How to Solve a Billion-Dollar Problem From Your Dorm Room
The secret is out: Student entrepreneurs are capable of solving billion-dollar problems.
At the Kairos Society, we’ve seen students under the legal drinking age pursue their dream careers, sign distribution deals with Fortune 500 companies, and sell their ventures. We’ve also seen students drop out of school prematurely, burn through millions of dollars of investors’ money, and lose friendships along the way.
Here are eight lessons we’ve learned from the latest batch of innovative student entrepreneurs who've joined our Kairos 50:
1. Be your company's chief storyteller.
As a founder, you will need to master the art of storytelling in order to convince team members, customers, and investors to buy into your vision. Tell a story that you’re proud of, and leverage this to create something that will actually improve people’s lives.
Cortex Composites’ founders Curren Krasnoff and Daniel Rudyak are disrupting the construction world by developing concrete you can carry in a backpack. Roll it out, pour water on it, and watch it turn into roads, dams, and other forms of vital infrastructure. Their business is much bigger than the composite itself. It's substantially cheaper and more eco-friendly than alternatives, and the cement's potential impact is what makes Cortex a story that the everyday person cares about.
2. Obsess over your industry.
Prepare to obsess over the same industries that you are trying to disrupt. Great entrepreneurs don't make excuses; they fill knowledge gaps and break down barriers.
3. Embrace the unexpected.
It’s one thing to successfully crowdfund your first product line. It’s an entirely separate undertaking to fulfill your orders. After developing the prototype of their police-grade smartphone breathalyzer, Alcohoot founders Jonathan Ofir and Ben Biron had to turn themselves into manufacturing experts, spending months in China to bring their vision to life.
4. Establish your priorities.
College is filled with distractions, and seasoned entrepreneurs know that focus is critical to building a business.
Merrill Lutsky founded Posmetrics dropped out of school to join world-class accelerator Y Combinator, and he says it best: “Don’t drop out (until you have to).” Understand that the best-case scenario (rapid growth) will require a huge shift in your time and focus.
5. Recognize the tradeoffs.
You have to manage two growth trajectories: your personal life and your company. You want to believe that you can do everything at once--balancing school, social life, and your business--but eventually you will be forced to prioritize.
Be honest with yourself, and do so very early in the lifecycle of your company--before you raise money and before you start building a team. If you’re a founder of a real startup, there is a possibility of failure, but there's definitely no quitting. Come to terms with the implications of being “all-in.”
6. Fundraising shouldn't be your only goal.
While raising a round of funding is often glamorized, the process itself is far from glamorous.
The founders of VIRES Aeronautics--Harshil Goel, Zach Hargreaves, and Jordan Greene--focused on the product, and the fundraising traction followed. By partnering with the government-sponsored Laurence Livermore Labs, the team quickly built and tested their new airplane wing designs. They collected wind-tunnel data to prove that their design increased lift, extended range, and reduced fuel consumption. Then, VIRES approached Tim Draper and Lemnos Labs, who led their financing round to build out their product line.
Fundraising takes valuable time away from building your core product and increases your accountability to new set of stakeholders. Therefore, you should use fundraising as an opportunity to get great people invested in your success.
7. Don't overlook the value of a community.
Especially at the student level, very few people understand the loneliness and pressure of starting a company. Start by surrounding yourself with a community of people who share your values and ambition.
Riley Ennis is on a mission to revolutionize health care diagnostics so that one day you can detect diseases such as cancer with your own cell phone. He met Dr. Charles Roberts at the Kairos annual summit and the two have since teamed up to launch Freenome, which won a Verizon Powerful Answers grant. Together, they're one step closer to their mission of increasing the efficiency of health care worldwide.
The point is, you never know when an opportunity is coming, but it often stems from real relationships.
8. Network with a purpose.
Seek out expertise and give back to other founders and organizations. Serendipity is, by definition, hard to scale, but you can create your own luck by getting in the trenches and keeping your eyes open to recognize opportunities.
ALEX FIANCE | Columnist
As the CEO of the Kairos Society, Alex Fiance works with young founders solving high-impact problems, as well as Fortune 500 corporations who are looking to engage with promising early-stage ventures. He writes about how the next generation of entrepreneurs are defying the odds to bring innovative ideas to market out of university labs and dorm rooms around the world.