Founder: Bennett Hilkert, Co-Founder CEO
Date Founded: 2020
Industry: Mental Health & Tech
The student founder experience is incredibly unique and challenging. Below I have outlined the 4 biggest lessons I’ve learned as a student founder that will hopefully allow you to avoid making the same mistakes I made running my first startup.
1. People Are Really Willing to Help Students… You Just Have to Ask
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout this process, it’s that people are normally very willing to help students with their venture. Obviously, there’s some exceptions like competitors but for the most part I’ve found this to be almost shockingly true. I’ve personally reached out to executives at public companies, prominent venture capitalists, consultants and a variety of other people to talk about my business, get their advice and think through some of the problems my company might be facing at a given time. These conversations have been incredibly helpful and led to changes in our operating structure, business model and in a variety of other areas. A year ago, I never would have imagined that nearly as many of these people would respond to me and be willing to speak. While I think people have a tendency to be willing to help each other, I think older people tend to be especially intrigued by and willing to speak to a young person who is both running a business and in school. It’s important to remember that you can’t lose anything by simply asking someone to spend a few minutes with you, so there’s really no downside to asking.
2. Strong Communication with Teammates is a Must
As student founders, by definition we aren’t working on the venture full time. Everyone has different class schedules, group meetings, social events, etc. It can be really difficult to balance everything and effectively communicate with your teammates and partners and make sure everyone is on the same page. My team really struggled with this issue in the early days. While platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams are great, oftentimes people, me included, forget to check those platforms especially during weeks when school has picked up. I recommend setting up meetings twice a week with the founding team to discuss progress, action items and next steps. Even if the meetings only last 10 minutes, they can be a great way to keep everyone on the same page. Likewise, if your product involves tech/coding, biweekly standup meetings can be a great way to get updates from each team member, problem solve, and stay connected. I made the early mistake of not having structured communication with my teammates, which really hurt our progress. Having weekly or biweekly meetings can help you avoid the same fate.
3. Talk to Other Founders
Running a startup isn’t like any other job. Often times it feels like you’re running around like chicken with your head cut off, you feel like you’re responsible for everything and that there’s not enough hours in the day to get it all done. In the early days of Honesti, it was just me and my two friends with the goal of helping college students feel more connected and less alone and we built it up from there. At most jobs, especially most entry level jobs that college kids typically recruit for, you have a boss who tells you want to do. Running a business isn’t like that, you have to figure it out all on your own and that’s where other founders can be a great resource. This is a job like no other, and if you can find someone whose done it successfully and is willing to help that’s truly invaluable. As I spoke out above, people tend to be really willing to help out student ventures, so don’t hesitate to reach out to successful founders and get their advice! My good friend Michael Sikand is running a new program through his media platform Our Future that connects students with other student founders. You can join with this link and it’s a great resource and a great way to speak to people going through the same things you are. I also recommend reaching out to more experienced founders and seeing if they might have time to chat, I’ve done it many times and gotten so much great advice.
4. Observe Customers in Casual Settings
I actually think this advice applies to any founder, not just student founders. Steve Jobs famously decried the idea of asking customers what they want, by reminding us that they don’t really know. With that being said, I think observing customers in a casual setting can be incredibly helpful. Not necessarily asking them what they need explicitly, but just observing and listening can be a great way to gain insights. Obviously for my team this has been easier than it might be in some cases because our end users are our peers (other college students), but nonetheless I think doing this can be really valuable. I noticed that a lot of my peers felt stressed and lonely and that the university’s resources weren’t time sensitive enough to help because I would hear people complain about these things in casual social settings on campus. That’s how Honesti was born. I think oftentimes customers struggle to describe what they want through more formal methods like surveys or meetings, so I recommend interacting with customers in casual settings and trying to listen as much as possible.
I hope this advice is somewhat applicable and helpful for other student founders in avoiding some of my biggest and earliest mistakes!