I have spent a lot of time (10+ years probably) thinking about college vs. “real world” experience (i.e. running a business).
I’ve talked to hundreds of different people, from all walks of life, about college, entrepreneurship and the value of different types and paths of education. Lately it seems to have become a much hotter topic.
It’s a really important topic, so I thought I’d weigh in.
First I’d like to acknowledge the fact that I am writing this from a position of bias. I have both a BS in Business and an MBA. I now work at a University. While I did go to college (three of them, actually) and I do work at a University, it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve been a Founder, Co-Founder, President, Partner or Investor for the past 17 years. No matter what I do professionally, I was born an entrepreneur and that will always be what I identify with. Since I’ve started/run successful companies and graduated from two Universities, I think I have a somewhat balanced viewpoint. You’ll have to let me know how I do in the comments.
This is a long post. I’ve broken it up into sections so that (if you’d like) you can skip to the one that best relates to you. Please let me know if I missed a scenario as I’d like to include all related situations.
I’m Thinking About Starting A Company Instead Of Going To College
You are at a crossroads in your life. It’s likely that if you are considering college for the first time that you are in your teens or twenties (or older, but the majority are likely in this age group). You’ve been told for a long time probably that you should go to college and get a degree so that you can get a good job. This is engrained in students throughout their K-12 progression. College, college, college! You also have enjoyed starting some small businesses before this point. Perhaps a car wash or the like. Maybe you are even more “advanced”, having built several websites or learned Ruby On Rails while still in high school. Either way, you want to start a business and so you are thinking about doing that instead of going to school. So, college or startup? Let me answer the question with another question:
Do you have to choose one or the other?
I know, a Jack or Jane of all trades is master of nothing. You have to be “all in” if you want to succeed in business. Burn the boats and don’t look back! Blah, blah, and more blah. I don’t get why so many people think you can’t do both. I did. Without question there were trade offs for running a business and finishing my degrees. I had very little social life. I didn’t do nearly as many “fun” things as my peers. Don’t get me wrong, I did have a social life and I did have fun. However, I had a lot less of both because I was going to school, working to pay for school and starting/running businesses. It was really tough. While I had a lot of support and love from those close to me, I didn’t have any money so I had to sacrifice a lot. If an average person like me can do it, why can’t you?
If you feel like, for whatever reason, you must choose, I’d offer this final consideration. Don’t do what you think is cool, what you think will make you rich or what you think will please others. Be honest with yourself and choose the option that you think, long-term, will give you the best life. LIfe is an all-encompassing word. It means every aspect of your daily living. Family, friends, eat, sleep, live, work, play, learn, share, love = life. I think you can find all kinds of happiness in either choice. Only you will really know what is best for you. Just don’t be afraid to sacrifice your time for pursuing both options simultaneously. I actually think it is easier to quit school and just pursue your business. So don’t take the easy way out; do both until you can’t anymore (which may not even happen).
I Am In School Now. Should I Dropout To Start Or Join A Business?
This is the most common option I have heard about lately. There are several great examples of successful people dropping out of school and then making it big. Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg come to mind first. Three huge names in technology that all dropped out of college to pursue their businesses full-time. Do me a favor though and read that list again.
Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. With all due respect, please go to a quiet place and be alone with yourself for a moment. Do you truly, honestly believe that you are going to quit school to build a company like these? Stop drinking your own Kool-Aid for a minute and tell the truth. I have no doubt you are doing something that you are crazy passionate about. You cannot sleep. You work all the time because it isn’t really work, right? What you are doing is awesome, totally needed and will definitely be a big deal. Having said all of that, it probably still won’t be Apple, Microsoft or Facebook and that is totally okay. There are a lot of killer companies out there that don’t change the entire world. Please do not take this as negativity or pessimism. You can do amazing things – and many of you will. ‘Amazing’ and ‘change the world’ are different though.
So why did these three drop out of college? I think there are two answers that were primary drivers for all of them. First, they didn’t view college as a path to a job. Instead, they viewed it as a vehicle to challenge themselves and learn. Once they felt like they could get a greater learning experience elsewhere, they left. College wasn’t nearly as intellectually stimulating for them as it once was. They are literally geniuses, so it’s easy to see why school became less of a challenge for them. The second common denominator is that they all had some traction before they officially quit school. Read their stories and you’ll see that they had very little risk associated with leaving school. Gates came from a very wealthy family and had traction at Microsoft. He knew he was a genius, so if Microsoft failed, he could easily fall back on family or his smarts. Facebook was totally taking off and Zuckerberg was in Silicon Valley raising money while seeing user numbers spike. The risk was fairly low when these geniuses decided to leave school. For most of you the risk will be much higher. That isn’t a reason to not do it, but it is a reason to not compare yourself to them.
Even if you are on par with them, there is one thing I thought a lot about that you might want to as well. There is a very good chance that your children may not want to pursue entrepreneurship one day. I envisioned a discussion with my kids wherein I told them that Dad didn’t graduate from college. Regardless of how much money I’ve made, how cool the companies I’ve been a part of where, or what kind of life they led, I wanted to be able to tell them that I stuck it out and finished. That I (and their mother, too) graduated from college. It might not matter to you, but it did to me. I’m going to 100% support my kids in any direction they choose. On the off-chance that they don’t have what it takes to start or join a business, I’m glad I’ll be able to lead by example when it comes to college.
I’ve Got A Degree. Should I Get An MBA Or Start/Join A Business?
This is a growing group of people who fit into this stage. Getting an MBA or the like isn’t as prestigious as it once was. They are more common, many who have graduated have made pompous asses out of themselves (thus devaluing the degree) and the guarantee of a better job isn’t as high. Does that mean continuing with school is a lesser option for you? Perhaps.
What is your main motivation for getting another degree? Is it more money from your job, or a promotion, or both? If somewhere in there it isn’t about wanting to learn more than you might want to think again before taking the GMAT. When I stared my MBA, I think my company was doing about $10M/year in sales. It was profitable and growing. I was now married and getting ready to start a family. That’s the perfect time and reason to get an MBA, right? Ummm, no. So why did I choose to do it? Because I wanted to learn. My employer (myself) wasn’t going to reimburse my costs. I wouldn’t get a raise or a promotion if I completed the program. I wasn’t going to apply for a job that required an MBA. I’d like to think that I went to graduate school for the purest of reasons; to learn more.
And I did.
MBA school was really interesting. I learned a lot of the things I had thought you were supposed to learn getting your BS degree. Every class, every paper, every student and every teacher was all about business. Since I was too it came together nicely and somehow, someway, I managed to get the degree done. In fact, I was chosen to speak to the entire business school at graduation. It was one of the highlights of my professional career. I can honestly say I got my moneys worth. It worked for me and has opened a lot of interesting doors.
If you are going to get an MBA or the like for any reason other than personal improvement, think about all of the other options out there deeply. Making more money and/or getting a promotion simply are not enough of a reason to do it. If they are, then think hard about starting or joining a startup instead. They can provide those same opportunities (money, promotions), too. They can also provide incredible learning experiences! Again, only you know the reasons you want to do certain things.
Return On Investment.
Most of the time when people talk about the costs associated with college, they bring up ROI. If you go to school, you are X more likely to get a job that pays you Y more money. Do some math and out comes a result that either makes it look like a smart financial decision or a dumb one. I don’t believe in this process. There are just to many factors that cannot be measured in order for this to be really accurate. Here are a few:
Met someone in school that you later partnered with.
Met someone in school that later led you to a better job opportunity.
Learned something in school that helped you make a series of smart financial decisions.
Spent time in school and stopped you from doing something else that would have been a big financial loss.
Learned what you hated so you could avoid it later in your career.
Connected with a student, teacher or alumni that sparked an idea that later turned into a successful company you start.
You meet someone who later helps one of your kids in a unique way.
You’ll meet your co-founder at school. Mark Zuckerberg met his co-founders in school as did/do many others.
All of these same scenarios can obviously occur outside of school, too. I’m just saying that basing the decision to go to college based on ROI is both inaccurate and short-sighted.
The list can go on and on. There are too many things to consider other than just the average salary increase that a degree does or doesn’t get you. Besides, as I’ve said before, don’t go to school just to get a job or make more money. Go to learn, test yourself, have fun and find out what you like and what you don’t. Or don’t go at all. Just stay true to yourself.
Be Careful About Your Decision.
My final thoughts on the subject are in regards to the multitude of opinions out there about this subject. Many (not all) of those who dropped out of school and are finding success will tell you that dropping out of school is awesome. The best thing they ever did! And it may very well be. I don’t doubt that, for them, it has turned out to be the life they wanted. I also know of many people who have graduated from college that love their J.O.B. and felt like college was really worth their time and money. There are also plenty of people who finish school but start a business instead of get a job (and they love it). None of these groups are bad people to listen to. They have valuable perspective that can help you figure out what to do.
It’s this next group that I’d like to warn you about.
There is a section of people who hated school, have a ton of debt, and are stuck in a crappy job. There are yet another group that dropped out of school (or didn’t start) and never found success as an entrepreneur. They had to get a job or do something else, and not having a college degree has hurt them. The first group will tell you college is a waste. Don’t do it. I did and it hasn’t done squat for me! Follow your “dreams” and keep away from the debt and the time suck. They are telling you that because of where they sit in life. I think that regardless of whether or not they graduated from college their life would be equally as mediocre. Their attitude is what is killing them, not their college degree.
The second group will tell you to finish school! You need a degree! Biggest mistake of my life not to go to/finish college! Again, they have a strong personal bias based on their own failures. Many kids go to college because their parents didn’t. That’s an honorable thought to be the first college graduate in your family, BUT it isn’t enough of a reason to go. Keep defaulting to your private feelings about what is best for you. You won’t go wrong if you are honest with yourself and don’t let outside sources over influence your decisions.
At the end of the day, my takeaways are these:
1 – It is possible to start a company AND finish college. It isn’t always (or even often) one or the other.
2 – It may be a good decision for you to drop out of school to pursue a business. Traction helps a lot.
3 – Those that have college degrees, for the most part, are not worse off because of them.
4 – If you are going to have kids, having a degree might matter to you more someday.
5 – Be careful who you listen to, you are not them and vice versa.
6 – ROI is a weak reason to go/not go to college.
7 – Want to learn? You can in a lot of places in and out of college. Find the best spot for you.
WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH COLLEGE?