How do I break into startups in college?

If you’re reading this, then I probably sent you this in response to your question “how do I start a startup in college?” (or some variation of that question).

This breaks down what I’ve told countless others and now I’m sharing it with you. Hopefully this helps! :)

Core principles

  1. Meet other like-minded peers with complimentary skill sets
  2. Don’t limit yourself to only multibillion-dollar ideas
  3. Learn foundational industry standards
  4. Leverage the Student Card and build a vast network
  5. Enjoy it!

1. Meet other like-minded peers

College gives you an unparalleled opportunity to meet vastly diverse peers. Leverage the crap out of that! Keep an eye out for creative, curious, ambitiouspeers — these tend to be the most founder-rich attributes in college. They are found in all fields of study, so don’t only look at the business or engineering school. Focus on complimentary skills: if you’re technical, find a business-oriented or design-focused person. Vice versa.

Here’s some ways how:

  • Join student clubs across diverse interests (I remember going to several sales club meetings as the only technical student)
  • Take or audit classes in areas separate from your own. (Put your phone down and actually meet the person next to you)
  • Seek out departmental events and drop-in on them
  • Ask friends if they know anyone who’s XYZ-minded

2. Don’t limit your ideas

There’s a tendency to think that you should only work on business ideas that could be multibillion-dollar businesses. I saw countless friends and peers in college who were just waiting for that perfect idea. They say, “I’m going to start something one day, trust me, I’m just waiting for that perfect big idea.”

Don’t be that person.

The act of executing an idea — any idea — is extremely valuable in college. Even learning how to create something simple like a bubble-tea delivery service on campus will teach you so much about logistics, hiring, management, unit economics modeling, software engineering, and hustle. College is your time to double down on learning, don’t let money rob you from that.

  • Don’t shy away from simple ideas — they’re more likely to happen/work
  • Don’t worry too much about competitors, especially if you’re doing a localized service
  • Research is very important, but don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis(common business student problem)

As a matter of fact, the best way to start a startup in college is not to start a startup. Start a side project. Starting a “startup” brings all this baggage on what a “startup” is expected to look like and behave, out of the gate. Don’t let dogmatic preconceptions of a “startup” limit your creativity and execution. Conversely, side projects don’t have constraints or pre-conceptions of what they’re supposed to look like. Pull learnings from the startup world, but don’t let that limit you.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with trying to find a multibillion-dollar idea. Just don’t let that stop you from ever starting something in your 4-years.

3. Learn the foundations of the industry

There are a few foundational concepts that everyone in the industry refers to and follows. It’s up to you to choose whether or not to follow it, but you should take the time to at least understand the reasoning for them before you decide to run contrary. Not only is it valuable for you as a founder, but it will make your discussions with mentors and your external network much more productive. I don’t know how many times I’ve spent coffee meetings explaining these baseline concepts to students, instead of digging into deeper, more challenging parts of their idea.

  • Lean Startup —Foundational mentality on bringing new products & services to market.
  • Paul Graham’s Essays — The oracle of modern day startup creation, PG’s essays are unparalleled in their relevance, wisdom, and ease of reading. If you’re just starting, read these: onetwothreefour.
  • Customer Development — The predecessor to the Lean Startup. Internalize the concepts, particularly the focus on problem/market validation.
  • Crossing the Chasm — How to push successful upstarts to astronomical enterprises.
  • Zero To One — Emphasizing the value of contrarian, truly unique ideas, and how to get them.
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma — How small guys beat big guys.

There are many, many more books and lists of resources out there, but these cover the baseline industry terms and concepts.

Get up to speed. Expect it to take a couple months of concentrated effort.

4. Leverage the Student Card

The Student Card is a card you keep in your wallet at all times that says “I’m a student, therefore help me out.” It’s one of the most valuable things you own during your years in college. The Student Card gets you meetings with people who are otherwise untouchable/very hard to contact.

Here’s a truth about adulting: after college, you’re expected to figure life out. No more training wheels, you’re just another shmuck trying to make their way.

But as a student, you get the amazing opportunity to connect with anyone you want and actually get a response! Why? Because everyone wants to be heard, feel important, and feel like they’re a good, altruistic person. Getting coffee with a local student to answer their questions and mentor them gives all these feelings. Leverage this once-in-a-lifetime membership card to build your network of CEOs, founders, investors, executives, and other industry leaders.

For an exact play-by-play on how to do this, email me at justin(at)madronavl.com

5. Enjoy it!

For those with entrepreneurial bones, there’s nothing quite like that feeling of launching and seeing people get value from your creation. There’s an addictive rush that comes with solving problems, with your unique efforts, for real people. The feeling of freedom and fear that comes with paving your own road. The deep camaraderie you feel with your co-founder, through the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

College is a unique blip where disbelief is suspended, time is under your control, and the entire world is rooting for you to win.


I always enjoy meeting ambitious students and entrepreneurs. Feel free to reach out at justin(at)madronavl.com.