Building a small business makes much more sense to do while you’re in college than it does to wait until after you’ve graduated. After all, that’s how RoverTown got started.
Colleges and universities offer tons of valuable resources to their students that entrepreneurs need and for which they often have to pay.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Find an idea that might be crazy enough to work.
Write down 10 ideas per day for a business that you could build. They don’t have to be million-dollar ideas, but just write down 10 of them.
Every now and then, you’ll come across an idea or two that will excite you. Let’s say it’s an app that links to a credit card and allows students to get grilled cheese sandwiches delivered to their dorms with the push of a button (by the way, if you make that app, let me know).
When you get a good idea, run it by a few of your friends. If they think it’s a good idea, check with one or two of the professors in your business department.
If they green light it, move on to step two. If not, keep coming up with 10 ideas a day until you strike gold, which you will.
2. Test it out.
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is that they invest a lot of time and money into ideas that are bound to fail. One of the reasons this happens is because entrepreneurs work and exist in isolation as they create their businesses.
Fortunately, in college, smart people, whom you can ask for opinions, surround you. If the business is fairly inexpensive to build, build a rough, scaled-down version of it quickly to test it out.
Maybe you can’t build the entire grilled cheese app right now, but you can hang flyers around campus with phone numbers for grilled cheese delivery to see if anyone calls.
You can also ask students what they’d be willing to pay for a fresh, delicious grilled cheese delivered straight to their door. (Hint: they’ll pay a lot more on Thursday night than Tuesday afternoon.)
If you’re unable to create a rough version of the business to test, put together an anonymous online survey that describes your business and its offerings to gauge people’s interest.
Ask questions like, “How often would you use this business” and “What would you pay for our products?” If it seems like there is a decent demand, terrific! If not, move back to step one.
3. Find a mentor.
One of the most valuable assets an entrepreneur of any age can possibly have is a mentor. You’ll want to find one who has functional knowledge that will help speed up your success and one with whom you have good chemistry.
Hang out in the business department and chat with the professors. Better yet, schedule meetings with different professors during their office hours. Ask broad questions like, “How do you figure out inventory for a grilled cheese business?” or “What’s the best way to build an app?”
You’ll notice that eventually, one or two of these people will learn about your market and are awesome people, too. When this happens, you’ll want to target these people as mentors.
Ask, “Hey, I’m actually starting an app that helps to deliver food to college students. Is there any chance I can come by your office for 20 minutes to pick your brain?” The professor will likely respond with, “Yes.”
When you do come by offices for meetings, spend 80 percent of your time listening. You want your professor to talk as much as possible. Take notes. Professors love it when you take notes.
At the end of the conversation say, “I’m so wildly appreciative for your help. I’m going to take your advice. Is it okay if I follow up in a week or two to let you know how it’s going and ask a few more questions?” The answer will be, “Yes.”
Level up by bringing coffee and muffins to the meeting and sending a handwritten thank you card after the meeting. This will help you stand out big time.
4. Work with your fellow students to develop killer marketing.
Will you need videos, a website, a logo and other assets for your business? If so, head to the art department.
Find the professors who teach relevant courses. In other words, if you need a logo, find a graphic design professor and tell him or her that you’re starting a business and need a logo.
Say that you’d love to chat with a few students who want to get paid to do design work.
The professor will connect you with a few of his or her students. Then, explain the situation to the students. Many will offer their services at insanely low rates. If you can’t afford their services right now, offer to write recommendations about how great their services are to make finding future clients easier for them.
Alternatively, if you’re broke now, ask what their normal rate would be. Then, tell them that you’ll double their rate if they are willing to accept payment after your business is profitable.
Many will go for this. This also offers the added advantage of getting them directly involved in your success. Repeat this process for each of the marketing assets you need.
5. Use the school’s community to find customers and improve your business.
Once your business is ready to go, blow it up. Hang flyers everywhere. Give out stickers in front of the dining hall, offer student discounts, write about it in the student paper and give it away for free to the cool kids or offer limited-time discounts for the first 100 people.
Ask your professors how they suggest marketing the business and follow their advice. Better yet, ask your professors if they want to buy your product.
Every now and then, step back. Assemble a group of your smartest friends and a few mentors. Give them all the information about your business and ask how they think you can improve. Explain your biggest problems and get their feedback.
6. Leverage your status as a student to get tons of free advertising.
Finally, use your status as a student who is doing something cool to get tons and tons of free publicity. Start out by approaching the small local newspapers and radio stations in the university’s town.
Tell them that you’re a student and just launched a cool business and would love to give an interview to inspire other students and people on the job hunt.
Once you’ve given a few interviews (and be sure to stop by the communications department of your school to get free media training) to smaller outlets, approach bigger ones. Working with the media will offer you tons of free exposure to prospective clients for your business.