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Founding a start-up while in school Written by Michelle Beck on 8. March 2016

How can you found a successful start-up while in school?

For many, the idea of creating a start-up while dealing with exams, lectures and readings seems an entirely daunting task. For others, university is a great location to foster ideas – there’s an immediate network, time for trial and error and constant inspiration.
The question then becomes how to manage a start-up while passing classes and participating in everything else student life has to offer (assuming you aren’t in the position to pull a Mark Zuckerberg.)

Recognize the subjects that are applicable to your start-up

Having a start-up is not just about persevering with one idea but adapting, adding and taking skills from other aspects of life and applying them to your new company. For example, if you’re required to take English or law, think about how these subjects apply to entrepreneurship. Somewhere along the line you will have to think about funding applications and pitches, patents and copyright issues. Try to seek out and extract as much applicable knowledge as you can.

Use your extra-curriculars to your advantage

This goes for activity beyond the classroom. Experienced entrepreneurs stress the importance of “real life” skills, like public speaking. University is a great time to practice this skill and provides ample opportunity to do so that you might not find after school. Also, think about establishing a network of like-minded people – they might become key shareholders, team members or part of your target market.
Many schools also actively foster the entrepreneurial spirit. ESCP, for example, runs an incubator called Blue Factory. It provides coaching and mentorship, as well as contacts with business angels and VCs. Nicolas Van De Sandt, the ESCP Europe Berlin General Manager, explains, “at Blue Factory we want to sensitize students for entrepreneurial career paths from the start. We give them the space, tools and support to work on an idea, form a team or start a real company.”
He adds, “every university has a network and the student body does actually form a great testing ground for innovative products or services. Starting a company, students need to become proactive enough to really leverage these resources and networks. Once they start, it can be highly beneficial for their personal and professional development. They learn to overstep their (mental) boundaries and gain skills and competencies they would not learn in traditional university courses.”

“…students need to become proactive enough to really leverage resources and networks…”

Freie University also runs a project called Profound Innovation that provides “knowledge and technology transfer” as well as consulting services. Ensure you are accessing everything your university has to offer.

Take heart! It’s been done before

You’ve heard of the Harvard dropouts but it’s not just those from Ivey league schools who did it. Some of the most successful founders in Berlin started their businesses in school. Even if the initial project didn’t work out, the ‘failure’ of their first start-ups was a long-term investment, just like more formal education.
Johannes Reck, CEO and cofounder of GetYourGuide secured capital funding for his online travel activity company while completing a Master’s degree in biochemistry. He says that university can give you a less risk-adverse mentality because you have nothing to lose. The result? An “eagerness to do stupid things that are only logical in hindsight. But since there is nothing to lose, why not try?”
The main disadvantage? Reck says: hiring and managing talent. “Because you have no clue what a great engineer, designer or HR manager looks like, you will hire all the wrong people. Great founders really embrace the fact that management skills can only be groomed with experience and set themselves up for fast learning and surround themselves with true experts.”
Other founders, like brothers Maxim and Raphael Nitsche started even earlier. The pair founded MATH 42, an app that helps students practice and learn the subject, while still in high school. Finn Plotz was just 17 when he secured 600,000 Euros in funding for Simplex. Finn says: “What brought me a long way was to be totally transparent to my school”. He adds, “If there is one thing I would encourage other young founders to do, it’s to stand your age and allow the great people around you to actively share their wisdom with you.”
Furthermore, two exciting start-ups are coming out of Berlin’s Technical University. One called Cellbricks has developed and sells a 3D bioprinter, which allows medical research on printed mini organs. Using the Cellbricks 3D bioprinters and cell-specific bio inks, researchers can create complex, living tissue from human cells. The predictive power and physiological relevance of these mini-organs significantly exceeds the current standard.
The other, Joidy, is an app and cloud platform that enables its users to send customized digital gifts from smartphone to smartphone. In order to offer a wide range of content, the startup works with varied content partners. Features such as the personalization of gifts by text, audio or video messages and packaging with a personal touch Joidy creates a digital gift experience that, in its own words “rivals its analog counterpart in terms of emotionality.”
These founders show that if you manage your time right and have a workable idea, university might be the perfect time to found your start-up. As Reck says,

“The worst thing that can happen to you is that you have to discontinue your project and get a job – just like everyone else.”

For a number of university events in Germany, see our round-up for 2016.
For inspiration check out:
GetYourGuide (Johannes Reck):
Machts-Einfach (Finn Plotz):
ESCP Blue Factory:
Centre for Entreprenuership at Technical University, Berlin: