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.

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24 replies
  1. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren
    Gerhi Janse van Vuuren says:

    In retrospect I found that I never thought about working while I was studying. Partly it was because I assumed that I will have an academic career and that studying was preparation for working.
    But then I found myself totally unsuitable for an academic career and I had no concept of what a working life entailed. Could I time travel back today I would rather work short spurts in various fields to find out where I want to go before studying, or even study part time.
    But then again, most of the jobs available today didn’t even exist when I was studying. In the end I do not begrudge the path I have taken and I still think work is overrated.
    You can learn and grow from every experience you have. I learned more about leadership and group dynamics from directing one student play than what I learned from a three year degree in psychology and sociology.
    But then again, it was something I needed to learn. To extend on where you end your article Penelope, I think the most important thing to do in college is to find out what your needs are by finding out who you are. In that way everything has changed, yet nothing has.

  2. DJ FunkyGrrL
    DJ FunkyGrrL says:

    Internet has allowed many college kids (or teens) to start businesses from auctions, or cookie cutter websites. Expansion of online merchant vendors like: Google, Paypal, Geenzap, Bidpay, Xoom has allowed many to qualify for quasi merchant accounts more easily. I started my business years ago, it reveals a lot of real world experience (as in most cases I deal with the customers directly).
    I have a business degree, but it did not prepare me for many day to day issues that arise with owning a company online. This experience gives one a better understanding of overall issues of larger companies. If I walk into a department store I have a different outlook as a owner of a company then as a customer. I know their profit margin for certain items, their suppliers, if what they’re telling me is true when dealing with sales associates. It’s a great feeling

  3. Thom Singer
    Thom Singer says:

    If you have that “ping” inside you that says “YOU SHOULD WORK FOR YOURSELF”…you need to honor it. While you may choose to work for another company for a few years to get some experience, etc…. You really should act on your gut instincts early (within one to three years after college). The longer you wait, the harder it is to make the leap. Spouses, a mortgage, children, nicer cars, lifestyle items, etc…. all make going independent much harder when you are older. When you are 24 you can live in a dump and focus 100% of you life on getting the business running.

    Trust me, you turn 40 years old in the blink of an eye (I know that most of Penelope’s readers do not want to hear that….and will deny the reality). This is not a bad thing, there is a lot of great things that come with having lived your life and matured into a forty something (I know, Penelope’s readers don’t want to believe that either)….but the freedom of youth is hard to get back.

    Thus, go for it before you have the responsibilities that might make you rationalize reasons to not chase your dream.

  4. Tim Shisler
    Tim Shisler says:

    I know just what you're saying. Freshman year one of my roommates got an espresso maker from his parents. Since we really didn't drink anything but coffee, this was just when Starbucks was going crazy, we decided to start our own espresso shop out of our dorm. One trip to Costco with my parents card and we were set.

    A month later we were making an average of a hundred drinks on any given morning, and pulling in over $150 a day. The gig lasted two more months until the local campus coffee shop noticed a sharp drop in morning sales. Suddenly there was the permit and health violations slapped on our door.

    Was it worth it? You better believe it – we had free beer for almost the entire semester and learned a ton about customer service (just can't expect everyone to like it), healthy competition (or the lack of it) and that if you want to start a business you have to get up really, really early. (7am – which is ungodly in college of course.)

    * * * * * *
    I love this story. The lemonade stand of the new millennium!


  5. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Why oh why didn’t I found this blog back when I was still in college? Now being 24, currently sitting in a mind-numbing ‘gain experience’ job, I can’t seem to figure out what I want to do. All I do know is, having some of your advice a few years ago would
    have kept me away from where I am today!

  6. Almostgotit
    Almostgotit says:

    Of course, one of the things one might do to prepare for entrepreneurship while in college is attend classes and study a wee bit, too ;0) (sorry. Wife of a professor, you know…)

    One of the best things I did in college was lie my way into an advanced design class (art-majors-only, and I wasn’t.) It was taught by a former NASA designer, and we did amazing projects all precedented on the idea that you FIRST decide what your goal is, however impossible it may seem, and THEN decide how to get there (vs. starting with what seems possible and going forth the other way) We built error-less catapults, made ergonomically-perfect handles for things, and suspended huge objects mid-air using only a small handful of toothpicks… it was magical, and mind-blowing, and changed the rest of my life.

  7. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    Nicole…you’re only 24! I agree it would have been useful to know a lot more when I was in college…but it doesn’t really matter because things are constantly changing anyway. I’m 40 and I don’t really know what to do next either. I would not change any decisions in the past and I don’t worry about what might have been because there really are only a few things that are completely unchangeable. It is too late for me to become a professional cyclist and win the Tour de France and probably too late to become an Olympic marathoner. Having 2 kids and a third on the way means that I’m not going to be starting up an espresso shop in my college dorm room but it doesn’t mean my life is over either. Life goes on for a long time and you never get “there.” Do what matters now.

  8. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    “Now being 24, currently sitting in a mind-numbing – €˜gain experience' job, I can't seem to figure out what I want to do.”

    I have been through this. Part of my problem was the huge misconception I had that college would keep me from mind-numbing jobs in the first place. I thought boring, mind-numbing jobs were all in factories, and that getting a college degree would get me into “interesting” work in the corporate world. Having my own desk and wearing nice clothes to work actually seemed glamorous to me at the time.

  9. ejoe
    ejoe says:

    I’m 27, but wish i had the knowledge I had now when I was 24 as well. When I was 24, I wish I had the knowledge of myself as a 24 year old when I was 21.

    People always tend to look back and have regrets and things they want to do differently now.

    My goal NOW is to make sure every decision, every action or INaction, big or small is something that I will not regret and look back on… so far so good!

    and by the way penelope.. i dont know why people disrepect you column on yahoo finance that much, your writing is filled with a lot of information that makes common sense and some information that you need to have an open mind and some intellegence to grasp.

    Like that article regarding your move from the big city to small town… it made total sense and I wish more peopel were as real as you!

  10. Dawn Cardon
    Dawn Cardon says:

    I realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I was working at an investment bank in New York. Even though I went to college in Silicon Valley, I didn’t pause and think about entrepreneurship in any serious sense until I “failed” at an incredibly corporate job. I can’t say I learned a ton in my 10 weeks of unhappy and incredibly long work days, but I did realize how incredibly important it is that one’s personality and passions fit with what they do. I’ve always pushed myself to make the ‘best’ choices, but eventually I realized that what was best for me wasn’t something I could find anywhere else but from looking inside myself and deciding where I’d be happy (because THAT is what will ultimately lead to success!).

    I spent my senior year of college surrounded by people who loved entrepreneurship and either planned to start their own company or already had. Entrepreneurs are really excited, very positive and have wonderful stories about why they’re passionate about what they do.

    I’m now at a start-up company, one of 6 employees, and much happier than I was last summer. I look forward to more uncomfortable as well as fabulous situations and lots more learning about myself in my very nascent career!

    * * * * * *
    In a weird way, this story illustrates how entrepreneurship is a sort of safety net today. Most of us would like to graduate from college and find our way to a corporate job that will take care of us and set out a long-term path and mitigate the risks of adulthood. But those jobs don’t exist. Entrepreneurship is a great place to turn when corproate life is completely not working.


  11. Julio Vasconcellos
    Julio Vasconcellos says:

    As someone that went to college, worked at a ‘get experience’ job (management consulting) and now works at a startup, the biggest piece of advice I’d have for someone in college today wanting to prepare for a startup is to get sales experience.

    “Thinking” in startup mode is one part of the equation, but everyone out there can have cool ideas and try to solve problems. From my observations (and this is obviously one person’s opinion), those that are successful are the kinds of people that have that idea and go out there and make it happen. It’s about initiative and making things a reality by working hard and being determined.

    Doing sales is the best way to get out there and convince people that your product is the best. In startups all you do is sell – convince employees to come on board, investors to invest, and most importantly customers to buy. If you can’t sell, your company will never survive. I did door-to-door sales in college and found that experience invaluable. It’s tough and tiring and stressing, but better than trying to just think of cool ideas that one will never make happen.

    I agree with Penelope’s advice that a good way to prepare for a startup after college is getting a “typical” summer job at a bank or consultancy. But I think this is a good way to prepare for being employed at a startup (rather than starting your own co.). The employment history legitimizes you as a hiring manager takes the rubber stamp you’ve received as a seal of approval from someone else’s selection process. That said, what you learn in a professional services company maybe helps with very little of what you need to do at a startup (and that I can say from experience).

    I actually met Meg Whitman (CEO of ebay but worked as a consultant-partner at Bain for 8/9 years) this past year and she said that what you learn at a consultancy is 5% of what you need to know for a startup. Interesting.

    If you want to hear some interviews I’ve done with entrepreneurs and some advice they’d have for undergrads, check out the a href=””; podcast.

    If you’re looking to get involved with a startup (Tim!) drop us a line at Experience Project. We host a href=””; anonymous communities on life experiences.

    ** * * ** * *
    Great comment, Julio. Thanks. My favorite part of this comment is that so much of entrepreneurship is sales. Very true. It’s true that one person is always selling the investors, and one person is always selling the employees to keep to the plan for execution. But there’s another thing: You have to keep selling yourself. So much of starting a company is about making a largely insane leap of faith that the company will work out. So many days you have to convince yourself that you’re not crazy.


  12. Rick Terrien
    Rick Terrien says:

    I also liked the post from Julio Vasconcellos and your reply Penelope. For smaller (1-2 person) startups, the task of selling your vision and your services to all the different stakeholders lands in the lap of the startup entrepreneur.

    This is where I see many fail. They expect solutions to be clean and tidy and linear, when the solutions need to be omni-directional. The seemingly daunting task of selling in all directions can look overwhelming and they don’t do anything but think and worry.

    New entrepreneurs typically think too much and sell too little. There is nothing hard about selling, except when you’re trying to peddle smoke and mirrors. Real selling is simply telling the truth.

    That’s the only way for very small startups (and all the rest of us) to manage the multilayer, multidirectional selling process of launching new enterprises. You can never get caught up in misconceptions or worse, when you sell by telling the truth. Given that, selling is not hard at all.

    This is the renaissance age of entrepreneurship and it’s just beginning. Keep up the great work Penelope.

    * * * * * *
    Oh, love this comment. Such important things in it. If you want a flexible work life you have to sell. There’s no way around it. You either sell your company, or your sell your freelance capabilities, or you sell you skill set to potential employers. But you are always selling so that you always have the abiliy to choose opportunities that will accommodate your life.

    And Rick, I really like how you say that good selling is being real. People think that they are somehow above sellling, or don’t want selling in their life. But selling is having the ability to tell people what you’re doing in a way that is intersting and meaningful to them. It’s being other-focused in a positive way, and it’s being conscious of the unique gifts you bring to the world.


  13. Greg Rollett
    Greg Rollett says:

    Being 24 as well, I have taken the step into a corporate gig in the field with which I wish to start my own business. What this did for me was give me the skills and confidence to do things on my spare time to make my company successful. Now still at the steady corporate job, I have started gaining new clients for my business, learn new tools and get paid to travel to conferences to learn more about the subject.

    That being said, without being with a good group of open minded college kids and having the freedom to throw around ideas, (and plenty of time to jump on the Myspace bus-which is my company)I would not be in a position to do the things that I’m doing.

    College is as much about the connections, networking, and experimentation as it is about the classes. And yes the student resource center is the most underused building on our campus too (UCF).

    Oh and love the story about the coffee shop in the dorm room, classic!

  14. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    I went through university in the 80s and pretty much studied the whole time I was there. I did attempt to do some volunteer work within my university department but they just gave me some photocopying to do which I didn’t mind doing but I never had an opportunity to learn too much about the office I was in. However, that was the time I was in. In the 80s it was easier to get a job interview and we more relaxed about things.

    Now, the opportunities for students have really grown! At my canadian university it’s not unusual for students to work on 2 degrees at the same time AND take on a co-op program. Do they have co-op programs in the US?. It is an extra year in university but the students get hands on experience at some very good companies in our city or some very cool projects on campus. If I were working on my degree now I would go this route. Also, volunteer gigs are now abundant and are good opportunities for leadership experiences. There is a lot of competition for these as well.

  15. observer
    observer says:


    Your last sentence is diametrically in opposition to what you said a couple of years ago. You previously had said it will be wasteful to stick to one plan, but now you say you need to figure out a fixed plan.

    What about you? Did you have a plan when you finished college?

    I generally used to read all your articles, but I am getting a little weary of them. You present no facts, just your brainwaves. You could be giving incorrect advice, and ruining lives out there.


  16. John Goodman
    John Goodman says:

    If you’re looking for “Flexibility and personal growth” entrepenuership isn’t necessarily the best answer. Working for yourself means the buck stops with you and that means probably lots of long hours, especially in the intial phase. And remember too, even in your own business you’ll be beholding to someone whether it’s customers, lenders, vendors and/or partners.

    As for selling Rick Terrien is spot on, selling is being truthful. But remember too, it’s also filling a need. You objective is to have your customer want to BUY from you. In most cases you’re going to have competition, so what you need to do is convince the customer that has a need that you can fulfill that need better than the other guy.

  17. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren
    Gerhi Janse van Vuuren says:


    The worst advice I ever received was from a ‘trained’ University counsellor with minimal life experience.

    People’s life’s are ruined if they don’t get what they want. Which is what I think Penelope’s is saying – find out what you want and go for it.

  18. Zena Lahdenpera
    Zena Lahdenpera says:

    I hadn’t ever thought about starting my own business until a friend of mine constantly came to me with ideas she wanted to start with my help. It was then that I realized that I REALLY didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working for someone else on their time for thirty years to finally reach the goals I wanted. Now I see my education as helping me become prepared for running my own business rather than making me look good for some other company. Yes, I will probably need to work for someone else for a while to gain experience but it now isn’t my long term goal. Loved the article!

    • gainsvillesun
      gainsvillesun says:

      I actually know of a few schools with Entrepreneurship majors. You should also go to a school with programs that you like, For example, if you want your own interior decorating company, you should probably go to a technical school for that. If you want to own your own Beauty academy, you should probably study at a hair/makeup school. If you want to own a construction business, learn the ropes of carpentry through work experience.

      School is important, but work experience and skill development far outweigh what school can teach in theory! Trust me, I am speaking from experience!

  19. Todd Beardsley
    Todd Beardsley says:

    It would be great if there was a class that you could take in college that would prepare you for running your own business. Unfortunately, there are no classes that can simulate the ups and downs of running your own company. There are so many variables involved; any education that would prepare someone would be skin deep at best.

  20. Todd Beardsley
    Todd Beardsley says:

    I actually know of a lot of schools that have programs that require students to start their own company. Many will do landscaping or painting companies, but I think the real-world experience is a great idea!

  21. Jeremy Brown
    Jeremy Brown says:

    As a recent graduate I can definitely say hanging around people who have that business or entrepreneurial mindset is super beneficial.

    I co-founded a sports marketing team for my college, and it taught me way more than any class ever did.

    Things like: how to communicate with a team, how to lead, how to interact with a community..stuff like that.

    Great post Penelope

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