Note: This article was originally published in FORBES under FORBES Leadership.
Entrepreneurship is the millennial thing to do. We’re all familiar with the Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram stories, where 20-something college students somehow manage to build-up multi-billion dollar companies overnight. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. The public only sees the tip of the iceberg — success — but what’s hidden from view is all the hustling and sleepless nights founders undergo.
Regardless, college is by far one of the best times to start working on a passion project because of the incredibly low opportunity costs and the potentially huge payoffs. You’re most likely paying a huge sum just for tuition. You have no family to take care of. You’re living in a pre-paid dorm room. And surrounding you are thousands of incredibly motivated students, professors, and advisors — not to mention technology resources, campus-sponsored seed money, and fast diffusion of ideas. Plus the proliferation of cheap cloud computing services has made it easier than ever to make something in your dorm room that people all over the world can use and benefit from.
There are already huge communities of people who just love to build things (Hackathon Hackers being one). Personally, while in school, my team and I created ThirdEye, a product that uses smart glasses to tell visually impaired persons what they are looking at. Here are 11 reasons from my experiences building up ThirdEye that detail why you too should become a dorm room maker:
1) You’ll actually enjoy doing it
The beauty of independent projects is that you have the opportunity to work on anything you want to work on. Since no one is forcing you to do it, the project is more likely to intrinsically motivate you. After school work, which of course is extrinsic motivation, working on something that you just love to do makes college life just a tad more exciting and enjoyable than it already is.
2) It helps you develop a thicker skin in accepting failure and embracing uncertainty
An independent project helps you develop grit. Failure is always possible when you try to build something new, but since you’re intrinsically motivated by the project, you will do everything you can to see it through; in the process, you will increase your tolerance to taking calculated risks and prevent failure from deterring you (watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk about the importance of grit for success).
In my case, there was a fair amount of (good) stress on me to do well on my engineering schoolwork, maintain some kind of social life, get at least a little sleep, and simultaneously manage my startup while keeping the shareholders happy. As an entrepreneur, you quickly realize that you’re always going to be under some kind of pressure (that doesn’t end when finals week is over), and that you just have to live with it. But at the end of the day, putting up with pressure and not breaking down is incredibly important. No one can teach you this skill. You have to develop it yourself, and working on a passion project does the job quite well.
3) It teaches you more practical skills than any classroom ever could
Classrooms are great for learning theory. But the fact is that they are extremely controlled environments. The professor has taught hundreds of others with the same material for years, thousands of other students have already conducted the labs you’re doing, and you fundamentally cannot learn much by just reading a textbook. In a classroom, it’s almost impossible to teach students how to react when things inevitably go wrong like they will in real life, how to talk to people, how to market and sell yourself, and how to persevere through something from the beginning to the end. Yet these are the practical skills that every single student needs — not the ability to memorize a textbook and find the third derivative of a function.
On the other hand, being a dorm room founder allows you to take advantage of all the “good” theoretical aspects of the classroom while simultaneously succeeding in the practical aspects of building something yourself. Indeed, for my startup, I had to work on not only the development of our product, but also the marketing, the public relations, the finance, the supply chain, and everything in between.
It didn’t make sense for me to hire someone for these individual fields early in the game. As a result, I quickly learned to be a jack-of-all-trades and be able to at least understand the basics of many subjects. As Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk says, “make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
No matter what you end up doing later in life, learning these broad range of skills while completely managing something—no matter how simple it may be—teaches practicality, time-management, and people management like no other.
4) It’s a great way to meet interesting people
One of the main reasons to attend college in the first place is not for the education, per se, but to meet cool, inspiring people. We often criticize individuals who restlessly love to meet new people as networkers, but at the end of the day,the quality of the people you know correlates extremely highly with opportunities and future successes.
Some of the most well-connected individuals are naturally charismatic, or they have built up an interesting persona by working on something they love to work on. Personally, the fact that I was building up a product that helped empower visually impaired persons during my freshman year allowed me meet huge numbers of extremely interesting individuals. Ideas spread fast on a college campus, and very soon people find out that you’re working on some kind of project, and then they come to you. As Jon Youshaei describes in his FORBES post “How To Meet Amazing People Without Sleazy Networking: Insights From 6,220 Conversations,” people love to meet passionate people, and working on something you love shows that passion.
5) You learn how to leverage opportunities you didn’t even know existed
With the extremely low resources that most dorm room founders have (realistically, investors generally don’t well fund startups when the entrepreneurs are still in school), you quickly learn how to find obscure opportunities and then take advantage of them.
For example, even though I’m part of the engineering school, the simple fact that I didn’t have too much money for my project allowed me to capitalize on opportunities in the MBA business school (business plan competitions, entrepreneur/investor speakers, business classes), the law school (legal aspects and advice), the med school (clinical studies for the product), and the liberal arts college (design work). Being lean allowed me to take advantage of resources that I didn’t even know existed.
The only way to become a better hustler is to hustle, and my project opened my eyes to how many doors open up if you just hustle hard enough. I learned the importance of “faking it till you make it” very fast, and soon enough, I was traveling all over the country with phrases like “I’m a poor college student…can you give me some free legal help?” “You went to the same university as I did…can you connect me somewhere?” and “Wow you’ve done some amazing work…can you give me some advice?” This learned ability — which I’m certain I couldn’t have learned without my project — allowed me to save thousands of dollars.
6) You learn how to ask for help, master the cold email, and meet some hugely important people
Even with all the hustling you do though, you realize quickly enough that you can’t create a product and then bring it to market alone; you have to ask for advice from people with more experience than you. Indeed, letting go of your ego to ask for help in itself is an incredibly important life-skill; as Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt describe in their book Think Like A Freak, the three hardest words in English are “I don’t know,” and not using them can have hugely negative consequences.
Perhaps less obvious though is that asking for help allows you to meet some pretty important people. For example, when I needed advice for my startup, I would cold email and cold LinkedIn message major CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thought-leaders all over the globe. All I would say is something along the lines of “I am working on this product where we hope to do X and Y, and I would love to get your advice on how we can do Z.” At the end of the day, people love to talk about themselves and their experiences, and so I was able to meet a high number of important people. If nothing else, just speaking with these game-changers inspired me to work even harder.
7) You learn how to talk to people and how to be an effective communicator
It may seem trivial and obvious, but after talking with everyone from fellow students interested in my project to so-called celebrity professors and high level CEOs, I realized that there is certainly an art to just talking with people. From sheer trial and error, I learned what semantics work while pitching and what body language doesn’t work, how to be very concise while speaking, how to write directly and crisply, how to increase the probability that an important person follows up with my email, how to inspire and keep my team members motivated, the importance of listening more than speaking to the person you’re talking to, and how to generally increase the probability of “clicking” with someone.
As the Founder of Pandora Tim Westergren says, “Of all the skills that an entrepreneur can have, I think the ability to convey an idea or opportunity, with confidence, eloquence and passion is the most universally useful skill.”
8) You really learn how to motivate a group of people
One of the most vital use cases of those communication skills is team-management. While working on a startup, especially in school, you have to manage a group of people whose members you’re probably not paying (or at least well contrasted to what they could be making elsewhere). These people are putting in dozens of hours a week, giving up much of their social life, and maybe even some of their schoolwork to work with you on some project you mutually believe in.
Especially when things go sour — as they inevitably will — you really learn how to motivate a group of extremely intelligent people. You see which techniques work with what kind of people, you learn about human psychology and how to talk to encourage people to work when they aren’t stimulated, and you learn the extreme importance of communication in management. Again, regardless of what you end up doing later in life, these people skills are immensely important in building relations in life.
9) It makes you incredibly efficient with time
Aside from relation building though, projects in school help you realize the importance and value of your time. We are all natural procrastinators, and when we don’t have a lot to do in college, we are inevitably inefficient: we’ll take four hours to complete an assignment that should have taken an hour, all the while checking Facebook and Twitter every 10 minutes. However, a passion project forces you to be extremely efficient (especially when it’s a startup that demands attention) so actually have time to work on it.
10) It’s practical and the skills you learn will be useful in all your future endeavors
At the end of the day, everyoneis an entrepreneur. Everyone tries to “sell” themselves someway or another. College students especially are becoming more and more competitive every single day in selling themselves to recruiters for companies such as Google, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.
But more than anything else, working on independent projects and startups in school separates you from everyone else. It gives you experience building up something from scratch, selling it, managing a team, communicating with people, and reaching out to others for help. These skills are the ones that actually matter in the workplace, not being able to pull off a 4.0 by memorizing factoids in classes. Employers in any field — regardless of whether you chose law or business or anything in between — jump at any of these hackers they can find.
Of course, if you don’t want to go the corporate route and are a true entrepreneur, there’s no way to improve than by doing it. The only way to become a better hustler is to, well, hustle by actually building and shipping product early on.
11) It helps you find yourself
Since things go wrong far more often than they go right, you’re going to spend a significant time just thinking about what to do next. Oftentimes it seems like everyone is against you and you are battling the world. Personally, I often found myself asking existential questions like, “Why am I working on this when the odds are I’m going to fail,” “Why am I reallydoing this project?” and “Is it worth doing?”
But in fact, I really think that these “crises” were really not crises at all; they were gifts. They helped me find out what I enjoyed doing, what I didn’t enjoy doing, what mattered to me, what didn’t matter to me, and most importantly, what I definitely didn’t want to do later in life. As Ben Horowitz says, the “most difficult CEO skill is managing your own psychology…being able to manage yourself helps you for life.”
Sure, you could argue that “I don’t have time” to work on a project with my schoolwork, but just know that while you are memorizing facts for that exam that means next to nothing, someone somewhere in the world is building something that could improve the lives of millions of people — while simultaneously learning a lot himself. Truly, the first question we should be asking each other is not “Where are you from, what are you majoring in, and where are you living on campus?” but rather “What are you working on to make the world a better place?”
If you like this post, please help me inspire other students to pursue independent projects in college by sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Rajat Bhageria is the author of What High School Didn’t Teach Me: A Recent Graduate’s Perspective on How High School is Killing Creativity and the Founder and CEO of ThirdEye. He is currently a student at University of Pennsylvania.