Starting a company while still in school? Stanford entrepreneurs share how it’s done

Young entrepreneurs shared the challenges of founding a startup while still in school. The event was part of Stanford's annual Entrepreneurship Week. (Photo: Georgia Wells/ Peninsula Press)

The decision to leave a nice paying job was the biggest hurdle MindSumo co-founder Rohan Puranik faced when initially starting his company.

“I needed to figure out how I was going to pay the next several months of rent,” Puranik said.

Mobile gaming technology company GameClosure co-founders Michael Carter and Martin Hunt worked on their company for a year while both continued side jobs. But it wasn’t until they quit their jobs and focused on GameClosure full time that their company really became real.

“When you’re at the point where this company is the only thing you’re working on, then you’ll have to succeed: you’ll find a way,” Carter said.

Puranik, Carter and Hunt, along with four other student entrepreneurs, spoke Wednesday evening about the issues they faced while building their companies. The event was part of Stanford’s 2012 Entrepreneurship Week. All the speakers started their companies while in school or just after graduating, with help from StartX, a startup accelerator for Stanford students.

The accelerator provides student entrepreneurs with office space, a stipend, and legal, accounting and banking advice. The focus of StartX is educational, so the accelerator doesn’t take any equity.

“When companies are ready to actually start building, that’s when they come to us,” StartX founder Cameron Teitelman said.

While still a student, Teitelman started a discount card group for the Stanford community. “I went through it: I learned the frustrations and opportunities available to student entrepreneurs,” he said.

Teitalman has now been involved in guiding more than 40 companies through the StartX program. He’s seen what did and didn’t work. “The thing all startups fail at is not having a full discussion about expectations,” Teitelman said.

Before you start the company, you need to understand what your motivations are, and how long you want to work for the company, Teitalman said. “Decide on roles, and make sure you know the strengths of your co-founders. If there’s overlap, figure out how you’re going to deal with that.”

In the early stages of founding Carbon Lighthouse, a company that makes it profitable for organizations to eliminate their carbon footprint, Brenden Millstein sat with his co-founder and wrote out a contract.

“We really went through every insanely horrible thing we could think of,” Millstein said. What if a family member got cancer and a founder had to take time off? What if they ran out of money?

The process of discussing these situations, even if the situations were unlikely, gave them a better sense of the team’s dynamics. “It was helpful seeing how the other person was thinking about everything,” Millstein said.

Other student entrepreneurs found the long hours to be the most grueling part of startup life. “Nothing can prepare you for how many hours and how much stress you have to go through when starting a company,” Qwhisper co-founder Montse Medina said.

Millstein agreed that although there are many amazing aspects of building a company, “working 100 hours a week isn’t one of them.” He said he was able to get four of his Stanford classes to give him credit for working on Carbon Lighthouse.

Teitelman also used project classes to work on a company. “I was in a decision-analysis class, and had to decide whether to do a partnership with a big organization—I had to make that decision in real life.”

Classes are also helpful for finding co-founders, though not enough students realize this, Teitelman said. “The number one thing Stanford provides is curation of awesome people and putting them together—that’s what spurs innovation.”

“I see potential founders working on their company in class, but they don’t lift their head up to see there are 50 other people also interested in what they are working on,” Teitelman said. “Form a close relationship with them—they could be your co-founders.”

Stanford Entrepreneurship Week 2012 takes place February 27 through March 7. This collection of over 30 events is hosted by the Stanford Entrepreneurship Network (SEN), a federation of programs, student groups and organizations supporting entrepreneurship in the Stanford community. For a complete listing of events check:

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