Ask an Expert: Tips for New Grads on Starting a Business

Small Business
Advice for new grads

An army of students is graduating from colleges and universities this month, and a good number of them will be starting their own businesses.

Some new grads will accept a 9-to-5 and then work on their new companies on nights and weekends. Others will become full-time business owners and skip the traditional corporate career, says Christine Janssen-Selvadurai, director of the entrepreneurship program at the Gabelli School of Business at New York’s Fordham University. “They’re no longer considering the world of entrepreneurship as a last-ditch effort,” she says.

If you’re thinking about starting your own company, either full time or as a side gig, here’s some advice from college educators on how to succeed.

Work your network

“Ask your professors or instructors for names of alumni entrepreneurs and business leaders they know, and contact those leaders for advice. Network among classmates to learn whose parents or relatives might have experience in your industry. Find out who leads the alumni group in the area where you hope to work, and get help from the alumni office of your college to identify other important alums. Once you’ve made contact with people who can help, ask them who else you should talk to.”

—Mary Gale, lecturer, entrepreneurship division, Babson College

“Look to the relationships you built while in college to help form a founding team (with fellow graduates and students), quality mentors (with guest speakers you met while in college) and a support network of friends to call on during the rough days.”

—John Mueller, assistant professor of management, Western Michigan University

“By the time you graduate, you should have 20 to 30 relevant contacts at the ready to offer guidance, answer questions and hopefully introduce you to additional contacts.”

—Christine Janssen-Selvadurai, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University

Schedule time wisely

Eden Blair

Eden Blair

“My biggest piece of advice is to set meetings with yourself, with specific goals for developing your business. For example, you might set a meeting on Monday from 11 a.m. to noon specifically to develop questions for potential customers. Schedule these appointments at least two to three times a week, and make sure other meetings don’t take place at those times.

“You have an advantage because you’re probably used to having a lot of unstructured time after class that you had to organize for study. Keep using those time management skills as an entrepreneur. You’ll need to make sure you’re taking care of customers, finances and administrative tasks. You probably won’t have anyone telling you how to schedule your time, so you’ll have to make those decisions yourself.”

—Eden Blair, associate professor of entrepreneurship, Bradley University

Meet your customers’ needs

“If you have no customers, you have no business. Make sure your ideas align with what your customers need, not just your idea of what you think the world needs.”

—Jon Eckhardt, associate professor of management, Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Get commitments from customers to buy or evaluate your product as a beta test. Perform market experiments with tactics and strategies to see which will work before spending a lot of money on them.”

—Mary Gale, Babson College

“Strive to offer a product that the market is begging for. To do this, you’ll need to talk with customers. Don’t design a product without knowing what your customers need, and don’t fall in love with your solution. Rather, fall in love with solving the problem.”

—John Mueller, Western Michigan University

Use your community’s resources

Maya Durnovo

Maya Durnovo

“Many community colleges have development centers for entrepreneurship. Check with your local college to see what help is available. There may be business plan competitions, grant programs and even additional classes you can take just for entrepreneurship.

“Many community colleges are also affiliated with local Small Business Development Centers, which are supported by the Small Business Administration. There may also be a SCORE office nearby, which is also supported by the SBA and matches experienced business executives with new entrepreneurs who need advice.”

—Maya Durnovo, chief entrepreneurial initiative officer, Houston Community College

“Considering joining a co-working office that caters to small business owners. Not only will it give you a space to work for a very reasonable rate, but you’ll also meet other entrepreneurs at similar stages who can provide support, and maybe even skills, for your new venture.”

—Eden Blair, Bradley University

Create a budget

Jon Eckhardt

Jon Eckhardt

“Before starting, make sure you have enough money to run your business for a few months. If you need financial help, consider working with a business accelerator. Many of them are located around colleges and universities. They can help you with seed money and training.”

—Jon Eckhardt, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Consider hiring a summer intern

“Now that summer’s here, consider looking for a summer intern, since you can take advantage of labor that’s not too expensive. As an entrepreneur with a startup, you’ll need to hold on to your cash as long as you can.”

—Nancy Hong, executive director at the University of North Texas Innovation Greenhouse

Make sure you have the right attitude

“Strive to be innovative and take risks in your business.  This will help you develop an entrepreneurial mindset.”

—Andy Chan, vice president of Wake Forest’s Office of Personal and Career Development

“Be honest with yourself about your desire to launch a business. Starting and growing a company is hard work, and you’ll need this desire to help you persist through times of stress and challenge. Even if you have a viable model, are able to pay your living expenses and are committed to your business, decide whether you personally want to start a business right after college or whether it makes more sense to get practical experience as an employee of an existing company. Talk to alumni and other entrepreneurs who have followed both paths to learn the pros and cons.”

—Mary Gale, Babson College

For more information about how to start and run a business, visit NerdWallet’s Small Business Guide. For free, personalized answers to questions about starting and financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.

Margarette Burnette is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @margarette and on Google+.


Top photo via iStock. Photo of Eden Blair by Duane Zehr, Bradley University. Photo of Jon Eckhardt courtesy the University of Wisconsin-Madison Wisconsin School of Business.