The Upstart’s Conundrum: The Time Crunch Paradox

By January 4, 2011

As a college student and an “entrepreneur” (whatever that means), I’ve experienced first hand the difficulties inherent in building and launching ventures while juggling academic commitments, all without meaningful support from my university—UChicago. The challenges I faced and continue to face are not unique; college entrepreneurs around the country are at once impelled by their institutions to “innovate” and launch ventures, yet stymied by organizational structures and other systemic constraints that render college an inopportune time to gain entrepreneurial experience. In spite of the recent groundswell in enthusiasm for entrepreneurship—focused specifically on developing “social” and technology enterprises—among business leaders and students alike, there has been little change on the part of institutions to support the development of these ventures in any meaningful way.

Now, I am sure you’re sitting behind your computer or holding your smartphone and saying to yourself: “Hang on. Just two weeks ago, you detailed several initiatives aimed at helping student entrepreneurs launch their enterprises.” Strictly speaking, reader, you are correct. Yes, there is institutional support in the form of competitions for prize money and free consulting and the like; but if one peels back the self-congratulatory press releases it becomes abundantly clear that while universities and wealthy alumni are quick to pony up money for prize packages, there still exist systemic constraints which serve to undermine, if not contradict outright ostensibly pro-entrepreneur initiatives. In general, the nature of the higher educational system foists on young entrepreneurs two problems: they are faced with a crunch for time and placed into a so-called credibility Catch-22, both of which can set up college entrepreneurs for academic or business failure and personal burnout.

If there is one thing that a new startup isn’t, it is not what one might call a “9 to 5” job. The same can be said of college. While the average college student spends only eight to fourteen hours in lecture and discussion sections per week, most are saddled with hundreds of pages of reading assignments. I, for one, have about 400 pages of reading per week—assuming of course I do all of it, which, I’ve established elsewhere, is unnecessary. Let’s say this hypothetical student has a really good idea for a business, enrolls themselves in one of these competitions, and, lo and behold, wins. Marvelous, right? Not so fast.

Assuming our hypothetical upstart uses the prize money to start a venture, he or she is faced with two very large time commitments. On the one hand there is school, which at least confers some value on recipients of degrees. Although, school is expensive, and much of its coursework is irrelevant to what our upstart is starting up. On the other hand, there is that new venture, a chance to build something for oneself. Maybe, just maybe, funding can be secured. The idea that won the competition might, just might, be enough to launch a career, if not a worldwide brand. In either case, there simply is not enough time in the day for our young upstart to be a successful student and successfully launch a company. Necessarily, he or she, after a period of trying to juggle both, ends up focusing on one (usually the venture) while leaving the other (college) behind.

Even among my non-entrepreneur classmates I often hear complaints that college is getting in the way of getting an education, to paraphrase Mark Twain. How large systems will adapt to newly-empowered, entrepreneurial individuals and small groups is unclear; that it is near criminal to present self-starting students with unsustainable dualisms—tantalizing offers of overcoming the constraints of their current situations juxtaposed with advice to “just stick it out” and to “stay in school”—goes without question. The system as it stands is not optimal; it creates, if only on a small scale, failure. Escaping this first part of the Upstart’s Conundrum places the young entrepreneur into the second, more sticky part of the problem: a credibility Catch-22. To escape the Time Crunch, one must have some plan for obtaining “credibility”. The Conundrum is itself a large Catch-22. Uh oh.

Part 2 of The Upstart’s Conundrum, A Credibility Catch-22, will be up on Flyover Geeks later this week.