Last month I wrote a post about college students starting their own businesses. I was hoping that post would result in our readers sharing stories of their own successes and challenges as entrepreneurs. They did and they didn’t disappoint.
Brett Kopf is one of them. After graduating from Michigan State University, Brett started remind101 with his brother, which allows students to receive text messages and emails reminding them when course assignments are due. I decided to interview Brett to find out more about life as a young entrepreneur.
I had a lot of jobs and internships during college and I continually realized that many people (not all) I worked with didn’t love what they do. This scared me.
So, I started buying coffee for all the local business owners, startup gurus and marketing professionals in East Lansing. I figured the best way to find out what I want to do with my life is to find the best of the best and ask what they do. I quickly realized I liked this whole concept of starting a company and I had a pretty good idea.
I was about to graduate and had the option to take a great job in Chicago. But the closer I got to graduation, the scarier it became. Confusion mounted and I reached the scary crossroad: start this company, which many people told me couldn’t work, or take the comfortable gig.
I hopped on a call with my brother David and he told me a story: “Do you know what Michael Jordan said in his Hall of Fame speech? He said listening to the media tell him he’d never win like Bird or Johnson put so much wood on the fire that it kept him trying each and every day to get better as a basketball player. He was basically thanking the media for telling him he couldn’t do it because it made him try harder to prove he could.”
That sealed the deal for me. Five minutes later, I called David back and it was as clear as day: On October 14th 2009 I made the decision to start the company and it’s been non-stop ever since.
What have you gained from your startup experience?
Experience, connections and heartburn. In many cases starting a company at 22 with my brother is like the blind leading the blind, which is why mentors are so important. You need to be resourceful and find a way to get stuff done. Some questions we encountered:
- How do you find a lawyer and when you do, how will you pay?
- How do you establish equity stake for investor?
- What development company do you use?
- How do you communicate your concept to the techies?
Oh yeah, I’d say “How will we make money?” is important too! The list goes on…From what I’ve learned, I’ve come to a few strong conclusions.
Find a co-founder you trust with your life who has opposing strengths. Why? Because there is too much to handle and think about when starting a company, no single person is great at everything! Luckily, I have my brother.
Starting a company comes down to making hundreds of decisions and then executing. It can be overwhelming: Take baby steps and don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance.
I’ve only touched the tip of the ice berg of what it takes to start a company. Guy Kawasaki says the best time to start a company is when you are young. Why? Because you’re naive! It’s 9 months later and I’m a bit less naive and really starting to dig into what it’s like to start a company. But, I’m a firm believer that if you truly believe in your product and have relentless passion, you’ll find a way.
How have your experiences helped you build your personal brand and/or how has your personal brand helped you be successful?
There aren’t too many students/recent grads starting web companies (though it’s growing fast) and my brand fits somewhere in the middle of being able to communicate with the Gen Y crowd and the “traditional business folks.”
Ask yourself what you are passionate about and love to do, then become an authority in that niche.
For example, when people think of me, I hope they think: startups, social media, Gen Y, higher ed and a lot of energy. This “trust” is established if you consistently talk about the topics you love.
What are the biggest challenges of starting a business as a young professional and how did you overcome them?
Managing time is tough. You are your own CEO, accountant, marketing guru, sales guy, project manager, etc. You wear a lot of hats! It’s like getting a crash course MBA in the real world. You’ll make mistakes, tons of them and hoorah, that’s fine. Just don’t make them twice.
What I realized is that much of starting a company is intuition. Your gut never lies. I’m overcoming all these worries by surrounding myself with the best of the best. I’m able to have supreme confidence in our product because I fully trust and believe in the people I work with.
What advice would you give to college students contemplating a similar path?
First of all, find mentors. These are people who have a genuine interest in you as a human being, not to just make money off the company. These are also people who’ve been down that path, started and sold companies. You don’t necessarily have to have just one mentor, either. I think it’s a great idea to have a few niche mentors: personal (emotional), business, etc.
Also, just start! You can plan and think forever but college is a PERFECT time to start a company. You have no major responsibilities, access to smart people, a flexible schedule, and people want to see you succeed! You have the help-a-driven-young-person-change-the-world effect.
I often say that starting a company at this age is like staring at a black hole of unknowns. Where do you start? What do you do first? The answer is baby steps. Do some research and find the startup/business guru in your local city. Get their email and ask for their advice, something like this:
“Hi XYZ, My name is John Smith, I go to ____college. I see you’ve started a few companies in the tech space and I’m thinking about starting a business myself but could really use some advice. Have 30 minutes for coffee? On me!”
I also recommend reading The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki and The Purple Cow by Seth Godin. It will teach you how to add value to the world and understand what it takes to market an exceptional product.
Brett Kopf is CEO and founder of remind101. Connect with him on Twitter at @brettkopf or via email at Brett@remind101.com. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Social Bonfire.
Kelly is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she assists undergraduate business students with all aspects of their career development. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, her blog, LinkedIn or BrazenCareerist.