College Entrepreneurs: How I Started a Business While in College

College Entrepreneurs: How I Started a Business While in College

In college, you're supposed to learn things that will help you in the future when you graduate and head off into the real world. But what if you can't wait until you graduate to follow your dreams? That's how my two partners, Carson Ward and Jonathan Rankin, and I felt when we came up with the idea for Skoller, an app that helps college students stay on top of their courses. We got the idea while we were all in the middle of our degrees at Belmont University and we didn't want to wait years until we graduated to start it.

Carson and I both played varsity golf and Jonathan was student body president. Being so busy, we all found it difficult to stay organized with competing athletic, extracurricular and academic demands. As a result, we were struggling to stay on top of our classes.

We got excited by the idea of starting a business while in college that would help students track the due dates for all of their assignments. After lots of brainstorming, we developed an app where college students could take a picture of their class syllabus and send it to the app, and the program would then organize all of their course work deadlines in a calendar. Part of why we were enthusiastic was because we could see how getting notifications for every assignment during the semester would help us improve our own grades, as would a calendar with all our classes in one place and grade calculators for each course so that we knew where we stood academically at all times.

One thing we really wanted the app to do was update assignment due dates for all class members if one student changed them after a professor provided an extension on a term paper or changed the exam date. We saw this as a good way to stay informed when we missed classes due to our sports and extracurriculars. We were alleviating a pain that we felt ourselves and solving a problem that is universal for college students since everyone misses a class at some point.

We managed to create the first version of the app because Carson put up the initial funds to develop a prototype with the help of a freelance developer. When we tested this rudimentary app in our classes, we saw there was a lot of interest. That's when we raised money with the help of friends and family to create a better app. We also brought on board a fourth partner, Bruce Brookshire, who was a computer science student with the technical capacity we needed to help refine the app.

However, we quickly realized why so few students become college entrepreneurs. We were still struggling to keep up with our classes — and even more so after we created the app. It was difficult to figure out how to allocate the appropriate amount of time to the business, to school and for me, to golf. Luckily, Carson is two years older than I am, so when he graduated he started working full-time on the app. Jonathan graduated next, a year before me, so then we had two people working full-time taking on the brunt of the work for a while.

We didn't get a lot of sleep after we decided to start the app and we missed out on some social activities. Carson also decided to quit playing golf during his final year to prioritize the app. I was able to find a balance that worked by temporarily reducing the time I spent on the business and letting my partners take up my slack. I did, however, quit every activity other than golf and school so that I could do as much as possible to help with the business. But for a while most of my time went toward studying for my exams and writing term papers.

But Skoller was never far from my mind. In fact, the app helped me manage my own classes and workload. While you sometimes hear about college entrepreneurs dropping out of school, it was important to us that we finish our degrees. Our parents expected us to and we had gotten so many scholarships to attend in the first place that we didn't feel it would be responsible to drop out.

Ultimately, it actually played in our favor to have some of the team still in school as we were starting Skoller. It gave us connections to people at the university and allowed us to access resources and mentors that were only available to college entrepreneurs. I also believe professors were willing to let us field test the app in their classes because they knew us as students. We leveraged our networks of friends in college to get the word out and to receive feedback. It helped to have students' perspectives so that we could make sure that we were continuing to tailor the app to their needs.

We originally thought we needed to market the technology to schools to get them to license it. But after we spoke with administrators at our university, they advised us to make our tool student powered. Marketing directly to students meant that it would be easier for users to adopt our app.

The guidance that university administration gave us underlined the most important lesson we learned as college entrepreneurs — how critical it is to ask for help. We are where we are today because we sought lots of advice about our product, our customers and our business plan. As students, we were still learning about business and the post-secondary education system as an industry was new for us. So we needed others with more insight and experience to share their knowledge.

If you're a student entrepreneur one problem you might encounter is that some people won't take you seriously. What worked for us was to have something tangible to show our skeptics. We pushed hard to get a functioning application we could pull up on our phones as soon as possible. That gave us more legitimacy and demonstrated to people that this was not some pipe dream but an actual product.

We currently have more than 4,000 accounts from the Spring 2018 trial we did at select schools, and we launched nationwide in the Fall of 2018. We have raised more than $500,000 from investors so far and while we are currently pre-revenue, we plan to monetize the app through ads, a marketplace and via the data we collect.

When you're a student, you have the opportunity to work on something without necessarily needing it to support you financially. I don't think I would have taken the financial risk to start the app after I graduated. But because it was already off the ground and we could pay ourselves a small wage, it made it easier to move into working on it full-time after college.

It's been a long journey, but we're proof that it's possible to be college entrepreneurs who work hard and study hard too.


By Logan Matthews as told to Amanda Reaume. Matthews, 23, is the cofounder and chief operating officer at Skoller. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Politics and Public Law in 2018 from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.