8 life lessons learned from student entrepreneurs

Over the fall, I had the opportunity to teach at a unique program at the University of Utah. It’s called The Foundry, here student entrepreneurs choose a business or project they want to work on and earn credit doing it. Teaching was a huge honor for me because not long ago, I was a student and participant in the Foundry. This program changed my life or more accurately, equipped me with the tools to change my own life.

Even as an instructor, I spent much more time learning from the participants than I did “teaching.”

I didn’t need to assign homework, the participants chose for themselves what they would do with their time each week. There were no quizzes or tests, because life provides plenty on its own when you are trying to create something. Instead I worked to create an environment where the conversation was driven by the group and their needs.

Each Monday morning, I met with a group of 20 students and a handful of professors, and members of the entrepreneurial community. Each week, I came away with new lessons and motivation to work hard on my own projects.

As the semester progressed, I was reminded of a book a read when I was 19 called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. I have no idea what attracted me to that book, but it painted a picture of a different way to approach education. Where the lines between student and teacher were blurred and learning was directed by the students.

“I can not think for others or without others, nor can others think for me. Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naive, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I want to thank the students that made such a big impact on my life and my work. In the spirit of the Foundry, I’ll do that by sharing a few bits of wisdom from the students this semester and some tips on how you can get similar benefits.

You can’t teach entrepreneurship

I don’t teach entrepreneurship, there’s no way to teach it. It’s something that’s very personal and unique to each person. What worked for one person may not work for another. The reason why someone thinks that they were successful may not even be true.

I do believe you can learn entrepreneurship, but for the most part, you have to direct your own learning through experience and experiments.

You can't teach #entrepreneurship, but you can learn entrepreneurship if direct your own learning though action. Click To Tweet

Instead of trying to tackle the complexities of entrepreneurship, I focused on teaching a process, a way to make a plan, set goals for the future and track that progress each week. The goals themselves or the project didn’t matter, what mattered was that they were written in a way that by the end of the semester, you’d know if they were achieved or not. We focused on the results, not the actions needed to get the results.

Live life deliberately

Many of us “go with the flow” when it comes to our lives and our short and medium-term plans.

We have goals and aspirations, but often we do little more than imagine a future with them. Few of us take the time to think about what steps we could take today that would get us closer to our goals or plan our weeks in that matter. But why?

As students and employees, we’ve been trained to take the work that’s assigned to us. Someone else is always deciding what we do with our time. Whenever our assigned work is completed, we call it a day because we never planned to do anything else. This often keeps our big goals as distant aspirations that we’ll get started on in the future when we have more time.

The process of deciding what the most important things are for you to do each week and every day is one of the most empowering practices you can have. It changes how you feel when you wake up in the morning, it gives you a greater sense of purpose, you value your time more, and you feel more in control of your life.

Deciding the most important things are for you to do each day is one of the most empowering practices you can have. Click To Tweet

Over time, day after day, week after week, you collect a growing list of proof that you can control your life, that you make your own choices, that you are making progress toward those goals.

We often underestimate what’s possible to achieve in a year. Only by taking consistent and deliberate action can we find out what we can really do with that time.

Practice the same process

Early in the semester, we emphasized the fact that our students were not only participants in this experiment called the Foundry but also collaborators. We encouraged them to question and make improvements on our systems and processes if they saw an opportunity. But despite our encouragement, it was not happening.

After the first half of the semester terrorizing students with high expectations and strict standards for how they did their work in the Foundry, I decided I needed to lead by example.

I began sharing my own management reports for my business Conversion Cake with the group. I had been submitting a report as part of the Foundry team, but I was not sharing my own progress with my business.

By participating in the process as well as teaching the process, I was able to connect with the students in new ways. Many began volunteering to help me with the work I was doing. I was getting questions from people wondering how my projects were going.

The students held me to the same high standards and would comment if I did not adhere to the same strict guidelines that we set for them.

The students not only used my reports to keep me accountable, but as a tool to start asking questions about how to improve the program itself. They began to think of new ways to improve the appearance and design of our management reports, as well as suggest ways to modify what we reported on.

Though I don’t think my participation was the only reason we started to see more students collaborating in the process, I do believe it gave them the opening they were looking for.

Add value to others before yourself

As the semester progressed, it became easy to tell who would succeed in the group. It wasn’t how much they got done each week that gave them away, how great their idea was, or any particular skill, it was their attitude.

The ones that came away with the best results were the ones who put adding value to others in the group as their top priority.

This attitude had many benefits. Taking the focus off yourself and honing it on the people you want to serve is crucial to finding long term success in life.

Being generous to others is not only a powerful strategy for success, but it helps you recover hardship and failure. It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on others in times of struggles helps you take your focus off the hardships you are experiencing and gives you the fuel you need to get through them.

We tried to embody this in every way possible. Even during class visits to promote the Foundry for the next semester, we strove to leave the students with more than just information on how to sign up for the class next semester. We found that taking time to give good information and share our experiences had a more lasting impact.

“Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life. Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.” – The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks Dalai Lama: Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded

Transparency is your friend

Some students are apprehensive about sharing their business idea. They’re afraid someone will steal it.

Transparency is one of the most powerful tools we use in the Foundry. We record exactly what we did over the week, as well as our reasoning behind it.

This gives us the chance to not only understand “what” happened but the “why” behind it. Understanding the reasoning behind the action allows for a much deeper level of feedback.

Startups understand this well. In my time working with WP Curve, our Monthly Reports were some of our most popular articles. Groove HQ embodied transparency and honesty in their blog and used it as the tool to take their business to 5 million a year.

This level of transparency may seem uncomfortable at first, but it can be a powerful tool for growth. Some startups use this strategy to share what they’re working on, how they’re performing and what they are struggling with.

Dan Norris found his cofounder though being transparent. In the post, “Is startup validation bullshit?” he discussed his challenges getting traction with Informly despite meeting the criteria for a “lean startup.” This discussion attracted the attention of Alex McClafferty, who eventually become his cofounder.

Everyone has something to teach you

Whether it’s their first business or they’re a seasoned veteran, everyone has something to teach you. The problem is it’s difficult to figure out what it is that we can teach each other.

Over the semester, we were diligent in tracking what work we did each week and relating how it was important to our goals. Tracking our progress was like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, giving us a window into how our projects were unfolding each week.

Each new challenge someone brought to the table created a new opportunity for someone else to share their unique expertise and experience.

For me, one of the more memorable moments was hearing Clinton Jolley’s story of going to China to manufacture saddles for horses.

Face your imperfections head on

Transparency is not only useful for sharing our experience with others but as a tool for self-reflection. A game we play in the Foundry is setting high expectations on ourselves and the group. If we say we’ll do something, it will be so. We go big on what we set out to achieve.

Sooner or later we are confronted by the fact that we fall short of our word and our plans. We fail to accurately gauge what we can do in a week or recognize what’s important to focus on.

This happens to everyone, but most people are able to “cover their tracks” and avoid these uncomfortable realizations. Having our work and our plans written in management reports keeps us from the denial that people typically experience with failure. Because we are accountable to ourselves and our community, we ask difficult questions to understand why we failed and what we can do next time.

Confronting our shortcomings allows us to make real steps towards improving ourselves. It’s a painful process, but if you want to be better, it’s necessary. This is where the “game” comes in. Instead of lamenting our failures, we approach them with a playful and scientific attitude. We were able to examine what happened with a light heart and learn from it.

There’s more to life than revenue

Many businesses appear in the Foundry, and business is often a central topic of our discussions. But the Foundry process teaches something more subtle and profound than just working on a business or project. It teaches a philosophy and approach that you can use to take control of your life, your education and your time. It helps you be more effective in your work, but also your relationships.

We aren’t attached to the business ideas of our participants or the success of the businesses. We’re focused on creating better entrepreneurs. Good entrepreneurs can manage the balance of their lives and cultivate their personal health as well as their revenue.

Many students wanted to create some sort of business or startup with potential for growth. Others chose smaller projects based on a passion that would fit in with a busy work / school schedule. Instead of concerning themselves with profit and growth, they focused on making a great batch of roasted coffee. Instead of focusing on getting as many clients as possible for a fitness business, they kept it scaled back to leave time open for their own training.

Revenue is easy to focus on, it’s a simple number, it’s a good indicator for success, but it’s not the only priority. We too often get caught up in the stories of billion dollar buyouts for Instagram and overnight successes that it’s sometimes difficult to imagine other goals.


Doing something you’ve never done before can be difficult, scary, stressful and monotonous. It takes more than a good teacher to get you through the process, you need a community.

It’s amazing the effect a community can have on people. Being committed and accountable to a group can be a powerful source of motivation and encouragement. I’m honored to have contributed to the journeys of this small group of students trying to do something great.

Thank you to everyone who made such a big impact on my life and my work this semester.

Kyle Gray
Kyle Gray is the founder of Conversion Cake, where he helps small businesses and startups with content marketing strategy and sales funnels. He is also the author of “The College Entrepreneur” a guide that teaches students how to build an entrepreneurial skillset while in school and use their university’s resources to help them build something amazing.