Encouraging Student Entrepreneurship: demystifying the startup world

Boston’s Innovation Month is in full bloom and there is tremendous excitement in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. We are seeing a level of startup activity that has not been seen in almost a decade, with new companies emerging in both new and old sectors: e.g. IT, Life Sciences and Cleantech.

There are many reasons why Boston remains a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship: fantastic research output from local universities, presence of top business schools, significant corporate footprint in growth sectors, and availability of investment capital for early stage companies.  In addition to above, there is also tremendous talent available for startups to recruit from. It is reported that more than 250,000 students study in institutions of higher learning just around Cambridge and Boston, and many more beyond that. This is an amazing talent pool that refreshes each year, and while it participates actively in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it is my belief that it still remains largely underdeveloped.

A little over a year ago a few of us got together in a room to discuss the local startup deal flow and realized that we were not seeing as many awesome ‘student’ entrepreneurs as we would expect from a region like ours. Instead of only debating reasons for it, we decided to create a program to actively find student entrepreneurs and encourage/promote/support/mentor them. Our thesis was, and remains, that if all graduating science and engineering majors (and grad students as well) actively considered entrepreneurship as a viable career option, we would not only see a dramatic increase in startup activity, but we would also see the quality of student entrepreneurs improve. We think we may not be seeing as many great student entrepreneurs emerge partly because they choose more typical career paths before our entrepreneurial ecosystem plants the startup bug in them.

Under the auspices of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), we kicked off a program last year (called ENTER) to promote informal and frank interaction at local science and engineering universities between students who are recommended by their own peers as having potential to be the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Desh Deshpande, and successful founders/CEOs and investors. We started with a town-hall type meeting in the fall where Chris Hughes (co-founder Facebook), Paul English (co-founder Kayak), Jeff Taylor (founder, Monster.com) and approximately 300 students and entrepreneurs attended, and over the past year organized monthly ‘meet-ups’ at Dartmouth, Boston University, Babson/Olin colleges, MIT and Harvard.

The format of our meetups has been kept simple by design. Fifteen or so students meet with 4-5 successful entrepreneurs and investors for approximately 2 hours of frank, open, informal and informative discussion. It’s a small enough group that people develop an acquaintance of each other. Over 200 students and 25 successful entrepreneurs joined us at these. Stated goals of the conversation are to : (a) encourage students to consider a career in entrepreneurship, (b) provide candid but helpful feedback on ideas brought to the table, and (c) demystify the founders’ journey and answer any questions people have about the startup world.

The program will continue next year on the same university campuses and others. As a VC myself, I suggest we realize that the best of the best students are likely not crowding our wine and cheese networking parties, but are rather in their dorm rooms working away on hard problems for class projects. Our meet-ups take place on-campus to make it at least a bit easier for students to join.  And we spend a lot of our goodwill, our friends’ goodwill and political capital to especially get students to join who belong there but may not be automatically inclined to, or even know about us.
We have observed and learned a few things along the way that I would like to share here:

-    These meetups would quickly become useless if the quality of students and the professionals did not stay high. That directly affects the quality of the discourse in the room, and leads to the feeling of “it was probably worth my time” when individuals leave the room.
-    We can only find our ideal pool of students by having other students identify and encourage them to come. Many of our best student ‘entrepreneurs’ came because a friend convinced (forced or cajoled) them to at least see if it was worth their time. Some came just for a pizza and a chance to meet some other students.
-    Students join because this is not an event sponsored by one venture capital group or a law firm. Attendees from the ‘professional side’ represent a broad spectrum of people who are supportive of developing a strong student-focused entrepreneurial eco-system.
-    CEOs, startup founders and investors, who are otherwise hard to find time with, come to this not for deal flow but to meet new people who might be young but are found working on some of the toughest and most challenging problems. The contribution of these mentors to this effort has been absolutely awesome! We hope to motivate more to join us next year.
-    There are not enough opportunities for students to have a meaningful and long enough conversation with entrepreneurs who have been successful and can be looked up to by them. Networking events sometimes tend to encourage meeting lots of people for <2-3 mins each, passing your business card around, or pitching an idea in 30 seconds, and classroom lectures by luminaries leave barely 10-15 minutes at the end of the lecture for interaction. Sometimes people just want to talk and find enough air-time on both sides of the conversation.
-    There is tremendous excitement among students about entrepreneurship, but there are not enough resources to help them understand the journey that entrepreneurs go through along the way. It has been interesting to observe the difference in questions that students asked at different universities – highlighting where more effort was needed to educate students on what it means to start a company. On some campuses questions revolved around the basics while at others, students were already starting to think about the mechanics of company registration and option plans.
-    We discussed some fascinating ideas that students were developing businesses around: from mobile apps for sharing events to systems for managing train schedules, from modernizing alternative medicine practice to high throughput small molecule drug discovery, from sustainable/green dinnerware & utensils to novel recycling concepts, from mobile personal trackers to novel shopping concepts for Middle East, and from new database structures to energy demand-response management in India.
-    There are some issues that I observed several students struggling with and want to highlight them here. If you are among those who have the privilege of either teaching or interacting with these brilliant people, you might want to find opportunities to proactively address these with them:

  • I have many ideas. How do I choose one to focus on for my startup?
  • How do I know if my idea is a good one?
  • Should I really not take that investment banking, consulting, or engineering job and build a resume first, so I am not seen as a kid with a crazy idea?
  • What kind of business plan do I need to write? Some people suggest it needs to be at least 25 pages long, others swear by a power-point presentation.
  • How does one find a co-founder? Who is a co-founder vs an early employee?
  • I can’t pay anyone so how do I pay early team members, lawyers etc?
  • Should I drop out of college to start a company around this idea that I really like, or wait until graduation?
  • I am really busy with studies, so I only get a few hours a week to work on my idea. How can I find some financial support to dedicate my summer to the idea?
  • If I share my business plan with other people to get their feedback, won’t they steal it?
  • When is a good time in the company to bring in industry expertise and experienced/older management team?
  • Can I get some legal help around IP etc even if I cannot pay for it now?
  • Will investors ever fund somebody as young as me?
  • My idea cannot be prototyped for cheap (perhaps in med-tech or cleantech), so what do you suggest I do?
  • Do I need a professor to sponsor me to start a company? Will my university ever license IP to an undergraduate student?
  • Can I develop my idea further by turning it into class projects? Does that make IP issues more complicated?
  • I am an international student. Can I start a company if I am on a student visa?
  • Which is the better preparation for my own startup someday: internship in an existing startup, or spending the summer prototyping for my own idea?
  • I have college loans to pay. Is it still smart to not take a high paying job but to start a company?
  • Many successful entrepreneurs have had failures in the past. When do you know that its time to shut down and start on a new idea?
  • Will a failed startup early in my career destroy future job prospects?
  • So on and so forth…

I think you get the picture of how valuable some of these conversations may have been for all those involved. While many of these questions can be (and have been) answered in online blogs, articles and posts, there is huge value in real person-to-person interaction. In person advice seems more genuine, more tuned to specific situations, and less generic. Students want to see and get to know those who are success stories. They want mentors and role-models, and those who may already be well-networked and want to hear about new ideas and fresh thinking.

All the students and ‘mentors’ who joined the sessions developed an acquaintance with each other which we will try to cultivate on an ongoing basis via popular social networking tools. I think it is at least a bit easier now for students who attended our meet-up to call one of the 4-5 experts that joined their session – without feeling that a call/email will be met with instant delete. I have been approached by many students afterwards seeking feedback on their ideas, and/or for introductions to other people I might know who can help them better. That is how, in my opinion, strong networks and ecosystems develop and grow. And we really need to do that in Boston. We have a great thing going, but now we need to find ways to bring new people into the flow – especially those who are capable of truly exceptional thinking – and introduce them to all the fantastic resources that may be available to them.

I'm interested in hearing feedback from this post, so feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions by leaving a comment below.

You can follow ENTER via Twitter @EnterBoston or on our Facebook page located here.

Bilal Zuberi is a Principal with General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge, MA.  You can find additional content on his blog called BZNotes!  You can also follow him on Twitter - @bznotes.