The catchphrase “you only live once” or YOLO is the modern-day version of “carpe diem,” and it usually involves doing wild and risky recreational activities. But an increasing number of college students have taken YOLO to the next level by doing something their parents may find even more unsettling — turning down cushy corporate jobs and internships, and starting their own companies instead.
For what it’s worth, I believe these graduates are jumping into entrepreneurship at exactly the right time. For one, most college students don’t (yet) have families to feed or mortgages to pay. And although they may not have much money either, that means they have very little to lose. Plus, college students are used to keeping their costs of living low — Easy Mac, anyone?
Personally, I couldn’t have started PerBlue without the resources college provided. It’s where I found my future employees, and it’s where I could make mistakes without much risk. For PerBlue, college was like a startup petri dish — sheltered from the toils of the “real world” — where smart people and crazy ideas ran rampant (and still do).
Here are some of the lessons I learned from starting up in college and how you can apply them to your own dorm room startups:
- Hire your friends. Find co-founders and future employees within your group of college friends; they will be your most loyal and hardworking employees. In PerBlue’s case, my friends were the ones willing to skip class for two weeks straight prior to launch, and work for sweat equity during the early days to get the company off the ground. Starting out with a very passionate team establishes a strong culture that will be extremely valuable as you grow your employee base. The people you surround yourself with will both teach and help you along the way.
- Use (free) campus resources, including mentors. Resources vary from campus to campus, but college is a great place to find free legal and financial advice, clinics and networking opportunities, every day of the week. If you’re starting a Web business, keep an eye out for Startup Weekend, 3 Day Startup and other hackathon-style events held on campus. Chat with your advisor or stop into the business school to get connected with entrepreneurial resources. And don’t be afraid to seek out and talk to students outside of your major — those studying engineering, business and other subjects can provide new perspectives and insights for your startup. In college, my mentors were both professors and other college entrepreneurs. Today, they are my board members and leaders of hugely successful companies.
- Parlay your startup skills into other companies (or a “real” job). The experience you gain as a young entrepreneur, whether your startup grows or stalls, will be invaluable later on. Many leaders of successful businesses didn’t major in, or even study, business. But they had the passion and the ability to execute their ideas, rewiring their brain to start thinking and learning from a business perspective along the way — invaluable leadership skills in any job. For example, while I double majored in Computer Science and Computer Engineering, I’ve only coded a few lines in the past two years. Instead, I’ve transitioned to leading the PerBlue team and steering the vision for our products and business. Soon you’ll stop worrying and start strategizing instead. Get in this frame of mind by practicing negotiation, pitching your startup to friends, or even budgeting and balancing your finances — whatever it takes to get your brain focused on becoming a great leader.
- Make mistakes early and often. Starting a business will allow you to wear many hats and pick up many new skills you otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. You will probably stumble a little at one (or more) of these roles, but that’s where delegation and hiring great people plays into the equation. No matter what happens, know that you’ll still be learning more by spending a year working on a startup than you ever would working at an entry-level position in a big company. And even if you fail epically, failure is often the best teacher. You will be that much smarter when you set off on your next project.
- Save the job offer for later. The experience of being a college entrepreneur is priceless. Maybe you’ve already been offered an attractive internship or full-time opportunity — some kind of nice, cushy job at a large, established corporation. Well, I challenge you to turn that offer down. Bootstrapping and building a startup is an exciting and sometimes rocky road. Yes, there will be long nights and weekends spent working, a steady diet of Ramen and Red Bulls, and times of absolute burnout. (To this day, the thought of pizza from the restaurant below our first office at 2 a.m. brings back a wave a nostalgia.) As hard and tiring as those days were, I miss them. No matter how difficult or exhausting the work is, it will be worth absolutely every minute. You always have the option go back and work a “real” job later!
Now is the perfect time to take the risk and start practicing the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur — or a leader. I think it’s a clear win-win for those brave enough to venture outside of their comfort zone. What are you going to do today that will enable you to take the leap and start your own company? After all, YOLO!