By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven® 

How to Start a Company While in College: Thoughts From a 21-year-old CEO

  • Networking is about giving as much as you receive. If you view expanding your network as an avenue to meet more people, you’ll build relationships that lead to bright ideas.

As a college senior and an entrepreneur who is more than two and a half years into running his first startup, to say Josh Kim is getting a head start on his career is an understatement.

The Cubby is currently a place for 600 artists from 200 schools across the country to showcase and sell their work. For his startup, Josh, who is studying product design and sociology at Colby College, was recognized as a Central Maine Growth Council 2020 Emerging Leader of the Year. He credits planting the seeds of his network and taking entrepreneurship one step at a time as necessary to his journey.

“To get somewhere far, you need to take the first step, and you need to take really small steps to accomplish something big,” Josh says on episode150 of the PR Maven podcast.

The Cubby launched in February 2021 and is now the first online art marketplace that is exclusively for college students. With students receiving 100 percent of proceeds, they can focus on their art instead of sales, marketing and managing an online presence to showcase their work.

Josh launched The Cubby because he wanted young creators to have the power to sell their work. He shares what he learned about entrepreneurship in the process of creating this brand.

How to Start a Company While in College: Thoughts From a 21-year-old CEO4 tips to jumpstart your entrepreneurial career

Josh Kim had no idea that he would be a college senior and CEO, but he’s enjoying the ride.

As Josh expanded his network and met advisors and alumni from Colby College, he soon realized he could create a platform to give young creators — college students like himself — a way to promote and sell their work. He shares advice for others who are early in their careers and who aspire to create a platform or product for their next big idea.

1. Live by your mission

If you have an idea for a brand, it’s important to think about how you’ll add value for customers and clients, and that can lead your brand to success. This might mean offering the solution to a problem. For Josh, it meant helping young creators like himself market and sell their work.

When you visit The Cubby, its home page is filled with the faces of creators — and that’s intentional. Josh’s team built out the platform so each creator has an extensive profile with a link to their Instagram/social media to feature their college story.

This emphasizes that people are supporting the creators themselves when they are buying a product: from jewelry to digital art to clothing and accessories, all created by college students.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the company is really, truly not a marketplace for products; it’s a community of people,” says Josh. “You’re not supporting the work — you’re supporting the artist.”

2. Find advisors and grow relationships

At the beginning of your entrepreneurial career, you want to lay down a strong foundation of people. Josh explains how getting involved with the Colby College community spurred his creative mindset and inspired him to start The Cubby.

He says the all-important mentee and mentor relationship gets these juices flowing: “Having the energy to learn, energy to be curious, energy to really push forward and see where you have your potential — I think that energy is definitely bounced around between a mentor and a mentee.”

Another boost for Josh was networking with Greenlight Maine, a statewide collaboration of entrepreneurial catalysts and corporate leaders, which aims to promote and mentor startup founders across the state.

Josh says the intention of networking, whether at your college or beyond, however, is key. He reminds people to start with the goal of meeting and connecting with like-minded people, then see where that leads.

“Use your network wisely. Don’t just use them for PR and marketing; understand that they can see through all that. Have fun conversations that will help you grow, and that will inspire them to help without even asking them to.”

3. Small wins add up

Take it one step at a time. If Josh had begun his start-up journey knowing he would build a successful online marketplace for creators, he would have been overwhelmed by all the steps in the process. But by starting small through defining the problem and talking to his customers, he eventually got to where he is now.

He advises people to take one step at a time to avoid getting discouraged.

“Take it as one small win at a time. If I looked at this entire journey as one big win, I wouldn’t have gotten here. I would have given up and failed and struggled a lot more.”

If your idea takes a new direction, don’t see it as a failure, but see where that might lead you, and reach out to your network to share new ideas.

4. Unplug from work to maintain balance

Josh didn’t intend to build a personal brand when he launched The Cubby. However, as he pitched The Cubby more, he became known as “the guy working on The Cubby.”

When you are your brand, it’s inevitable that you’ll be talking about your brand — a lot. Josh cautions that when you’re starting out, distinguish your personal life from your brand to avoid burnout.

He shares: “I found myself talking so much about The Cubby in my life that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t always discussing it with my friends. Have that filter: Put work where work is, and your own life where life is.”

Josh talks about how this lesson shows up in “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight, as he reveals the challenge of finding a balance between work and life. Josh says he was inspired by the book to find his own work-life balance.

“I’ve met so many founders who have been so focused on work that they haven’t taken care of themselves,” says Josh. “Disconnect from work. Value yourself and give yourself some love during your journey — that’s the long-term route. It’s the marathon that you’re running.”

This is based on episode 150 of The PR Maven® Podcast, a podcast hosted by Nancy Marshall. Weekly interviews feature industry leaders, top executives, media personalities and online influencers to give listeners a peek into the world of public relations, marketing and personal branding. Subscribe through Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.