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The Student Entrepreneur

October 5, 2008

[updated: Oct 7, 2008]

The following is a great post from fellow entrepreneur, Harley Finkelstein, on being an entrepreneur while in school. Harley makes a number of great points and shares his lessons with us below:

“Textbook to Checkbook”

In 2001 I moved from Boca Raton, Florida, to Montreal to study business at McGill University. Within a few weeks of my freshman year it became clear that my parents were no longer able to offer me financial support and that I needed to find a job. I cringed at the idea of working nights and weekends, between classes, and felt that my passion for business would be wasted serving coffee at the local meeting place. Instead I decided to launch a company in my spare time.

Many cautioned me from “juggling” a business while in school, but I was determined to find a strong balance between my academic life and my entrepreneurial ventures. My first company started making promotional products and apparel for local-Montreal schools and universities. We (the company) found this to be an ideal market segment for a number of reasons. We knew that regardless of the economy’s condition every school “required” new-student orientation gear (think hats, bags, pens, and coffee mugs), and that each and every year these collegiate clients were being given million dollar budgets to fulfill the institutions clothing needs. In our first 18 months we were able to secure 3 universities, and 5 years later we are currently the supplier of choice to some of the largest faculties across Canada. In 2007, with the success of my collegiate apparel company I launched Innoventure Capital (with a friend I met in law school), which provides seed funding and strong mentoring to students and recent graduates (age 18-25) looking to launch a start-up just like I did years ago.

In hind-sight, launching this company while studying full-time was a catalyst for our success, and it allowed me to take risks that most full-time entrepreneurs can’t afford. I knew that if the business didn’t work out I could either start again from scratch or fall back on my education. As it turns out, since 2001 I’ve launched a number of successful companies while concurrently completing my undergraduate, then law school, and more recently while I work on my MBA this year. Being able to balance my scholastic responsibilities with the needs of my company provided me with time management skills, and still necessitate that I remain as productive as possible. Moreover, being able to apply the theoretical lessons of a classroom to real life and practical issues facing my business has helped put school lectures to work.

A wonderful benefit of being a student business owner is one’s access to other talented students. Time and time again I use the student community to help carry out many of the company’s functions, from graphic design to web development to social networking integration. Not only are student contractors often more in tune with modern technology and online strategies than larger companies, but students are often in need of real-world experience and so companies like mine can negotiate favorable terms.

Beyond the benefit of working with other students to help grow a business, as a freshman at McGill I was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the school engaged in its purchasing. For our company, we realized that suppliers had only to meet with a student representative, and not a university employee, which gave us the advantage of making a pitch to people who were of our own vintage.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, used a similar strategy while studying at Harvard. As a student himself, he found it difficult to communicate and connect with every student in his class, and seeking to fill a void he started writing the Facebook code between classes. Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto, CA, in the summer of 2004 with 3 Harvard classmates to land financing and give the company a corporate office. He employed classmates and dorm friends to help get the site up and running, and much of the sites success can still be attributed to the company’s initial grass roots / student oriented platform.

Final thought: GO THROW SOME ‘S#&T’ ON THE WALL, AND SEE WHAT STICKS. In business it doesn’t matter how many times you fail, all that matters is the time you succeed. Perseverance is key.

Thanks,

Harley.

My Lessons Learned:

Balance is everything, you need to give 100% to both your education and your business, and this is a skill set that I continue to work on daily

Use what you know best; your student community or the way your school carries out its own business

Don’t be afraid to fail; there is something respectable about a student who is trying to build something, even if it takes a few attempts and regardless if your motivation is paying your bills or trying something new

Most cities have student-business funding from the municipality, take all the free money you can get

Tap into your network of friends and classmates, whether for advice or as potential customers

Feel free to email me if you have questions about this article.

Harley Finkelstein, Harley@Finkinc.ca

NEWS: Innoventure’s most recent investment went to a student-run business called www.smoofer.com, and the site will be launching within 3 weeks time.

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