Small businesses for college students

I have been working the past couple of weeks with a small group of university students. Even though the tuition for the university they are attending is free, they still need money for books, transportation, food and (in the cases where their families live far from the university) housing. In some cases the students were working during grade school to help support their family, and without this income the family would falter. Therefore the student feels they can not go to university, even if their grades are good and the tuition is “free”.

Some of these students can make a little money being a waiter in a restaurant, or cooking hamburgers, or acting as a security guard at night, but a lot of these low-skill jobs both do not pay very well and they do nothing for giving experience to the college student in their chosen field. In my students' cases, this career path is computer science.

I have known several students who have tried to form consulting services in the past to make some extra money. Many times they lack the business expertise to price their services correctly, often charging way too little to do “these simple jobs”, and not understanding that the jobs for them which are simple are complex, time-consuming and perhaps just plain impossible for the potential customer.

Many times the students were doing work for friends and family, and the reply I get back from the student (when I tell them what they should be charging) is “I can not charge my mother that much money!” Then do not make your mother the focus of your business.

I start talking to the students about issues like “warranties”, “Service Level Agreements”, marketing, and I find that some of them understand these issues, that most do not. “Besides, I do not know that much”, cry the students. “I am only in my first (or second) year at the university!”
Most people do not know what they know. They gain some knowledge along their path, and then they think that “everyone knows this”.

I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day, and I overhead a middle-aged man complaining that he is going to have to spend time and effort in getting to know his new iPhone, when he had spent a lot of time and effort getting to know his Blackberry. He was wondering where he could find a course for how to use the iPhone. Most college students who have an iPhone would be able to help this person migrate their files and data from one to the other, or at least help them become familiar with the iPhone. As a business person he would probably be willing to pay fifty to one hundred dollars for a couple of hours “work” by the student, much more than the student would make as a short-order cook.

The problem with these “one-off” types of jobs is that the student can not predict when they will be getting such a job, so they can not plan their monthly expenses.

One of my students had a good idea. He made up a simple contract for small businesses which told them he would come into their business for three hours each week and do whatever tasks he can do for them. These tasks include setting up new systems, doing backups, setting up WiFi, installing new programs, setting up email filtering and a variety of other tasks. He needs only six customers to give him the basic income he needs to survive every month, but he can also do the “time and material” tasks to make extra money during the month.

I thought that was such a good idea that I am now advocating that tactic to other students.

Interestingly enough, the students then told me that they did not know how to do very much, so I had them indivisually list their skills and things they thought they could do, and I combined them into a long list. Many of the lists overlapped, and a lot of the additional items on each list the students acknowledged that they could also do those things, but had forgotten to list them on their list. The list included:

Internet connection
Organize the network's topology, organizing cables, switches, routers and other resources;
Assemble servers (printing, database and network provider);
Administer the network, providing security and efficiency in its tasks;
Wired and wireless router, using commercial routers or OpenWRT with existing or new hardware
Design power requirements, including uninterruptable power supplies if desired or needed
Set up, lay and label cables
Set up and configure Router
Set up printer (wired and wireless)
Set up scanner (wired and wireless)
Set up antivirus
Set up SPAM filters and folders through email client or use of Google Apps;
Set up network sharing through wifi router
Set up:
-LibreOffice
-OpenOffice
-email clients
-Gimp
-Inkscape
-web browsers
-other layered applications
Fixing software for smartphones and tablets with ios ( ipad ) and android ...
Update gps
Computer and laptop repair (hardware and software)
Installation and configuration of security cameras
Sketching software, providing idea generation methods, improving user experience of existing services and softwares, designing new looks and interfaces, adapting softwares and websites for blind people (who use screen-reading software)
Set up a small office (1-10 systems) utilizing GNU/Linux:
Set up a semi-automated or automatic backup procedure
Set up a small server for file/media sharing
Set up an efficient web server or database server (VPS or local).
Set up and integrate a media center (xbmc or otherwise)
Install and configuring a closed-circuit television;
Willing to travel (assuming customer pays expenses)

As you can see, it is quite a long list, and covers many of the things that a small office would need to have done.

In addition, some of the students have been studying on their own, and at least one has been able to pass the LPIC-1 exam, and is now studying for LPIC-2. Of course I encourage them to follow this course of study as well as their own university courses.

As part of our plan I am going to help the students with marketing materials, business skills and additional computer service training.

We are still in the beginning phases of teaching these students the business skills necessary to set up their own part-time job, but assuming this is successful we hope to light a path for many university students who feel they can not afford university today to be able to attend in the near future.

Carpe Diem!