White woman with short hair in denim jack with yellow face mask and laptop

Student Entrepreneurs in the Time of COVID-19

Students are taking advantage of their free time during the coronavirus lockdowns to launch businesses that benefit communities. Here's how you can too!

For Monica Sager, a rising senior at Clark University from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, making a difference during the coronavirus pandemic was a simple matter of giving people the platform to tell their stories. Scraping together equipment she already had, the 21-year-old Journalism major recorded a series of 21 interviews with people from her local community. Those interviews became Pottstown Voices, a seven-week podcast that brought beautiful and tragic stories to light. 

Sager’s story is one of many narratives regarding students who saw the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to launch businesses and produce projects that would help their communities. As many college campuses sit silent amid shutdowns and remote learning, entrepreneurs with a vision for altruism refuse to stay put—if only figuratively. One of the benefits of isolation is that our restlessness generates creativity, and creativity leads to business ideas. Transforming your vision into reality takes initiative, dedication, and four basic steps that nearly every entrepreneur goes through at least once. Have a business idea to help your community? Here’s how to get started!

Make a plan

Moving an idea from concept to reality takes planning. Take a few hours to sit down and write out what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and what you want to accomplish. Sager knew she wanted to capture the stories of Pottstown residents. She couldn’t meet with them face-to-face for safety reasons, so she leveraged her existing resources to make it work. Using an Evida digital voice recorder, her iPhone, and an audio editing app called Audacity, she recorded her interviews virtually and edited them. 

The next step in her plan was to publish her podcasts on the right platform. Her initial intention was to use Spotify; however, after spending two hours on the phone with Spotify trying to resolve a computer-to-phone transfer issue, she had to pivot. Sager switched to the free music sharing platform SoundCloud, which she found much easier to use. The planning and strategic use of existing resources paid off. “Pottstown Voices shows that we’re all in this together and that we can all get through it together,” Sager says. If you want to take your planning deeper, consider putting together a full-fledged business plan you can use when you pitch to investors.

Cornerstones of a business plan

A typical business plan usually includes some, all, or more than what’s listed here: 

  • Executive summary: An overview of your company that includes your mission statement, who’s in leadership, where you’re located, and how many employees you have
  • Market analysis: A review of what your competitors are doing, how you plan to do it better, and which part of the market you’ll target
  • Service/product you offer: A description what you’re offering, how it works, and if you have any copyright or patent filings you’re trying to obtain 
  • Marketing and sales: An explanation of how you plan to promote your business to connect with customers and generate sales
  • Funding request: A document stating how much money you need from potential investors in the next few years, how you’ll use that money, and whether you want the money as a loan or are willing to give away a piece of the company (usually expressed in a percentage)

If you’re running a lean start-up, you can modify your business plan to focus on key areas, according to the US Small Business Administration (SBA). A typical lean business plan includes, per the SBA:

  • Key partnerships
  • Key activities
  • Key resources
  • Value proposition
  • Customer relationships 
  • Customer segments
  • Channels
  • Cost structure
  • Revenue streams

Related: The Experts’ Choice: Great Places to Study Business

Find funding

With your business plan in place and a strong support system, you’re now prepared to tackle what could be the hardest part of your journey: funding. Great ideas take a lot of hard work and, in most cases, require a lot of cold hard cash. Raising money for your business can take multiple forms: 

  • Funding yourself through savings or monthly surplus
  • Raising money via fundraising platforms
  • Asking for help from friends and family
  • Getting a personal or business loan

Of these four options, funding yourself is the least difficult, as you don’t have to pitch your idea to friends, family, strangers, or lenders. However, you may find that your savings or monthly budget don’t provide the consistent investment you need. In that case, consider turning to crowdfunding sites. These sites make asking for financial help far less confrontational and intimidating. You can direct family, friends, and other supporters to a website rather than pitching to them face-to-face. Also, you can funnel your social media traffic to your crowdfunding page via grassroots promotion. 

If you’re still in need of cash after employing these methods, consider using a local bank or credit union for a loan, because they tend to have the lowest rates. However, be aware that they also tend to have more stringent approval guidelines, and the coronavirus pandemic has led to even tighter lending standards across the industry. Online lenders boast fast funding but often charge higher interest rates than banks and credit unions. Whatever option you go with, just make sure you’re being responsible about debt, especially if you already have student loans. Most student loan borrowers are on long-term repayment plans, and the last thing you want to do is add the unnecessary burden of business or personal loans.  

Market your company or idea

Once you have your plan in place, you’re going to need help marketing your idea to the public. Finding that help in the midst of a pandemic can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Alyssa Nicholas from Raleigh, North Carolina, is a junior at Duke University who’s working with other students from Duke to develop ContainIt, an anonymous contact tracing app. “Contact tracing” is the term for tracking down everyone an infected person has come into close contact with. Because privacy laws prevent health officials from naming a sick individual, an app like ContainIt can be a valuable resource. And yet, as helpful as it may be, Nicholas says spreading the word about the app and getting media attention was difficult but crucial. “The biggest hurdle we’ve had is gaining media attention and spreading the word,” she says. “Our team consists of a lot of students, so spreading the message to the masses entails a lot of cold emailing and hard work.”

While her strategy required reaching out to the media and other organizations, your business plan may require a different approach. Consider reaching out to any of the following professional, academic, or social networks you find yourself in:  

  • Alumni from your high school and college
  • Your faith-based community
  • Clubs or groups you participate in
  • Former co-workers
  • LinkedIn groups

Stay focused

With your plan, funding, and marketing in place, it’s time to produce. Anticipate long nights, little sleep, and consistent challenges that require your complete focus and dedication. Nicholas says she and her fellow students are pulling long days and nights to get ContactIt on the phones of as many people as possible. “I’m most proud of how passionate our team is,” she says. “[We’ve] worked countless nights, and we’re volunteers. Every day, we wake up and we work out strategies to get the reach of a large company.” 

As you plug away at your own business, you’ll likely feel a sense of duty to make your family, friends, and supporters proud. At the same time, you’ll want to see your business succeed in a way that makes the world a better place—not just to impress people. This is a feeling Sager knows well. After hours of planning, phone calls, interviews, production, promotion, and publishing, she’s proud of what she and her community have done through Pottstown Voices. “Stories are what make and keep us connected, and especially during a pandemic when we’re all apart, I think that’s an important aspect we need to keep in our lives,” she says. “I grew up hearing stories from my family. They’re cultural, educational, and even entertaining. It’s key to stay involved with each other and hear those stories. They’re what keep us going.”

Your business post-pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic won’t last forever. As the country opens up again and many people return to their jobs, you’ll have to learn how to scale and pivot your business in a changed economy. For example, if you follow in Sager’s footsteps and start a storytelling campaign like a podcast, consider pivoting to retrospective ideas. How are your interview subjects’ lives in a post-lockdown world? Did they make a career change or move? Did they build friendships during stay-at-home orders they wouldn’t have otherwise built? This type of forward thinking can help you turn a time-specific project into an ongoing business. If you’re able to pivot your business to thrive beyond the coronavirus pandemic, then consider adjusting your business plan to reflect your new mission or target population. Good luck in your endeavors!

For more entrepreneurial advice, check out our Business section, or if you’re planning on attending a business school in the future, start looking using our College Search tool.

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