All Commentary
Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Start Your Business While in College

There's no reason to wait and every reason to act now

Universities have not adapted their teaching style or education goals to prepare students for the modern economy. They focus too much on credentials and too little on practical application of skills.

The entrepreneurial mindset and the skills that come with it is crucial to get an edge in the modern economy.

There is still however a great deal of value to be found in a university education and experience. But many graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs that are rewarding and pay well.

One solution: clever students can create their own business or brand while in school. This gives them a connection with the “real world” and allows them to develop skills that are desired in the modern job market. Universities offer many resources to help support students with their businesses, but many students aren’t aware of how to use them or of their existence. (For more, see “Killer Career Advice for College Graduates.”)

The entrepreneurial skillset

Whether you aspire to be the founder of a world-changing startup, or simply to have a job that consistently challenges and rewards you, the entrepreneurial mindset and the skills that come with it is crucial to get an edge in the modern economy.

Let’s break down a few elements of the entrepreneurial mindset.

The ability to see problems and value: You look for problems to solve, you are constantly seeking ways to add more value to yourself and those you work with. This ability keeps you constantly improving and learning.

Connect ideas and people: You have the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in interesting ways. You also have a strong understanding of the people around you, and like those ideas, you connect people in valuable ways.

You’re willing to experiment: You are willing to risk being wrong of failing for the chance at finding a better way of doing something.  

Create an asset while in school

The value of a degree today is questionable at best. It is more of a minimum requirement than something that will differentiate you from your competition. If you graduate only relying on your degree to get you a job, you’re in for a tough job search. And many students upon graduation suddenly realize that they haven’t put any thought into what they will do next.

One of the best reasons to start a business while in school is that you can use many of the resources that your university has to grow your business.

By building a small business or brand while you are in school, you will create an asset that you can use to show your unique skills, personality and quality.

It does not have to be a gigantic venture. It just needs to be your creation, your project that you choose to work on and that you are responsible for. It can be a voice acting service you run on Fiverr, a small marketing service you run for businesses in your area, an intelligent soccer ball that becomes a crowdfunding success, or just a blog discussing your journey to improve yourself.

All of this leaves a “trail of magic” as Seth Godin calls it that shows you have interests and ideas and you are willing to share them. Building an audience around this is one of the most valuable and sought after skills in this day and age.

If you can create a blog or social media account that gets thousands of followers, you have something that most businesses desperately crave.

How to channel your university’s resources into your business.

One of the best reasons to start a business while in school is that you can use many of the resources that your university has to grow your business. Most universities have thousands of dollars in support and services that few students take advantage of.

Here’s a few common ways you can use your university to grow your business:

  • Start a club – Are you targeting a certain group of people with your business (skiiers, photographers, pet owners, coffee lovers)? Why not start a club on campus for those people? Starting a club that’s parallel with your brand will give you a budget to plan events, marketing, workshops and other interesting activities. Cultivate an early following on your campus that will turn into future customers and ambassadors to your brand.

  • Invite a thought leader to speak – Student governments, departments and organizations all have budgets to invite speakers to come to campus. Students almost never come forward with ideas for who they want to speak, and event coordinators spend most of their time thinking of ways to get more students to attend events. You can use this as a chance to connect with thought leaders in the industry you want to break into.

  • Use your “student card” – One of the most powerful parts about being a student is having the title of “student.” People revere and respect students, and love to help them. Use this to your advantage to start building relationships with interesting people in your industry. Ask a local entrepreneur out to lunch, see if you can get a tour of a local business in the industry you want to get into, interview a business owner for a project (it’s ideal if you can connect it to your schoolwork, but if you can’t just make up the project and use the information for your blog)

Develop skills to develop your business

Creating something like this is not easy, otherwise everyone would have done it. The skills that you use to grow your brand between classes are the same skills that will set you apart from the droves of graduates with empty resumes.

By being in the trenches and growing your own business you’ll learn what practical skills you need to develop. You may be able to find classes on campus to help you with these, but you will need to direct your own education as well to fill in the gaps. These skills will be the same ones that recruiters for your “dream job” are looking for, or you may find these skills are so valuable that you won’t need a job and you can work for yourself when you graduate.

The best way to start developing these skills is to learn to enjoy reading. I know reading is probably the last thing you want to do after fighting through all the other pages of homework you have. But make sure you dedicate some time to reading what is relevant to you.

Connect with “the real world”

Whatever you choose to build you’ll quickly realize you can’t build it alone. Every great business or brand is the product of countless relationships based on trust and value.

“Hi, I’m a student and…” dramatically increases the chances of getting what you want.

To grow your brand you’ll need to connect with the “real world” whether that’s local businesses in your area with parallel interests, thought leaders in the industry you want to enter, entrepreneurs you admire, or perhaps an author you follow.

As a student you have a powerful advantage when connecting with these people. It’s the title of “student.” There’s a great deal of cultural respect that comes with being a student. Students are revered and respected, people naturally feel compelled to help you on your education.

So whether you would like to tour a local business and see how they manage a problem you want to solve currently or you want to interview one of your favorite entrepreneurs for a your brand or your schoolwork opening the conversation with “Hi, I’m a student and…” dramatically increases the chances of getting what you want.

You also have value to offer these people. It’s an honor to be approached by a student, and a bigger honor still to be invited to speak at a university. Universities have large budgets for speakers and events, whether its for a club on campus or the student government’s annual speaker budget.

Your university may be willing to fly your hero out to speak at your request. The person you invite will be deeply honored and won’t soon forget you, which at minimum will result in a stellar recommendation letter for you in the future, if not more interesting opportunities.

Apprentice for other entrepreneurs

One of the most valuable things a student has to offer is their time. Anyone you can think of that is doing something interesting is most likely short on time.

If you want to learn how to be like one of these entrepreneurs, why not offer to work for them? An apprenticeship where you are working directly under an entrepreneur is one of the fastest ways to build skills, relationships and the reputation you need to break into entrepreneurship.

It will pay off big time in the future, so don’t sweat working for free for now.

Many universities offer custom internship programs that allow you to get school credit for doing work that interests you and building the skills that you find valuable.

A great way to get started with an apprenticeship is to identify ways you would be able to help an entrepreneur or business (this may take a bit of relationship building). Once you identify some areas that you would be able to help, use Ramit Sathi’s briefcase technique to pitch your idea. Have them take their pick of how you could best serve them. Then create a 90-day plan for how you will address that problem.

Do it for free, or for cheap. The value you’re getting out of this is in experience and skills. It will pay off big time in the future, so don’t sweat working for free for now.

This could result in more paid work with that business or entrepreneur after the project. Or you may be able to turn what you did for that business into a valuable service for other businesses.


The higher education system is going through a crisis right now, the value of a degree is questionable at best. But students don’t need to wait for these bloated institutions to fix themselves.

If you’re willing to take control of your education, explore your interests and passions, and build something that you care about, then there is a great deal of value to be found in your college experience. If you graduate with a thriving business or brand, you’ll find the wealth of opportunity that was always promised with your education.

  • Kyle Gray is the founder of Conversion Cake, where he helps small businesses and startups with content marketing strategy and sales funnels. He is also the author of “The College Entrepreneur” a guide that teaches students how to build an entrepreneurial skillset while in school and use their university’s resources to help them build something amazing.