#ThursdayThoughts | College Graduate Advice

When I graduated from college, it was 2010 and we were in the middle of a recession. I had a degree in Industrial Design, an industry where jobs, or lack thereof, are directly tied to consumer spending.  College was, “A separate peace” from the rest of the world where every meal was paid for with a dining card and the biggest concern I had was passing the History of Architecture final exam. I had not earned any internships, few of my classmates had, but I was under the false impression that there was a job waiting for me right outside of Virginia Tech’s gates.

I learned a valuable lesson from the tough first year after graduation, if I wanted to have a great job, I was going to have to create it myself, and so I started on the part to be an entrepreneur.

Live Cheaply

Jay Leno has always loved cars, even when he was working in fast food earning minimum wage.  It would have been easy for Jay to go buy a car and make regular payments on it, however he knew that it would be difficult to pursue his comedy dreams if he had to come up with car payments every month.  Jay decided to make sure he didn’t have a high monthly bill to take care of, so he could concentrate on comedy. Suffice to say, since Jay Leno has made it, he’s been able to afford many car payments since then.

Some people have student loans, some people have family to support and most people will have monthly financial obligations after college. Regardless of circumstances, the lower you can make your bills, the sooner you can be supported by starting a business.

Pay for Experience

Even as a graduate with a degree, you don’t have much real world experience.  To be blunt, an hour of your time is worth much less than someone with experience.  Unpaid internships are a bitter topic nowadays, however they give you the ability to learn skills and make connections, especially with companies who may not otherwise bring you on.  

How do you do it? Find a company that you admire and learn all about them.  Learn what they could probably use in terms of help, ie they’ve got a lot of orders to ship, they need all the 3D modelers they could get…ect.  Go to their office in business professional attire with your resume and tell the front desk that you want to see about opportunities for an unpaid intern.

Nobody is going to arrest you for going and doing this, the worst that can happen is they tell you to take a hike.  However, it’s fair to check back in the same attire once a week to see if they change their mind, unless of course, they threaten to call the police.  Unless you can afford it, it is reasonable to work part-time at a job where you are unpaid.

You are in effect paying a company to let you test drive their industry and culture.  I had an unpaid internship where I realized that I did not like their industry, and that was immensely helpful in figuring out what business I wanted to start.  I also had an unpaid internship where I was a salesperson, and I realized I did not like sales. While sales is a great occupation for many folks, sales is not necessarily the only way in.  On the flip side, when I took a sales position, I was told an important lesson, “even if you are not in sales forever, it is important to know how to sell yourself”.

Invest in Yourself

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If you can broaden your horizons and beef up your resume by learning new skills, it’s a sound financial investment.  You can learn to draw, 3D model (link), code, manage, make a website, and make a user interface, among many other things for free on youtube or with a monthly cost through Lynda.com and many other sites.  If you have at least 2 hours a day for learning, the sky is the limit to what you can achieve.

When you get deep into a skill, there are tons of meetups to connect with folks with similar interests.  I knew someone who was fooling around with virtual reality recreationally, and although they had a great day job, they were able to land a job that paid 50% more through their meetup connections in the industry.

Utilize Your School’s Resources

Educational discounts are best used within the same year you graduate.  Remember those skills in “Invest in yourself”? Many software applications are available inexpensively or for free to students, along with physical and virtual computer labs.  Many colleges have summer classes, so in between graduation and the first summer semester, the computer labs will be a ghost town. Summer classes are usually much smaller than fall and spring classes anyway, so there should be room for you in the computer lab all summer.  Usually the “lab monitors” are students themselves and couldn’t care less who uses the computer, as long as you’re not loud, lascivious or make a mess.

Alumni networks are a great resource to find people who do what you want to do, and they’re more likely to talk to you because you’re an alum yourself.  There are also going to be a bunch of events in your area to broaden your network. To be fair, I have not utilized my alumni network much and I feel as though that would have helped me out.

Be Willing to Move

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If you want to be a fisherman and you currently live in Idaho, you may have to relocate to a coast to follow your dreams.  All kidding aside, certain areas are hubs for certain industries. For instance, where land and labor are cheap, such as the midwest and the south, there’s usually a ton of manufacturing.  Where land and labor are expensive, such as major cities, digital product development is king. Entertainment is mainly based in the New York City and Los Angeles metro areas. You can easily find online what areas of the country are best for your industry.

What do you do when you get to your destination? That’s up to you, but I would recommend that you search areas where your friends and family live first, so you will be able to test-drive a city before you move permanently.  As an example, I have relatives in Seattle, so it’s a great place for me to test-drive, but I know nobody in Las Vegas, so I am not likely to give Vegas a try.

As Ben Franklin said, “Fish and Visitors smell in 3 days”, so make sure you don’t overstay your welcome.  When I found a job in Northern Virginia, I rented a walk-in closet from a friend. After 3 months, my friend wanted me to start paying the same rental price as someone who rented their entire basement.  They were subtly telling me to hit the bricks, and I made sure to find an apartment of my own soon.

Avoid Traps

While it’s true that as a new graduate you’re not as experienced as many folks in the industry, it doesn’t mean that you have to be miserable.  Even if it’s a boilerplate file found online, write up agreements with everyone you work with, and have them reviewed by trusted family and friends before you do any work.  Avoid the 4 big mistakes that I did:

  1. I signed a document that allowed a partner to profit from projects that they did not work on.  I should have never signed those papers and should have never worked with them. I had a bad feeling from the beginning and I should have trusted my gut.
  2. I did a project with a partner who did not realize that we were trying to start a business, not just meeting new people and hanging out.  Several follow up projects had been scrapped by our client because my partner was unresponsive. I should have realized early on that my partner needed a reality check, and if he didn’t understand, move on.
  3. I started a project with a client on a job that we did not specify the scope.  I ended up doing a lot of work for free with someone who was poorly communicating their project specifications and both sides wants and needs should have been very clear from the beginning.
  4. I worked with a friend on a business concept and the friend would go MIA for several days at a time.  I couldn’t get ahold of him and would sometimes have to go and knock on his apartment to ask his roommate if my partner was in.  This delayed a ton of progress on our concept and ultimately we dissolved our partnership. Another case where I should have addressed questionable behavior at the first instance and move on if it would not change.

In summary, I hope my list of suggestions and lists of mistakes that I have made will help you along your journey from college graduate to entrepreneur.  As Michael Jordan said, “You miss 100% of the shots that you do not take”, and if entrepreneurship is your dream, go for it! Now is the best time in your life to try something new, whether it is Ethiopian Food (try Beef Tibs), start a business, go for a MBA, or all 3.  A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step, take it.