Being a Student Founder Ain't Easy
Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes
A lot of small-time entrepreneurs love to write about their entrepreneurial journey and the lessons they learned. They’ll write articles titled, “5 Things I Didn’t Know Before Starting my Business” or “How I Achieved $1,000,000 Revenue Growth in Six Months.” I think those articles are a load of B.S. The “5 Things” article can be summarized just by reading the subheadings and the “$1 million Revenue” article is a unique, unlikely case that applies to that founder and few others. Not many of these lessons can be reasonably replicated by others in their own entrepreneurial journey.
I believe that readers find value from essays in a somewhat unpredictable way. Sometimes I come across a simple line that resonates with me, but does not hold the attention of anyone else.
Everyone learns in their own way, and certainly not from “listicles.”
In this piece, I share my experience founding a tech business as an undergraduate student in New Orleans. Yes, I will share the lessons I learned. It’s impossible not to. BUT, that is not as important as how I learned the lessons. This is also not meant to be some blowhard poorly disguised piece about how awesome I am. For bragging, just take a quick scroll through LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong though; this entire piece is about me and my experience, not my company. I wrote this essay because I wanted to reflect on that experience and I thought it would be fun to put some writing online. I just graduated from college, so I figure it’s now or never. Either way, leave me some feedback in the comments. This is my first time.
Since about the fourth grade, I wanted to be a doctor. I always asked a bajillion questions at the doctor’s office and paid extra attention in my biology classes. During my junior year of high school, my mom took me on a college tour. The tour guide said, “You will change your mind about what you want to do in college” (obviously I’m paraphrasing). I thought, “Oh s***,” and ended up changing my mind a year early. I had been reading a lot of TechCrunch and found myself more and more intrigued by the innovative potential of startups.
Before that “Oh s***” moment, I had already tried to start a business. My friend Alex had been making cheap bow ties and selling them at school. I thought it would be cool to manage the business side of his operation. I went over to his house on the weekend and we spent a lot of time talking about how to register as an LLC. Obviously incorporation should not have been the first priority. I lost interest shortly after that meeting. I didn’t particularly care for clothing.
There was a brief week of my life when I obsessively researched FAA regulations because I wanted to start an ultra-low cost carrier in the United States. Needless to say, I moved on from that idea pretty quickly. I didn’t really care about airlines.
During my senior year of high school, a couple of friends and I had the idea of creating an app that would automatically text our parents when we arrived at our destination. We were always forgetting. None of us knew anything about entrepreneurship or mobile app development. We had a couple meetings and some healthy, but poorly directed discourse. Naturally, people attritted. It was the spring of our senior year and we all got distracted. The team dissolved.
In my freshman year of college, I met a friend with a beautiful singing voice. We started producing covers. I thought he was really talented and that his voice deserved to be heard. We developed a release schedule and produced music videos using a borrowed microphone, my iPhone 7, and iMovie. It was truly a beginner’s tech stack. I discovered that I enjoyed elevating talent, but that love didn’t go very far because I wasn’t passionate about it. I thought I wanted to start a record label. There wasn’t much that was unique about it. I just wanted to help students whose music I enjoyed. I went so far as to meet with a representative from the New Orleans Business Alliance. But, time passed, school picked up, and my efforts petered out. I did not have a sustaining motivation to continue.
I did not make significant progress in any of these ventures. I’m not some over motivated, workaholic, serial entrepreneur. I just had some ideas that I briefly experimented with and then gave up on. I still went to frat parties on the weekends and spent an inordinate amount of time watching Game of Thrones. I was passionate about starting a business, but not the businesses I was starting.
In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I was walking to therapy and stumbled on an idea (pun intended). Before my sessions, I often take some time to organize my thoughts and decide what I would like to discuss. On that sunny day, I thought, “What if I was just tracking my mood? Then I’d already be prepared.” My idea was to regularly rate my mood 1-10, not using some tedious scientifically validated questionnaire, then stream that data directly to a dashboard my therapist could review. I told my therapist and she liked the idea. This initial validation was crucial because it motivated me and told me that I could be on to something.
A little more background on me: I am deeply passionate about positive mental health. I have been in therapy for many years learning how to manage my mental illnesses. I am often frustrated when people do not treat mental illness for what it really is, a physical illness. The first organization I joined at college was its chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). During freshman and sophomore years I served on the board of the Celebrate Mental Health Festival. I think positive mental health is vital because it affects how each of us individually views our existence. Okay, that’s enough.
With the initial feedback from my therapist, I felt the potential of my idea to improve mental healthcare. I waited until the end of the year to really start evaluating the idea. I needed to survive finals. This felt like the idea I had been waiting for and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. I have been working on that idea, my company Mind, ever since. Well, kind of.
By this point you will see that I’ve tricked you. This past section could easily have been summarized under the subheading, “Don’t start a business because you are passionate about starting businesses. Start a business that you are passionate about.” The value of writing is in the details.
The Search for a Technical Cofounder
When I had the idea for Mind, I knew that I didn’t want to code the product. I still don’t. Although I was familiar with technology and had some programming knowledge, mobile development was way beyond my skill set and I often find myself more intrigued by business concerns than by technical ones. I added Computer Science to my Management major because I want to be an effective manager of software developers.
I was also looking for a partner who shared my passion and could be with me for both the victories and the losses. I decided that I wanted a technical cofounder as a teammate, and to build the project.
It turns out that not as many technical people want to go out and create a company as one would think. I was willing to share significant equity so I know my troubles did not result from greed. Rather, a lot of people think entrepreneurship sounds fun in theory, but when the grind hits, other priorities take over.
My first cofounder was a designer. Although she did not have the programming skill set I was looking for, I thought she would be a great contributor. A mental health app inherently needs to be as low stress as possible and that can be accomplished with intelligent design. She and I met a couple of times and ideated. During our time, I started trying to learn Swift, Apple’s new programming language. Someone had to code the app. I made essentially zero progress. By the end of the school year, she decided that she no longer wanted to pursue the business because of her summer internship and subsequent study abroad. Simply, she had other priorities.
I was ambitious during the summer before junior year. Too ambitious. Following an acting class I took during the spring, I wanted to create a short film. I also wanted to complete a prototype of Mind, gain five pounds of muscle, and learn how to sing, in addition to my full-time internship. I made fantastic progress...on only the short film. I probably spent less than ten hours on my company that summer. Remember earlier when I shared my deep passion for mental health and my company? It wasn’t that I forgot Mind. The company still lingered in my mind. I just became so wrapped up in creating the short film that I had no leftover energy for another project. I lost focus, and I definitely didn’t learn how to sing.
During the fall of 2018, I studied abroad in Lisbon. I regretted not accomplishing anything on my startup the past summer and decided that I would use some of my exorbitant amount of free time to work on the company. A friend introduced me to a potential technical cofounder based in Ireland. Unlike my first cofounder, his friend had a decent amount of programming experience. We video chatted and thought we would work well together (ya know, founder dating). Soon after, he told me that for personal financial reasons he did not have time to work on the company but instead had to focus on getting a job. He had other priorities.
By this point, I was really frustrated. It had been almost a year since I first had the idea and I had nothing to show for it. I was also upset that I couldn’t find a cofounder. I thought to myself, “Screw it. Nobody else is going to code this for me, I’m just going to do it myself.” So that’s what I did. I had recently discovered the energizing power of espresso and began diving deep into documentation to learn how to build Mind’s beta app.
I travelled on the weekends and spent a lot of time in cafes during the week. Things started to come together slowly. Very, very slowly. Then, I learned how to spend money.
I am enchanted by the idea of bootstrapped startup success. I wanted it for myself. Also, I don’t like spending money. I have privilege and a decent amount of savings that I could have invested, but I’m cheap. I don’t like spending money. I just don’t. I refused to use any paid labor or product because I wanted to see just how little I could spend. That makes it pretty hard to start a business.
While I was stumbling through my code in those Lisbon cafes, I reached out to a family friend, a high school junior named Jacob. He was a talented developer and definitely knew more than me. And no, he didn’t want to start the business with me. But he generously shared his time and did some dev work at an insanely low rate (show him some love
). I’m so grateful, not just because he gave me his time, but because he also gave me hope. I’m not trying to blow sunshine up your butt. When I saw his work and how quickly it brought the product forward, I felt encouraged to work harder to complete the beta.
I came home from Portugal and kept working. I spent a lot of time that winter vacation writing code. I still felt like I was stumbling and knew nothing. I didn’t realize just how much I had learned until I explained my code to someone else.
Being a solo founder, I am only accountable to myself. That is both a good and a bad thing. I returned to university and kept working slowly towards a beta release deadline that I kept pushing back. That February I competed in my first pitch competition. It was a small event hosted by my university’s entrepreneurship center but I won and received $500. To me, that was a boatload of cash. I quickly joined a freelance website and began the search for a mobile developer. I was not willing to spend the whole prize on development, but I got lucky and found a software engineer with a lot of experience in other mobile technologies, just not the one I was using. He did the work for me for $200 because he was learning the framework my project was using while he coded. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to spend money when it’s not my own. Just ask my parents.
The developer and I communicated throughout Spring 2019 to get a beta app complete. I coded alongside him and we held lengthy video calls to work out problems. He was not a reliable communicator but the work eventually got done with mediocre quality. I couldn’t expect much more from someone who was touching the framework for the first time. Even though he wasn’t working at the same level as Jacob, I was still inspired to work on Mind whenever I saw his progress. I learned that spending money is often more valuable than saving it (stocks, education, frozen yogurt, etc.). I can’t believe it took me that long to learn the true meaning of investing.
Building the Team
In the spring of my Junior year, I started to build a team. I thought the company was making enough technical progress and I wanted to start preparing for a launch by the end of the summer. As a solo founder, I often struggle with accountability. When I could work on my company or watch Netflix, no one besides myself will know (or care) when I choose Netflix. I thought it would be helpful to have people I was accountable to.
I met my team in a variety of ways. I met one at a dinner with alumni. I learned that she was interested in user research and I immediately asked her if she wanted to help me with customer interviews. Part of my method for convincing people to join my company was by offering a way for them to grow their respective skill sets. I used the same tactic to persuade a friend to be my first marketing person. Why did I need a marketing person before I validated my business model? Because, I didn’t listen to my mentors who warned me that I was too early. I met my UI/UX designer in a Facebook group. He was so intrigued by the idea that he offered to contribute his work for deferred compensation (basically free).
A note: Deferred compensation can be a valuable tool when you are low on resources. You and your employee agree on an accrual rate of equity or cash that is paid out on certain milestones (first profit, specific date, etc.). It is highly risky for the employee. In a way, they become investors because they will eventually want to receive their compensation. They will also be motivated to help the company reach their contracted milestones.
There were many individuals that became valuable members of my team. I value their contributions deeply and am immensely grateful for the time they have given to my idea. That being said, it was a mistake to hire them. The thing about hiring “employees” is that you have to manage them. I love managing people, but my efforts were wasted because I still had not validated the core value proposition of the company.
I began spending more time coordinating with my team members and setting goals and deadlines, as a manager rightfully should. This detracted from the time I had to code the product and create a testable minimum viable product (Note: It is difficult for my company to test an MVP because we have to be HIPAA-compliant.) The UI/UX designer was very valuable in helping to craft the visual direction of our product, but spending my time coordinating was a distraction from what should have been priority number one, validating our value proposition. I brought on two friends to market a product that I wasn’t 100% sure people were going to buy.
I worked with these teammates until sometime in the fall of 2019 when I became wrapped up in an entrepreneurial course and lost my managerial focus. They began to spend more time on their classes. As in the search for a technical cofounder, those students simply had other priorities.
The Student Venture Accelerator...and related things
For my Senior year of college, I enrolled in the Student Venture Accelerator and the Computer Science Capstone course. My SVA professor, Rob Lalka
, developed this full-year course to teach entrepreneurship to students in the best way possible, by creating businesses. I also managed to convince two students to work on the Mind therapist dashboard and product backend for my Computer Science capstone. I got to work on my company for two of my full-year courses senior year. I was very lucky.
Throughout this time, I also began connecting with more entrepreneurs in New Orleans. I love New Orleans entrepreneurship. Unlike in the big cities where startups are ruthlessly competing for preexisting capital, startups here are collaborating to bring more capital into the city. This easy collaboration extends to students. As a student starting a business, I was able to have meetings with many successful entrepreneurs. This is not me bragging about my connections, but rather me bragging about the connections one can easily develop in New Orleans. All I’m saying is, move to New Orleans (just kidding, but, seriously).
Those connections were also easy to develop because of my “student passport.” As a student, it becomes a lot easier to meet entrepreneurs and local leaders. You are a lot more likely to get a response to your email if you introduce yourself as a student rather than a “recent grad.” There are various funding sources available to students that are not available to other entrepreneurs. For example, I was able to compete in school pitch competitions that were exclusive to students as well as apply to grants only available within my university. Additionally, a lot of companies offer student versions of their products. For example, if I had wanted to use Tableau data visualization for my business, I could have gotten a free account using my school email instead of spending $70 per month like everyone else. Being a student founder definitely has its advantages.
Rob’s class was hard, not in the way that one might spend hours on a proof in math class, but rather in the critical business thinking we had to apply to each and every assignment. Throughout this year, I learned about the value of simultaneously applying scientific rigor and artistic creativity to the creation of a business. The class rewired Mind.
The company’s pivot started simply enough. An investor at a class meeting asked if we had considered athletics as a market for our product. We had not. So my partner (only for the first semester) and I began exploring the idea. Turns out there were many trends indicating that we should focus the business on college athletics. We didn’t have a full product developed (still) so there was little (zero) cost associated with changing our target market.
I was still working with those two CS students to complete our therapist dashboard and backend. There was a lot that we had to learn. I managed to secure free money, a.k.a a grant, from the school to hire a developer to complete the mobile app. By the end of the course we had a decent prototype, but it was still not HIPAA-compliant and therefore untestable.
COVID-19. Not much changed for Mind while everything changed for everyone else. I kept conducting customer interviews virtually. For the Accelerator course, I developed an Investor Prospectus, a financial Pro Forma, and marketing materials. I began spending so much time on the company for the course that I didn’t have much energy to work on other parts of it. I was okay with this because the course propelled the company forward. But what happens now that I’ve graduated? I have no f***ing clue.
This is the part of the story where I tell you, “And now I’m running a successful company.” Except, that’s not true. Mind has made progress from where it used to be, but we still don’t have our product. Damned HIPAA (but really, it’s an important law). We have validated our product idea, but not our business model.
This past year was one of mild existential turbulence. Years ago, I had a dream that I would be the first entrepreneur to start a business and not face the problems endured by other founders (stress, fatigue, etc.) because of my passion for mental wellbeing. Of course I was wrong. I often ask myself, “Do I have the endurance to continue?” I have been working on Mind in one form or another for over two years. I am tired.
Going forward, I now have to decide if I have the endurance to continue. I need to renew my vows to my company like a husband does with his partner. I love Mind and have invested a lot of myself in it, but that previous effort is a sunk cost. I think that is something that most people fail to understand. Whatever work I put in to get Mind to this point doesn’t matter. Right now, all that counts is the opportunities I have in front of me.
A Summary (too bad you didn’t know to skip to the bottom)
Being a student founder wasn’t easy. I had to manage my course load and be okay with working on my company when others were partying. I have an idiosyncratic advantage, I derive a lot of my self-worth from the work that I do. If I did happen to be at a party and feeling awkward about myself or my inability to get the attention of a girl, I would just think, “Well at least I’m starting a business.” I would ignore the part about not having a product yet. However, that’s something important to note. It took a long time for me to consider myself an entrepreneur when I hadn’t even released a product. I kept calling my company a project because it never felt legitimate.
This leads me to a new definition of entrepreneur: A person who is validating a value proposition.
As long as the person is trying to prove the merit of their idea then they are an entrepreneur. I took way too long to learn this lesson. My biggest achievement of college isn’t graduating; it is becoming an entrepreneur.
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