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Tips to make your business idea a reality while in grad school

Six steps to start a business when you have no money.


Are you a graduate student with a business idea? Bringing an idea to fruition may feel daunting, but the good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to make it a reality. Below are my six steps to help launch your entrepreneurial experiment.

Step 1: Brainstorm and refine your ideas

Find  the sweet spot where your skills, passions and market demand intersect. MyIDP is a fantastic resource for self-assessment. When I started out, I listed my technical and transferrable skills and intersected them with my passions for writing and teaching to generate a list of services. I came up with three ideas:

  1. writing for the healthcare industry,
  2. project management for research institutes, and
  3. designing learning solutions for researchers.

Research free resources, tutorials, YouTube videos, podcasts and courses on platforms such as Coursera and LinkedIn to fine-tune your concept. Pick up books through free subscriptions for a more comprehensive view. The first two books I read were The Fearless Freelancer and Freelance Medical Writing through a free Kindle subscription.

Step 2: Decide on one idea and immerse yourself in the business

Pick one idea to work on from your curated list. Join some free discussion groups or forums. Ask questions, engage in discussions and learn from peers. I picked medical writing because I love translating concepts into words and my research indicated high market demand. I also joined professional writing associations as well as groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Understand how professionals in your niche market think and act; how they find clients, decide on compensation and soldier through market downturns. Expand your network and build genuine connections. Learn about your niche as much as you can. Every step from now on, such as creating your profile, writing a pitch, and promoting your business, builds upon  what you learned in this phase.

Step 3: Optimize your professional profile and update it regularly

You have gained sufficient knowledge about what you want your business to be by now. You’re ready to set up a profile on a platform where your ideal clients can be found (ex.  LinkedIn  for services or Etsy  for products).

No matter what platform you choose, optimize your profile by highlighting relevant skills, experiences, education and certifications tailored to your service. Use SEO techniques to ensure your profile ranks high when clients search for your service. Attract prospects with a professional profile picture, headlines, keywords, an effective description of your service and contact information. Take inspiration from profiles you like and ask close connections for feedback.

Monitor visitors, identify potential clients and engage with them. Your platform will provide you with some basic statistics. It may take a client months or sometimes even years before they buy your service.

Step 4: Assemble a portfolio

Compile a portfolio of your best work while working on the previous steps. Consider clients’ interests to select three or more of your best samples that will speak for your capabilities. Link your portfolio to your professional profile. This will offer your prospects a glimpse of your service.

Step 5: Set up a website

A website boosts your credibility. Building one has become simpler now with numerous available step-by-step tutorials. I recommend using a free hosting site like WordPress. An effective site includes skills, experience, portfolio, contact details and a few testimonials.

Step 6: Promote your service

Spread the word among friends, colleagues and connections. Post consistently to engage connections, offer suggestions, and only sparsely talk about your service. Craft a compelling pitch that piques interest. Consistent marketing is indispensable for your business. You will need to stay fresh in prospects’ minds so they think of you first when they need the service.

As a graduate student, you have access to amazing resources and free subscriptions through your university (e.g., Udemy). Many platforms offer free basic plans or free trials for tasks, including research, drafting contracts, generating invoices, managing bookkeeping, tracking billing hours and overseeing projects. The time- and project management skills you are honing at grad school will help you succeed in your business. If you have a well-designed plan (free course on project management) and you stay consistent with your work, investing a few hours a week can be enough to get started.

Now you know the basic steps to start a business with no upfront cost. However, investing a bit, like the cost of a month’s worth of lattes, can yield substantial returns. In my first year of freelancing, I spent $20 on website hosting (and a domain name), plus $80 to join a professional association. This small investment helped me build expertise and credibility. Within 12 months of starting my medical writing business, I was able to increase my consultancy rate to four times while working from the comfort of my home at my preferred hours.

Tania Sultana
Tania Sultana is a freelance medical writer and non-fiction author.
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