Starting a company while finishing a degree
Many students at universities have great ideas for companies while they are still enrolled and taking classes. If you talk to any of the students who has actively pursued these ideas they will tell you one thing it’s a lot of work. Your typical student needs to balance about a 60 hour work load (keep in mind this is the perspective of a CMU student) while finding time for other interests whether this be playing a sport or going out with friends. When a student decides to do a startup their routine completely changes. Instead of hanging out with friends they’re meeting with investors, instead of participating in a sport they’re developing their product, instead of going to sleep they are applying to business plan competitions or incubators or writing some important document for the company, and somewhere along the line they find time to throw in a little school work. Sounds crazy right? But if you ask the entrepreneur if it’s worth it, they wouldn’t change a thing.
by Matt Stanton
As someone who is currently going through this process [Matt is the co-founder and CEO of Sole Power, which is developing a power generating shoe insert], there are a few pieces of advice I would offer to someone who entering into this process. The first is thing a person needs to learn and quickly is how to perform a workload triage. Complete the tasks that are most important first and the tasks that are less important can wait. Even with this skill there are only 24 hours in a day and sometimes that just isn’t enough. From personal experience being able to say “good enough” and walk away from a project is something that needs to be done. No matter how painful it may be to turn in an incomplete assignment or give a professor work that is not your best, being able to switch priorities may ultimately determine if your company is successful in its early stages or not. Through my own experience, there will be important goals your company sets that will conflict with assignments. It is important to know where your priorities are, whether it’s with the company or with your school work.
The second recommendation I would give is to stay flexible. When starting a company things can change in the course of hours or minutes not days. One second you are digging into a homework assignment the next you are informed about a new pitch opportunity that could bring your company funding. Well looks like it is time to use that new skill you’ve acquired and triage your work. If your company is a good fit for the opportunity it may be time to switch priorities. This will happen a lot and it’s important not to stress about it. There will be plenty of other things causing you stress and a constantly changing schedule shouldn’t be one of them.
The third recommendation I have to offer is to know when to get some sleep and find a way to de-stress. While all-nighters are unavoidable, it’s important to stop and get some sleep even if that means sacrificing the quality of and assignment or not studying for a test. There is no substitute for sleeping; caffeine will only carry you so far (usually two and a half days as I have found out). Also find a way to deal with stress. Academic stress in an institution such as Carnegie Mellon can be overwhelming at times as I experienced in my undergraduate career. However this is nothing compared to the stress of starting a company while trying to stay on top of assignments. Finding a non-time consuming hobby that acts as a stress release can be an invaluable asset for someone in this position. I say non-time consuming hobby because in reality there won’t be time to spend huge amounts of time on projects or hobbies outside school work and your company. Personally, if I get overwhelmed I go to a park and do work or go on my roof. It’s amazing how a change of scenery can reduce the stress surrounding a task.
Finally and most importantly, know why you are putting yourself through this crazy, stressful, exhilarating experience. To spend the late nights needed to develop your company, there has to be a bigger goal in mind. Not the goal of money because no amount of money is worth this kind of sacrifice, and there are much easier ways to get rich. For me the goal of taking my idea and making it into a reality is priceless. What drives me is that I want to take the idea floating around in my head and make it into something that people all around the world can benefit from. This is something that I personally think about every day. For me it is about making a difference in the world and improving people’s lives. If the company makes money along the way that’s great, ultimately to have a successful product based company not making a profit is not an option and this is something that I completely understand. But at the end of the day the ability to change people’s lives keeps me working 20 hour days. So in closing, if you are going to start a company and be a full-time student at the same time great, good for you, go get’em! But know why you are doing it and buckle up cause it’s going to be a wild ride and there’s no telling where you’ll end up.
Matt Stanton is a graduate student in the Mechanical Engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Sole Power. He plans to build Sole Power into not only a successful company but one with a lasting social impact.