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Start your company in college: a good idea?

This post was originally published on Medium.

French newspaper Les Echos published today a series of articles on student entrepreneurship. According to the article, 24% of new company founders in France are below 30 years old and 9% of them are below 25. In 2002, only 20% of founders were below 30. While the explanation of this new trend is relatively easy to find (more and more role models a la Mark Zuckerberg, using the auto-entrepreneur status to do freelance jobs, a desire of Generation X to be more in control of their lives), I wanted to take some time to reflect on starting a company while being in college.

When I started StartUp42 accelerator 2 years ago in partnership with EPITA, it was obvious to many that most of the projects we selected would be founded by EPITA students. In reality, and since we’re open to all, EPITA applications represent more or less 20% of all applications received and just half of them are founded by students (i.e. have not yet graduated at the time of application). Nevertheless, over the past 4 batches, we consistently selected at least 1 student startup per session (EPITA or not). Here is what I found out.

Why College is the perfect time to launch your startup

  • The trade-offs of starting a company are definitely lower: at 21, you don’t have a family to feed, a loan to pay back or already high living standards. So living of noodles until you startup grows and working nights and weekends will not affect much your lifestyle
  • The fear of failure is also lower: no one will ever blame you if you fail because, hey, who can blame a 20-something to start a company. More experienced people might fear for their reputation in the marketplace and difficulty to find a new job in case the startup fails
  • Everyone wants to help (sometimes not necessary the most helpful though)
  • With hundreds of other students, teachers, researchers, you’re in a perfect micro-climate to test your idea before releasing it to the world

Why College is not the perfect time to launch your startup

  • As very well said by Paul Graham in his recent guest lecture at Stanford (and subsequent essay), “starting a successful startup is similar to having kids in that it’s like a button you push that changes your life irrevocably [...]. You can do things in your early 20s that you can’t do as well before or after, like plunge deeply into projects on a whim and travel super cheaply with no sense of a deadline.”
  • You only come up with ideas to change your life (I mean your student life) and miss out on an enormous amount of other business opportunities
  •  Some people want to take advantage of you, since they think you’re young and unexperienced (and they will probably succeed)

So?

Well I believe the answer is inside yourself and, as summarised by David Cohen in his Do More Faster book: “if you can quit, you should”. In other words, if you can’t stop yourself from starting your company, do it!

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Personal Branding

Brand Called YouIn a recent story from Fast Company, Douglas Friedman, an accomplished photographer, was having a meeting with a well-respected advertising agency in Los Angeles. But before Friedman could show off his physical portfolio, his judges asked him about a trip he took last Christmas. “They all followed my Instagram, and that’s all they wanted to talk about,” he told Fast Company. “And it’s what landed me a big advertising campaign.”

If you’re surprised about this behaviour than you’re most certainly not aware that more than 45% of HR decision makers already use social media tools in recruitment (see source). Said differently, if you don’t market yourself online, there is a pretty good chance that you won’t be getting this job you’re looking for.

Personal Branding?

Tom Peters, an American writer on business management practices, first introduced the concept of Personal Branding in a 1997 Fast Company article. At the time, Peters was claiming that, to stand out from the (professional) crowd, you should market yourself the way big brands market themselves. If the notion was cool at the time, it is now life or death. With an increasing number of college graduates and globalisation of education, there are more and more people with a background similar to yours, competing for the same jobs (or opportunities) than you, most certainly cheaper than you.

gary-vaynerchukOn the other hand, if you master the Personal Branding concepts, you can really catapult your business. Take for example, now social media consultant Gary Vaynerchuk. Back in 2006, he was already transforming is father’s liquor store into an Internet wine store named Wine Library but, at the same time, was realizing that customers coming to the physical wine store were mostly coming for his advices. This is when he had to idea of starting Wine Library TV, a video podcast hosted by Vaynerchuk, featuring wine reviews and advice on wine appreciation. The show was watched by more than 90,000 viewers and helped him increase the family business from $4M to $45M.

How does this apply to you?

I count 3 situations where Personal Branding applies to you:

  1. Personal Branding for freelancers: since your customers buy your skills (if you’re a designer) or your knowledge (if you’re a consultant), Personal Branding allows you to get more visible to prospective customers and increase your perceived value.
  2. Personal Branding for executives: Whether you’re looking to get another job in the same industry or change industry, Personal Branding is a way for you to advertise your expertise in your industry and be noticed by management and potential employers.
  3. Personal Branding for CEOs: brand yourself like Gary Vaynerchuk to raise awareness on your business and your products.

Where to start?

Online! Unless you’re an artist or designer, LinkedIn (or Viadeo) is usually the first step in creating your online identity. Then, depending on your field, choose the best social media to advertise your expertise, knowledge and skills. I will summarise in a future post which social media to use and how to use it for your Personal Branding.

Bud CaddellWhat to talk about?

I’ve found Bud Caddell’s definition of how to find happiness in business, a great tool to find what to write and communicate about online.

If you manage to find the intersection of what you do well (your skills and expertise), what you want to do (get a manager position, change industry, get customers) and what people are ready to pay you for (skills, knowledge), then you’re certain to get awareness and improve you credibility in your given field.

If you want to know more…

I strongly recommend LinkedIn Reid Hoffman’s TheStartupOfYou. I also talk about Personal Branding in my upcoming MooC on Growth Hacking (in French).