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Many of us dream about someday starting a wildly successful business, especially while we’re in school, looking for ways to make extra cash or add impressive experiences to our resumes. Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. Some of the world’s most famous companies were started by college students; Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Modcloth, Google, Dropbox, and Microsoft to name just a few.
We talked to a couple of undergraduate current college students about companies they’ve founded at school to get a sense of what it takes. The main takeaway? If you see a problem on campus and you know how to solve it, you might just have a hot new business plan on your hands.
Start With a Problem
The best products and companies don’t need to persuade you that you have a problem. They’re solving something you’re already actively seeking a solution for. That’s how Riley Rojas, a 21-year-old undergrad studying Political Science at University of California, Los Angeles, started her first company, Izzy & Riley. When she was a freshman at UCLA, Rojas saw a hole in the fashion market: No one was selling affordable, flattering, school-specific apparel for tailgating before football games. She made her own by cutting up t-shirts and her friends loved them, so she started selling them. But soon, she realized she needed to scale. “I couldn’t keep cutting and creating my own tops because so many people wanted them,” she says. “I needed to screenprint.”
Accelerate Plus, a career counseling company founded by Malvika Aeron, a 20-year-old business student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, started in much the same way. In her second year at school, she trained to become one of 20 student career coaches on campus to help other students applying for jobs and internships. When the pandemic hit and everyone was sent home for the rest of the year, Aeron realized her fellow university students were hit hard: study abroad programs were canceled and internships and job offers evaporated.
“I wanted to alleviate the pain and help in any way I could,” she says. She posted on Facebook that she would offer free coaching sessions to students remotely, and the response was overwhelming. So, she thought bigger and launched an online platform for webinars and career advice. More than 1,200 people have since participated in the company’s events.
Learn as Much as You Can
When Rojas was ready to expand her business from a one-woman hand-made enterprise, she teamed up with a friend (and now co-founder), Isabelle McGrew, started researching, and built a website. “I had absolutely no knowledge, Google was definitely my best friend,” she says of her entrepreneurship education. “I was Googling every day, ‘How do I build a website?’ ‘How do I dropship clothes?’ ‘How do I manufacture clothes?’” She interviewed anyone with more knowledge who was willing to sit down with her and share their learning experiences. The small business quickly picked up steam and received a $125,000 investment from McGrew’s father’s business partner, who invests in clothing start-ups, and has since expanded to six college campuses in Colorado, California, and Arizona.
Know Your Target Customer
Accelerate Plus has grown so rapidly in the early stages thanks in large part to advertising on TikTok, which has scores of younger users based around the world. Knowing how to use this platform and reach her target customers with one-minute career tips to help students has proven to be a huge advantage for Aeron. Her company was able to get 10,000 TikTok followers in the first month. “It’s the algorithm businesses need,” she says. “It’s very organic.”
Rojas, too, has been her own target consumer in each of the three companies she’s co-founded: Izzy & Riley, Textbook Dibs, a kiosk that allows students to sell their textbooks for an instant Venmo payment, and Aptitud, her newest, an in-home fitness company started during the pandemic. A lot of other companies trying to make tailgate clothes don’t understand how trends spread on college campuses, Rojas says, which is what gave Izzy & Riley an edge over potential competition.
When Izzy & Riley was ready to expand beyond UCLA’s campus, Rojas and McGrew found Greek life influencers on the campuses they wanted to target and recruited them to help bring the brand to their schools. They now have about two dozen employees. Izzy & Riley and Rojas’s second company, Textbook Dibs, are both also approved to offer internships to fellow students for course credit.
Aeron wanted Accelerate Plus to be able to help students all over the world, wherever there are large hubs of college students in need of mentoring. So, via social media platforms, she recruited about a dozen other students to volunteer from Canada, India, Turkey, the United States, Nigeria, Australia, Italy, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Seeking mentors is the very fabric of Aeron’s company. She’s garnered the attention of big companies and other business owners who are interested in working with her student clients to mentor them and, potentially, recruit. She’s constantly asking questions and meeting other coaches who’ve been invaluable as she learns how to run a company. Accelerate Plus will soon debut a mentorship program with a nominal $40 registration fee to match students with professional mentors at Fortune 500 companies and other businesses in their cities.
Rojas highly recommends young entrepreneurs seek out and apply for accelerator programs. She’s gotten into the highly competitive UCLA Summer Accelerator Program twice, and the Techstars Summer Startup Fellowship. Programs like these offer a wealth of resources (including an amazing network of innovators), she says, plus they often provide grant money to help speed your own business’s growth.
Practice Good Time Management
There’s plenty of time to get sucked into the full-time workday creep post-college. Both Aeron and Rojas advise student entrepreneurs against falling into the stereotype of working 17-hour days or getting up at 4 a.m. to start on your to-do list. Aeron says she spends about 10 to 15 hours per week on Accelerate Plus, and her team members spend about three to five hours a week on it.
Rojas says she never works past 5:30 p.m. Instead of answering texts while working or sending work emails while hanging out with friends, she makes sure she’s fully focused on her companies when she’s working, and fully present with her social life when she’s not. “I do really think I’m going to be my best self if I’m prioritizing myself and my happiness,” she says. “I would never stay up to 4 a.m. working on this and I think that’s a huge misconception in the start-up world.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.