Starting a company just after college – yes OR no?

Should you? Shouldn’t you? I get asked this question very frequently, whereever I go and talk to college students. Surprising? No. Interesting? Yes. Without doubt – more and more people are considering entrepreneurship as a career option along with the other ‘normal’ choices – medicine, engineering, design, journalism, and MBA.

But when I got asked the same question this weekend at BITS Pilani where I was one of the panelist on “Startups – Issues and Challenges” during a convention on Energising Entrepreneurship in Academia through Innovation, I thought to blog my thoughts in the hope of reaching a bigger audience. To begin with, I will mention that while it is very lucrative to start as early as possible (there is a school of thought which tells students that you can start either now or after you are 40), one also needs to be sure that they give themselves a fair chance to succeed. Let me make a few obvious statements first:

  1. Starting just after college does not guarantee success OR failure. And the same is true for a person who has 30 years of industry experience.
  2. There isn’t really a right or wrong time to start. Seriously! It’s all in the mind and in the minds of those who matter to you.
  3. The entrepreneurial eco-system in the US is very different from any other country, including India. So, yes, take inspiration from the US examples but don’t assume that to be a rule.
  4. Being entrepreneurial is different from being an entrepreneur.

Now, let’s talk about the basic skills required to be an entrepreneur:

  1. Multi-tasking and team-work, with the maturity to be a facilitator than being somebody who can execute well.
  2. Passion and Risk-taking
  3. Craziness and ‘thinking outside the box’

Before you decide on whether you are ready to take the plunge or not, you need to evaluate yourself on the above criteria. The second and third points will mostly hold good (if that is not true – you should not even think about entrepreneuship in the near future or may be ever) but you need to know if you can really motivate a team working with you. Can you do multi-tasking – when you wouldn’t have worked ever on many of the tasks you will be carrying out then? Are you ready to work on something where you will have to spend most of your time on things that you are not ‘trained’ at? Do you have the patience to be a facilitator than being somebody who knows execution (being a good facilitator is a much harder job)? If the answer to all these questions is a strong (and honest) yes – you are ready, otherwise not. Nothing will still guarantee the outcome but, if you decide to go ahead on it, don’t let the thought cross your mind ever again then that you could have done better if you had a little bit of experience.

To summarize, my suggestions to those who want to start are the following: When you don’t have an industry work-experience, there is always a possibility of self-doubt on whether you have the correct skill-set to pull it off. If you have doubt – it’s always a good idea to wait. Give yourself some time – it’s always beneficial to work for a few years (your will still have a lot of time), gain some experience and ‘master’ one area that you know is essential for a business. There are so many unknowns in a startup - if you can reduce one unknown, it is a major win and more than compensates for a wait period of a few years. Always remember that the passion and energy that you will have for your first business is difficult to match for any subsequent business. It’s very important to give yourself a fair chance to succeed. And even though you need to be ready to be comfortable with failure, you don’t have to spend your energy in preparing for it.

In the end - even if you are not ready to be an entrepreneur, be entrepreneurial – there are similarities and there are differences.

Update: Syven has made an excellent comment on this post. It’s very worthwhile to read that comment.

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18 thoughts on “Starting a company just after college – yes OR no?

  1. Hi….Ashish ,again u hav come with a nice blog ,you are sharing ur experience and it will definitely give an string of thought to desperate new startups. well-One of my friend also wants to jump into this foray and I believe this will help him to take the decision in positive way.

  2. Hey Ashish Love to read your views. How was your trip to Pilani. How about a writeup on your pilani trip. That will be great.

  3. Hi Ashish,

    I didn get how Being entrepreneurial is different from being an entrepreneur. If you have posted about it earlier please link it back.

    Waiting to know what is it, google search didn help much.

  4. One more thing which you will have to ask yourselves is “What you want to do? How you want to do? and you should be able to Paint the future of your enterprise you are planning to build(Vision). If you have answers for these along with above points then it is a good sign to start up.

  5. Seriously couldn’t get much from this post. I will list those-
    1) What are the differences in being entrepreneurial and being an entrepreneur? Are they not both linked? If not,how are they different?

    2) What are the differences in the entreprerial system in US and in India? And what inspiration should one draw from US?

    3) In what way does craziness helps?

    I think you should a new post regarding these things-in detail! BTW, how was “BITS”?

  6. Excellent points Ashish.

    I believe becoming an entrepreneur for fame, for money and status is one thing but following a dare belief that you have all the capability (and ready to learn by doing) to make it happen is the real entrepreneurial spirit. Having high passion and focus can make you big star right during college days. Richard Branson (CEO “Virgin”) started early in his college days with a rare entrepreneurial belief on himself.

  7. Hey Ashish! Pilani…nice! Hey may be once you are in the Bay Area, we could have you come over to Stanford as well! That would be fun! Anyways, would beg to differ on at least one point, the most significant one being – “passion and energy that you will have for your first business is difficult to match for any subsequent business”. Well I was at a panel discussion here on campus last night being moderated by Guy Kawasaki. And one of the panelists was Seth Sternberg – he is the co-founder of Meebo! And you know he said Meebo was his 8th attempt at starting up. 8 is no small number and he couldnt have done it with out having passion for it in the first place. In fact I think sometimes a person might have more passion for his subsequent business – coz he has learned from his mistakes and knows a lot more than one he did the last time around. Well a small disclaimer here – I dont know squat about startups – have never done any of my own – so just a thought I had.

  8. Sorry guys for the late reply to the comments – I hardly had time in the last 2 days.

    Raj – glad to be of help. :-)

    Partha – the trip was good. It was my first trip there and the campus is good – though there is hardly anything in the city :-) I got to know about some of the ideas that the students presented and met some excellent senior speakers but I am afraid that I can’t talk about those ideas in public. If you want to know more on anything, please email me and we can talk :-)

    Kumaran – totally agree with you. BTW – I got busy with few things and couldn’t follow up much on what we talked in our last email conversation. Let me get in touch with you early next week and take it further.

    Sujoy – I thought there were a few blogs which talked about the same and, for some reason, I thought that it was very trivial. I also did a search and didn’t find anything very interesting on the first couple of pages. Basically the difference is that entrepreneurial is a frame of mind and when you actually take the plunge, you become an entrepreneur. You can be entrepreneurial without being an entrepreneur. Siddhartha also pointed out – so may be I will scribble in my thoughts as another post sometime.

    Siddhartha – sure! Why don’t you write your thoughts on the same and I will take those and elaborate further?

    Santosh – again, I agree with you :-) You come up with interesting facts in comments.

    Rahul – oh, sure – I will also love to do the same :-) I know Seth and have exchanged a couple of emails with him. I am not saying that you will not have passion / energy for your startup – even though it’s not your first. Unless you are passionate, you will not do startups. But, may be Seth had even more energy for his first startup. And, of course, this is by no means a rule. having done startups definitely makes you wiser – being more passionate is debatable :-)

  9. Passion and risk-taking are gr8, but i feel all the passion and risk taking in the world can only make a few people come out on top some of the time. So i guess that should be caclulated risk-taking rather than blindly taking risks with no upside and a potentially disastrous downside.
    I guess someone who would be a good entreprenur is a thinker who is also a doer. Yet these are a rare breed because the thinkers have too short an attention span and the doers are so buried in their work they rarely see where they are going.

  10. I prefer to place context around the word entrepreneur and the context here is an Indian context. In that regard I divide enterprise into two form of entrepreneurs. The first is Empire-Indian entrepreneurs and the second is 21st Century Indian entrepreneurs. Empire-Indians bore me to death, it is better not for me to talk about them for there is nothing extraordinary about them, they are merely imitators of the memes left behind by the ghost of British Raj or through imitation of western culture. Then there is 21st Century entrepreneurs and they (not me or you) are well worthy of exploration.

    Two of the richest three Indians today are brothers. Imagine this, in a population of more than a billion people; at the highest pedestal exist two people from the same gene pool. It is not their financial accumulation that is worth studying or their connections but the fact that they are 21st Century Indian entrepreneurs – for they define the meaning of what it means to be an Indian entrepreneur by developing new memes outward into the world rather than simply look for old models that they can upgrade. They didn’t simply digest a Silicon Valley education or a Mumbia education and then regurgitated their education, they are fundamentally changing corporate experience at the highest level and what it means to operate at the most global level, a level which unlike the industrial revolution requires execution of vision, rather than imitation of industrial age thinking.

    I think the better question here is one of maturity to be an entrepreneur. There are kids who have entrepreneurial maturity at age 18 that some 50 year olds are not even close to achieving. Given that maturity, why not make the leap of faith? Yet it comes down to what I refer to as the ABC of entrepreneurial life:

    ADVERSITY
    BRAINS
    CASHFLOW

    The best employees deal with adversity day-in-day out, yet the entrepreneurial employee realizes adversity in a greater context and the entrepreneur turns their ability to handle adversity into an enterprise, it becomes the entrepreneurs raison-detre not their barrier. Brains is a no-brainer, it is however not the empire-indian accumulation of intellectual ability, it is the ability to think differently and adaptively to global level transformation. Finally if one can master dealing with adversity and one has a Napoleon Hill mindset for the 21st Century, the final piece of being an entrepreneur is the most simplest of pitfalls, managing cashflow. Even the greatest of giants can be felled with a simple stone called cashflow. Many a great startup injected with millions of dollars and what seemed a healthy run-rate, dies at the sword of cashflow. As for me, I am but a simple fellow, gathered with you not to pontificate on greatness or change but to simply learn how to live my life as wisely and as successfully as I can. The 21st Century Indian has to figure life out at a global perspective even when his startup is an acorn, while IMHO the Empire-Indian still lives by a form of inherited divide and rule and other memes that a 21st Century life is beginning to make redundant and irrelevant. The basic rule I advocate here is do your own thinking for it is your life not mine that you are living; do not rely on my worldview for I am simply writing this to learn, grow and transform my own worldview.

    M.

  11. Famus – thanks!

    Suman – agree that an entrepreneur has to be action-oriented.

    Vinay – this technology is used at a lot of other pages too. It’s a decent technical exercise but I feel that it’s difficult to monetize that any further. This made money initially because of the novelty factor – I doubt that you can sell it after commoditizing it. But then that’s just me :-) And I will feel glad if the fresh graduate proves me wrong.

    Syven – excellent comment. Let me add an update to this blog-post to encourage people to read this comment.

  12. Hi Ashish,
    May be you are right but what I have observed on the entrepreneurial thing at IIM Ahmedabad – it’s only fresh grads who take up the challenge of entrepreneurship. Those who go to corporate jobs and think that after 2-3 years of work ex, they will digg entrepreneurship – they inevitably never venture leaving the security of monthly salaries!
    I have a few examples in my hand -
    1. Vardan Kabra – He didn’t join P&G Preplacement offer and thought of opening an school in 2004. His school is in Surat and he is going great guns – now he is thinking of opening a chain of schools across India. He is not earning what he would have had he joined the job – but he is happy to be his own boss and dreaming big in future.
    2. Gaurav Saigal – Among the top 3 students in 2005 batch, got inspired by Vardan , thought to be an entrepreneur, got DB PPO, joined there. He thought after 1-2 years of job he’ll start his own company. One year is over – never heard him opening anything till date!
    3. Sarath Babu – Hailing from a lower middle class family, he took the bold step of opening his catering service in 2006, without joining any job. In a few months he has done really well and now he has opened a food chain with Mallika Sarabhai.
    4. Sarath Chandra – 2005 passout – refused offers of numerous companies and opened his consultancy service for small-scale industries. He has done well in past one and half years and his consultancy range now covers entire south and a part of North India.

    There are numerous students who get motivated by these stories. But, as a matter of fact, most of the students take loans to study at IIMA. Their first priority is to pay off those loans as soon as possible. Hence, many-a-times they feel that to pay off the loans they need to do one or two years of service. Once they go in their secured salary based jobs, they never feel like returning to the hardship of being an entrepreneur.

    Entrepreneurship is not easy, it’s much harder than any high paying job – even investment banking. Initial 4-5 years when you are building up your business, it’s the toughest! I see Sarath Babu, whose base is in Ahmedabad – I see how hard he is working. Every week, 3-4 days, he doesn’t get even 2-3 hours to sleep. Now he drawing only Rs. 10k as his salary from the Food King Caterers (his company). But, he is dreaming big – to open a food retail chain across India. May God bless him in his endeavours.
    Regards
    Arindam

  13. Just an addendum to the previous post, all the entrepreurs I mentioned, also took loans to study. None of them come from a posh families and are essentially middle class. It’s the attitude that matters and not the background, that’s what I feel. If you are to be an entrepreneur, you have to!

  14. Arindam – agree with that. But on the other side, I know quite some people who started after having some experience. What we need to look at is the success rate of people who start just after college and also those with some experience. And also the size of the company they built – along with their targets. When you don’t have enough experience, you might think that even a revenue of 1 crore (just an example) is on the higher side whereas it is not. So – experience does bring in some maturity. At the same time – it is also true that people either start a company pretty early in their career or do so after they are 35/40 +.

    There isn’t a rule still since the number of ‘successful’ companies aren’t that high in India yet. Let’s wait and watch – the fact is that you need companies started by different kinds of people for the eco-system to be complete. And I think we all have started in the right direction :-)

  15. sirjee..tussi grt ho!

    i read ur blog. many doubts i had hav been cleared..
    actually sir m dng ENG. nd find it a waste f both time n money.
    nw toh i ll defntly go n fr a start-up right after my eng..ts n my mind ..thanks a lot

  16. Hello Ashish!

    Very wise words, although my views are still up in the air as far as doing international business after college. I’m primarily interested in forming a corporation overseas, particularly in China or India (eventually both). Unfortunately, many private equity and investment banking firms view experience as a chief issue, making it a bit difficult to raise funds for fledgling corporations. When doing international business, what would you recommend to entrepreneurs-in-training to overcome these obstacles?

    Julia, NY, USA

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