Risky Business: Why Start Your Own?

In his freshman year, Cornell student Reuben St. Marc (‘17) faced a difficult question: is it worth it to start my own business? St. Marc always loved music, particularly creating his own DJ mixes, so he started considering DJing as a viable business path.

“Whenever you decide you want to do something that will make a change, you have to make an initial investment,” St. Marc explains; however, like many aspiring entrepreneurs, he struggled to determine if that initial investment would pay off in the long run.

That summer, St. Marc decided to do some market research by DJing his own party. “There was such a great turnout, it went over capacity and people began offering to pay to get in. That was when I realized that DJing could be a real business opportunity for me,” St. Marc recalls.

DJ BenZ mixing at Cornell’s Senior Gala

Since that time, St. Marc has become the owner and performer behind DJ BenZ. With his brand rapidly gaining momentum, St. Marc hopes to take DJ BenZ to the stage at Cornell’s Slope Day in 2017; however, none of that recognition would be possible had he not decided to take a leap of faith and start his own company.

While St. Marc was able to determine early on that DJ BenZ had real potential, how do other entrepreneurs cope with the risk of starting a business when the proof it will succeed isn’t so readily available?

According to many experienced entrepreneurs, having the right mindset is essential. For example, Ivystart founder Chad Fong (‘19) believes a lot of entrepreneurs worry about not having the technical skills to start a business. In his path to creating Ivystart as a living-learning community for entrepreneurs, Fong has had a lot to learn on the job.

“As an entrepreneur, you don’t have to know everything to start a successful business, but you need to be able to learn and connect to people who are willing to help you achieve your goals,” Fong notes.

Jeffrey Ly (‘16) of electric skateboarding startup XBoard adds that success as an entrepreneur means success in creating change more than it means success in creating financial returns.

“Anyone in entrepreneurship will tell you if you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” Ly says. “It’s about the passion; it’s about the desire to innovate and create something new.”

More concretely, people contemplating starting businesses often worry that they could be displaced by a larger player in the industry.

The educational services industry has heavy concentration; however, that hasn’t deterred Cornell students Shaan Franchi (‘18) and Stuart Wang (‘18) from pursuing Vispio. Vispio provides interactive games, quizzes, and activities to help educators integrate current events into their classrooms.

“We use the negative of being a small company as a positive. We can move very quickly, and it makes us more connected to the teachers we’re talking to. We can implement their feedback right away, but at a larger company, they have to move through the chain of command,” Wang explained. “In the foreseeable future, we also think we can keep innovating. If we see something similar, we have a full range of tools we haven’t even implemented yet.”

Many student entrepreneurs also agree that starting a venture as a student dramatically reduces the risks inherent in entrepreneurship. Cornell alumnus Steven Dourmashkin (‘15) noticed this after founding Specdrums during his time as a student. When pressed to a particular color, a Specdrums ring allows users to play a unique sound to create music. 

Dourmashkin summarizes, “College is the perfect time to try to do a startup. You have a lot fewer responsibilities now than you will when you’re older and have a full-time job and family, you’re used to not getting paid a full-time salary, and if it fails, you’ll at least gain some really good experience without necessarily setting yourself back.”

Perhaps starting a business isn’t so risky after all.

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