Many college students worry about how the job market will treat them once they graduate – especially these days with a recession created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But entrepreneurially minded students could give themselves a leg up on the competition by launching their own businesses now, building their skills, their resume, and their credibility in the process.
That’s what I did when I was a student at Clemson University in the early 2000s, operating my own business my sophomore through senior years. With some help from other students and faculty members, I started a website where people who held season tickets for professional sports could sell the tickets for games they couldn’t attend.
It was a great success and taught me a lot, paving the way for when I would launch my own business in my post-college years.
In fact, a number of today’s most iconic businesses can trace their histories back to a college dorm room. The founders of Google launched their idea for their all-powerful search engine while attending Stanford University. Mark Zuckerberg and his roommates at Harvard University created Facebook initially as a social media site just for Harvard students.
Of course, you shouldn’t expect your business to become some extraordinary multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that will change the course of humankind. But what you can do is create something that has value, helps you improve your business skills, and better prepares you for life after college.
For those who want to give it the old college entrepreneurial try, here are a few tips:
- Come up with the right idea. Ultimately, the most important step in starting your business is coming up with the idea. It can’t be just any idea, though. It has to be the right idea. How do you find that? You look around and see a need in your community that isn’t being served. Is there a lack of personal shoppers? A lack of pet sitters? You decide that the customers are there if someone (you) could just meet that need. A caveat: As a college student, you should concentrate on offering a product or service that won’t require a lot of startup costs. Coming up with a wonderful business concept does you no good if it requires a $500,000 investment to get rolling.
- Find a mentor. That mentor can be a professor or a local business person. The mentor just needs to be someone who can provide valuable advice, help with networking, and perhaps even be the inspiration behind the business you launch. Also, let me point out that having a mentor (or mentors) isn’t something you need to put behind you once you graduate. Even established business people often have mentors they can turn to for advice. My mentor in my post-college years was Pat Williams, a motivational speaker and senior vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Remember how I said that a mentor could be the inspiration for your business? In one of our conversations many years ago, Pat told me that every motivational speaker needs a book that contains his or her message, but most don’t have one. In cases where speakers did have a book, it was often self-published and of poor quality. It was Pat who suggested I start a book publishing company for people like him who could use the book as a marketing tool.
- Think of yourself as a brand. If I toss out brand names like Nike, Amazon or Starbucks, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You recognize and maybe even trust these brands. Naturally, if you launch a business, you will think in terms of your company brand. But go a step further. It’s also valuable to promote your personal brand, building your visibility and credibility in your field. (Think Elon Musk, Bill Gates and others.) Having a personal brand is especially important if you’re competing with established businesses. Yes, this can be a challenge for a college student. Some people may not take you seriously because of your age. You also likely have a calculus test to study for on Thursday, which could eat into your self-branding time. But by getting yourself and your name in front of as many people as possible, you will be on your way to building trust with your intended clientele.
- Make use of social media. I’m guessing you don’t have a huge marketing budget. Luckily, you came to college entrepreneurship at the right time because what you have in place of a marketing budget are social media accounts that cost you nothing. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram all can help you spread your message, build your authority, and connect with potential customers or clients.
Finally, even before you begin your business, you need to decide how you will measure success. What metrics will you use? Will you set as a goal a certain number of leads each month? A certain number of sales or new clients?
If you don’t know what success looks like for you, you won’t know whether you are happy with the results.
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