Bookstrapping: Student by Day, Southeast Asian Founder by Night
The non-romanticized version of balancing school and building a start-up
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
We’ve all heard the story before: student with brilliant idea turns said brilliant idea into a game-changing start-up that takes over the world. The popular ones drop out of school. This is the start-up founder mythology, though represented by only a small subset of people on the planet.
There are biographies and Hollywood movies dedicated to these stories. But take away the glitz and glamour, what is it really like to be a student first and entrepreneur second?
Advantages of being a student entrepreneur
“Robin and I spent the past 2 years studying full time and working on the start-up,” says Roslyn Teng, co-founder of Made Real, a Singaporean subscription lifestyle service.
“As students, we had no real urgency to complete our degrees, and we always had the safety net of going back to school. At this stage of life, we were not expected to provide financial support for our parents, nor did we have children/spouses to answer to. Of course, this is in comparison to those who had left their relatively stable corporate jobs to pursue an uncertain path of entrepreneurship,” she says.
For Kara Pangilinan, artist and Founder of DetailsInk—a Philippine art brand that creates hand-drawn pen and ink designed products—she conceptualized her business in her high school classroom, when people started offering to pay for her work.
“I loved the way it all happened. Having experienced the whole start-up whirlwind at such a young age definitely taught me a lot. It's always good to start early, and to fail early. That gives us more time to learn and grow, and I think time is probably the biggest advantage for young entrepreneurs,” she says.
Aside from time, student-entrepreneurs also seem to have the advantage of youth.
“We started Made Real on a high risk mindset, giving us the courage to make bold decisions. For instance, we were willing to pivot our product, making the switch from monthly-themed subscription boxes to customized boxes - when the former wasn't working...Made Real would not be where it is today if we didn't press on with crucial, risky decisions,” says Teng.
Balancing studies and business
Even if you have time and youth on your side, it isn’t always going to be heaven in start-up land.
Pangilinan, who re-launched DetailsInk in 2014 after first focusing on her undergraduate studies while keeping the business as a sideline, says “My constant problem as a student/creative entrepreneur is balancing my academic work with my personal projects, and with running my business...I'm currently finishing my BS Architectural thesis so, I am very familiar with the feeling of stress and pressure.”
Not everyone is going to see your choice to maintain a double life as an advantage. Teng says that their very first investor almost pulled out “because they realized that everyone in our team was still a full-time college student”.
However, if you’re committed and believe in your cause, you’ll pull through. “We immediately got on the phone with them and reassured them regarding their doubts...Eventually they decided to go ahead with the deal,” says Teng of her experience.
“Our biggest lesson from that was that self-assurance and confidence in your team is crucial in everything that you do. If you’re part of a young team with little credentials, the only thing that keeps you going is self-assurance, and faith in the people you have chosen to be part of your team. We would not have done anything differently,” she adds.
Even if you’re committed to the cause, it’s also important to be wary of a give-all mindset--where the level of your commitment is measured by how much of yourself you sacrifice.
“I'm a bit of a productivity geek, and I love handling many things at once. But something I've learned to prioritize recently is... myself. In order to do the best we can in all of life's aspects, we really have to prioritize sleep, health, and family,” says Pangilinan.
While being a student entrepreneur certainly isn’t for everyone, it can be done.
Says Teng when asked for tips for other student entrepreneurs: “Robin and I were incredibly thick skinned - not only because if you don’t ask, you don’t get, but also because you can get away with it. What is youth if not rash, passionate, and brazen. You can get away with a lot more things by being young, but of course not ignorant. Use your youth as an opportunity to learn and ask as much as you can.”