Popping the Young Entrepreneurial Bubble
The number of resources being brought to bear to drive young entrepreneurship is impressive. Now academia is getting into the game. Such schools as MIT, Stanford, and Northwestern offer entrepreneur training for students that want to build the Next Big Thing. In some of them, one of the requirements to pass the course is to launch a business in a handful of weeks.
Sounds good, right? After all, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard in his junior year. Steve Jobs didn't even get that far toward a degree. Michael Dell started his original PC business as a freshman and moved out of the dorm system so he could grow it. But it's a mistake to assume that what worked for a few individuals is necessarily right for everyone. And maybe the drive for many students to jump aboard the entrepreneurial bandwagon is not necessarily the best thing for the future of business.
Some schools are not only offering courses, but also creating their own business incubators. And then you have the likes of billionaire Internet entrepreneur Peter Thiel offering to pay promising students to drop out and start their own companies. His 20 Under 20 Fellowship offers $100,000 each to at least 20 students a year.
Some of the criticisms of traditional education, like Thiel's saying that the cost of an education has outpaced the economic benefit it can offer, have some validity. And schools should help students understand that aside from theory, practical experience and real life will play enormous parts in their future.
But the increasing drive and hype to develop the young entrepreneur is starting to look like something of a bubble. There are a few problems with the notion that any and every 20-something should trod the entrepreneurial path:
Education is about far more than what you will do to make money.
Ideas, interactions with peers and faculty, opportunities, and experiences help form character and a view of the world. Education should be about the development of the whole person, not simply the development of a start-up idea. That may have little economic interest to a company, but it should be of paramount importance to the person who will hopefully have a long life to live.
A huge percentage of businesses fail.
Students will roll the dice on an enormous gamble, and being young, they tend to consider themselves immortal. Many young people need to learn about identifying risk, not to mention managing it. If you can't manage risk, you have little business trying to run a young company.
Young people are often immature.
Look at the inane stories of how Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts acted when first starting Facebook. Yes, Zuck got the help he and his company needed, but he also could have easily flamed out for no reason but the lack of a mature counterweight.
The young are also resilient, of course, but will that start-up idea really die on the vine while they get some additional experience and learning under their belts? FedEx was years in the making. Amazon.com was unprofitable for a long time. It took Turner Broadcasting from 1979 to 1991 to get into the black.
Far more important than a good idea is drive and staying power. Entrepreneurs must learn to stay the course and overcome obstacles. Pushing through with school may be a mistake for a handful, but far more are likely to gain considerably from a full experience and learn to be better leaders and entrepreneurs as a result.
So, sure, given students a chance to learn from the entrepreneurial experience. But also help them understand what it means to carry out what they begin.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.