Going To College Vs Starting Your Own Business

One of the online joints that I like lurking in is the personal development site by Steve Pavlina. While I do not always agree with or relate to the topics Steve chooses to talk about, I love reading his articles on entrepreneurship and motivation. And boy, is he good at it! He is very articulate and infectious, and makes you really want to get up off your ass and do something! Recently, I joined his forum and started reading through some of the discussion there (mostly in the “Business and Financial” and “Technology and Technical Skills” sections). And even though it is not surprising, it is a bit disturbing to see that many people are so influenced by Steve’s ideology that they want to quit their job or school to start their own business. I am a big believer in college education and I have been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug too. So, this particular thread really had me thinking. Should someone not go to college so they can devote the entire time to building their own business? I am really interested in listening to what you all have to say about this, so please indulge me with comments about your own opinions and personal experiences. Hopefully, it will help someone in their process of making the right decision. Here’s what I had to say to the OP (with some additional points added as I started writing it here).

Go to college anyway
Right now, you don't want to go to college because of what you think college is and what you have heard about college. Start going to college anyway. Experience it for yourself. If it is really not for you, you can always quit later. You will likely lose a year or so in the process, but at least you won’t be spending years and years later, wondering if you did the right thing by not going to college.

You can learn some things in college
It’s like any other life experience - there is always some things that you can learn. Not all classes will be helpful, but there will certainly be a few that will form a great foundation for your future. Also, the fun, the energy, the networking in college is something unique and should be tried at least once. Most of the people in college will be smart, and you will learn as much from your peers as you will from your professors.

You can still start a business while in college
Going to college does not mean that you cannot start a business too. Don’t stress yourself out about college - take it slow and easy. At the same time, start the business. If you decide to stick through college, in 3-5 years, you will have both the degree and a budding business. Once you leave college you will not have to work for someone else, but apply your knowledge and skills to your own business which has already gone through the teething trouble and is on it’s way to maturity.

This path will prove you are not a bum
All of us are lazy to a certain extent and want easy money. Maybe it’s just that part of you that is justifying to get you out of going to school and starting a business. If you don’t go to college and start a business, you will always wonder if you took the easy way out and a small part of you will start to believe that you might be a bum. But if you go ahead and do both anyway, it will give you a legitimate reason to be proud of yourself.

College doesn’t have to be expensive
If you decide to go to college to just get an idea of what it is like, and don’t want to spend a lot of money on it, it may be better to start by taking classes in the community college. While the experience is not quite the same as that of going to a big university, it will still give you a sampling of what it is like. After a while, if you decide not to pursue college, this will not ding you too much financially. On the other hand if you decide that you do want to continue college, you can get credit for your community college courses at many accredited universities. Alternately, you can start in a good state college and use the tips here to get good financial aid to reduce your out of pocket cost. Also, Nick @ Punny Money has a a great article about going to college without taking loans that you may want to check out.

Starting a business is easy, being successful is not
I don’t want to burst your bubble, but starting a business is easy, but being successful is not. To start a business, all you need is a smart idea and some motivation. To make the business successful, you need to have a plan. You need experience to deal with unexpected situations. You need the drive to stay motivated. And you need the freedom to fail a few times, before you can be successful. By going to college, you buy yourself enough time to plan. If you take up internships in summers and apprentice with some business/companies in your area of interest, you can gain some invaluable experience. If you can still keep up with your goals of starting a business while you take classes in college, you will know you have the drive. And finally, while in college, your life is not solely invested in your business. So you can take some chances and try out different things without being under pressure to succeed. That freedom will eventually give you the success you seek.

Finally, college degree is like getting insurance
At the risk of sounding tediously repetitive, let me stress again, starting a business is easy, being successful is not. You would not buy an expensive car and drive it without proper insurance, would you? You would not buy a house in a flood plain and not get insurance, would you? Then why do you want to play with your life without having some insurance. Yes, it will be great to succeed. No, you don’t want to start out by negative thoughts like “what if I don’t succeed”. But to get on the tight rope without a safety net, you either need to be extremely experienced, or really really stupid. So, you are young and you have a lot of time on your hands. Spend a few years in getting that insurance we call “a college education”. And nurture your dreams of entrepreneurship at the same time. And laugh in the face of naysayers who advocate the one-or-the-other route. And tell me if you don’t feel Exhilarated. Thrilled. And a wee bit Proud and Arrogant of your accomplishments.

Alright now, that was a long and fairly serious post. So here are some Calvin and Hobbes strips. Have a good one, everybody. (Update 05/21/07: I have removed the cartoon strips since I realised I was violating the authors copyrights.).

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Golbguru said...

Agree with you there. Some people recommend quitting school for that *bright* idea, but I won't advice doing that. There has to be some backup plan if you flop in the real world. Not everyone is a Larry Page or a Sergey Brin.

The press and some bloggers glorify entrepreneurs who become successful after quitting college...but I will not be surprised if someone does plays with the statistics and figures out that only a small fraction of "quit-school-and-start-business" guys eventually succeed.

Of course, one should have the confidence to succeed...but there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence (foolishness).

ispf said...

Of course, one should have the confidence to succeed...but there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence (foolishness).

Very well said, Golbguru! Also, I agree that the statistics will probably show that it is a very long tailed distribution indeed!

Martin Lindsey. said...

Your idea about starting a business while in school is one that more college students ought to pick up on. By design, a college degree grooms you to be a great employee for someone else. Thinking and acting entrepreneurially while matriculating could help you to graduate into your own company instead of some one elses.

Keep passing this thought on to your college aged peers and see if you can't infect them with the idea.

Also consider this. The Millionaire Next Door makes the point that college grads very often wind up working at companies started by non-college grads and therefore making the non-degreed business owner rich. So maybe flipping the script and trying a different scenario is actually smarter. Consider it like this in practical terms. Maybe starting a business while in high school, working it full time during your college years, then going to college to major in something that will fine tune a business that you've owned since you were a kid is actually the smart way to do things.

Just some thoughts. What do you guys think?

ispf said...

Martin: I completely agree with you! While I was still in school, I didn't pay much attention to anything beyond studies and having fun. Now I can't stop kicking myself for not having started something then. It's a great time to start something entrepreneurial since you have a lot more flexibility in arranging your schedule than anytime later in life! Not to mention, college is the best place to get creative and think of "cool" ideas!

business school journal said...

Both Warren Buffett and Jim Rogers have said that starting a business is a better education than seeking an MBA. I would agree and say that your own business is a better use for your time than grad school; unless you enjoy being a cog in a bureaucracy.

That said, a great motivator is to start your own business and then start college to learn how to grow and improve your business.

Kevin said...

As a recruiter in the IT field, I would have to argue for going to school. As mentioned, you can start a business in school and get some great experience. But what happens if the business fails? And without major capital to work with, starting a large business can be difficult (not that great businesses haven't been started and thrived on $5,000 in credit card charges). You can always fall back on the degree to save up for your next project.

For most large employers it doesn't matter if you have 15 years of experience if you didn't get that college degree. Granted, you may not want to work for that large corporation... but a check is a check, right?

Ben said...

I'm risk averse so I go along with golbguru, a degree is a great backup plan. I say go to school and start a side business while you're there.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but what about when it comes to Grad School vs. Starting a Business. I have a great job and am thinking of getting my MBA but I would also like to move out west and start my own business. Have any advice?

ispf said...

Anonymous: I don't know exactly what your situation is, and so cannot even presume to give you the right advice. That said, with the economy the way it is, now more than ever, it is important to have as many eggs in the basket as possible. Can you hang on to your job and do a degree simultaneously? Will you employer pay for your grad degree (even partial payments can make a huge difference, considering the MBA price tag)? Can you start your business part-time while continuing at your job, so you can test-drive your idea before plunging all-in? Will getting an MBA help you be more successful at your business in the long run?

Anonymous said...

have u been to the college? It's impossible to go to the college and have your own business. Common,who would lend money to a college student to start a business..Overall I agree. It's stupid to start your business and don't have a degree. Right now I am about to graduate. Parents wanted me in finance..hate it to its guts.No way I am working in that field. I have two options..go back to study what I like,or start something of my own.