An Exciting Time to be a Student Entrepreneur

Iconic companies like Google and Facebook were born in colleges, campus entrepreneurship in India too can and should get as big as it is in the USA

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Student entrepreneurship is big in the USA. There are venture capital (VC) funds exclusively focused on student startups. One such fund is First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, which has made pre-seed investments in more than 200 students found startups so far. Other popular funds include Rough Draft Ventures by General Catalyst and Contrary Capital. Top 10 American universities (by startup activities) created 1167 students led startups since 2017, according to data from Contrary Capital’s 2019 University Report. 

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In India, the scene is not yet the same, but it can be. In 2016, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) formulated a policy to promote student driven start- ups, which was launched by the then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. Many colleges are launching entrepreneurship cells and the government is backing them. The hunger and aspirations seems to be strong with today’s youngsters, along with support from family to go the startup route. Quality and cost of infrastructure like connectivity and cloud are great. It will be exciting to see what the future generation of creators in India come up with. Yet, starting up may feel like a scary endeavour for 

students. So, here are some thoughts on how youngsters can go about building a startup from college, quickly and frugally. 

Don’t Build Software Until You Have to: Add software infrastructure such as website or mobile app later, unless software itself is your product or your differentiator. Building your own technology delays launch. There are great technologies and platforms that can help you kickstart your business without you having to code until you have actually tested the market. Dunzo — Google’s first direct investment in India with $30.7 million raised till date — started as a service on WhatsApp groups and ran that way for nearly a year. Let's take a hypothetical example — you have designed better rain gear for Indian conditions (anything available in the market falls short for rains in India, especially for the massive number of two-wheeler riders we have here). You can always test your product on Amazon or Flipkart and get some early revenue before you start coding your own online shop and start worrying about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), payment gateway and other complexities. Most startups that pitch on the famous TV show Shark Tank are on Amazon and don’t have their own website at the time of their pitch. 

Do Small Experiments: Whether to test your idea or to build more competency in your space, trying out your offering with short term experiments can be a great way to start. Hypothetical example — a marketplace for sports staff (non-players like referees, commentators, scorekeepers, physios, coaches, announcers, cheerleaders, etc) for local sporting events. Before building an app, you can start by getting a few early supply-side partners (sports staff in this example) to join you so you can take up a few paid projects to understand the business better, understand demand and figure out challenges or opportunities that your startup can solve. 

Connect Your Startup Idea to Your Campus Project: Explore if you can tie- in your idea with your final year project. This not only gets the core team committed throughout most of the final year but also eliminates wasteful spending of time by repeating archaic projects already done by your seniors. What’s more, you have the backing of everyone including your college faculty. 

Keep an Eye on Startup Contests Run by Large Companies: For example, Boeing India’s BUILD programme. There are others like Google Launchpad’s India accelerator programme, Accenture Innovation Challenge, Pepsico’s Change The Game competition, etc. Such challenges keep coming up around the year and are open to or exclusive for students. Winning teams usually get one or more of funds, incubation, mentorship etc. More importantly, these are useful even to the teams that don’t end up winning the contest because the guidance and structure you will receive for your idea in the early days will be valuable. 

Speak with and Get Guidance From Your College Alumni: One reason college days is a great time to startup is that, everyone will be willing to help, especially alums of your college. Try and connect with people who have expertise in your space or in a specific area that you need help in such as finance, manufacturing, product engineering, etc. The experts you approach need not be entrepreneurs themselves. Besides guidance, the alumni network is a great source for making introductions to potential clients, partners or investors. You may even find alums who are interested in becoming your angel investors. 

The founders of two well known Indian startups — OYO Rooms and InShorts — were students, at least when the idea was conceived. They dropped out of college to pursue their idea. If the startup you are working on takes off very well, it can get hard to juggle business and academics. Dropping out is a tough call to make and will need a lot of support from family and friends. Perhaps, it is a price you pay when the greatest project of your life succeeds. After all, successful startups are scarce and you can't (shouldn’t) hit “pause” on a growing business. 

Not all startups succeed though. Not all successful businesses are billion-dollar ideas either. Opportunities may be niche, local needs as well. The experience as student founders, however, will be highly rewarding early in your career. The timing for more campus entrepreneurship to emerge in India may well be perfect! India development story looks good, the Reliance Jio effect has enabled a whole new bunch of first time Internet users which is opening opportunities, we are in a period of friendly policies and government encouragement for startups and many more supporting trends. Shawn Xu, Managing Partner at Dorm Room Fund tells me, he has received numerous inquiries from India about replicating Dorm Room Fund’s model here. We may see a campus focused VC in India soon. Growth in campus startup numbers can be immensely valuable for the economy and job creation. Colleges too will do well to back student entrepreneurs. In 5 to 10 years from now, enrolment may be driven by startup track record of colleges.