Even though the global startup ecosystem is as big as it’s ever been, it’s still pretty uncommon, all things considered, for people to start something full-time immediately after graduating college (perhaps excluding Stanford or MIT grads). When my co-founder Vishnu and I were in undergrad together at Duke, we did everything we could to work our way around the predominantly pre-professional culture there (lots of pre-meds, pre-finance, pre-law, pre-FAAMG, etc.) and to find the pockets of startup culture on campus.
Ultimately, we were very lucky to meet people like Josh Miller, who gave us our first shot at working for an early-stage startup Farmshots, and Tatiana Birgisson & Jake Stauch, who gave us a lot of mentorship as we wove our way through the early days of being founders. That being said, anything you do as a student is still just a taste, and until it actually happened, I had a ton of misconceptions about being a full-time early-stage startup founder. Many of these have been debunked in practice, and I thought it might be helpful to share them with any budding entrepreneurs out there.
You can (and should) make time for yourself
People who run startups are often workaholics, and my impression was that actively running one would preclude me from getting to do things I love that are not work-related. Make sure you make time for some of those things. Never forget that running a startup is a marathon, not a sprint, and maintaining your mental health is hugely important and often underemphasized. Finding an outlet that helps you clear your mind, keep you calm, and focus on something that’s not your startup is not just possible—it’s a necessity. Personally, I’ve gotten really into running over the past year; my favorite run nearby is along the Freedom Park Trail through the Carter Center—I recommend it for any ATL-area runners!
You’re not alone with your problems
Running a startup can often feel like you’re facing up against unimaginably tall odds, and every founder has at least once felt a sense of impending doom. Please find a cofounder. Having someone to talk through the day-to-day and existential pains who actually understands what you’re going through is crucial. While you’re at it, I also highly recommend a support system of startup-savvy people around you (typically labeled as “advisors”). Especially if you’re a first-time founder, having advisors who are knowledgeable about your space and who have actually either run or funded (or both!) startups before can be immensely valuable. Not only will they be introduce you to potential customers and investors when you’re ready, they’ll be able to stop you from making stupid decisions and they’ll be able to give you emotional support when you need it (and trust me, you’ll definitely need it). Hanging out around universities, startup hubs, incubators, accelerators, or even some of the better co-working spaces are great ways to find industry-relevant advisors.
You will spend a lot of your time communicating
I feel like nobody ever tells you what being a CEO actually means before you become one, but in short, you’re a communicator. Whether they’re investors, employees, or customers (existing or potential versions of any of those), the vast majority of your time is spent communicating with people. You’re cold emailing or responding to email intros, having sales meetings or meetings with potential investors, going to customer meet-ups, or doing 1:1s with your employees: essentially all forms of communication amongst various parties. And you should embrace that! Just make sure you keep on top of your calendar and that you build in time into your schedule to spend on other aspects of the business that require your time but don’t involve communication.
You can (and should) do fun things with your coworkers
From afar, it often seems like startup culture can be suffocatingly work-oriented (as I mentioned earlier, our industry is full of a bunch of workaholics). Sometimes that can breed unhealthy environments, and it’s more important than ever that startup teams spend time doing actually fun activities together to relax and decompress. If all of the time you spend together is consumed by work, it becomes much harder to have fun together, and you won’t be able to build a deeper, trusting relationship. The specific fun activities vary culture to culture (and individual to individual) but personally, I am a huge fan of eating good food together. At Toucan, we do a team on-boarding lunch whenever someone new joins to help make them feel welcome. We also host monthly team dinners at new and exciting restaurants around the Atlanta metro area, as well as quarterly board game nights.
The work will never stop being rewarding
Some weeks may end up being tough, 80-hour workweeks where you can’t wait to catch some Z’s, but ultimately, I could never ask for a more fulfilling job. A small, high-growth startup is one of the fastest-paced learning experiences in existence, and despite its difficulties, working on one never gets dull. You’re constantly approaching new challenges and coming up with creative solutions to problems that very few people in the world have ever worked on before, and it’s possibly the only environment where you get to work on the cutting-edge of your field with minimal supervision and maximal freedom. And no matter how things turn out in the end, you’ll be making a tremendous impact on the world around you. If you enjoy the idea of that, I highly recommend you try a startup out!
P.S. I would love to hear from any of you who are thinking about founding or working on a startup—feel free to reach out, and I’m happy to provide any advice I can offer! @ArjunDevarajan on Twitter, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org