Is college necessary? It's a contentious question especially in the start-up world. Many young entrepreneurs view dropping out as a badge of honor, believing that skipping class is the only effective way to focus on building a great product or service. And there are other incentives: Facebook funder and PayPal founder Peter Thiel is currently offering 20 college-age entrepreneurs $100,000 to drop out of school. Educators and other start-up founders who believe in the value of education obviously disagree with this view. So is leaving school worth the risk? Inc.com's Eric Markowitz staged a debate between two young entrepreneurs who have taken different paths: Trevor Owens, 22, is the founder of InsideStartups.org, and he is on leave from New York University. Tyler McIntyre, 19, is the founder of Lucid Technologies and still happily attending classes at the University of Miami. Hear what they have to say, and then weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.
Trevor, you've decided to leave school. Some people would argue that it's important to have a well-rounded education to grow your business. Do you think you're missing out?
Trevor Ownes: I think the base of that statement is true. However, I think college does nothing to prepare you to be an entrepreneur. I think entrepreneurial education happens outside the classroom—it's done by actually doing it and getting the battle scars.
Tyler, do you disagree?
Tyler McIntyre: Education is a key aspect in understanding how the world works—understanding things that can broaden your horizons and discourage the narrow-mindedness of an entrepreneur. You're able to understand so many opportunities outside by learning about different topics like consumer and organizational behavior, that you can see (a.) ways to improve and, (b.) new opportunities in a business. I agree that entrepreneurial education happens outside the school, but college, in addition to the education it gives you, also opens up a huge network of business contacts. The network that you build within a school is much more difficult to build when you're not in school.
Trevor, is this true? Is it hard to build a network outside of college?
TO: In places like New York, you are almost excluding yourself by networking within school. Actually, when I first started getting into the New York entrepreneurial community, it was because I started getting out of my school's network and moving away from my school. I think if I had spent less time in school, my network would be much bigger than it is now, because I would have had more time in the community, which is where people are actually doing it. In school, everyone you're dealing with is doing school. They're not starting companies.
What are some of the pressures about dropping out?
TO: I've had a mixed reaction. A lot of the people in academia were like 'No, you have to finish, there's all these bad things that happen if you don't finish.' My parents were worried at first, but after they saw the traction of what I was doing, they were fine with it. The weirdest thing was that a lot of angel investors and entrepreneurs were like 'That's awesome! You dropped out of school? You're going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg." People's views are very different.
Would you encourage other undergrads with start-ups to leave school?
Trevor: I don't know. I think in general, for entrepreneurs, if they're talented, they should focus all their time on their company. I think they might be holding themselves back by not devoting themselves completely.
Do you feel pressure to drop out, Tyler?
TM: Oh, tremendous. I feel more pressure to drop out than to stay in school. People want to see that you're dedicated, especially investors. But it's just an agreement that I make with them, that I will work that 80-hour week to get it done. Investors have asked me to take a year off of school to focus on the company, but I explained to them that I prefer to stay in school, even if I take less credits. The pressure of giving up investments from investors or incubators are so great that I'm questioning myself if my education is going to be worth the time-value that I just passed up an angel or an investor that came in.
Do you ever feel like you're spreading yourself too thin?
TM: I do sometimes. School takes a good portion of my time—it's almost like another a job. It's time consuming. However, when faced with a difficulty, like looking at a contract, I can go to a business law professor here and get my questions answered. Being in school, I can get free advice.
Well, everyone has their number, right? How much would it cost for you to drop out?
(Laughs.) You know, I actually had this conversation with my mom. My mom is probably the driving force behind my path—and staying in school. I asked her, 'Mom, what is the number that I have to make before you say it's alright for me to drop out? Two million? Twenty million? A hundred million?' She said to me, 'It's more than just a number. It's about the experience.'
I guess we'll get back to you on that number, Tyler. Trevor, would you ever go back to school?
TO: I would maybe consider graduate school but, by and large, most things you can learn outside school. If my company is successful, then there's no reason for me to go back. It's only if I fail and I need to go back to the drawing board. In general, it's too expensive. It's not worth the time and the cost.
TM: You talk about failure. If I fail, I'll have a degree that I can fall back on. Do you think you're taking a big risk by not having that degree?
TO: We're already profitable with InsideStartups, but I really just don't think I'm ever going to work for anybody. When you're an entrepreneur, you're your own boss. To say that you need a degree to fall back on something, it's like an oxymoron in my life. You can definitely learn a lot in college, but it's inefficient. If you're motivated, you can do everything outside the system.
TM: I actually agree. Most of my education came from outside school. But for most students, college is necessary to get a better understanding of life in general. For example, my favorite class is business law, and I've learned so much about the legal side of my business. When I sign contracts, I understand what I'm signing. For me, school has fostered my creativity and my pursuit of thinking.