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The Unique Challenges of Student Startups
Time and money are both critical when it comes to building a startup. Here lies the unique challenge for student founders - they typically don’t have much of either.
30 September, 2020

Building a startup can be an incredibly rewarding pursuit: making a product or service to solve the pain points and problems of others is an excellent way to have an impact on the world. Some of the world’s most prolific founders – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey – all share the commonality of dropping out of university to build their businesses and embark on their entrepreneurial ventures. It begs the question: do you need to drop out of university to build a successful startup? It turns out you don’t – but it’s not going to be easy.

When talking about startups, the most commonly measured resource is money. We become fixated on how much a company has raised during their most recent round of funding, how much runway they have, or how colossal their exit was. 

However, from the perspective of the entrepreneur, time can be a scarier, and even more nerve-wracking resource. From shipping products on time, getting to the market quickly, and getting ahead of competitors, it seems that there’s always a race against the clock. 

Time and money are both critical when it comes to building a startup. Here lies the unique challenge for student founders – they typically don’t have much of either.

As a student, you have incredibly time-consuming obligations before taking on the additional task of building an enterprise. Between staying on top of your studies, participating in societies/organisations, and simply having fun with friends, a typical student schedule is already thinly padded. On top of this, some students may have ancillary jobs or obligations at home that make dedicating significant time to a startup seem downright impossible. When it comes to money, no student is in a position to self-fund a startup. Going to a venture capital (VC) with the grand plan to build the world’s next big thing, whilst only being able to dedicate a mere handful of hours every week, will not go well.

It might seem, then, that it would be in your best interest to simply drop out of university, and to truly fixate focus on building your startup.  However, there are many benefits of being a student founder. Most professionals are more than happy to meet with and mentor you as a student, and their insight can be extremely invaluable. Additionally, you are surrounded by intellectual students who may be eager to work on interesting and rewarding projects together with you. Many companies also offer student discounts for technological tools needed to build and bring your ideas to life. This is a toolkit that you can only wish for when you are a graduate.

Though we should leverage the unique advantages of being students, with time and money as our scarcest resources, how might we build a startup? 

This question is eloquently answered by Eric Reis in The Lean Startup: “focus on small increments in your development in order to ensure that you do not waste your resources.” 

I’ll give an example from a product that I’m building now: I was approached by several students who were looking to build fully-featured apps for iOS and Android, which would allow independent restaurants to share coupons and discounts with the app’s users in order for them to compete better with chain restaurants. There are a lot of assumptions baked into that proposition: independent restaurants are struggling, they would be willing to sign up for collaborations, put deals and offers into a newly-developed app – the list goes on. This would not only take up a lot of time and money to develop, but also hinged on so many assumptions that it could easily, and likely fail.

An alternative approach would be to physically approach a couple of independent restaurants and ask them if they would be willing to offer a deal or coupon for their establishment. Then, if they are willing, post the deals in a few student Facebook groups and see if anyone uses them. By comparison, this strategy would take no longer than a few days to accomplish, and would cost you nothing. If this experiment is successful, you could scale it up (perhaps you switch to a weekly mailing list or get more restaurants onboard) or, if unsuccessful, you would know that you need to pivot and change your business strategy, without spending months building an app. The Lean Startup outlines many strategies like this which you can use to make sure you are always going in the most efficient route. Indeed, these are strategies applicable to all startups – but for students, they are simply required.

So, go out there and build the next big thing! Be cognisant of your limitations and advantages as a student founder and enjoy the ride. Building a startup is an incredibly rewarding experience and the exercise will teach you an inordinate amount about business, human nature, and life. Good luck!

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  1. Cameron

    Great article! As a student founder, I completely agree with the challenges and solutions you mentioned.

  2. Lucas Gelfond

    Loved this piece! Certainly there are untold benefits to a college education and to being a founder in such an environment. Networking and access to engineering/ design talent I think are also worth considering. Phenomenal piece!


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