Here’s everything you need to grow your business idea while you are studying at university!
College was a time of ripe creativity for me. I – along with a number of my peers – were buzzing with ideas and inspiration, and we wanted to make the most of that energy and environment.
Srestha Chatterjee, one such classmate, actually took that energy and turned it into a business.
In this article, I speak to Srestha – environmental consultant and entrepreneur since her university days – about what you need to keep in mind when starting a business while at college.
#CareersFromScratch is a series about women who have built careers they love through sheer grit and the willingness to hustle. Discover their success stories, advice, future plans, and in typical Kool Kanya fashion, fail-forward fundas!
To be a good entrepreneur, you need to have a strong vision
Srestha made the calculated decision to take up liberal arts because she wanted to study business and marketing. Although her initial career goal was to work in personal relations and marketing, financial issues in her family forced her to reconsider.
Her father, who ran a number of small companies, suddenly found himself struggling. Srestha took charge and decided to create her own business to help her family.
She says, “I told my dad to handle his business problems, and that I would take up the mantle of breadwinner.”
As she started to develop her business plan and build her own company, the vision took shape in her mind. The satisfaction and courage that her vision provided her fostered a spirit of entrepreneurship in her.
A vision is the mental picture of what you foresee your business achieving through its products or services.
Srestha’s vision guided not only her product, but also herself. This became a key learning when she eventually closed up her business, and moved on to other avenues.
Whether or not you plan on making profits, it’s extremely important to let your vision flourish.
Don’t be afraid to start from scratch
What Srestha started in college has been wrapped up now, since that venture had achieved optimum satisfaction for her. In 2017, around the time she graduated, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful.
This is when she let her entrepreneurial spirit guide her towards environmental consultancy; which is her primary career as of now. She works with various companies, helping them comply with environmental laws, identify pollution problems and find solutions.
When I ask her about initial funding, she laughs. “I had barely 2000 rupees in savings, and no investors, office, or team to fall back on. My start didn’t come from funding, but from initiative. I would approach companies and tell them: this is what I do, I have just started out, and I would like an opportunity to work with you.”
Essentially, Srestha was going to clients and pitching herself to them. She focussed her energies on two things — research into environmental laws and regulations, and looking for clients. It was only when she was secure in that criteria, and when she had received an advance from a client that she looked into getting office, and building team. Initially, she worked out of home and hustled her way into getting her product and client in place.
Which is why, when you are starting out as a freelancer or a consultant, cold pitches are your best friend.
Don’t be afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed of reaching out to potential clients and making the first move.
Time is valuable when you’re leading a double life
While our college was in Pune, Srestha’s home and business were in Indore, so she was constantly on the go.
So she would spend Monday to Friday in college and do her assignments, basically being a normal student. Come Friday, however, she would be on a bus to Indore. “Since home is just a 12-hour bus ride from Pune, and I didn’t have the money for flights, I would take the less expensive option.”
The weekend would be spent hard at work—figuring out deadlines, polishing the product, making sure that everything was in place until she was back the following week. On Sunday night, she would take a bus back home. This went on for the entirety of the final year of college, until she graduated and moved back home.
When asked about how she coped with the double life she was leading, Srestha says, “It was so very hectic! Not only was I managing my time during the day, I was also using my nights to travel. I was on a bus every single week, sleeping uncomfortably and travelling without access to a proper washroom or food. But I didn’t have the money for flights, so I had to compromise on the time aspect and take buses.”
Always remember that there is a human behind the schedule
When you’re in college, there are assignments and readings that have to be done, and your grades depend on them. However, when you’re also an entrepreneur, the business cannot be paused; so figuring out how to distribute your time is key to success.
Small steps and a steady pace can keep you in the marathon for the long run. Keeping a schedule is good, but make sure it is flexible and adaptable. Do assignments on time, and start taking working towards multi-tasking, and multi-tasking properly. This will keep you on the road to successful time management.
“You also have to learn how to be strict with yourself while also not being too hard on yourself,” Srestha reveals. “The fact is, you are learning in both places – in college and on the shop floor – because you are not an expert.”
Also make sure that you don’t berate yourself for mistakes; instead, dig your feet in the sand, so that you have the ability to face them head on.
Maintaining a personal life is also hard, so it is important to surround yourself with people who support you and understand where you are coming from. They shouldn’t leave you hanging when you make time for them, or make you feel bad for missing this or that.
This is your real life, where you have to feed and clothe and house yourself, and your friends need to understand that.
Make learning on the job a priority
Although most of Srestha’s current work is in the service sector, she started out with the aim to learn what exactly goes into building an industrial unit, so that she could figure out environmentally-friendly solutions to problems.
She undertook research trips to learn what went into designing these plants, installing them, and operating them. She also took advantage of a home-grown source of business education.
“My father has been a big mentor and supporter. Because he has already gone through this process of starting his own businesses, he has a wealth of knowledge and resources. Although he was struggling himself, he guided and supported me through this entire process and this is all due to him and for him.”
A business is always subject to market risks, so the ability to hit the ground running and ensuring that you learn on the job are extremely important.
Take advantage of every resource at hand, learn your customer’s pain points, and educate yourself – whether in the field or from a mentor – about how you can address them.
Market research: How important is it?
Srestha’s journey has been unconventional, so it comes as no surprise that her approach to something like market research also comes from experience rather than theory.
Because she was in an extreme circumstance, she had neither the time, nor the resources to do market research in the conventional way. After the business was set up and the processes were already in place, an encounter with a marketing expert in her media studies class validated her approach as well.
So what is her perspective on market research?
“Market research is essential, of course! But for certain businesses, especially when it comes to consumer food goods, you have to work on gut feeling as much as any research!”
Of course, this does not mean market research has no value. After launching her product, Srestha knew that she would have to find out how consumers were engaging with it. That was when she undertook a survey of her audience.
Market research doesn’t have to be something that preceded product design and launch; it has to be an on-going process of understanding both clients and competitors. It is a perpetual journey of learning the changes and adaptations of the market and how consumers and clients engage with products.
Upscaling is also something that comes as result of on-going research into what consumers want and what you want for your business. “I don’t want to be restricted to one city or country… My goal is to finalise topdog clients in five major cities in India as permanent clients, and then move to other third-world countries.”
For Srestha, the company’s presence and record is what will push it further towards success, and in order to do that, acquiring clients is her top priority. This becomes more important when you take into consideration that her goal is not only to find success in her work, but also make a difference.
“Making a difference is hard to work towards when you have to make ends meet, but it is a balance I am constantly pursuing as it is a major value.”
Money is an important teacher, but so are your values
According to Srestha, her biggest challenge was money.
“When a company starts out, ideally, some kind of monetary investment is extremely helpful,” she says. “There are so many costs of cover… operational expenses, working capital expenses, hiring a team, travel and research, marketing, accounts, et cetera.”
Although this sort of monetary investment was not possible in her case, Srestha believes that if finances were more secure, she would have probably grown faster. At the same time, she does not consider it to be the only asset in my bag of business tricks.
“It is the quality of my product or service that matters the most to me, because it reflects my values as a business owner.”
Money might have helped her business grow faster, but her success today is also because she had to be extremely financially stringent. The restricted resources forced her to apply her brains, and direct any money that came in intelligently and without waste
Her working style developed in lieu of being strapped for funds, and her outlook towards finances appealed to companies who did not have or did not want extensive budgets to invest into environmental restructuring.
It was (and is!) her biggest asset.
Failure is a catalyst for change
When Srestha started her business in college, she was in a do-or-die situation. If she failed, she would go right back to square one: unable to support her family or be financially stable.
“I couldn’t afford failure, but nonetheless there were speed bumps along the way,” she confesses. “I did stumble… sometimes the plan wouldn’t work, or some tasks could not be completed as expected. But for me, this was a learning point. It just means that the methods and techniques I was using had to be amended to make sure I was meeting my goals and deadlines.”
For her, there was no security blanket, and that’s why she feels that developing a thick skin and the right attitude was everything.
The fear of failure and the need at hand made her confident; it became a way to push forward and grow as a person and businesswoman.
Srestha proclaims confidently: “I know that when you are committed to your vision, then you have to be willing to be dynamic, and meet every challenge with the same grit as you meet every success with joy.”
Our takeaway from Srestha? As a society, we need to see failure as a catalyst for growth, and not as certain downfall. Failure means something has to be changed.
She also lets me in on her secret sauce: “No matter what, I am always asking myself, ‘What next?’”
Let the rest of the world assist you, but don’t let them lead you
When asked about her biggest challenge while creating a business while in college, Srestha replies without hesitation.
“The world is going to give you their two cents whether you like it or not, so the most important thing you have to invest in before you take the entrepreneurship plunge is blinders!”
She goes on to explain that when you are young, especially when you are in university, people will underestimate you and try to tell you that you are too young, that you have your whole life ahead. “They might be well-wishers, but they don’t define your journey,” she says.
According to her, you cannot allow your plan to take a backseat in the face of distractions – whether good or bad – when you want that business that badly.
A business is a responsibility, and you need to be confident in your decision to take it up. It isn’t just you that matters; the people you work with and work for do as well.
If you have determination, confidence, and your blinders which keep you focussed, then you have every chance of succeeding. “I had a business plan from day 1! I even knew what I wanted in the next 10 years. But what helped the most was listening to others, but not too seriously,” Srestha says. “No one can take your vision from you because no one understands it better than you.”
And what would be the one advice she would offer to budding entrepreneurs? She emphasises that while it is necessary, and even important, to be open to criticism and feedback; don’t get carried away by the opinions of others, and don’t let them determine your actions and processes.
“And most importantly: have faith in your vision, be confident of yourself, and stay focussed on your journey. Sustainability and success come from all of these combined.”