Hey, College Kids, Work at a Startup for a Year
If you’re a college kid looking to buff up your resumé and increase your odds of landing a solid professional gig after graduation, there are several traditional routes you can go. There’s the ever-popular year abroad, the all-but-essential round of internships, and that go-getter standby, becoming president of some sort of club or society.
These are worthy undertakings all, but if your aim is to found or work at a startup after you finish school, experienced entrepreneurs have another suggestion: Take a year out to get your hands dirty and actually experience startup life before you graduate.
Someone on the question-and-answer site Quora recently floated the idea of taking some time out of your studies to work at a startup, and several prominent members of the startup community took the time to endorse the idea. It’s not only good professional preparation, but it actually is a good move academically, according to several who tried it themselves.
A New Perspective on School
Matt Gattis, co-founder and CTO of Hunch, for instance, responded by saying, "I did it and highly recommend it." Why did he find the experience so valuable? Not only because of how it affected his subsequent work life but also because of how it affected his studies when he went back to college.
"I stopped caring about studying because I realized that grades really don't matter as a computer science major," he writes. Paradoxically, paying less attention to his GPA actually resulted in Gattis's learning more. "I became genuinely interested in my classes. Because of this, I learned 10 times as much and enjoyed the hell out of it," he says.
Sam Purtill, who is now at Stanford after two gap years working at YouNoodle, agrees. In the course of a long answer offering a deep dive into what his startup gap year meant to him, he concludes that "it was absolutely worth every minute," in part for similar reasons to those cited by Gattis.
"After high school, I never wanted to show up to class again," Purtill confesses, but his "gap years reignited my love for learning in an academic environment that I hadn't had since sixth grade." In a startup environment, he explains, "you have to be highly self-motivated to learn anything or get anything done; in school, everything is very structured, the pace is set, etc. I always had trouble with this way of learning (and fought against it) in high school, but I realized in my gap years that it was nearly impossible to learn all the things they teach you in college anywhere else. This has really motivated me to put my nose to the grindstone and get it done."
A few years of real-world experience didn’t hurt his chances of getting admitted to the school of his choice, either, he adds.
Only for Techies?
So does the startup gap year work only for technical folks like those above? Nope. Some of the responders were on the business side of things and also had positive things to say about their decision to take a year out. "I didn't take a year off of undergrad to do a startup, but I did take a year off from business school to help launch two startups, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made," writes Jon Bischke, founder of Entelo. "School can be very theoretical, and having a year to see how the 'real world' works can allow you to better figure out what you want to get out of school when you're there."
As with any career decision, this isn’t the path for everybody, and there are downsides (Purtill mentions that "your family constantly asks you when you're going to school" and "you feel like you're 'behind' all the kids in high school you graduated with"), but based on the enthusiasm and consistency of these Quora responses, those thinking of working in startups should give the gap-year idea some serious consideration.
What would be your advice to a student who wanted to quit school to work at a startup for a year?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.