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. I remember asking many people to help me write my research paper while in school, it was the perfect way to learn new perspectives. 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.