By Peter Zhong and Navami Jain
Last summer we had the opportunity to attend MIT Launch, a selective and unique summer program bringing the realm of business and entrepreneurship to the reach of high school students. It is where students build teams and leverage Launch resources and mentors to develop their own startups.
At the beginning of the program, the two of us were originally placed on different teams, with Navami’s focused on applications to make medicine intake more appealing for kids, while Zhong’s on a smart hearing aid. We entered the start-up world excited, proud, and confident. Neither of us were suspecting of the wild journey we were about to embark on.
By week three of the program, teammates of both teams were downright sick of each other. We were spending nearly the entire day together, making our level of progress more embarrassing. After pivoting our idea thrice yet still facing skepticism from mock board members, and growing increasingly frustrated with members who didn’t pull their weight, we all felt defeated and began losing faith in the team: perhaps we weren’t the right people to execute a business idea. I (Navami) remember once, after a long but ultimately fruitless argument with one of my teammates, I left the Launch classroom to take a break. As I walked in the halls of MIT’s Sloan building, occasionally peeking into the other classrooms and eyeing the impressive, certainly complicated, work of Sloan employees, I became even more scared that I was too young and inexperienced to become an entrepreneur.
For nearly two weeks we seemed to be stuck in the doldrums. Yes, we were certainly making progress, but we kept having doubts about whether we were in the right place. Did we, immature seventeen year olds, really have what it takes to start a company? On top of that, we each realized that after leaving the Launch bubble, all of us would have other commitments to worry about — like SAT prep, achieving a high GPA, sports, and more.
This was just one challenge we faced. We can think of so many more. First, there weren’t too many resources out there tailored for student entrepreneurs. Second, three of our team members attend boarding school, which makes marketing a more burdensome task than it already is. The most frustrating however, is the fact that the members of one of the teams are spread across four continents, making face-to-face meetings next to impossible for us high schoolers running on a tight budget.
Now, in March of 2018, reflecting on our fears, doubts, and frustrations, we realize and appreciate just how much we have exceeded our own expectations after MIT Launch, gaining tractions in sales, media exposure and even mass manufacturing. We can think of several pieces of advice we wish we could tell our former selves just beginning our entrepreneurial journey. Today, my fellow co-founder, Peter Zhong, and I, share just a few to all the aspiring high school entrepreneurs out there.
Don’t think of Entrepreneurship as an Academic Pursuit
Contrary to what I entered Launch thinking, your success as an entrepreneur doesn’t depend on your smarts; knowledge, which students think is their main pitfall, will only take you so far. Indeed, in this field, your achievements aren’t dependent on how much you know upon entering the battlefield. Rather, they’re dependent on your ability to learn from the battlefield —in this case, your industry’s competitive market. Keep in mind that each experience in entrepreneurship, no matter its outcome, allows you to view your startup from another perspective and enables you to make meaningful changes. In my opinion, this process of entrepreneurship resembles a team sport, like soccer. It’s about resilience: the moment you think of giving into exhaustion, into failure, think about why you held on so long and how far you’ve already come. As I mentioned, likely the most formidable period of my startup journey is when your initial assumptions are shuttered by the overwhelming reality. Know however, that if and once you survive the hardest budding period of your startup, success becomes more within your reach.
Utilize Your School Resources
As a high school student, don’t be afraid to use your school’s resources to help you start and run your business. Since many teachers have experiences in technology, business, or the field that you intend to start in, they can provide invaluable advice for your startup. If your school has entrepreneurship clubs such as LaunchX, take advantage of the resources as an opportunity to fine tune the different sets of skills such as pitching and marketing. Further, keep in mind that the connections from your school, such as your teachers, friends, parents or alums, may very likely be your first customers. Think about it. If you approach your best friend, or perhaps their parent, and ask if they would buy your own company’s product, they’d be not only willing, but proud. When literally no one else has enough faith in your company to invest their money, your friends, family, and school will always be your number one fans.
Generally speaking, your own network is extremely consequential to the success of your startup. A lot of potential opportunities for further sales and investment come from your network. Therefore, don’t be afraid to use your school events, clubs and societies to grow your interpersonal connections.
Be Proud of Yourself and Focus on Your “WOW” factor
Think about it. You’re a high school student already in the venture world. This is surely going to impress your customers, co-workers, and even potential investors. We certainly used this to our advantage. When first marketing our own product, Penny the Penguin, in blogs and magazines, we deliberately left out the fact that we were high school students; it was understandable for us to think, at that time, that customers would be more skeptical of a venture run by a bunch of high schoolers. Looking back, we see this is certainly not how things played out. About three months ago, a young parent, after viewing Ami’s advertisement, did a bit more research on her own. She went to our website (www.ami4kidz.com) and found us on LinkedIn. The next day, we found an email from the young lady showering us with praise. She congratulated us on our creativity and accomplishments as teenagers; she was so impressed that she said she would refer us to all her friends, family, and co-workers.
This was a real turning point for all of us. Since then, we’ve added a new touch to our marketing strategy. We no longer hid, but embraced our identity as high schoolers. The way we saw it, our choice to balance responsibilities as both a student and an entrepreneur was proof that we possessed equally, or perhaps more, motivation than the middle-aged entrepreneur. Ultimately, I would suggest to any student entrepreneur to use your status to your advantage as it certainly emphasizes your “WOW” factor.
Use a project management system or a calendar
For a high school student with what seems like hundreds of commitments, building a startup is undeniably arduous, albeit far from impossible. Building a simple task list can go a long way in maintaining a balance between school and career. Dividing both the commitments from school and those from the startup into small chunks of manageable tasks makes planning much easier. You can set a goal of say, completing 3 sections of SAT practice, while distributing 10 surveys in one day. This way you are giving yourself a clear plan and more importantly, a deadline. You can use software such as Asana, Monday, or Omniplans to further structure your commitments and organize your tasks in a much more convenient manner.
We hope that these 5 tips can go a long way in helping you start your own business during high school. In the end, entrepreneurship is unquestionably a fantastic opportunity to grow your real world skills in so many fields and it certainly provides many excitements along the way. Without even tasting entrepreneurship, a student misses out on a new learning approach that simply can’t be found in a standard school education. So, to any student who can speak and stand on his or her feet: if you have a half-baked idea that you’ve even the slightest interest in, high school is the safest time to pursue it. So what are you waiting for? Go for it!
Navami Jain is a junior from Charlotte, North Carolina who currently attends the residential school North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) in Durham. She’s interested in working at the intersection of STEM and entrepreneurship.
Peter Zhong is a high school graduate from the Illawarra Grammar School in Wollongong, Australia. He is proficient in both software and hardware development and is passionate in applying these computer technologies to entrepreneurship.
Both are co-founders of Ami, a startup founded at an entrepreneurship incubator program known as MIT Launch in the summer of 2017. Ami’s pilot product is Penny the Penguin, a smart plush that can speak parent-crafted messages through an app-controllable bluetooth speaker.
Both are alumni of LaunchX’s 2017 Session 1 summer program held at MIT. More information on LaunchX and its opportunities can be found here: www.launchx.com.
By Peter Zhong and Navami Jain