How to Launch a Startup in College

Expert Tips On Being a Student While Starting a Business

An entrepreneur researches a business idea from her dorm room.
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College students looking to launch a startup while in school can take advantage of a wealth of resources. From entrepreneurial programs and networking events to access to mentors and fellow students to test ideas on, college can be an ideal opportunity to start a new business. In fact, many well-known companies such as Google, Yahoo, Dell, Facebook, and WordPress were all started while their founders were in college. 

Where to Start

“Start with your curiosities and areas of interest,” Jose Huitron, director of student innovation programs at the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said in an email to The Balance. “Try to connect the dots to your areas of study and skills. Seek balance between what the world needs, what you're good at, and what you can get paid to do.” 

The best ideas are the ones students are interested in exploring, Huitron added. He noted how being a student can be an ideal time to start a business as there’s a relatively low risk factor involved, versus launching a startup later in life.

Huitron recommends that student entrepreneurs find an issue they're tied to and dig into it from a problem and customer-development standpoint. Look for business opportunities that allow you to exercise your skills and leverage support from your college experience. 

Huitron said he’s seen ideas come from every corner of campus—agriculture, business, journalism, engineering, and other areas of study. Every industry needs innovation and nobody has a monopoly on where ideas can originate from. 

“The ideas that stem from a fire within often have the potential to survive the roller coaster of entrepreneurship,” he said. 

Test Your Ideas

When deciding what type of business to start, consider options that would fit in with your college lifestyle. Online businesses are especially appealing if you want to work remotely—you could provide virtual tutoring, open an e-commerce store, start a social media management company, or create a business offering tech support.

“At the SBDC we have seen a wide array of business ideas, from simple service businesses, food business, to development of apps,” wrote Daniel Fitzgerald, acting regional director at the San Diego and Imperial Small Business Development Center Network, in an email to The Balance. 

He added that at a community college it’s not uncommon for a student to own a traditional business while going to school to improve their skills and knowledge.

When you have a business idea, run the concept by others for feedback. Ask classmates if the product or service is something they would use, and what kinds of improvements they would make or questions they might have. Take their comments into consideration when fine-tuning your business idea. 

Look for opportunities in school to work on your business. You could use your startup as a project for a business class, or ask questions during lectures related to your business idea.

Before launching a business, you’ll want to create a business plan. Get started with The Balance’s simple business plan template.

Get a Mentor

Mentors can offer invaluable advice, support, and guidance when starting a new business. Look around you: Is there a professor you trust, or an advisor you can turn to with business questions? 

Fitzgerald recommends visiting your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to find a mentor. SBDCs are a resource partner of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and, in some cases, colleges and universities host them. At times, these centers have partnerships with schools of business. They provide free one-on-one business advising and training. 

Similarly, Huitron encourages students to use the help available at their schools, as many colleges have launch-pad resources and entrepreneurial centers that can pave the way for innovation. 

“Students will find that there is an army of support and past alumni who are ready and willing to give back to the community,” Huitron said. “Mentorship can come from many different channels, including online networking platforms like LinkedIn, word-of-mouth referrals, alumni referral networks, and other entrepreneurs.”

Use the SBA’s search tool to find your local Small Business Development Center.

Enroll in Business-Related Courses and Experience

Most colleges have a school of business and entrepreneurship clubs. 

“Courses that help build soft skills like creative problem solving and empathy are a great start,” Huitron advised. “In addition, there are traditional routes like an Intro to Entrepreneurship course or media innovation lab that allows students to explore areas of opportunity from a cross-disciplinary perspective.”

Fitzgerald noted that the basics of accounting are critical to effectively manage a startup, as is knowing the basics of pricing and financial reporting. He also recommends courses in entrepreneurship, marketing, and even public speaking.

Finding an internship or work experience in your field of interest can help give you a behind-the-scenes look at how competing organizations operate. 

Learn How to Network

The best way to learn how to network is by doing it, Fitzgerald said. Seek out your college’s activities, student government, and clubs to join networking events. Looking beyond your college campus, business and chamber groups can be good places to make connections. 

Huitron recommends networking on LinkedIn or virtual event platforms like Hopin and InEvent. 

Virtual networking can assist you in developing your social media marketing skills, which can be a helpful tool for running a successful business.

Fund Your Business

Startup funding can be difficult to come by, Fitzgerald said. He added that most startups are “bootstrapped” by the founder as well as contributed to by friends and family. He recommends turning to your local SBDC as well as your school’s entrepreneurship clubs to learn about what financial assistance is available. 

Huitron encourages students to find a pitch competition or innovation challenge, as many of today's colleges offer students the opportunity to pitch and connect with other student entrepreneurs. 

Take advantage of your student discount wherever you can. Using school resources such as access to library materials, free copies and printing, and free Wi-Fi can help lower startup costs. 

Be Resilient

“Entrepreneurship requires many tries before someone hits serious success,” Fitzgerald advised. “Like learning any other skill, one must practice. That practice for an entrepreneur is starting businesses and trying them out.” 

Resources aimed at helping student entrepreneurs with their innovations can make college an ideal time to launch your startup. While starting your own business is not an easy path, if you focus on developing resilience and patience, it can be a rewarding one.