Leadership

Creating Companies on Campus

A Short Guide for Student Founders
Published
March 7, 2024
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min read

Being a college student is difficult. Being a founder is hard.

Being a student founder? Even harder.

Student founders often struggle to juggle their classes, social life, and their startup. We at General Catalyst Venture Fellows feel for our friends and peers in this position. As students ourselves, we understand how difficult it can be to balance building the world we want to see with showing up in time for class. As a result, the journey of a student founder tends to break the mold from other more established founder backgrounds, something we actively lean into here at General Catalyst.

Here at GC, we’ve been investing in student founders for over a decade, so we thought it was time to share a short guide covering a few key topics and best practices for current and aspiring student founders.


Are you a solo founder or co-founder?


Going solo

Should you build your startup solo? Or alongside a co-founder? It’s a difficult question to answer, as there’s no one size fits all. One thing to consider is your ability to learn a broad set of skills and be competent in each one. In an early stage startup, early founders and employees wear plenty of hats; engineering, product, marketing, operations, you name it. If you’re able to do that and handle all of the responsibilities falling on your shoulders, then it could make more sense for you to work alone. Starting out solo is fine, but over time, it may be better to have a co-founder to build your company together.


Co-founding

Choosing a co-founder is one of the most important choices you’ll make as a founder. One critical trait you should keep an eye out for in a co-founder is trust. Consider this shortlist:

  1. Does their behavior and conduct instill trust?
  2. Can you rely on them to address problems that are outside of your understanding or control?
  3. Importantly, do others trust them?
  4. Are you able to maintain trust with that person amidst conflict?

There is truly no substitute for trust. Startups regularly fail because this co-founder relationship breaks down.

One can engineer their way into finding a good co-founder in college. The key is putting themselves in hard environments. 


Where to find a co-founder

Hard classes are a great starting point. Because you want to work with someone who’s intellectually honest. And in challenging classes you get to observe people’s intrinsic inclination for hard work and preparedness to continuously iterate on hard problems. The person who’s patiently solving a weeklong coding assignment in one day while helping others might be someone you want to work with for the next 10 years.

Another place to meet a co-founder is university research labs. That’s how Armon Dadgar and Mitchell Hashimoto, the co-founders of Hashicorp, originally met. They wrote software together in the University of Washington’s networks lab. They both believed they could build better software for deploying cloud services as they built and iterated on endless projects while conducting research. That’s how you can engineer luck for finding a great co-founder. Put yourself in hard environments and see who else is honestly working hard alongside you.

Caelin Sutch, co-founder of Cue AI, whom we backed under Rough Draft Ventures, says, “Looking for a co-founder is one of the most important decisions you can make when starting a company. My co-founder Christina and I met through a venture club at Berkeley when I was selling my last company. She helped me through the journey, and our skill sets were incredibly complementary. I’d look for someone who you know you can work with for incredibly long periods of time without getting on each other’s nerves and make sure that the foundation of the relationship is strong and built on total trust.”

What problems should you solve as a student founder?

It’s always best to work on problems you’re naturally passionate about or have an intimate connection to. Curiosity is a competitive advantage. A great way to differentiate yourself from the competition is understanding the canonical problems at their deepest level and demonstrating that to your customers builds trust. Such trust will be the reason they choose you over your competitors. For example, at General Catalyst, we’ve long believed that the modern consumer internet is broken, and that it’s time for young founders to build a new internet, by gen-Z, for gen-Z. That can start as early as a dorm room.

“There has never been a better time to be a student founder. With Fanfix, we were able to leverage virtual classes and remote work to build our business to millions in revenue without dropping out of school. Additionally, we’re in the midst of a platform shift right now with AI, meaning that everyone’s on a level playing field of experience. Young people likely have the advantage here. I think we’ll see a big wave of Gen Z/Gen Alpha founders pioneering this new AI platform shift,” states Harry Gestetner, co-founder and CEO of Fanfix (acquired by SuperOrdinary) and backed under Rough Draft Ventures.

You don’t need to tackle the largest problems right away. Instead, pick a problem that has both a big market, but also has a beachhead or initial wedge that’s small enough for you to tackle effectively. 

"There has never been a better time to be a student founder."

One common problem we see student founders fall into is that we’re often motivated and encouraged to build products that impress other students. That’s the snake oil trap of college entrepreneurship. Instead of working on problems that someone wants fixed and is willing to pay for, we tend to work on problems that we think impress other people. 

So to truly understand what opportunities exist for students with limitless ambition, we actually have to take a step back. Because it’s not your limitless ambition that serves as your unfair advantage, it's your limitless curiosity. 

“Balancing school with the demands of startup life is incredibly difficult. It's a journey marked by tons of sacrifices—dropping classes, forgoing weekends, and navigating the highs and lows that come with building a company. However, during my time at Harvard, one thing made building Mercor much easier was immersing myself in communities with other startup founders. The General Catalyst Venture Fellows (GCVF) is one of the highest quality communities for student founders and I would recommend it to anyone working on an idea while in school; whether it’s just a side project or a full-fledged startup. The GC team works tirelessly to support founders at every step and GCVF program has some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in startups,” says Adarsh Hiremath, co-founder of Mercor, a GCVF-backed startup.

Advantages of being a student founder

There are a handful of advantages that are exclusively available to student founders. The first and most obvious—take advantage of that .edu email address while you can! Your school email address gives you a license to talk to just about anyone in your field. Experienced and mid-career professionals and subject matter experts are often quite willing to chat with you.


Building for consumers

If you’re building for consumers, you’re already surrounded by potential customers: your classmates! We don't have to list the numerous student-led startups that have gone on to reach global scale, but nearly all of them began with fellow classmates as their initial early adopters and user growth engines. This proximity to your target market will help you iterate rapidly between getting feedback and refining your MVP to quickly launch. 


Building for enterprises

If you’re building for enterprises, one advantage is to leverage your professors, who most likely either come from industry or have direct connections to industry practitioners through their research and consulting. It never hurts to ask.

On a college campus, you’re likely taking a class on a technology that your professor created or helped to create. And you have limitless time to understand all the technical details for building that technology. This is the one time in your life you have all the creative freedom to ask questions, hold demo sessions, and explore ideas in any direction. This is also one of the only times in your life when you're in a 5-mile radius of truly state-of-the-art (SOTA) lab experimenting with high-tech gear you may want to work with. 

In addition, internships can be a great way for you to discover interesting problems to solve! For example, let's say you’re a software engineering intern working the Infrastructure team of a late-stage B2B SaaS startup. While you’re working on maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure that your company relies on to serve its customers, you notice how your time is spent building custom data pipelines and integrations for customer-facing teams (Sales, Marketing, Customer Success) to enable them to do their job. Building software to automate the creation and maintenance of those data pipelines could be the basis of its own company that you could start with that personal experience and insight.

Finally, take advantage of campus resources! Colleges have startup incubators, maker spaces, and other programs that can provide you with guidance and resources to reach new heights. One such program is our GC Venture Fellowship program, which provides non-dilutive grants and further support for aspiring student founders. 

“For me, the greatest advantage of being a founder while a student was the sense of safety net that allowed me to take greater risks in my decision making. I knew that at the end of the day, I was still within the comforting walls of the campus and that allowed me to have the risk appetite not only to found the business but also to take calculated risks to get things off the ground in the early days. Additionally, having the title of "student" helped significantly in our ability to do research not only through the university, but also even outside of university resources,” says Evan Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Intus Care, GCVF-backed company.

Student founders are transforming the future

Founding a company as a student isn’t always easy. However, you don’t have to go at it alone. Working with a co-founder, working on a project you’re passionate about, and leveraging your unique access as a student can all be avenues in which you can start building the world you want to see. Your path is not just about building a startup, it's about shaping the future. At General Catalyst, we stand with you, ready to support. 

If you’re a student founder—no matter where you are in the journey—we’d love to hear from you! Reach out to Jonny, who leads GCVF, if you’re building something interesting, or apply for funding through the GC Venture Fellowship directly here.

Published
March 7, 2024
Share
#
min read

Being a college student is difficult. Being a founder is hard.

Being a student founder? Even harder.

Student founders often struggle to juggle their classes, social life, and their startup. We at General Catalyst Venture Fellows feel for our friends and peers in this position. As students ourselves, we understand how difficult it can be to balance building the world we want to see with showing up in time for class. As a result, the journey of a student founder tends to break the mold from other more established founder backgrounds, something we actively lean into here at General Catalyst.

Here at GC, we’ve been investing in student founders for over a decade, so we thought it was time to share a short guide covering a few key topics and best practices for current and aspiring student founders.


Are you a solo founder or co-founder?


Going solo

Should you build your startup solo? Or alongside a co-founder? It’s a difficult question to answer, as there’s no one size fits all. One thing to consider is your ability to learn a broad set of skills and be competent in each one. In an early stage startup, early founders and employees wear plenty of hats; engineering, product, marketing, operations, you name it. If you’re able to do that and handle all of the responsibilities falling on your shoulders, then it could make more sense for you to work alone. Starting out solo is fine, but over time, it may be better to have a co-founder to build your company together.


Co-founding

Choosing a co-founder is one of the most important choices you’ll make as a founder. One critical trait you should keep an eye out for in a co-founder is trust. Consider this shortlist:

  1. Does their behavior and conduct instill trust?
  2. Can you rely on them to address problems that are outside of your understanding or control?
  3. Importantly, do others trust them?
  4. Are you able to maintain trust with that person amidst conflict?

There is truly no substitute for trust. Startups regularly fail because this co-founder relationship breaks down.

One can engineer their way into finding a good co-founder in college. The key is putting themselves in hard environments. 


Where to find a co-founder

Hard classes are a great starting point. Because you want to work with someone who’s intellectually honest. And in challenging classes you get to observe people’s intrinsic inclination for hard work and preparedness to continuously iterate on hard problems. The person who’s patiently solving a weeklong coding assignment in one day while helping others might be someone you want to work with for the next 10 years.

Another place to meet a co-founder is university research labs. That’s how Armon Dadgar and Mitchell Hashimoto, the co-founders of Hashicorp, originally met. They wrote software together in the University of Washington’s networks lab. They both believed they could build better software for deploying cloud services as they built and iterated on endless projects while conducting research. That’s how you can engineer luck for finding a great co-founder. Put yourself in hard environments and see who else is honestly working hard alongside you.

Caelin Sutch, co-founder of Cue AI, whom we backed under Rough Draft Ventures, says, “Looking for a co-founder is one of the most important decisions you can make when starting a company. My co-founder Christina and I met through a venture club at Berkeley when I was selling my last company. She helped me through the journey, and our skill sets were incredibly complementary. I’d look for someone who you know you can work with for incredibly long periods of time without getting on each other’s nerves and make sure that the foundation of the relationship is strong and built on total trust.”

What problems should you solve as a student founder?

It’s always best to work on problems you’re naturally passionate about or have an intimate connection to. Curiosity is a competitive advantage. A great way to differentiate yourself from the competition is understanding the canonical problems at their deepest level and demonstrating that to your customers builds trust. Such trust will be the reason they choose you over your competitors. For example, at General Catalyst, we’ve long believed that the modern consumer internet is broken, and that it’s time for young founders to build a new internet, by gen-Z, for gen-Z. That can start as early as a dorm room.

“There has never been a better time to be a student founder. With Fanfix, we were able to leverage virtual classes and remote work to build our business to millions in revenue without dropping out of school. Additionally, we’re in the midst of a platform shift right now with AI, meaning that everyone’s on a level playing field of experience. Young people likely have the advantage here. I think we’ll see a big wave of Gen Z/Gen Alpha founders pioneering this new AI platform shift,” states Harry Gestetner, co-founder and CEO of Fanfix (acquired by SuperOrdinary) and backed under Rough Draft Ventures.

You don’t need to tackle the largest problems right away. Instead, pick a problem that has both a big market, but also has a beachhead or initial wedge that’s small enough for you to tackle effectively. 

"There has never been a better time to be a student founder."

One common problem we see student founders fall into is that we’re often motivated and encouraged to build products that impress other students. That’s the snake oil trap of college entrepreneurship. Instead of working on problems that someone wants fixed and is willing to pay for, we tend to work on problems that we think impress other people. 

So to truly understand what opportunities exist for students with limitless ambition, we actually have to take a step back. Because it’s not your limitless ambition that serves as your unfair advantage, it's your limitless curiosity. 

“Balancing school with the demands of startup life is incredibly difficult. It's a journey marked by tons of sacrifices—dropping classes, forgoing weekends, and navigating the highs and lows that come with building a company. However, during my time at Harvard, one thing made building Mercor much easier was immersing myself in communities with other startup founders. The General Catalyst Venture Fellows (GCVF) is one of the highest quality communities for student founders and I would recommend it to anyone working on an idea while in school; whether it’s just a side project or a full-fledged startup. The GC team works tirelessly to support founders at every step and GCVF program has some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in startups,” says Adarsh Hiremath, co-founder of Mercor, a GCVF-backed startup.

Advantages of being a student founder

There are a handful of advantages that are exclusively available to student founders. The first and most obvious—take advantage of that .edu email address while you can! Your school email address gives you a license to talk to just about anyone in your field. Experienced and mid-career professionals and subject matter experts are often quite willing to chat with you.


Building for consumers

If you’re building for consumers, you’re already surrounded by potential customers: your classmates! We don't have to list the numerous student-led startups that have gone on to reach global scale, but nearly all of them began with fellow classmates as their initial early adopters and user growth engines. This proximity to your target market will help you iterate rapidly between getting feedback and refining your MVP to quickly launch. 


Building for enterprises

If you’re building for enterprises, one advantage is to leverage your professors, who most likely either come from industry or have direct connections to industry practitioners through their research and consulting. It never hurts to ask.

On a college campus, you’re likely taking a class on a technology that your professor created or helped to create. And you have limitless time to understand all the technical details for building that technology. This is the one time in your life you have all the creative freedom to ask questions, hold demo sessions, and explore ideas in any direction. This is also one of the only times in your life when you're in a 5-mile radius of truly state-of-the-art (SOTA) lab experimenting with high-tech gear you may want to work with. 

In addition, internships can be a great way for you to discover interesting problems to solve! For example, let's say you’re a software engineering intern working the Infrastructure team of a late-stage B2B SaaS startup. While you’re working on maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure that your company relies on to serve its customers, you notice how your time is spent building custom data pipelines and integrations for customer-facing teams (Sales, Marketing, Customer Success) to enable them to do their job. Building software to automate the creation and maintenance of those data pipelines could be the basis of its own company that you could start with that personal experience and insight.

Finally, take advantage of campus resources! Colleges have startup incubators, maker spaces, and other programs that can provide you with guidance and resources to reach new heights. One such program is our GC Venture Fellowship program, which provides non-dilutive grants and further support for aspiring student founders. 

“For me, the greatest advantage of being a founder while a student was the sense of safety net that allowed me to take greater risks in my decision making. I knew that at the end of the day, I was still within the comforting walls of the campus and that allowed me to have the risk appetite not only to found the business but also to take calculated risks to get things off the ground in the early days. Additionally, having the title of "student" helped significantly in our ability to do research not only through the university, but also even outside of university resources,” says Evan Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Intus Care, GCVF-backed company.

Student founders are transforming the future

Founding a company as a student isn’t always easy. However, you don’t have to go at it alone. Working with a co-founder, working on a project you’re passionate about, and leveraging your unique access as a student can all be avenues in which you can start building the world you want to see. Your path is not just about building a startup, it's about shaping the future. At General Catalyst, we stand with you, ready to support. 

If you’re a student founder—no matter where you are in the journey—we’d love to hear from you! Reach out to Jonny, who leads GCVF, if you’re building something interesting, or apply for funding through the GC Venture Fellowship directly here.