How to Start a Company in International Education

May 10, 2013

By Mitch Gordon

If you are already considering entrepreneurship, congratulations. You've taken a step few people do. Let's help you move past the idea phase and to the point where you're committed to building something special.

We are in the midst of an exciting time for entrepreneurs. There are more resources than ever available to you: start-up programs include YCombinator,TechStars, and 500 Startups and government programs like Startup Chile. Methodologies such as The Lean Startup help founders loosely follow a formula for success. The above said, every community is unique, and NAFSA is certainly no exception. Here are some suggestions for how to follow an entrepreneurial path in the world of international education.

Be a Creative, Entrepreneurial Thinker

From the outside looking in, it may seem that international education has everything it needs. I'd argue the opposite. We need creative, entrepreneurial problem solvers more than ever. The view from my vantage point says we're in the calm before the storm. Massive, career altering disruption is around the corner for the field of international education. Online education is at the beginning stages of turning the U.S. university system upside down. Everyone will be impacted, including the world of international education. Disruption is chaotic, but it's also an opportunity for positive change. Think ahead five, 10 years. What will the world of NAFSA look like then? What do students need? Can you create a business model around meeting those needs more efficiently?

Find a Cofounder

Go Overseas would never be where it is without my cofounders, Andrew Dunkle and Tucker Hutchinson. They challenge me, balance me, and hold me accountable to myself and others. They make me better both professionally and personally. Through my position at UC-Berkeley, I've seen dozens of young companies up close. The startups most likely to succeed have two to three founders. They challenge and push each other, but don't take things personally. It's a powerful thing working with a small group of people on a singular goal. Find someone who provides a balance to your skill set. If you have a technical skill set, find someone with a business background or vice versa. NAFSA should be a great place for you to start looking!

Be Generous and Giving

Here's one of the most important lessons I've learned in the last 10 years of running companies: Help others first. It's a mistake to focus on what you need. Always focus on listening to what others need and how you can help them. It still amazes me what being a genuine, caring listener will do. Sadly, I'd argue it's a skill very much in decline. If you can help someone, do it because it's the right thing to do, not because you want something in return. Businesses are made of people and relationships, not buildings and websites. Don't use a formula and don't try and tell people what you think they want to hear. Be yourself; hopefully that's a generous and empathetic self.

Be Transparent and Collaborative

Talk about your idea with as many people as possible. Don't worry, no one is going to steal your idea. That small risk is vastly outweighed by the advice and feedback you will receive from experienced professionals. Don't be shy about approaching someone and saying, "I have this idea, would you be willing to sit down for a chat with me?" Assuming you are sincere and humble in approach, you will find people more than willing to go out of their way for you.

Don't Think About the Money

When have you ever heard an entrepreneur tell you not to think about the money? Consider this a first. It's important to know your market. This isn't investment banking, SAAS sales, or medical devices. NAFSA members may react uncomfortably hearing the words "industry" or "market." If you want to start a business in the world of international education and study abroad , I'd recommend doing so for the right reasons. There is nothing wrong with making a lot of money, but you're less likely to make your millions here. What you certainly can do is join a wonderful community of caring, dedicated people. You'll positively impact the lives of far more people than you would at JP Morgan. You can make a good living in this world, but don't start from that point. Impact and mission should come first.

Find a Mentor

With NAFSA's 2013 Annual Conference around the corner, use Conference Connection to research attendees. Find a few people who have the entrepreneurial skills you want to develop. Reach out to them in a genuine way, using your own voice (as opposed to a stale form letter). There is nothing wrong with saying, "You are where I'd like to be in my career. I'd love to sit down for a cup of coffee." Remember, mentorship is a two-way street. Your mentor is a person, too, and will want real-time feedback from you as well.

Final Thoughts

Starting a business is a complex, tumultuous endeavor. We've skipped over important topics like funding/finances, business plans, pivoting, and others. My hope is this gives you some necessary tools to shape your ideas and next steps. Often the most important part is taking the plunge and starting your own entrepreneurial journey. See you in St. Louis!

Mitch Gordon is currently the CEO & cofounder of Go Overseas and the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of California-Berkeley. Previously, he founded Reach to Teach and lived in Taipei, Taiwan, for five years. He currently resides in San Francisco, CA.

Join Mitch Gordon during NAFSA's annual conference on Wednesday, May 29, 1:45 p.m.–2:30 p.m., in the Career Advancement Center (America's Center, Room 124) to explore How to Build Your Entrepreneurial Career in Higher Education: Start Up Tactics.