As a student at Vanderbilt University, I have lots of friends interested in pursuing entrepreneurship as a career path. Doubt and fear hold them back. They doubt they have sufficient experience and fear colossal failure. I will share a bit of my own story and how I am learning to face this duo down.
I launched my first business in high school — a training app for baseball players. I had no experience as an app developer but saw minimal risk in attempting to launch a technology company. With little more than an idea — not even born of my own imagination I set off.
As a guy on the brink of adulthood, I had no doubt or fear. Quite the opposite. My high school required a capstone experience of every student, so this made perfect sense for me. It was an opportunity to learn what entrepreneurship was really like, dive into the world of technology, and boast a unique experience on my college applications. I knew the odds of success were low and the market insignificant, which made the risk all the more palatable.
Failure to launch
The time spent working on that first product — my first company — demanded a steep learning curve. I encountered unforeseen challenges and learned a great deal about myself — namely, that I was far too apathetic about the sport of baseball to be an entrepreneur in that space. I learned that putting together and motivating a team was incredibly difficult. I learned that technology development usually requires more time, effort, and resources than originally forecast. And I also learned that I have a passion for the process involved in molding an idea into something tangible. With that first failed business, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I have been asked to characterize the most difficult part of entrepreneurship. My response is that there are few universal truths. Everyone will face different challenges. What will set you apart is how you deal with those challenges. With each new venture, I have faced vastly different obstacles — technical, market-based, financial, personnel — from which to learn. I am continually adding to my toolbox.
Following my baseball venture, I joined the founding team of a food-service business. They had begun to identify a product market but were small and needed operational help to grow. Having no background in food-service operations, I saw potential with the business plan and for my own personal growth. I spent several months getting to know the space, designing processes, researching supplies to improve capital efficiency, and learning about industry regulation. At basically every turn, I encountered obstacles outside my scope of experience. Uncomfortable? Yes. Fertile ground for growth? Yes again. Ultimately, a compensation issue led to my decision to part ways with the founder. I had never negotiated compensation before, and I failed to put together a win-win package. Huge lesson.
While that venture didn’t turn out to be my big break, I was undeterred. I liked the pace — moving at breakneck speed made me feel alive. I liked the freedom to pursue my own vision, the sense of accomplishment when something went right, and the opportunity to learn when it didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg said “the biggest risk is not taking any risk.” So, what’s next?
Next turned out to be a startup with my dad. The summer following my freshman year, we set out to develop a solution to what was “wrong” with education. After several months working on a technology app that would bring into focus a student’s purpose and strengths, we stumbled. Hello fear and doubt. We became frustrated and doubtful we could pull it off.
Pervasion of doubt
When I returned to school as a sophomore, everyone was scrambling for internships. A position with a prestigious consulting firm or investment bank could prove one’s value to the world. Many of my peers were committed to landing a great job, gaining experience, and then starting a business when they were ready. It felt safe to minimize the risk and “go corporate.” With fresh failure and doubt creeping into my psyche, I decided maybe entrepreneurship was too hard after all. Maybe I should pursue an internship like everyone else. So, I did.
I spent my sophomore year as a typical student, limiting my exposure to entrepreneurship and looking for an internship. Though I was late to start my search, I ended up landing a position at a large consulting firm. I had a phenomenal summer and gained a wealth of experience working with talented people. This was my introduction to the corporate world. My team finished among the top 10% at an end-of-summer pitch competition, and I was offered a coveted full-time position. I was still a sophomore in college. Recognizing the opportunity, I jumped at the chance to continue my education while promoting my value to the firm.
For several months, I basked in the glow of that job offer and the life it could provide. I would be making more money than I knew how to spend and living in a city I had dreamed of. I had achieved success as defined by my peers. But when I went to my LinkedIn page to announce my new status to the world, I realized I was not ready to give up my identity as “Student Entrepreneur.” I couldn’t do it. Entrepreneurship had become my passion. So, I passed on the job.
Since then, I have gone back to working on startups, and am on track to launch my first product later this year. I’m having the time of my life working on things that I truly care about, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This message is for the people like me, who buck and strain against the expectations the world has for us, but don’t have the courage to break free yet. It took time, experience, and mentorship but I am now committed to following my passion. My hope is that this message can provide and encouragement for your own journey.
The corporate myth
I hear from students all the time enamored by the idea of creating value, building a company, and solving a problem they are passionate about. Unfortunately, they let doubt and fear overcome their desire. There is an overwhelming belief that to be successful, you have to let someone else take advantage of your hard work before you can. Not to say that companies don’t pass back a portion of your work to you, but it is certainly not to the same degree that owning equity in your work can provide. For example, Facebook generates a whopping 2 million dollars in revenue and $750,000 in profit per employee each year. Other large tech companies have similarly staggering revenue per employee statistics: Microsoft with $750,000, Alphabet with over $1.3 million, Twitter with $700,000.
The corporate recruiting world at many top firms like to position themselves as launching points for an entrepreneurial career after two years. Once at these firms, they inundate young and promising employees with prestige, growth opportunities, high salaries, and slowly-vesting stock options. Instead of launching the exciting entrepreneurial career they aspired to, these students end up slowly becoming integrated into the corporate world, enjoying lifestyle creep until launching a company is simply no longer feasible.
These companies breed the belief that experience in their ranks is essential for success later. I had a conversation with a close friend recently falling prey to this belief. This friend is extremely talented, having enjoyed prestigious internships at some of the top tech companies in the country. Yet, he believes that as a single developer, he cannot produce production grade software. Yet, with only two computer science classes and the Internet at my back, I have produced a software product that our early adopters are excited about, potential investors are excited about, and provides me more fulfillment than any entry-level position could.
This is why I believe in the power of positive arrogance as entrepreneurs; you are capable of filling a gap in the market. I want to give you that arrogance. In today’s world, legacy companies are falling prey to startups every day moving faster, thinking further ahead, and communicating more effectively. There is opportunity for disruption all around you, and if you see that no one is taking advantage, why can’t you? The myth that you have to be a Harvard- or Stanford-educated genius to start a company is a myth. Entrepreneurship and capital are more accessible than ever before, and optimistically growing for those in underrepresented groups. Technology and the information economy mean that anyone can learn to overcome their weak areas. Anyone can build a website in just a few moments. Anyone can become a self-published author or blogger. Stop letting companies take advantage of your youthful energy and hard work by telling you lies. You can be an entrepreneur.
The entrepreneur advantage
Starting a business, no matter what kind, provides opportunities for learning that far out-pace the vast majority of typical college classes. I know other student entrepreneurs learning about social media advertising, web design, community-building, cryptocurrencies, and more. Entrepreneurship provides an opportunity for students to truly explore their passions and interests in a learning-rich environment chock-full of applicable skills. With the resources available online, this doesn’t have to cost significant amounts either, easily covered by a part-time job or summer internship. Even if your aim is to generate cash, drop-shipping can be a lucrative option with as little as a $500 investment. Building websites can be another great option, with Webflow and Google Firebase, you can host a number of websites to create a portfolio for as little as $15/mo.
While I’ve yet to reach millions of people to improve their lives, I can confidently say that I’ve learned more from each of my many attempts than in my cumulative academic experience at Vanderbilt. I’ve learned about food service regulation, the basics of Facebook advertising, how to collaborate with people, defining company and product strategy, and most recently, how to use a series of design and programming tools to build a functional web-app. For the roughly $1,000 and countless hours I’ve personally spent, I’ve achieved quite the learning ROI relative to Vanderbilt with its sticker price of $64,654 per year.
I hope my story and this manifesto on the opportunities and defanging of the risks of college entrepreneurship encourages even a few students like myself to take the plunge and just try it. More than 1/3 of all incubators now exist on college campuses. Find out if one is on your campus.
Students, you are capable of learning outside of a company’s direction. You can build that product, launch that blog, create that portfolio. You are capable of more than you know.
Please, stop letting others tell you what you cannot be, and think about what you could be.
This article is heavily derived from my experience at Vanderbilt University and owes gratitude to How Top-Performing College Grads Fall Into the ‘Prestige Career’ Trap by Indra Sofian for inspiring me to finally write what’s on my mind.