STARTING A STARTUP WITH STUDENT LOAN DEBT

By Dan Macklin


Launching a startup always feels somewhat risky. Launching a startup when you have student loan debt to pay? That can feel downright dangerous.

Elena Lucas knows the feeling well. Despite owing what she calls “Monopoly money” worth of college and graduate school debt, Lucas turned down a secure position with a large solar company to co-found UtilityAPI, a renewable energy software company. “It was a leap of faith,” she remembers, “but I had to give it a go.”


With student loans deterring many of her peers from pursuing entrepreneurial goals, Lucas is something of a rare breed these days. According to a recent Gallup poll, 19 percent of college graduates with student loan debt have delayed starting a business because of their loans. For borrowers with over $25,000 in debt, that number goes up to 25 percent.

Happily for Lucas, the risk has been paying off – big time. With a recent trip to the White House, a SoFi commercial and a Forbes’ 30 under 30 honor under her belt (not to mention a $1.8 million funding round from the U.S. Department of Energy), Lucas weighs in on what she’s learned about startups, student loans and the risks – perceived and real – involved in combining the two.


The “safe job” myth

Shortly before Lucas met her UtilityAPI cofounder, she was laid off from her analyst job. It was a wake-up call in more ways than one. “I thought that getting a Master’s degree meant I’d never be unemployed,” she says, “but companies reorganize, or you could be a bad fit for the role – there’s never any guarantee of employment.” Add that to the fact that Lucas had already worked at a Fortune 200 company and didn’t love the bureaucratic nature of such a big enterprise – “It was frustrating for someone who values efficiency” – and the idea of a ‘nice, secure job’ quickly lost its appeal.

Testing the waters

Before the layoff, Lucas was already exploring the idea of entrepreneurship. She attended talks, started a Lean In circle, even launched her own website and newsletter focused on the energy/environment space. “I always tell would-be entrepreneurs to be curious, ask questions and connect with as many people as possible” before diving into the deep end.

By immersing herself in the startup world before having a company of her own, Lucas knew what she was getting into – a ton of hard work and an emotional rollercoaster, but ultimately something that was a better fit for her skills and personality. When the UtilityAPI opportunity arose, she went into it with eyes open, which helped mitigate the anxiety of taking a risk.

Betting on yourself

As an entrepreneur, Lucas has never seen her student debt as a hindrance – instead, she feels it opened doors for her. “I’ve had to create my life in terms of taking out loans for college and grad school,” says Lucas. “Yes, it was a lot of money, but school was a way up for me, so I can’t regret the loans that helped make that happen.”

Again, Lucas’ attitude here goes against the norm – a recent AICPA survey found that 68 percent of Americans with student loans regret how they financed college. But viewing student loans as an investment vs. a burden motivates Lucas to bet on herself, which helped drive her decision to choose starting her own venture vs. building someone else’s company.

Weighing the upside

Many people feel that having student loan debt is a cause for caution, but Lucas’ high-stakes situation was precisely what compelled her to go all in. “Between the high cost of living in San Francisco and my high student loan debt, it felt riskier not to take a chance on something that could pay off in a big way.”

At the end of the day, Lucas felt her enterprise would either be successful and allow her to pay off her debt, or it wouldn’t be successful and she’d simply go back to working for someone else. But to her, it was worth the risk to potentially realize a greater return on investment through entrepreneurship.

The final word

Lucas recognizes her path won’t work for everyone. “Pursuing a startup when you have student loans is a really personal decision. It’s worked for me, but I know it’s not right for everyone.” Having a strong awareness of her goals, skillset and potential allowed Lucas to evaluate the risks involved in starting her own company and make a more confident decision – one that, so far, has paid off.

I Want This Job

I eventually want to get a job like this in cyber security.

 

That’s what Joe, a sophomore at Illinois State, recently told me.

“Why wait?  Why not do it now?” I asked.

Joe said he wasn’t qualified.  Companies wouldn’t hire him without experience.

 

Sound familiar?

 

I’ve been there too.  I wanted to work in sports, but I didn’t have experience.  I wanted to work at a startup, but I didn’t have experience.

 

So how do you get the experience you need to get the job you want?

 

Here’s how.

  1. Identify the top 2 skills needed in the job you want.

  2. Find companies that have problems that those skills solve.

  3. Go to those companies and offer to solve their problems for a fraction of the cost (or free).

  4. Solve those problems and gain the skills.

  5. Connect with hiring managers at companies where you want to work.  Tell them about the problems you solved.

  6. Tell the hiring managers how you can solve similar problems for their clients.

 

Here’s the game plan Joe and I crafted to help him crack into the cyber security industry.

A)  Skills

In cyber security, you need to be able to assess technical vulnerabilities and implement a plan to mitigate risks of security breaches.

 

B)  Companies with problems

State Farm is headquartered near the campus of Illinois State University.  State Farm absolutely needs to invest in cyber security, but it’s highly unlikely they’d hire Joe without experience.

 

So Joe and I decided the next best thing is to target local insurance agents.  They need to protect themselves against cyber threats. 

 

C)  Connect with companies and offer to solve problems

Insurance agents are easy to spot.  You see their headshots in ads all over town.  Joe will find 10 local insurance agents on LinkedIn.

He’ll send this LinkedIn InMail message to all 10 agents.

 

“Hi (insert first name),

 

This is a shot in the dark.  Would you be willing to chat with an ISU student about cyber security?

 

I operate a cyber security club at ISU.  We offer local businesses a free technical assessment and look for potential cyber security risks.

 

Got any interest?

 

Joe (insert last name)

Cyber Security Student

Illinois State University”

 

D)  Solve their problems

It’s likely that Joe will get 1 out of 10 people interested.  Once he gets one company to say yes, he’s in business.  Now he has to do the work. 

 

Guess what?  Joe doesn’t know how to do the work. 

 

Google it.  Chances are Joe can find a step-by-step tutorial on how to actually do the work that he said he could do.

Follow the tutorial.  Solve problems.

 

E)  Connect with hiring managers

Ok. Now Joe has one happy client.  He conducted the security audit and implemented a plan to mitigate security risks.  Joe’s smart so he gets his first client to write a testimonial.

 

Now he can leverage this experience to get the attention of the hiring manager at his dream company.

How do you find the hiring manager?

  1. Find the job opening you want.

  2. Search LinkedIn to find someone with that title at your chosen company.

  3. Look at that person’s connections on LinkedIn to find someone he/she is connected to that has a manager type title.

Once Joe finds a hiring manager, he can send this LinkedIn InMail message.

“Hi (insert first name),

 

I see you’re hiring for (insert job title).

 

I just completed a cyber security project with (insert client’s name and company).  He has this to say about me.

 

(Insert client testimonial)

 

Could I get 15 minutes of your time to show you how I can solve similar cyber security problems for your customers?

 

Joe (insert last name)”

 

F)  Show hiring managers what you did

If Joe sends the message above to 10 hiring managers, it’s highly likely he’ll get at least one interview. 

 

He should use that interview to explain his experience with his one cyber security client.  This includes his strategy for getting the client, the problem itself, and how he solved the problem.

From there, Joe can explain how he can leverage this experience to help the hiring manager’s current customers.

 

This approach will generate employment offers.

 

It can be applied to almost any job in any industry.

 

It just requires you to take initiative and solve problems…which is exactly what companies want.

 

Don’t limit your options

Your major should not dictate the jobs and career you pursue.  Why?  Because according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, over 70% of college grads have a job that IS NOT RELATED to their college major.

So stop thinking that you have to get a job in finance because you're majoring in finance.

For most people, it really doesn't matter what your majors is.  It's more important to use your time in college to do these 3 things.

  1. Learn how to problem solve.
  2. Figure out what you’re good at. Figure out what you enjoy doing.  Combine what you're good at with what you enjoy.  Figure out what type of lifestyle you want.  Figure out how to enjoy what you're good at while paying for the lifestyle you want.
  3. Learn how to network.

We’ll dig deeper into each of those topics in upcoming posts.

Let’s start by featuring one career that just might tick all the boxes in #2 above.

Digital Marketing

Have you ever wondered why you see the ads you see in your Facebook newsfeed?  Have you ever read an email from American Eagle and thought, “I could write something better?”  If so, you might want to consider a job in digital marketing.

$45,000 to start; $100,000+ in 5 years

I recently read an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit.com where a 22 year old European said he’s making $10,000 a month running Facebook Ads for 8-10 clients.  He works 10-20 hours a week.  

The starting salary for someone with no experience straight out of college averages around $45,000 to $55,000 depending on where you live.  

Here are a few examples of jobs you could get with little to no experience

After 5 years working in digital marketing, you can start earning $100,000 with a job like this.

 

Chose experience & growth vs. maximizing income right now

When you’re trying to figure out what you’re good at AND what you enjoy, it’s better to choose jobs that will expose you to a lot of different things.  They should open doors to other opportunities.

An entry-level job in digital marketing with the right company can open many doors. You might learn a lot about eCommerce and decide to sell your own product online (and potentially make millions).  

Or you might join a startup and collaborate with product development teams.  One of my friends started out running Google Adwords for Apartments.com and now he's a senior leader at Pinterest.

What would I do day-to-day?

Digital Marketing runs the gamut from creative to analytical.  Some jobs are all about creating content (blogs, organic social media).  Those roles could be good for English and Philosophy majors.  A job like conversion rate optimization is focused on conducting small tests to improve the effectiveness of a marketing funnel.  Someone studying chemistry might actually be great at conversion rate optimization. 

How can I figure out if I have a knack for digital marketing?

I hate to break it to you but your school doesn’t teach what you need to know about digital marketing.  Nathan (one of our recent grads) told me that his marketing professor said Nathan knew more about Facebook Ads than the professor.  Nathan also told me that he learned more in the first week of his job than he did in 4 years at school.

 

Teach Yourself or Take a course with General Assembly

There are 2 good ways to see if you might have a knack for digital marketing.  You can teach yourself some of the fundamentals by taking courses provided by Google and Facebook.

 

Or you can enroll into General Assembly's Digital Marketing course.  They have both online and in person programs.  General Assembly is well known and well respected in the Internet startup world.  They specialize in teaching people the skills needed for the most in demand jobs.  Those jobs range from digital marketing to software development to data science.  Their Digital Marketing course exposes you to many different types of digital marketing so that you can identify the parts that you like and you’re good at. 

 

Another thing that’s cool about General Assembly is that they have a team of people that can help you find a job in digital marketing after you’ve completed the course.  They’re highly connected in the startup world. 

 

Click here to learn more about General Assembly's Digital Marketing courses.

 

Stay tuned for future posts where we’ll dig into other jobs to consider.  We’ll also provide tips on networking and problem solving.

All this money...and no job

Only 55% of graduating college students land a full time job within 6 months of graduation. 

I bet most of those that did get hired full time end up hating their jobs.  It's crazy; you spend a fortune paying for college to end up dreading going to work. 

 It doesn't have to be this way.

I've had jobs that I dreaded (like this one), and I've had jobs that I loved (like being the VP of Sales @ GrubHub.com).  

So how do you get a job that you love?  Well, you could start your own business.  That's a great way to create your ideal job.  But if you don't want to start a company, there is a proven way to find great work that gets you excited to get out of bed.

You just have to take control because the best jobs are rarely promoted on the Internet.  One study claims that 70% of jobs are never posted online.  My personal experience supports that claim.

Here take a look at my LinkedIn profile.

Let's go through some of my jobs.

  • Inside Sales @ Mintel.  This job sucked so much that I didn't even put it on LinkedIn. It was my first job in Chicago after graduating from UD.  I got the job after begging my best friend (who was a headhunter) to get me a job.
  • Account Executive @ ESPN Radio.  This was my first dream job.  I landed this job after cold calling the radio station and asking to speak with a "junior sales rep."  The girl that answered the phone said "we don't have someone here with that title, but my boss just said we're going to create that position."  
  • International Basketball Scout.  Dream job #2.   I emailed and called any American I could find that was working in sports in Europe.  I finally connected with Rich Sheubrooks and convinced him to hire me as an assistant.  
  • VP Sales @ GrubHub.com.  Dream job #3.  I wanted to start my own business but didn't have a great idea.  So I started networking to try to find someone creating a cool business in Chicago.  This was before Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and the iPhone.  I ended up meeting this guy and this guy and convinced them that I could build a sales department.  It worked out for all of us.  That company is now worth more than $2b.  

Have you caught the common theme here?  NETWORKING.

I landed all of my dream jobs by proactively networking with the right people in my chosen industry.  By doing this, I got access to jobs that weren't posted online.  I essentially created each of my dream jobs.

You can do this too.

All you have to do is have an idea of what you want to do and where you want to work.  Then you start networking.  You can find almost anyone online and email or call them.

Does that sound scary?  Well it is when you're first getting started.  I remember sweating bullets each time I would reach out to someone cold for the first time.  

Since I know how intimidating networking can be...and how incredibly important it is for landing a great job, I've decided to test a service where I help you network.  Check it out here

All you have to do is tell me where you want to work.  I'll then find the right person for you to talk to at that company.  I'll try to coordinate an "informational interview" where you can learn from the company insider.  If you're able to make a good impression with the company insider, it's highly likely that person will help you get a formal interview.  They might even tell you about jobs that aren't posted publicly.  

Fill out this form here and we'll test whether or not my networking service will work.

If you take me up on this offer, I suggest asking these 3 questions in your informational interview with the company insider.

1.     I looked at your LinkedIn profile and I'm impressed.  How were you able to land this job at XYZ company?  

2.     What advice do you wish you would have gotten when you were in my shoes? 

3.     What would I need to do to land a job at XYZ company?  I'm willing to do anything.

I've used variations of those three questions in most of the networking I've done over the last 20 years.  Those questions have opened doors I never would have imagined were possible.  I mean how else could a kid from podunk Ohio get to rub elbows with NBA legends and Silicon Valley Elite?

Interested?  

Click here and let's see if this networking service will help you do what I did, but faster.