What I learned from being a student entrepreneur for 3 years
In the past three years, I have been running a business as a student entrepreneur. Since then, lots of people have asked me what it is I do, and how I can even combine all this at such a young age.
The truth is, while student entrepreneurship might sound new to you, it has actually been around for quite some time now. As a recent graduate, I spent the last three years as a student entrepreneur in the Belgian city of Ghent.
And I’m not alone! Hundreds of other students joined my side in this crazy journey, with the support of organizations like Gentrepreneur and Idea Factory, it’s easier than ever to combine your schoolwork with running your own business!
But what does it mean to be a student entrepreneur? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can certainly tell you about my experience and why I think every student should consider starting a business while in school.
You can skip ahead here:
📖 What’s my story?
My name is Jente Vanhaesebroeck. I like to think of myself as a creative jack-of-all-trades, however, I tend to overestimate myself on a regular basis.
I don’t see it as a bad trait though. My confidence allows me to make mistakes and not care about it, as long as I learn from them. During my period as a student entrepreneur, I’ve fallen in love with the craft. There’s nothing better than creating something of value from scratch, and scaling it into a sustainable business.
Currently, I graduated as an event-& project manager and officially started out as a full-time entrepreneur. But before I hop into that, let me tell you how this entire journey began.
🏁 How I started out as a student entrepreneur
It all started with the urge to learn more. While there were plenty of challenges in school, I still felt the need to do something more.
I was creative, talkative, and had a tendency to lead. So, how hard could it be to start a marketing agency? Besides, there was no better time to try and fail than when I was still studying. So I started my first business Phelix Branding at 18 years old.
The original Phelix logo
Obviously, running an agency turned out to be a little harder than I thought. I got my first clients by blatantly reaching out to them. Wonder by wonder, some of them actually returned my e-mails and were excited to help a young student entrepreneur like me.
Now that I got my first clients I spent hours upon hours going through online courses, blogs, and videos to learn everything there was to learn on marketing. During that time I started experimenting with countless ways to improve marketing for Phelix and my clients.
📈 Growing beyond myself
At Phelix, we helped startups and small businesses brand their business or products. After a few months, we started getting referrals and requests from new clients. It didn’t take long for me to realize, I could not keep doing this alone.
So I started hiring other students to do the work for me. I thought it was brilliant, but it often seemed harder than doing it all myself. Suddenly I was forced to stop working in the business, and start working on the business.
⛔ Reaching a limit
I thought I could do it all. At one point I was doing enough work to equal that of 4 full-time jobs. No kidding, I did sales, marketing, operations, recruitment, and everything that comes with it.
Luckily, the people around me helped me realize I wouldn’t be able to sustain this for very long. It had its effect on team morale and quality. We lost deals, disappointed some clients and that was really not the goal of this operation.
I felt terrible. Maybe I didn’t have to grow so fast? I should have taken more time to do this. But better late than never! I decided to take a few steps back, reach out to some people, and come back better.
💪 Coming back stronger
I started out simplifying the business by dropping a bunch of services and narrowing down my focus to a specific type of client. Doing so allowed me to create a more repeatable service. I also got to raise my prices for the first time, which I should have done way sooner.
Additionally, I created some control mechanisms and put the right playbooks and training programs in place to monitor the quality and productivity of our team. One of the biggest challenges for me was letting go. When I realized accepting help or making mistakes isn’t a bad thing it became easier for me to support my team and even help them grow.
During this time I noticed a lot of other students were starting their own creative agency or become a freelancer. I wanted to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes I did. We started by creating a partner network to help student entrepreneurs grow their portfolio, and build predictable revenue sources from working with us.
In addition, I would coach them to run or grow their agency smarter. Working with other student entrepreneurs or freelancers was a great move. We found less administrative work and recognized the entrepreneurial traits that fit perfectly in our team culture.
Reinventing the value we bring to our customers
Now that the team at Phelix was operating smoothly, I found myself with a lot more energy than before. I spent less time on stuff that I didn’t like, or wasn’t good at, only to focus on growing and maturing the business further.
I wanted to direct that energy towards adding more value to our clients. Right now, we were still just delivering services, but I wanted us to deliver a solution.
To do that, we had to find a specific problem to solve for our target audience. We noticed lots of companies were struggling with taking a holistic approach to growth. Bringing in an external partner to find the root problem, unify different teams, and quickly prioritize, prototype, and validate solutions could help everybody heading in the same direction.
So after extensive research and even a thesis on service scalability, 30+ internal experiments, and the advice of over 15 professionals I first introduced growth sprints-as-a-service. In these sprints we helped online businesses validate, launch, grow and scale their businesses through an agile, lean-approach.
Beware, I’m not talking about growing a business just for the sake of growing it. Rather, taking smart, data-driven decisions to create a more scalable, and sustainable venture.
Bundling our experience into growth sprints
The growth unit started gaining popularity especially among subscription-based models, which allowed us to carry out many growth experiments and gain lots of interesting insights...
🤝 Ready for the real deal
Now that I had graduated, I needed to decide whether I would become an entrepreneur full-time, or leave it all behind me as a feature on my resumé.
When I started a business 3 years ago, I never realized it would make this much of an impact on me. It feels like I learned so much in such a short time, just by figuring things out when it mattered most.
To be honest, I already knew I would keep doing this from the start. I couldn’t just give up what I had built.
But I’m not going to lie. It is pretty scary to just go after it without any real previous professional experience. Even if people see me as an example, I still worry a lot. About clients, financials, my team, sales, and so on. But in the end, I think that’s part of what makes entrepreneurship so exciting, and I wouldn’t trait it for anything else.
So I founded Idealist Studio. A creative business workshop in which I attempt to create valuable and scalable services for the business world. I help businesses grow online. I coach, inspire, and connect entrepreneurs in the creative, online, and technology industry.
Our creative studio serves as a launchpad to build, improve & scale our business solutions
Secretly, it’s just a vat for my creative impulses and desire to solve complex problems. Currently, I’m directing my energy towards solving a prominent problem in the software industry. The results after 8 months of testing are very promising.
💊 What’s next: Tackling a major challenge in software
After working and talking with tons of technology companies we often found the recurring problem of churn and low product adoption. Churn happens when a customer stops using your product, because of a bad experience or other reasons.
After diving a little deeper we discovered low customer understanding was actually a huge barrier to software adoption and sales. Losing customers is a major problem for profitability, especially in Software-as-a-Service or SaaS.
While the focus is often on acquiring new clients, lowering churn can increase profitability anywhere up from 25 to 125%. Since SaaS clients often only become profitable after a couple of months, adding water to a leaky bucket is just a waste of time.
Besides, existing customers are often the greatest source of growth. They are 33% more likely to spend more and up to 4 times more likely to refer new business. Once you know how to create product fans, the ball will continue rolling down the mountain.
Building an education growth engine
With our existing knowledge in content production, and content marketing we assumed that using smarter content delivery, throughout the entire customer experience - meaning before, during, and after the purchase - would have a big impact on both sales and customer retention.
Take Hubspot for example. Today, they are one of the biggest players in the marketing-tech field. But before, they had to introduce an entirely new concept to the industry: inbound marketing.
They started putting content in place to educate prospects on how inbound could solve their problems, which eventually led to the Hubspot Academy. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a must-have certification for modern-day marketers. And it helped to turn Hubspot into the market leader they are today.
Hubspot Academy - The #1 online resource for modern marketers
In no time the Academy tripled Hubspot’s qualified leads and doubled their revenue. Additionally, they saw a drop in the time spent on support from the customer success team while product adoption kept increasing.
And there are tons of other companies such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Slack, Optimizely, and so on who have done the same.
Customer education allows you to shape your ideal client and drive the desired user behaviors. In other words, customer education is an engine for growth. So that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve created a system for content delivery that will not just improve content ROI, but eventually, lead to growth.
✍ Lessons learned
I have been extremely lucky to go on this journey, and I recommend it to anyone doubting to do the same. Those who paid close attention have maybe already extracted some of the lessons I learned. Some might even be able to relate to my story.
To others, I hope this can serve as help or inspiration for your own journey. So here’s a quick overview:
#1 People like helping a young entrepreneur
They really do. Don’t be afraid to play the sympathy card, being a young (student) entrepreneur takes guts and people want to help you succeed, so use it!
#2 Not everything has to be perfect
If you’re starting a business you have to be able to let go of your thoughts and take action. You can sit, wander around, or research all you want. Nothing will happen unless you take action.
#3 Accept help, or even actively reach out for it
At the start of my entrepreneurship journey, I had this lone wolf mentality of figuring everything out myself. And while that’s sometimes a good thing, asking for advice or feedback from people that are more experienced than you can boost you immensely.
#4 Impact doesn’t happen overnight
I know nowadays it’s all about making a big impact, however, doing so takes time. Just know that there’s no secret “hack” to business. Impact only occurs after you put in consistent effort.
#5 Don’t get lost in the hustle
While you will definitely have to work hard sometimes, it’s important to keep a good balance. How inspiring it might sound to work 100 hours a week, it’s not sustainable. Unless you’re Elon Musk or a robot which is basically the same.
#6 Think long term from the start
I see a lot of beginning entrepreneurs make this mistake. They start a business just to try it out, without fully committing. As a result, their business is designed wrong from the start. Even as a student entrepreneur, you should always build your business to be sustainable in the long term.
#7 Don’t undervalue yourself
Because you’re young, or just starting out doesn’t mean you have to undervalue yourself. I started out in online marketing at a medium rate, the more I’ve specialized and gained experience and clients along the way, the higher my rate goes. It’s important to choose the right clients that value your work and are not just looking for cheap labor.
#8 Be T-shaped
As a business owner, you take on a bunch of different roles. You need to be both a generalist and a specialist. To me, it’s important that I understand every part of my business, and exceed at the part that brings value to my clients.
Hopefully, you’re just as excited about this journey as I am. A year from now, I will be looking back at this moment in a new post. This time not as a student entrepreneur, but a full-timer. By then we will have launched our newest solution.
Maybe I’ll succeed, maybe I’ll fail but anyway I will enjoy the rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship for a little longer.