When I explain to new friends or acquaintances what I do, I almost always get the same follow up question.
“What did you major in?”
I help businesses set up marketing funnels and content marketing strategies. None of what I use in my day-to-day business is something I learned in a classroom. Though I did lay the foundations for my business at university.
This question points to a major problem with our educational system and our attitude toward it. It implies that you need permission from a university to do what you want to do. Many see a degree as “permission” to do something or to pursue a certain career, even though most people never end up doing work related to their field of study (aside from those who earn professional degrees or something in engineering).
Take a look at this graph released by the Washington Post. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 27 percent of graduates get jobs related to their field of study.
Still, students strain to choose a major that will lead to a career they enjoy and will fulfill them. This also deceives students into thinking that since they are earning a degree that will help them get a job, they don’t need to do work outside of their assigned studies to develop themselves.
Though the knowledge you gain in a classroom is important, without something practical and tangible in your life to apply it to, you can’t tell what information is valuable to you, and you forget the majority of it before you get a chance to make good use of it.
A common joke / cliche among students at university is talking about “the real world” as some distant entity that is in the future. They speak of it with an ironic tone, which helps them forget that they are the butt of this joke, that the real world is right now.
It’s no surprise that this philosophy is so prevalent among young students. It’s something that had been embedded into every step of their education. Middle school is preparation for high school, high school for college, college for the rest of your life, and every step of the way their teachers warn that the next level is when things “really get serious”.
Instead of preparing students to be successful in “the real world,” our education system keeps them far away from it until they have no choice but to dive in head-first.
What leads to good grades in the classroom is crippling outside of it. The real world does not include syllabi or grading rubrics. We’re taught to follow instructions, don’t take risks, seek permission and fit in with the group. This leads to mediocre results in the workplace and life in general.
The solution – the entrepreneurial mindset
More and more students are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. Where job markets are stagnating, the promise of entrepreneurship seems to be better than ever.
“Despite a sluggish economy, 2012 was marked by U.S. entrepreneurs reporting greater optimism and confidence in their abilities to start new businesses.” Global Entrepreneurship Monitor U.S. report
It has never been easier to create something interesting and valuable, so instead of lining up with thousands of other hungry students for a desk job, why not create something that excites you and supports you? But what it takes to break into the entrepreneurial scene is very different than the well worn career path most universities advise you to go down.
Whether or not you want to be an entrepreneur, an artist, a doctor or anything in between, I believe that adopting an entrepreneurial mindset and developing an entrepreneurial skillset while in university can have a massive impact on the results and opportunities you get when you graduate.
The entrepreneurial skillset helps us find new opportunities and perspectives, be different from the crowd and take action to get what we want. To develop these skills, you need to take action and learn from both your victories and failures; you can’t build these skills just by discussing theories or abstract subjects.
Developing a business or a personal brand forces you out of the “scheduled” mindset that many students get stuck in after so many years of education. To grow a business or brand, you need to act and make your own decisions. There’s no syllabus or grades, so you have to follow your intuition to make it work. You stop looking for permission and start looking for opportunities to take action.
This will spill over into all areas of your life; you’ll stop waiting for permission to do something and start taking action to make it a reality.
Starting a business or personal brand in school
“Your brand is a gateway to your true work. You know you are here to do something – to create something or help others in some way. The question is, how can you set up your life and work so that you can do it? The answer lies in your brand. When you create a compelling brand you attract people who want the promise of your brand – which you deliver.” – Dave Buck
Starting a small side business or personal brand while you are in school can have a dramatic impact on your education and the opportunities you get afterward. It is an opportunity to get out of the abstract ideas you get in the classroom and actually test yourself in “the real world”.
There any many different models for businesses that are easy to get started and don’t require much money to get off the ground. Even if it is not your dream to be running a business like the ones listed below, they serve as a great starting point that you can use to break into the entrepreneurial scene from your dorm room.
- A niche site – A niche site usually focused on a certain product or type of products and offers information related to the product to increase awareness of it. Sites like this make money by attracting traffic and making a commission if someone who visits their site ends up buying the product. These sites usually take a while to build up traffic, but once you [unfinished sentence]
Corey Ames put together a small niche site in his spare time while studying abroad in Spain. It was a great way to create a small stream of income while developing skills in marketing and management. Though his goal was simply to make enough money so he did not have to work a part-time job, the success of his site inspired him to continue down the path of entrepreneurship.
- Develop your personal brand – One of the best ways to develop a personal brand is to put together a simple website and begin to collect your ideas, observations and stories in a blog. Focus on a theme you are passionate about; if it captures your attention, there’s likely many more people out there who feel the same.
Personal brands start small, but can grow into something incredible that impacts many people’s lives. You can start with something simple like a blog, podcast or Youtube channel that discusses challenges you have had or overcome, a craft or art you enjoy, or anything that captures your imagination.
Taylor Pearson started with a small blog discussing the trends in entrepreneurship and productivity. He consistently produced thoughtful articles and slowly started building an email list. He used this brand as a platform to release his first book The End Of Jobs and become a bestselling author.
- Create a unique product – With crowdfunding tools, it has never been easier to create a new and unique product and bring it to life. Many students have been able to launch a new product while still in school. Companies like Power Practical and Soul Poles were started by students. Both of these companies used crowdfunding to help launch their first product and had customers pay them for it before it was even created.
You may not need a great deal of funding to get started. Other student businesses like MadeReal have a unique subscription based snack service.
- Serve other businesses – Offering professional services to other businesses is easier than you might think. There are many ways you can have an impact on a business, especially with marketing services. This also can be very profitable if you are good at what you do. It’s easy to learn the basics of these skills and add value to the people you work with. See if you can use some of your elective hours to get a start with these skills or use an online platform such as Digital Marketer or Udemy.
- Social media marketing
- Search engine optimization
- Conversion optimization
- Content marketing
- Tech support
- Design / Photography
While I was in school, I started Conversion Cake. I helped businesses increase their sales online by running various tests on the design and copywriting on each site. I started by offering my work for free to build experience and to get a few case studies. As my skills developed I started slowly increasing my prices as I became more confident in the value I could deliver.
The most important aspect of creating a project like this to work on while in school is it gives you more of a sense of control. We’ve become so used to waiting for permission and approval from our education system, and that hurts us in “the real world”. By starting your own project, getting your own results, you begin to learn that you can control your destiny, and you don’t need to wait for someone to give you the job you’ve always wanted or the opportunity to live your dreams, you can do it yourself.
I started by creating small niche sites that would make money if people clicked on the ads. It took a few months to get the sites up and running properly. My first earnings were just 27 cents, and though that’s only enough to buy a gumball, it completely shifted my perspectives and beliefs about what I was capable of.
A project like this can also replace your resume. Instead of trying to fill the “black hole” of a blank resume with things like “proficient in Microsoft Word,” you can show a project that is a living example of your hard work and talents. It sets you apart from the droves of hungry graduates who shotgun their resumes out to every job opening within a hundred miles of them.
How to leverage your school’s resources to build your brand
Once you have your project to work on, it changes the way you see your university. You’ll start to see heaps of new resources and opportunities that were previously invisible or irrelevant to you.
Here are a few ways you can leverage university resources to help you:
- Clubs and events – With a personal brand that focuses on an interest of yours, you can start a club at your school and get thousands of dollars in funding for events. You campus is filled with young people who are hungry for purpose and meaning, even something as mundane as “slacklining” can build a following. You can use the attention and funding to generate interest in your work on campus or invite thought leaders or influencers related to your brand to come and speak. The buzz you create on campus can be channeled into your brand, and you can take that with you once you graduate
- Undergraduate research – Undergraduate research is becoming increasingly popular in large universities. These are often great opportunities to investigate a problem and identify a solution for it. Some programs let you propose your own research, others have projects that are assigned. If you can find or create a project that closely relates to your business, you can get university funding and mentorship to help you.
- Flexible and custom majors – Many universities offer fully customized majors to students. By creating your own major, you can tailor your educational experience to support your brand or your business. Or if a custom major is not available, there are often many flexible and interdisciplinary majors that could give you access to different resources and programs across campus.
- Custom internships – As you start to interact with entrepreneurs and businesses, you may find opportunities where you can help them. If you can plan out a project you would like to do with them, it’s possible that you might be able to arrange a custom internship with your university and get credit and access to scholarships to do this work.
How to build relationships with entrepreneurs off-campus
Most students go through their whole college career studying a single topic that will lead to a promising career, only to discover that it is not a career they wanted. They quit after a few weeks and realize that they wasted years of their life and thousands of dollars preparing for something they don’t enjoy.
It’s worth it to reach out to entrepreneurs, thought leaders, brands and local businesses that you admire and aspire to be like, and build relationships with them. You can learn from them how they got to where they are, what makes them successful today, how they run their business and find ways that you can help them. A strong network is one of the most powerful tools you can develop as an entrepreneur, and students have a “secret weapon” that allows them to get a head start on their network before they graduate.
The most valuable and underused advantage that a university provides you is simply the title of “student.” Your student card probably gets you all kinds of discounts and leverage in your hometown, but there’s so much more you can do to take advantage of this than just getting a dollar off a breakfast bagel.
In most cultures, students are revered. It’s an honorable thing to want to educate and better yourself, and most people want to help you do it.
Until now, you probably have not had a reason to teach out to thought leaders, entrepreneurs or local businesses. But with the new project you are working on, you all of a sudden have a variety of reasons to reach out and start conversations with entrepreneurs.
If you want to break into a certain industry or start a business that offers a service to other businesses, one of the most powerful things you can do is call up your potential customers or businesses that you would like to model yours after.
Open with, “Hi, I’m a student at [Insert university here] and….” talk about the project you are working on, mention the skills you want to develop, or simply say you would like to learn to have the success that they have had.
Most people will be absolutely flattered by this and be willing to talk more on the phone, set up a meeting and give you a tour of their business, take you out to lunch or offer you a chance to do some work to develop your skills.
While you are meeting with different businesses and entrepreneurs in your area, look for ways that you can help them.
But what if the person you’re reaching out to is across the country, or even on a different continent? You can request to set up an interview with them to talk about whatever you are interested in. It’s best if you can tie this interview back to school work of some sort, or with a club you have started.
If you can find a local business that would let you practice some of the skills you want to develop or lead a project for them, you should do it!
Many small businesses in your city are in need of a helping hand. The interviews and conversations you have with entrepreneurs and local businesses can give you insights into where you can help. Always be listening for opportunities to develop skills by doing work for a small business and if possible, earning credit simultaneously with a custom internship. Start by offering your work for free; if you start adding value it will be easier to negotiate getting paid, but at this point your goal should be to learn and get a start on your reputation. Consider the free work you do an investment in yourself.
Don’t get caught in the trap of waiting for permission to do what you want. If you want to break into entrepreneurship, you’ll need to find your own way. Your university can help you in this journey, but staying in the classroom won’t get you the results you want. So take action, start building something and looking for ways to get your university to help you.
Author, The College Entrepreneur
Kyle Gray is an author and content marketing strategist. His book “The College Entrepreneur” gives students ways to leverage their university to connect with mentors, built valuable skills and find work they love.