How to Start a Business In Or After College
According to collegepreneurs who’ve done it
Why do young people go to college? The straightforward question was posed to 11,113 high school students and 2,960 parents by The Princeton Review in 2021. For 43% of respondents, the answer was “getting a better job with higher income”, while only 25% correlated college with “education”.
Meanwhile, more studies show that 72% of high schoolers plan to start their own business one day, with 61% being specific about becoming entrepreneurs “right after college”. Turns out, the Princeton survey should’ve had one more checkmark: college as a pathway to entrepreneurship. But if so, do you really have to wait till graduation — or long after, to start a business?
I talked with several young and brilliant entrepreneurs who combined a degree with a budding business to discover what collegepreneruship is all about.
Here are the personal stories and tips on how to become your own boss — sooner rather than later!
1. Maximize college resources
He may still have a few months to go before grabbing a diploma, but he’s already got the title many put a lifetime into adding to their tagline: CEO. Will Hedrick is a 21-year-old college student, Broker, and yes — CEO of his own company, SPEEK.
Never will you have an opportunity with less risk and more ways to grow.
While older colleagues may feel like he’s rushing into entrepreneurship (Will's first business idea came while still in high school), it may have been precisely his early jumpstart that allowed Will to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset while fellow students were just having the parties (and hangovers) of their lives.
“Launching SPEEK, a real estate company, was the smartest decision I made due to the limited risks that I had,” Will says. “Colleges give you instant access to business mentors and tools that once outside of school would be difficult or expensive to obtain. Being able to have access to these tools can take away the stress and pressure many entrepreneurs face of having to produce income quickly to be able to survive.”
Launching a business in college may seem tough, but it’s actually perfect timing. Young, energized, and passionate, your college years can be a lot more than just a fun time, says Will.
“College is a time to learn and grow [and] launching a business is the single best way to grow yourself and your business skills. Never will you have an opportunity with less risk and more ways to grow.”
To get the most out of your college years, Will advises focusing on three things:
- Networking: Utilize the connections, professors, and resources that your campus provides extensively. It is easy to get “stuck in your campus community”. But to avoid losing time and networking opportunities, you must be making continual outreach and engaging with the communities you want to do business in.
- Discipline: While college may seem like “the time of your life” to party, swinging with the crowd won’t get you far in entrepreneurship. Only discipline will allow you to capitalize on the time outside of class. Discipline is also the only thing that will keep you going when daily challenges push you to give up, and even passion won’t come to the rescue.
- Boundaries: As your business grows, it will clash with time set aside for homework and assignments. Plan out your schedule in advance to have time for both, and set specific boundaries between your business, education, and social life.
2. Enjoy the obstacle course
As a budding entrepreneur, you’ll see struggles pop up like mushrooms after the rain, as they say. If you don’t want to be swallowed up by challenges, get depressed, and give up in just a few months or years, you’ll have to actually enjoy the process of overcoming obstacles.
Focus on enjoying the process (even the day-to-day struggles) more than the desired outcome.
Nathan Allman, founder of Chefs For Seniors is an entrepreneur with a caregiver’s heart. Having launched his hustle as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin back in 2013, Nathan’s business has already weathered the storms from startup phase to pandemic trial.
“I’d grown up working in my family’s restaurant and always had a passion for cooking,” Nathan says. “But the idea for Chefs For Seniors came about when my great-grandmother was forced to move from her home of 50+ years into a skilled nursing facility primarily because she stopped cooking for herself.”
Named ‘Top New Franchise’ and ‘Top Low Budget Franchise’ by Entrepreneur Magazine for three years running, Nathan’s hasn’t been a road paved with flowers.
“Running a business is definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “You should focus on enjoying the process (even the day-to-day struggles) more than the desired outcome. If your start a business to exclusively get rich or impress your friends, you probably won’t have to drive it takes to put in 12-hour days without taking a paycheck during the startup phase.”
Every athlete has a coach. Likewise, your business marathon can’t forego the wise counsel of a mentor, says Nathan.
“I would advise all young entrepreneurs to have a mentor that isn’t a business partner, family member, or friend,” he says. “Someone that can be a sounding board for new ideas and has traveled down the road before you is a priceless resource.”
If you’re looking for mentorship, check out The Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and SCORE. These are programs with chapters across the US that provide free mentoring to entrepreneurs of all ages. Or connect with a mentor through one of these online entrepreneur communities.
3. Get good at planning
In the midst of a pandemic, Ayden Berkey found herself in a scenario familiar to many of us: self-isolated at home, unemployed, and frantically looking for a job. Add to this the fact that she was a University of Wisconsin-Madison college senior with looming graduation and the pressure to make her own living any day now.
Visualize and plan for how much [you] can get done in that given day.
A situation like that, for many of us, would’ve been enough to justify going on a self-isolation Netflix binge. But Ayden used the reflection time to incubate a digital business, Access Scholarships of which she is a co-founder.
“The last few months that I had spent at home had given me lots of time to reminisce about my educational journey — all of the wins and mistakes,” says Ayden. “I came to realize that one area which I definitely did not devote enough time or energy to was applying for scholarships.
After doing a significant amount of research, I decided that I would create a resource platform for students (now called Access Scholarships) dedicated to the scholarship and college space for all students everywhere who are wanting to get involved in applying for scholarships but don’t know where to start.”
Despite 2020 being the lowest economic point in recent history to start a business, Ayden felt it “made sense to take the leap ASAP” while she “felt that strong connection” to her target audience as a college senior herself.
The decision spurred multiple pros, but perhaps one con that Ayden warns to keep an eye on: making time for a business planning stage as the key to starting a business.
“One warning [I’d like to give] is to really take the time to do your research and fully flesh out your business plan before jumping right in. Although I definitely did a lot of research and spent time talking to students before taking the plunge with Access Scholarships, there were some areas that I had explored and planned out less, which, once I had already launched the website, made it really difficult to go back and make changes to.”
Helpful business planning tools
A business plan and financial model will help a lot with mapping out your first business steps. So will digital tools essential for organizing your business.
- Organizational tools to order your business life and that of your team — you’ll love these iOS mobile apps for side hustlers or this exhaustive list of freemium apps for any platform
- Accounting tools that will bring your business finances into order, settle taxes, and let you plan your budget
- A business phone system to keep your business and social life separate.
Plus, however many things you’ve got to juggle as a collegepreneur, keep the planning going on a daily basis, says Ayden.
“I am a big proponent of making to-do lists. I try to split up my lists into three different sections: things that take 15 minutes or less, things that take one hour or less, and things that are really like an all-day project. When I categorize everything I have to do and what I want to get done into these buckets, it makes it easier for me realistically visualize and plan for how much I can get done in that given day.”
4. Brainstorm through feedback
Feedback is one of the fastest growth drivers in everything that touched on business. We know it’s a key component of customer service, usability, and the technical aspects of digital products. But feedback is also invaluable at the earliest, brainstorming stage of your business.
Collegepreneurs like Ayden are constantly using the feedback loop to grow considerably closer to their audience.
“What definitely inspires me the most are the times where I get to meet with students and connect with them on a level that goes beyond just the surface. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but getting feedback from a student that I’ve helped connect them to opportunities or made a positive impact on them certainly gives me the motivation to keep doing what I’m doing!”
Luckily, your college years are a time of active socializing and even though COVID has made its impact on the latter, you can still utilize online platforms to network with people who can provide value to your business idea.
For example, don’t just use Instagram or Twitter to scroll through your feed. Research the pain points of your friends and followers. Research your competitors. Analyze their customers. Understand their wants and needs and how you can provide for them better than the other guy. Connect either through direct feedback or indirect inspiration.
5. Learn to be a leader early on
One of the primary things entrepreneurs of all ages learn is self-discipline. Becoming a one-man orchestra is something you’ll get good at fast if you are to get good at business. Becoming a transformational leader takes a lot more time.
Learn from people 2–3 notches above your expertise, not 20.
Matt Schroeder founded Shelly Cove, an eCommerce apparel business, as a junior in college 6 years ago. Since then, Shelly Cove has done millions of dollars in sales and has grown from Matt’s solo power force into a small but dedicated team. At that point, Matt saw it was time to focus on leadership practices for growing his business.
“Understanding how to be a good boss/manager is something I [still] feel like I am very green at,” Matt says. “I am good at managing myself but it’s impossible to hold your employees to the standard of the person who owns the business, so finding that balance of empathy and structure has been tough.”
Becoming an empathetic, open, and strong leader is a challenge aspiring business owners should embark on while still in college. Don’t expect the learning curve to go like your regular college course, though. While reading about billionaire morning routines is fun, you’ll learn real know-how elsewhere, says Matt.
“Learn from people 2–3 notches above your expertise. Not 20. Learning about Jeff Bezos’s theories on business is way less practical to you than the guy who runs a successful power washing business in town.”
Even better, if you can contact the guy and have a chat about things you won’t learn about in books — or degrees. Even MBAs.
“It’s easy to get in the grind of reading and watching educational content about business. However, the best education you will receive is by starting something. Typically, all educational content describes a straight line path from A to B, but that’s not how business actually is. Have an idea? Make some phone calls! It’s pretty crazy how valuable dialing the phone can be.”
6. Find the golden ratio between determined and patient
Starting a business in college will demand a delicate balancing act between your goals and capabilities. Place all the eggs in one basket or the other, and you’ll either go broke while daydreaming of turning your startup into the next SpaceX or be the prude who never takes a step for the fear of stumbling.
Done is better than perfect.
Taylor Graham is the 24-year-old entrepreneur behind boutique PR agency Socially Tailored who knows a thing or two about entrepreneurial harmony. After securing the “internship of her dreams” in a global ad agency, Taylor felt totally out of place in the corporate environment. Luckily, she didn’t feel lost for long.
“It was like the entrepreneurial lightbulb went off and it was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” Taylor says. “Building up her own PR firm from scratch, Taylor knew that bootstrapping on a $0 budget was impossible in the long run. Not for building the agency of her dreams.
“When graduation rolled around I had to make a difficult decision because I did NOT want to re-enter the [corporate] agency scene, but I was at a point where I was not comfortable enough going off on my own. I knew I had more to learn so, I put on my big girl pants and took another agency job. I gave myself a 2-year timeline to make [my business] happen full-time so that agency life didn’t feel so permanent. [Finaly] I was able to take Socially Taylored full-time during October 2020”.
Starting your business as a part-time hustle is advisable if, like Taylor, you’re on low budget. However, part-time doesn’t mean that you wait around for things to happen. In fact, Taylor advises losing no time in launching your service/product.
“[Remember] that done is better than perfect. I wasted so much time tweaking and perfecting every aspect of my website, service packages, and what I was posting to social media. But the reality is, nothing will ever be perfect so it’s better to launch fast and adjust even faster once more market research and feedback starts coming your way.”
Launching a business while still in college or fresh out may seem a tough call. You’ve got to set your priorities. You’ve got to make time for your business. You’ve got to accept challenge as part of your life.
But for anyone who wants to grab opportunity while it’s there, your 20s are the ideal time to fertilize the ground for future goals and plant the right seeds. At no other point in life will you have the same energy, focus, time, and ease to network, find mentorship, learn, and build your dream.
Put your college or post-graduate years to productive use, and you’ll be reaping the harvest it takes most people a lifetime to collect.
Because like an ancient scholar once said,
“If not you, then who. And if not now, then when?
Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.