Balancing School & Startups

By Will Fry, Huntsman Program Class of 2017, Dorm Room Fund partner

A question that often plagues student-entrepreneurs is how to balance working on startups and performing well in school. With tuition and fees priced at the upper side of $60,000/year, you want to have the peace of mind that you’re doing the best with the resources you’ve been provided (and paid for!) at school.


To start, there is no right answer to this question, but as a student and an entrepreneur myself, I’ve found a number of ways to go about optimizing the two based on priorities and goals.  Here are the five criteria I use to balance succeeding in school and running a startup:

1. Define your priorities.

You came to Penn to learn. Some lessons are best learned in the classroom and some on the field. Keep in mind that trying and failing at a startup during college gives you an escape route and time to reallocate resources that are simply not there post-graduation. On the other hand, these courses and professors won’t be, either. Every time you’re pulled between coursework and working on your startup, step back and ask yourself which you’re going to learn the most from.

2. Look for advantages within the school’s startup resources.

Are there certain resources, experts, or programs that Wharton or the greater Penn community offer that allow your startup to gain an advantage? This point is especially helpful in deciding whether acting now in creating a startup can actually help you down the road. Resources like the Weiss Tech House, Wharton Business Plan Competition, the Venture Initiation Program, and others give you a chance to have mentors, funding, and more with fewer strings attached and more guidance than if you were to jump into the water after graduation.

3. Look for parallels between your studies and entrepreneurship.

Studying and startups are definitely not mutually exclusive; in fact, one might spawn out of the other. Often deep study of a certain field will show you opportunities for innovation that you might not see on the surface. On the flipside, if you’re running into a problem with your startup, why not take a course from a world renowned professor that specifically covers that subject and adds to your transcript?

4. Strive to find a project that will teach you something everyday.

Working on a startup can teach you anything from programming to business development to marketing. These are all professions that also exist outside of the startup world. If you are simultaneously able to grow a company and continue to learn inside and outside of the classroom, the situation becomes win-win. The most important aspect of this criteria is that you’re never ceasing to seize the best opportunity to optimize learning, building, and following your passions.

5. Don’t be afraid of failure.

Regardless of what you decide to pursue or how you plan to spend your time, realize that most ventures don’t succeed at first go. The important aspect of startups, and life in general, is not in the success or failure of undertakings but in the lessons learned along the way. Don’t hesitate to write them down or even blog about them. Analyzing failure can insure that the same obstacle or problem does not hold you back in the future.

With these criteria in mind, reflect over what you’ve accomplished during your time at Penn and what you want to achieve in the time remaining. Make sure that whatever you do, you’re making the most of your time! You only get one go at college, so make the most of it.

Will FryBio: Will is a freshman in the College and Wharton, where he is studying International Studies and Business through the Huntsman Program. He’s a partner at Dorm Room Fund, where he works on freshman outreach, events, and sourcing. He’s interned at @TwoToasters, a mobile application development firm founded by ’07 Wharton alum Rachit Shukla, and he also works for @RaisedByUs, a workplace giving program for tech startups in the City, which was founded by ’06 Penn alum Simon Kirk. He recently started helping out the Platform Team at @FirstRound via his love of Python.