No Guts, No Glory: Making it as a Young Entrepreneur

Posted by The Editors on May 10, 2011
No Guts, No Glory: Making it as a Young Entrepreneur
It’s a success story we all know: In 2004, a computer science major starts a social networking site from his Harvard dorm room. He drops out of school, secures millions in venture capital, and moves to Silicon Valley to take his brainchild global. Six years and 500 million users later, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are cemented in our minds as a Cinderella story of youthful entrepreneurship.

Zuckerberg is now worth $4 billion and, according to Forbes, at 25 he’s the world’s youngest billionaire. As Facebook continues to grow every day, budding entrepreneurs across the country are scratching their heads, wondering “How can I do that?”

While most young entrepreneurs won’t have the unprecedented success of Zuckerberg, entrepreneurship is a career path frequently and successfully navigated by young people. More than 1,500 universities in the U.S. offer entrepreneurship courses, and most have some semblance of a program—either a major, minor, or focus in entrepreneurship. A career as a self-starter allows students to chart a career course limited only by the business ideas they can conjure up. And although an academic foundation in entrepreneurship is helpful, battle-worn entrepreneurs will tell you the only way to truly learn how to run a company is by doing it.

Aspiring entrepreneurs are typically very passionate, with ambitious dreams of realizing a fledgling idea. But what really separates the wannabes from the successful entrepreneurs, says Cornell University entrepreneurship professor David BenDaniel, is persistence. “There are a lot of highly intelligent, driven students that are not persistent. Those students hit a bump in the road and go running. Entrepreneurial students hit a bump in the road and get over it.”

In his experience molding the Trumps of tomorrow, Jim Wheeler, director of University of Oklahoma’s Entrepreneurship Center, has observed that students pursuing an entrepreneurship major generally fall into two categories. The first are the students who’ve been selling marked-up candy since childhood, and have always known they wanted to start a business. “These students come to college and know what kind of company they want to create, whether it’s making a new tennis shoe, a computer application, or some other product.” These students use the program to build their contacts, their business plan, and their overall vision.

Take, for instance, Justin Miller, an accounting major and co-founder of, an online marketplace where students can buy and sell class notes. Miller knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur since childhood. “While all my friends were playing video games, I was reading about small businesses and starting up different money-making ventures.” In high school, he sold music memorabilia on eBay. When college came around, Miller had the idea to start, pitched it to his fellow University of Arizona classmate and entrepreneurship major, Sean Conway, and the two launched the venture in 2008.

Not all students are destined to run their own company as soon as they turn their tassel. Wheeler says the second type of entrepreneurs-to-be know they want to run their own business one day, but are still trying to find a niche. Without a concrete business idea at hand, they use an education in entrepreneurship to develop their interests and hone their business acumen. Many go on to work for a startup or a well-established corporation after graduation where they can build their skills and fatten their rolodex for when they do branch out on their own. BenDaniel says he often receives calls from students who took his class five to ten years ago, and now that they have some experience under their belt, want to bounce business ideas off him.

In either situation, entrepreneurship majors usually leave campus with the know-how to start a business, and the self-confidence that they can do it. “I think anyone can be an entrepreneur,” says Miller. “For two years I was a full-time student {while} starting at the same time. Conquering both things has given me a lot of confidence—what I’ve been through is not easy, and because of that I really feel like I can do anything.”

The curriculum for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs looks like what you might expect, often including management, marketing, venture creation, new product development, and legal studies. Depending on the program, students may be required to have a double major or pursue a minor: Most students pick business, marketing, or finance.

But since the abilities of every entrepreneur are eventually put to trial by fire in the real world, classes are infused with hands-on experience that aims to throw students into the thick of creating and owning a startup. Sherry Hoskinson, director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of Arizona, says UA goes to great lengths to show rather than tell students how to react to obstacles they will face. Instead of just bringing lawyers into the classroom to lecture, the school has created a cross-discipline course in which law school students act as counsel to their clients in the entrepreneurship program. “Whether it’s liquor laws across different states, or Internet law issues, or something else, entrepreneurship students are learning how to work with the law and protect their companies,” says Hoskinson.

Adam Kovine, co-founder of The Cravory, a virtual bakery that creates custom cookies, graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in entrepreneurship and says the program was invaluable to him. “It’s not just about making cookies. It’s about doing the research, writing a business plan, selling the cookies, presenting the cookies to customers and to CEOs of large food companies, and more.”

Miller says entrepreneurship programs give you the know-how to launch a company, but then it’s up to you to follow through. “You can only really learn how to actually launch a company by doing it.” Managing real-life employees is one of things Miller and co-founder Conway had to learn on the fly. “When someone comes in late or turns in a poorly done project, how do you deal with them?” says Miller. “Those are certainly issues that we’ve had to deal with. But I have a feeling you could even talk to people with 30 to 40 years business experience and they’re still learning how to deal with employees.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for 2004, the last surveyed year, the one-year survival rate for small businesses was 76.4 percent, and the five-year survival rate was 50.7 percent. Opening a small business usually has an “up or out” trajectory: The first few years of a company’s lifespan indicate whether it’ll make it in the long run or fall short.

The biggest obstacle for any startup, but especially for students, is money. “When you’re a student, it’s amazing how cheap you can live on ramen noodles and with three roommates to split rent,” says Wheeler. “But when you’re launching your business, you have to be realistic about your expenses. If something costs $10 to manufacture, it’s going to cost $10, so don’t budget $7.50. I see that a lot.”

Constantly worrying about money can be stressful, says Brian Linton, founder of sustainable apparel company United By Blue. But it’s essential. “It’s the sad truth but when you have so many expenses on a monthly basis, your monthly expenses spiral out of control.”

To get better at handling the dollars and cents, some students take finance courses, such as early stage capital, entrepreneurial finance and private equity, and financial management. Before Kovine picked up the entrepreneurship major his senior year, he studied finance on a tip from his older entrepreneurship peers. “Most people at AU pair entrepreneurship with a business major, but I knew a few guys a couple years ahead of me and I asked them which major to pursue. Almost all of them said finance. It’s a hard major but it gives you a good perspective of how to run the business from the numbers side.”

If they can keep afloat for long enough, ultimately entrepreneur majors can outpace their peers in income. A study by economists at the University of Arizona, surveying alumni from 1983 to 2000, found that, on average, entrepreneur alumni make about $12,561 per year more than their non-entrepreneurship peers.

As the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Entrepreneurship Center, Jim Wheeler has had students start ventures ranging from nanotechnology and waterproof fabric, to a maid service and even a cure for periodontal disease in animals. At the University of Arizona, Sherry Hoskinson has seen startups of an online triathlon apparel shop, a composite technology company, and an online sustainable seafood market, to name a few. In short, it takes a lot of passion and persistence to start a company—but it’s a realistic option.

Kovine says his experience as an entrepreneur has been a lot of trial and error, but at the end of the day the reward of selling great cookies outweighs the work. “When someone takes a bite of a s’more cookie and says it’s the best thing they’ve ever tried, when someone gets joy from our hard work, it justifies that our concept is real.”

About the Author