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Student entrepreneurship

Michael Simmons -- An NYU student entrepreneur writes that vast majority of New York University undergraduate students attending the Stern school of business are majoring in finance.

You might be quick to write off this statistic, but when you really think about it, it’s amazing. Either we have a lot of students that enjoy finance so much that they want to do it for the rest of their life, or we have people using finance as a means to an end. Hmmm…let me think…I don’t know…maybe money?

My name is Michael Simmons and I’m an entrepreneur and a student at the Stern School. This article is for those who want to explore ways of making money that align with their passions and what they enjoy. While we definitely need people majoring in finance, consulting, politics, or whatever the hot major for your school is, I think it is crucial that students re-evaluate their career choices based on more than money or reputation. Yes, the Stern School of business is the #2 School in the nation for finance and is located in the business capital of the world, but that doesn’t mean you should choose finance as your career. In this article I will show all students how they can leverage their school in more ways than a flashy major. Furthermore, I will open new career options to you that you may have never considered.

What I believe we’re looking at when you see 90% of a school majoring in the same subject is a major human characteristic of assuming the majority is correct and following it. While the majority is often correct, there are many times when it is not. And these times can cost you some of the best aspects of life. The other day I was in huge line with everybody waiting to go up one staircase. There was an empty staircase right next to the one full of people. My first assumption was that it must be off limits, but immediately following that I thought to myself, “oh what the hell, why don’t I just try it out? What’s the worst that can happen?” When I ventured up the empty staircase unimpeded, I realized that the only reason people hadn’t been taking this staircase was that nobody else was. Then upon looking back, I realized that there were actually people following me. Thus confirming my conclusion. My question to everybody, not only the people at Stern is, do you want to take the staircase not traveled upon and leave a path for others to follow or do you want to compete against the majority just to get up the same staircase?

If this analogy didn’t clear things up, then consider popularity. I would say that the goal of 90% of people in high school was to be popular. I know that I spent many years towards this end. Why? I did because everybody else was playing the same game. This game’s formula included selling my values out, hanging out with the right ‘clique’, wearing new clothes, and basing my behaviors on what the crowd was doing. By the time I reached my senior year, I had reached my goal. I was hanging with the right crowd and acting the way I was supposed to. It was then when I realized that being popular was not at all what I thought it would be, and I actually felt less fulfilled than before I embarked to be popular. I share this anecdote with you because it was then that I decided to live by my values, spend time with the people I had things in common with, and choose my own destiny and I hope that you can do the same (before its too late). High school was only four years. Life is forever! I think that you’d agree that life isn’t worth spending just following others.

It’s All About the Benjamins

In 1998, a poll was given by the University of California to determine the goals students have for education. The result was that 74.9 percent of freshman chose being well off as the essential goal. In 1968, 82.5 percent cited developing a philosophy as their major goal. Furthermore, based on the evidence I’ve already brought up I think that it’s safe to come to the conclusion that people are majoring in finance because they think it’s the best way to make money. From early on, we learn the game of making money. The formula for this game is to get a high GPA, participate in many extracurricular activities, get into a good college, do the same thing in college, get a good job, and then just move up. While at first this formula might have achieved success, over the years it has become saturated by millions of money hungry students using the same formula. As a matter a fact, the formula probably only ends up working for a minority in the long run. What I propose is a newer formula that I guarantee will work.

The formula I propose is becoming the big fish in a pond of your own creation. Innovating as opposed to competing is where true success lies. Look at Tommy Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy. He broke his first major artist in a small club in New York City where nobody else was looking. Everybody else was looking at the same person in a larger club. If you look at the most of the successful people in our culture, you will see that they became famous not by competing at the same thing as everybody else, but by taking things to new level and then competing with others on that plane. They’ve consistently taken risks and reaped major rewards. At the same time they used techniques consciously or unconsciously that actually reduced their risk and kept their rewards the same.

College Entrepreneurship

Specifically, I propose that students start a business when they’re in school. Wait A MINUTE! If you are like 99.999% percent of students I’ve spoken to you immediately discounted this proposal. You might have said statements to yourself such as, “I don’t have an idea”, “I don’t have enough experience”, “I’d like to graduate school”, or you might have written the idea off without even thinking about it. The excuses/justifications go on like a grocery list. All that I ask is that you give me a chance to explain my point of view and remain open to my ideas. These next few moments could change your life forever depending on the choice you make right now.

During the summer of 1998, a friend and I started a web development company. At the time I was a typical high school student externally, but internally I felt misunderstood and often times alone. I was a fairly unconfident person and often got nervous when speaking in front of people. I had a deep-down desire to be successful, but had no way to express this desire. I also felt like life was a roller coaster and that I was just the passenger. By no means were my business partner or I experts in web design when we started the business. But by simply creating our own web site and submitting it to a few search engines we were able to get our first client in a matter of weeks for $1000. Since that first client we have grown both the company and ourselves immensely. We have employed college students from across the country, have handled corporate clients from around the world, and were rated as the #1 youth-run web development company in the country. For the year 2000, I won the "Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for New York City" and the "East Coast Collegiate Entrepreneur Award for New York". I've also appeared on CBS and been mentioned in many news publications. Also for the year 2000, the business grossed over $40,000 and I won about $5,000 in awards. Inwardly, I am now confident, energetic, and positive. I believe that the largest contributing factor to the massive changes I have gone through over the past three years is starting a business.

I bring all of this up, because one of the major reasons I’ve been able to be successful is because many people make excuses to themselves and never start businesses and I started a business. It is not because I’m rocket scientist. I’ve never had the best grades and my SAT is below the Stern average. However, just the action of starting a business differentiated me from 99% of other students. Do you know of any internships that will make you standout that much? Even having many internships and being an intern at a “big five” firm is not that special at Stern. Over time there tends to be the trend of the respected turning into the expected. Already we can see this with the high school and college education. Both of these at one point were very rare and the people who received them were often from the “well-to-do” part of society. This transition from the respected to the expected is now occurring with the M.B.A. degree. This once coveted degree said a lot about a person. Now, slowly but surely more and more people are getting a masters degree and it is becoming devalued. The same concept holds true with internships. Once upon a time getting an internship in college was exemplary and unique. Now, more and more people are getting them and they are becoming devalued. As a result people are working harder and harder to compete with the same people!

Below are specific, compelling reasons why you should start a business NOW while its still highly respected:

1. There is a lot of support for young entrepreneurs from the business community and organizations. Many people don’t see college students as competitors and thus are more willing to help students they like or who they think have what it takes to succeed. NYU offers its support in terms of computer resources, a huge library, professors, and administration that succeeds as a factor on how well its students succeed.

2. Owning and running your own business is an incredible way to gain experience and credentials whether the business fails financially or not. I’ve had internships and hands down I feel that I learned more, networked more, and got a better credential by running a business. In September of 2001, I started an internship with Salomon Smith Barney with a 2.9 GPA and an extremely down economy. Obviously something helped me get this internship, and it definitely wasn’t my grades. Don’t get me wrong; I think that internships are perfect ways to explore yourself and your career options. They are worth getting in any field even if you don’t plan on having a job in that field in the future. Just like it is worth taking a marketing class if you are majoring in an unrelated field.

3. You have nothing to lose. I don’t have exact statistics, but I think its safe to say that most students dip into their parent’s check book come time to pay a lot of bills. They aren’t paying child support, rent, utilities, and many other expenses. The worst thing that could happen if your business fails is that you get a job, have an incredible credential on your resume, and have experience that will increase your chances of success in the future. The best thing that can happen is that you’ll become the next Microsoft. I don’t know about you, but I think that is better than choosing between jobs that you’re in for the money and no job.

"4 out of 5 business fail in the first five years, right?" Maybe. The fact of the matter is that I’ve done research with the SBA, Department of Commerce, Dun & Broadstreet, “big six accounting firms”, and so on. Honestly, every study had differently results. I’ve seen statistics that say that 60%-70% businesses succeed. I think that people should base their decisions on more than studies that may not even be that relevant or accurate. Different types of businesses in different industries started by different people all have vastly different levels of risk. My point is that I think that school is the perfect time to start a business because it is my opinion that starting a business and running it with dedication and passion and having it fail is one hundred times better than not starting a business at all!

4. 2/3 of millionaires are entrepreneurs, according to Thomas Stanley and William Dank, the authors of “The Millionaire Mind”! While there is definitely high risk associated with starting a business, it is definitely possible to minimize this risk. A good example, would be a seven year old saying they want to work at a “big five” firm in the future. There would be a lot of risk in the person getting that as a lot of things could happen in the future that prevent him/her from achieving the goal. However, this person could minimize this risk by participating in internships, meeting the right people, and going to the right school. The same is true for entrepreneurship. You can minimize your risk in a variety of ways such as networking, seminars, experience, knowledge, and so on. Truly successful people understand what it takes to be lucky. They simply minimize their risks by consistently putting themselves in opportune situations and are prepared to take risks to achieve positive outcomes. Your opportune situation is now. You’re attending a prestigious college in the international business capital and you have nothing to lose.

Another reason entreprenuers become so rich is that they own percentages of the company they start. The more valuable a company becomes, the more valuable the entrepreneur becomes!

5. Networking -- We’ve all heard that your network increases your net worth. Consider the fact that by running a business and constantly being in a business community will develop excellent contacts. If you choose to get a job after you graduate, you will have a great pool of people that will be more than happy to hire you or know somebody who wants to.

6. New Perspective -- Once you start a business and are running it day in and day out, you start to learn things you never even knew you didn’t know. When this happens we get a completely different world view. This resultant world view from entrepreneurship is extremely empowering.

7. Brand Name -- Put simply, starting a business in college increases the value of “the brand called you” and gives you more options. For example, an entrepreneur with a large brand value can publish a book, star in a documentary movie (“”), or go straight to the top of another company. I recently met one of the founders of Diversity Planet, a job site for minorities. He spent a year of working very hard on the company and has since left to take a reporting job with Date Line NBC at the ripe age of 20 years old! People often don’t get an opportunity like that until they are much older!

8. Experience -- Employers love to see real world experience. Also, the fact that you know you have the experience will give you confidence in itself. It has been my experience that starting a business has actually given me knowledge that many employers don’t even have.

9. Operating a profitable business in the long-term is much less risky than being an employee in the long-term. For example, just look at the recent economic downturn. Ten of thousands of people have been laid off. I can guarantee the owners of profitable businesses are still with the business. They will be the last person to go down with a ship. Owners of businesses can have multiple streams of incomes from different customers. If you’re an employee you only have one stream of income and therefore are bearing more risk. Especially with the rate that things are changing and will be changing there will be more people like Willy Loman from “The Death of a Salesman.” Furthermore, 27% of students prefer to work for a Fortune 500 company. While a big name may sound good, the net jobs created in the Fortune 500 over the past decade is negative. And over the past decade, the amount of students wanting to work at these firms has increased. This means increased competition and you being easily replaceable.

10. Learning -- The knowledge you glean from running a business will change your life and give you an unfair competitive advantage!

11. Combine with School -- Entrepreneurship is the combination of all the disciplines of businesses. It includes knowledge of marketing, accounting, management, and operations. Already having knowledge of these topics before you take classes on them allows you to see how everything applies more clearly. You learn it more as common-sense instead of some abstract ideas. Also, you will be able to learn early on what subjects you like so you can make betters decisions on what to major in and what industries to target.

12. Perhaps the best part of starting your own business is that it is yours. You make the rules, create your own hours, work from wherever you want, and choose who you want to work with. You can also pick what interests you the most in the world and then start a business that is related to that topic in some way. If you like art, you can start a design business. If you like marketing, you can create or choose a product and then market it. If you like writing, you can write a book and do your own public relations and marketing. If you like the Internet, you can start a web development business.

13. Personal Growth -- Being successful in running a business requires you to expand your comfort zone. Each time you do you open a new world of possibilities. For example, the second you start a business you may find yourself becoming a person of action instead of words. This would have impacts on all other parts of your life. The second you learn how to the talk and be confident doing it is the second you can be more successful in networking, interviewing and give seminars and speeches. The largest risk you can take is being a person who is about to retire and still never even tried their dream. I’ve been to seminars where people were crying because they never got around to following their dreams when they were younger. This is your opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others.

I personally have grown a lot from the business. I used to be terrified to speak in front of others. Now I look forward to it. Before the business I had probably read a total of five books out of school, and the only reason I read them was because my mom made me. Since starting the business I’ve probably read over 100 books. The business has also allowed me to learn more about myself. I know that I will be an entrepreneur forever in some way, shape, or form!

14. It’s the American Dream -- A large part of the American legal system is set up so that entrepreneurs can succeed. Incorporation allows people to create totally separate entities from themselves. In other words, it is possible that somebody could start a business, borrow a million dollars, go bankrupt, and not be affected personally. People can personally file for bankruptcy and have all their debts forgiven. Furthermore, there are tax benefits to running your own company.

What You May be Saying to Yourself Right Now

Many people might argue that right now is a terrible time to start a business. They might say that the burst of the dot-com bubble means there are no longer any opportunities for entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the amount of business school students starting businesses, competing in business plan competitions, and majoring in entrepreneurship has significantly decreased. The following is my counter-argument;

1. The masses are leaving entrepreneurship, which means there is more opportunity for you. Starting a business is still unique and will differentiate you.

2. Many of the most successful, long-term businesses were started during recessions.

3. There is less competition for entrepreneur resources.

Successful College Entrepreneurs<

If you think you’re not good enough for starting a business than think again. I’ve met dozens of students who’ve started businesses and doing well in school is definitely not a pre-requisite of succeeding. So if you think that just because you didn’t get into a good school or just because you’ve been getting low grades you won’t succeed, then think again. Being a successful entrepreneur is based on a whole different set of metrics that school doesn’t necessarily teach you, so don’t just write off starting a business on the account you’re not smart enough. If entrepreneurs had to be book smart than people who were still in college would not be able to create more successful businesses than people twenty years older than them. Some examples of businesses like this that were started in college are:

Microsoft -- Bill Gates was attending Harvard.
Dell -- Michael Dell was attending the University of Texas.
Napster -- Shawn Fanning was attending North Eastern University
Netscape -- Mark Andreesan was attending graduate school.
CNN -- Ted Turner was kicked out of Brown twice.
Federal Express -- Fred Smith was attending Brown. He wrote a business plan for Federal Express and was actually given a “C” by his professor on the project.
Nantucket Nectars -- Started by two students attending Brown.
Apple -- Started by Steve Jobs who was attending the University of Texas.
Tripod -- Bo Peabody was attending Williams University when he started Tripod. He later sold it to Lycos for $58 million. -- Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizleman attracted a $20 million investment while attending Cornell University as juniors. The company later went public.

One excellent example of somebody who started a business in college and finished college is Rick Rubin, a co-founder of Def Jam in 1984. Rick actually started his business in a Weinstein dorm room at NYU. He has since gone on to become a millionaire and produce artists like Run D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and L.L. Cool J.

Many people believe that luck is simply random. What I have learned is that it is not. I don’t think that it is simply chance that the same people are continually lucky or unlucky. I’ve read and heard in numerous places from highly respected people that luck is a combination of opportunity and preparedness. Here is the opportunity right in front of you. My question to you is, are you prepared?

I now invite you to make the decision of your lifetime. I invite you to join the few who do, the few who follow their dreams. No longer will you be the person saying, “They stole my idea!” when you see a product/service idea you thought of a year ago. Here’s to changing the world and making a difference! Good Luck! Seize the moment!

© Michael Simmons 2001. All Rights Reserved.

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