Having just written this, it got me thinking about the skills I have, or wish I had, that have helped or truly would help me as an entrepreneur. I have a Masters of Information Systems Management, and I happen to run an Internet-related business, so people often assume that my degree has been helpful to my vocation. There are some parts that have indeed been helpful, but worth the seven years I spent in college and the associated costs? It’s hard for me to make that case. Here’s a brief overview of what I studied and learned in college, as far as the academic side of things. That is, I’m excluding the indirect lessons, such as learning how to work in a team, or learning that MBAs don’t really know all that much, etc.:
- Web programming 101. I took classes on database theory and programming in VB, ASP, PHP, Java, and Powerbuilder. Any of these classes could have been a springboard to inspire me to gain some hardcore programming skills, but by themselves served as more of an “intro to programming” compendium.
- Accounting. I learned the basics about accounting. Income statements, balance sheets, etc.
- Strategy. Basic stuff for the most part. I only took one strategy class. I did learn that strategy was very interesting to me.
- Computer basics. I learned all about computer hardware and software, networking, etc.
These are all valuable things I learned in school. The problem is that when I look at what I learned that I actually use, it’s all stuff I could have learned in a few months reading books, looking up free resources on the Internet, and talking to people. When I think about what I could have learned and accomplished in those seven years with the tens of thousands of dollars I would have saved, there is no doubt I could have created more value for myself on my own, with some rare exceptions.
What are some of the skills I have used to get my company up and running, and which I use today to manage it?
- SEO/online marketing. Completely self taught. Didn’t cost me a dime in terms of purchasing educational materials, taking courses, etc.
- Basic accounting. I got this in school, but it wasn’t real until I started a business and started using Quickbooks. My schooling didn’t help me learn Quickbooks, but as it turns out using Quickbooks sure helped me make sense of what I learned in school.
- Communication. Knowing when, why, and how to talk with employees, vendors, and clients. Again, self-taught or learned through experience. I don’t recall any class I took in college that helped me with this aspect of my business, which is one of the most important parts of running a successful business.
- Management. Again, I learned this by experience. For example, different people respond to different types of incentives. Some people like public recognition, other people like a cash bonus, other people like private praise. Some people will do a lot more for you if you give them a free t-shirt than they would if you gave them a check for $1,000. I didn’t learn any of this in school, not to mention the other hundreds of things I’ve learned by experience.
- Funding. Bank loans, borrowing money from family and friends, VCs, private equity, high net individuals, bootstrapping, etc. I didn’t learn about all these options in school. I learned about them in the real world.
- Business process. Customer development or traditional product development? Again, I don’t remember a thing about this type of stuff from school. I only learned about the customer development process within the past year. If I had learned it prior to two years ago, it would have saved me $20K over the past year.
- Programming. Again, learned some things in school, and those gave me a decent foundation, but more of what I really know I learned by doing, and by talking with hardcore programmers.
- Design. Granted, this wasn’t the focus of my education, so of course I didn’t learn it in school, but I sure have learned a lot outside of school, enough to have made a living off it.
Why don’t colleges properly prepare students to become entrepreneurs? In some cases it’s because they’re not trying. When I was in college, the entrepreneurship program was in what I would say was its infancy. It is probably 100 times better today. But I’m sure there are other schools that have no entrepreneurship program, or very underdeveloped programs. In other cases I believe they’re being held back by old paradigms. The stereotypical educational process has been drilled into us for 100 years, and it’s hard to break out of it. If there is something new happening in the world of business today, chances are it will take 10-30 years to become the norm in colleges because it will take the retirement of a generation of professors to allow the newer batch, familiar with the new methods, to replace them as the dominant force.
If your goal is to start a business and make a nice living, and you’re certain that’s what you want to do because entrepreneurship runs in your veins, I wouldn’t go to college. If your goal is to start a business and build it into a billion-dollar enterprise, I would tell you the same thing. So, why did I stay in school and get a graduate degree? Am I just a hypocrite who played it safe? No, because this conclusion is one I reached only recently, after having gone through school and being several years out of it. Part of the reason I stayed in school was because I didn’t know better, you could say. But that’s a minor reason. Even if I had known then what I know now, I still would have stayed in school, although I would have worked harder to get out in five years instead of seven. Part of the reason I stayed in school was because I truly enjoyed it, and therefore didn’t have anything pressuring me to find reasons not to be there. But the main reason I stayed in school was because I simply had a feeling I should. I didn’t know what that reason was at the time, but over the past two years as I’ve come to the decision that I’ll be returning to school to get a PhD in business strategy and become a researcher, the reason seems to have become clear.
So, if you think you might want to get a PhD someday, or you have other goals where having a college degree or two would be helpful, then perhaps school is something to stick with. But if you just want to start a business and make money, I don’t see school being the best use of your time. I hope that schools can make changes in how they educate entrepreneurs such that school will give formally educated entrepreneurs a distinct advantage over their non-schooled peers, and perhaps there are a few schools out there that have achieved this goal, but as of yet I’m not aware of them.