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Thinking like a startup to create great extracurriculars

In Extracurriculars, First-Year and Sophomore.

It's the end of junior year and you're starting to think about college. Specifically, you're starting to worry about college.

Your GPA is solid and you're pretty happy with your test scores too. But your resume... Yikes. There were those two months you worked at a pet store. Uh, you played basketball on the weekend with your friends for awhile. Hmmm... You took your dog on a walk every day?

Don't trip. It's hard as hell to focus on school and extracurriculars at the same time. To be honest, I don't know how a lot of my current clients do it.

I have two pieces of good news. The first is that you still have 8 months to do something cool and meaningful before applications are due. Trust me, that's plenty of time.

"But," you interject. "It's going to take me years to build a grassroots coalition to pressure my Congressperson to create legislation on X issue!"  I know, some students accomplish shit in high school that seems to set the bar impossibly high.

Here's the second piece of good news. You don't need to do something complex or nationally recognized to dramatically improve your extracurricular profile.

In this post I'm going to talk about my framework for quickly setting up an extracurricular project that has personal meaning to you and that isn't bullshit. In the beginning of the post I mentioned that this has something to do with "thinking like a startup." But what does that mean?

Validation should come before you ever lift a finger

Look at any successful company. You may find yourself asking, "How the hell did they build this?" Well, not in a day.

When seasoned entrepreneurs launch a new business, they don't just jump in blindly.

Entrepreneurs know that time is their most precious resource. Getting a new product to market quickly is imperative to taking advantage of momentum. Seasoned entrepreneurs might abandon a project if it can't be launched quickly and successfully.

So instead of jumping into a project blindly, launching and seeing if it sticks, a smart entrepreneur will usually try to validate their idea.

How do you validate an idea?

Validation can come in many forms. It can be measured in sentiments captured in a customer survey, in pre-registrations for a subscription service, or even simple, anecdotal conversations with important stakeholders.

But however validation is assessed, it will tell the entrepreneur two things. The first is that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. The second is that people would appreciate/buy/consume a solution if one existed.

This gets us to the real meaning of the phrase, "The customer is always right." It’s become a cudgel for retail managers to force young people to take abuse from customers. But if you zoom out a bit, the phrase points to a core principle of business, advocacy, and "impact." That is, for a project to be successful, you need to meet the demand that’s out there in the way it currently exists.

So how does this touch down on extracurriculars?

Well, there's zero point in designing a "solution" for a problem that doesn't exist. If your non-profit or research experiment isn't a response to some actual problem--an effort to solve the problem through targeted intervention--then it's purely performative. Plus, you'll be fighting an uphill battle to get traction because people just won't care.

Define what success looks and limit, limit, limit your scope

Ok, so our startup founder has discovered a problem and received validation for a solution.

But now she has a second problem on her hands: How big should she go in launching her project? Is she trying to launch the next Amazon, or focusing on making an impact just within her own community?

Defining the scope of your project is so important. Related, and equally important, is your definition of what it means to succeed.

If your goal is to influence a national legislative agenda, then you have your work cut out for you. Reaching your success state is going to take time, resources, and luck.

If you're trying to make a change on a local level, then success will look very different. It might just mean reaching a few people.

Here's something important to keep in mind. Neither of these projects is "better" than the other, because success looks different for each of them. 

In fact, the locally-focused project may be much more successful by its own definition than the one focused on affecting national change. By the same stroke, the results accomplished may be much more impressive at the end of the day.

The fallacy of extracurriculars

This gets us to a fallacy of extracurriculars -- that bigger is always better. It just isn't. Sure, if you're able to single-handedly build a national advocacy network or make a revolutionary breakthrough in a medical field, that's obviously very impressive. Some big league shit.

But if your goal was to build a new library in your remote town and you were able to knock that project out of the park... Hey, I'd rather hear that story than one from someone who tried to build a "national movement" that never ultimately got off the ground.

Focus all your efforts on an MVP and distribution

But say our startup founder wants to go big... They imagine building a massive rental platform similar to Airbnb. But how do they launch? Should they spend months and months building the complete product, completely realizing their vision before launching?

No. Airbnb is actually a good example of leading with a minimal product... When the company launched, they did it with the following:

  • A super minimal website that didn't have booking functionality (you had to email the founders to book)
  • Three air mattresses arranged in extra spaces in their apartment
  • A super limited audience: tech conference attendees at a single sold-out conference..

That was their "minimum viable product" (MVP). Their success with the limited offering helped them answer the fundamental questions about whether anyone would even pay to rent space on a floor in San Francisco.

The MVP provided the foundation they needed to grow. It also gave them something tangible to point to when investors showed up.

Here's another phrase for you: "The enemy of the good isn't the bad; it's the perfect."

In other words, don't focus on launching a completely developed and professional project. Instead, focus on launching a minimal project that gets the ball rolling. You can always build it out further from there, adding features and resources over time.

Finally, you need to think about distribution. In business this is often the hardest part of the equation. You built something, but now what? How do you tell people it exists and get the project in front of the people it was designed to help?

Spend a good amount of time figuring out who you want to reach. If they're community leaders, get their email addresses! Ditto with news outlets. If the project is going to live on Facebook and Instagram or TikTok, fine, but how are you going to get the word out there? What type of accounts are you going to follow?

Have a plan for distribution set up in advance. Getting your project in front of people is crucial to reaching your self-set definition of success.

Getting community input is also a great way to plan the next steps for your project's growth. Maybe the features or plans you had in mind don't actually resonate with the people you distribute your MVP to. You'll learn a lot at this phase from everyone you send your project to.

Applying all three steps, a personal example

Here's a personal example of how I recently applied these steps to launch a project I care about. I recently had a bad experience with a corporate landlord whom I was renting from. This bad experience got me researching the phenomenon of corporate landlords in the United States.

My project

Oh, you don't know what a corporate landlord is? Neither do most people, I quickly discovered. I even knew a bunch of people who rented from a corporate landlord who weren't aware of the issue. But when I described what corporate landlords were in detail, everyone I spoke to was outraged. They wanted to learn more and to spread the word.

So I inadvertently went through a validation process. I discovered

  • A problem: Corporate landlords suck and no one knows what they are.
  • A partial solution with expressed interest: Providing organized, detailed information about corporate landlords to people who lack knowledge.

I then asked myself, OK, what do I want to do to address this? I care about the topic, but how am I going to act.

I decided that I didn't have the time to build a grass-roots movement. My strengths are in writing and outreach, so I settled for building a content-heavy website with useful resources that I could then share with relevant parties.

As I thought about it, I defined my success state: I wanted to increase awareness about the topic and build meaningful resources that would reach tenants, renters, and homeowners.

It was time to figure out my MVP. I had already been researching and writing about corporate landlords in the US, and I knew I wanted to crystalize this research into a short white paper on the subject. So I knew a white paper would be part of my MVP.

Then I added a few more resources in, because I wanted to launch with something that had something for each of the groups I mentioned above. In the end, I launched with...

  • A ten-page white paper about the rise of corporate landlords in the US
  • A one-page fact-sheet about corporate landlords
  • A printable flyer with a QR code that linked back to my site
  • A congressional outreach template to alert representatives about the issue
  • And an aggregated list of websites with information about tenants' rights in all 50 states.

I launched all this in a Squarespace website. Here's the finished MVP:

Finally, I had to answer the question about distribution. For me, this part was easy. I shared it with tenants I knew, tenants' rights organizations, and realtor organizations in certain communities that are highly impacted by corporate landlords (#stopcorporatelandlords).

Final words

You can do this, too. Don't get stuck in the mindset that a creative extracurricular project will take years to develop. I launched in four days. Now admittedly, I think just about as fast as I write. And I write fast.

But that's my strength. Find a project or problem you care about, validate the need for a solution, and get out here and put something into the world that leverages what you're good at. It's easier than it sounds.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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