How Can College Students Become Successful Entrepreneurs?

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Sept. 30 2013 2:49 PM

How Can College Students Become Successful Entrepreneurs?

What do you need to be a successful entrepreneur? You need to build stuff?
What do you need to be a successful entrepreneur? You need to build stuff?

Photo by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Nate Berkopec, Developer:


At NYU, our thesis has been: To be a successful entrepreneur, students need to build stuff. Lots of stuff. Sitting around and talking about it doesn't count, filling out business plans doesn't count, winning contests doesn't count, only shipping stuff counts.

"Stuff" is not necessarily a "startup." From my personal experience, more than 80 percent of students interested in startups don't have the experience or knowledge necessary to get one off the ground right now. Entrepreneurship classes teach a backward mentality of "make it the first time or entrepreneurship is not for you." Follow-on rates after business plan competitions are abysmal. Contests and classes create a perception that a student's first venture is their one and only chance to prove themselves as an entrepreneur. They should, instead, teach students to build, fail, and iterate.

Don't enter your school's business plan competition. Ship stuff instead. You're a business student without coding skills? Start a meetup! Knowing what it takes to get a hundred plus people in a room once a month will teach you more about marketing and management than any textbook or workshop. CS student? Code something, and get people to use it. Anything. Just keep shipping. Build velocity through lots of successful mini-projects.

'Entrepreneurship' majors/minors are mostly worthless. Rather than relying on classes or in-house competitions, good entrepreneurship programs pull in the local entrepreneurship community for internships, speaker events, and workshops. Stop coddling students inside the campus walls and throw them into the real world.

It also means learning to code. Yes, everyone. Even if it's just a little. This is college: You're here to learn, and without question, technical skills are the No. 1 value generator at startups of less than 10 people. There is no excuse these days for lacking understanding of basic HTML and CSS. Pretending this is not the case is dangerously shielding students from the reality of the tech startup world, where technical founders are just the entry fee for real venture funding. Every single successful graduate of NYU's entrepreneurship program (that I know of) has at least this skillset, and most have CS minors or majors. One year ago, I knew nothing about programming. Today, I’m a full-time Rails developer for a 500 Startups company.

So, rather than ivory-tower business plan competitions judged by people who know nothing about startups, make stuff. At NYU, we have monthly student meetups of over eighty students from across NYC, where we demo all the cool stuff we've made in the last month. Sometimes its startup-related, most of the time its simple tech demos and proof-of-concepts. But even the simplest Facebook app is hundreds of times better than a 40-page business plan.

To quote Seth Godin:

Studying entrepreneurship without doing it is like studying the appreciation of music without listening to it. The cost of setting up a lemonade stand (or whatever metaphorical equivalent you dream up) is almost 100% internal. Until you confront the fear and discomfort of being in the world and saying, "here, I made this," it's impossible to understand anything at all about what it means to be a entrepreneur. Or an artist.
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