Post-Graduation Reflections: 10 Tips for Student Founders

Co-written by Stephen Soward

My co-founder Stephen and I have had the opportunity to see a lot of student startups start, grow, fail, and succeed throughout our time founding and growing Campus Insights and working with various startups at Boston College and University of Michigan, in addition to my time investing in student startups at Dorm Room Fund.

Based on our observations and experiences, we’ve put together a few pieces of advice we wish we had known prior to founding Campus Insights. This list is by no means comprehensive or profound, nor does it apply to all situations or startups, but we hope you find it helpful.

If you have additional tips for student founders, or disagree with any of our advice, please comment below!

1. Don’t get stuck in the idea phase

Anecdote: Prior to Campus Insights, Stephen and I worked on an app idea for eight months. We had mapped out an incredibly elaborate three year product roadmap, but the startup went nowhere because we never actually executed on anything. Learning from this, as soon as we got the idea for Campus Insights, we immediately bought a cheap video camera and ran around campuses paying students $5 to give feedback on apps. We then sent these sample interviews to companies and soon had our first paying customer!

2. Play the student card to get advice and introductions

Anecdote: 25% of our clients during the first two years of our business were referred to us by Boston College alumni we had cold-emailed for advice. We spent a lot of time on Boston College’s LinkedIn page, filtering through alumni by title, industry, and company.

Email etiquette is sometimes hard to get right when you’re new to the game, you can read more about tips for emails here.

3. Don’t spend too much time on pitch competitions, accelerators, and investors

Anecdote: A student startup I know in Boston spent the majority of spring 2017 pitching various competitions and summer accelerators. After a couple months, they realized their business hadn’t grown at all because they had been so distracted. They decided to completely stop all pitching and go truly heads-down on their business. A week later, they felt they had accomplished more in that week than in the entire prior two months.

4. Know where school falls on your list of priorities

  1. How much you enjoy school vs. working on your startup
  2. How much GPA matters to your fallback career path and to any scholarships you might have
  3. How serious you are about your startup
  4. How important it is to you that you fully apply yourself in school
  5. You and your family’s financial situation

Based on these factors, decide how you want to prioritize school relative to your startup and set clear guidelines for how well you want to do in school (e.g. as long as I’m above X GPA, I will prioritize my startup). And then stick to your prioritization and guidelines.

Anecdote: Early on, a lot of my stress of being a student founder was because I constantly switched between prioritizing school and prioritizing my startup. Once I had a clear guidelines, I eliminated the stress caused each time there was a decision such as “should I not study much for this exam or should I reschedule this important business meeting?”

5. Consider taking a leave of absence only if you feel it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

  1. Is this a startup I know I want to be working on for 5–10+ years?
  2. Is the market timing perfect and unique (i.e. would waiting to graduate cause us to miss capitalizing on the opportunity)?

My answers for both were “no”. And I’m grateful I didn’t leave school for Campus Insights. But if the answers had both been “yes”, leaving might have been the right move.

6. Don’t automatically say yes to all of your classmates who want to help your startup

  1. Do you really need this role?
  2. Is this person a rockstar?
  3. Is this person genuinely passionate about what you’re doing?
  4. Will this person make your startup one of their top priorities?

Anecdote: The Campus Insights team ended up being half people we already were friends with and half people we hadn’t known previously. We kept the team small and interviewed our friends with the same rigor we used when interviewing someone we didn’t know (multiple rounds of interviews, reference calls, and trial projects). And it paid off: we’re lucky to have had such an awesome team and to not have needed to let someone go.

7. Be careful about equity and IP

(Disclaimer: We’re not lawyers and you should absolutely consult a lawyer on any legal decision.)

8. Be proactive with planning around your student loans

Founder #1:

My approach was that I saved enough to pay for student loans for a year. Plus the 6 month grace period that gives me 1.5 years to pursue our company full time. If after a year and a half we aren’t generating enough for me to pay my student loans, I’ll either pick up a part time job or look for something else.

Another element that helped me is that I was able to graduate a year early, so I am viewing this year as a bonus year to learn as much as possible and take a risk. I think it is good to have honest conversations with parents and dive into if this is something you really want to do at this stage of your life.

Founder #2:

“There are ways you can defer or change payment structure so it makes it easier to start a company. Check out income based repayment.”

Founder #3:

Take an honest look at your situation. How are you paying for everything in your day-to-day life, how much will you need to make, and are you able to pay yourself that with your business alone? If not, how will you make up the extra income and will the stakeholders in your business be okay with that? If it’s not possible, it may be best to reconsider where things sit with your business, get a job that will pay the bills, and work on your company in your spare time. If you’re able to cover everything, then congrats and good luck!

It’s a tough journey that I’m still on, but very rewarding.

9. Solicit lots of advice, but don’t follow it all

Anecdote: If we had always followed experts’ advice, Campus Insights wouldn’t exist. Right after we came up with the idea for Campus Insights, we explained it to a retired Fortune 500 CEO who told us it was a bad idea because no one would pay college students to conduct user research. We’re glad we didn’t listen to them :)

10. Take advantage of all the awesome resources for student entrepreneurs

  • Student VC Firms: Dorm Room Fund, Rough Draft Ventures, Contrary Capital, and others.
  • University law clinics and law professors: All of the legal work for our acquisition was done for free by BC’s entrepreneurship law clinic, saving us about probably about $50,000. See if your school has something similar!
  • Independent Studies — This isn’t an entrepreneur-specific resource, but a lot of schools will let you do an independent study related to your startup for course credit.
  • Professors — Whether you need advice on coding, accounting, management press, or anything else, there’s probably a world-class professor at your school who will help you for free.

We wish you the best of luck on your journey. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it – reflecting back on our college experiences, the biggest highlight and thing Stephen and I are most grateful for was the opportunity to work on Campus Insights. Go get ‘em!

Special thanks to David Ongchoco, Haris Memon, Henry Tsai, Jack Sexton, Johnny Fayad, and Rebecca Liebman for their help on this post.

Product @ Nuro, Tinkering @ www.TheHourglassStore.com