Note: ProjectileX does not exist anymore, however the story is still compelling and quite remarkable, especially for two high school entrepreneurs
Prior to high school, Steven Li was an aspiring teen entrepreneur. He gathered all the business knowledge he could from reading spare business magazines around the house. However, upon entering high school, that soon changed.
At his high school, Steven decided to participate in DECA, an international organization that teaches students about the business world by hosting various competitions. Luckily for Steven, DECA seemed to be his forté as he advanced all the way to the international competition and become a finalist—an impressive (and rare) feat for any first-year competitor.
But although he received a business education, Steven wasn’t seeing the connection between what he was used to reading about and what DECA was offering.
“I’ve always read quite a bit about startups. I read TechCrunch, Business Insider, and these kinds of publications very frequently. And I found a lot of value in reading these things and didn’t really see the direct connection between what I was learning from DECA and what seems to be the practical means to start a business.”
Additionally, DECA had other major drawbacks. Aside from the high prices associated with the competitions, Steven noticed that not many students were doing DECA for the purpose of learning, but instead they viewed the events as opportunities to miss class.
“DECA doesn’t really incentivize you to build your own product at the end. You have a business plan that you pitch to a judge, but you’re not incentivized to build something. So it’s very easy for you and your peers to go to a conference and see it’s more of a way to skip school than a way to learn.”
After coming to these stark realisations, Steven, along with his co founder and fellow high schooler Rahul Bavirisetty, founded ProjectileX, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to provide a true education rooted in entrepreneurship to elementary and middle school students.
Inspired by his recent success in DECA, Steven admits that he—naively—wasn’t intimidated by the task he set himself upon.
“You should check your ego at the door when you’re starting [a business], unlike me. When I first started, I thought I could definitely do it. Truth is, I couldn’t have done it. I didn’t know how to do it, and I was pretty much destined to fail because I didn’t have the [necessary] skills.”
In fact, the path to success was more slow paced and laborious than the founders had expected. To create original, quality content for their programs, the two remembered “just sitting at [their] desks and reading tons and tons of books so that [they could] translate them into [a] curriculum that is both efficient and decipherable for kids.”
Aside from content creation, the other challenge was finding schools to pilot their program.
“We tried to get schools to [use] our program for four months, and not a single school said yes to us. We got 60 to 80 people who reached out and said, ‘look, you guys are in high school, and you’re not running a program at our elementary school.’ And these were the nicer people because most of the people didn’t even respond.”
Clearly, ProjectileX was off to a tough start. But soon enough, things began to improve. After “getting lucky” with a school, they were able to finally create user testimonials to provide credibility to their services and drive future sales. And with the help of a group of insightful advisors who hailed from many different backgrounds, ProjectileX finally began to scale.
Not too long after, they were able to leverage previous testimonials and the power of word of mouth marketing to onboard multiple schools and enroll over 120,000 students into their program.
While ProjectileX may not exist anymore, the lessons garnered through the experience of running can still find relevance in every sphere of today’s business world.
Thoughts from the Writer
As a fellow high school entrepreneur and former DECA competitor, this story really resonated with me. They were able to break free from the status quo that limited aspiring high school entrepreneurs to creating school clubs and competing in business competitions and create something that’s had an everlasting impact on thousands on people. And they were just two high schoolers.
After reflecting on their story, I’m inspired by their success, but more inspired for showing us (other high schoolers) that what they did is possible for all present and future entrepreneurs to come.
When I first interviewed Steven, I was in the middle of my high school career, dazzled by young entrepreneurs, and excited to get started myself. Though ProjectileX may have ended after Steven and Rahul graduated, the organization changed my paradigms on the glorification of startup culture and, more importantly, that with enough work, building a community out of nothing was possible.
And for that, thank you.
People think that they know much more than they actually do. I think that when you come to actually do something, you’ll come to realize how many people, even your own age, are far more accomplished than you are. You should really check your ego.
Your thesis should be unwavering, but the way that you got to where you want to be should be very flexible. Our content has changed, but it’s only because we figured out that it would help us better reach that end goal.
Biggest Entrepreneurial Lesson
You should realize what you don’t know so that you can actually take actionable steps in closing the gap between what you want to know and what you do know right now.
It’s important to define why you want to do things before you do them. The reason is you have too few hours in your life to be good at everything. So if you want to change all the issues in the world, then that’s not possible.
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