The Student/Entrepreneur Cheat Sheet: Balancing School and Entrepreneurship

I’ve written in the past about the challenges of being an academic and an entrepreneur (here, here, here and here), and it’s one of the more common topics I get asked about. Many students come to me with questions on balance – how do they get their entrepreneur career started while still in school?

Here are three key insights my mentor gave me early on that really helped me as a student-entrepreneur:

1.    Synergy is king

Try to find work/study activities that “count twice”. For example, my research also happened to be the core technology work for my startup. Many of the marketing white papers for my startup were later turned into publications. And so forth. This requires a bit of forethought, but the impact can be tremendous. This usually also means that you need to cut activities that are not synergistic (e.g. I was the CTI of my first startup because fundraising and other business activities had no synergy effect with my academic work).

2.    Find a supervisor that embraces synergy

When working with a supervisor, you need to find one who gets that your principal goal is *your* career development, not cranking out papers for them. This is important because the synergy aspect above needs to work both ways, and a “needy” supervisor can mess everything up. Ironically, the most successful supervisors are often the ones who get this idea. They’ve had successful careers themselves and know that you will generate a lot more value for them doing “your thing” at 10x efficiency than slaving away at “their thing” at 0.5x efficiency.

3.    Focus on goals to optimize your schedule

The big risk with doing two things at the same time is that you get scattered. 50% of two goals is usually worth nothing. So you need to be very disciplined with schedules and goals. I used to write down quarterly and annual goals for myself – sort of a self-enforced performance review. To make this “stick” a bit more, I went out of my way to publicly declare these goals to create social pressure that would keep me focused (e.g. declare them to supervisor, co-workers, co-founders, put things on a whiteboard in a public space, etc.).

In terms of “hacking” the system, there are really only two parts to a graduate degree:

Papers: You want to generate lots of these, at high quality journals if possible. The best way to do this is to force yourself to write at least one paper per quarter. Even if only half get accepted, that’s still a lot more than most grad students achieve (typically one or two during a 4 year degree). Focus on tactical objectives rather than trying to create one giant master piece at the end.

Courses: Look for courses that are light on regular homework (weekly small stuff) and heavy on end-of-year papers, then use those for your startup objectives (synergy!). The other thing is to find courses that are compact (e.g. 3 hours in one session once per week) as this greatly reduces the “overhead” of course work (travel to campus, etc.). If you are doing a business on the side, you’ll really appreciate the blocks of uninterrupted time this will afford you.

If you do the above right, you also get one of the most valuable insurance policies available to technology entrepreneurs: academic credentials. We all read about the drop-outs who go on to create giant companies but that’s just survivor bias. Most startups fail. A good foundation of education, publications and credentials ensures that you get significant value out of your student-entrepreneur years even if your venture doesn’t become the next Facebook.

Balancing two full-time endeavours is never easy, but by optimizing your time and aligning your goals & interests, you’ll have a much greater chance of succeeding as both a student AND an entrepreneur.

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