I started my business in 1999. I didn’t graduate from college until 2002. There were pros and cons to doing this. I did some things right, and I made plenty of mistakes. Here are five things I know now that I wish I would have known then.
1. Talk to your professors. I went and met with my professors at the beginning of each semester and explained my situation to them, which was quite unique at the time. I told them about my business, about the constraints on my time, but told them I was serious about my education and would do my best even though I knew my business would interfere with my studies. They cut me a lot of slack because I took the time to talk with them.
2. Respect your professors. I had a bit of an ego. I thought I was hot stuff, being a student and running a business. I thought I was entitled to special treatment, and I got it. In retrospect I should have been a bit more meek, a bit more submissive to my professors, and I should have worked more to respect their time and the time of the students I worked with. Being a student entrepreneur doesn’t give you permission to slack off, it means you have to work harder. You can’t just do enough, you have to do more than enough. It’s sort of like working for your dad’s company–you have to prove yourself to everyone. That comes with the territory, just deal with it.
3. Grades and degrees matter. Just because you’re starting a business doesn’t mean it will work out. And even if you’ve raised millions while still in college that doesn’t mean you’re going to be an entrepreneur 10 years from now. What if you decide you want to get a PhD down the road? That’s what happened to me, so I’m glad I stuck to my plan and got a masters degree and kept my grades high enough that I might have a shot at getting into a PhD program. But when I graduated 12 years ago I had no idea I’d be on that path. Life has a funny way of presenting new ideas. Don’t burn bridges, and keep doors open where you can.
4. Don’t expect kid gloves. I think most student entrepreneurs get this, but it needs to be said–you’re not competing against other students, you’re competing against experienced entrepreneurs. Leon Parson, my art teacher at BYU-Idaho, taught me this. He told us that if we were comparing ourselves to the other art students in our class, we were already behind. We needed to be comparing our work as students to that of established professionals. If you have a great idea for a startup, a guy who is 40 and who has started four successful companies and has the connections to raise $20M in VC funding is going to take your idea and run with it. Tough. If you want to beat that guy, you’ve got to out-hustle him on his own turf. You need to worry about that, but also understand that it can be done. Don’t expect your college classes to prepare you. They might help, but they’re behind. Read books. Read online publications. Read blogs. Listen to podcasts. I do a ton of reading and listening today. I wish I had done more when I was a student, before I went out and made all the mistakes those books and websites could have warned me about.
5. Understand the power of being a student. This is the big one, the reason I wrote this post. When I was a student at BYU in Provo, Utah, I sent an email to David Neeleman, the CEO of JetBlue at the time. The email said I’d like to interview him. I got a response from his assistant within a week. She set up a half hour phone call with him. We had a great chat. I still remember some of the things I learned from him. I couldn’t have gotten the same attention three years later. Not because David changed, but I had, because I was no longer a college student. Successful entrepreneurs will bend over backward to give advice and help out a college student who is respectful and teachable. They won’t do the same for a guy who is out of college. Take advantage of the fact you’re a college student to get in touch with the people you dream of talking to. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be, especially if your intro is “Hi, I’m Josh, and I’m a student at BYU and am running a business, and I’d love to get 15 minutes of advice from you if you’d be willing to chat with me on the phone or answer some questions by email.” Sure, it won’t work every time, but make a list of the top 10 people you’d like to get that message to, and I bet you’ll succeed in at least half the cases. Isn’t that worth it?
Understanding the power you have as a student also means getting press. Magazines love to publish stories about student entrepreneurs. It’s interesting. But you’ve got to do some work and have a clue. I didn’t have a clue. I won the business plan competition at BYU. It was kind of a big deal. If I had had a clue I would have contacted every business publication in the country, and certainly every one in Utah. I would have gotten more value from that than the $5,000 I won in the competition. But it never occurred to me. I wasn’t stupid, I just didn’t know. But now you know, so ignorance can’t be your excuse. I now write for Forbes. It’s not hard for anyone to figure this out. I’d be happy to write a Forbes story about a student entrepreneur from my alma mater. But no student from BYU has contacted me to get their business featured in Forbes. There are probably 20 other journalists at business pubs around the country who went to BYU, or your college, whatever it is, and they’d be happy to write a story about you or your company, and all you have to do is ask. But few student entrepreneurs do, and they miss out on a great opportunity. Because the day you graduate, your story isn’t as interesting anymore. You’re a shiny new car that has lost 15% of its value after being driven off the lot.
If I could go back in time to my college days I’d be networking like mad on LinkedIn with every business leader who went to my college. I’d be contacting the press. I’d be asking for time to talk to Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Tim Ferriss, and Guy Kawasaki, or whoever is running the industry I’m interested in. I’d be inviting the local business leaders out for lunch and paying for their lunches, even if I were broke and had to work at the restaurant we had lunch at to pay for their lunch. I wouldn’t be partying, and I wouldn’t be playing video games for 10 hours every week.
You’re young. You have amazing potential ahead of you. But you also have amazing potential right now that you’re very likely leaving on the table and not taking advantage of. Wake up. Get to work. There’s no time to waste. The world needs you to be awesome.Liked it? Share it!