7 things I wish someone told me as a student entrepreneur

This article was written by Tom-Chris Emewulu and was originally published at Stars From All Nations (SFAN) sfanonline.org 


SFAN will be 6 years old this September. But as a business, the company will be 3 years old because we got registered in September 2016. It’s often confusing what we should be celebrating – the year we began operation or the year we incorporated?

Anyway, it’s been quite a ride. And we have so many things to celebrate! Looking back at where we started from, I feel a sense of pride, humility, and gratitude at how far we’ve come.

As we gear up to “count our blessings” and map out our next phase, I want to share 7 things I wish someone told me when we started at Radford University. To wit, this article is not for everybody. It’s written for student entrepreneurs with big dreams and little resources. To help you avoid some of the missteps I made, take note of the following insights.


#1: No one gives you special privileges because you’re a young entrepreneur


“The biggest problem we millennial entrepreneurs have is that we think we’re entitled to something.” – Tim Denning

As I said elsewhere, when we started SFAN, we weren’t exactly sure how to translate our ambition into reality. We were passionate but inexperienced. Of course, I had some entrepreneurship awareness before college but that was in a different country and industry.

As we began operation, I used to think that people will understand we were young and so “take it easy” with us. Come to find out, when you are young, someone will try to take advantage of your youth and inexperience. Perhaps that is why a certain HBR article concludes that the best age to start a business is 45.

Understand this, just because you are a student entrepreneur is not a guarantee for special treatments. You are an entrepreneur, period. Don’t expect special considerations. And God forbid, don’t expect anybody’s pity either. If you think the world owes you something, then you are making a big mistake. The way I see it, you only get what you give in this world. Garbage in, garbage out – it will always be that way, guaranteed.

Pro Tip: See your youth as an advantage instead of a liability. Because you’re young, you can see the world in ways older entrepreneurs do not. Put impostor syndrome aside and learn what you need to do to create your venture.


#2: How you make your money is more important than how much you make


Here’s a rule of thumb: If you’re building a business, you must be making money. However, to make money, you have to solve problems people are willing to pay for. Therefore, reverse-engineer your process and create a sustainable business model for your venture.

Ask yourself:

  1. What exactly are we doing?
  2. What problem are we solving for our clients and how much are we going to ask for in return?
  3. Is there any potential to make enough money from this business to ensure our expenses are covered and there are enough returns for remunerations?
  4. For every service or product we may have to give out for free, what are we getting in return?

Don’t be in a hurry to start spending top dollar marketing and advertising budget. The hard truth, as many have found, is that Social Media popularity and startup success are two different things. You may have 1M followers on Twitter, but if that does not translate into actual dollars, you may be wasting your time.

It’s okay to do free work at the beginning or sell below the market rate. But, please ensure you have a business model. Don’t be naive – no amount of passion will substitute for an empty stomach.

Pro Tip: Use this Business Model canvas to structure and put some clarity around your operation. You might not get it right all at once, but you should have some clarity about what you’re doing.


#3: Don’t worry about those that didn’t show up, celebrate those that do


“Expect everything and attach to nothing!” — Carrie Campbell

Back in the day, I used to be so worried when people don’t turn up for events after making reservations. I remember an incident that happened at our YALI Career Fair in 2016. We were expecting over 23 companies to participate but a few didn’t show up. I was so uptight. Everybody was having a good time except me. Then someone said, “Tom-Chris, you should be proud. You have 20 companies here and that’s amazing! Don’t worry about the ones that didn’t come, be happy about those you see here.” That little conversation changed my perspective.

We often focus so much on people that didn’t keep their word that we forget those that do. You will face many disappointments. People will say yes when they meant no. That’s okay. Embrace the experience and learn from it.

People say you should expect nothing so you don’t get hurt.

Garbage thinking.

If you don’t have expectations, then you are lost! Our lives will always be as big as our expectations.

In the words of Benjamin Hardy, what you expect is usually what happens. The higher the expectation, the more likely the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Have high expectations of yourself and your team. Expect the best but do not attach to outcomes. Let me ask you this, do you expect to be successful or are you shriveling like some people?


#4: Work with only quality people


Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief at Vogue Magazine, is considered as the “most powerful woman” in media. She recently taught a Masterclass in which she expounded her leadership style. I want to share an excerpt from that class that resonates with this point:

“You need someone that can push you; that isn’t pulling you back. It’s important to empower those that are working with you because you’re nothing, nothing without a good team. It’s important to surround yourself with a team whose opinion you trust; who are not in any way frightened of disagreeing with you and you have to listen.”

If you don’t have a good team, you will definitely stumble. Entrepreneurship is everything you’ve heard and much more. Lucky for you, starting your business while in school can help mitigate part of this risk and uncertainty. And so, you want to cherry-pick your people and invest in them. In the end, the success of the company will be hugely decided by your team. Recruit people that have the skills the business needs, not people you like. Of course, they need to be people who share the same chemistry as you.

Pro Tip: Team-building doesn’t happen in a day, take your time with it. Also, there’s no successful entrepreneur anywhere in the world that didn’t get some help along the way. Ask for help when you need one. Never work alone and don’t give any room to negative energy. Use software tools to standardize operations and outsource services that do not rank within the skillsets of your team.


#5: You are enough, you don’t need to prove yourself to anybody


One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that confidence is equal to success. The more confident you are, the more your future expands. The more confident you are, the more you take steps that move you forward. But if you lack confidence, you will never reach your full potential.

However, confidence is not something you demonstrate when the occasion arises. You either have it or you don’t.

According to the famed psychologist, Albert Bandura, self-efficacy (confidence) is defined as people’s beliefs regarding their capacity to a) succeed and b) attain a given level of performance.

In other words, confidence is a belief in your capability to succeed and prosper.

This is extremely important. You are enough, so you don’t need to prove anything to anybody else. Your only competition is the man or woman in the mirror.

I used to think that everybody would like me. Unfortunately, no matter how double you bend yourself, there’d be those that will still find fault in you. The more I tried to become what they wanted, the more I hated myself.

Stop acting up to people. Be who you are, the people that are for you will love you regardless.

Learn how to present yourself and carry yourself with dignity. You’re somebody special. Take full credit for your work and your thoughts. Don’t ever give it away – except to your team. As Anna Wintour says, “Own who you are and own your decisions but without apologies.”


#6: Time changes a lot of things


About four years ago, I reached out to a certain blogger on Facebook to invite her to an event we were planning. She asked me how much we would pay her and I explained we didn’t have a budget for speaker fees due to limited funding.

She replied, “please look at my profile, I’m an award-winning blogger…”

And then, she stopped responding to my messages. You can imagine how that made me feel. But, I took it as a challenge to build a company that will host some of the best and brightest minds I could find.

The years have come and gone and we’ve hosted many brilliant minds around the world. I don’t say this to brag or shade anybody. On the contrary, I say this to show you that time does change a lot of things. At that stage of the company, it looked like we were playing around. Today, even a blind man can see that stuff is working. We’re no longer a joke in any way.

Of course, we are still very much early in this journey. We have not in any way arrived. But, we’re NOT what we used to be. Our direction is clear and our vision is well-defined. Again, a lot of these has been made possible by men and women who support our work from the goodness of their heart. We can’t thank you all enough.

I guess also the flip side of the lesson is that time helps to clarify a lot of things. There are certain things you might not understand at some point. But with time, perspectives change. The more experienced I get, the more I see why certain things shouldn’t have happened the way I wanted. And I’m thankful for some supposedly missed opportunities that would’ve taken me off course. You’d get to where you’re going, but probably not how you imagined.

So, respect everyone and know that the people you met on your way up might be the same people you’ll meet on your way down. As Princewill Omorogiuwa, Author of Achieving the Phenomenal in Africa would say, “success is not an exception, nor is it the exclusive domain of a privileged few, it is an open field of play for all who are willing to spend time to grow.”

Pro Tip: Don’t seek to get even, get successful and then come back three years later with a Merry Christmas.


#7: Be intentional and put discipline around your work


“If you’re willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to becoming an artist.” — Seth Godin

As a student entrepreneur, you need to remember that passion alone does not build a business. Of course, passion is a hugely important attribute of successful entrepreneurs. But passion is not enough. If you want to succeed, you must put discipline to your work.

Do you have a system?

What structures are you building around your work?

If you don’t have proper structures, you will fail. Get organized from the very beginning. Have an alignment between your words and your actions. Be obsessively focused on creating a strong brand because that is the currency for the future you’re building.

At the 4th edition of our breakfast meeting, I heard a speaker make the following statement: “You market to create brand awareness. But if you don’t know who you are, you can’t know what you are creating awareness about.”

Three years later, the importance of developing a roadmap that lays out the core values for your startup to maximize your relationships with consumers in the marketplace still proves to be the essence and identity of a startup. And essentially, the fundamental reason that customers believe in the product you are selling them.

But the thing is, a roadmap is never fixed. You are free to be flexible and switch gears when things are not going as expected. However, make your decisions based on credible business metrics and not because company A or B is doing X or Y. Be a creator, not an imitator. It pays to follow your path; you will never be the best copycat in the world. Silence the noise, slow down and figure out your own process.

If you will open your mind, God will give you ideas. The beautiful thing about a God-idea is that it will always succeed regardless of external influences. Here’s Anna Wintour again: There’s always a time when you know you have to break the rules. You are leading, you’re not following. And that’s an important lesson to remember. You are driven by your heart, by your instincts. And if you start to question and look at what people are doing to your left or to your right, you start to lose that clarity of vision. Listen to the information but in the end, it has to come from your heart.

I’ve learned numerous lessons these past years. And it cuts my heart when student entrepreneurs repeat some of the missteps I made at the early stages of my career. That is why I’m explicit and vocal when sharing my journey. I know this is not something many people are open to doing because nowadays things can easily be taken out of context. Consequently, many people are afraid of sharing their journey to avoid being misunderstood. But I promised God that whatever I learned, I’d pass on.

If someone told me these things when I was getting started, I’d put them to work. Now that I’ve shared them with you, I hope you apply them.