Ever since a group of college students created Facebook from the confines of a dorm, the idea of student start-ups has gained credibility and traction amongst tech-savvy millennials. The successful social networking company’s humble roots has offered inspiration for many young and ambitious student entrepreneurs. In fact, according to Rohit Agarwal, U3 Engineering student and the president of the McGill Entrepreneurship Society, university is the optimal time to start a company or an organization.
“There was this amazing line from Sam Haffar [co-founder of Chegg] who started his company when he was a student,” Agarwal explained. “He said, ‘As a student, your standards of living are low and your expectations are high. Right now, you don’t have to afford a high level of living, and you don’t have to feed anyone. If you have an idea, its easy to get started right now.’”
This sentiment was echoed by Clark Wiebe, U3 Science student and founder of Fit for a Cause (FFAC), an organization that raises funds through by-donation, student-led fitness classes, of which 100 per cent of the profits go to charity. Wiebe encourages those thinking of creating their own organization to get started now.
“[University is] probably the best time of your life to start anything,” Wiebe said. “It’s the time where everyone that surrounds you believes, and is convinced anything is possible. You are never surrounded by that sort of environment for the rest of your life, and it’s a tremendous resource to have.”
Contrary to popular perception, the idea behind a start-up does not have to be revolutionary or technologically innovative. It can exist alongside similar products, but it must have a Unique Selling Point (USP), backed by thorough and specific market research that ensures that the same product is not already out there. Take Snapchat, for example. Despite the fact that thousands of photo-sharing apps already existed, Snapchat added a USP where photos were only visible for up to 10 seconds. The company found its niche, and things clicked from there; the company is currently valued at $10 billion.
“If you are not different, why would people come to you?” Agarwal said. “You should know what the problem is, and how your startup is solving it differently. Who are your clients and what are their needs and desires?”
Furthermore, it is important to take inspiration from local needs.
“You can get ideas from just looking around and thinking of products that solve the problems that surround you,” said Tom Zheng, a recent McGill graduate who co-founded Wildcard—a Montreal night-life membership card—while still in school. “The value of your company should be directly related to the value it is giving back to society.”
In order to construct an idea, Agarwal suggested utilizing the resources at McGill—in particular other students.
“Don’t think that if you tell someone else your idea they will steal it,” Agarwal said. “Frankly speaking, this never happens because chances are some form of the idea already exists out in the world. But if you start talking to people, you get a lot more feedback and you get the opportunity to refine your idea.”
Additionally, certain student groups on campus seek to help students in their ventures. McGill’s Entrepreneurship Society connects students with local Montreal venture funds, such as Real Ventures and iNovia Capital, which offer free consultations with venture capitalists that can answer tough questions about business or law, and perhaps even offer investment. According to Wiebe, professors can also be a useful resource.
Similarly, students, alumni, and even faculty and staff members can enter the annual McGill Dobson Cup, a Dragon’s Den-like case competition where students from all faculties compete for start-up capital. Entering the Cup provides mentorship and validation of an idea by judges who have worked in industry for a number of years, and can provide advice on the merits of an idea. In addition to mentorship, it is the best opportunity for McGill students to get funding, offering over $60,000 in prize money.
Another massive factor in a start-up is the quality of the team involved.
“If the team is not thinking as one, if there are uneven levels of commitment or different ideas about the vision, it starts to go downhill,” Agarwal said. “But with a good team, you can survive […] the ups and the downs, even if the idea is not fool-proof.”
Zheng echoed the importance of finding the right people to create a start-up.
“You have to find someone who’s smarter than you, crazier than you, willing to take higher risks than you,” Zheng said. “If you find someone that is better at what you are doing than you, make that [person] your business partner. Finding a good business partner is like finding love; it just happens, and you know it’s right.”
After the platform and the team have been solidified, the next step is simple: Get started.
“People somehow think there is a set process,” Zheng said. “There isn’t. You have an idea in your head, you write it down, and you say, ‘What’s next?’”
Above all else, start-up hopefuls must ensure they are fully committed to the steps necessary to creating their company. Both Zheng and Agarwal agree that student entrepreneurship means you have to reorganize your priorities, as there are many sacrifices and risks that you must be prepared to take in order to keep the company afloat.
“If you decide to make a commitment, you have to stay true to do it,” said Ameya Pendse, a U3 political science and history student who co-founded the Carte M Card student discount last October. “You can’t just think of a business idea and expect it to just happen."
“There’s day-to-day work that you have to take into account, and if you’re a student, you have to understand that your grades are going to take a hit,” Pendse continued. “[My partner and I] would often miss whole days of class, each taking a different area of Montreal and going to over 50 businesses door-to-door. So before you make the commitment, make sure you want it that badly.”
In addition to building the model, getting visibility for the product also takes work.
“Social media is not enough,” Pendse said. “You need to have events, go to the Y-intersection, and stand there handing out free cards [to promote your product.]”
Pendse stated that took a huge risk when building his company. In addition to missing class, he gambled his tuition money by using it as funding for his company. Fortunately, he was able to not only break even, but also make a profit from Carte M Card, although he acknowledges that this is often not the case.
In fact, most start-ups rarely see immediate profit, if any at all. Companies will fail over and over again before they succeed, which, due to the lack of glamour in failure, is rarely reported in the media.
“There is this perception that startups are the short-cuts to success, but it just does not work like this,” Zheng said. “If you are in this for the money, you’re in the wrong business. You are in a space where companies don’t make money for a long time. And the same team that you see starting the big, successful company, has most likely failed 10 times before.”
The prospect of failure and the immense commitment are often what deters students from starting their own startups. Zheng says the biggest roadblock he encountered was self-doubt as a result of these two factors.
“When your GPA tanks […], when you have gotten rejected multiple times, when you are not performing your duties, that gets to you, and you begin to question everything,” he said. “You are going to be critical of yourself and you are going to be disappointed in yourself.”
So why continue despite the high failure rate and what Zheng refers to as an unspeakable stress? Because there is the possibility of success, and even if the company tanks, both Zheng and Pendse agree that the experience is worth it.
“I learned how to make contracts,” Pendse said. “I learned how to deal with businesses, to negotiate, how different people operate, [and] basic business skills. If we learn about any of those things at McGill it is all through a textbook. But to learn it by experience was very cool, especially at the age of 20.”
Furthermore, Zheng remarked that for those who are driven, fear of failure will not be a barrier.
“If you believe in what you believe in, you’re going to go for it and try to be among the [small per cent] of companies that succeed,” he said. “If you think you can succeed where others have failed, there’s no reason you shouldn’t do it.”
In general, Zheng also stated the entrepreneurial path has been beneficial to his spirit and sense of self.
“[I gained] the ability to understand that it isn’t that hard to change the world for the better,” Zheng said. “You gain skills but you also understand what you as an individual are capable of, and that you can do more than you thought you could.”
Agarwal agreed, stating that there is no limitation to the possibility that you could contribute something meaningful to the world.
“There’s always a problem and always a solution,” Agarwal said. “If you keep your eyes open and keep looking around, you never know when you can hit the billion-dollar idea.”