Many believe that entrepreneurs are born, not made. While I agree that successful company builders usually have a natural inclination to be entrepreneurs, a good education helps polish that apple. There are people who are natural musicians, but that doesn't mean we don't try to teach them music.
Of course, there's no law saying you have to go to college to start a business. We can all point to examples of successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, but still went on to make a big impact. Current young adults have grown up hearing about Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), who dropped out of Harvard, as the paragon of success. Why not try to follow in his footsteps?
The entrepreneurial wunderkinds who find success without higher education "are exceptions to the rule," says Robert Litan, Vice President of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation. The most successful entrepreneurs are those with multiple real-life experiences, who have personal exposure to markets where opportunities are being left on the table.
Academic research supports that this experience pays off. It also shows that survival prospects are higher if the owner has at least four years of college, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, and Andrew Mason of Groupon. The bigger question, then, for an entrepreneur, is not "Should I go to college?" but, instead, "What should I do while I'm there?"
- Study entrepreneurship, but major in something else. Many colleges offer courses on entrepreneurship, to help you think like one. But a depth of knowledge in a specific discipline, like computer science or engineering, allows you to understand that business as well as run it.
- An MBA is helpful, but not required. More important are standard business, finance, and economics courses. If offered at your college, don’t forget the practical business skills like “Critical Thinking”, “Business Writing” and even “Dress for Success.”
- Supplement course work with practical experience. Look for that summer internship job in the field of your interest, or even just part-time work during the school year. Too many startups fail simply by missing the practical elements of money management, time management, and setting priorities.
- Take advantage of inside and outside advisers at school. Some college faculty members have great practical experience. Find the ones with experience, and the ones who are willing to share, and tap into it for free. Most universities also bring in outside advisors to mentor budding entrepreneurs. It's a huge opportunity to learn early.
- Build a business plan early on. Pick an idea, any idea. There is nothing like writing and pitching a business plan that makes you realize what you don’t know. Most schools have business plan competitions, and even give out seed money to winners. Once you graduate, you can’t take that course you need, and even the advisors are gone.
- Business networking is key. These days, every student has his social network of peers. But these won’t help you much finding investors, key executive hires, and pitfalls to avoid in the real world. Plug yourself into a new network of business people. You'll be amazed at what you can learn by listening to experienced entrepreneurs.
- Just do it. You will learn more by struggling through the process of setting up a company and making it work, than all the other items above put together. If possible, team up with someone who has been there before and is willing to provide some mentoring. Don’t try to “bet the farm” on your first company. It’s the learning that counts.
Once you are out into the real world of running a startup, your academic credentials mean very little to anyone, and practical experience in invaluable. And don’t forget that the hardest part of dropping out of Harvard to start a business, for most aspiring entrepreneurs, is that first you have to have the credentials to get in.