Cool Start-up? Stay in School Anyway
College is generally considered a time to expand your horizons, learn to live on your own, have a ton of fun, and even, perhaps, learn a little something. But are your undergraduate years also the best time to getting started on building a business?
The counter-arguments to this idea seem obvious. Students are generally short of money and have no lack of other demands on their time (though, let's be honest, plenty of college kids aren't exactly getting up at the crack of dawn to hit the books or spending every waking hour working). Classes aren't generally directly relevant to entrepreneurship. But at least one expert on starting businesses feels the case for beginning your start-up life in college outweighs the downsides.
Writing on his blog recently, venture capitalist Brad Feld claimed your years getting a degree are the perfect time to start experimenting with starting a business. Why? He quotes a line he heard from a mentor-in-residence at UM Tech Transfer:
"College is like a sandbox if you are an entrepreneur," he writes. "Falling down doesn't hurt much."
This thinking takes the initial objection to college kids starting businesses—that they don’t have many resources—and turns it on its head. Students might not be swimming in cash or connections, but the very fact that they aren’t established yet in full lives with mortgages, kids and car payments is actually a huge advantage, according to Feld, who reflected on the sandbox analogy in his post:
This made me think of a brilliant phrase from Alex White, the CEO of Next Big Sound, in his TechStars Demo Day pitch. I can't remember where in the presentation it was but Jason reminded me that one of Alex's great moments was when he said something like "We don't need to raise much money because we are cheap to keep alive."
Feld also notes that this very sense of not being weighed down with much in the way of responsibilities or expectations is great for creativity and the willingness to fail:
The level of enthusiasm and optimism among the people we met with was phenomenal. Their willingness and interest in learning and trying new stuff was apparent. And their understanding that plenty of things wouldn’t work, but they wouldn’t learn if they didn't try, was front and center.
College for many (although by no means all) of us is a privileged, low-expense time when parents help out with feeding and housing us and our lifestyle expectations are modest. Why not take advantage of the time and freedom that buys you to make some of the initial mistakes and learn some of the valuable lessons entailed in becoming an entrepreneur?
Feld obviously isn't the only member of the start-up community encouraging young people to get their hands dirty early. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel made a lot of waves earlier this year with his 20 Under 20 program, encouraging students to drop out of school to start businesses with $100,000 he'd invested in their ideas. But Feld is perhaps more unusual in not calling college a waste of time for entrepreneur hopefuls, but essentially a great practice ground for them to hone their skills while they combine study and business.
What do you think, is college a great time to start experimenting with entrepreneurship (check out our Coolest College Start-ups package for inspiration!), or should you just be studying instead?
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.