Note: This was originally published in FORBES under FORBES Entrepreneurs
This is the third article in a series about how a group of students at Penn created a non-profit commercializing a product that helps the visually impaired recognize what they are looking at. Check out the first article here about how they first built a product and here for how they then commercialized it.
Everyone has ideas, especially in college. Some of these ideas might evolve into billion dollar companies if the students behind them just took a leap of faith. More realistically, the vast majority of students will flush away the ideas with thoughts like how am I going to have time work on both school and the startup? Will my grades suffer? I have absolutely no experience doing anything like this.
You see, our education system has conditioned our students into seeing failure like a disease –we should avoid it at all costs. We’re trained from a very early age to memorize the facts we need, take our exam, and then just move on. No questions. No thinking. If we do anything different than we’re supposed to do, we’re punished. Here’s your B for being a tad bit different and not following my trivial directions.
For some, this mentality lasts forever. For others who can break free, there is absolute benefit in starting a company during school. But the question becomes how in the world do I take care of school and the startup, both full-time jobs in themselves?
Upon first glance, the problem with doing both seems to the physical time constraint. But with 168 hours in the week, even with classes and sleep, there’s still a plethora of time left. And yet, for some reason students always seem to be in a time-crunch, even while just pursuing classes.
For example, when I was in high school–and not working on a startup–I just took the classes that my advisors told me to or the ones that everyone around me was taking. I knew that almost certainly I would never have to use the material again and thus was motivated just to do well and then move on. I was motivated by the grade. To be sure, I wasted a lot of time procrastinating and was neither efficient nor effective.
College was quite different. As early as the second week of school, I started working on ThirdEye Technologies with a group of friends. By the end of our freshman year, we had a fully functional product on multiple platforms, positive feedback from testing the product with multiple visually impaired persons, dozens of daily active users, a partnership that would provide us with distribution to our niche market, a full business plan that had won various large competitions along the way, a board of 4 well-known advisors, 10+ major press articles, and a team of 4 student engineers.
And no, I didn’t fail all my classes or toss them aside. Rather, I put a lot more thought into them and actually tried to understand all the material. In fact, I probably did better in them because of ThirdEye.
How does running a startup–something that’s wholeheartedly more exciting than school itself–translate to doing better in classes? The key was recognizing that there’s a definite subset of entrepreneurship that is “teachable.” For example, software development (as opposed to pure computer science), business management, legal aspects, design thinking, mechanical design, and public speaking are all skills I will surely encounter in some form or another on my entrepreneurial journey. Plus, college actually does a fairly good job of teaching them. I’ll have to learn them anyway, so why not learn them when my family is paying a small fortune for college?
Rather than taking the ordinary chemistry, physics, math, and English courses that most of my peers were taking, I took practical computer science, business management, legal, design, mechanical design, and public speaking courses (while simultaneously finding loopholes to avoid unnecessary requirements or delaying them till later).
Something quite beautiful happened by putting this into practice. While we were learning about incorporation in legal studies, we were working on incorporating ThirdEye. Everything I learned in negotiations I was applying in real-life negotiations to get more for the company. The business models I was learning about in my operations management class helped me enhance our ThirdEye model. My forecasting class helped me price our product and predict sales for the next few years. I was actually using the things I was learning in school.
As a result, I focused in class and worked to understand the material, rather than extrinsically working for the grade. Guess what? My grades improved. I enjoyed going to class and was a lot more efficient with my time. Moreover, by directly applying class learnings, I actually retained them.
It’s most certainly possible to work on a startup during college. It’s all about finding a way to kill two birds with one stone.
In fact, maybe if we can intrinsically motivate our students to take advantage of their education, teach them things that they actually want to learn, and then have them apply the skills in a practical skills (aka project based learning) they might treat it as more of a gift than a job.
Secretary Arne Duncan, are you listening?