One of the most popular goals among young people is to have their own company. This doesn’t mean people want to necessarily build the next Google or Facebook.
For many students this means smaller companies where you can have fun with friends while you think of cool ideas and then enjoy the steep learning curve of implementing those ideas. The most important aspects of a job for young people are flexibility and personal growth. And no job gets you that as effectively as starting your own company.
Part of starting a company is learning how to think and problem solve, and a classic college education teaches you that. But typically, colleges have prepared students to climb a corporate ladder upon graduation. And today we don’t even pretend that 40-year ladder climbs are an option.
Corporate jobs are more short-term, and sporadic— maybe something to do in between starting one’s own companies. But what can one do in college to pave the way for a career that includes entrepreneurship?
First, try to hang out with other students who have businesses, or ideas for businesses. At any given college, there is a group of students either thinking hard about entrepreneurship, or doing it. Hang around these people because they’ll teach you how to bounce ideas.
Entrepreneurs don’t have just one good idea. They have a million, and they test the ideas out on friends all the time, learning how to hone an idea and think critically until they find one that works.
The best way to come up with an idea is to try to solve problems, says Greg Boesel.
“I constantly find myself saying; there’s gotta be a better way to do this.” Then, he advises, if you think you have a better way, do 20 hours of market research to see if someone else has already tried that way.
Boesel’s current company, Swaptree, is an example of this process in action. He got the idea from a friend who returned from a visit with his mom with 16 used books he didn’t want. They were good books, but he didn’t know what to do with them. Swaptree is a company that tells you what people are willing to trade you to get the book, CD, or DVD that you don’t want.
If you don’t have an idea and you need to do something, go to a start-up to get yourself thinking in new directions.
James Ngai is a student at MIT, and he worked at a Boston music start-up while he had a full course load. Ngai is well aware that there are no long-term secure jobs in the workforce, so flexibility and broad skills are the key to success.
“Students want an open path career,” he says, “and getting start-up experience is a great way to ensure this.”
A year after getting his feet wet in someone else’s start-up, Ngai launched his own company, Campus Research and Recruiting, which helps companies understand why their recruiting practices fail or succeed and how they can be more effective.
How do you find one of those work experiences that give you a jump start in starting a company of your own? Use the career center. “This is a totally underused resource,” according to Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career. “There’s a perception that career services only helps you for the companies that recruit, but career services have connections to tons of industries.”
And it’s not just about the networking. “It’s free career coaching,” says Pollak. And one of the keys to entrepreneurship is knowing your own strengths and how to leverage them.
Also, if you have your heart set on a start-up of your own, the best route might be the anti-start-up summer job. That is, something in staid, ladder-climbing industries like investment banking or consulting whose business models include spending tons of money on training employees. You don’t need to enter these industries after doing the summer program, and the education will serve you well when you finally think of a company you want to start.
The most important advice is probably to stay confident that things will work out for you. Just because you can’t start a company immediately doesn’t mean you won’t get a really fun job immediately. Remember that this is a very good job market for young people. In the book Recruit or Die, Chris Resto, internship director at MIT, spends nearly 300 pages describing to companies how they can attract top talent.
The recurring theme of the book is that young people have lots of choices and multiple offers, and only the companies that are smartest about what young people want will get them. What does this tell you, the candidate? That you should aim for a job that meets your needs.
What else does it tell you? That the most important thing to do in college is begin to understand what your needs are. Otherwise, you have no idea what you’re hunting for.