A guide to navigating university for student entrepreneurs

A revolution in entrepreneurship is underway. A student, armed with a MacBook, an internet connection and a great idea can create a company that reaches people around the globe, with just $5000 dollars or less.


For entrepreneurial students at high school or university, your ambitions of bringing this idea to life will more often than not be met with indifference, even dismissiveness, from the usual career advice sources.


In my opinion, the career advice you’ll receive – study what you like, graduate, apply for graduate job at a consulting, finance or other established company and head into a career path that probably won’t exist in five years’ time – is outdated and wrong.


Entrepreneurship is a valid path for you as a student. So how can you navigate university to help your entrepreneurial career?

Looking back

In 2008, I accidentally sat down to lunch next to the CEO of a growing tech company, which landed me my first internship. Today his company, Atlassian, has changed how company teams collaborate, and is worth over $3.5 billion dollars. That same year, my lecturer at Sydney University founded Freelancer.com, which now provides jobs to over 14 million freelancers around the world and is worth over $350 million. And around the same time, my friends founded a startup, OrionVM, in their dorm room. OrionVM is now a leading global cloud infrastructure company, supporting governments and organisations around the globe.


All of the ‘founders’ mentioned above were entrepreneurial students at university.


I believe talented students from our universities should be taking the leap, creating their own jobs. The resources at hand are arguably, limitless (compared with 20 years ago) – entrepreneurial students should be encouraged to be trailblazers in their fields.


I also believe entrepreneurship utilising technological innovation is the most important. And this is how I encourage all students to frame their thoughts. If you want more context of how tech innovation disrupts and progresses a nation, read the book Why Nations Fail, in which the authors observe that throughout history “technological change is only one of the engines of prosperity, but it’s perhaps the most critical one”.


At the core of this revolution are mindboggling creativity, innovation and opportunities created by new technology. Whereas the previous revolution, the Industrial Revolution, saw a surge in invention, the Entrepreneur Revolution will see a surge in new businesses that bring these innovations into the real world.


This guide is designed to give you a few tips on how to navigate your time at university, take advantage of this revolution and kick-start your entrepreneurial career.


I also asked a few great entrepreneurs to provide me with their one piece of advice for student entrepreneurs, which is dotted throughout this article:


“Put your heart and soul into everything that you do – every subject, every part time job, every project. At some point in life everyone faces a decision, to bet on themselves or to take an easier, safer road. Hopefully the bank of experiences that you build during university will enable you to bet on yourself to succeed.”—Melanie Perkins, founder and CEO at Canva.com and created a web tool that allows anyone to do simple graphic design for free.

Go to university

To get this question out of the way, I can already hear you asking, “But Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both dropped out of uni! If I’m some uber-entrepreneur, should I go to university?”

You should go to university. At least give it a go if you have the opportunity to study. University gives you qualifications, a great knowledge base and the opportunity you build your networks and experiences.



But which undergraduate degrees are useful to entrepreneurs?


Personally, I think including engineering and/or science in your degree is critical. Technical subjects are about understanding, experimenting and building useful ‘things’. Software is quite literally eating the world and those that understand technology stand to benefit in a much greater way. A great way to do this is to start with code.


I believe there is only one reason why you should not go to university: If it’s clearly obvious why you should not go.


The opportunities presented to you at university are great. Marc Andreessen, the guy who created the world’s first web browser, recommends aspiring entrepreneurs develop skills rather than plan for a career.


Similarly, university shouldn’t teach you how to live your life; it should teach you how to learn.

“The first rule of career planning: Do not plan your career. The second rule of career planning: Instead of planning your career, focus on developing skills and pursuing opportunities.”—internet pioneer and leading tech investor Marc Andreessen (From his Guide to Career Planning.)

Make an effort

Hanging out with ambitious, like-minded people can have a powerful effect on your studies, the friends you make and your career. Why do you think executives pay so much to do a Harvard MBA?


At the University of Sydney we have over 200 clubs and societies; everything from Quidditch Society to the 3D Printing Club. While unassuming on the surface, these groups can you help you forge life-long connections.


My first experience with this was when I became the president of the Sydney University IT Society. Before I joined I was failing half my subjects, found it hard to relate to people in my class and was disillusioned by my course content, which wasn’t what I expected leaving high school.


Joining one society led me to my first internship, forming strong friendships, helped increase my grades, introduced me to new subjects and ultimately stopped me from dropping out of university.


Whether you join a society, group or event, you’ll need to make an effort to hang out with good people, and you’ll never have as much free time as you do while at university.

Don’t climb the wrong hill

Many students don’t believe me when I tell them they to try new things at university — the idea of just going to lectures and home again seems totally reasonable. To explain how you should approach university, I’ve borrowed an analogy from computer science, recently highlighted in a blog post by serial entrepreneur and investor, Chris Dixon.


Imagine you are dropped at a random spot on a hilly terrain, where you can only see a few feet in each direction (it’s a foggy mountain range). The goal is to get to the highest hill; where you would like to be in 10 years.


The simplest action would be to take a step in the first direction that takes you higher, maybe that’s the most obvious piece of career advice you’ll receive from people around you, thus this is the direction you start taking.

But what if you were dropped at the lower hill?

What if the hill you should be climbing is the one you can’t see through the fog, that’s around the corner from you?


Exploring many different ‘parts of the terrain’ early in your career is essential in helping you discover what you’re passionate about, what gets you going and, for the entrepreneur, where you think you could make an impact. Once you discover this, get focused and start on that route.


People discover their ‘hill’ at different stages of their life and you’ll see this all the time in what inspired successful entrepreneurs.


“People early in their career should learn from computer science: meander in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.”—Chris Dixon.

Building your ‘open network’

The question you should truthfully ask yourself in three to five years of graduating from university is: What do you want your network of friends to look like?


For the freshers out there, you will gain confidence over time and end up meeting some really cool people at university. However, this won’t happen just because you go to university.

You need to network. And preferably place yourself in an open network

And to prove the point, let’s look at network science. Networking may conjure up images of 90s businesswomen and men looking dorky (thanks stock imagery!), but in this context it is purely about connecting with new people from different groups.


And it can make a huge difference in your entrepreneurial career. Having a large open network is a strong indicator of entrepreneurial and career success versus a small, closed network.


Writer and social entrepreneur Michael Simmons, in an article recently published in Forbes, summarises that open networks can determine career success: “The bottom line? According to multiple, peer-reviewed studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.”


Simmons argues we often attribute the success of entrepreneurs to ‘personality quirks’, which helps them with their technical abilities, attention to detail and attracting world-class talent and holding them to high standards.


He goes on to say, “We think we understand what caused his success. We don’t. We dismiss usable principles of success by labelling them as personality quirks.”


“What’s often missed is the paradoxical interplay of two of his [Steve Jobs] seemingly opposite qualities: maniacal focus and insatiable curiosity. These weren’t just two random strengths. They may have been his most important as they helped lead to everything else.”


People in open networks have a more accurate view of the world, serve as a connector between groups and have exposure to more breakthrough ideas.


  • A revolution in entrepreneurship is underway. Student entrepreneurs involved in technological innovation can reach a global audience with their new product or service
  • Go to university if you have the opportunity and there’s no obvious reason why you should not go
  • Include a technical degree in your studies or at least start with a software engineering subject
  • Make an effort: Meet new people, go to events and join clubs and societies
  • ‘Meander in your walk’ while at university and early in your career — try doing things you wouldn’t normally consider
  • Create an open network. Learn to be comfortable meeting people and develop into a network expert, be authentic and genuine in your interactions with others


James Alexander is program manager and co-founder of the Sydney Incubate accelerator program. This article originally appeared on Medium. Check back soon for part two.


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5 years ago

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