Starting a Business in College

Today's guest blog is written by Patrick, a senior at Michigan State University graduating in May 2017 with a BA in General Management.  He is originally from Ann Arbor, MI and founder of Reighard Landscape LLC.  Patrick loves to do anything outdoors including boating, hunting, fishing, and camping.


As I began my Junior year, I had just come off a summer working an inside sales internship for a large construction equipment company.  I gained some good experience from the internship, I loved the company and I loved the people I worked with, however, I also realized that I hated sitting in front of a computer for 50 hours a week.  As the school year progressed, I knew I had to start thinking about my options for next summer.  On one hand, I wanted to get another internship to gain more experience and pad my resume.  On the other hand, I cringed at the idea of spending another summer sitting at a desk.

In the past I had taken care of all the landscaping for a condo association on my grandparents’ lake, I made good money, picked my own hours, and got to work outside with my hands.  I loved working that job, but I knew it was not enough to look impressive on a resume and I would essentially waste a summer of opportunity by taking it easy.   As the fall career fairs approached, I thought more about my past landscaping job and toyed with the idea of turning it into an actual business.  I thought it would be a good way to do my own thing for another summer and be an opportunity to do some learning.  As I talked to recruiters at career fairs I told them about my past experiences and expressed to them my dilemma between choosing another internship or starting my own company.  9 out of every 10 recruiters I spoke to told me to go for it and start my own business.  I had one person tell me that even if I started a legitimate company and failed miserably that they would hire me in a heart beat over someone with another internship.  After having these discussions I made up my mind to forgo an internship and try starting my own business.  Here are some take a ways from my experiences that I think are the most valuable for a college student thinking about starting business:

Anyone Can do It – And This May be the Best Time

The phrase “Starting a company” can be intimidating.  It seems like a daunting task reserved for people with years of experience, great expertise, or impressive financial resources.  The most common thought seems to be that when you’re in college you don’t have the proper knowledge or finances to begin any type of business, people tend to think that it is something that must be done later in life.  I would argue that in most cases, a college student in their young 20’s is actually at the best point in their life to start a business.

The first, and perhaps most important, reason behind that viewpoint is responsibility.  How many times have you heard a parent, uncle, boss, etc. tell you that these are the best years of your life?  Many college students feel like that have too much responsibility as it is, and that when they get into the real world and make money and not have to worry about school that things will get easier.  More often than not, those parents and relatives are correct and the college student realizes it shortly after graduation.  This is usually because as you get older, there are more things that you need to do which take away from the things you want to do. If you still don’t believe me, think back to your level of responsibility in high school and compare that to now.  If you’re being honest with yourself you would probably realize that you took for granted how easy those years were, and that you were 10 times more care free then as you are now.  That feeling only grows with time, imagine the level of responsibility you will feel when you’re fighting to get a commission to pay rent, and then to pay a mortgage, have a wife/husband and children to take care of, have college tuition to worry about for your kids, or have to make sure you have enough money to survive retirement.

As college students, we are probably more care free and responsibility free than we ever will be again.  That means we have absolutely nothing to lose.  If you start a business, fail miserably, and lose some savings money, who cares? As a college student you’re probably already broke and have no money, so if you lose a little bit what does it matter?  You’re not worried about where your kids are going to get their next meal, or if the bank is going to take the house.  You’re still in a position to finish school, enjoy yourself, and find a great job in a year or two.  In addition to not having anything to lose, by starting a company you gain experience that 99% of college students never have.  Being able to talk about your experience of starting a business already makes you more unique than almost every other candidate.  It’s something that even impresses most recruiters themselves because its something that they can’t even say they’ve experienced.

Another reason this is a great time to start a business is that people greatly admire the drive and initiative it requires - it’s something that is not common in our generation.  You will be amazed at how far people will go to help you out because they love what you’re doing and have a tremendous amount of respect for it.  I’ve had people in my network actually reach out to me to offer advice, business consulting, legal support, and promotion, all for free.  As a young college student, people are truly rooting for you to succeed.   This is the only time in your life that you can play that card and use it to your advantage, after this window closes it becomes much more difficult to procure those resources, especially for free.

It’s the Hardest Work You’ve Ever Done – It’s Also the Most Rewarding

As someone who has played sports, worked landscaping, spent time on a farm, and worked in blue collar industries, I have never been afraid of hard work.  That being said, starting a company was by far the hardest work I have ever experienced.  It was not at all uncommon to leave for work before sunrise, get home after dark, go to the office and send out invoices and complete work for summer classes, then wake up and do it again.  There were multiple occasions that I would have my workers go inside Subway to get lunch so I could wait in the truck and close my eyes for 5 minutes.  Working 80-90 hours a week quickly became the norm, if I had a 10 hour day it felt like I was taking a half day.

Despite working obscene hours, I was happier, had more energy, and had more fun than I did the entire summer before when I was only working half the hours, but doing it for someone else.  There’s no feeling quite like being able to see a direct relationship between how hard you work and how successful you are and how much money you earn.  At the end of the day you’re working for you, your dreams, and your goals.  You’re not making cold calls or crunching numbers that in the end go to benefit another person or a company more than yourself.  A great motivator for me when times are grueling is the idea that if you do what most people won’t in their 20’s you can live like most people can’t in their 30’s.   One of my favorite quotes that illustrates this perfectly is from one of my favorite books, Outliers. Malcom Gladwell writes “Hard work is only a prison sentence when it does not have meaning, once it does it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waste and dance a jig”.   I do not have a wife, nor do I typically dance jigs, but the message couldn’t be any better.  You see far too many people that hate their job, which is extremely sad when you realize that most of these people spend over half of life at work.  To me, there is nothing more rewarding than working to build something for yourself.   When you are passionate about what you do and you believe there is true meaning to what you’re building then the work is no longer a burden. 

Additionally, you are truly your own boss.  The only people you answer to are your customers, and even with that, you’re the one who gets to determine the schedule and deadlines with them.  If I wanted to take the morning off to take my mom to breakfast, or had to run an errand in the middle of the day, I just did it.  I did not have to call anyone and explain why I needed time off, or get scolded if something out of my control came up and made me late.  Despite the intense amount of work, you get to be the one who determines what is most important and take time to enjoy those things.  If you want to take three days off to spend time with your family at the cottage you can do that.  You may have to work three 20 hour days prior to that to make up the work, but no one can tell you that you can’t do it.  

You’ll Learn More About Yourself than Through Any Internship

The best part about having your own company also happens to be the scariest part: at the end of the day everything falls in your hands.  There is no one else to lay blame on except yourself.  It’s sink or swim and it’s all on you.  You can’t find that level of accountability in any other summer internship or entry-level position.  When everything is on your shoulders, you learn how to handle adversity and you learn what areas you excel in versus areas you need to improve in.  You also get to see every aspect of the business world from planning, operations, finance and accounting, human resources, to sales and customer service.  Being responsible for everything allows you to see what you like or don’t like and gain a unique perspective of the various elements required to run a business.  

I’m a firm believer that challenges and hard times force you to learn more about yourself than anything else.  During my internship I had the challenge of working 10 hours a day 5 days a week while my friends had no cares and were able to party every day.  That taught me two things; I hated working at a desk, and that I hated working in a typical structured environment with a 7-5 routine.  Working this summer I had more new challenges and experiences than ever before.  I was able to learn that I love having responsibility and being my own boss.  I also learned that I’m capable of working harder than I could have ever previously imagined and that I love working when I know what I’m working towards.  I learned that I love talking to customers and building relationships but I hate spending time preparing invoices and tracking expenses.  I learned I love thinking of new ways to gain business and deliver what customers want, but that I don’t enjoy the administrative tasks that go along with that.

I think these learning experiences are extremely valuable for any person, regardless of what path they chose to go down in the future.  If you spend a summer running your business, you may decide to continue with it and you’ll be able to move forward knowing what areas you need help in.  On the other hand, you may learn that running a business is not for you and that you don’t want to bear the burden of responsibility, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It that’s the case you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned about yourself and use that to determine exactly what type of career you want to pursue.  It gives you a huge leg up in the job-hunt because you can make a more informed decision on where you want to work, and you will be more likely to get hired because you can passionately explain to companies what you love and are good at and what will motivate you to succeed.  

Finally, when you work that hard at anything, you will learn a lot about who you are as a person and what makes you happy.  The commitment required to starting a business means that you only have so much time to do other things.  You will quickly find that if you try to do everything you will burn yourself out.  This will facilitate your learning and allow you to see what’s important to you and what you live for, and that forces you to set your priorities in the proper order.  You gain a greater appreciation for time and you will be able to see who in your life genuinely cares for you and what people are worth spending that precious time and energy on.  In addition to that, you will also be able to see who sincerely supports you and believes in you.  Learning who you are as a person is the most valuable and rewarding part of devoting so much time and energy into starting a business. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I decided to write this post to give some insight on the things I found most valuable in my experience.  I could have discussed all of the technical details like getting registered, obtaining insurance, record keeping, etc. but in all honesty, all of that stuff is easy.  I really meant it when I said that anyone can open a business, it does not take any special talent or skill set to get things up and running.  I am certainly no expert, nor am I smarter or any more talented than anyone reading this.  You can find out majority of the administrative details by running a Google search.  In addition, if you’re a college student, there’s a good chance your school has an entrepreneurship program or at the very least a club or organization.  Seek these programs out because they will likely be able to provide some great resources, that’s another advantage of opening a business in college. 

Obviously, my opinions on certain things may be a little biased because they are based on my experiences and beliefs.  Everyone will have different experiences and different viewpoints.  You may start a business and find that you disagree with everything I said, but even if that is the case, cheers to you for taking the plunge and putting yourself out there to try it.  If you even have a slight feeling that you may want to start a business, do it.  I have absolutely zero regrets about my decision and I know for a fact that I would always be wondering “what if” had I chosen to go the typical route of an internship.  Even if you give it a chance and have a terrible experience, I guarantee that at the very least you will take away something of value that will help you later in life.  

Whether you have interest in opening a business or not I hope you enjoyed the post and can maybe take something out of it.  I would provide information on my company but I will be merging with another company this spring and will have a different name as well as some other organizational changes.  If you have any questions, or want to hear anything else about my experience please feel free to contact me.  Thanks for reading!