How to Start a Business in College: The Ultimate Guide (2020)

Starting a business in college is far from straightforward. With coursework, extracurriculars, and social life, college on its own is a full-time job. But that’s not enough for many entrepreneurially minded students. Even if you already possess business acumen and a stellar business idea, you’ll need some help and advice on starting a business while you’re in college.

And that’s why we’ve compiled this massive guide on how to start a business in college. This resource includes tried-and-true advice from entrepreneurs who started a business in college, college business ideas, famous brands that were started in college, and even statistics on college entrepreneurship.

Here is your ultimate resource on successfully starting a business in college:

11 Tips for Starting a Business in College

1. Bootstrap Your Finances

Ana Gavia started her swimsuit line, Pinkcolada, while studying podiatric medicine at La Trobe University. Gavia scaled Pinkcolada from her initial budget of $200 to seven figures within a year. She advises:

“Don’t let the lack of money or experience stop you from following your dreams, anything is possible! There’s plenty of entrepreneurial stories out there of people starting out businesses, but many have jobs, capital, funding, and experience to support their start-ups. It’s possible to build a business with a small sum of money if you have the right mindset and work hard at it.”

Steven Li, a current college student and the founder of The Rising, also advises to work with what finances you have on hand, regardless of their sum:

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to bootstrap and run lean. Going the venture route is difficult as a college student, so it’s best to self-fund if possible and if so, really pay attention to how you’re spending money, and whether those expenses are driving growth to the core business.”

2. Know What and How to Prioritize

Gina Holzer, the founder and CEO of Wholy Dose, started her own business both in high school and in college. Here is her advice for starting a business in college:

“My top advice is to utilize any available time outside of school to work on your business. Time is already limited, but when you have classes, homework, and exams in addition to starting your own business, it can be that much harder to find time and easier to procrastinate. So, it’s extremely important to allocate time to work on your business, even if that means it’s only for 15 minutes or reducing time spent with friends.”

Ryan Novak bought and scaled The Chocolate Pizza Company while in college at Syracuse after working there as a dishwasher. 10 years later, The Chocolate Pizza Company is a nationwide brand that has been featured on the Food Network and in Forbes. Here is Ryan’s advice:

“My advice for young professionals who are balancing college and a business is to not let your business dreams get ahead of your educational goals. Often, there is an inherent pressure to grow, grow, grow your business at the outset which ends up consuming nearly all your time and energy at the expense of school. I thought it was important to finish my degree on time so while I worked long hours, I did not push my schoolwork behind my job as owner. I kept the business going—not necessarily growing —until I finished my degree. Then, I turned my full attention to building my business. The longer you push off finishing your education, the harder it will be to achieve. Grow your mind, then your business.”

As a sophomore at USC, Brandon Amoroso was inspired to start ElectricIQ Marketing after taking a number of courses on entrepreneurship. Here’s what he has to say about prioritization while starting a business in college:

“Choose something you are passionate about. This sounds awfully cliché, but if you want to be able to prioritize your business over other things, you need to be passionate about the business. I for one was very interested in SEO and found the process of increasing organic traffic fascinating. The doors it could unlock for small businesses was amazing. This made it easy for me to prioritize my business because I enjoyed what I was doing.”

3. Consolidate School Life and Your Business

Jessi Beyer started her speaking and personal development coaching business when she was a freshman in college. Her advice on combining school life and entrepreneurial efforts is as follows:

“I’d look for ways that you can combine your college life with your business. For example, take an introductory marketing course (even if you’re not a business major) or join the campus’s entrepreneurship club. Campuses will also often facilitate other events that might be relevant, such as bringing a speaker or author to campus. Make use of those opportunities.”

During her junior year at North Carolina State University, Jess Ekstrom founded Headbands of Hope. Her line is now carried in thousands of stores across the world and Jess has authored a book, “Chasing the Bright Side.” She also advises that college entrepreneurs combine school life and their business processes:

“During my senior year, I was taking a lot of communications and public relations courses. I talked to my professors at the beginning of class and told them about my company. I requested that any assignments or projects I do in class be in relation to my business.

When I had an assignment to create a media kit, I created one for Headbands of Hope. Not only did it help me to create a media kit, I was also graded and critiqued on it with professional feedback. I did this as much as I could in courses that I could apply to my business, so I was doing school while working on my company.”

4. Make Necessary Sacrifices

Brandon Amoroso, ElectricIQ Marketing’s founder, also advises that prioritization will require sacrifices:

“I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to college students looking to start a successful small business is the concept of prioritization. Starting a business involves a serious time commitment, and it can be daunting as you try to juggle classes. . .

Prioritization is crucial because, early on, you need to decide what is important for you and your business. Do you need to go to that party? Do you need to go to that football game? Would it not be better to invest that time in working on your business, or studying for your classes?

This is something that seems simple on the surface, but it is actually one of the hardest aspects of starting a business in college. There are so many activities and events competing for your time and your interest. You have to set down priorities to get anywhere. Learn how to say “no” to different events and activities. You can’t be everywhere all at once.”

Shaan Patel started his business, Prep Expert, and continues to run it—even while working 70 hours a week as a medical school resident. Prep Expert featured on Shark Tank, and has now earned over $10 million in revenue. He agrees that college entrepreneurs can’t handle it all on their own—no matter how badly they want to own every part of their business. Patel urges that delegation and sacrifices must come into play for those starting a business while in school:

“As your available time gets tighter and you spread yourself too thin, you will let things fall through the cracks. That’s why I keep my focus on the big picture—company direction, yearly goals, etc. My team handles the day-to-day operations and coursework; together we’ve shepherded a once simple tutoring service into a multimillion dollar venture that takes on other competitors in the space handily.”

5. Strategically Ask for Help

Now the CEO of ZipBooks, Tim Chaves started and sold two businesses during undergrad and went on to found ZipBooks while pursuing his MBA at Harvard. Here’s what he learned while founding his first two businesses:

“In a past business, I made the mistake of thinking I could do everything on my own. And while that business excelled in the one area I was good at (product), it languished just about everywhere else. I realized that no matter how smart you think you are, no matter how much hustle you may have, there is too much to do for one person to create a successful business. With ZipBooks, I’ve focused much more on figuring out what I’m bad at, and bringing in excellent team members who more than make up for those deficiencies—and it’s made a world of difference.”

Shaan Patel of Prep Expert also suggests that you should ask for help in the form of smart hiring:

“One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to get yourself to a point where you can assemble an effective team and let them do their jobs. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to want to do everything yourself because at first, you definitely have to unfortunately.”

6. Be Realistic

Based on his undergrad entrepreneurial experience, Tim Chaves of ZipBooks also recommends that aspiring founders should be flexible and realistic while in college:

“Don’t plan too much. No matter how much we’d all like to define exactly what’s going to happen to us today, this month, this year or in ten years, we just can’t see the future or plan for all the variables. While we can certainly set ourselves on a certain trajectory and be in situations that will help lead to success, allow for some flexibility, some pivoting and some fun from the unexpected.”

Siavash Ghazvinian founded Ethical Tree, an online directory that allows you to search for businesses based on your ethical standards. And he learned a thing or two along the way. One of the main lessons he learned is to be patient:

“Entrepreneurs always want to hustle as hard as they can to reach their next milestone, but keep in mind this can be more difficult while you’re busy passing classes. Be ambitious, but don’t wear yourself out. Don’t plan to make major advancements on your startup during exam week, especially if your co-founders are also students on the same schedule!”

Ana Gavia of Pinkcolada also suggests that a crucial part of starting a business in college is patience:

“Don’t expect to be an overnight success. It’s early in my business and I still work crazy hours and I’m living out of my warehouse at times, sleeping on the couch, or not sleeping at all. Nobody becomes an overnight success. Once you reach a certain level of success, you still have to keep going to keep it or reach the next level.”

During her years as a graduate student, Kendra Jones started and built two successful brands. Based on her experience, Jones also recommends that slow and steady wins the race for student entrepreneurs:

“Don’t compare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 20. Don’t rush the process. You have to be willing to do the work, make the mistakes, and use each set back as a learning experience. Every entrepreneur fails at some point, but that’s where the true wisdom lies. Give yourself grace.”

7. Embrace Your Age (Rather Than Hide It)

After starting his copywriting business while studying business in college, Carmine Mastropierro has gone on to scale his business and write for publications like GQ and Forbes. He advises that college students embrace how much time they have:

“I would recommend college students to begin as soon as possible because time is on their side. They have a lot of leeway to test, fall down, get back up, and carve out their niche. Remember that something is better than nothing and taking baby steps is key.”

Brandon Amoroso of ElectricIQ Marketing also suggests that college entrepreneurs are in a unique position to harness their age as a benefit, rather than a liability, for their businesses:

“Use your age. There are a number of advantages to being young. Young people are constantly immersed in the latest technology, cultural trends, and more! Everything that is taking place in society is bubbling up around you. This makes you particularly well-suited to tackle business ideas that resonate with younger people. For example, I was worried at first that the small businesses I was trying to acquire as clients wouldn’t take me seriously. Instead, because of my young age, they felt I was perfect for tackling marketing initiatives, particularly on social media sites. If leveraged properly, your age can be your strength, not your weakness!”

During his last year of undergrad, Waleed Ajmal launched an app called Shopronto. Through this process, he learned to use his age as a value prop for his business:

“I urge young entrepreneurs to not be daunted by their age. Sure, there are people who will write you off on the basis of your age. However, personally speaking, being young and running a business opened a lot of doors for me. Age is not a deterrent and can actually be an advantage!”

Even more, Jess Ekstrom—founder of Headbands of Hope—found that her age gave her access to publicity opportunities:

“So much of the press and media attention my company has received has also been a result of my young age. There are a lot of negative stereotypes of the millennial generation, so when someone steps out of that circle and does something good, it gets noticed.”

8. Involve Your Peers and Professors

Jake Rheude, now VP of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, started a business while he was an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. During his undergrad entrepreneurial experience, he was able to raise $63,000 in funding. Here is his advice:

“Look around you! Your fellow students have a need for something, and if there’s a hole in the market serving that need, you can step in. In my case, as a student at a major SEC football powerhouse, I encountered a lot of hungry people at game day tailgate parties who craved buffalo wings but didn’t want to deal with the mess of eating them. I had the idea of marketing and selling a buffalo chicken dip; not being a chef myself. I got funding to sponsor a competition at a culinary school, bought the winning recipe for dip, and then negotiated and secured contracts with vendors to sell buffalo chicken dip at local retailers.”

Gina Holzer of Wholy Dose also suggests that you harness the power of your circle to grow and improve your business:

“Don’t forget to network with classmates and professors. When you start your own business, it can be easy to isolate yourself to your own work and avoid classmates and professors. However, it can be beneficial in the long run to have a social life on campus and make real connections with fellow classmates and professors. You never know who you’ll wish you stayed in contact with or introduced yourself to. That said, your classmates and professors might also be your future customers or mentors.”

Founder of Ethical Tree Siavash Ghazvinian agrees:

“Leverage your connections: Students have access to a massive network of talented professors, seasoned entrepreneurs, and thousands of like-minded peers. This is a great place to find mentors to bounce ideas off of and get real hard feedback from to help you know if you’re headed in the right direction. Your fellow students can also be a great source to get initial validation for products from — whether that means sending out mass surveys to your class email lists or getting students together for focus groups after class.”

Finally, Jamie Steenbakkers, co-founder of Busy Beauty, found the advice of advisors to be crucial to the success of her business, which she with co-founder Michael Leahy while they were students at Babson College together:

“Listen to advisors! We had to completely ditch our MVP product because our advisors had reservations about it. Looking back, it’s the best decision we made. You need to go with your gut, but you also need to trust others’ experience when you’re only 18 years old.”

9. Know Your Worth

Now a blogger at This Online World, Tom Blake started a social media management business in college with the hopes of being the most affordable service in his city. But he quickly found that he was undervaluing his services, especially relative to the results he provided:

“If you think you offer the best service in your area and the most value for clients (and can back these claims up with testimonials and case studies), price yourself accordingly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned business veteran or a 19-year-old kid with a new business idea; results speak louder than anything else. Be realistic with your pricing structure, but never discount yourself just because of your age. Let your results and value determine how you position yourself in the market.”

Alex Nerney, now a professional blogger at Create and Go, discovered the value of narrowing his customer-base down to those who were able to pay him more for his personal training services:

“I started a personal training business in college. As a football player, I knew a thing or two on fitness and I made money training sorority girls. When I first started, I was willing to train anyone and everyone. But, I quickly learned the value of niching down. While I could make $25-$30/hour training anyone, if I refined who I trained with, I could charge more. And, that’s what I did. I was able to make more money by targeting a specific clientele.”

10. Take Advantage of School Resources

Jessi Beyer, of her self-named speaking and personal development coaching business, urges undergrad entrepreneurs to look into the resources that various academic entities at your school might offer:

“Keep in mind that the alumni association could be able to help you by giving you some press opportunities—sometimes even while you’re still a student. It’s also worth checking with your specific department for the same opportunities.”

Siavash Ghazvinian of Ethical Tree also suggests that most colleges and universities offer various forms of support for entrepreneurial students:

“Most post-secondary schools have some form of support for entrepreneurial students, whether that means mentoring, free spaces to work, research support, or straight-up cash. Many early-stage funding opportunities are available exclusively to current students and recent graduates, so take advantage of these before it’s too late.”

11. Know When Enough’s Enough

Finally Mike Allen, founder of Businesswright Consulting, encourages student entrepreneurs to know when enough is enough.

“I wish I had “dropped out” of college, or at least put it on pause, to pursue my successful business instead of trying to do both. My business suffered greatly at a time when it needed the attention. I was earning far more than my college degree could ever deliver and yet I hesitated to leave that traditional path. I wish I had done so as I’m not using my degree.”

14 Business Ideas for Aspiring College Entrepreneurs

Some college entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs by a stroke of genius. Others decide they’re meant to start a business, but they’re not certain what kind of business they should start. If you’re looking for a solid, low-cost idea for a business to start while in college, consider these 14 concepts:

1. Professor-Specific Personal Assistant

Many professors on your campus likely need a bit of help getting organized and on top of all of their lectures, essays, and research.

2. Social Media Consultant

Your generation is the one that’s most in-tune with social media, so you likely hold social media insight that companies would be willing to pay for.

3. Social Media Admin

Better yet, you likely hold an instinct for social media that will make employers trust you with their accounts. Being a social media admin could be a perfect fit for you.

4. Campus Brand Ambassador

Campuses are markets that brands are constantly trying to tap into. Your connections on campus could be something that many brands would be willing to pay you for.

5. Moving Services

The only thing as trustworthy as the turning of the seasons? College students moving in and out just as often as school lets in and out. Offer paid, professional moving services to address this unending market.

6. Textbook Exchange Company

You know firsthand: Textbooks are way too expensive. Set up a marketplace for used textbooks and take a small cut of the proceeds.

7. Personal Training

If you’re particularly fitness-inclined, set up shop as a personal trainer in your campus gym.

8. Homemade Meal Delivery

Most college students miss homemade meals simply because they haven’t quite mastered the art of cooking themselves. If you know your way around a kitchen, start making and delivering homemade meals for a premium.

9. Babysitting Agency

College students with a knack for caring for kids have been babysitting for income since the dawn of time. But if you have childcare and entrepreneurial skills, you should consider starting a babysitting agency.

10. Photography Services

Many college students will need headshots and graduation photos. If you have a nice camera and an eye for photography, starting a photography business could be extremely lucrative.

11. Editing Services

Do you have killer grammar expertise? Offer your editing services to students and professors alike.

12. Vintage Curator

If you have an oft-complimented sense of fashion, consider purchasing vintage clothing it and selling it at a markup. If business takes off, a storefront could be in order.

13. Transcription Services

Many students have trouble keeping up with notes during lectures and prefer to make audio recordings of them. You could offer transcription services to such students so they can have both written and recorded sets of notes.

14. Online Add-On Courses

Finally, you can offer elevated tutoring services. Offer online add-on courses that correspond to various courses that typically give students trouble.

Inspiration for Starting a Business in College: 9 Famous Entrepreneurs Who Did It

You’ve already heard advice and inspiration from entrepreneurs who started businesses in college. But did you know that some of the most widely recognized brands were founded by college students? Here are some famous college entrepreneurs:

1. Seth Berkowitz, Insomnia Cookies

Seth Berkowitz started Insomnia Cookies in his off-campus housing while at the University of Pennsylvania. He noticed that there weren’t many options for late night food around campus, so he decided to start a cookie delivery business. The first iteration of this now-famous business was as simple as Berkowitz baking cookies and hand-delivering them to his peers.

2. Paul Orfalea, Kinko’s

While attending USC, Orfalea took out a $5,000 startup business loan that was co-signed by parents. He used the loan proceeds to lease a Xerox copy machine. Orfalea charged 4 cents a copy and sold office supplies through his newfound business called, you guessed it, Kinko’s. Kinko’s became a household name before being acquired by FedEx in 2004 and becoming FedEx Office.

3. Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown & Bobby Murphy, Snapchat

While they were students at Stanford, Spiegel, Brown, and Murphy launched the first version, Picaboo, of what would soon become Snapchat in July 2011. Snapchat recently went public in 2017 with a valuation of about $33 billion.

4. Michael Dell, Dell

As a freshman pre-med student at the University of Texas, Dell took $1,000 and started PCs Limited, which would soon become Dell. Dell’s revolutionary idea to sell personal computers directly to consumers was unheard of before he made the move to start this business in college.

5. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Thanks to widespread media coverage, and even a biopic, Mark Zuckerberg has become one of the most notorious college entrepreneurs to date. In February 2004, while still in college at Harvard, Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook.” The social media network was initially restricted to Harvard students, but it quickly scaled and eventually became one of the biggest companies in the world. Facebook now has over 2 billion users.

6. Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Google

In 1996, Page and Brin were just two PhD students working on a research project. But this research project was the beginning of what would soon become Google. The project prompt was to explore and understand the mathematical properties and link structure of the web.

Page and Brin released the first version of Google on the Stanford website, and they used nearly half of Stanford’s entire network bandwidth.

7. Steve Huffman & Alexis Ohanian, Reddit

After attending a lecture by entrepreneur Paul Graham during their spring break from the University of Virginia, Huffman and Ohanian were invited to apply to the startup incubator Y Combinator. Their initial startup idea, My Mobile Menu, which allowed users to order food through SMS messaging, was unsuccessful.

However, during a brainstorming session for a second pitch, Reddit was born from Graham’s idea to create “the front page of the internet.” As of July 2019, Reddit is the 13th most visited website in the world.

8. Matt Mullenweg & Mike Little, WordPress

Based off an earlier project named b2/Cafelog, Mullenweg and Little created an iteration of b2 called WordPress in 2003. Mullenweg was just a freshman at the University of Houston when the two launched the now widely-used website builder. According to W3 Techs, 34.4% of all websites use WordPress.

9. Rick Rubin & Russell Simmons, Def Jam

While he was attending NYU in 1983, Rubin borrowed $5,000 from his parents and recorded “I’m Yours” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. From there, Rubin created the music label Def Jam and ran the business out of his dorm room. In 1984, Def Jam partnered with Russell Simmons, and eventually became one of the biggest record labels in the world.

Infographic

Check out the infographic below for more information on these nine famous entrepreneurs that started a business in college.

how-to-start-a-business-in-college

College Entrepreneurship Statistics to Consider

You’ve learned the lessons necessary for starting a business while you’re a student; you’ve heard the stories of famous brands that began from dorm rooms; now, it’s time to look at the numbers on starting a business while in college. Many businesses that college students start are informal and difficult to track. As a result, statistics on college entrepreneurship are hard to track. That said, college coursework and programs centered on entrepreneurship are far more systematized and archived. Let’s take a look at the numbers on these key factors of successful college entrepreneurs:

  • Entrepreneurship degree and diploma options have grown by 400% since 1975,
  • The number of freshmen who want to be an entrepreneur has more than doubled, from 1.5% to 3.3%, since 1975.
  • Course offerings in entrepreneurship have grown by about 20 times—from 250 to 5,000—since 1985.
  • About one-third of all business incubators are based at universities.

Clearly, colleges and universities want to foster entrepreneurs. Will you take advantage of this growing pool of opportunities?

The Bottom Line

There you have it—all the ins and outs on the details of starting a business in college. Of course, as you set out on your entrepreneurial endeavors, new challenges will present themselves to you. Just like countless college entrepreneurs before you and countless that will come after you, you’ll have to learn as you go—and your business will be that much stronger because of it.

Maddie Shepherd

Maddie Shepherd is a contributing writer for JustBusiness. She has written extensively on small business loans, business credit cards, accounting tools, and merchant services. Maddie has reviewed and analyzed dozens of financial tools and providers, helping business owners make better financial decisions.

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