Note: This post was originally published in Wharton Entrepreneurship.
For the entirety of my freshman year, I worked on building a startup with a group of three other freshmen. Our big idea was ThirdEye: a product that empowers visually impaired persons by telling them what they are looking at. During our freshmen year, our team of engineering freshmen was able to build a full prototype of our product on Google Glass, iOS, and Android, get accepted into the Wharton Venture Initiation Program, partner with the largest organization of visually impaired persons in the country, beta test our product with fifteen visually impaired persons, get selected as finalists and award winners in the MBA-dominated Wharton Business Plan Competition, and even establish a board of four well known Silicon Valley advisors.
We did all of this without raising a single dime in funding. How you may ask? Rather than dropping out of school to pursue ThirdEye, we leveraged every penny of the tuition we were paying to come to Penn in the first place.
Indeed, most students are paying nearly $50K per year in tuition and fees to come to Penn—plus any additional living expenses. And yet many seem to be okay with only taking advantage of classes (and mind you, that’s the least number of classes they need to pass), a few clubs, and maybe a fraternity or sorority. In reality, too many students are forgoing too many incredibly accessible opportunities. Here are some of the ones we took advantage of to minimize costs for our startup.
1) Most of our team members were Penn students
Penn attracts some of the most brilliant and intrinsically motivated engineers, designers, lawyers, accountants, and business leaders in the world. All of them want to be successful; they’re looking for experience and want to improve their resumes. Working for ThirdEye not only offered our team members experience but also allowed them to make a meaningful impact on the world. Plus, choosing cofounders who are students puts them right on campus, five minutes from you, and most of them likely have meal plans to take care of living expenses.
2) We competed in campus-wide competitions
The fact of the matter is that it’s quite hard to raise money when you’re still in school. Still that doesn’t mean that you have to debt finance your entire startup. There are plenty of competitions on campus that are giving away prize money to the top teams. Too many students forgo these opportunities because they offer financial awards that may seem like small amounts. But the prize money adds up.
3) We leveraged the huge experience bank of professors that surround us everyday
Just as Penn has some of the best students in the world, it also has some of the most successful professors in the world. And guess what? All those professors dedicated their lives to helping teach students and build up experience by researching. Simply asking a few professors at Penn (for my startup they ended up being in business, ophthalmology, and computer science) gave me a huge knowledge and advice source. Unlike many other “professional 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 for the future.
4) We attended every single entrepreneurship event we could
We at Penn are extremely lucky to have such an impressive entrepreneurship program that hosts so many different events, like WE Wednesdays (with free pizza and pretty amazing speakers), quite an amazing speaker series, free tickets to conferences, and most importantly a thriving community of student entrepreneurs who are willing to help you learn. Just being around other entrepreneurs and learning from them gave me access to a huge network that opened countless other doors. Plus, the events are actually incredibly interesting and fun.
5) We took advantage of opportunities we, rationally speaking, shouldn’t have
One of the greatest learning opportunities for me was competing in the Wharton Business Plan Competition. Before the competition, my team was a group of four freshmen who weren’t even in Wharton; we didn’t know what finance really was, and we had never written a business plan. And yet it was precisely that ignorance that gave us the wings to believe that we could in fact do well at the competition; our lack of experience was actually what allowed us to go forward. In fact, if we knew how hard it was actually going to be competing against MBAs, we would have been too scared to try. I feel like too many students aren’t taking advantage of opportunities just because they “don’t have enough experience,” or because they don’t think they’ll “do well.” Well, in reality your lack of experience might just be a silver lining.
6) We attended events and leveraged benefits in as many other schools as we could
Even though I was 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 Wharton 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 School of Arts and Sciences (design work). Being lean prompted us to take advantage of resources that, at first, I didn’t even know existed.
7) We lived on the Penn Alumni Directory
We realized quickly enough that we couldn’t create a product and then bring it to market alone; we knew we would have to ask for advice from people with more experience than us. Indeed, letting go of your ego to ask for help in itself is an incredibly important life-skill—as Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt describe in their book Think Like A Freak, the three hardest words in English are “I don’t know”—but not using them can have hugely negative consequences.
Personally, whenever I needed advice for my startup, I would cold email and cold LinkedIn message major CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thought-leaders (especially if they went to Penn/Wharton) 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 large number of important people. If nothing else, just speaking with these game-changers inspired me to work even harder.
This is one of the major value-adds of attending a school like Penn, so definitely take advantage of it!
Bio: 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 a rising sophomore at Penn. Additionally, he is the Founder of ThirdEye and the Former Interim-COO of MainTool. Find out more about Rajat at his personal blog: RajatBhageria.com.