This guide aims to provide that tactical advice for college students, focusing on the really unique advantage we have of still being in school. This guide also has a social bent, as I had the chance to talk with countless social entrepreneurs during the course of writing it.
Written by Rohan Pavuluri.
Updated September 14, 2020
Table of Contents
Finding an Idea
Finding a Co-Founder
Why You Should Try to Start Something
Hi! My name is Rohan Pavuluri and I’m the co-founder of a nonprofit technology startup called Upsolve. I started Upsolve my sophomore year of college and graduated in 2018. At Upsolve, we help low-income Americans get a fresh start after sudden financial shocks. I started thinking about Upsolve in February of 2016, and really got started on it in June of that same year. Throughout the last 18 months, several people have asked me how I got started. They’ve also asked me a few other questions like: Where did you get your money from? How did being a student help you start your startup? How did you balance school and Upsolve? What exactly does it mean to do a nonprofit startup? How can you stay alive as a socially minded technology organization? I’ve enjoyed these conversations with my peers, as they’ve given me a chance to reflect on my own journey, which is just beginning. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to ask other young, socially-minded founders the same questions above.
I realized, however, that it was quite inefficient to have to rely on a bunch of conversations with people to get general, tactical advice that can apply to everyone, or at least most people. In my experience doing something entrepreneurial for two years now, the skills of a great entrepreneur can both be taught and learned. I do believe that there is a general set of principles, and accompanying tactics, that increase someone’s chances of entrepreneurial success. In this guide, I set out to create a resource aimed at students who like the idea of starting something on their own while in college, but really have no idea what to do next. Too often, the advice you get from Silicon Valley is: “If you’re really serious, you have to focus on your project or startup full time, or make it your priority in college.” I do think that’s true. But there’s a period of time between when all you know is that you want to try something new out and when you’re on the verge of dropping out. There’s not much tactical, concrete advice out there for students who are in between these two poles.
This guide aims to provide that tactical advice for college students, focusing on the really unique advantage we have of still being in school. This guide also has a social bent, as I had the chance to talk with countless social entrepreneurs during the course of writing it. Social entrepreneurs face a special challenge that for-profit entrepreneurs do not experience. No venture capitalists are throwing money at them. The needs of a social entrepreneur’s users are different, which results in different business models.
Finally, I hope to motivate my classmates to go out and start solving big social problems they care about. As students have already figured out, starting an organization is an empowering way to create great wealth. But it’s also one of the strongest ways to have an outsized impact on the world. Not enough college students set out to spend their most productive years solving big problems that are important. That’s a big problem, and our world would be a better place if the people who had the energy, skills, resources, and risk appetite went out and used their luck to do things they loved.
2. Finding an Idea
In my mind, the worst form of idea generation comes from a group of friends sitting around a table, trying to come up with “good startup ideas.” The problem with this method is that you’ll limit yourself to derivative ideas, coming up with proposals that are of the form X for Y. The best way to come up with startup ideas, I firmly believe, is to be exposed to as many problems as possible. Every startup must solve the problem of an individual or organization. So, it makes sense that when you’re getting started, the best investment of your time is to watch people who have problems and understand them at a deep level. There are several essays and books written about need-finding, human-centered design, and user research. I won’t go into explaining these terms, but I will say that you should google all these terms and read as much as you can about these methodologies will be an excellent use of your time. But the question presents itself: How is a student supposed to be exposed to problems that lead to startup ideas? This is one question to which I think I can offer a couple of ideas.
Your Own Life
The first place to look is your own life. What problems do you face as a young person or as a student that other people also experience? There is no better way to go about solving a problem than to experience it yourself, since you have deep empathy around your users. Indeed, you are one of them. It’s important to watch out for the risk, though, that if you only look to solve problems for people like you, people privileged enough to spend time reading this guide to starting a startup as a college student, you’ll limit yourself to a narrow class of problems. If you come from a comfortable background, I encourage you not to think about problems that only people like you face.
The second place to look is research labs at your university. After experiencing the exact problem you’re trying to solve, the second-best thing, in terms of gaining empathy for your users, is to have a deep domain expertise in the problem space. This is rare for student in college for obvious reasons: we’re young. We haven’t spent much time, if any, exploring different industries. It’s even more unlikely that we’ve spent time exploring the types of niche industries that present large business-to-business market opportunities. Like businesses, a research lab can only exist if it’s trying to solve a big problem in the world. To set up the research lab, the professor must also have convinced enough other people — other professors, donors, university administrators — that the problem she is trying to solve is significant. When I say, “research lab,” the first association that we often make in our heads is the natural sciences. There are several research labs in social science departments that provide students with the opportunity to gain great exposure to the types of social problems that could yield startup opportunities. The same goes for law, business, education, and government schools.
For example, I reached out to Professor Jim Greiner at Harvard Law School at the end of my freshman year at Harvard. I was interested in the intersection between statistics and the law, and I loved the idea of creating resources for people to solve their own legal problems. When I joined Professor Greiner’s Access to Justice lab, I never intended to start a company myself. I just wanted to learn more about an interesting problem, while developing a skillset that excited me. As a side product of my time in the lab, I started to gain domain expertise in an industry, delivery of legal services, that mattered to me. When you get deeply involved enough in an industry, it’s inevitable that your mind will wander and you’ll start to develop interesting startup ideas you want to pursue. After speaking to enough low-income debtors during my visits to a Boston courthouse, I realized that there was an opportunity to turn physical paper packets that I was testing into a digital product.
How do I find the right research lab?
If you decide you want to get involved with a research lab, make sure you spend adequate time trying to figure out which research labs you pursue. The first, most obvious way to evaluate which lab you join is passion. When you applied to college, what did you write about? What do you love doing? In my case, I knew I loved thinking about law, along with finding new ways of using data sets. That led me to join the Access to Justice Lab. Remember, the specific problem the lab is trying to solve is not as important as the domain. You may not already be interested in learning about the problems surrounding a sociologist who is trying to reduce the stigma around food stamps. Indeed, I didn’t even know what bankruptcy was when I joined the Access to Justice Lab. All you need to know is that you’re excited by the general problem space, such as access to welfare in the case of the sociologist studying food stamps. If that’s the case, you’re bound to learn about other problems that you may want to go tackle. You’ll also pick up a skillset relevant to the precise challenges you face, even if you first develop this skillset working on a different problem.
When evaluating professors whose labs you join, the next question to ask yourself: Does this professor walk the line between being an academic and being a practitioner? To figure out whether a professor is a practitioner, try to determine whether she speaks regularly in front of audiences that are not other academics. See if you can find her work cited in non-academic journals. See if she is involved with any nonprofit or for-profit organizations, or whether government agencies ever consult her. Has she ever tried to do something entrepreneurial on her own? Has she raised money for her research lab from sources outside of the university, such as a large corporation or foundation? If the answers are yes, these are all great signs that the problems she is trying to solve matter to enough people. They are also signs that the professor can be a great professional mentor. Not only will they encourage you to go and put your ideas into practice, but they’ll provide the resources you need to succeed. This includes introductions to people who could financially or strategically support your work. It also includes a willingness to lend their own credibility to your work, which could allow you to get further faster than on your own.
It’s much more fun when you get to work with a professor who believes in you and your theory of change through entrepreneurship. My mentor Nick Sinai is another example of someone who perfectly walks the line between professor and practitioner. Nick teaches a class on Innovation and Technology in Government, which I took my sophomore year. Before teaching at Harvard, Nick was the US Deputy CTO. He currently spends the majority of his time as a partner at the venture capital firm Insight Venture Partners. Given Nick’s professional network in startups, venture, and government, he has been the perfect person to help us think through our operational challenges at Upsolve.
Spend Time with the Population You Want to Serve
As I mentioned earlier, the worst way to find a problem to solve is to immediately sit around a table and think of ideas. The best way is to experience the problem yourself, or hear about the challenge from someone who experiences it firsthand. As I mentioned earlier, the drawback of solving problems you experience yourself is that given your status as a college student, you will only be inclined to solve problems that college graduates experience. Nothing stops you from going and talking to people who do not go to college, vulnerable populations who need your help. This is especially true if you go to school in a city with wealth inequality. If you’re interested in the delivery of healthcare, go to a neighborhood clinic and talk to people as they’re leaving the building. Explain that you’re a student, and you want to work on making the experience better for them. Sure, some people won’t want to talk. But as I learned during my interviews with people who had just filed for bankruptcy, it is surprisingly easy to get people to understand what you’re trying to do — even if they have never uttered the word “startup” in their lives. And at that point, all you’re trying to do is learn with good intentions. For inspiration, here are a few more examples of places to learn about problems: A nursing home, an after-school program, a courthouse, a police department, a neighborhood library, and a hospital. The more time you can invest into talking to people, the better, as it will give you a higher probability of finding a problem that matters.
Finally, I propose working at a government agency, for profit company, or nonprofit as a way to get exposed to lots of problems. This option is neither unique nor unique to students. What is unique to students, however, is that you can work for a lot more organizations in four years while you’re in college than when you’re out of college. You have eight semesters in college and three summers. This is 11 total opportunities to get an internship if you include term-time opportunities. You definitely shouldn’t work at 11 different places during college. But keep in mind that only in college can you expose yourself to such breadth. In choosing which organizations to join, I encourage you to go to organizations that don’t already have lots of people from your school going to them. This means they provide outsized opportunities for responsibility and impact. Every big social problem in the world today requires input from the social, private, and public sector. Getting broad exposure to how different organizations in each sector approach an issue in a short period of time is a hidden gem of college.
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3. Finding a Co-Founder
Entrepreneurship is lonely. Your chances of success increase dramatically if you find someone who you love spending time with and who gets equally excited about solving problems to help people. The reason that finding a co-founder is so important to me is because the entrepreneurial journey is full of ups and downs. You and your partner(s) will balance each other out during the highs and lows of this journey. If you’re not feeling great one week, the chances you’ll power through the difficult period are much higher if you have a co-founder who pushes you to power through it, and vice versa. So, get it out of your mind that you’ll be able to pursue your independent project on your own.
Where to Look for a Co-Founder
There is literally not a better place in the world than a college campus to find someone to join you. For one, you’ll never be surrounded by as many young people who share your same risk appetite. Second, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be surrounded by the same diversity of talent again. My first piece of advice is to find someone who can supplement your skillset. If you’re not technical, find someone who can write code. If you’re technical, find someone who has some semblance of domain expertise or a network within a particular industry — maybe they worked at a government agency that exposed them to an interesting cadre of problems.
Even if you know what to look for, it can be hard to figure out where to find the right person or people. I think pre-existing friendships make for great partners. If you think someone is a great friend, chances are you really trust and respect them. These are two of the most important characteristics in your business partner. Classes and extracurricular activities, especially the ones that have something to do with the problems you want to pursue or the technologies you want to build also present great opportunities.
When finding co-founders in school, one common trap to avoid is getting too many people involved at the same time. Two and three person teams are the best to start. If you have four or more people, you start to experience diffusion of responsibility. Just think to all the school projects you’ve done with large groups. They’ve never worked well for me because nobody is inclined to take full ownership over the projects and the same goes for startup projects.
Two of the main downsides of finding a co-founder from school is that they have both limited experience and time. If you know someone who has already graduated from school that you’re really excited about working with, you should not rule them out. Working with a full-time co-founder can be a wonderful way to move fast, as long as your academic commitments permit a positive, healthy relationship. If you’re not thinking about pursuing an entrepreneurial path after college, I would not choose to work with a full-time co-founder because the disparity in commitment will likely yield unhealthy outcomes.
I met my co-founder Jonathan Petts when he was 36-years-old and several years out of law school. A judge introduced us to each other after she knew we were both excited about solving the access to justice gap in consumer bankruptcy. One reason our relationship has turned out well is that we worked together in person full-time for an entire summer when we first met. There is no substitute to starting a working relationship in person, and summer is a great time to start. The second reason our relationship has worked out so well is mutual respect. I know that Jonathan is more than a decade older than me and, as a result, has much different financial needs than I do. I have always kept this in mind and we have planned our organization’s resources around this reality. The third biggest reason we have worked out so well is that we supplement each other’s skillsets. There is no way we could’ve gotten this far if we did not have a bankruptcy expert on our team. His network among law firms and judges in New York and beyond has also proved invaluable.
Co-Founder Dating Period
You would never call someone your boyfriend or girlfriend at the end of a first date. In the same way, you should not call someone a co-founder right after you first meet them. If your project is going to be successful, you need to spend at least 5–10 years building what you want to build. It’s a long-term commitment, and you want to make sure that you’re in it with the right person. For this reason, you should have an explicit dating period. Say something like: “I enjoy working with you. Let’s try this out for a couple months and then re-evaluate how it’s going.” Jonathan and I said that we’d try out being partners for a summer and then figure out whether we wanted to keep going together.
Often times, the first thing people who are new to startups think they need is a lot of money. Having lots of money, especially early, is a liability. It causes you to lose focus. Unless you have some idea that requires lots of cash to get stated, think biotech and hardware, you really don’t need much money to validate your idea. Since you’re a student, your major expenses are just housing and food if you’re exploring your ideas during a summer. If you’re exploring your ideas during a school year, you really don’t need any money beyond whatever it costs to buy your domain and host your website. Maybe a couple hundred dollars for online advertising to drive people to your prototype could be useful, but there are several alternatives.
Most colleges have lots of funding for academic research. If you have a professor as a mentor, you could always frame your exploratory research as academic in nature and try to access these funds. There are also several pitch competitions on campuses, and hosted by companies in the private sector. Keep an eye out for these competitions and remember to keep your own list of deadlines. But be careful. Pitch competitions can often be a big waste of time because they stop you from doing your core mission. Only apply if you really need the money. Otherwise, your time is best spent working directly on your company.
Other Funding Sources
Charitable foundations sometimes have money available to student projects. Besides these competitions, though, it is really hard to access funding from foundations. Foundations often want to see your work further along than the ideation stage, so the time it takes to get your foot in the door at a foundation is better spent working on your business. If you’re a social enterprise or for-profit company, you may want to look to venture capital. Again, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. When you’re super early, you probably don’t need as much money as you think you do. Finally, for more resource-intensive projects, I’ve seen Kickstarter work quite well. Success in crowd-funding is a function of your ability to market your product.
5. Your Prototype/MVP
During the spring of my sophomore year, I had the chance to work with the United States Digital Service (USDS) at the VA through a class I took at Harvard’s Kennedy School called Technology and Innovation in Government. I learned that the USDS has an award for the “shittiest prototype.” I loved this concept. You should be proud of testing out a new idea with as few resources as possible. One of the worst things you could possibly do when you first have a new idea is to start writing code right away. Instead, use existing SaaS products to test out whether people like your idea or not. Here are a few tools and tactics that I have found particularly useful.
Typeform and Google Forms
Typeform is my favorite software product. Like Google Forms, which is also a great easy-to-use tool, Typeform does an amazing job of collecting information from the user. When building the form you want to display to the user, you can use branching logic. You can also insert videos and pictures throughout your form. One you get all the data from the user that you need, you can be the backend yourself. This means that you can manually do whatever you intend your code to one day do. In our case at Upsolve, we manually entered user data into the PDF of the bankruptcy forms. We knew that we could write the code to populate the forms automatically, but before we made that time investment, we wanted to see if the concept worked.
Stripe helps you collect payment information from a customer. You can easily implement it yourself using Stripe’s API. If you can get people to pay for your product, that’s a good sign that you’re onto something.
Squarespace is great for both people who are technical and non-technical. It just saves you so much time to not have to worry about deploying your own website. Focus on validating an idea before you think about upgrading.
Excel and Google Sheets
Instead of using a more sophisticated database, Excel and Google Sheets are great to store information as you’re just getting started. When you have a low volume of data points, these are more than sufficient to keep track of what you need. I’ve also heard great things about Airtable.
Once you build your prototype, you’re going to want to get it in front of as many eyes as possible to see if it works. It may be tough to find people in your target population as a student if your aim is to serve vulnerable populations that don’t overlap with college students. I’ve found ads on Craigslist to work well for me. Offer to pay someone who fits “X, Y, Z” characteristics $25 dollars for an hour of their time. Invite them to come to your local coffee shop and show them your prototype. Have a list of question prepared to ask them and watch them as they interact with your product. See if they seem excited with what you’ve built.
Distribution Channels for your MVP
If you’re a social entrepreneur, your product is probably aimed at solving a problem for some disadvantaged population. People within the population probably interact regularly with other social services, nonprofits, churches, and community based organizations. Find one person at one of these institutions who believes enough in your work to partner with you. Go meet with this person several times and allow them to be a part of the creation process. Having a nonprofit partner to help you distribute your product will give you validation that you’re onto something, and it will also help you get into other nonprofit referral channels down the line. Y Combinator has the timeless piece of advice that at the beginning, you should “do things that don’t scale.” This totally applies to you getting your first customers. Don’t feel bad if you have to hand out flyers for your product on the street. Focus on learning about your users and refining your product, not growth, with your early adopters.
Your first MVP will most likely not take off. But it will be an invaluable learning experience. Here’s a story of a one-week experiment that Jonathan and I did. We wanted to find out if people would pay money to automate a response to a debt collector’s lawsuit. So, we quickly threw up a landing page, mailed 100 people who were facing lawsuits a physical piece of mail about our service, and waited to see if anybody would give us a call or go on our website to begin using our Typeform. Nobody did, and we quickly dismissed the idea. But we also learned that we would have a hard time converting users through physical mail.
Always take some time at the end of an experiment to ask yourself: Is this really working? If not, go out an iterate. When you first start out your project, you should think of it as an experiment, and describe it as an experiment to everyone around you. Only when you gain some validation and confidence should you start to think of your work as project or startup.
6.Why You Should Try to Start Something
In most colleges across America, there’s a capstone research project that seniors undertake — a thesis. A thesis requires students to put themselves in the shoes of an academic and undertake some original research with the hope of saying something interesting and new on a subject. Let’s think critically about what the purpose of a thesis is for. Is it to prepare students for their lives after college? Is it to demonstrate that they have mastered a curriculum or a set of research skills that will be useful no matter what path they pursue post-college? Is it to have fun, while learning about something the student is passionate about? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there is nothing inconsistent with applying them to non-thesis work. We go to school to prepare ourselves for what’s ahead, and the liberal arts education espouses a diversity of experiences. Going out and trying to do an experiment on your own to test out if a solution can help the world is an invaluable learning opportunity. As I’ve discussed before, college provides a unique set of resources to go out and try to make a difference. But the most important resource it provides is time. At no other point in your 20s will you have the opportunity to spend as much time testing out new ideas with so little risk and sacrifice.
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide. I made no effort to hide my opinions, and I hope that decision made this more valuable to you. Please do not take my word as absolute under any circumstance. In the end, I wrote this to show people who have an entrepreneurial spirit that there’s no reason they cannot go out and pursue something. There’s no reason to value the work and learning you do inside the classroom as more important than the work and learning you do outside the classroom. Focus on finding problems that excite you, then go out and experiment. There is a middle ground between doing nothing and starting a company. College is a great place, perhaps the best place, to learn in this middle, experimental ground. You only have four years.