4 Tips to Success for Student-run Businesses

So your school has decided to start a student-run business. Perhaps you were even inspired to do so by part one of this blog series . Great! Or, maybe as a teacher or administrator thinking of all that there is to do to prepare for this endeavor, you’re thinking, “Oh great…” But there’s no need to stress! Starting a student-run business can seem like a daunting task, but luckily there are schools and corporations out there that have already been through the process and are willing to share their tips and tricks to getting your student-run business off the ground successfully and (relatively) painlessly.

Over the last few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to be able to speak with teachers and administrators from several schools with student-run businesses. We were able to discuss the keys to their success as well as some of the pitfalls or mistakes they made along the way. I took these conversations and boiled them down to four key points that were common to almost every conversation. So, before you get started on your own student-run business journey, save yourself some hassle and heartache and read these four tips to success from some grizzled vets of the world of student-run business had to say!

students working at a computerOvercome the self-doubt

The number one thing everyone I spoke with mentioned was the anxiety or self-doubt they experienced when they were first starting their business. Just like any other business, there is definitely a risk when starting a student-run business. It is only natural to have some self-doubt. “Will the program be successful?” “Can we achieve the success these other student-run businesses have?” “Do we have any instructors qualified to lead such a program?” All of these are common, and understandable questions when first considering such a program!

I know when I first started overseeing a student-run business, I had many of these questions running through my mind as well. After talking with other educators, it doesn’t seem like anyone feels ready to start. It’s easy to look at other schools with successful student-run businesses and think they’ve got it all together. I can tell you from my own experience and conversations with others; we’re all just making it up as we go! If you wait until you feel ready, you’ll never start! Just jump in and be prepared to learn as you go.

Foster Student Buy-In

Another common theme in my conversations was the necessity of student buy-in. Students HAVE to believe what they are doing is worthwhile. Students HAVE to take ownership of the program. A motivated group of students that believe in what they are doing can turn even the most modest of beginnings into a success. When people imagine a student-run business they always picture a big facility with top of the line technology or machinery and tons of students as workers. It doesn’t have to be that way, and probably won’t be for the first several years. A school just down the road from my own school started their business with a small monetary donation and a Keurig. With a motivated group of students and faculty, they have turned that into a thriving coffee shop which is looking to expand outside of their own campus.

On the flip side of the same concept, one of the biggest pitfalls of a student-run business is starting the program with students who do not share a common goal. A student-run business simply cannot be an “all-inclusive” program. We are trusting these students to reliably perform the duties of an actual business. In some cases this means operating industrial machinery or handling large sums of money or products. Having students perform these duties who are not “all-in” is a recipe for disaster. To address this problem, almost all student-run businesses I have spoken with rely on an application-interview system. In this model, students must fill out a job application and submit it to the program director. They then go through an interview process before they can be considered for the program. By doing this, it is more likely only motivated students will go through the process required to get into the program. Also, by being able to interview the students, the program director can make an informed decision on which students would be a right fit for the business.

If you wait until you feel ready, you’ll never start! Just jump in and be prepared to learn as you go.
students presenting at an event

Community Support

Community support can be a life-saver for student-run businesses just getting off the ground. Profit-margins can be awfully slim in the early days of a business, and having a supportive community can go a long way during this time. Whether this support comes from donations, community members buying products, or just sharing social media posts, it is difficult for young businesses to survive without this support. Nearly every director or administrator I talked with mentioned the importance of community support to their business.

Knowing the importance of this support and leaning into it is key for educators just entering the world of student-run businesses. Don’t try to start your business in a vacuum, involve the community in as many ways as you can! Open houses, social media give-aways, setting up booths at farmer’s markets or sporting events are all great ways to involve the community in your business.

Speaking of community support, one of the greatest assets available to a student-run business is an industry partner. An industry partner is an established business or company within the community which works alongside your business to help support your cause. This can look many ways, but usually comes in the form of financial support, technical training, or sub-contracting work. To use my own business as an example, we are a manufacturing business, so it makes sense for us to partner with a local machine shop. They helped provide machines and financial assistance in the beginning of the program as well as donating equipment. Now that we are more established, our industry partner continues to provide support by sending employees twice a week to work with students to ensure they are developing industry best-practices. They also serve as our most consistent customer as we also produce parts for them on a year-round basis.

Not every student-run business has an industry partner, but they certainly can be a huge advantage. If you are starting a student-run business, take some time to reach out to similar businesses in your community. Many businesses are more than happy to help, especially if you can arrive at a mutually beneficial partnership!

The advantage of a student-run business is success doesn’t have to be measured entirely by profit.

It’s not about the money!

Student working on a projectThis one is counter-intuitive, but it is a refrain I heard again and again listening to educators talk about their student-run businesses. It’s not about the money. You simply cannot obsess over profits, especially in the early days of the business. Focus on the reasons you chose to start the business in the first place. For many, this is to teach soft skills, to reinforce classroom concepts in real-world contexts, to incorporate project-based learning. Let these be the motivators that drive your decisions. It is so easy to get caught up in the business mindset and forget the focus should be about the lessons the students learn, the skills they pick up along the way, and the preparation they gain for their future workplace.

The advantage of a student-run business is success doesn’t have to be measured entirely by profit. The business barely breaks even, but the students are workplace-ready by the time they leave the program? That’s a success! We’d all love to be raking in the money and be able to fund the entire department with our business, but that’s just not going to happen in every case. Especially not right out of the gate. Setting non-monetary goals for the students is a great way to let students experience some success, even if the balance sheet isn’t so impressive.

Looking Forward

At the end of the day, the biggest tip for success is to just jump in and get started! And don’t be afraid to reach out for advice or help. Indiana has an amazing network of schools and teachers who have already been through the process. Any one of them would be more than happy to help an up-and-coming program get off to a great start. With so many great teachers around, help is no more than a phone call or email away!

Ready to take the next step? In the next part of this blog series, I will lay out some resources and documents aimed at teachers and administrators. These documents are designed to help you stay organized and remain intentional in your purpose for starting your student-run business while you take the next step forward in this exciting process!