Note: this post was originally published on FORBES in FORBES Entrepreneurs.
Since the beginning of my freshman year, I have been working on ThirdEye, a product that empowers visually impaired persons by telling them what they are looking at (see a demo here). Within nine months, even while being “full-time students” at Penn, our team was able to build a full product on smart glasses (think Google Glass) and mobile platforms that people internationally are already using, partner with the largest organization of visually impaired persons in the country, beta test our product with 15 visually impaired people, write a full business plan, garner 15 press articles, find a full time office, and even establish a board of four well known advisors.
We did all of this without raising a dime in funding. Throughout the entire journey, it seemed like everyone was asking us when we were going to be dropping out since no VC wanted to fund us while we were still in school.
And yet, I am almost certain that we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as we did had we dropped out of school; staying allowed us to run our company with virtually no risk and at no cost while giving us access to resources that we normally wouldn’t have expected.
Here are some ways we were able to leverage every penny of the tuition we were paying to go to school in the first place:
1) Every single person on our team was a Penn student.
Our university attracts brilliant and highly motivated students who will soon be engineers, designers, lawyers, accountants, and business people. All of them want to be successful and are looking for experiences to improve their resumes. Similarly, we were looking for motivated team members who would be okay with working for equity and no pay. By working only with students, not only were we able to offer them real-world experience in a real company where they could have a real impact, but we were also able to minimize our product-development costs.
Of course, hiring only students has its challenges (everyone has to take care of school and so tasks will often be delayed). But regardless we were able to build out a prototype and ship it quite fast. You don’t need to hire developers and designers and marketers and pay them $40,000 each.
For most potential tech businesses, you can market test and even build a initial prototype for free right on a college campus. There’s no excuse for not at least trying–especially when there’s so much talent around you.
2) We were able to build capital bit by bit via campuswide competitions.
All of the people who were telling us that it’s hard to raise money when you’re still in school are right; investors generally don’t want to put money into a startup when they know that the employees have another major commitment. Still, that doesn’t mean that you have to finance your entire startup with debt–especially when you’re already paying a fortune for tuition.
The great thing about being on a campus is that there are plenty of competitions where organizations more or less give away money. Many of these competitions require very little on your side–maybe just a simple pitch deck–and have a huge payoff. Too many students forgo these opportunities just because they offer small amounts (or they don’t think it’s worth their time). Remember that it may be only $2,000, but it’s $2,000 for 4 hours of work….
Through business plan competitions, pitch competitions, and prototype competitions, we were able to raise enough money to create prototypes. And keep in mind, you’ll probably have to do all the things these competitions require you to do anyway, including learning how to pitch better, how at least a basic business plan, how to write a financial model, and how to build a full prototype. Why not earn a little bit of cash out of it?
3) Founders and other students are eager to help students.
During the hackathon when we built the very first prototype of ThirdEye, we knew we wanted to build something to empower visually impaired people, but we didn’t have a Google Glass or any other smart glasses at all. But simply asking around the computer science community at our school, we were able to find multiple individuals (who we’d never met before) who were willing to let us borrow glasses.
For some reason, people are way more willing to help you if you’re a student. Whenever I needed advice for my startup, I would cold-email or message major CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thought-leaders (especially if they went to Penn or Wharton) all over the globe. All I would say is something along the lines of “I am a student 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 people love to help students; and so I was able to garner advice from game-changers around the globe.
More generally, students around the campus and other founders are extremely willing to put in their time to help you if you’re a student (since they were in your shoes not long ago or even now). On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that a random person in San Francisco would be willing to give me a $1,500 Google Glass even for a few weeks.
4) We were able to take advantage of the campus incubators for free office space.
Of course, you can work out of coffee shops or a home when you’re early-stage, but there’s no doubt that having a legitimate office offers psychological validation to team members. The problem is that office space and all of the necessities it comes with can easily put a large dent in a startup’s balance sheet. By staying in school, we were able to take advantage of our school’s incubator–designed for student-run startups–and acquire free office space.
Universities around the country are encouraging entrepreneurship more and more and are creating these kinds of incubators; at schools that haven’t taken this step though, simply asking a dean can do wonders; after all, schools love to be able to associate themselves with entrepreneurial students and are often willing to do anything they can to help. All you have to do is ask.
5) I was able to cherry-pick courses that taught me practical skills I actually needed.
A lot of people argue that you can’t teach entrepreneurship, and that university is a waste of time and money for entrepreneurs. Although the debate to that second point is endless, one thing is certain: entrepreneurs still need to learn about the legal aspects of starting a company (incorporation, patent protection, fundraising, etc.), basic finance and accounting, and public speaking.
Knowing that I would have to learn these skills whether I stayed in school or not, I mainly took legal, finance, accounting, public speaking, acting, computer science, and design classes to maximize my time in school; not only was I able to fulfill degree requirements, but I also maximized my time by learning the skills that I would have had to learn anyways.
In regards to courses, always be looking for workarounds to requirements. Remember that in most cases–finance and consulting aside–a degree with a 3.9 GPA is no different than a 3.1. A degree from Penn or Harvard is a degree from Penn or Harvard–regardless of how “well” you did. Why spend precious time memorizing facts you’ll never use again instead of learning the practical skills you’ll actually need to succeed?
6) Professors served as our advisors and huge validators for us.
Simply asking a few of the best professors at Penn (for my startup, they ended up being in business, ophthalmology, and computer vision) gave me a huge source of knowledge and advice. Unlike many other full-time entrepreneurs working as advisors, professors don’t require equity and are often just as knowledgeable. Moreover, having professors on your board of advisors serves as a phenomenal validator when raising money in the future.
7) Our legal work was free because of the university’s law school.
Another major reason why a lot of students don’t want to fully commercialize their product is because of the vast expense of doing legal work. In fact, our student status allowed us to take care of legal work for free. Indeed, many major law schools have some sort of “Entrepreneurial Law Clinic” where law students gain practical experience by providing free legal services for startups.
Plus, we were able to advantage of the pro bono legal work that many law firms are required to provide to help the entrepreneurial culture of the city. We received advising and basic contracts that would have been worth thousands of dollars for free simply by calling the firm, telling them that we’re students working on a social enterprise and that we needed a little bit of help.
8) We were able to test our product with the medical school.
Beta testing ThirdEye was going to be one of the most vital parts of the entire project; we needed feedback to improve the product and do market research on how to actually structure the business model.
And yet testing was also going to be one of the most difficult parts of the entire operation to coordinate; we could have spent hundreds of dollars traveling to organizations specifically for visually impaired persons and then paying thousands more to actually do a full beta study for our product. But by simply sending a few dozen emails to the Penn Medical School, we were able to set up meetings with ophthalmologists at the school who were willing to run the full beta-study. People really were willing to help students trying to help others.
At the end of the day, I suppose we could have dropped out of school to pursue ThirdEye full-time–and perhaps we would have had more physical time to work on the company and could have raised more money. But we probably would have spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring full-time employees, finishing up legal work, beta-testing the product, and finding office space (not to mention spending time learning about how to run a business and finding advisors). By hustling just a bit harder, not only were we able to stay in college and enjoy this special time in our lives, we were also able to minimize costs and create a product that we hope will radically improve the lives of thousands. There’s always a way to kill two birds with one stone; you just have to go find it.
About the Author:
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 an incoming sophomore at Penn. Additionally, he is the Founder and CEO ofThirdEye. Find out more about Rajat at his personal blog: RajatBhageria.com