Author Ethan Lipsitz is the CEO and co-founder of Apliiq -- a creative platform that is redefining the custom t-shirt.
I started Apliiq from my dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. Building the business as a college student was one of the most important things I could have done. The combined resources and relationships that my campus provided were instrumental in establishing a customer base, starting a team, building partnerships and developing my first products.
While I appreciate the current debate about the value of a college education going on in the business community today, I think we're asking the wrong questions. Instead, we have to reframe the college experience from one of pure academia and study to entrepreneurship. Here's why.
The Campus Is the Ultimate Market
A business is nothing without customers, and the college campus is the perfect environment for building a market. When I started making hoodies for myself and friends, word spread quickly that I was the "hoody guy." People saw the hoodies and instantly wanted one, friends and classmates talked about them, and my list of customers grew.
A campus is a big crowd of kids looking for something real. If you can provide them a product that delivers, they will eat it up. Additionally, the tight-knit space of dorms, houses, parties, classes, libraries and other campus institutions provide a breeding ground for interaction and communication. Everyone knows the highest traffic areas. Put your product or flyers advertising your service there and the people will see it.
There's a shared feeling when you graduate that living in a community of hundreds of your closest friends will never happen in your life again. And while it's really difficult to build a market in the post college "real world," it's not so hard on campus.
Students Are the Best Customers and Even Better Talent
Looking for customers with some extra cash and free time? Trying to build a team? Need to create a website? The quest for the ultimate resume will lead students to give their time and expertise to new projects. Plus, the collective feeling of starting something together is powerful. I remember MGMT being the cool band at Wesleyan when I was at school. The energy of the Wesleyan community was key to their early success, and the same can be said about your business. People want to help you when they can be involved in the early stages -- whether that's buying your product, telling their friends about it or building it with you.
Additionally, when your friends and classmates support you as customers, their proximity provides a strong feedback loop as you iterate. You'll get their opinions on your product, whether you want them or not. If you're smart, you'll listen and adapt to their concerns.
From day one, I wanted to involve my customers in the design process. I started by showing them a series of fabric options online or spreading my collection out on my bed for them to pick their favorite pattern to be stitched into a hoody. Then I got feedback that they wanted more options, so I began taking my customers to the Philly fabric district to pick their own patterns from a much wider selection. Later, when I got feedback that my hand stitching wasn't holding up to wash and wear, I borrowed a friend's sewing machine and with a little help, learned how to use it. This early feedback was key to making my product better.
Your Professors Will Help You Start Your Business
I went to the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn, but conveniently there was also a business school on campus. I took advantage of the opportunity to take classes at Wharton as well as the Graduate School of Design. The epiphany that you can study topics you're actually interested in learning about didn't hit me until sophomore year.
One of my favorite courses was a Product Design course taught at Wharton by Karl Ulrich, the founder of the Xooter Scooter. Karl shared stories about his 'wacky entrepreneur' friends like Dean Kamen and their approaches to design. We even created our own product and established a business plan to take it to market. Having professors who were already successful entrepreneurs gave me role models on campus. They also helped me find resources on campus that supported entrepreneurship.
Your School Wants You to Be a Successful Entrepreneur
Having business success stories is a huge win for any college or university. That's why many have established organizations, facilities and even funds to support early-stage businesses and help them grow. Take advantage of the startup ecosystem on your campus. It's a great way to build relationships, find mentors, connect with alumni and even generate some press and buzz amongst the school leadership. Early on, I got an article about Apliiq in a few Penn publications and it brought investors, partners and team members to me.
If You're in School, You Probably Have Some Time
I know, everyone is busy. School is crazy, your classes demand a lot and your extracurriculars are more like jobs. The thing is, productive time will only get more scarce when you fill it with a full-time job and eventually start building a family. If you can take advantage of college as a valuable time for starting a business, you're ahead of the curve for when you get out of school. Starting your own business (or working on a friend's) is the best way to learn marketable skills that will take you through life, even if you don't continue with entrepreneurship.
My belief in the power of the college market is not just an idea. It's now a core part of what we are building at Apliiq. We see a future where thousands of students will gain potent entrepreneurial experience through our creative platform for apparel customization.
And even if the value of your degree is debatable, college is one of the best markets to tap for your first, second or maybe fourth business.