Can you imagine Silicon Valley without Stanford? Boston without MIT? Great technology ecosystems are built around great universities. The reason is simple; universities are a hotbed of talent, ideas and resources, just waiting to be tapped into. So, how can your startup make the most out of your local university?
Our startup, FoundOPS, reaped countless benefits from being located in West Lafayette – home of Purdue University. Our business was born in a dorm room and we still reside in the Purdue Research Park. What’s more, is that our team is now composed of six former students. Throughout the experience, I learned to navigate my way around the collegiate ivory tower.
But first, a word of caution:
Universities, especially large public ones, can be a virtual snake pit of bureaucracy — the antithesis of entrepreneurship. Working within the system or going through the ‘proper channels’ is a sure fire way to slow your growth. Be the one of those savvy founders or hackers and seize opportunities take advantage of the resources, while avoiding bottlenecks. Here are some ways to do just that:
Universities are the stomping ground for industry leaders and experts. They provide tremendous value, through their advice, their rolodexes, and the legitimacy they can bestow upon your venture.
I regularly speak with at least five former professors, who consistently provide me with great advice and introductions. If you are an alumnus, it’s easy to maintain your relationships with your former professors by sending an occasional email or grabbing a cup of coffee once every couple of months.
Even if you didn’t go through the typical college experience, most professors are accessible and willing to help if approached correctly – with clear, genuine intentions. With a quick search, you can find schedules of office hours or email addresses. Professors will often jump at the opportunity to meet with intelligent and passionate professionals posing interesting, challenging questions (a refreshing change of pace from overachieving students looking for homework help).
2. Recruiting a Team
Indisputably, the most important aspect of any startup is the talent. University students are the ideal startup employees. They have technical skills and are comfortable working 20+ hour days for next to nothing. Most don’t have mortgages or families of their own to worry about, so they can be compensated with pizza, beer and equity. Best of all, while most companies can’t get to students until summer or graduation, you can cherry pick the best and brightest before they get on Google or Amazon’s radar.
So how do you grab the best? Again, you’ll want to steer clear of bureaucracy. Job fairs are expensive and will put you on the same battlefield with bigger and better resourced companies who will stomp your booth to pieces. Instead, go right to the source and ask professors to recommend students. Not only will you receive pre-vetted candidates, but your employment offer will come packaged with legitimacy.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso.
I don’t know what it is about the “real world,” but it can put a major damper on creativity. Aggressive doses of visual and performing arts can help. Fortunately, universities offer both, for little if any cost to the public. At FoundOPS, we take full advantage with regularly scheduled creative outings. Combine that with the deliberate infusion of young talent, unscarred by the pragmatism of non-startup jobs, you’ll foster your company’s collective creativity.
4. A User Base Full of Early Adopters
The average student, often internet savvy and equipped with a smartphone loaded with apps, falls decisively on the left side of the innovation diffusion curve. Besides the obvious age bias, Universities offer a diverse cross section of the population. And while you might have difficulty convincing students to fork over their beer money for your app, you can certainly let them help with adoption and feedback.
It’s hard to forget how quickly the adoption of Facebook spread. Students have a huge viral coefficient and a high-value product can spread like wildfire through a University and beyond.
5. A Community
There is something magical about a healthy technology ecosystem. I’m not going to say that investors, super-connectors, and late-stage CEOs aren’t important; but, to me, the true beauty of a tech community comes from the entrepreneurs.
Whether at a round table, coffee shop, or even while sharing a beer at a startup event, a community provides more than just flow of ideas. It gives us inspiration. It’s the “I can chase my dreams, too” mentality. While the previous four reasons explain why startups can be found near universities, the sense of community compounds these results and explains why they stay.
BONUS: Don’t Forget to Give Back.
Even for those with a strong moral compass, this isn’t always obvious. You’re getting a bunch of cool stuff, and, in exchange, the universities benefit from access to growing startup founders. You’ve got that ‘real world’ experience that grey-haired professors and their students are clamoring for.
Offer up your time as a guest lecturer, a student adviser, or as a testing ground for student projects. Even if you don’t feel morally compelled to help out, you can take these opportunities to develop relationships with students and professors that can help you in the future.
Universities are forces to be reckoned with. They are valuable, but often overlooked, resources to us entrepreneurs. And we can use all the extra help we can get. Do you have any stories of startups taking advantage of a collegiate ecosystem? Have you tapped into this network before? Share your thoughts – I’d love to hear your story.
This post was written by Oren Shatken who cofounded FoundOPS as an undergraduate at Purdue University. He is a board member of Lafayettech and helps organize Verge events in West Lafayette. Get in touch with Oren on Twitter (@OrenShatken) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).