College is a great time to start a business – few bills to worry about, lots of school resources such as professors and research tools at your disposal, and free time can be abundant if you manage your course load effectively. Here are 10 tips on maintaining and growing a business while still going to college full time:
1. Have someone else answer the phone while you are in class.
You never want a customer to call and not have anyone answer, especially during normal business hours. You also don’t want to be on bad terms with your professor because they keep seeing you bolt out of class. Various answering services charge by the minute to answer your phone calls. You can gain credibility and customer reliance if there are multiple people at that answering center taking calls for your account. We use a company called Alliance Wireless so we don’t have to worry about a customer calling once when no one answers, and not leaving a voicemail. This way we don’t lose any business due to no one answering the phone.
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2. Use the convenience of email to your advantage.
If you have a smart phone, set it to push your business email account to your phone automatically so you can be responsive to your customer's emails anytime, anywhere. This will enable you to shoot off quick replies whether you are in the library, a group meeting or out to lunch with your colleagues. Sometimes I would get an email from my answering service about an important call that came in. I would then send an email to that customer letting them know I was tied up at the moment but would call them in 45 minutes (which was when class ended). Being able to respond promptly the customer communications will improve client relations and show you are dedicated to your business’ customer service.
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3. Block off chunks of time to dedicate to your business.
You will always have work to do in college -- and for your business. I learned that to get the most done you need to dedicate a few hours strictly for your business, and then dedicate a few other hours to your academics. Avoid the stress of dividing your concentration and you will notice you will be much more efficient in both areas. Scheduling and time-management are key to balancing life as a young business owner, and as a full time student.
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4. Be prepared for early calls.
In college I thought 10 am was early. Now I am on the West Coast and get calls at 5 am regularly from East Coast customers who are three time zones earlier. While other students are up late and then hitting snooze until 11am, the workday for the real world and business owners starts at 9 am, at the latest. I learned to set a few alarms to check to see if I had any calls, wake up and call back if I did, then go back to sleep if I didn’t. You don’t want to sleep through what could be the most important hours in the day of growing your business.
5. Stay organized.
Often times I would get calls from customers who would order or need shipping quotes immediately while I was in the library or walking across the quad. So I learned to always have a pen and notepad to write down everything I needed. It was hard to discipline myself to store these notes in an organized way when I got back from a long day of classes, but if I didn’t I paid for it later. If I needed to look up an order and the order details were in a pile or random papers next to my desk, I may never find what I need. Make sure you design a system for storing information on-the-go, train yourself to come back and re-enter that info in the correct place when you return from your day of classes and exams.
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6. Always take care of the essentials.
There are going to be weeks where you don’t know how you are going to do it: 7 exams, 3 midterms, 4 papers and a presentation. It’s easy to completely forget about your business but you must set a little time aside to maintain the business. Whether there are bills that need to be paid or customers with complicated bid requests for airport barricades, the second you start to ignore the important parts of your business is the second you start to lose future business. When you build something, you are responsible for what it becomes.
7. Embrace that customers/suppliers will realize you are in college.
Suppliers will typically be impressed that you are able to run a company while being so young and going to school full time. They should also realize that when you take your venture full time, you’re going to give it your all and deliver great service and continued business. Customers may be hit or miss on this issue, but as long as you are upfront about it (if they ask) and you are professional, they should be able to look past the stereotype of a "typical college kid" and give you their business.
8. Keep your overhead low.
College can be financially stressful especially if you’re running a business at the same time. Keep your fixed expenses as low as possible so you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your business bills every month. If you are thinking of running a distribution company, see if your suppliers will be willing to ship directly to your customer so you don’t have to worry about having a warehouse with inventory. Also, as discussed in the next point, hiring people or taking on partners will only add to your bills.
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9. Do not partner up/hire colleagues unless you absolutely have to.
It sounds like a great idea: you have other friends in college who are interested in the same things you are. They want to make it big and they see your business as having a lot of potential. However the good stops there for two reasons: the first is the uncomfortable feelings that come with mixing money and friends and having to discipline them when things don’t go smoothly (which will happen at some point). The second reason is how expensive it is to hire someone, and how splitting earnings with your partner will become less and less attractive as time goes on, especially if the business grows slower than expected. Knowing when to ask for help is important but be sure to weigh all the pros and cons of bringing in new personnel into your venture.
10. Do not let the uniqueness of your potential career scare you.
Junior year I had a many friends attending career fairs and competing for internships at companies where they would hope to be offered a position their senior year. While this seemed like the road to follow, I knew that I had different passions for my future. If being self-employed is your goal and your business is successful enough to pay your bills after college, keep running your business and focus on growing it. Forget the 9 to 5 if that doesn’t appeal to you. If the idea of a standard desk job looks unappealing now, it definitely won’t get any better once you’re actually sitting behind the desk. It can be hard to go one way when the rest of your friends are going the opposite, but in the end it’s about who chased their dreams and who sat back and followed the crowd.
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