From Student Side Project to Startup

by Paul Dornier

If you’re a student entrepreneur, turning a side project into a startup is one of the most important steps in your journey as a founder. 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.

My co-founder Henry and I became aware of the importance of this transition when we started Meetingbird as a side project in college. In making the leap from side project to startup, we focused on three steps in particular that we think hold true for other student founders.

1. Escape the Bliss of Side Project Land
Side projects are fun because you get to work on something in a blissful vacuum–no negative feedback or responsibilities. Going from a side project to a startup, however, means going from building something that interests you 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 painful (and it can be), but it’s here that student founders actually have a unique advantage over other founders; you’re already surrounded by thousands of supportive and helpful beta testers (your classmates and school alumni).

There are a few effective ways to make the most of this advantage:

  • Email relevant school listservs (engineering, entrepreneurship club, etc.) 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 on-campus hackathons, conferences, and job fairs
  • Submit your project into pitch competitions (be wary of competitions that require too much time - the application shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes)
  • 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. I’ve found two questions in particular to be helpful with this:

I - 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, Henry and I thought we were just building a tool to improve meetings. But in one of YC’s on-campus office hours, Kevin Hale concluded our chat by urging us to dream about how fixing bad meetings could literally improve the world’s GDP. By thinking more audaciously about the problem your startup is solving, you can build an inspiring, motivating vision.

II - 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, I also found these resources helpful:
I - Jessica Livingston’s book Founders at Work - check out the chapter about Max Levchin, which does a terrific job of conveying the evolution of a project (cryptography libraries) into a company that would change the world (PayPal).
II - Paul Graham’s essay “A Student’s Guide to Startups” - pay close attention to “class-project syndrome”.
III - Dustin Moskovitz’s discussion of “The Best Reason” to start a startup.

3. Commit Real Amounts of Time
The final step is the hardest but also the most important. If you’re like most busy students, 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. About this time last year, Henry and I decided after our office hours with Kevin to launch our beta in 3 weeks instead of 5 months. One cancelled spring break trip and many sleepless nights later, the Meetingbird beta went live. It was buggy, feature-deficient, and ugly, but we knew at that moment that what we were building was more than a side project.

Closing Thoughts
I’ve focused primarily on the “how” of this transition instead of the “when” and that’s because the answer to “when” is simpler than most make it out to be. The right time to turn your side project into a startup is simply 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, and your gut is probably already telling you your answer.

Regardless of what your answer might be today, I’m always available at (redacted) and @PaulDornier_ if I can be helpful for your student founder journey.