If you’re a high school student, and a young entrepreneur, turning a side project into a startup is one of the most important steps in your journey. Done well, this transition builds the determination and commitment that’s necessary to overcome the challenges of a startup that lie ahead. Done half-heartedly, the transition can be toxic for both the fledgling startup and the rest of your commitments (like school, extracurriculars, and sports)
Many Catapult entrepreneurs have gone through this, and in making the leap from side project to startup, they focus on three steps in particular that we think hold true for other young entrepreneurs.
1. Leave the Safety of Side Project Land
Side projects are fun because you get to work on something in a vacuum. No negative feedback or responsibilities. Going from a side project to a startup, however, means going from building something that interests you and is fun to spend a few hours on every now and then, to building something people want.
The best way to develop your side project into something people want is to talk to real users about what you’ve built. This sounds scary and painful (and it can be), but it’s here that young entrepreneurs actually have a unique advantage; you’re already surrounded by thousands of supportive and helpful testers (your classmates, school alumni, and peers).
There are a few effective ways to make the most of this advantage:
Email relevant school clubs/groups (robotics, business, school govt) asking to chat with people for 15 minutes about your project (this is also a great way to meet cofounders)
Demo your product to students at school, at club competitions (DECA, Debate, Mock Trial, Robotics, etc), gatherings of young people in your area.
Submit your project into pitch competitions (be wary of competitions that require too much time – the application shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes). Often times there isn’t as much competition as you think!
If you’re selling your product to businesses, search LinkedIn or your school’s alumni directory for alumni that could use your product and include “(~Your School~ student)” in the subject line of your cold email
2. Dream Bigger
Your side project probably started as something that you found interesting or amusing, not something that you thought could impact the world. But turning your side project into a startup means figuring out why your creation really matters, and a larger vision is a key part of that. We’ve found two questions in particular to be helpful with this:
Think carefully about the problem that made you start your side project in the first place. How would the world be different if your startup solved that problem?
About a year ago, Mohammed came to Catapult having built one of the heaviest lifting commercial drones available. With his team, they started thinking about how could these drones but put to the best use. They decided on using the drones for humanitarian disasters, delivering aid and being used to survey areas rapidly. From side project to literal life saver, that is pretty cool.
If you have some early users, figure out how your product makes them feel and build your vision from that.
Airbnb is a great example of this. Meeting an Airbnb host and staying in their place makes guests feel at home in foreign places. The company’s vision of helping their users “Belong Anywhere” captures this feeling in a powerful way.
In thinking about these questions, we find these resources helpful:
3. Commit Real Amounts of Time
The final step is the hardest but also the most important. If you’re like most busy young entrepreneurs we’ve met, you’re probably spending about 90% of your time on some combination of academics, athletics, extracurriculars, and social activities, leaving 10% for your side project. But for your side project to even have a chance of becoming a successful startup, you’ll have to flip that ratio and spend almost all of your time on your company.
The best way to enforce this drastic change is to set ambitious deadlines. How can you get your idea off the ground in 3 weeks instead of 5 months. Instead of going on spring break with your family, stay home and make it happen. This summer, don’t get better at video games, build your idea, or apply to Catapult. It’s ok if the first version is buggy, feature-deficient, and ugly. You will know at that moment that what you are building is more than a side project.
We’ve focused primarily on the “how” of this transition instead of the “when”. There is no right answer for ‘when’ except that you’ll know in your gut. Really it’s when the difficulty of the three steps described above still can’t deter you from making the leap. In a How to Start a Startup lecture, Paul Graham explains that you should either “be a real student and not start a startup or start a real startup and not be a student”. The choice to make the leap or not is a binary one.
special thanks to Paul Dornier Founder of Meetingbird and Y Combinator alumni who first wrote an article on this topic.