How should a 21-year-old aspiring entrepreneur go about developing business talents? Should I stay in college or take a “crash course” by starting a business? #Q&A
I’m a 21 year old that lives in silicon valley. My passion is business and everything that revolves around it. Being an early employee of two startups through growth stages has allowed me to see first hand the key components to building a successful business and build a network of talented people. Everything I’ve learned about business has been through actively engaging in the startup world and a prolific amount of reading on my spare time. I feel that I have a slight advantage over my peers in my social class giving the fact that they don’t read and all they know is theory from studying at the university. I also am not to thrilled about going into debt knowing what I now know about building real wealth. How should I plan for the next 5 years?
Yes. Do both.
The company you build in college doesn’t matter (generally…). You’ve got to learn how to make decisions. Focus on accruing experience running a shop with a couple of employees – some kind of service gig, a moving service, driving an Uber, building a website like this: YouProFolio (started and operated by the founder before beginning college…), whatever.
Doing both will make your college work significantly more interesting too. Your boring accounting class will actually mean something when you’re figuring out activity-based costing, and the marketing project you tackle might actually make the difference in your cost of customer acquisition.
And consider how quickly you can receive feedback on ideas in college, whether that’s in a class discussion or hanging out at the Quad. Throw out ideas and see how people react. Where else can you find this?
Latch on to the good professors. With the other 99% of students visiting office hours to negotiate grades and due dates, your professors will make time for you when you show a genuine interest in learning. Many professors are sitting on mountains of information and contacts, just waiting for that one student that comes around every 3-4 years to share with them.
More so, here’s how you’ll accelerate your learning by running a business while in school, and a few more general ideas I wish I would have learned at age 21. (I started with ten ideas, and it keeps growing… 🙂
1. Learn how to multiply and divide by 7, 12, 30, and orders of 10 quickly, and in front of an audience. When everyone else pulls out their iPhone to do their figuring, you’ll have the answer already. Everyone will automatically assume that you’re the smartest person in the room.
2. Write. Lots of good answers here on Quora telling you to read. Yes – important. And more so, writing requires you to distill, analyze, and synthesize your perspectives. Once you’ve distilled the academic literature and read a few leading blogs for your area (see #3), your ability to create linkages and generate new ideas will grow scary fast. Check out Justin Mares for a little motivation here.
Take a plethora of writing classes – business writing, fiction, poetry. Make writing a core competency so that you can express and influence others when you’re not there to explain your ideas in person.
3. Google Scholar. Dive into academic research. Books and blog posts are great for short bursts of motivation and ideas. Academic journal articles force you to focus and consider rigorous arguments and counter arguments. Every good research article includes a literature review of previous articles in the field – they’ve already told you want else is important to read in this area. By reading the academic literature in a field, you’ll learn about the evolution of thought for a topic.
Book and blog posts are important reading, then after a while, they become trite and distracting. The marginal effectiveness of the next one becomes smaller, or even negative. Pick 3-4 primary blogs to read regularly – i.e. Altucher Confidential, Paul Graham, Brain Pickings, Paul Kedrosky’s Infectious Greed – then use the rest of what you read out there as supplementary.
4. Become a great speaker. See Judy Carter’s The Message of You.
Take public speaking classes and multimedia production classes – any and everything you can do to be a great speaker. Absorb everything you can from your professors and classmates.
5. Cheap labor. For a $100, you can probably find a pretty good CS student to code anything you need, or a design student to sketch a prototype, or a marketing student to set up a website.
6. Build a following. Figure out YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Ads, podcasts, etc. etc. etc. Figure out how to add value to complete strangers so they give you their contact information. Use your marketing classes and projects as your laboratory.
7. Learn to operate by checklists, and on a schedule. Prepare, prepare, prepare for everything. Never ever wing it, so that when you do have to wing it, you’re ready. See: The Checklist Manifesto. When you’re balancing classes and work and a social calendar, you’ll force yourself to prioritize and compromise.
8. Find mentors. At your age, understand that [nearly] every successful person wants you to be successful too. They want you to learn from their mistakes. They admire your tenacity and focus. Heck, just look at how complete strangers are answering this question for you.
Check out this presentation by Jason Nazar: The 21 Golden Rules of Entrepreneurship.
BTW – Podcasts and video blog interviews are a wonderful reason to sit down with really smart people for 30 minutes. See “Build a Following” above.
9. Attend industry conferences for free. Seriously. All you need to do is to speak to any conference organizer, explain that you are a poor college student, and that you’d really like to attend their conference to help with your research. Volunteer a few hours to work at the registration desk or handing out flyers, and these guys will happily allow you to attend for free. Then go talk to the speakers after each session and tell them that you’re just there to learn, and if they’d be willing to spare 20-30 minutes to learn from them.
Side note: Working the “poor college student” angle works everywhere. Never underestimate it’s power.
10. Give back. Find a cause that means something to you – maybe it’s cancer or multiple sclerosis or The Special Olympics or the homeless problem or literacy or something else. Find it and spend time solving the problem. This will give you perspective on what life is like on the other side – people who do nothing but battle from day to day, and who consider waking up in the morning success. It will also immerse you in environments with different people…
11. Find different people. With the diversity programs of a university, college might be the last time you’ll have immediate access to any demographic, racial, religious, or political view at any moment. Go and see what everyone else is about. It’ll be healthy for your to see these perspectives, and help you develop an appreciation for others’ perspectives.
12. Be nice. Always, always, always be nice. Smile. Send thank you cards to people you meet. Call people by their first name. Bring Starbucks gift cards to the assistants and receptionists that help you. Remember that every person you meet has a struggle of their own. See David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College – “This is Water”:
13. Define success for yourself. There is no right or wrong way to define success – only your definition. Most of us struggle with this. I know I do.
Never let anyone tell you that your definition of success is wrong. It might mean money and financial wealth. For some, success is having the time to coach their kid’s soccer team. For some, success is the freedom to control your day-to-day (See: The 4-Hour Workweek and Timothy Ferriss). For some, success is measured by the number of lives touched or saved:
Then accept that your definition will change over time. Watch this TED Talk by Dan Gilbert: Life: A play in multiple acts. Be honest with your self about success and when your definition might change.
14. Accept that it will be hard, no matter what you choose to do. See: The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
College is the perfect place to run against the herd. There are constant pressures and opportunities to party and waste time. Yes, course, go to football games. Enjoy homecoming weekend. Take a road trip with your buddies. We all need a few moments to blow off steam and have some fun.
When you’re running a business and your customer expects you to be somewhere or do something by 6am on Saturday morning, you’ll be forced to make a choice and from that you’ll see where your priorities lie.
**This Q&A article was originally posted on Quora. Check out Scott’s Quora page here.