A popular myth these days is that finishing college only dilutes your entrepreneurial instincts, and the best of the best, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out early to hasten their success. I agree with Robert E. Litan, former VP of research at the Kauffman Foundation, that these are exceptions to the rule, rather than a model to emulate.
Some people even believe that entrepreneurs must be born with the right genes, and no element of education is relevant. While I do agree that many attributes of a good entrepreneur, such as curiosity, confidence and determination, are largely determined by early-life experiences, a good education is critical in understanding the elements of creating a business and wooing customers.
In my view, the most effective entrepreneurs are those with a background of an array of real-life experiences, both positive and negative, as well as good academic and coaching activities. In fact, failure has been shown to be a better teacher than success, so parents and schools who protect their charges from any failures may not doing them any favors in the long run.
While we all know a few good entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, the Internet is full of stories on many more who capitalized on at least four years of college, including Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Chad Hurley of YouTube and Bob Parsons of GoDaddy.
A more important question, then, for an aspiring entrepreneur, should be what to study in college for maximum value, rather than whether to drop out or stay. Here are my thoughts on the right focus at a college or university:
Take entrepreneurship courses, but major in a more specific discipline. Depth in a specific business area, such as marketing or accounting, is important in understanding the internal and external processes of a business. Entrepreneurship is more about pulling all the elements together, making change happen and building relationships.
Practical business courses are better than an advanced degree or MBA. Starting a business is not rocket science. A breadth of understanding of common business principles, such as management, personnel and finance, is more important than a depth of knowledge in a technical area. Don’t forget business writing and communication.
Get involved in startup-business incubator activities with peers at school. Most universities have formal incubator and business development organizations that focus on coaching, grant writing and technology licensing. These present a huge opportunity to take your first steps as an entrepreneur with minimal risk and maximal support.
Produce a real business plan for critical feedback from outside investors. It’s important to go well beyond the passionate idea stage. Writing a business plan is the only way to determine if you even understand what your dream is all about. Once you graduate, the feedback will cost much more, and it’s too late to take one more course.
Extend your networking into peer interest groups outside your school. Start with your school connections with peer universities around the world. Then branch out to local business groups. Peers won’t be able to help you much in finding external investors, co-founders with prior experience and industry connections for distribution and marketing.
Find summer internships and part-time work in your field of interest. You can’t really learn all you need to succeed in any business domain from textbooks. The idiosyncrasies of supplier relationships, distribution and pricing are just as important as the generic elements of time and money management. Get real experience early.
Incorporate your first business before you graduate. It’s never too early to stop studying and start doing it for real. You will learn the most by facing the tribulations of establishing an LLC and dealing with insurance, personnel and tax issues. Remember, it’s the learning that counts, not the size of the bet or the ultimate success of your first try.
The best thing you can learn in school is how to learn -- fast and effectively. In the real world, change occurs very rapidly, so all the specifics you memorized from textbooks will likely be obsolete by the time you need them. Your academic credentials will have very little value as well. The value is in your ability to get new credentials in your business faster than your competitors.
If you are already in Harvard, and have proven that you learn quickly, then feel free to drop out and change the world. For the rest of us, a bit more practice before jumping feels like a better bet. We need all of you at your best.