Sun. Jul 14th, 2024
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    Student entrepreneurship - one ultimate test of willpower 3

    “Starting a business is not an easy endeavour.” We have all heard this statement probably way too many times. In this post I’m focusing on a particular group of fire starters – those who do so when they are still studying towards their degrees (mostly undergraduate) a.k.a student entrepreneurs (If you want to have a quick read into what made me create my first startup when I was still doing my undergrad, I have typed a quick backstory at the end of this post).

    With what I have done so far, I have been quite privileged to be asked to present to students who want to start businesses. The biggest was being a guest presenter and later guest judge (because that day Justin Spratt was caught up finalising Quirk’s rumoured R400 million acquisition so I had to step in his place alongside Keith Jones, founder of Sw7 and Marco Broccardo, founder of Colony) at the MIT Global Startup Labs. My message has been consistent – you think starting a business is hard? Try run a startup when you are still in university! I admittedly haven’t lived long enough but so far this has been the hardest endevour I have put myself through. There are a couple of reasons why I say this (Note: These are not complaints and some assertions are based on assumptions people have):

    • Lack of finances and resources – There is the common saying that you do not need money to start a business. I partly don’t agree with that. When your meeting is at Microsoft and you have no option but to walk 10km to get there because you have no cent on you, you start to realise how money can fast track some progress in your startup. Don’t get me wrong, raising too much money too quickly is bad, granted, but, generally student finances are in the red and not having liquidity to take your product to market to create enough runway before revenues is a source of huge pain and challenges. After working for a while in corporate, if things went well, your bank will probably have a couple of zeros that you can live on for a while before your startup starts generating revenues.
    • Lack of connections– Want to succeed in a startup? You need to know who to call and when to call them. Problem is most student entrepreneurs I have spoken to do not know any decision makers in a potential partner or customer company. Without getting too historical, the way SA is structured makes this incredibly worse for some who do not have uncles or aunts to call up on to help them set up meetings at target companies. My case was complex considering I’m a foreign student and working on a startup without say the support of ex-classmates to call on presented interesting challenges. Connections automatically come when you work long enough in corporate and, if you worked well with others, meetings can be set up much quicker.
    • Lack of practical knowledge – We all have gone through university and we all know how we used to cram mostly because that is just how undergraduate studies are structured. I did Applied Maths and you would think I was “applying” some calculations to scenarios. Nope. We were told to cram proofs and processes! Even in my other major, Pure Maths. It was all about memorising and reproducing in an exam. Some degrees are not like this but undergraduate studies are structured to give you basic knowledge of the field. When you are creating a startup whose product you will present for use by the public, some of this knowledge is too theoretical and not very useful. I found Wits Computer Science who were amazed that I coded IQmates by myself. I think it was because they were taught many languages in the three year undegrad degree to just get the basics in place. I’m not better than them or a coding guru but maybe my advantage was being more focused on “one” set of languages. Lack of practical knowledge also includes seemingly simple business etiquette: How to network effectively. How to send an email requesting a meeting. Knowing to say thank you after the meeting. Knowing corporate procurement cycles and how ED or CSI funding works (quite relevant as most of our startups are B2B). What about budgeting and money management?
    • Lack of a team – This comes about because of other factors like lack of finances or connections. When you are a student entrepreneur, it is difficult to build a team that is willing to work possibly 20 hours a day without any form of payment. Because of how SA is structured, most students just want to study and go work so they can get that paycheck and look after their families or pay off bank loans. Startups are too risky with very little proven rewards. Without a team, one is left with no option but to go at it alone. This also includes getting a mentor. That’s one common question I get: How do you get a mentor? Many students who have brilliant ideas obviously do not have the business know-how and cannot find someone to coach them through the process or let me say do not know how to do that. If you have worked for a bit, you know who’s who and you can call up friends that have been in corporate for 10+ years and miss the thrill from the uncertainty of creating something new.
    • Lack of stamina – When you are older and have more responsibilities, one challenge is getting into business. If you do make the jump, your stamina is likely to be more fueled by “those who depend on your success”. What I have seen with most students is they give up way to easily and quickly when things start getting rough. I have heard some brilliant student-focused ideas being pitched but as soon as the challenges start setting, many student founders run back to their safe zones or to the corporate world. This is not a shaming game, it’s a post to highlight the challenges.
    • Lack of balance – Some startups founded by students that I have come across have died not because of the reasons above but because founders failed to strike a balance between mainly their academics and their fledgling business. I don’t want to pretend like I had this figured out. With my backstory below, you can tell how many long nights it took me to get IQmates up and running. Sometimes it did eat into my school days. With the government’s recent proposal that entrepreneurship should be a compulsory course for students studying BCom, I hope this will take the “out of school” learnings into the classroom and allow the student to know how it is like to start and run a business, at least the theoretical part of it, without leaving campus.

    This might seem like a post riddled with complaints. On the contrary, it is actually a motivational post to students (and others alike) who might be undiscovered entrepreneurs. Reason is because these are challenges almost every entrepreneur faces one point in time and because entrepreneurs are, at their core, problem solvers faced with low odds and challenges, being told how difficult and sometimes impossible something is should be a source of motivation! It is going to be difficult. Some things are going to be impossible. If you are a student, multiply that by a thousand. Divide that by two because of advantages like few responsibilities and you will see exactly how starting a business while still studying is one of the truest ways to see a person’s resolve and willpower.

    PS: Backstory

    I, like many university students who have passed high school, became a private tutor. I had two students, Jordin studying Grade 10 NSC and Tasnim doing Grade 12 IEB. I was taking them for Maths but every week they would both forget things discussed the previous one and we would spend quite a significant amount of time revisiting already learnt concepts. Forgetting was not their fault. That’s just how humans were wired. So I thought what if I recorded videos after each lesson emphasizing the content that they can watch anytime, anywhere for as many times as deemed necessary? I looked around for a platform where I could upload this but, great as they are and how brilliantly they work, I was not comfortable using YouTube and Facebook because of the many distractions present. As someone who never did Computer Science, I remember the day and the blue and white stripped jersey I was wearing when I Googled “How did they make Facebook”. Results came up talking about HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, MySQL, AJAX queries, Sessions, Cookies – all, as they say, Greek to someone who was doing an undergraduate degree at Wits University. To cut the long story short, I charted out where to begin studying, thanks to the YouTube channel Eli The Computer Guy, literally spent 3 straight months sleeping in the Computer Science lab at school every single night learning how to code. It was quite emotionally and physically draining but I had an idea and I needed to create a platform that I hoped not only Jordin and Tasnim can benefit from but anyone from anywhere in South Africa. When I launched the first version of the website, I quickly realised creating a product is a whole lot different from creating a business and that is the period when the pains of student entrepreneurship hit me.

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