Starting A Business During or After College? Advice for Entrepreneurial Grads

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In the next few weeks, thousands of bright-eyed, ambitious graduates will walk out of the hallowed halls of institutions of higher learning and into the larger world. Among these graduates will be the next generation of innovators, founders, entrepreneurs and small business owners. These adventurers, some armed with well-defined business plans and others with nothing but dreams and moxie, are determined to follow the road less traveled and carve out their own unique career paths.

But before turning down a steady job or packing away the interview suit, recent grads need to evaluate if they truly have what it takes to start a business.

Business experts and entrepreneurs, many of whom started their first business right out of college  were asked for entrepreneurial advice for this year’s graduating class. Here are some of the key lessons they shared. [Ready to start a business? Follow our step-by-step guide.]

1. Follow your passion
As an entrepreneur, the importance of doing work that brings you joy and fulfillment cannot be overstated. In fact, a founder’s passion is key to ensuring that a business thrive.

“You have to do what you love to have a fulfilling career,” said John Tabis, founder and CEO of The Bouqs Company. “You need to find a job or career path within a field that you are passionate about, then get in there quickly, dig in, learn and add value.”

Doing work that has meaning to you will provide the motivation needed to get through the rough patches and tumultuous times that are an inevitable part of building any new venture.

2. Do the research
The only way to know if what seemed like a great idea in your dorm room can become a viable business is to do the research. Take the time to thoroughly study all the elements that go into establishing your new business.

Will Manders, managing director of Zoonibo, recommends really getting to know your market and its particular needs.

“Market research is … heavily overlooked by first time entrepreneurs and I’ve seen countless people fail, including myself in previous projects, because the market really wasn’t there for the idea to be scalable,” said Manders.

Christopher K. Lee, founder and career consultant with Purpose Redeemed, suggests immersing yourself in the minutiae of your chosen industry.

“Understand the operations and finance of the business. Too many new grads want to jump to strategy and innovation — the sexier topics,” said Lee. “But spend[ing] time … developing depth of experience will pay off many times over.”

3. Learn from the inside
Regardless of when you decide to start your business, there’s always value in taking some time to learn from more seasoned professionals. Working for someone else for a short time can help you build an extensive list of contacts, pick up best practices and learn from leaders in your industry.

“There are job-related functions you are not taught in school and really only learn on the job,” said J. Kelly Hoey, angel investor, speaker and author of “Build Your Dream Network” (TarcherPerigree, 2017) “Why not learn those tasks – and endure the mistakes of doing them wrong – as an employee?”

Additionally, gaining experience in a variety of companies and work environments may help you refine your own ideas about what exactly you want to accomplish.

“You may start out in one area only to find you prefer focusing on another element of the work,” said Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations. “As you begin your journey, know there may be twists and turns along the way – and that’s perfectly OK.”

4. Find mentors
Finding experienced and trusted advisers who can offer guidance and support will help a new entrepreneur navigate the pitfalls of business development and ownership.

“Nothing shortens a learning curve more than someone with been-there-done-that experience,” said Mark Babbitt, founder and CEO of YouTern. “Graduates should find a stable of mentors and build mutually beneficial relationships.”

Mentors are important on so many levels, according to Lindsey Nickel, owner and wedding planner at Lovely Day Events. They can refer you to a job, connect you with a potential client, provide honest and unbiased advice and offer support during challenging times.

“You can talk to them about topics that seem very daunting, ask questions that feel amateurish, discuss pricing candidly, and share your wildest dreams for your business,” said Nickel.

5. Network constantly
A strong professional network often makes the difference between success and failure for your business. One way to build this network is to make connections as often as possible and with as many people as you can, said Sarah LaFave, board president of Lori’s Hands, a nonprofit she co-founded as a college student.

“I’ve called on people for support, advice or referrals whom I had met in passing … often from other sectors [and] whom I didn’t imagine having a lot in common with at the time I met them,” said LaFave.

While building your network, don’t ignore the potential power of your existing relationships. According to Hoey, the biggest mistake new graduates can make in their enthusiasm to get a venture off the ground is to overlook the web of classmates, family, neighbors, past employers and community leaders that has shaped their lives.

“Your existing network is the one that most wants you to succeed,” said Hoey. “Realize they not only will help you, but can provide solid advice, valuable introductions, ongoing support and real guidance.”

In addition to using a variety of social networking tools to expand your circle of contacts, aspiring entrepreneurs also should seek out strategic volunteer opportunities. Julia Bonner, president of Pierce Public Relations, recalls that during the first year of starting her business, she sought out volunteer opportunities with groups where she could both network and have an impact.

“It was a great way to meet decision-makers,” added Bonner, whose firm was later hired by the organization she volunteered with, and she now serves on its board of directors.

6. Use your tech know-how
Recent college grads who are digital natives are especially equipped to harness technology’s power to establish, promote and grow their businesses.

“There are so many ways to quickly and easily get started in business now that just weren’t available even 10 years ago,” said Ryan O’Connor, owner of One Tribe Apparel.

Purchasing your brand’s domain name and building a website is a basic first step, said Nickel, but there are plenty of other things you can do to leverage tech tools. O’Connor recommends growing interest in your business by building up an Instagram following, writing for popular blogs and online magazines, and launching products on Etsy or Amazon.

7. Develop great communication skills
Communication is a fundamental skill in life and in business. Andrew Pudalov, founder of Rush Bowls, recognizes that interpersonal communication can be challenging for many college graduates because they’ve grown up in a world where so much is shared via social media, texting or direct messaging.

“Online communication can often be misinterpreted or misunderstood,” said Pudalov. “Nothing gets a deal done faster than meeting in person. If that isn’t possible, call, especially if reaching out to someone of an older generation.”

Another component of good communication is finding a way to tell your company’s origin story passionately, clearly and succinctly.

“Sometimes entrepreneurs, especially technologists, can be introverts, but you have to get out of that and build both your willingness and skills to communicate,” said Nitin Seth, CEO of Incedo.

Those who struggle with verbal communication can practice different approaches to strengthen this ability to express their vision for their business. For example, Bonner recommends coming up with planned responses to some of the most common questions asked about your business, and then testing out your answers on friends, colleagues and family members who have varying degrees of knowledge about your business and industry.

“Nailing your messaging will open doors to bigger and better conversations in the future,” said Bonner.

8. Figure out finances
All entrepreneurs need to prepare for every aspect of running a business, and this includes developing a sound understanding and ability to manage the financial aspects of their company, including financial analysis, taxes and budgeting.

Alex Kurrelmeier, director of the Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur at Culver Academies, said early-stage entrepreneurs should seek out online courses in finance and study various startup business models.

“It will most likely be a while before your company is at a place financially where you can hire a full-time controller, so the more comfortable you are with numbers, the better,” said Kurrelmeier.

9. Cultivate grit
If you want to start a business, you must put the desire for instant gratification aside and plan to work harder and longer than you ever imagined. Developing an unflappable resilience and commitment to your business will be necessary to get through the toughest days.

“If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to have grit and not give up on the first try,” said Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps. “There are a million challenges, and you just have to pound your way through them.”

So much of what it takes to create a new business is simply about the unglamorous monotony of hard work. Lydia Brown, founder of Chicago Collegiate Nannies, believes prospective business owners need to understand this reality before venturing forth. As a business owner, Brown says she works twice the time that she did in her previous career and always has more work to do at the end of the day.

“The concept of ‘leaving work at work’ does not exist when you are an entrepreneur, because you alone are responsible for making your business a success,” she said.

Flexibility must also be part of the new entrepreneur’s psyche, according to Kirsten Quigley, co-founder and CEO of LunchSkins.

“You can’t always get from point A to point B in the way you mapped out,” said Quigley. “Customers may not always be with you, partners may change, distribution channels may shift, [but] … you have to be willing to push up your sleeves and wade into unknown territory with equal parts fearlessness and optimism.”

But even in the face of all these challenges, your business can thrive if you have enough tenacity and fortitude to stay the course.

“If you ride out the turbulence and stay the course, you might find that in the long term you can overachieve even the most ambitious goals,” said Seth.

10. Understand that failure is part of the process
About 50 percent of small businesses fail by their fifth year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This sobering fact may be enough to dissuade those with a low tolerance for risk from ever starting a business. However, young entrepreneurs shouldn’t fear failure, but instead recognize that it can teach them valuable lessons about their business and the path their careers should take.

Joe Schumacher, CEO of The Goddard School, recognizes that failure is often stigmatized in society. But recent grads who want to build a business must push past these confining notions of what it means to be successful.

“If you’re starting a business, remember that companies need to take risks to grow, and sometimes these risks lead to failure,” explained Schumacher. “Good judgment should always be exercised, but, assuming it is, failures should be viewed as teachable moments.”

11. Stop comparing yourself to others
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is about the need to drop the ego and staying focused on your goals. Eric Zuckerman, president of Pac Team Group, recalls that when he set up a venture right out of school, one of the most challenging aspects was seeing friends begin to advance professionally and monetarily while he struggled to create something from nothing.

“The reality of starting a business often means little to no income and an enormous dedication of your time and energy,” explained Zuckerman. “As your friends begin to land traditional jobs out of school, start getting money in their pockets, building new social circles and going out, it is easy to not only be jealous, but begin doubting the path you’ve chosen.”

For Zuckerman and many other innovators, survival is all about not comparing themselves to others or getting caught up in what they are missing, but honing the long-term vision they have for this business. Zuckerman said, “This mindset allowed me to persevere through those initial months and years when the temptation of throwing in the towel for a more traditional career path was at its greatest.”

12. Don’t be afraid to take the leap
Once you’ve done your research, you are ready to jump in. According to entrepreneur Jess Ekstrom, it may seem easier to first get a job right out of college, gain some experience, save a bit of money and then start a business. But walking away from such stability will be harder than you think, and you may end up never taking the leap.

“It’s better to go for it, and then get a job if it doesn’t work out, rather than get a job and never go for it,” said Ekstrom, who launched her business Headbands of Hope while still in college.

If you need additional income while launching your business, Ekstrom advises reaching out to fellow startups to see if they have any part-time work opportunities or looking for grants for young entrepreneurs. The U.S. Small Business Administration also offers resources for prospective entrepreneurs, including workshops and entrepreneur education classes on a variety of topics.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to trusting that you’ll figure things out as you go along.

“You don’t need to know how the entire journey will play out; you just need to start,” said Lee.



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