4 Tips for Dorm-Based Businesses

by Susan Johnston on May 13, 2011
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These days, with the barriers to entering the business world lower than ever, countless companies are getting their start not in a boardroom but in the dorm rooms of their business-minded founders. Getting started in college doesn’t mean you’re going to be a success, mind you: As with traditional businesses, most dorm-based businesses fail, says Ryan Caldwell, an online entrepreneur who runs College-Startup.com.

However, “the ones who are patient enough, and are willing to improve themselves, are the ones that most commonly succeed,” says Caldwell, who has built more than 20 profitable websites since college, including PopCrunch and TheBestCollege.org.

We asked Caldwell for his tips for finding success running a college-based startup.

  1. Make schoolwork a priority.
    Caldwell has met plenty of students who skip classes and homework to focus on their business. “That’s really the wrong way to go about it,” he says. “Because sooner or later, when the euphoria of a new project settles down, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with sagging academic performance combined with the reality of a whole lot of hard work ahead of you.” Plus, in case that business fails, you don’t want to lose your scholarship or flunk out of school.
  2. Identify your unique selling point.
    Many college students have grandiose ideas about creating the next Facebook. Hey, why not aim high? But realistically, you don’t have to create something radically different to be successful. “The purpose of a business is to make money,” says Caldwell, “and there are many ways to just slightly improve upon services and products that already exist and are proven money makers. The only job you’ll have is to identify the one thing that will make your services and products stand out from your competitors.” If you can do that, then you’re well on your way to success.
  3. Think outside your dorm room.
    A few successful startups like Facebook and DormAid (also created by Harvard students) cater to college students. But as Caldwell points out, students tend not to be flush with cash, so they may not make for the best customers.  He says the best startups right now are internet-based businesses “because the market is so large. Sure, the competition can be fierce, but because the market is so large (assuming you target a large enough swath of the population), all you need is a small chunk of the pie to become quite wealthy.” As long as you have a professional-looking website, your customer may not know (or care) that you’re still in college.
  4. Enjoy the freedom to fail.
    One advantage that most college students have over other business owners is that they can afford to fail. As Caldwell says, “You aren’t hinging your entire well-being on the success. You will be exposed to more ideas during college than at any other time in your life.  And this can really spark the creative juices.” Even if your business doesn’t take off, you’ll gain some valuable experiences in the process: the kind of real-world business lessons you can’t get from a textbook or classroom.
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