How (and Why) to Start a Business in College

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Start a Business in College

Growing up, I never saw myself as a future business owner or entrepreneur. Business ownership or self-employment seemed like an unnecessary risk. I planned to graduate college, get a good job, and have a happy career as an employee.

When I graduated from college in 2002, things didn’t work out quite the way I had planned. I had a job, but it didn’t give me very much hope for the career that I wanted.

I struggled for about six years with four different jobs and each wound up as a disappointment. Eventually, I started a side hustle when I was 28, and almost immediately I knew that I wanted to be able to turn that side hustle into a full-time business.

While I was working on growing my side hustle, the recession of 2008 hit. My employer laid off about 25% of my co-workers, but fortunately, I didn’t lose my job. Seeing about 100 of my colleagues lose their jobs in a single day caused me the rethink the risk involved with working as an employee vs. being a business owner.

Later in 2008, about six months after those layoffs, I decided it was time to leave my job and make the jump to full-time self-employment. I turned 30 years old the same week I left my job, and I couldn’t help but question what I had to show for those first seven or eight years after college.

It’s now been close to twelve years that I’ve been self-employed. Looking back, my 20’s could have been completely different if I had decided to start a business earlier than I did.

But not everyone is like me. Some people have an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age. Ashley Mason is a perfect example. As a teenager, Ashley started a fashion and lifestyle blog in 2012 and she used social media to grow that blog. With a passion for marketing, Ashley started freelancing in 2014 and started a marketing firm, Dash of Social, in 2016 at the age of 19, while she was a college student.

Ashley Mason of Student to CEO
Ashley Mason

Although Ashley started her first business as a teen, she developed an interest in business much earlier. “I remember being interested in business as young as 6 years old! My sisters and I used to play this game called ‘Stores’ where we pretended to own stores and buy things from each other with fake money. I became obsessed with the game and begged them to play it with me so much that they eventually became sick of it, but there was something about the idea of making money–and hopefully one day making a lot of it–that really drew me in.”

When it came time to actually start her first business, Ashley turned to her experience with social media and the skills she had developed by growing her blog. She said, “I started in September 2016. I saw through my own experience how much social media can do to grow a brand, but I also knew that brands didn’t always have the time to dedicate to their marketing. I wanted to support them with their marketing efforts so that they could focus on growing the business.”

It’s not just the fact that Ashley started a business as a 19-year-old college student that’s so impressive. What’s even more unusual is the way that she grew her business and avoided the need for a traditional job after college. After graduating in May of 2019, Ashley immediately transitioned into full-time work running her business.

Prior to that, she had already started to build her own team. In 2017, while still in college, she hired an SEO specialist in order to be able to serve clients that needed help with search engine optimization. In 2018, she hired an assistant, which was a move that paid huge dividends for the business. Speaking of that hire, Ashley says, “Bringing her onto the team made a complete difference in how I was able to manage my workload.”

Within just six months of graduating college, Ashley was able to pay off about $44,000 in debt (student loans and a car loan) to become completely debt-free at 22 years old. In addition to Dash of Social, Ashley also runs Student to CEO, where she helps other young entrepreneurs.

Why Start a Business While You’re in College?

Starting and growing a business as a college student is obviously not easy. It’s natural to wonder why starting a business in college might be a good idea. Here are just a few reasons that you might want to consider:

  • Extra income – Your business can generate some income that helps with expenses while you’re a student.
  • Experience – Regardless of whether your business runs into something big or not, the experience you get from running a business will teach you more than you’ll learn from any class.
  • Pursue a passion – You’re free to decide what type of business you want to start, so you can pursue something that you really enjoy.
  • Skip the job – If you’re like Ashley and you’re able to have success with your business, you may be able to avoid the need to search for a job when you graduate.

How to Start a Business in College

If starting a business is something that seems like it could be a good fit for you, here are some basic steps you can follow.

Step 1: Determine Your Priorities 

There’s no question about it, starting a business while you’re in college will require some sacrifices. Running a business and taking classes may not leave much time for other activities, and that was definitely the case for Ashley.

Describing her schedule in college, Ashley said, “My days lasted from 4 am to midnight… and I wish I was exaggerating! I was also taking care of my mom who was battling Glioblastoma–Grade IV brain cancer–at the time. I would go to the gym first thing in the morning, work for the next few hours, take care of my mom, go to school in the afternoon, and then continue working on my business and doing school assignments at night. ‘Free time’ also wasn’t a thing for me–while most college students were partying and doing school activities on weekends, I was working.”

Before you decide to start a business, take some time to think about your own priorities and how they might be impacted by starting a business. If you’re not able or willing to make some sacrifices, it’s probably not the right time to start a business. But if growing your own business is one of your priorities, keep moving forward with the other steps.

Step 2: Decide What Business You Would Like to Start

On the topic of choosing a business, Ashley advises others, “Find something you’re passionate about and discover a way to monetize it. You don’t even have to be an expert (yet)… you just have to be excited about the idea and know-how you’ll support people through it.”

Also, keep in mind that your first attempt at business may not be the one that lasts long-term. You may try something for a while and then decide to pivot to some other business, and that’s totally fine. 

Step 3: Enroll in the Right Courses

Ideally, the college courses that you’re taking will be able to help in your business. That may involve taking business or marketing-related courses, or maybe taking courses that help you to master skills that are essential for your business (for example, graphic design courses if you want to start a design business).

Step 4: Schedule Your Time

As a student and business owner, you’ll be very busy. In order to get the most out of your time, you should set up your daily/weekly schedule in a way that is efficient. This probably involves scheduling your classes as close together as possible, or maybe even taking all of your classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so you’ll have Tuesdays and Thursday open. Night classes can also be helpful since they’ll typically involve a few hours one evening per week, rather than two or three sessions spread throughout the week.

Aside from scheduling your classes, you should also set aside specific hours for working on your business. The busier you get, the harder it will be to find the time. If you don’t set time aside specifically for your business, you’re likely to wind up working only a few hours here and there. Put it into your schedule as if it were a job and you have set hours each week.

Step 5: Create Your Offer

Now it’s time to start work on growing your business. Be sure that you have a clear picture of exactly what you’re offering to clients or customers. Take time to identify your ideal client/customer, what they need, and how they will benefit from your product or service. Create an offer that appeals to them and work to get that offer in front of the right people.

Step 6: Find a Mentor

As a young entrepreneur, it’s ideal if you have a mentor who can help or guide you along the way. This could be one of your college professors, an experienced entrepreneur in your field, or someone that you’ve connected with online. 

Platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter can be great for connecting and developing relationships with people who may turn out to be a mentor to you. You can also find a business mentor through SCORE, a non-profit organization that provides resources for small business owners.

Step 7: Stick with It

There’s no doubt that you’ll face some challenges and obstacles with your business and managing your time. You might have friends or family members question your decision to start a business, and you may face frustrations of your own. Ashley told me, “It was definitely hard to have so many people doubt my decision to want to go off on my own.”

In order to have success, you’ll need to stick with it and give your business time to grow. 

Final Thoughts

While it’s not the conventional route, there are some significant benefits to starting a business in college. Ashley Mason is debt-free in her early twenties and earning a living doing something that she loves, running her own business.

Ashley’s #1 tip for students who are interested in starting a business is, “As cliche as it sounds… just do it! If you’re even thinking about taking a leap, that’s an indication that you should 100% take that leap. I love the quote ‘everything is figureoutable’ by Marie Forleo because it’s true… don’t let the fear of not knowing anything stop you from launching your business because you can always figure it out on the way.”

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