Scott H Young

Should Future Entrepreneurs Go to College?


College

If you plan on running your own business empire, should you bother going to school?

I reject the common idea that school is a waste of time for potential entrepreneurs. There are good reasons why many entrepreneurs would benefit from education, and the choice depends on your situation.

Common Wisdom: School is a Waste of Time for Entrepreneurs

Erica Douglass, who sold her first business for over one million dollars, argues that you shouldn’t:

“I don’t think college is beneficial for teenagers who already have a good idea of what they want to do with their lives, especially if they want to start a business.”

Ben Casnocha, one of my favorite bloggers and founder of a sizable enterprise software company while still in high school also questions the benefits of school:

“[Cal Newport] wisely ignores folks like me who sit on the radical fringe and start from the premise: ‘Why college?’”

Beyond Casnocha and Douglass, there are many examples of wildly successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of school to pursue their business ambitions. Bill Gates quit Harvard. Steve Jobs dropped Reed College. Even Sergey Brin and Larry Page abandoned their PhD theses to found Google.

The question for any would-be entrepreneur thinking about school stands: will it end up being a waste of your time?

Does School Increase Your Odds of Entrepreneurial Success?

Correlation isn’t causation, but based on all the reasons I’ll discuss, I’d say there is good reason to suspect school does increase the odds of your success.

In the Illusions of Entrepreneurship, Scott Shane studies the data on American entrepreneurs. A major factor in becoming an entrepreneur: having a college degree.

What’s an even bigger indicator? Having a graduate degree.

Smart people go to school. They also start businesses. This correlation shouldn’t be too surprising.

But consider that educated people tend to earn more income at their jobs and work at more desirable jobs (think engineer versus factory worker), then it would make sense that in order for them to give up better jobs to start a business, there would be an even better chance of success.

Why University?

I see several big reasons to go to university. Unfortunately the issue can’t have a consensus. For many entrepreneurs, school will definitely be a waste of energy. These people will almost undoubtedly further their ambitions more by working outside of school. For others, school will provide the crucial stepping stone to entrepreneurship.

Reason One: You May Need to Work First

An internet business like the one I run is low-hanging fruit. Anyone can set up a blog or write an ebook, and in fact, many do.

The problem with no entry barriers is that there is way more competition. According to Technorati, this blog would rank high in the top 1% of all blogs. And, at this point, I’m making a comfortable income, but certainly not riches.

I’m not arguing the odds of success are 1%. Simply that when you choose the easiest business to start that requires the least up-front knowledge, your chances of success are inevitably lower.

I know someone who is the CEO of a software company, working with machine fabrication. He tells me, he “always tries to take off at least two months to visit Europe every year.”

He has reached success, certainly. But he didn’t do it by going after the quickest business opportunity he hit upon. He started by building experience and skill within the industry. First by getting a degree in engineering, then by spending a couple years inside the industry he eventually created a company from.

Reason Two: Freelancing Can Allow You to Survive

When Steve Pavlina started his first company, he wasn’t able to make a go of it full-time—in the beginning at least. So he worked contract jobs to help fund his venture in the meantime.

Doing temporary work while you fight the learning curve in a business isn’t uncommon. I’ve done it and many (if not most) of my entrepreneurial friends have done it at some point. Consulting, freelancing and contract work can be essential to smooth your irregular income out.

Not all businesses are immediate successes, but if you have a valuable skill that can pay some of the bills, you can avoid becoming a starving entrepreneur. School can give you those first skills to make it possible to eventually start a business.

Reason Three: Who Will Build Your Prototype?

If you want a business, you first need something to sell. Which means you need to make it or deliver it as a service. Of course, you can hire people to do that, but that gets expensive, which fledgling entrepreneurs can have a hard time affording.

If you look at all the business triumphs I mentioned earlier, Gates, Jobs or Brin, they all had technical skill to create the first steps of their product.

Now, of course, you could skip school and teach yourself these things. But there are subjects, that are difficult to teach yourself. By enrolling in school, you can be trained in the underlying skill that can not only allow you to create your business, but as I mentioned earlier, smooth your transition to entrepreneurship by taking on temporary work.

Reason Four: Schools Prevent “Lone Wolf Syndrome”

There’s a category of would-be entrepreneurs I’d describe as lone wolves. They are highly intelligent, maybe have slightly less than average social skills and their primary reason for starting a business is so they can be independent.

For those people (and I’d say that, in the past, I’ve definitely been one of them) going to school allows them to meet people more easily. Over the last four years, I’ve met hundreds of people and made dozens of valuable contacts that would have been more difficult to come across had I not gone to school.

Being a lone wolf will almost certainly kill your business. Having contacts who can share experience, advice and opportunities is essential for surviving in an environment where the rules of success haven’t been written down anywhere.

Going to school can’t make up for an unwillingness to hustle and meet people. But it can provide a starting point.

Reason Five: Businesses Aren’t Just About “Getting Started”

Cal Newport writes a compelling article about how most people value getting started, but what really matters is getting started on the right things:

“…the conventional wisdom about big accomplishment, which says getting started is the key to success, might be dead wrong.”

There is some truth to the popular maxim to “just do it”. Because fear, procrastination and lack of inertia often make that first step the hardest.

But while there is some psychological truth, it can be overextended. Specifically, if in your haste to start a business, you pass up excellent opportunities that can form the foundational skills which are invaluable down the road.

My solution was to do both. Run a business on the side, while attending university. I was able to do that in part because of the productivity and learning tactics I teach here.

I worry for the people that find it difficult to do both, the conventional wisdom to “just do it” is pushing them to pursue lousy opportunities because they feel it’s procrastinating to build up skill in an area while you wait for a better one.

Who Shouldn’t Attend School?

I don’t think there are any universal approaches that will work for everyone. If you do plan on becoming an entrepreneur, there are probably many of you who would do better without school. Douglass and Casnocha are examples of people who have skill, hustle and talent, and even if school may have benefited them, they can probably do very well even without it.

For the rest of us, school can be a foundation. It can increase your skills and opportunities, making entrepreneurial success more likely when you’ve finished.

Image courtesy of Reinante El Pintor de Fuego


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33 Responses to “Should Future Entrepreneurs Go to College?”

  1. Stanley Lee says:

    Very timely post regarding college and entrepreneurship. Colleges do very little these days except serve the administrative staff and the research machines. I have a similar post for college graduates whether they should go to grad school before high-tech entrepreneurships. I want to rework my article to include the awesome references that you included.

  2. Stanley Lee says:

    I want to add that colleges do improve the networks though, even though many of them aren’t all that supportive (from my personal experiences). I think it’s a matter of finding the sweet spot between what they do for you and the point of diminishing returns in which you put your energy on college.

  3. Mike says:

    Avoiding lone wolf syndrome is key! The idea of the self-made millionaire is a myth. Working with people is important!!! Thank you so much for speaking up about this!

  4. Stanley Lee says:

    @Mike: I would like to add that working with the RIGHT people is more important than working with people. Colleges do a poor job of setting up an environment for you to do so (although they make perfect customers). The targeted people you meet on the cyberspace is a better guarantee though in terms of sharing similar values, beliefs, and thinking process.

  5. Donna says:

    Anything you learn at school will always find a way to be useful in the business world. But you also need to consider the cost of that education. What will being a hundred thousand dollars in debt when you graduate do to your entrepreneurial spirit?

  6. Scott Young says:

    Stanley,

    I agree–in part. However, meeting people online is not the same thing as working with them in projects, spending many hours face-to-face.

    Donna,

    Agreed. I didn’t consider debt, because I attended a public school and worked (either through this blog, or during the summer) to pay for my education. Obviously if your courses are too intense to enable you to work, or you’re in a pricey school, you may have too much debt to start off.

    -Scott

  7. Getting a good education has its value. However, I find that being in “learning” mode is very different to “achievement” mode. They are two completely different mindsets.

    Many people get so comfortable with being in “learning” mode, that when it’s time to go out on their own and get results, that they find it difficult to step out of this “learning” mode that they have been in for so many years.

    A way around this is to do something part-time (as you are doing Scott) while learning. This puts you in a different mindset, and makes it easier to transition once College is done.

  8. Wendy Irene says:

    For me personally going to college helped me mature, challenged in some ways. It gave me great connections. I met wonderful people. I lived on my own for the first time away from my family, but wasn’t really alone because I was surrounded by other students.

    Being years removed from my college experience, will I use exactly what I learned in school in a possible new business? Probably not directly, but a lot of life lessons occurred during that time, and connections made that help me in my future.

    I guess in my perspective education is never a waste, whether you ever use or remember lots of what you learned.

  9. Stanley Lee says:

    @Scott: I found from personal experience that even working with some people in college doesn’t prepare me well for working with people in the real world (you often have more freedom in terms of what you work on and who you work with).

  10. Matt Butson says:

    As much as I like this article…I feel that the major points are excuses for non-entrepreneurs to stay in school. Just make the jump.

    I am a lone wolf. Oh well, I will eventually make it out. I still have plenty of “entrepreneur” friends. I hang out with them, I just choose to do things on my own until the right person comes along.

    I will build my prototype. I have before, albeit not successful. Time will come.

    I have a job currently, I am freelancing…All with plans to move on. Till then. Godspeed.

    College gave me a constant headache. No way to focus on where I needed to go when I had to attend subpar lectures, read subpar books, and be around unmotivated people.

    I am learning on my own. No longer am I complaining about teacher, grades, and assignments… I am putting in 10x more effort in to my learning because of it!

    Anyways. Love this blog, I just am along the mindset of a Casnocha.

  11. crystal says:

    Hi,

    that article does make a point, indeed. Having a solid academic background unlocks a whole range of well paid opportunities in areas which require well grounded knowledge beyond the typical self-education.
    I’m a graduate student in Central Europe at a technical university.
    Alongside their studies future entrepreneurs get the chance to meet successful managers and entrepreneurs, write up a business plan under professional supervision, complete real case studies, participate in intercultural training, take part in a student start-up, etc. Together with your degree in science or engineering that should give you an edge.
    I imagine there are such universities in the US, as well.
    So possibly it is also a matter of which college you attend and what they offer additionally, regardless of which subject you major in.

    Great blog, Scott. You writing always makes me think!

  12. Cal says:

    Fascinating article, Scott.

    The value of college is one of these tricky issues that I love to think hard about, but, like many rich debates, never can come away with a definitive answer.

  13. Scott,

    Interesting point. I am not enterprenuers by any means so I can not comment on that. I went to school for my engineering and half finished MBA (due to expecting my first child, now I have 2), I have decided to be teacher/stay at home mom. My blog is my outlet for my writing.

    I know all marketing tools being worked in the industry for awhile and being successful but I am wish for simpler life, where money is not the center of attraction so much.

  14. Leslie Cao says:

    Thanks for the article Scott, very insightful and your blog cuts out a lot of fluff I see everywhere else. My thoughts on schooling in general…. I go to highschool and quite honestly I think it’s a horrid environment. 1 month in and me and all of my friends are tired and sick of school. A couple of reasons for this are

    1) We don’t care about what we’re learning. It’s just something that has been handed to us and we’re told to make an ‘A’ on the subject matter. I constantly hear “when are we ever going to use this?” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn things that aren’t essential but when it’s just handed to us in that manner, we’re not interested and don’t want to learn it. I am constantly researching and learning tons of things by books and internet by myself because school doesn’t teach it and even if they did, it’d just be some curriculum required by the state instead of real usefulness, it’d all just be hypothetical stuff in a classroom instead of applying the teachings and say starting a business about it. Children have a natural curiosity and aptitude for learning but unfortunately school trains you to think it’s tedious and boring.

    2) The environment. I think school has a largely Lord of the Flies environment that authority likes to ignore with the excuse “academics before everything.” Health, wellness, and feeling at peace with yourself aren’t cultivated or disscussed. They sell junk food in vending machines and encourage a “go go go” mindset of being productive. Productivity is good but what’s really missing in the world is to slow down and appreciate more. We have gym class but I think that’s taught people to hate exercise more than anything. In my middle school we had PE everyday and had weekly graded runs… I over exerted myself making A’s in those runs…. bleh. Kids cut each other down because they aren’t sure of how to handle their perceived inadequacies (I was bullied).

    3) The grade matters more than you actually learning. People cheat a lot and everyone thinks it’s a huge problem. When we’re younger and if we get a bad grade then we get in trouble, in a way it teaches children that they are not good enough as they are but the system of grading determines their worth. Way more intense in China, Japan, South Korea, etc. where they are too many suicides during exam times. They may have the titles of being the best math whiz’s but at what cost? Nearing the ending of last year my teacher taught something that wasn’t going to be on the test since we already learned everything needed and none of my classmates paid attention or tried to comprehend.

    4) Obedience to authority. There is one mu-chacha heading the classroom and all must obey to their commands. What are the requirements and rules to this assignment? Must complete with accuracy. Sometimes I’ve met reallly stupid teachers but because they’re older and placed as my supervisor I have to listen to them and experience them get into dumb squabbles with classmates. It’s teaching compliance without observing the actual rules and traditions.

    I could go on and on really… haha. Moving on, college. Eh, college is largely a personal choice but I think most people would be better off without it. College is good for many things that are not easily self-learned as you say.

    But there are also the hordes of teenagers who go to college without much thought. It’s just what they’re supposed to do says society. The weight of the debt of college (largely for a degree so you can get a well paying job and be successful which is a very ingrained belief in people. It’s constantly bombarded in our heads, I’m hearing teachers say it more and more. But if you closely examine this belief, how true is it?) doesn’t seem like a worthy undertaking for the actually payoff of college. It’s astounding how much tuition rates have raised. I’d rather somehow find classes to learn what I wanted to know instead of full-out going to college.

    Those are some thoughts I’ve been having and now I’m off to do chores…. This was so long I should consider posting it as a blog entry on my own site.

    (15, sophmore)

  15. Leslie Cao says:

    I book that I highly recommend reading is The Teenage Liberation Handbook! It’s a book about unschooling teenagers, I read it and it was absolutely amazing with many, many actual examples. Oh God, that was a long-ass comment above hahaha!

  16. Scott Young says:

    Leslie,

    Good points, but high school isn’t college. While many of the same problems exist in university, high school being mandatory (at least until age 16 here) has a different feel from selective, elective and most of all expensive university classes.

    -Scott

  17. Do Over Guy says:

    Different people respond to different types of educational environments. I don’t think a blanket statement can be made either way. One thing I do know is there are two types of teachers… there are adivsors and there are doers. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I have found that traditional schools are replete with advisors. A true entrepreneurial education comes from doers. They can’t teach in a class room what many of us have had to endure out here in the real world.

    Scott, great post, nonetheless.

  18. Brendan says:

    Interesting post but I have to say, as a 46 year old physician and CEO of a 70 person software company that the point should not be about whether college is necessary for success as an entrepreneur. In my (now middle aged humble) opinion, college is all about experience. It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity – do not waste it!

  19. David Button says:

    Going to College develops your general thinking ability. You develop your logic and reasoning, writing ability and time-management skills, among many other abilities.

    Interesting, for me, going to College is where I learn the most about myself. I discover my what my true intentions/interests/passions are, uncover weaknesses and find hidden talents, etc.

    I believe for Entrepreneurs, College should be a ‘backup’ plan in case all else fails. It’ll open up opportunities to be flexible in job choices, with the added benefit of increased mental skills.

    Great Post, Scott.

  20. Scott Young says:

    Brendan,

    Interesting point. I think your answer is similar to what many people who have been to college in the past would say–they focus on the value of that experience, not its utility in a specific situation.

    That said, we tend to look back at the past from an experiential lens (“It wasn’t all good, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way”) and look to the future from a productivity lens (“which will help me the most”), so this post is aimed more at the future college students.

    -Scott

  21. Phil R says:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-altucher/dont-send-your-kids-to-co_b_409900.html

    James Altucher wrote a column a few years ago called ”Don`t send your kids to college” that discusses the same issue.

    Interesting to see different points of view…

  22. Michell says:

    I enjoyed this article and the points that you make. I went to college and got a stable job when I got out. I knew that I didn’t fit in the environment that I was working in, so I started my own business. I cannot say that being an entrepreneur was in my life plan so I did not plan for it. I did not take business classes in college. What I did learn were skills on how to organize, analyze, write, gather information and learn. Now, I am learning how to run a successful business by applying those skills to learning about business.

    While I don’t think that you have to go to college if you have big plans to run your own business, I do think that you get life experiences and learn discipline that will serve you well as your business grows.

  23. Khoi says:

    I’m not sure why a lone wolf person is handicapped? Provide that that person actually capable of pursuing and complete project of interest on his own?

    I hate to admit it but I might just be a lone wolf person. Not because I can’t work with people, the thing is I cant rely on any of my peers. All of my projects I did with people in the past just fall flat, simply because someone drop out and/or not working and I cant replace those people.

    That’s why I’m determined to work on a project of my own choice and do everything on my own. People may join in but I will never truly rely on anyone.

  24. Nerd Stalker says:

    University is now cost prohibitive and I would argue it’s the seeking and digesting of knowledge (most of which is available free online now) that is the true asset as opposed to a degree. Things like how to work in teams or groups can be learned on the job if you have an employer willing to tolerate it.

  25. Scott Young says:

    Khoi,

    Lone wolves fall flat because they don’t get the synergies of working with other people. I don’t mean that every project must be undertaken by a team, but pack wolves (if there’s an opposite to a lone wolf) will get input from colleagues, mentors and the outside world as they work on even the most solo of projects. It’s this help that’s often invaluable to success.

    I’m saying this because I’ve been a lone wolf and in my attempts to make myself more of a pack animal, success has gotten a lot easier.

    You speak of the downfalls of group interactions, which are present, but you can’t ignore the benefits of synergy either.

    -Scott

  26. Jonny Gibaud says:

    Well rounded assessment mate. I enjoyed it.

  27. […] Scott Young of Get More From Life pointed out, if you haste to start a business, you pass up excellent opportunities that can form the foundational skills which are invaluable down the road. Getting too invested in the wrong ideas may not allow you the […]

  28. Kyle says:

    Even if you are an entrepreneur, I believe you can find great value in going to college. As a senior at Syracuse University, I came up with a great business idea with my friends. The school gave us tons of resources (office space, mentors, grants, and much more). SU also hosts a business plan competition with a $25,000 prize. My team also received access to our potential customers from resources we had connected with at our school. Because of all of these great resources, I decided to pursue my M.S. at the SU School of Information Studies.

  29. To some extent we are all products of our environment… College can open many doors, but so can working a 9 to 5 or becoming self employed! Enjoy the journey! :D

  30. pranav says:

    Very nice article Scott, Many ways to see this, if you are getting some seeds for entrepreneurship from college then college will be more effective, other than that I think entrepreneur must need the skills which he/she can get only outside of college.

  31. laski says:

    I love just taking a break from studying and reading your blog. I just wish you posted more frequently.

  32. Tim says:

    I’d just like to add my opinion into the mix.

    Only go to college to target a certain job. For example, if you want to be a doctor, policeman or developer, you’ll need training. So in that case you’ll need college training.

    But if your not sure what you want to do, don’t go to college and waste your time going shitty college courses (like photography and art).

  33. Prateek says:

    Good points to note but i still don’t thing college is needed. College wastes most time learning to many irrelevant things to please recruiters.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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