My Advice for Student Entrepreneurs
On Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend an event at BYU focused on entrepreneurship. While there, I was able to talk to a few students, including one who was asking for general advice. The more I talked to him, the more I started to ramble and blabber, not because I didn’t have anything substantive to say, but because I had so many ideas I felt were important that I wasn’t sure what to focus on. He may not have gotten anything out of value from what I said, but I’d like to summarize my slightly more well thought out thoughts here. I am certainly speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek when I say “well thought out” because while I’ve thought about these things a lot, I have by no means reached any firm conclusions. Therefore these thoughts are sort of like a business balance sheet, merely a window into my thoughts at this particular moment in time, and these thoughts may be different a year from now. But here they are for what they’re worth.
1. Figure out if you’re really an entrepreneur. Why? Because if you’re not really an entrepreneur, you don’t want to waste time trying to become what you’re simply not cut out to be. What’s the best way to do this? Start a business. It doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail, the point is to find out if you love doing it. If you love it, you might be an entrepreneur. If you hate it and long for the comfort of a stable 9 to 5, you might not be an entrepreneur.
This brings up the question of whether entrepreneurs are born or made. I believe most entrepreneurs have certain qualities that are inborn or congenital. These qualities don’t have so much to do with ability so much as desire. When I talk about finding out whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, I’m not saying you need to find out whether you can do what entrepreneurs do, I’m telling you to figure out if you like doing what entrepreneurs do. If you like doing it, I don’t care what your abilities are, you’ll figure something out. If you don’t like being an entrepreneur, then forcing yourself to become one will only make you miserable. There’s nothing wrong with not being an entrepreneur, but there is certainly something wrong with doing something that doesn’t make you happy.
2. If you’re an entrepreneur, drop out of school. I’m not just talking about college, I’m talking about high school too. Heck, junior high and elementary school if your parents are willing to go along with it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get an education, but the standard educational models we see around us are only one of many ways to gain an education, and they are generally very poor models. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll probably get a better education outside of traditional learning environments, and you’ll save a lot of time and money to boot. Bear in mind, this is coming from someone who has a Masters of Information Systems Management from a credible business school, and I’m also planning on going to a top 10 business school to get a PhD in strategy and then become an academic. For me, staying in school was part of the path I wanted to follow, but it had little to nothing to do with entrepreneurship.
Now, if you can’t bear to drop out of school because it seems risky, your parents or spouse will disapprove, or you just happen to like school (as I did), then go ahead, stay in school. But don’t mistake being in school for getting a good education. College is not a place that you walk into and magically walk out of with an education and a job. At best, college will provide you with a few new skills, exposure to some new ideas, relationships with a few new people, and a piece of paper that impresses people who are…well, I’ll be polite and not say anymore. You could get all these things almost for free, at a much higher level of quality, and in 1-2 years, with the exception of the piece of paper, but hey, have it your own way. My advice is that if you’re in school, don’t mistake it for an education, and make sure you’re participating in activities outside the norm to give yourself as much education as possible. That leads to the following items:
3. Read. Especially books, but also magazines (HBR, FastCompany, Forbes, Inc., Wired, etc.), links from social media (Twitter, Facebook), and anything else from experts in areas that interest you. When I say “read” I use the term loosely. I “read” audiobooks while I train for triathlons. I also listen to podcasts, which I would qualify as reading. And yes, read business books, but also read non-business books. Biographies, classics, books on economics, politics, sports, music, history, etc. Especially history. Even books like Winnie the Pooh may surprise you with lessons you can use in the business world. But if you’re looking for a list of books to get started on, here are a few of my favorites:
- The Four Hour Work Week
- The Lean Startup
- Four Steps to the Epiphany
- Delivering Happiness
- Think and Grow Rich
- 12: The Elements of Great Managing
- The Innovator’s Dilemma (and Solution)
- Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics
- The No-A$$hole Rule
- Leadership and Self-Deception
4. Talk to people face to face. Facebook is great. Twitter is great. Email is great. Phones are great. But there are things that happen when you’re talking to someone face to face that wouldn’t happen any other way. Magical things. I will say one good thing for college–when you’re a student, it’s a great way to get your foot in the door to get advice from big people. One example, when I was a student I sent an email to JetBlue requesting an interview with David Neeleman. What was the interview for? For me. I just wanted to talk to him and ask him questions and hear his answers. I introduced myself in the email as a college student, said I’d like to chat with David and interview him, and that was about it. Within a few days I got a call from his assistant who set up a time, and a few days later I had a half-hour chat with David on the phone. I’m sure playing the college student card is what made that happen. It’s harder to get things like that to happen once you’re out of college, so while you’re in college take advantage of your status as a student to get those kinds of opportunities.
But don’t just focus on high-flying celebrities. Talk to your professors one on one, face to face, in their offices. Talk to local entrepreneurs. Talk to VCs, folks in private equity, banking execs, etc. These people love to give young students their advice and some of them will talk your ear off if given half the chance. You couldn’t buy the advice and knowledge they’ll pass along to you for free. What I wish I would have done in college is I wish I would have made a list of all the people I wanted to talk to, and then I would have bought a journal or notebook and I would have kept track of every interview with notes. I would have tried to interview 1-3 people per week while in college, which would have resulted in a few hundred interviews. Heck, I could have gotten some great advice and have written a book, if I had been asking the same questions to all of them. Would you buy a book with advice from 100 successful entrepreneurs answering questions about how they got started, what led to their success, etc.? I would. Why don’t you write it?
But also don’t ignore the students around you, assuming you’ve stayed in school. Not only might those students become your future business partners, customers, investors, etc., but it’s also nice to have some friends.
5. Start a business. I already mentioned this above, but it needs its own paragraph or two. There is no substitute for starting a business. It doesn’t matter if you fail, if you decide you don’t like it and have to start a different business, or if it’s not a “real” business. Just start something and get dirty. You’ll learn more in one month of starting a business than you’ll get from four years of college.
6. Go to events. I’m talking about conferences, networking groups, special interest groups, etc. There are great ones here in Utah, and I’m sure there are great ones where you’re at. If there aren’t then start one, and you’ll learn a lot from that experience as well. Going to these events will expose you to new people, new ideas, and will give you a feel for how your local entrepreneurial ecosystem works. 10 years later you’ll still be reaping the benefits.
The real trick to all this is figuring out if you’re really an entrepreneur or not. Dropping out of school might not be the right choice if what you really want in life is to be an accountant, but you’ve been dazzled and think you want to be an entrepreneur. And if colleges can step it up and provide entrepreneurs with what would really benefit them then maybe dropping out won’t be such an advantageous route to take. I hope and believe that ultimately schools will embrace entrepreneurship and will provide educational opportunities such that it will make more sense for entrepreneurs to stay in school rather than jump into starting a business, but I don’t know that any of them are there yet. They simply don’t provide the skills entrepreneurs need as efficiently as an entrepreneur can gain those skills for himself at a much lower cost. What are those skills? Well, that’s a matter for another post.