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30 Sep

Answering The “Should I Go To College/Drop Out?” Question For Young Entrepreneurs

Answering The “Should I Go To College/Drop Out?” Question For Young Entrepreneurs

There’s a common question brought up in the entrepreneurial community that goes something like this: “Should I go to college?” or “Should I drop out of college?” It’s even the subject of a good analysis by Vivek Wadhwa over at Techcrunch. . I’ve seen the question pop up often enough, it’s certainly an important one, and a question that I have a lot of personal experience with (I went to college, started a company, “stopped/dropped out”, and eventually went back to finish my undergraduate degree). By no means am I 100% right on this subject, but hopefully this serves as some guidance to those struggling with the question themselves.

Short answer: Yes, you should go to college. Here’s why and some tips on how to maximize the experience + prepare yourself for a startup.

Meet As Many Smart People As Possible

The great part of going to college comes in the form of all the people you will meet from different and diverse backgrounds. There are always “How do I find a co-founder?” posts on Hacker News and across the internet. Going to college can usually result in finding a co-founder for your company on the technical and/or business side of things. It’s where Tony from Zappos met his co-founder along with numerous others. You will also make friends that might later make it into the startup game, and be useful for you to connect with. On top of it, you get to interact with people who have absolutely nothing at all to do with technology, but can give you insights into experiences you never knew existed (different backgrounds, career paths, countries,etc.) Go to college and meet as many people as possible.

Study Subjects That Are New And/Or Challenging

I think the biggest reason I wanted to leave college to do a startup full time was due to the fact that I just wasn’t excited by the subjects and courses being presented to me. Yes, it can’t always be fun,but there should be SOME enjoyment in it. Even when I went back to finish by undergraduate degree in CIS at UMiami, I just didn’t enjoy the subject matter. The Comp Sci courses used dated technology and the business courses had no appeal to the startup world. What course did I end up enjoying the most? A Caribbean Literature class. If I could go back, I probably would have studied something such as Journalism or writing, with a minor in Comp Sci just to get the core fundamentals down. You get four years to go learn as much as you want. Go find something challenging, otherwise you will gravitate towards leaving school.

It Shows An Ability To Finish Something

There’s something to be said about those that finish what they started. It shows an ability to see something through to the end and finish something you may not fully enjoy. I think that’s one of the primary reasons I decided to finish: “I wanted to finish what I started and build some character through doing that.” Startups are a marathon race and a good portion of them fail, just because the founders decide to give up / not finish what they started. That’s with something they ENJOY. Showing that you were able to finish a four year degree shows some ability to complete tasks and “sticktoitness”.

Start Projects, Not Companies While In School

This will probably be the subject of another post, but there is a huge difference between a project and a company. A company requires hiring a good amount of people, a fairly big long term vision, and scaling to meet customer demand. With projects, they start out as hobbies, get tested with the market, and might eventually make some good money with product/market fit. They also tend to be smaller and can be run by 1-2 people. It’s possible to manage a project and take a full course load. Look at it like a very serious extracurricular. Best of all, you can try a bunch of different things and learn a whole lot along the way. You won’t have to raise any capital either. A full blown company? It’s just not humanly possible. Running a startup takes 12-14 hour days, an insane amount of stress, and putting the well being of employees into your hands. You can’t manage that AND do well in school. You will most likely end up half assing most.

If Something Takes Off, Seriously Consider Stopping Out

So what if one of your projects really start to take off to the point that it’s not possible to contain growth? Consider what the Facebook founders called “stopping out”. It’s the equivalent of taking a sabbatical to focus on the company to see it through to an exit or failure. After that point, you can go back to school and finish what you started. This way, you’re able to fully focus on your startup and not let your grades drop. Great schools will usually give you a few year window where you do not have to re-apply. This is what I did with my first real startup and I still think it was the right move. Sadly, things ended up failing, and I returned to school to finish what I started.  Peter Thiel might even give you up to 100k to do this.

Use The “I’m A College Student” Card As Much As Possible

Want to go to conferences for free, get important people to pay attention to you, discounted software, and a whole lot more? Use the “I’m a college student card.” It gives you the ability to save money and get access to some people that want to just help you out. In some ways you may feel that it undermines your credibility. I often felt that way, but looking back, that was just foolish pride. If you’re good, you’re good. Some people will be even more impressed that you’re that good and a young college student.

Don’t Waste Money On An Overpriced College

Unless it’s a school that’s great for what you’re trying to study, has a great faculty, or one of the few schools worth their name, don’t rack up debt on an overpriced school. In California, UC Berkeley is a great school with low tuition. The same can be said of University of Florida in Florida and numerous other areas. I read that Stanford gives a full ride to families that make < 100k. Olin College also gives half scholarships to everybody and makes sure that the rest gets taken care of somehow. That’s how college should be. 50k+ a year tuition/room+board being covered by student loans is no way to live.  It’s also a huge burden to bear when you need to have a low personal burn rate when out of school.

Try To Go To College In a Startup Hub

It’s funny, I didn’t get into Startup culture until I transferred to UMiami from Boston College after my freshman year. All the resources I needed in a startup hub were ironically already in Boston. If I could go back, I would have stayed in Boston (either at BC or a more engineering focused school in the area). Going to a school in NYC or the SF Bay Area is also desirable. You get to go to college AND start making a name for yourself in the community early on. You also get access to all of the events (at a lower price due to student status), network with everyone, and build connections.

Organize Events With Other Students

If you really love startups, you should start organizing student events for other hackers+founders at your University. We’re a rare breed and bringing them together while at college is a good way to make new friends. It’s also a way to get important people to pay attention to you. Try doing something like this: Organize some group/club/event for students at your school, get some decent following, then invite important people to do roundtables/speak. You will now have a personal connection to them and I doubt they will say no. People love helping students.

Read As Many Blogs As Possible

Ever since I got into the startup scene, I started reading as many blogs/books/publications as possible. Everything from industry news to tech/business analysis. You should also spend a lot of time with communities such as hacker news as well. Consider this reading like “another course”, just without the tests and crappy lectures. There is a wealth of information out there and people willing to share what they’ve learned. If you’re a student and reading this article right now, this is just one example.

Ignore Edge Cases And Sensationalist Success Stories

The flipside to reading to many blogs happens to be this: “Everything seems like it’s so easy and you wonder why the f**k you’re in college, when you could be worth $60 million.” Ignore the sensationalist stories and the success that seems like it came overnight. It’s all difficult whether you are in college or not. It takes a lot of hard work and there’s a chance you will fail. Use college as a way to start projects and learn as much as possible. If for some reason, something takes off, then consider going full time with it. Don’t start trying to use college as a scapegoat for not being on the cover of businessweek.

Learn As Much About Product AND Customer Development As Possible

After my first project failed, I learned I needed to know more about tech + product development, so I set out to learn that over the next few years. I finally learned what makes a good product, how to code at a rudimentary level, ui/ux skills, scaling architecture, etc. It took a long time, but was well worth it. THEN I did my first real startup – Publictivity. We failed not because the product was bad or that people didn’t want it, but that we hadn’t built any sales/marketing channels. By the time we were ready to launch, the recession hit, we ran out of money, and things went down fast. I realized I needed to learn about marketing/sales channels just like I learned about product development. So I went back to school and spent as much time as possible learning about distribution channels+customer acquisition. If you can come out of college understanding how to make a great product that people want and the channels to distribute that product to customers, you’re in good shape.

A CS/CIS Degree Will Build A Good Foundation

Once I got into entrepreneurship, I changed by business degree focus from Entrepreneurship to Computer Information Systems after realizing entrepreneurship was best learned from practice. I decided against a full blown CS major since I was so far into the business core at the time. The CIS program seemed like a good compromise. I knew some programming at the time, but I didn’t have the academic fundamentals. I learned a lot about the basics of computer science, programming, database design, and other things you might not get from building your own products. I’m sure I’d be okay without them, but I’m really glad I have them.

Be Wary of Business Programs

If you’re into the startup scene, you’re probably going to want to avoid the business courses at your school. They’re usually designed for physical businesses or large fortune 500 companies. Some of the basics such as accounting/law are good, but there are other more efficient ways to learn the basics you need for a startup. I found that I’d often be frustrated and start saying to myself: “Why am I learning this stuff? It doesn’t apply to my specific sector of business.” It’s the same way Steve Blank says an MBA isn’t really useful for entrepreneurship/early stages of a company. MBAs were built for a different stage of a company than the startup phase. A lot of the education in undergraduate business programs are built for the same phase. Really dig in deep to the exact curriculum. Case studies are also a good way to learn in my opinion. Each school varies and some are great.

Spend Senior Year Preparing For a Full Time Startup Once Graduating

Spend the last year of college really thinking about what problem you might want to solve with a startup, full-time once you graduate. If you’ve been doing projects along the way that have been profitable, start hoarding cash like none other so you can sustain yourself for 6 months+ after graduation. Start talking with all of the connections you’ve made and start doing customer development once you know the problem you want to solve. So to re-iterate, here’s how I would go about senior year if you know you want to do a startup full-time afterwards:

1) Start making a list of big problems that you want to solve and think need solving.
2) Start narrowing them down by talking to smart people.
3) Start doing an MVP + customer development around the idea.
4) Make sure you’ve been hoarding cash from any consulting, jobs, projects,etc. that you have coming in. Prepare to live like a college student afterwards too. 6+ months is usually a good amount to have in the bank.
5) Towards the spring, start applying to YCombinator and programs like it with the concept you’ve narrowed down to. It’s hard to get in, but if you do it helps. If not, continue onwards. If failing to get into one of these programs “stops you”, then you weren’t meant to be doing the startup in the first place. You will get rejected many many many many more times, so get used to it.
6) Prepare to have a hard-working yet fun summer. Welcome to startup life.

Have Fun. You Won’t Realize What You Had Until It’s Gone

Life is so much easier as a college student. I wish I could go back and do it all again from the start, following a lot of the things I’ve outlined in this article. I jumped into startups at an early age and lost a lot of the “normal college social life” aspect too. When I went back to finish undergrad, I also had nothing, but the boring courses left. Go have fun, meet as many people as possible, learn new things, and prepare yourself to do a startup full time after you graduate. Just because you went to college doesn’t mean you won’t be Mark Zuckerberg. He just happened to start Facebook when he was in college. If he started it his senior year or a year out of school, he still might have done just as well.

Three years ago, I may have had a completely different perspective on this question. The education from mundane subjects and getting a piece of paper are the least important parts about college. It’s the combination of smaller, more important details that matter. At the end of the day, you can still be a successful entrepreneur without a college degree. There is zero doubt in my mind about that. It’s really about life chances and giving yourself as many advantages as possible. The college experience is one of them and you should at least give it a try. If you’re a current college student or thinking about whether you should go, feel free to email me . I would love to provide any help/advice/more insight that I can.

  • http://satishmummareddy.squarespace.com Satish Mummareddy

    Hi Jason. You write great stuff. I have one piece of feedback which applies to me but may not be important for other people. I think you make too many point in one post. Usually people can process about 3 key ideas at max from a blog post unless you take an hour to process it. I would have broken this blog into 3 or 4 posts: “Why you should go to college?” “what to consider when choosing a school & major?” “What to do when you get there?’ “What if you stumble on a facebook while in school?”

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      Thanks Satish. I’ve thought about doing that or actually switching to an
      email newsletter format that broke large articles like this into smaller
      chunks. Thoughts?

      -jlb
      772.801.1058
      You Should Check Out JasonLBaptiste.com

      • http://satishmummareddy.squarespace.com Satish Mummareddy

        Personally I would prefer to just use my RSS reader. I find people to follow on twitter and if i like their posts I just get their feed.

        Fred Wilson, said it best about email. “I consider email work” :) So I feel like I’m taking a break from work when i go to my rss reader or twitter. But thats just me. :)

        Amazing content. Keep it flowing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667957272 Jonathan Bishop

      I agree with Satish – I really think this should be broken up. There are a lot of great points in here, but I quickly found myself overloaded with the number of them (and I love to read).

      With that said, I wanted to say how much I agree with your points about meeting smart people in college and really milking the college student status. The former is one of the main reasons I still flirt with the idea of getting an MBA and the latter is something I’ve tried to get across to my younger brother the last couple of years. He’s a senior at Virginia Tech and smart as hell, yet he rarely takes advantage of his status as a college student. While I know other people think about it, it’s a point I’ve rarely seen brought up.

  • http://twitter.com/jefftougas Jeff Tougas

    Jason,

    Great article. As someone who is almost done with school, and tried starting a company a year ago while still in school (and have seriously considered dropping out from time to time to start other things), I agree with all the points you make here. I wish I had read a post like this 3-4 years ago, but learning through personal experience is definitely valuable.

    Also, its great to see entrepreneurs piping up with this opinion in light of Mike Arrington’s comments last week that all entrepreneurs should go to college for a year and drop out. Thanks for contributing to the voice of sanity! :)

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      Glad you enjoyed the post :). It’s not a binary decision. Sometimes you do well, like it, and stay four years. Sometimes you find a reason to “stop out” and you take it. Explore all options.

  • http://www.adrianscott.org/ Adrian Scott

    I think it depends on the person, their goals and aptitudes — and also their age.

    But really what you need to ask yourself is if you could not unbundle these benefits of college and achieve them through a portfolio of other techniques (including networking, attending developer and science conferences, etc.)

    • http://satishmummareddy.squarespace.com Satish Mummareddy

      It’s not about “whether it is possible to achieve these benefits through other means”, “will 16,17 years old be able to figure it out on their own and do it without some structure that forces them to gain these experiences.” For every one person who is capable of pulling it off on their own at 17, there are thousands that need the structure to get them out of their comfort zone and to push some discipline to get things that you don’t WANT to do on time.

      • http://www.adrianscott.org/ Adrian Scott

        Thanks, I can agree in part. I imagine that structure can be purchased for less than $50K through non-university venues. While I graduated from university at age 16, many are still reviewing this decision when they are several years older than 16-17 (in many countries). One could still question how much structure etc is provided through the system though.

        • http://satishmummareddy.squarespace.com Satish Mummareddy

          Well well, universities sell structure for 10K, their brand for 30K and 10K for college football tailgates, & looking the other way when minors consume alcohol in frat houses. :) Kidding ……………………..

          Google clearly hires only from the top schools. whether we like it or not the world has a clear hierarchy. Very few people are brilliant that they can stand out from the crowd without the branding from schools. And from an employer’s perspective the schools are doing the screening for them. So schools play a role in the ecosystem.

          It can be improved tremendously but most people who drop out of school will find it harder to succeed in the real world because every thing is harder without having a brand to get you in the door :) Thats why I cringe when people who are already successful talk about why kids dont need to go to school.

        • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

          50k for college is absurd, but it’s the norm in a lot of cases.

  • http://robertsandie.com sandieman

    Viddler started using this algorithm. Very awesome that you documented it so clearly!!

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      whoa, didn’t know that. Genevine, company I’m on the board of, uses viddler business accounts btw, so something worked with the algo :).

  • Tamerlin

    FYI:
    Weary != cautious. It means “tired” — you probably mean to say “Be WARY of business programs” instead.

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      I was weary when I wrote this. Thanks for the heads up.

      -jlb
      772.801.1058
      You Should Check Out JasonLBaptiste.com

  • http://twitter.com/everywhereist Geraldine

    Fantastic perspective. I think that college is incredibly important for entrepreneurs – thought graduating isn’t quite as critical (note: I married a college drop-out who started his own company). One of my favorite quotes (and forgive me, I forgot the source) was something along the lines of … “I adored college. I learned so many new things … sometimes even during class.”

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      Thanks Geraldine! I think entrepreneurs who are going to do well can do well with or without it, but it’s worth having the experience than not having it.

  • Matt Sawh

    Zuckerberg, Gates are always exhibit A when people talk about dropping out but:

    ‘Accidental Billionaires’ – As Ben Mezrich’s book, now movie demonstrates: Being at Exeter, Harvard and the finals club invitation process were very important factors nudging Saverin and Zuckerberg. Without rejection and that sense of needing to prove something, would FB have happened?

    But, the rejection was a surface-level; Saverin had self-confidence based on his investing record and Zuck from a HS start-up. So, it is this complicated mix of internal strength but a feeling of being misunderstood and needing to prove something…

    Gates dropped out in a time when a college degree was optional and before finance was the highly pedigreed, professionalized field it has since become.

    @MattSawh

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      It’s always easy to look at the edge cases or what the press portrays. I’d like to see more stories about entrepreneurs that did drop/.stop out, did well, etc. That could have been becoming a big time executive, starting a successful company,etc. Thanks for the comment Matt.

  • Anonymous

    This is really well done. I think people can stop blogging about college/drop-out now and just link to this post!

    • http://www.jasonlbaptiste.com Jason L. Baptiste

      That’s the goal :). Though they should get other viewpoints from close
      friends via in-depth conversations.

      Sent from my iPad Nano

      • Johnfranzie

        Your goal is to stop all academic discussion on this subject?  Nice goals, Hitler.

  • http://jangosteve.com/ JangoSteve

    I agree wholeheartedly with almost all the reasons you discussed, especially the points about showing you can finish something, starting projects with relative freedom and safety net, and having fun. In fact, I wrote a similar post a few months ago (from my perspective as one who started a couple companies in college, graduated, and is now continuing on as an entrepreneur). Might be worth a read:

    http://jangosteve.com/post/568504920/want-to-be-an-entrepreneur-college-may-help

  • http://twitter.com/nxco Nico Garcia Boccia

    WOAH. This just answered so many questions (and stress) in my life right now. THANKS! THANKS THANKS THANKS!

  • http://nikojarvinen.wordpress.com Niko Järvinen

    Whoa thanks for the great ideas! I agree with you fully. While in university one has so many resources which you can’t have anywhere else. One thing I’d add to the list is that in natural sciences etc (I deal with algae for example) our university gives students access to springerlink and other similar services. So we get access to tens of thousands research articles for free.. Normally these articles cost over $10 each. This is excellent resource for to be entrepreneurs.

    And as you happened to mention UC Berkeley I just have to mention Global venture lab. It’s formed of three universities. University of Jyväskylä from Finland (I’m there), UC Berkeley and Indias third largest university of technology IIT Kharagbur. At least in Finland they teach actual entrepreneurship which applies SMEs and not so well to the big ones. Definately the best courses ever!

  • Star2272

    interesting article! I’m writing a very similar blog! It’s a shame that tuition has risen so much. It makes your really ask “what am I paying for?”. College is not completely necessary, but it sure does help. As a business minor, I definitely see how college is impacting my decisions and future career. I agree though, you don’t need to go to college to be successful. Just do what you enjoy :)

    http://amandatse.wordpress.com/

  • http://www.directbusinesslending.com/ Business Lending

    Fantastic perspective. I think entrepreneurs who are going to do well can do well with or without it

  • Bethany

    This is a great point – although I think it’s more fully explained at http://www.edujunction.net

  • Farrah Collins

    You guys hear of http://www.formvote.com ? It’s a pretty cool new network.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sszukala Alex Szukala

    Always go to college. But learn outside the box also. Critical thinking is the point.