handbook for high school founders

🚏🚌 home writing

updated: june 1, 2021

i decided to try out startups in 8th grade by going to various summer programs. then, in sophomore year of high school, i finally decided to try creating one and see where it could go. it was an incredibly fun ride building and growing munch to 650 users + 25 restaurants, so i wanted to write something to distill my learnings and help future high school founders out 🤗

starting out...

in 2019, i told my friend, Lauren, about several business ideas and we started working at the local Coffee Bean on weekends brainstorming nonstop and doing research. we had no idea what we were doing, but wanted to try startups out.

back in 2019 😳 i am on the left and Lauren (my cofounder) is on the right
back in 2019 😳 i am on the left and Lauren (my cofounder) is on the right

the idea: we finally settled on an early version of munch, which was sending restaurant coupons thru sms. on weekends and after school, we picked a plaza with 10-15 restaurants in it, walk around for 4 hours, and pitched to the owner on the spot.

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then, we started pitching to a bunch of restaurants whenever we could. On weekends and after school, we would pick a plaza with 10-15 restaurants in it, walk around for around 3-4 hours, and pitched to the owner on the spot.

the first few pitches were ... awkward to say the least 😳 but thankfully, we got better at recognizing when the restaurant owner was getting bored and was able to switch up our pitch as needed. we reached out to around 400 restaurants total, through in-person cold calls, cold emails.

our first launch at Yogurtland!
our first launch at Yogurtland!

one of the most memorable experiences I remember was when Lauren and I went to a pizza shop to pitch. But, when we got there, we were informed that the owner was actually in the store next door. So, we went around the building to the surrounding shop and realized that we were in a weed shop 😅 It was super dark and had a bunch of people who looked kind of scary 🥲 but weirdly enough, we were able to close the deal :) (in retrospect, I think the the fumes in the store helped us relax lol ☺️)

looking back, learning how to pitching to restaurants in-person was probably the most valuable learning experience I got out of Munch. learning how to handle rejections pitch after pitch and how to talk authentically was super important. i respect people in sales so much now 🥲

fast forward a bit...

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we pivoted the idea to something we thought was more promising: takeout ordering over text. people could text a restaurant their order and skip the line.

we ended up partnering with 17 restaurants in 3 weeks and we had 650 high school students interacting with us 3.2 times a week. we were also lucky enough to be interviewed by YC, which was an incredible learning experience that i am super grateful for.

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meeting a bunch of yc founders who helped us in the interview process helped me gather ~different perspectives~ too. the whole process got me really interested in shared commerce experiences like snackpass and pinduoduo

i'm definitely still learning, and munch was nowhere near product market fit, but i wanted to share notes i've accumulated about startups. this guide is especially applicable for young founders in high school who want to pursue startups

here’s a brief run though of the 8 things:

1. start with a simple idea

2. high school business competitions are mainly a scam

3. don't get caught in the cycle of learning before trying

4. how to find a team that has accountability baked into it

5. only your customers' opinions matter

6. set mad, crazy goals

💥 start with a simple idea

i entered my first business competition in 9th grade with a terrible idea: uber for kids. this idea sucks because there’s no way that idea was feasible to execute at my age, especially with child safety restrictions. i also had no prior knowledge in law. high chance i was going to get sued ;)

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Here’s what my team’s pitch deck looked like 😩 (way too much info)

I can’t believe we included our complex revenue formula on the pitch deck too 🥲
I can’t believe we included our complex revenue formula on the pitch deck too 🥲

in retrospect, i should have focused on selling a simple idea, rather than get caught up on a complex idea. setting a goal such as making $100 in 1 month by doing something simple would have been so much more valuable than sitting in a coffee shop for hours trying to come up with a complex idea.

you can sell...

  1. notion templates
  2. your old clothes (check out thryft.shop, i may be working there rn 😉)
  3. third-party products (dropshipping)
  4. photo presets
  5. t-shirt designs on redbubble
  6. stickers, bracelets, earrings, on etsy

these are just a few ideas to get started. the key thing to keep in mind is to ensure simplicity. if your business can't be built in under a weekend, toss the idea.

👎🏻 high school business competitions are mainly a scam

this is probably my biggest regret because i wasted so much time doing these competitions.

i would not have entered as many startup/pitch competitions as i did before. they were extremely energy draining (usually 1-3 months of work) and i didn’t learn much from the 3 minutes feedback i got from judges. instead, it was much more valuable for me to do it myself and learn through the process.

you should look at business competitions as 1) a networking op. or 2) a way of getting started. nothing wrong with going to 1-2 and seeing what other students are doing. but, i would not beat yourself up if you don't win because real business is convincing customers, while in competitions, you're convincing judges.

some may say competitions provide funding. but, unless you're doing something super sciencey, you probably don't need funding at an early stage. getting funding does not mean success, and student competitions usually don't offer more than a couple thousands of dollars. opting for grants is much more efficient. my team probably spent $250 max after 4 months of operation.

**also, on incorporation, don't worry about paying for it until you're have a pricing system that seems to work and is bringing in constant revenue. (if you join YC's startup school, you can get access to their deals page. There, you can sign up for Stripe Atlas' incorporation program for $250 (incorporate as a Delaware C-Corp). Original price is $500.)

📖 don't get caught in the cycle of learning before trying

it's especially easy to feel that you need to read through a long article, go through an entire course, or spend at least a couple weeks gaining knowledge before doing anything while it is helpful to read articles, I wholeheartedly believe that you only need a couple of essential articles to get started. then, its best to try running the startup as you're learning. making mistakes early on won't have that great of an impact — in fact, they'll probably have such a minute effect because you're early stage. here are some to get started. they shouldn't take more than a day to go through.

  1. how to come up with startup ideas
  2. how to evaluate startup ideas
  3. how to talk to users
  4. how to test startup ideas
  5. creating product market fit
  6. yc's essential startup advice

🧁 how to find a team that has accountability baked into it

finding a team with accountable people is hard. especially since high school founders typically work with other high schoolers, and there's lots of accountability conflict that naturally happens. finding a great team is probably the most important concern that high school founders should have, since your team is your foundation. without a great team, nothing good can happen.

in order to have motivated teenagers to work with you, I think its best to make the bare bones of your project yourself. try to get an early version of it working. talk to customers and try to earn revenue. then, it becomes much easier to attract the right talent, since you already have results.

also, documenting your journey on twitter will probably help a lot. teen founders are active on twitter.

in terms of accountability, don't hire right away. make sure that 1) you would absolutely 100% love to work with that individual and 2) you feel comfortable talking to them about non-business stuff. working on a startup should be, at the end of the day, fun :) then, hire them for a 2-week trial to see if it would work. don't commit too fast, and get to know them a bit better.

if they're consistently not delivering work, let go of them immediately. unfortunately, if they miss deadlines a couple of times, they'll probably do it again.

the best team numbers are 3-4.

  • too small of a team = hard to make decisions. there's also just too much work.
  • too big of a team = uncommitted founders and equity can't be divided nicely in the future. also, it becomes difficult to plan meetings and share information.

💭 only your customers' opinions matter

at munch, there was a period of stagnant growth in our last iteration: text a food you were craving and then we would text back a coupon. we weren't growing signficantly week over week, and our customers weren't using munch regularly.

first iteration
first iteration

it was extremely frustrating and i kept meeting with my cofounder to find solutions, which never worked. so, we decided to individually text our customers for feedback, having good conversations to eventually figure out why they didn't want to use it. most of the feedback was centered around coupons not being an important part of their food buying process. instead, lines (especially at boba shops) were turning them away from ordering at their favorite places.

an important thing I had to internalize was that my opinion did not matter at the end of the day if no other people felt the same way.

🧗🏻set mad, crazy goals

setting ambitious goals that seem undoable is key. people commonly suggest to set realistic goals so you don’t lose motivation. this is true, but only true if it is a low level goal. if you want to attain crazy progress, you have to be delusional and set an extremely high level goal that seems unrealistic and a bit uncomfortable. that is the only way that you can progress at a rapid pace.

even if you don’t reach that high level goal, you’re still likely to surpass your realistic goal that you would have started with.

sure, you may risk losing motivation if you set a high level goal. but the minute you achieve just one high level goal, it brings in enough intrinsic motivation to do the next one. risky, but great returns.

I hope this helps any high school founders :) If you want to share anything, my email is chloechia@gmail.com