Lessons from Building a Startup in College
Doing it over: What I’d do again and What I’d avoid
TL;DR — Here is a summary:
- If you can, build or start something in college. It will teach you quite a bit about yourself. A venture will also force you to learn far beyond more than your peers and your area of study. You’ll build spectacular connections (other founders and mentors), get many once in a lifetime opportunities, and you’ll be able to learn far beyond your education.
- How you treat your team will matter in the long run. Be selective about who you choose to work with, inspire your team members to achieve their best, and be intentional about the culture you are building and the values your organization prioritizes.
- Stay incredibly organized with your workflow — whether it’s daily tasks, technology architecture, marketing/sales pipelines, create proper standards to document your work and make sure to be very consistent with this.
- Stay persistent in the journey, use pattern recognition to understand what your peers and advisors keep saying, but use your best judgement and intuition.
3 years. 1095 days. Over 26,000 hours spent obsessing over revolutionizing the ratings and reviews industry. This essay captures my perspective on what it’s like to build a company from the ground up — and it’s also a self-analysis of sorts to help others who might be in similar shoes throughout the journeys they are pursuing.
This essay also captures things that went wrong, as well as things that went incredibly right. Startups are a roller coaster, with the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.
The last thing this piece should do is deter you from causing positive change in the world — we as entrepreneurs obsess over solving problems that we face or we see others face.
Startups should not be made for social status, but more-so for changing the status quo. The only person holding you back from pursuing your ideas, dreams, or thoughts — is you.
In 2017, I co-founded VyB Technologies LLC, the company that would be the “next big thing”. The problem we were trying to solve was that of false information on the internet. It started with malicious people’s identities, and then later pivoted to ratings and reviews of establishments.
I met my co-founders through a mutual connection, at a Bob Evans in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. All three of us — young, ambitious, and unstoppable set out to make a company together. While we had not worked together before, we wanted to make it work out for the sake of building a revolutionary product.
Going into the Junior year of my undergraduate education at Drexel we started to pursue this idea, and later discovered there was a viable market that our product could fit into.
When we had first come up with the idea of VyB, as a location-based social media platform, we spent almost one and a half years building and refining our product. We spent almost no money building the product, but in retrospect, our time was our money — and we spent way too much of it launching a commercial-grade product on the iOS and Android store — with a budget of $100.
Ultimately, even though we had built significant “clout” we still had not attained significant customer adoption. Many factors including team, COVID-19, lack of product-market-fit caused the derailment of our efforts — however, this journey has been spectacular.
In this process, we had accumulated many accolades, grants, and a significant amount of prize capital to continue pursuing our startup idea. We had showcased at CES, received a 6-figure term sheet from a Philadelphia based investor, and even built a kick-ass team of 15 amazing people.
Doing it over: What I’d do again and What I’d avoid
→ Team: Your team will make or break you. Choose co-founders, early hires, or even interns wisely. Pick the people that you’d have no problem giving a 6-figure salary to (hypothetically speaking). Pick the people that you can learn from. Pick the people that make you happy.
Many people ask the question of whether they want to work with people that are experts (but hard to work with) or novice (but eager to learn and crush it).
In reality, these are extremes and you will rarely find these reality types. While every situation is going to be different, I’d recommend working with a rockstar who truly bring tangible value to the table (a hard skill: coding, designer, super salesman, etc.) AND with the internal desire to learn and grow over time.
While this applies heavily to co-founders, it also applies to every single team member you bring on. Your first hires will shape the trajectory of your startup/project — so take your time and no rush here.
Some of my favorite resources to help with conversations related to building teams:
- Culture your culture
- The Perils of Partnerships
- Slicing Pie
- Adam Grant’s Work-life Podcast
- Radical Candor (Thanks to my good friend, Artur, for gifting this book)
Another aspect of team building I discovered was that you need to spend the time to coach and grow each team member.
The culture you set interacting with your team members will directly impact both long term vision execution as well as short term customer interaction. Something that helped us was to define the values, culture, and vision in the early stages of our company.
→ Market: Understand the market before diving in. Understand market trends, incumbents in the industry, if the market is growing or retracting, and if the capabilities you are developing already exist. Think about the customers, what products they currently use, and what will make them stop using an alternative product to use yours.
This is particularly the most important part of your company’s ideation process. As you think about your solution to the problem you want to solve, you need to see how saturated the market is that you plan on entering.
When we started VyB, we did not do a deep study of the market we were entering. Reviews and rating marketing is incredibly saturated. You have Yelp, Foursquare, Google Reviews, Trip Advisor, and so many more. What we did indeed do well was to highlight our value proposition and the key difference in our service (honest and real-time reviews).
We started with a problem that we faced, not considering the adversities present in creating a direct to consumer product in the reputation management space.
When starting a business, it’s important to study the companies that tried to solve the problem before you, learn about the companies that that failed and succeeded before you.
To take it a step further, it might help to gather relevant information from sources like Pitchbook and Crunchbase — regarding fundraising rounds, relevant investors in the space, and other vital information you can learn.
Bottom line: Know your market! I wish we knew VyB’s market in more depth before starting product development. While you don’t need to capture the entire market, keep your market sector-specific enough to be able to stay focused.
For example, we started our sales pipeline with all sorts of businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops, etc. We should have truly concentrated on trying to provide value to one niche of the hospitality space, instead of spreading ourselves out thin quickly. Your market is your playground, and it doesn’t hurt to know it inside and out.
→ Idea: Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is everything. Don’t be afraid to share your idea with anyone and everyone you meet. Nothing is more annoying than people making you sign an NDA to tell you a startup idea. It takes multiple years of 50–100 hour work weeks to execute your idea and get traction — be confident that you can outwork whomever you tell your idea to (in most cases, people just want to help!).
When starting VyB, we also fell in the trap of thinking about cool ideas that would end up helping the world. While this is easy to do, take the harder route of reflecting about problems you face or see others facing. Taking the problem as your guiding compass will often lead you towards various solutions that could solve that problem.
The next step now is to fail fast with several solutions until you pivot into what solves the problem in the best way. This particular solution is what your customers should be willing to pay for, or abandon a competitor and use your solution for.
This is a good transition into the MVP for your idea. MVP stands for “minimal viable product”. This is essentially the easiest thing you could make to test whether your solution is something people would even think about using. For most startups (except hard science, space tech, healthcare, and such) building an MVP will be relatively easy.
The analogy that I often like to give is that your MVP is an ugly and dented looking soccer ball, that you want people to kick multiple times until it becomes something close enough to a sphere.
The mistake we made here was that our MVP was certainly not the “Minimal Viable Product” — it had almost every feature that you’d find on Instagram or Yelp — but only half as good.
If we were doing it over again, instead of spending years writing hundreds of thousands of lines of code, we would find a “non-technical” way to prove that our MVP works.
In the case of VyB, the core functionality is a time-specific push notification that a user receives when someone is at a social experience (bar, restaurant, etc.) — while it took months to build the outlying architecture and create the algorithms for this technology, the MVP could have been as simple as a person carrying a notecard asking customers at restaurants/bars to share their thoughts about the “vibe” in 10 seconds or less — then share a picture of that notecard to people outside the establishment walking by.
This would have taken almost no code to make but would have proved our MVP.
If you’re reading this intending to build an MVP for your startup, I’d challenge you to think about keeping your product truly minimal — take out all the bells and whistles, and if you can get away with not coding anything — do it.
Here are some of the best MVP related books and resources I found that helped me in my journey:
- How I built this Podcast
- Traction by Gabriel Weinberg (more-so for what to do after you have an MVP built)
- The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
- The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
→ Fundraising: Fundraising is a full-time job. The fact of the matter is that you need to have a solid reason to fundraise. I realized that most startups that fundraise in college, do it too soon, without proving they have a viable business. We made the same mistake at VyB. To fundraise effectively, one must spend the majority of their time on this process.
Fundraising is similar to sales — it’s a numbers game. Here is a piece I wrote describing the differences between different fundraising methods.
Something we did quite well was to apply to every single competition and speaking opportunity available. This was perhaps the best way to get exposure, great advice from leaders, and an expedited pipeline for fundraising opportunities.
If we had to do it all over again, I’d make sure to not undermine the time commitment of fundraising. I’d also make sure to plan meticulously before starting to fundraise. The further you are in terms of product-market-fit, the easier fundraising will be.
I’ve realized that building a business just to fundraise should not be the goal. The goal should be to build a business with strong unit economics, such that you can achieve profitability from the get-go.
If you are in college, fundraising might be slightly more difficult, as investors will question your commitment. However, some of the benefits may also be an added selection list of VCs and funds that are specifically for college founders. Here is a fantastic resource that outlines the university startup fundraising ecosystem.
My advice for anyone reading this would be to not go on an endless fundraising cycle — because this will waste your time. Instead, concentrate on building a fantastic product that your customers can not live without.
→ Technology: Unless you are building a tech-heavy product (machine learning product, or something complex), don’t waste time building secondary “nice-to-have” features that do not contribute to solving the main problem your solution serves. Technology should simply enable you to prove your hypothesis.
Your hypothesis is the big “bet you are making”. This is perhaps my favorite section of this article. VyB was a tech-startup, and tech is where most companies fail in their journey. Let’s face it, tech is hard.
For most non-technical people, an app might seem like a confusing black box of magic. However, do not let technology intimidate you and it might serve you well to have a highly technical person on your founding team (if relevant to your startup idea).
MVP → The MVP should take the least amount of work needed to create a solution that proves to be effective. Your MVP does not need to be scalable, nor should you overthink problems you might come into years down the road.
Your MVP will only serve one purpose, which is to validate your core hypothesis. In terms of VyB, we architected a very advanced software piece with too many bells and whistles, without truly diving into the one important feature that we needed.
We spent almost a year, writing hundreds of thousands of lines of code — whereas our MVP should have been something we should have hacked together in just a few weeks. Here is a great example of how the founders of Zappos and AirBnb validated their “big bet”. Lesson: Keep the MVP simple (if you can get away with not writing any code at all, do it!)
Software Architecture → Building an explicit software architecture before writing your code is a must. Make sure your idea of what you want to build is depicted in some sort of a software architecture diagram.
This will help your engineering team, investors (during due diligence), and other management personnel to keep in touch with your product timeline. Whether it is your database schema, micro-service architecture, GUI diagrams, etc — make sure you plan meticulously, and organize all your work (this will serve you well in the future). Here’s a good example of how to get started with that.
Databases → Getting this wrong from the get-go cost us 4 months of runway. This was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we had made with our product.
We had chosen a no-SQL database (DynamoDB) — where we should have chosen a SQL database (Amazon RDS). We had to pay one of our engineering team members extra cash to re-write almost 100 micro-services with me, then go on to re-build a majority of our frontend to work with our updated backend.
If there is any regret I have, this is perhaps the biggest one. After spending the entire senior year winter break, coding 80–100 hour work weeks getting our app ready in time for CES 2020 — we fixed the architectural flaw in our software.
The reason we chose no-SQL in the first place was that we thought learning to build with something like RDS or other relational databases would be too complicated. We became scared to learn a new technology that we did not know.
This cost us more time and money in the long run. If you are facing a similar dilemma, this should help you.
Development Cycles and Workflow → Without a doubt, this is where we crushed it. We were lucky to have team members that were self-motivated to learn the ins and outs of technology and push themselves to work all night making sure our sprints were successful. We planned each sprint and milestone meticulously.
We used concepts like Fibonacci numbering, weekly task grooming, and daily scrum meetings to make a highly effective team. Having a great team and being meticulously organized will always help you! So don’t shy away being extra organized in all parts of your company, and specifically your technology.
→ Advisors: Be thankful for great advisors. It’s important to have mentors that inspire you, push you towards thinking about things critically. However, don’t be stuck in “analysis paralysis”.
Each advisor will tell you a different thing. Your role as the founder will be to analyze these data-points and make the best judgment call as per your intuition.
I would advise all founders to have diversity in their advisory board. I have found people that are just three to five years more advanced in their business to be the most effective advisors/mentors to have.
This is because they might have just gone through the challenges you are going to go through. Reach out to subject matter experts when you truly are stuck with a specific issue. Be mindful of the advisors’ time and be appreciative of their help. Here is a fantastic article a good friend shared with me back when I was having analysis paralysis.
→ Finances: Be lean, don’t waste money on stuff you don’t need. Don’t buy a thousand t-shirts before validating whether people will even consider downloading your product. Your goal should be to validate your hypothesis with the least amount of cash spent. This should not be hard — especially if you are building some sort of software.
Today, we can build authentication, whip up cloud computing and process payments, with the click of a few buttons. Such services have made it so easy to hack together a product, that you should not waste time or money elsewhere.
Building a world-class product will triumph over short term branding. People might forget a brand, but they will not forget the overwhelming emotion of a truly great product. Another mistake made in our journey was to pay too much too fast for services that increased our monthly burn rate — such as Hubspot premium, Github premium, etc.
If you can get things for free (Even if you have to email customer support), make it a habit to save every cent. This is something I learned from how Jeff Bezos operates. He is incredibly frugal, and as founders, we must all do the same.
In terms of finances, it will help to have a monthly tracking set up Excel sheets or something similar. You should keep into account every single cent going in and coming out of your pocket. There’s a saying “what is not tracked is not managed” — so making it a point to track your expenses will be beneficial.
Lastly, another way to think about expense prioritization is to question “does this charge improve customer experience with our product”. If the answer is “no” you must re-consider the charge.
→ Mental and Physical health: Please take care of yourself. If you don’t exist then your dreams, ideas, and vision won’t come to life. Make exercise a habit, and rely on self-awareness to know when to get a mental wellness check when you need it. Over the past years, I experienced the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
An entrepreneurial venture is taxing, and creating a mental and physical health routine will keep you running for the long term. It might be helpful to get a workout buddy that can keep you accountable — this can be quite helpful when you are not motivated to go workout alone. In terms of mental health, each university often has mental health care that is included in the tuition — so take advantage of this!
→ Conclusion: If you are considering starting a company while in college, there might be a lot of factors at play. Understand that you’ll need to make sacrifices in this journey.
This will affect your relationships/friendships, grades, internships, and more. But do not be afraid, as this will not define the rest of your life if things do not work out.
Working at a startup in college will expand your knowledge horizon exponentially, and this was the selling point for me. Starting and growing VyB was sort of like a mini-MBA.
I learned topics related to finance, negotiation, marketing, technology, legal and so much more. Wanting to be an effective founder will teach you many life lessons and concepts that are beyond your years.
The journey to building value from something is truly special and I recommend most university students to spend their time in college trying to solve a problem they are excited about.
Being in college perhaps might be the best time to start a venture — given you may have the least life responsibility, you can stay financially lean, and you will create a network of other founders/mentors that will provide lifelong value.
Building a company and entrepreneurialism is a gamble — however, you’re betting on yourself. If you do not bet on your success, why would others? While building businesses is not everyone’s cup of tea — from my first “real” startup perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is to know when you should bet on yourself and your success.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan
Thank you for reading this, and I hope you learned from various experiences and mistakes in my startup journey. To all the mentors, team members, early customers that took a chance on us and joined our team/family — thank you so much for everything.
Upwards & Onwards!