Entrepreneurs need to go back to high school

Most people only return to high school for reunions, but I recently found myself roaming the halls at Perth Amboy High in New Jersey, where I shared my experiences in starting and running a company with an economics class. I was moved by the experience and thought it was worth sharing with other entrepreneurs.

Although I had spoken to college students before, high school was a new realm for me. Unsure what to tell these students at first, I reflected on my experiences at my company, Zagster, which was incubated by the startup accelerator TechStars. I remembered being most impressed and most affected by those speakers who told the true stories of their companies, free of BS or any hype.  With the positives and negatives of entrepreneurialism on full and equal display, I had a much better idea of what I was getting myself into.

It can be tempting to look at famous entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and write off their accomplishments as being easy or a result of being in the right place at the right time, but in fact, it takes an unimaginable amount of hard work and dedication to be successful as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs can not be weak, lazy or uninvolved; founding and sustaining a new business simply takes too much effort, too many long nights and early mornings. Initially, I worried that being this honest might actually discourage some students from following their dreams. But as I gave it more thought, I realized that the truth would not deter them if they truly have it in them to be entrepreneurs. As any entrepreneur will tell you, hard work is inherent in his or her DNA.

To succeed as an entrepreneur, what you need more than anything else is passion. I found my passion in cycling. A lifelong bike rider, I’ve never owned a car, and I was so blown away by witnessing the launch of the Parisian bike share program Vélib’, that I decided to make bike sharing my life’s work. Not only is biking incredibly fun, it also improves your health, your quality of life and even how long you live.

What we’ve found through our years of work at Zagster is that if you make bikes accessible, people will use them. Our mission is to get every single person we can on a bike. Zagster works not just because we spent years finding the right business model or because we’ve had the best mentoring, but because we are truly passionate about the goals toward which we’re working.

I told these kids at Perth Amboy High that if they want to strike out on their own with a new business, the very first step is to find their passion. I told them that when they’re doing what they want to do, it doesn’t feel like work.

Now, I don’t think I would have believed that if someone told me that when I was in high school – or even in college. But it’s true; though it may not all be fun and games, as long as you’re pursuing your passion, all those late nights, early mornings, skipped lunches and long flights are surprisingly easy to bear. I’ve been happy to wake up in the morning every single day for the last five years – and I’m not a morning person.

I also told them that no one becomes successful all by him or herself. There are literally hundreds of people along the way who have helped shape Zagster’s identity as well as my own, and most of them did it for free because someone else had helped them at some point in their careers.

For many entrepreneurs, it starts with a single person who inspires them to drop everything and start a business. Sometimes it’s someone famous, but more often, it’s just someone like me telling stories from the trenches. Although entrepreneurship certainly isn’t for everyone, sometimes even the greatest potential entrepreneurs don’t see it in themselves without having someone point them in the right direction. If I am that person for even one kid in that class, it makes the time I spent with those students on one of my few vacation days completely worthwhile.

Of course, once you’ve got the passion, you’ve got to find a way to apply it in some worthwhile endeavor. While it took Zagster more than four years of failures (not to mention a name change), we have developed a business model that is scalable and repeatable. Failing is tough, but it’s going to happen. The most important thing is to fail quickly, learn from the failure and apply those lessons to continually evolve the business. At Zagster, each failure ultimately led us to the business model we are successfully employing today – a full-service solution to bike sharing for corporate and university campuses, apartment buildings, hotels and other organizations that want to offer our economical, healthy and environmentally friendly service.

The best time to become an entrepreneur is when you have minimal responsibilities; it only gets harder as you get older and have more obligations, like paying a mortgage and spending time with your family. I started Zagster – then called CityRyde – right after graduating from Drexel University, where the co-op program had made me realize that the “traditional” path of graduating from college, getting a “good” job at a large company and working my way up the corporate ladder wasn’t for me. That career path has become something of an American cliché – and it’s less viable than ever.

Drexel’s co-op program is quite similar to that of Northeastern University here in Boston; for three six-month terms spread over five years as an undergrad, Drexel students go out into the real world and work. As a college student, I worked for a very small finance company, a mid-sized engineering firm and an international Fortune 500 company. As it turns out, the greatest thing I learned from all this was that latching onto a large company and working my way up was not for me. But I also learned that even though I had great professors and gained valuable business knowledge in the classroom, there is no real substitute for going out and working in the real world.

The experience Drexel and Northeastern students gain on co-op gives them an invaluable edge on the competition, but we can start even earlier. While many entrepreneurs speak to college classes (something I have done at several universities around the country), I think there is much to be gained by speaking to high-school students as well, and especially to classes like the one I visited, an economics elective in which several of the students said they wanted to be entrepreneurs. It’s up to the entrepreneurial community to reach out to high schools and “pay forward” the wisdom we gained from those who came before us. The earlier we can implant the idea of becoming an entrepreneur, the more time these kids will have to channel their passions into new businesses.

So, my fellow entrepreneurs, what are you waiting for? Start by contacting your own high school and asking whether there are any classes that could benefit from hearing about your experiences. Speak honestly about your success and failures – both are equally important. Think of all the people who have helped you get where you are today; just as they did, you can inspire the next generation to do great things.