Entrepreneurship has certainly been romanticized. Entrepreneurs working on startups out of basements are the new starving artists striving to survive off their art. They are pursuing their dreams all the while refusing to work for The Man.
Cold, hard numbers serve to dispel such glamorized notions. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that a little under half of all small businesses survive after their fifth year and only around 35% live to see their 10th birthday. The risk of failure is enormous. Undergraduates then ask themselves: is it wise for me to start my own company?
The challenges entrepreneurial-minded undergraduates face are unique. Most are financially dependent on their parents, so must seek parental approval before starting their venture. Most parents, given that they are paying upwards of $60k a year for their children’s education, aren’t too excited about them jeopardizing grades to spend time on a venture that probably won’t work out. This time commitment worries our undergraduates as well. In this world of assumed perfect competition, there is always someone out there who is spending every ounce of energy to make an idea be the one that succeeds. Anything less does not cut it. If they too are serious about their ventures, undergraduates must find the hours in the day to dedicate to it while completing a challenging course load.
The list of troubles doesn’t end there. Undergraduates wonder if they are experienced enough to run their own companies, and perhaps rightly so. A study that surveyed 500 successful high growth founders found that the typical successful founder was 40 years old with at least 6-10 years of industry experience (Even Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham advises students against starting
businesses). Meanwhile, undergraduates are stymied by the simple question of “where to begin?”
Considering all the down sides, it’s no wonder hundreds of students apply to the Duke Start-Up Challenge each year. With the 2015 competition kicking off with an October 30 application deadline, we caught up with 2012 winner Ting-Ting Zhou to find out how the Challenge impacted her startup Nanoly and where the company stands today.
Nanoly is a biotech startup that won $50,000 in the annual Duke startup idea competition in 2012, and is one of only two all-undergraduate startups to win the grand prize in 15 years of the Startup Challenge. Nanoly manipulates nanoparticles to develop a chemical that prevent vaccines from spoiling without refrigeration. Should it be successful, the implications are wide. The need for refrigeration hinders the delivery and administration of vaccines in locations with unreliable power supplies, which are often the places that need them the most, and thus is a major roadblock in attempts to eradicate of preventable diseases. Two years after her win, New York-based Zhou (pictured below) shares her perspectives on undergraduate entrepreneurship and offers advice to those who pursue it.
EE: As an undergraduate, did you ever feel you were “too young” or “too inexperienced” to start your own company? What advice do you have for someone currently in this position of self-doubt?
Zhou: Of course! However, there are currently so many examples of young people doing amazing things. As a Duke student, there’s no shortage of friends and classmates who are working on exciting projects. My advice is to jump in headfirst, surround yourself with resources and support, but to ultimately take the leap and say yes to opportunities when they’re there. College is a great time to try and fail. There’s low risk and you can usually quit with minimal damage.
EE: Say I am a undergraduate student who thinks (s)he has a great idea. What are some things you think they must do before they “take the plunge”? How would you suggest they begin to go about the herculean task of executing the idea?
Zhou: From my personal experience, you don’t just wake up one day and decide to start a company. There’s generally a history you can look at of the individual that tells a story about how they came to grasp certain opportunities. If one day an individual wants to be their own CEO, they’ve probably had years of experience as a leader in some capacity. As a first-year, I immediately wanted to serve on executive boards. I didn’t really even know what that meant, but I wanted to be involved at a higher level for an extracurricular organization, any organization. I proved myself by continually taking initiative. By the end of sophomore year, I had friends who would propose starting new organizations and ask me to be their co-founder. If there was a group accepting applications, I would receive a personal invite to apply for specific positions. There has to be some foundation of experience and excellence in teamwork, communication, and leadership. Those seem like just buzz words but if you have the metal to prove it, that can mean a great deal for your own self-worth. Along this path, you’ll also start to form a small circle of individuals – friends, professors, mentors, etc. – who have seen your projects and results. They are a great resource.
EE: What were some hard lessons you learnt or unpleasant surprises you experienced after you started off? What are some things you’d say new entrepreneurs should watch out for as they begin their journey?
Zhou: Raising money can be really tough. Entrepreneurs also don’t get paid very much at the beginning of their careers. That can definitely be difficult for a Duke student who has tuition to pay and job offers from companies who want to pay them x amount. It’s also easy to get disheartened and you sometimes have this constant fear that it will all collapse… small successes always help with that.
EE: How important has guidance and mentorship been for a startup led by undergraduates, in your experience? How does one go about acquiring trusted advisors?
Zhou: This is very important! A lot of times, this happens by luck. Again, I always revert to saying yes. Never reject a LinkedIn request, never not respond to an e-mail from someone who happens upon what you’re doing and is interested, never discount the random alum you meet at that networking event you weren’t planning on attending. I’ve met such cool people with experiences much greater than mine who have a perspective to share or are willing to connect you with someone else. I actually connected with a very knowledgeable person working at PATH (a global health organization working on innovations in vaccine delivery) through someone who interviewed me for a consulting internship! He has a relative who works at PATH and he saw Nanoly on my resume.
EE: What progress has Nanoly made since winning the Duke Start-up Challenge in 2012? Was there any particular advice from judges, or any other aspect of the challenge, that really helped you get to where you are today?
Zhou: We’ve completed more research and produced early experimental results. We’re in stealth mode so I won’t say any more. Takeaways from judges and the challenge: Encouragement! It’s important to get early on and throughout the process of starting something, and it’s something we received plenty of during the challenge and afterward when judges reached out to say congratulations or offer their resources. Howie Rhee, Managing Director of the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Fuqua and the director of the Startup Challenge, has also become a great mentor and friend.
As intimidating as it can seem to start a venture at a young age, undergraduates probably have it best. With no bills to pay or family to feed, school is a great time to experiment. The cost of failure may never be lower. Jumping in headfirst, as Zhou recommends, comes with a high probability of failure, but it will result in experiences that will eventually enable undergraduates to become successful 40-year old entrepreneurs.