How to prepare for a startup at university

in startups

University is a wonderful, intense and chaotic period of your life. For that reason, it’s also a fantastic time to prepare for life at a startup, which is often wonderful, intense and chaotic all at once.

I built my first startup halfway through university, and now I’m the CEO of Encore, so although most of this post will be about starting your own company from a founder’s perspective, a lot of it also applies to being one of the first employees at a startup. I’ll start with some context before diving into how you can prepare during university.


A bit about me

I experienced an intense academic dissonance while studying Computer Science at Cambridge. I had spent my teenage years at a specialist music school and I loved the web almost as much as I loved music. I knew I wanted to work for a music-tech company, but I quickly learned that I didn’t want to be a full-time programmer, so I dedicated a lot of my time to exploring other options.

I had the idea for my first startup in the shower — which I’ve since discovered is a fountain of good ideas (Elon Musk agrees) — and I released a quick version of WhichMayBall after an afternoon of coding. Without knowing what an MVP was, I had built one, and I enjoyed the learning process involved in building a startup far more than I had ever enjoyed learning about completeness, compilers or cryptography.

To cut a long story short, I joined the Entrepreneur First accelerator where I met my co-founder, James, and fifteen months after starting work on it, Encore is now an angel-backed musicians market network with over 5000 musicians.

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Pitching at the EF3 Demo Day. Full video here

So, what can you start doing RIGHT NOW to best prepare for a startup? Let’s begin.

1. Learn to code

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Everyone has ideas, but few people actually have the skills to make them a reality. It’s why tech recruiters get away with charging such high fees — those with MBAs and grand startup visions often lack the basic skills needed to even test the demand for their ideas. I really like this quote from Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of Reddit:

“Entrepreneur is just French for ‘has ideas, does them’ ”

I’m not suggesting that you go and learn the three most efficient sorting algorithms in ten different languages, but if you want to test the demand for a product or service, you need to know how to do three things:

  • build a basic website describing your product
  • have a means of collecting email addresses, to gauge interest (check out Mailchimp)
  • analyse the traffic on your website, to measure the conversion rate i.e. the success of your experiment (start with Google Analytics)

If you’re not starting your own thing, but want to join a tech startup, you should still learn enough to be useful in a small team. If you can edit copy, change styling and add new static sections to a website, you’ll be infinitely more useful than someone who can’t.

If you want to be REALLY useful, go and learn the basics of:

  • the command line
  • Git (for working on code in a team)
  • Photoshop (I use it on a near-daily basis, often for very simple tasks)

There are SO MANY resources available online. To name a few:

  • Codecademy
  • Coursera
  • Treehouse

2. Find Smart People

Finding the right people for your startup is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a founder. Naively, I thought finding good developers who fit our culture in London would be a piece of cake.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

You’ll often come across someone who would have no trouble getting the work done, but you should never ignore that gut feeling telling you they’re not the right person for your company.

The solution to this problem is simple — start finding smart people! If you’re at a good university, the admissions department have done a lot of the filtering for you. Being at Cambridge, I was lucky to be surrounded by smart and ambitious people.

That said, finding smart and ambitious people who want to start a startup can be incredibly difficult. I tried to get various people involved with WhichMayBall at various times, with little success. I think I was pretty persuasive, but I also think they were reluctant to risk their degree and commit to something time-consuming. You want people with an ever-so-slightly crazy appetite for risk.

Starting a business by yourself is hard, and I can’t imagine getting Encore off the ground without the technical wizardry and acute product insight of my co-founder, James. One of the most valuable things EF did was introduce us to each other, so start having a good think about which of your friends have similar interests and a skill set that complements your own.

You’ll have fantastic friends who will, despite long debates, be reluctant to start a startup with you, and that’s fine. Put them in the “first employee” pile. Recruiters are so expensive, make the most of your own network.

Avoid networking events. Once in a blue moon, you’ll meet some really awesome people at a surprisingly good event. Generally, though, I find them to be really contrived, and to be brutally honest, a lot of the people you meet at these “Entrepreneur Societies” are never going to start a company. They like the idea of it, and they LOVE talking about it, but they’ll likely end up at a consultancy or VC firm.

The best way to find great people is to either

  1. Start something yourself and try to get others on board, or
  2. Find someone doing something awesome and offer to help out. You’ll quickly learn whether you’d like to work with them seriously in the future

Your network is one of your most valuable assets. I’ve lost track of the number of times my friends have swooped in just at the right time and helped me out considerably.

For example, I nearly left university with nowhere to live in London, but thanks to this status update, we were saved with just four days to spare.

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Don’t be sociopathic about this and make it your mission to meet everyone at your university. You should absolutely avoid befriending someone just to tap into their apparent value and add them as another node in your friend graph. I did a lot of university-level music, I ran a small design business, and I started WhichMayBall, all of which introduced me to a wealth of interesting people now doing a wide range of extremely interesting things.

3. Find your passion

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[ Insert motivational quote here ]

Urgh, “passion”.

It plagues self-help books, dominates Tony Robbins-esque conferences, and rears its ugly head in almost every reflective Medium post on entrepreneurship.

You might have guessed it’s not one of my favourite words. It is, however, crucial that you discover what yours is before embarking on your startup adventure. A better term is “Founder/idea fit” — what makes YOU the right person to tackle your problem of choice? What is it about you that gives you an unfair advantage?

I was lucky to discover mine at a relatively young age. I had a pretty normal childhood until the age of eleven when I joined a specialist music school. Suddenly I was practising the cello and piano for hours every day (that’s what I told my teachers, anyway), rehearsing in orchestras and choirs several times a week, and going to classes with names like “Harmony” and “Aural Musicianship”.

In short, my teenage years were spent immersed in music.

I eventually decided to keep music as a very intense hobby instead of turning it into my career, and ended up studying Computer Science at Cambridge. I found it hard to let go of music, though, and I probably spent more time performing than the average music student, which exposed to me a wide range of problems in the way music was organised.

Spending my time around other musicians helped me build an incredibly dense network of people passionate about music, which made our first Encore launch at Cambridge significantly easier than if I had spent three years in the library, knee-deep in algorithms.

Being musicians ourselves lends James and I serious credibility and makes Encore a very authentic company. We’re not two money-hungry businessmen eager to hoover up any cash we can find in the music industry. We’re not two startup fanboys, drunk on the gospel of TechCrunch, building a startup because it’s cooler than getting a real job.

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by Liz Fosslien

We’re musicians who want to improve the music industry for the benefit of our fellow performers.

Anyway, I’m rambling. There’s a good chance you’ll know what your “passion” is before arriving at university, and if you do, spend your time immersed in it and meeting others who share it.

If you don’t, get stuck into various societies and groups as soon as you can. Honestly, there’s nothing stopping you. My other obsession is cycling, but I only discovered halfway through university when I realised I’d spent a big chunk of my internship earnings on a road bike, and found myself captaining the College team in a time trial competition the following year!

4. Tap into your university’s alumni network

Every year, for three years, I took part in my College Telephone Campaign, which involved phoning alumni and asking if they’d like to donate money towards scholarships and maintenance grants for current students. The first few phonecalls were always awkward, but the campaign taught me two extremely valuable skills:

  • how to hold a conversation and quickly build a good rapport with someone I’d never met
  • how to be comfortable asking for large amounts of money

As it happens, those are two things that you need to do on a daily basis when you’re raising investment as a founder. Over a period of six months, I spent a lot of time meeting investors, pitching Encore, and then asking if they’d like to invest anywhere in the region of £5k to £50k.

Thankfully, the Telephone Campaign had taught me how to suspend my own inhibitions for the purpose of a greater cause, and I would have struggled a lot more with fundraising had it not been for the informal training I received at university.

On top of this, you’ll be introduced to people with decades of business and life experience who might not have replied if you had sent them a cold email asking to pick their brains over a coffee. I learned a lot from conversations with people I met through the Telephone Campaign and alumni events, and tapping into your university’s extensive network can be incredibly rewarding.

5. START SOMETHING

Write a blog, form a new society, start a column in a student newspaper. Start your own student newspaper! Why the hell not?

Whatever you do, just start something.

Getting a new idea off the ground is really hard. You’ll get stuck. You’ll consider giving up.

No, I won’t!”, I hear you cry.

Yes, you will. Giving up is easy and frees up your time to hang out with friends, study more and take part in things other people have started.

Fight through that temptation. Remember why you started in the first place and why you want your idea to exist.

All of the sleep deprivation, self-induced isolation and hard work is entirely worthwhile for the immense satisfaction of seeing an idea — your idea! — grow from nothing to something.

It’s also a fantastic chance to see whether you’re suited to starting a company yourself. It might not be for you, or you might not be ready yet, and those are extremely worthwhile lessons to learn before pouring your heart and soul into a new project.

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to get out there, try new things and meet new people before you graduate and realise it’s too late. (It comes around far quicker than anyone expects.)

If you have any questions, email me and I’ll do my best at pretending I have profound wisdom to impart.

And, of course, if you’re a musician or want to book musicians for an event, head over to joinencore.com to have all your prayers answered.

Good luck!

Thanks to Matt Clifford, James King and Sinead Cook for helping refine my early drafts into a coherent essay.

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