Should You Skip College to Start a Business?
By Nicole Fallon
As more and more college graduates go on to become entrepreneurs, many of them wonder if the time and money they spent on their education was worth it. While some young startup founders do end up using the skills they learned in college, others feel that they could have gotten to where they are now much sooner had they dropped out or not gone at all.
A 2013 survey by small business insurer Hiscox found that half of U.S.-based small business owners believe that the national education system doesn't encourage individual ideas and dreams, two important components of entrepreneurship. And when you consider that some of the most famous and successful entrepreneurs of all time, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, never received a college degree, the prospect of skipping a formal education in favor of starting a business seems even more appealing.
But for every Gates and Jobs, there's a student who drops out to become an entrepreneur and wishes he or she had finished college. There are a lot of factors to consider when making this life-altering decision, and the answer depends heavily on a person's individual circumstances. Several entrepreneurs who chose their business over a college education shared their thoughts on what students in this situation should consider.
Does your passion exceed your patience?
Sometimes, great ideas just can't wait, and spending four years in college will result in missed opportunities. This was the case for Taso Du Val, founder and CEO of global tech industry network Toptal.
"I wanted to go to MIT, but the thought of waiting for four years before starting my career troubled me," Du Val said. "So I started pursuing my passion for entrepreneurship at a young age and, years later, ended up fixing a problem I noticed in the IT outsourcing industry. It's just something I had to do. I was not going to sit around for years, listening to information I would never need in my life."
Eduardo De Arkos, co-founder and CEO of Innovative Watersports, had a similar experience, and decided to fast-track his career in entrepreneurship instead of wasting his time completing school.
"I felt as if I had already acquired the skills needed to start a new venture from the business courses I had already completed," De Arkos said. "A sound and promising business opportunity is very rare and will pass you by if you do not capitalize on it. I was able to learn by doing, not by reading — a hands-on approach. Most importantly, I was able to really learn and master the skills I needed, rather than taking classes at college."
Do you have any real-world experience?
Before Skyler Slade co-founded automated customer research app Coefficient two years ago, he had dropped out of college to work full-time for music-streaming site Grooveshark. Today, he credits this real-world experience for his ability to succeed without having finished school.
"Working at someone else's startup for five years prepared me to start my own company more than any college degree could have," Slade said. "It's one thing to take classes on entrepreneurship, and to read about management, but it's another thing entirely to actually be in the thick of it, to be thrown in headfirst and have to sink or swim."
Slade advised that, before you leave school to start your business, you should get some experience under your belt with an established company, preferably a startup. He noted that many startups, especially in the tech field, focus more on your portfolio, skills and past projects than they do on your educational background, so if you're talented, a job or internship should be fairly easy to secure.
Have you thoroughly tested your idea?
While risk is inherent in any entrepreneurial venture, don't take on more risk than necessary by leaving school without being 100 percent confident in your idea.
"Validate your idea before the thought of dropping out ever crosses your mind," said AJ Nelson, co-founder of clusterFlunk, a social network and file-sharing platform for college students. "Do a smoke-and-mirrors test. Get some signups, users, sales, etc. You can do this on a small scale while still going to school. If you can prove that you're solving a real problem, and people are willing to use your product, by all means, you should try and solve that problem full-time."
If you're currently in school and feel strongly about devoting all of your time to testing or growing your business, check with your college about its leave-of-absence policy.
"If you are confident your business needs you more than you need school, take a leave of absence and give yourself the option of returning," said Brandon Alster, co-founder of social scheduling app Merge and current business student at the University of Michigan. "You never know what may happen to your business, and you don't want to abandon your backup."
Do you have a strong support system?
For Randy Wyner, founder and president of restaurant franchise Chronic Tacos, there was no choice involved when it came to getting a college education: His responsibility to support his young son meant he had to get a job instead of go to school. But after working his way up to a managerial position at Jiffy Lube in just a few short years, Wyner knew he had all the experience he needed to go into business for himself.
"Hands-on learning helped me understand how to manage a business quicker, whereas college students learn mostly by memorization techniques and tricks," Wyner said. "Following this path helped me grasp what to do and what not to do when running a business. Although college may educate you on business elements, you can't learn how to run a business until you actually become an entrepreneur."
However, Wyner acknowledged that his entrepreneurial success couldn't have happened without the support of his family and friends.
"Surround yourself with savvy, educated people," he told Business News Daily. "I was very lucky to have some strong mentors in my corner. Having experienced, wise people there to guide and support you is critical."
Do you have a good reason?
This is perhaps the most important question a potential entrepreneur needs to ask him or herself before making a final decision about leaving school: Is there a good enough reason for you to stay or drop out?
Part way through his college education, Timothy Frie, brand change consultant and leading director of Frie&Co., realized that his reason for being in school wasn't compelling enough to continue on that path.
"The only reason I was going to school in the first place was because teachers, advisers, counselors, family and friends told me I was 'supposed to' and getting a degree was the path to success," Frie said. "I was just trying to prove something to all of them that didn't even matter to me. If I didn't want to work in a traditional setting, what was the point? The knowledge is priceless, but was it necessary? Was it really conducive to my future? No."
On the other hand, you shouldn't drop out without a good reason. Matt Brown, co-founder of social recruiting solution Work4, is also a volunteer adviser with the Thiel Fellowship mentor network. Thiel selects and grants funding to high-achieving students who could do more good in the world by not attending college, and focusing on research and innovation instead.
"Everyone should think critically about the value of investing four years and an incredible amount of money into a university education," Brown said. "The Fellowship's goal is not to prove that college is a waste of time for everyone, college shouldn't be the default, singular path."
Brown advised students to consider their goals, and really think about why they should or shouldn't be in school.
"Is there somewhere else where you can be learning faster, meeting more interesting people and working on projects you care about?" Brown said. "Do you want to drop out because you have a burning need to create something and being in school blocks that, or are you dropping out because it seems cool and the Facebook guys did it? Dropping out without a good reason is just as silly as staying in without one. Just think for yourself."