Building a real company — Thoughts on growing from student to full-time entrepreneur

This blog was also published on axelnaess.com and Medium.

Time flies when when you’re having fun – and when you’re busy. It’s already been more than six months since I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Industrial Economics and Technology Management from NTNU, and decided to continue my entrepreneurial journey instead of starting my career down the more common road as a consultant.

The difference between working on your startup besides studies and as your full-time job has been more extensive than I thought it would be, and I will use this blog post to reflect on some of the larger differences as I see them.

Fix your mind-set

Work-wise the transition from running the company as students versus full-time entrepreneurs was not that big. The same tasks would have to be carried out, and you naturally have more time to spend, getting more stuff done.

The difference should not materialise in what you do at work, but in how you think about work,

As a student you don’t think of your startup as an employer. At least I didn’t. You are probably used to working voluntarily in different student organisations and so on, and just think of your startup as a similar structure. I believe that’s fine while you’re a student and in the early phases of a project, but when you have decided to go all in on a project and start building your career with it, it’s not. You have started a journey to build a company that will hopefully not only employ yourself, but many more. That’s why you should start treating it as a real company.

Build an organisation

So, what do I mean by a “real company”?

I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but in this case what’s important is how others interpret you from the outside, and how you make decisions internally. In my opinion you need to have to expand and professionalise your business on some areas, so that people see your company as an organisation that’s going to last. There’s a sea of difference from that and being seen as a couple of freshly graduated friends creating an app that’s going to be the next Snapchat (or whatever you’re doing).

Put a price on your time

Making sound priorities and decisions, based on an economic foundation, should be an obvious thing to do in all situations. We earlier touched upon that most students are used to working for free from student organisations, and this is a mind-set that’s often brought into student startups as well. Having a well of ambition and time to spend are two of the most important advantages you have when flipping your company from a student company into a real company, and you should by all means embrace these. However, you should always take your alternative cost into account in all projects and value your time wisely. As you gain more time by focusing truly on your company, you will only see the number of tasks demanding your attention rise. You should probably not pursue every pitch competition or every grant, and not be on every social media for that instance.

Furthermore, in real companies people get paid to work. That means it is not okay to go without pay for an extensive period of time.

Get the formalities in place

I guess we all hate bureaucracy and paper work. Nevertheless, there are so many situations where you will help yourself quite a lot if you have put some thought and consistency into them in front. As you grow, having put some thought into the onboarding process will prove valuable. Write a page with checkpoints to go through as you onboard your first employee, so that you don’t have to rethink the whole process for the next one.

And to a point that cannot be emphasised enough: Write a thorough shareholder agreement with four year vesting that regulates the dark days. Don’t think that this is something that you can sort out later, because it isn’t. Seriously, if you’re only going to follow one of my advices, this has to be the one.

See the greater picture, but the devil’s in the details
The only thing present in most consultancy agencies that I miss on a regular basis is a project leader; a person that’s not as much in the details as I am and with a main task of seeing the greater picture. To my experience it’s common in small teams that people are so engaged in their projects that it is difficult to prioritise tasks, because everything seems important. No one is really able to take the steps back often enough to really see what’s really important for reaching the goals you have set in the shortest possible time, and the path there becomes wobblier than otherwise necessary. To my experience this feels harder when working full-time, as everything is more intense.

A possible way to overcome this fallacy is to have a board with external members that can help you set that direction. Just be aware of the increased bureaucracy that will follow from an external board. Therefore, a trusted board of advisors might also be a good idea.

Just do it

I totally understand to 99%* of students who pursue other career paths than entrepreneurship when they graduate. The alternative cost is very high. Basically, the question comes down to whether you would like to work your ass off for yourself, solving your own problems while earning a crap salary, or whether you want to work your ass off on somebody else’s problems while earning a pretty good salary. Understandably, most people pick the salary and safer career path.

On the other hand, working on your own problems must be worth something. To me it’s worth a lot.

Just don’t forget to be a startup. You should embrace your time being a startup. It’s an amazingly exciting place to be! You won’t need all the stuff outlined above at the very beginning, that’s when you become a real company. But that’s what we’re trying to build, right?

I don’t want to build a startup, I want to build a real company.