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“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”

The quote above attributed to Mark Twain has been the centrepiece to stories of startup founders dropping out of school. When Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard in 2005, this quote was circulated around the world. While it is common to see lists of tech co-founders like Zuckerberg, Gates, Larry Page, and others being listed as dropouts, there are also others who go through their schooling.

The idea of dropping out of school or university has been romanticised in the tech industry. A good example of this can be seen in the new Hulu series, The Dropout, based on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. In one episode, Elizabeth’s character, played by Amanda Seyfried, comes home to tell her parents that she is dropping out from Stanford.

Her face beams with pride when sharing the news as if it was the natural path for her. The fact that there are now students who start their own venture while studying and successfully manage both (enterprise and studies) and the support system (like StartupAmsterdam) built around them shows how the community of startup founders has evolved in the past decade.

These new classes of startup founders are the stalwarts of the new normal, where you can not only get your degree from school but also run successful startups. For this story, we spoke to current and former students who began their entrepreneurial journey when in college. These founders may not be topping the charts of Forbes billionaires’ list yet but their story is one that needs to be told over and over again.

Possibility of starting a company has become realistic

Vu University
Vu Amsterdam has a programme that encourages students to think and work across borders | Image Credit: Vu Amsterdam

Maximiliane Ekert, co-founder of SanguisAI and a master student of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Neuropsychology at Vu University in Amsterdam, says “creating and starting something from scratch always interested me.” He took part in an extra-curricular activity during his bachelor’s programme in Switzerland, where he had to come up with a business and write a business plan for it.

Like many others, Ekert says he also believed that a student entrepreneur would need to have collected “many years of work experience” before running their own company. The possibility of starting something already now became a lot more realistic when I moved to the Netherlands and started pursuing my master in Artificial Intelligence,” she adds.

While Ekert wanted to become a startup founder naturally, Victor Bey-Smith says it wasn’t initially his plan. “When I applied for my school, Hotelschool The Hague, I originally wanted to be general manager of a large hotel, meet guests in the lobby and make them feel welcome. I guess I was always attracted to the relational side of business, but being a founder didn’t cross my mind until I met my soon-to-be co-founders, Justin Warambourg and Luca Cosivi,” he explains.

In 2018, Victor, Justin and Luca started Starter Kit as an effort to help new students coming to the Netherlands seamlessly settle in their new environment. Dubbed “by students for students”, the startup helped students coming to the Netherlands pack light and move in to their new accommodation easily. They offer all the university essentials for a student’s room, bathroom and kitchen in one sustainable kit.

Kim, founder of active wear label mik., is also a believer in the process of creating something. She admits being clueless about what to study after graduation and instead of studying further, she took a gap year and went travelling.

“On my first stop in Nice, I thought I booked an Airbnb but it turned out it was a bed in a hostel. I didn’t know the concept of a hostel yet, but when the hostel owner excitedly checked me in and introduced me to the other guests who were also full of excitement, I thought for the first time this is a job I would want to do; become a hostel owner,” Kim says.

She later travelled to Thailand and the Philippines and continued to stay in hostels. She spoke to a number of hostel owners and found that these hostel owners were not prepared by education. “You just start doing it as an entrepreneur and see what comes out,” she adds.

Entrepreneurship should be imparted earlier

student founders entrepreneurs
For student entrepreneurs, it is now more easier than ever to get access to critical resources | Image Credit: Depositphotos

As student entrepreneurs, Victor, Kim, and Maximiliane see the need for entrepreneurship being imparted into students earlier in their life. Entrepreneurship is an idea and each individual can make it successful with their own wit. Victor says professors, friends, and family members can play “a huge role in the creation of student startups.”

“Without the early support from professors such as Robert Gallicano at Hotelschool, we may have never gotten Starter Kit off the ground in the first place. I do wish there was more of this culture in Amsterdam universities though,” he remarks on the role played by institutions.

Kim sees a need for universities, incubators, and tech hubs to “anticipate entrepreneurial needs.” She adds these organisations must “be open to feedback, facilitate networking, get inspiring entrepreneurs to do a guest lecture, offer business and personal coaching.”

Darya Krasilnikov, Director of Ace Incubator, says, “In the past few years, I’ve witnessed a positive shift in how the knowledge institutes view entrepreneurship. Now it’s almost a part of the academic value proposition. With this mindset shift, more and more faculty are extremely supportive of their students. In some cases, faculty is even taking an active role in a startup and joining the entrepreneurial journey of their students.”

While the stories of Zuckerberg, Gates and others dominate the news media, these entrepreneurs are not fazed by their fandom. “Having large success stories such as Facebook are definitely needed to help young students dream. To me, the biggest sources of motivation and role models were the other entrepreneurs in the Amsterdam ecosystem trying to make it just like us. A few notable examples were Niels Baay from Nxus or Henry Tang from Turff, both of whom I met at a student startup pitch event hosted by ASIF Ventures in 2020,” Victor says.

Maximiliane says she does not identify one person in particular as a motivation. “In general, the concept of identifying a problem worth solving, coming up with a solution and building a company around it. Of course, there are remarkable entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, whose vision I admire and he shows that one does not need to stick to only one sector,” she adds.

Darya says the role of a university incubator, or any other organisation supporting startups within the universities, is “to be a ‘safe space’ to embark on a startup journey. In this safe welcoming space, which puts founders first, students can get the support they need on the best terms possible. Such support should cover most of the early-stage startup needs: business coaching, mentorship, hands-on program focused on entrepreneurship skills development, access to makers/office space or funding.”

For Kim, that safe space was Global School for Entrepreneurship. “The first 1.5 years were truly about finding out who you are as a person and what you want to contribute to this world. Having that as a foundation for being an entrepreneur helped me start businesses from my heart, instead of just wanting to be an entrepreneur because you want freedom and money, which you nowadays see a lot,” she says.

Kim adds, “The journey of being an entrepreneur is also a very emotional journey with lots of ups and downs. The people of Global School understand that greatly, that’s why there is a personal coach you can always have a chat with. Apart from that there are also various business coaches you can talk to and of course your fellow peers who most likely have experienced similar struggles and can help you as well. It’s a safe environment to grow as an entrepreneur.”

Balancing time is an art

One of the reasons often cited by entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg for dropping out is lack of time to focus on their studies as well as the startup. However, these new cohorts of students are showing how to multitask in a fast paced world where innovation is happening at a rapid pace.

“I stick to a set time schedule,” says Maximiliane. “I do university-related work during normal working hours and work for the startup either before or after that. Since we are a team of 4 co-founder we are also flexible in adjusting the workload for each founder depending on how busy we are.”

Victor says, “determine the lowest grade you will be satisfied with and spend more and more time on your startup until your grades decrease to that threshold. It’s not an easy process, and it can especially impact group work, where others do not have such obligations.”

“One tip I can give is to make sure to empathise and see group work from the perspective of your teammates,” he adds.

Kim’s journey is one that would resonate with a number of student entrepreneurs. She left her job and invested all her savings into creating her active wear label mik. She admits expecting to live from the income as soon as her webshop went live. It, however, became clear to her that she didn’t have a marketing strategy or budget in place and the brand needed a lot of investment even after the webshop went live.

“I overcame this by getting a side job, so I could create more budget to invest into mik and lower pressure. I also realised that to find out what marketing strategy works for you, you don’t need to spend a lot of money at once. You can do lots of various smaller experiments and with time you get closer to what works for you,” she explains.

A unique challenge awaits every student entrepreneur

Every entrepreneur faces their own, unique set of challenges while building a startup. For student entrepreneurs though, those challenges are usually longer and complex. Victor, who is now a director at Asif Ventures, a VC fund supporting startups of students and recent graduates, says “each startup goes through their own set of challenges.”

He says these challenges could be associated with team dynamics, hiring, effective marketing, logistics, production delays, quality assurance, fundraising, cash flow, et cetera. Darya adds that student entrepreneurs are faced with two types of challenges.

“Firstly, student life is as busy as it gets, you need to balance your study load with social activities and oftentimes, student jobs. Building a company is a full-time 24/7 commitment. You need to run fast, neither competitors nor investors will cut you any slack just because you’re a student. Juggling between all these commitments can be very stressful and might even lead to burnout,” she says.

“Secondly, students in most cases lack industry/business experience. That adds to the challenges that a young startup is facing. You need to learn all the necessary skills on-the-go to be able to secure your first wins and, with that, your credibility in the eyes of your stakeholders,” she adds.

Victor says one of the easiest ways to overcome these challenges is to surround yourself with advisors, people who have gone through similar issues. “They can be older, younger, it doesn’t matter. As long as they can share something of value, that’s who you want to speak to,” he adds.

He says the second advice would be to “not listen to advice.” Victor says this tip from Boris van Zanten, founder of The Next Web, has proven valuable over time. When asked to elaborate, Victor says the hardship faced by each startup founder is entirely unique to them and hence advice cannot be a solution.

He does note that student entrepreneurs should “make sure you seek advice from people you can learn from, but also be critical about what advice you take in and act upon.”

As a VC, Victor says that every entrepreneur should give 100 per cent to their startup to make it a success. On this debate around whether students should drop out from school or universities to build their own startup, Victor sees the need to read the nuance in circumstances.

“[Entrepreneurs] especially need to make sure they’ve explored every possibility, every sales tactic, every business model, every leadership style, every workflow, and every prototype before cutting back on the business,” he says. “On the other hand, should the business be doomed to fail from the beginning for whatever reason, a diploma can help you get a higher paying job while you get back up on your feet before throwing yourself back into entrepreneurship.”

He finally notes that the opportunity to study will always be available but the opportunity to pursue a specific startup opportunity will happen only once. “In the end, a good rule of thumb is to always keep learning, whether that’s in school or with your business, that should be your only goal as a young entrepreneur,” he adds.