Our nation’s college students are today’s dreamers. Why? Because they can. Schools -- especially residential colleges -- are safe zones. That's a good thing.
In such protected, nurturing environments, students discover their passion and develop their gifts. This is true for entrepreneurial students as well: colleges now offer them opportunities to explore and validate their ideas. In addition to traditional learning, students can now experience how innovation becomes a business.
This “road less traveled” takes many unexpected twists and turns. Initial ideas fail. Product concepts and prototypes designed for one market begin to take hold in another. Personal income is deferred. Failure is inevitable.
But there’s one thing that can end the dream: the wake-up call of graduation.
When students graduate, the nurturing environment disappears and economic and social pressures, as well as fear of failure, pull them away from their ideas. How do we help them keep the dream alive?
1. Connect with mentors. One of the best things we can do to help entrepreneurs keep the dream alive is to help them network and cultivate mentors long before graduation approaches. Colleges and universities can do this well by bringing those not-so-recent alums, recent alums and current students who are pursuing the dream together with younger entrepreneurial students. Entrepreneurship is a lonely calling. Experiential entrepreneurial education is valuable. But encouragement and wisdom from role models, especially near peers, is priceless.
2. Minimize risks and bootstrap. Entrepreneurs, especially younger ones, cannot afford to wildly spend time and money on things they shouldn’t be. They can reduce the cost of the resources they need by being resourceful and by constantly minimizing their risks. The former we call “bootstrapping” and the latter we call “starting lean.” The essence of being resourceful is finding people who share the entrepreneur’s vision and passion. The essence of starting lean is conducting experiments to validate customer demand, the business model, technical feasibility and scalability. I find Ash Maurya’s Running Lean one of the best investments entrepreneurs can make because the book outlines a methodology for building a business before running out of resources.
3. Stay focused on the dream. Parents, peers and significant others tend to encourage financial security. Thus, as graduation approaches, many entrepreneurial students wake up from the dream and seek a more predictable way of life than what entrepreneurship offers.
But they shouldn’t quit. There are resources out there to help new entrepreneurs bootstrap their startups. An important lesson to learn is that ideas are a “dime a dozen.” In contrast, ideas of value are those that have been validated by the market. The best validation is a customer order. Short of customer orders, there is customer interest in prototypes, “landing pages,” “minimum viable product” concepts, and the like. The point is this: cash is available via business incubators and competitions given a validated idea.
Here’s the rub: students have more time and flexibility to take advantage of those opportunities than do graduates trying to build a career. Entrepreneurial graduates can get a job with Company XYZ, but they can also plan ahead to keep the dream alive while in college by sharing it with the next cohort of entrepreneurial students. A portion of something is better than all of nothing.
Society tells entrepreneurial students to “get a job.” But society also needs dreamers who create businesses rather than work for them. Graduation doesn’t have to be a fork in the road.