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How to scale a startup in school

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Julianna Keeling

Contributor

Julianna Keeling is the founder of Terravive (sustainable packaging company). Formerly Product at Juicero.

If you’re serious about starting and scaling your business while you’re in school, treat your time there like an extended incubator. While you may experience high levels of academic stress, your “real world” financial stress and transition to adulthood are buffered.

Understand why you’re in school

The key advantage of starting your business in school is that you have the time to test different ideas and evaluate which idea generates traction without high stakes. You will also gain key subject matter and operational knowledge that you can carry throughout your career.

The challenge of starting a business in school is that it is not easy to devote adequate focused energy to the growth of that business. Student founders cannot attend to the needs of their business whenever they feel like it. It’s a 24/7, 365 job that needs to be managed on top of rigorous schoolwork.

When I started Terravive, I spent at least 4-5 hours throughout each day speaking with our partners and customers and solving problems. Sometimes you must leave class and drop everything to put out fires.

The key to surmounting this challenge is to understand why you want to start this business. If you just want the recognition of starting a business, then I would recommend a different line of work to get the recognition you’re seeking.

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If you want to solve a problem that you see in the world and are willing to do anything and everything to realize your vision, then starting a business may be the right path. When you run into problems in the future or question why you’re making all these sacrifices, remember why you started.

I started Terravive because I was tired of seeing disposable plastic clogging our landfills and decimating our ocean ecosystems. I knew that the technology existed to create materials that look and perform like plastic, but can biodegrade fully into carbon, oxygen, and water without toxic residues.

Additionally, most of the biodegradable and compostable materials available were made from a material called polylactic acid (PLA). PLA can only break down in industrial composting systems and is also worse than plastic in the ocean. Since most people don’t have access to industrial composting, I saw an opportunity to provide better materials that don’t contribute to ocean plastic pollution without sacrificing on quality or price.

I started selling product packaging made from these novel biodegradable materials. After seeing initial traction, we expanded into tableware, food service items, CPG packaging, and packaging for cannabis.

In the inception of Terravive, I believed in a future with better materials that catalyze a circular economy – removing the need for the plastic pollution that clogs our Earth. I held this conviction so strongly that I knew I would never forgive myself if I gave up on Terravive.

Other people in your life may come and go, but ultimately, you are only accountable to yourself and any higher power you may believe in. If you truly believe that starting a business in school is the right thing for you to do, then focus your time around the business objectives you seek to achieve.

Based on my experience scaling Terravive at W&L, I’d recommend student founders curate academic course work to supplement their business and consider taking a gap year.

Curate your course load

For students seriously considering starting a business or already in the throes of a start-up, try to curate your academic course load around what you want to learn, and then focus on compounding that learning. Attending and studying for classes can be perceived as wasted time away from growing your business, or it can be a way to deepen your technical understanding of your business.

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During my first year at Washington and Lee University (W&L), for example, I took Intro to Biology with lab, Intro to Chemistry with lab, Engineering Design with lab, Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, and Intro to Environmental Studies. When I returned for sophomore year after taking a gap year, I took Organic Chemistry with lab, Calculus II, Physics with lab, and Analytical Chemistry with lab.

Taking these science classes and learning the key techniques and skills in a laboratory played a key role in crystallizing my understanding of the biopolymers that Terravive utilizes to make finished products like drinking straws, utensils, bottles, bags, etc. By taking several chemistry courses each year, I was able to physically see reactions taking place and understand how to synthesize the same materials that we were producing at industrial scales on my own at an atomic level.

For student founders interested in the biotech space, I recommend taking relevant science courses at a university. Go to relevant conferences and events suited for students in the space. Maybe genetics and microbiology are more interesting to you than chemistry and physics, but many of the laboratory lessons, skills, and techniques cannot be learned in a garage.

That being said, none of the classes I took provided information that was directly helpful to growing my business. For example, the mechanisms learned in the classroom primarily focused on obtaining the highest yield, or most pure product. The synthesis of these same polymers in an industrial setting carry a different set of constraints and objectives.

As a student, you need to identify the nuggets of knowledge hidden in these seemingly endless lecture slides or textbook.

Lay down the foundation for compounding knowledge

When you do find relevant knowledge, go deep and continue to build on it. Develop good rapport with professors and ask for their professional opinion on the problems that your business is currently wrestling with. In my organic chemistry class, for example, we started learning about the mechanisms of hydrolysis, the process by which hydrogen bonds in water degrade polymers like plastic and bioplastics.

In parallel, I was working with a customer struggling with the same concept. We designed a new type of biodegradable bottle for this customer who created a popular skincare brand.

The customer wanted to know if there were any possible interactions between the biodegradable packaging and their skin care formulation. Since we were using a novel biodegradable polymer to produce the bottle, there were no standards available to conduct the testing in a laboratory.

I spoke to my professor, Dr. Jelena Samonina, and we discussed various types of mechanisms that could catalyze the degradation of the biodegradable bottle. Hydrolysis ranked chief among them. Understanding the role of hydrolysis in this problem ultimately enabled us to conduct the degradation testing with greater resource efficiency.

Selecting courses based on what you want to know will lay down a strong foundation of knowledge upon which you can begin compounding. In the same way that you can earn interest on savings that earns interest on itself and compounds monthly, you can “earn interest” on your knowledge.

If you learn and develop foundational knowledge and skills and actually keep at it over time, your expertise and intuition in that space will deepen more quickly than others who only have a surface-level understanding of it.

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Find a niche space that excites you, tinker, and learn as much as you can about it in your free time. My niche space is biomaterials. I made medical devices made from these novel polymers for fun in high school, and constantly read all of the biopolymer literature I can get my hands on.

You don’t need to major in the subject or have a PhD in it, but you do need to be hungry to learn to see the exponential benefits of compounding knowledge over time.

Take a gap year or “year on”

As a founder in school, perhaps the single most beneficial thing you can do to position yourself and your business for long-term success is to take a gap year while you’re in school. My gap year in between my first and second years at W&L abruptly changed the course of my life for the better.

Most people take a gap year between high school and university, or after college. It’s rare to see students voluntarily take time off in the middle of their university experience, but based on my experiences, this is exactly the time to do it.

When you arrive to college, you get a better feel for the types of courses you can take, and your intellectual interests begin to take shape. Understanding what the school can offer you and vice versa will help you craft a meaningful gap year experience.

During the winter and spring of your first year, start applying to summer internships. Find companies that you genuinely think are cool and reach out to their recruiting team.

In parallel, apply for funding through your college for your summer internship. Try to obtain the largest stipend you possibly can through your school via as many avenues as needed.

For example, explore access to capital through your major and minor departments, grants, fellowships, scholarships, etc. The more money you can obtain in advance for living expenses, the less that company needs to pay you, and the greater the chance that the company will take you on.

To find money at your school, reach out to your advisor over email or in person. Tell your advisor what you want to do and exactly how it will positively impact your education, and ultimately, the educational experiences of others upon your return.

Similarly, to convince a company to take you on for the summer, be pointed in your communication. Explicitly tell them how you can help them. Demonstrate genuine interest and don’t give them the impression that you could be dead weight.

To find these internship opportunities, I’d recommend a couple routes. The first is to search LinkedIn for alumni working on things you’re interested in. The second is to scour AngelList.

Here’s how I did it. I knew I wanted to be in the Bay Area, so I reached out to at least 1 company/day I was interested in working for and 1 alum who I admired. Though I had many valuable conversations, there were a couple conversations that significantly accelerated my growth.

One of the alums I emailed, Mike Harden, runs a highly reputable VC fund in the Bay Area called Artis Ventures. I reached out to him through a cold email, and he offered to meet me at his office later that week. After meeting in person a few times, he then introduced me to the leadership team at one of his portfolio companies called Juicero.

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Thanks to his help and support, I was able to secure an internship at Juicero, which previously I had only dreamed of working for. We’ve continued to stay in touch, and over time my respect for him and the work that he does in helping founders only grows. I still consider him and his family trusted friends.

Once you have a job in an industry you want to be in, network like your life depends on it. Get to know the talented people around you and try to help them as much as you can.

My boss at this internship, Elisa Ndour, ran the Product team. She not only taught me the principles of project management, but she inspired me daily with her expertise, professionalism, and leadership skills even when team morale was low.

In addition, I also worked with one of the leading subject matter experts, Tony Knoerzer, in the bioplastics space while working on this project. He was previously the Chief R&D Office of a Fortune 50 company and spearheaded the mass commercialization of innovative products made from bioplastics.

Under his guidance, I learned the fundamentals of the space and connected with influential manufacturers, converters, distributors, and retailers across the supply chain. I continue to leverage this network to this day.

Looking back, I recognize that this incredible job opportunity and these relationships materialized because of a cold email and an alum’s willingness to meet.

This path has not been without challenges. My team and I have made significant sacrifices to realize our dreams since the day we signed Terravive’s incorporation paperwork. However, for any current or future founder who has a dream to change the world for the better, these sacrifices are more than worth it.

The experiences, knowledge, and relationships gained as a result of starting my business in college have been the most rewarding of my life thus far. Growing Terravive has not only taught me more about this industry within the green space, but it has given me a deeper understanding of who I am and what I want to achieve in my life.

The rewards and challenges of Terravive have both been immense. I was able to grow Terravive while I was a student at W&L by treating my academic education like an extended incubator program to facilitate the challenging balancing act of schoolwork and my growing business.

Additionally, while taking a gap year at W&L, I gained key connections, experience, and knowledge that I leverage to this day. I would recommend starting a business to any student with a vision and the focused persistence to execute on that vision.

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