The vast majority of new startups fail.
Despite knowing that, I spent my high school and college years working on a wide range of startups across many different industries, from fashion to tech. School is the time to take risks. It's the time to try as many different side hustles as you can. It's the time to spread yourself thin and gain broad surface knowledge about as many different industries as you can. It's the time to explore. It's the time to bootstrap ideas for the fun of it to see where it takes you. In the age of digital publishing and the Internet, this really doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Make your own internship. You'll learn more, and just because your title is self-appointed doesn't mean you're not putting in the work.
Your goal should be getting exposed to as many different ideas, software programs, groups of people, and ways of thinking as possible. It's the time to learn, both in your classes and by taking advantage of the unique environment of your college campus and city. If your idea becomes the next Facebook that's great, but don't enter into the startup world solely for that outcome, because it's easy to think your time and energy were wasted if that's not the outcome you achieve.
Just because you didn't make it big at 20 doesn't mean you didn't gain valuable, marketable experience.
Just because a partnership between two student startups didn't pan out doesn't mean you didn't meet new people and learn something about how another venture operates. Just because a negotiation fell through because of your lack of experience doesn't mean you didn't improve your negotiation skills. A failed social media campaign? Adventures in branding with limited graphic design experience? All of that is great. Relatively speaking, the stakes are low right now. The lowest they will ever be in your life. Take the initiative to practice on your own terms, make mistakes, and learn from them. Develop skills and familiarity with different processes that will help you to be an asset to a bigger idea or company when you graduate.
These are my tips for treating your college startup experiences like a living lab:
- Explore! Dip your toes in everything and learn as you go. When you're on a small, bootstrapped, scrappy team that lacks experience all around, you have the perfect opportunity to take on new challenges. Do some research, maybe reach out to some seasoned professionals for advice, and then just try it. Learning what doesn't work is just as important as learning what does.
- Frame your work in terms of applicable skills you acquired. "Familiar" isn't as deep a level of mastery as "proficient" or "fluent" but it's better than saying you've never even seen the software. Whether you're looking to work at your own startup, someone else's startup, or a large company after you graduate, all of the knowledge you've acquired will enable you to contribute more.
- Learn all the vocabulary, even for areas of the business that aren't necessarily your dream job. Understanding the basics of how sales funnels work is just as important as learning the language of developing strategic partnerships. Learn how to scan a contract and sift through jargon. If you're going to be the CEO one day, you have to be able to talk about everything.
- Play around with software, a lot of which may be available to you through your university or at a student discount. Returning to the "familiarity" advantage, you can easily give yourself a leg up by poking around the Adobe Creative Cloud, a trial version of a few CRMs, and all of the major DIY website builders. Come up with a project and learn by doing.
- Say yes. Say yes to the meeting, to coffee, to the event, to the phone call, to the introduction. Talk to as many people as are willing to sit down with you. Learn what other people are working on. In every industry, there's more than meets the eye. Learn what the reality is for people working in it. Learn what their lifestyles are like, and whether their work enables or requires their lifestyles to be the way they are.