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Start Your Business Entrepreneurs

Starting a Business After College? Advice for Entrepreneurial Grads

College grad entrepreneurs
Credit: iidea studio/Shutterstock

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. Chris Johnson and Tim Keck launched The Onion while they were still juniors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Frederick Smith first outlined the idea for the package delivery system that would one day become FedEx in a paper he wrote while a student at Yale. 

Today, countless new college graduates are considering taking the path less traveled and turning an idea into a full-time entrepreneurial venture. But before turning down a job or packing away the interview suit, recent grads need to consider if they have what it takes to start a business, whether it's opening up a brick-and-mortar store or launching a tech startup.

Business News Daily asked business experts and entrepreneurs, many of whom started their first business right out of college, for some entrepreneurial advice for newly minted graduates. Here are some of the key lessons they imparted. [Ready to start a business? Follow our step-by-step guide.]

As an entrepreneur, the importance of doing work that brings you joy and fulfillment cannot be overstated. In fact, a founder's passion is key to ensuring that a business thrives. 

"You have to do what you love to have a fulfilling career," said John Tabis, founder and CEO of The Bouqs Company. "You need to find a job or career path within a field that you are passionate about, then get in there quickly, dig in, learn and add value."  

Doing work that has meaning to you will provide the motivation needed to get through the rough patches and tumultuous times that are an inevitable part of building any new venture. 

"Starting a business is hard enough," said Nick Bulcao, founder and CEO of Airspace Technologies. "If you're not excited to get out of bed every morning, it will not succeed."

Lydia Brown, founder of Chicago Collegiate Nannies, agreed, noting that new grads shouldn't waste their skills on a career path they were never intended to be on.

"I chased my father's dream of becoming a financial professional for five years before admitting that it wasn't for me," Brown said. "When I developed the concept of my nanny agency ... it was so obvious that this is what I should have been doing all along." 

A recent grad can come up with a million valid reasons why it doesn't make sense to start a business right out of college, but for many entrepreneurs, there really is no time like the present. 

According to entrepreneur Jess Ekstrom, it may seem easier to first get a job, gain some experience, save a bit of money and then start a business. But walking away from such stability will be harder than you think, and you may end up never taking the leap. 

"It's better to go for it, and then get a job if it doesn't work out, rather than get a job and never go for it," said Ekstrom, who launched her business Headbands of Hope while still in college.

Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps, noted that recent graduates tend to have fewer responsibilities and commitments, and therefore can focus more of their time on building a business.

"As a new grad, you have the advantage that you probably have low overhead and are able to take on risk," said Benson. "Imagine a recent grad and compare them to a 35-year-old with two kids and a mortgage, and it's easy to [see] why young people have an advantage."

If you need additional income while launching your business, Ekstrom advised reaching out to fellow startups to see if they have any part-time work opportunities or look for grants for young entrepreneurs.

The U.S. Small Business Administration also offers resources for prospective entrepreneurs, including workshops and entrepreneur education classes on a variety of topics.

Regardless of when you decide to start your business, there's always value in taking some time to learn from more seasoned professionals. Working for someone else for a short time can help you build an extensive list of contacts, pick up best practices and learn from some of the leaders in your industry. 

"The value you get from watching how they operate and run their company and the potential mentorship you would get from them will go a long way towards helping you build your own successful business," said Othmane Rahmouni, founder of Lovop.

Additionally, gaining experience in a variety of companies and work environments may help you refine your own ideas about what exactly you want to accomplish.  

"You may start out in one area only to find you prefer focusing on another element of the work," said Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations. "As you begin your journey, know there may be twists and turns along the way – and that's perfectly OK."

A mentor or two can make all the difference when starting a new business, said Cory Levy, co-founder and COO of After School. Finding experienced and trusted advisers who can offer guidance and support will help a new entrepreneur navigate the pitfalls of business development and ownership.

"Nothing shortens a learning curve more than someone with been-there-done-that experience, said Mark Babbitt, founder and CEO of YouTern. "Graduates should find a stable of mentors and build mutually beneficial relationships."

Levy also suggested reaching out to entrepreneurs you admire to interview them on how they achieved their success. 

"I see many smart entrepreneurs fail simply because they do not have the real-world knowledge of how to operate a business," added Casey Meehan, founder of Epic Presence. "It is much different than what you learn in business school. Find the experts and pick their brains." 

A strong professional network can help make your vision a reality, and it often makes the difference between success and failure for your business, said Rahmouni of Lovop Consulting. 

Trent Silver, millennial career coach and CEO of Nerdster.com, couldn't agree more: "Having a valuable network of friends, family and businesses brings ... benefits [like] moral support, potential investment, increased clientele and opportunities for future ventures." 

One way to build this network is to make connections as often as possible and with as many people as you can, said Sarah LaFave, board president of Lori's Hands, a nonprofit she co-founded as a college student. Since valuable connections can be made anywhere, LaFave suggests showing up to as many events as possible, talking to the person sitting next to you at a meeting or in a waiting room and introducing yourself to the speaker after a seminar. 

"I've called on people for support, advice or referrals whom I had met in passing ... often from other sectors [and] whom I didn't imagine having a lot in common with at the time I met them," said LaFave.

Additionally, Keyvan Hajiani, co-founder and head of marketing at SocioFabrica, advises using a variety of social networking tools to expand one's circle of contacts. 

"Social networks make it easy to connect with alumni, mentors and business owners [from whom] to seek advice and bounce off ideas," said Hajiani. "Your network will become increasingly important as you progress in your career, so it's important to foster [it] early on." 

Technology is a foundational component of today's fast-paced business environment. Recent college grads who are digital natives are especially equipped to harness technology's power to establish, promote and grow their businesses. 

"There are so many ways to quickly and easily get started in business now that just weren't available even 10 years ago," said Ryan O'Connor, owner of One Tribe Apparel

O'Connor recommends using technology to grow interest in your business by building up an Instagram following, writing for popular blogs and online magazines, and launching products on Etsy or Amazon without having to first build up an entire brand. 

Communication is a fundamental skill in life and in business, said David Moncur, principal of Moncur branding agency. Good communicators must possess the ability to form bonds and solve problems in person.

"You can fix or prevent a range of communications problems with a five-minute phone call," said Karl Sakas, an author and president of the Sakas & Company. "If you're emailing back and forth more than a few times, or you need to share some difficult news – pick up the phone." 

"Everything isn't online," added Brandon Dempsey, a serial entrepreneur and author of "Shut Up and Go!: A Millennial's Guide to Figuring Out What You Want and How to Get It" (Lioncrest Publishing, 2016). "Many businesses get found online but close deals offline. Focus on both online and offline skills."

All entrepreneurs need to prepare for every aspect of running a business, and this includes developing a sound understanding and ability to manage the financial aspects of their company, including financial analysis, taxes and budgeting.

"Regardless of what you study, you need to be competent in the basics of accounting if you are going to run a business," said Robert Ellis, CEO of Massage Tables Now

Alex Kurrelmeier, director of the Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur at Culver Academies, said early-stage entrepreneurs should seek out online courses in finance and study various startup business models. 

"It will most likely be a while before your company is at a place financially where you can hire a full-time controller, so the more comfortable you are with numbers, the better," said Kurrelmeier.

If you want to start a business, our expert sources agreed that you must put the desire for instant gratification aside and plan to work harder and longer than you ever imagined. Developing an unflappable resilience and commitment to your business will be necessary to get through the toughest days. 

"The single most important quality you'll need as an entrepreneur ... is 'stick-to-it-iveness' or grit, a combination of perseverance, patience and adaptability," said Kate Sullivan, a business sociologist and content director with TCK Publishing.

So much of what it takes to create a new business is simply about the unglamorous monotony of hard work. Brown, of Chicago Collegiate Nannies, believes prospective business owners need to understand this reality before venturing forth. 

"I think many people have false fantasies about what it means to be an entrepreneur. They picture a flexible schedule, afternoon lunches with friends and instant success," said Brown. "Reality, in fact, is much different."

As a business owner, Brown says she works twice the amount of hours that she did in her previous career and always has more work to do at the end of the day. 

"The concept of 'leaving work at work' does not exist when you are an entrepreneur, because you alone are responsible for making your business a success," she said. "Do not become an entrepreneur if you fear long hours and late nights with minimal initial compensation." 

Flexibility must also be part of the new entrepreneur's psyche, according to Kirsten Quigley, co-founder and CEO of LunchSkins

"The startup world is not linear. You can't always get from point A to point B in the way you mapped out," said Quigley. "Customers may not always be with you, partners may change, distribution channels may shift, [but] … you have to be willing to push up your sleeves and wade into unknown territory with equal parts fearlessness and optimism." 

About 50 percent of small businesses fail by their fifth year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This sobering fact may be enough to dissuade those with a low tolerance for risk from ever starting a business. However, young entrepreneurs shouldn't fear failure, but instead recognize that it can teach them valuable lessons about their business and the path their careers should take. 

Joe Schumacher, CEO of The Goddard School, recognizes that failure is often stigmatized in society. But young people who want to build a business must push past these confining notions of what it means to be successful. 

"If you're starting a business, remember that companies need to take risks to grow, and sometimes these risks lead to failure," explained Schumacher. "Good judgment should always be exercised, but, assuming it is, failures should be viewed as teachable moments."

Sullivan of TCK Publishing echoes this sentiment: "Odds are, you won't magically have a billion-dollar business your first time out," she said. "You're going to need to fail a few times, dust yourself off and try again." 

Paula Fernandes

Paula is a New Jersey-based writer with a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in Education. She spent nearly a decade working in education, primarily as the director of a college's service-learning and community outreach center. Her prior experience includes stints in corporate communications, publishing, and public relations for non-profits. Reach her by email.