Is the thought of starting a business – based on moulding and shaping an idea into a product or service that has your input in many facets of its production – something that excites you?
That’s one of the enticing reasons to become an entrepreneur. Playing a role in the decision-making process, seeing the tangible (and non-tangible) outcomes and knowing that you poured your heart and soul into nurturing a business can be one of the most rewarding feelings in the world.
While building a business from scratch has its allure, not all of them take off. A whopping 90 percent of startups fail. This means students aspiring to become entrepreneurs need to work smarter and learn from others’ mistakes to improve their chances of future success.
The internet has a smorgasbord of ideas on how to become a successful entrepreneur while entrepreneurship courses are becoming popular in universities.
However, students who are aspiring to become entrepreneurs should also heed the lessons from those who have walked the path they’re keen on embarking on.
Speaking to Study International, Perlego CEO Gauthier Van Malderen, who co-founded the online textbook subscription service in 2016, imparted some valuable lessons.
Know your ‘why’
Gauthier dabbled in two businesses while still in university. While he enjoyed success in both endeavours, he decided that he would have a “proper job” upon graduating and started working at the Financial Times.
However, he soon discovered that he didn’t enjoy working for a big company and the lack of flexibility that came with it, and did the next best thing – built his own company.
“Many have asked me why I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I think you have to do things that make you happy,” he said. “For me, entrepreneurship allows you to release your creativity. It’s much, much harder than a traditional job but it’s also so much more rewarding and so much more fun.”
Experience is the best teacher
Running two businesses while still in university served as an important learning experience for Gauthier to ensure he didn’t repeat his past mistakes.
“When I was at university, I had a small business that sold university hoodies. We found that a lot of people were proud of going to their university, but they didn’t have university hoodies. We initially made 300 hoodies and they sold out in two days,” shared Gauthier.
The business proved so successful that by the time he was in his third year of his degree programme at the Bocconi University in Italy, they had sold some 5,000 hoodies.
Meanwhile, his second business, Iconic Matter, connected brands with students through the free distribution of a notebook that contained ads.
“Let’s say you’re a student in Belgium and you get this free notebook. So students would use it to make notes, and you get big brands like RedBull or MTV who would pay for advertising in this notebook. Because these students would use these notepads for several months, this allowed them (advertisers) to be in front of students for quite a long time,” he explained.
Ensemble your A-team
“When you’re building a business, it’s important to surround yourself with the right people. What do I mean by that?
“For example, if you’re an excellent journalist and are good at writing, you might not be a good coder. So you need to find a good coder in your team to act as a complementary skill set to your talent.
“You shouldn’t try to do everything – instead, it’s about surrounding yourself with great people,” he explained.
“When it came to Perlego, I co-founded the company with CTO Matthew Davis. Matthew and I have known each other from school, and he is complementary to my skill set in the sense that he’s an amazing coder and takes over all the tech side of the business,” he explained.
In a similar vein, when working on Iconic Matter, Gauthier had a co-founder who was a designer who helped create the cool branding and imagery for their notebook.
Don’t be afraid to speak with ‘important people’
Among the many things Gauthier learned from his two previous businesses is not to be intimidated to e-mail important people.
“When I was doing Iconic Matter, we would reach out to junior marketing associates, and they would say, ‘We’re not interested.’ But then if you e-mail the head of marketing, they would always be like, ‘Wow, this is a really fun project! Let’s meet.’ And half the time, they would proceed with it.
“So, if you have a great product and a great value proposition, don’t be afraid to e-mail important people and ask for a meeting,” he explained.
Resilience is key
When you’re raising capital, you get about 17 no’s for one yes, said Gauthier.
“So you need to be quite positive, very optimistic, but also resilient because you’re always going to get no’s.
“Most people, when they get five no’s, they would stop. I think a good founder, a good entrepreneur, will keep going until they get that ‘yes’.”
Dare to fail
Gauthier believes that if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
“I see it with a lot of people who join us from big organisations – they’re very scared of failing, and I think failure is a part of the learning process,” said Gauthier. “When I started Perlego two years ago, I knew nothing about the publishing industry.”
Despite making mistakes, he learned quickly and adapted.
“I’m always, always failing, and I think if you’re not failing, that means you’re not pushing yourself to the next level.”
Your education – both in and out of the classroom – matters
“I think an element that has helped me has been my education,” said Gauthier, who studied economics, management and finance in university before continuing with a Postgraduate in Entrepreneurship at the University of Cambridge. Despite that, he notes that getting a “good” education isn’t always necessary to launch a business.
While his education helped set the theoretical framework of building a business, getting his hands dirty by starting two companies as a student helped him put theory to practice.
“In my first business, I made a lot of mistakes, but I didn’t make those mistakes with my second business,” he said, adding that the experience has also helped him build his third company at a faster pace.
Learn from others and find a mentor
Entrepreneurs face many problems each day, which makes the job challenging. To tackle these problems, it’s essential to speak with other founders and entrepreneurs and learn and share from each others’ stories.
Finding a mentor who has been there and done that is also helpful in facilitating one’s growth throughout their journey.
Give it a go!
So, as a student, should you, or should you not give entrepreneurship a try?
“I would say just go for it. Test it. If you don’t test it, you won’t know it,” said Gauthier, who proceeded to share a story of a girl who sells bracelets online.
“She started (selling her bracelets) on Instagram from her room and now has over 50,000 followers, and she’s making quite a bit of money from it. If she had never tested it, she would have never known.
“I think if you’re at university, you have nothing to lose. Always have the mindset that you can start a business today with very little money – even if you lose 3,000 or 4,000 dollars at the end of the whole experience, you would have learned so much from building up that company that it acts almost like education itself.”