’t have to be the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Evan Spiegel to be a success. Too many college-aged students get stuck in what Gerber calls the “Uber ideation”—thinking that every idea has to be a unicorn that’s going to be wildly successful.
Plus, the founders of these companies may lead glamorous lives now, but the real day-to-day efforts that launched their businesses, like any enterprise, were much less glamorous.
“You may be working night and day on this for three years before anyone takes a notice or cares about it,” Gourley says.
There will be a lot of long nights fueled by much caffeine. Constant lunch and coffee meetings to network. Hustling. Failures. Disappointments. Continuous testing and tweaking.
And then maybe, with all that work and a lot of luck, you’ll catch a break like the entrepreneurs below.