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A Guide to Starting your Student Business in 2012

A Guide to Starting your Student Business in 2012


By Adam Slight

I would like to issue a challenge.

If you’re a student looking to build professional contacts, hungry for some real-world experience, and yearning to add some stellar points to your resume: start a student business in 2012!

This could be you someday

Let’s be clear here. I’m not challenging you to quit school, quit your job, take out a $250 000 bank loan and open a restaurant (I don’t want to be responsible!). This is a huge under-taking—but if your dream is to own a restaurant, then maybe you should hear me out. You don’t need to start big to gain the “real-life” experience of owning a business.


While I’m no entrepreneurial paragon, I do have a lot of experience as a student business owner. When I was 14 my friends and I had a passion for shooting home-made films. My friends and I spent our weekends shooting hours worth of short and feature-length movies. We used what resources we had available (the Internet has really evened the playing field for creative industries), and had a pretty fun little hobby going on. Eventually we began renting out local facilities and charging admission to see our films, selling DVDs and merchandise outside. We had effectively turned our hobby into a student business, and while today we aren’t invading Hollywood with our own independent movie studio, we learned a lot of practical skills in the process. (I ended up spending about 8 years doing freelance video work for a variety of clients on top of my stint as a movie man).

Chris Penny started Local Lawns by cutting his neighbours’ lawns when he was 14

On the other hand, while I was shooting films at age 14, my friend Chris Penny was cutting his neighbours’ lawns. As he tells it, he would drag his parents’ lawn mower from one house to the next in his neighbourhood, charging to cut lawns. Eventually he had more customers than he could keep up with, so he had to buy a car to transport his lawnmower from house-to-house. When this became too much, Chris began hiring employees. Last summer Chris’ business, Local Lawns, had five crews and 12 student employees cutting lawns throughout Ottawa. Chris’ high school lawnmower gig had transformed him into the CEO of a profitable and growing business.

Let me outline some benefits that you stand to gain from running a business while you’re in school, and then I will provide some tips on where you can start.

The Benefits of Running a Business as a Student:

Make an Impact on the World:

Owning a business can empower you to make changes in the world. These changes may not be big, but you will feel proud of your own little niche that is your business. You may find that your business enables you to do things you normally couldn’t do, since other businesses now see you as a “business” instead of as a consumer. They may have heard of your business even if they don’t have a clue who you are.

Work for Yourself:

As a university student owning and running Ottawa Rickshaws, nothing was more liberating than being my own boss. If you don’t enjoy following orders all summer, then you may want to consider making a summer job for yourself.

Build your Resume:

Owning a business is your chance to beef up your resume in incomparable  ways. As a sole-proprietor of a small business, all responsibilities rest on you. You’re in charge of sales, production, marketing, accounting, PR, maintenance, management, etc. etc. etc. Luckily, these things can all be put on your resume. Applying to work at a bank? No problem – tailor your resume to reflect your accounting experience. Applying for a marketing agency? No sweat – you have tons of experience marketing your own business.

Furthermore, by owning a business, you can actually choose to gain more experience in one direction or another. If you want more charitable experience, you can use your business to host a fund-raiser! By the time you graduate school, you’ll have a resume that is bursting with real-world experience (complimented by your degree of course).

Make Professional Contacts:

Operating a business often requires you to interact with consumers, other business owners, and government workers—most of whom you don’t know. Someday one of these people may be able to offer you a job, referral, testimonial, or reference letter. This would never have been the case if you had not met them through your business, and hopefully you gave them amazing customer service when you did! ( is a good site to keep track of these contacts).


Owning a business is a challenge. If you are up for the challenge, you will improve as a person. Your confidence will rise and you will feel more motivated to better yourself. I attribute business-owning as one of the most important moves I have made in my life for just these reasons.

Did you notice that I didn’t list “money” as one of the benefits of running a student business?

While operating a business is simply the perpetual improvement upon the art of making money, building a business from the ground up is not always a glamorous affair. It takes time and effort, sometimes with no monetary reward (see: Character Building). But like any education, the knowledge and experience is well worth the cost. Don’t get me wrong—there is monetary reward—but it seldom come without lots of hard work and practice.

Your business doesn’t have to be a high-risk venture for you to reap these benefits. Here is my advice on turning something you love into something that you do to make money.

Where to start with your Student Business

Decide What you Love to Do (That you’re fairly good at):

I loved pulling a rickshaw so much that I bought into the company that I worked for. (This is not a photo of me.)

While I didn’t start Ottawa Rickshaws, I loved working for the company enough that I bought it! The same applied when I was 14 shooting home movies: I loved to do it, and I was fairly good at it (for a teenager!). Figure out something that you’re good at that you love doing—this could be anything: reading, writing, watching movies, exercising, drawing cartoons.

Decide how you will monetize what you love to do:

How can you turn your hobby into a money maker? Emily Adams loves making cartoons. To monetize this hobby, she commissions her work out to anyone who wishes to hire her talents. We hired her to make some quirky graphics for a corporate flyer. Others hire her to design greeting cards and invitations. Are you particularly knowledgeable or skilled in a certain realm? You can share this knowledge and skill with others…for a price!

Make sure somebody hasn’t done it before:

But if they have, figure out how you can provide the service differently. Are you less expensive? Do you provide better customer service? Is yours healthier? Shinier? Faster? More fun? Ottawa is a fairly small city, so there is a lot of room for unique local ideas (sure may be a restaurant that serves spaghetti pizzas in Montreal, but not in Ottawa).

Let the world know that you’re there:

There are a lot of inexpensive ways to market yourself. Start by working for free (or next to nothing) for people you know. You’ll build up a portfolio of work, spread the word-of-mouth, and collect some good testimonials. Put yourself on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and train yourself to use social media effectively. Build a website, start a blog, print some business cards, and meet as many people as you can.

There are also a lot of online resources that are built just for you., for example, facilitates online buying and selling by providing its customers with online “stores,” perfect for selling your home-made products.

Read! Learn! Meet People!

You should always be looking to polish your model, learn the latest techniques, and meet people who may help improve your product or service. Of course, this learning process will happen naturally from the mistakes you will inevitably make along the way, but this is the fun of small business!

This should encourage you to take your first steps in owning a student business in 2012! I encourage people to comment with additional advice, questions, and ideas. We’ll be revisiting this topic throughout the year.

Here are some additional great resources:
Ottawa Public Library Business Services
Entrepreneur Magazine Blog
Automate My Small Business podcast

Here is another helpful guide you should read as well: