How to build a successful startup as a student

Updated: Mar 11

We’ve seen how Facebook started inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room. Over on the West Coast, Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin whilst they were both PhD students at Stanford. Other notable examples of student-founded ventures include Yahoo, Reddit, Dropbox and Snapchat.

Why isn’t campus entrepreneurship as widespread in the UK?

The main barriers to entrepreneurship are a lack of access to entrepreneurial best practices and a lack of a support network throughout the entrepreneurial journey. Building interdisciplinary co-founding teams can also be quite challenging for UK students due to the way degree programmes are structured and due to some universities offering a much narrower spectrum of degree options.

At Kickstart, we actively work to dismantle barriers to entrepreneurship for students in our London-based startup generator program that brings together aspiring entrepreneurs from all over London to build companies that users love. We have already helped remove these barriers for companies like Motics, a physiotherapy MedTech startup who went from strangers to winners of the F Factor after meeting at the Kickstart Team Formation Weekend.

Based on our experience helping student founders, we have compiled a list of things that would help all students get started with entrepreneurship.

1. Find a problem

Many students who are interested in entrepreneurship often get stuck when they think that they ‘don’t have an idea’. The way around this is to stop thinking about finding ideas and start thinking about finding problems to solve. Businesses inherently solve problems that people would pay money to solve. Because of this, finding a significant problem is the first step to increasing your chances of acquiring paying customers later down the line.

At this point, it is also worth thinking about what makes you really excited. Building a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Working to find a problem you are truly passionate about will go a long way in terms of helping you keep up motivation throughout your journey.

2. Talk to other people who have that problem

The worst thing you can do as an aspiring founder with an idea you believe is great is to tell no one about it. The fear of someone ‘stealing your idea’ is a common one amongst those just starting with actively exploring entrepreneurship, and it is an important one to get rid of.

Talking to other people who have the problem you are trying to solve is a great way to learn more about it. In fact, in the process of talking to people about your original problem, you might find an even bigger related problem.

As a student, you are surrounded by an environment where you can find people who are interested in just about anything. University societies are a great place to start, especially if they actively bring in speakers from different walks of life. It might be useful to polish your LinkedIn profile to connect with the various industry professionals you meet at society events. When doing so, remember to polish your connect messages as blank invites are less likely to work!

3. Build something quickly and fail fast

‘Failing fast’ might seem like a counterintuitive piece of advice when you are trying to build a successful business. However, many startups actually fail when they spend a lot of time and resources building things that people don’t want. If you find a significant problem, some people with that problem will be desperate enough to find any solution. These people tend to go on to become ‘early adopters’ of startup products and services.

After you have spoken to a few people and are confident that you have found a good problem you’d like to solve, it’s best to build something that solves that problem, or at least a part of it. Then let people who have the problem use it.

At this point, it is important to build something that delivers the intended value to the customer whilst spending as little time and resources as possible. This is traditionally called the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ (MVP).

If you are a high achiever at university, it might be hard to put out something into the world that you aren’t 100% happy with, but early testing is one of the best and cheapest ways to learn more about the problem. These days there are lots of free, cheap and easy ways to make prototypes so early testing is definitely affordable - even on a student budget.

In the vast majority of cases, it is possible to build things without a tech background or any coding skills. At this stage, the focus should be on delivering value to the user to solve their problem, and not on the technical specifications of your product.

4. Find a co-founder

Starting a business is considered by some Venture Capitalists as a ‘team sport’. It takes a lot of time and skill to build a business and it’s hard to find single individuals who have all the necessary skills to develop a particular solution. This is especially important for student entrepreneurs if they want to go work for their ventures full-time after graduation.

Sharing the journey with other people who are also passionate about the problem you are solving will help when personal motivations hits lows (trust us it will). Being in a team also increases the chances of getting outside investment. When looking for a co-founder, it is good to consider what skills you do not currently have and find someone who can fill those gaps. For example, if you are great at coding but aren’t that confident in your business skills, you should look for someone who is!

When investors assess early-stage startup teams one of the things they assess is the team chemistry, or how the co-founders interact with each other in the context of the business you are trying to set up. Personality has often been studied with regards to entrepreneurial success. Excessive optimism, for example, has been negatively linked with startup performance so if you tend to be very optimistic, it is worth having a co-founder who can bring in a touch of realism and balance to the business.

Tapping into your own network at university is a good place to start looking for a co-founder. University societies are, as previously mentioned, a good place to start. Some students have even managed to find great co-founders on university confessions pages (true story) so these less conventional methods are also worth a try.

5. Measure your performance and iterate

Think about the key drivers of your learning. Measuring things from the number of potential customers you have spoken with this week or time spent on your site means that you can measure your progress and implement changes to improve your solution. When your metrics stop improving and you have learned everything you can from the current iteration of your solution, you know it is time to go back to the building stage and improve based on the insights from the first stage.

For established businesses, revenue is often the key indicator of performance. However, do not be discouraged if no one is offering you money for your solution yet. Many startups, such as Citymapper, had to raise external capital and work for many months without generating revenue before they got their first paying customer. Every entrepreneur’s journey is different and it’s important to consider your key performance indicators (KPIs) in the context of what your problem and solution are.

6. Have the courage to change your course

As suggested in previous sections, the early stages of an entrepreneur’s journey are all about maximising learning. Changing your course based on your learnings whilst being partially rooted in your original position is commonly called ‘pivoting’.

There are many types of pivots. For example, you could start off by thinking that one group of people is in most need for your solution, but in the process of testing it, you discover that a separate group is a better target market. Alternatively, you might find out that your solution doesn’t actually solve the biggest problem the target customer is facing and that it is better to focus on another problem of the same customer segment.

Many startups end up doing something completely different from what they originally intended to do but still find success through iterative learning. Slack, a popular business messaging platform which we love at Kickstart, was born when the team behind Flickr realised their new video game was a failure. Instead of giving up completely, they decided to try and commercialise their internal messaging system.

7. Invest in yourself

University is a great time to spend time to build more skills. Even if you find a co-founder who can compensate for some of the skills you lack, taking the time to learn more about your industry, basic HTML, another language for a promising future market etc. could help set you up for greater successes in the future. Codecademy, Udemy are great places to look for relevant courses. For those that prefer learning on the go, Mimo (think Duolingo for coding languages) is also a good alternative.

Another great way to invest your time is to read the relevant literature. We recommend starting by reading ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries and ‘The Mom Test’ by Rob Fitzpatrick for some solid entrepreneurial inspiration!

8. Build around your studies, not instead of them

As much as we love hearing about brave college drop-outs like Bill Gates who manage to build multi-billion businesses without a full degree, it’s important to acknowledge that entrepreneurship carries a lot of personal risks.

Building a startup, even if it fails, gives you an array of transferable skills that employers find increasingly more valuable but they would not necessarily drop the 2:1 requirement for their grad scheme. Although you might find yourself skipping a lecture or two to meet with a potential customer or someone who is very well-connected within your industry, you still have to prepare for the possibility that for whatever reason, you’ll need another job after graduation.

That said, investors won’t really care about your exact grades beyond the degree classification and instead will concentrate on your skills and experiences.

9. Don’t forget about self-care

Being an entrepreneur involves experiencing a lot of intense feelings across the whole spectrum of emotions. Some days, you could spend four to five hours cold-calling potential customers without any leads only to be hit by a rejection email from a funding body you applied to. On others, you get a response back from someone amazing who you’d never thought would give you the time of day. For truly passionate founders, the line between their own identity and their business can become extremely blurred to successes or failures of the business significantly affect how founders view themselves. This is why self-care becomes really important to decrease the risk of burnout.

In the low instances, it is good to have a support network who you are comfortable sharing with. As a student, there are so many other stress-inducing things going on in our lives that entrepreneurial failure can seem too much to handle at times so it’s important to recognise when it’s a good time to take a short break from work and when it’s time to focus on rebuilding your own motivation.

10. Sign up to the Kickstart mailing list

The easiest thing you can do right now is to sign up to the Kickstart mailing list. We are currently building an online startup generator where students will get access to free bi-weekly online lessons guiding you through the journey of being an aspiring entrepreneur to getting your first round of investment.

For a price of a single coffee a month, you will also get access to exclusive forums where you can meet potential co-founders and other perks like Q&A sessions with our startups and mentors.

We're keen to hear from students about what other features and benefits you'd like us to develop so drop us your email to get an invitation to the beta launch!

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Student Founders Global Limited

Company Number: 12179186