Step No. 1: Forget the idea that great entrepreneurs drop out of school. (Some do, but most don't.) Then follow this simple plan.
For the past decade, I’ve taught at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Engineering. I hold weekly office hours, and typically students line up and down the hall waiting to speak. And semester after semester these bright students most want to discuss the same topic: What is the best way to plan an entrepreneurial career?
These students have already figured out the first important piece of advice themselves: Enroll in a great university. There’s currently a meme floating around that entrepreneurs should simply bypass college. That’s incredibly poor advice, and the people giving it often have a great deal of personal college experience themselves. So not only is the advice poor, it’s also often hypocritical.
As it turns out, the best career planning method is simple and powerful: Make a plan and make it early. It’s easy to tell someone to make a plan, but how do you actually do it? I explain this methodology, which I've learned in part from great mentors and in part from personal experience, in more detail in my new book, Breakthrough Entrepreneurship. But in a nutshell here’s how you do it:
Find resumes of successful entrepreneurs that you admire and might want to emulate. Use LinkedIn to learn all about their education, early jobs, moves between companies, etc.
Write your own 20-year plan. The easiest way to do this is in the form of a resume for your 20-years-from-now self. How do you want your resume to read?
Determine the education you’ll need and how to gain entry into your desired degree programs. Talk to alumni and learn everything you can. Make careful note about how much money you’ll pay in tuition, and what sort of opportunity costs you’ll incur. Also make certain you understand what sort of salary and job opportunities to expect. Does obtaining the degree make good financial sense?
Decide the steps of your career. Should you try to start at a name-brand company that will help cement your professional credibility? If so, I suggest seeking jobs in sales or product management. Theses positions will help you better understand customers and the importance of solving their pain when you launch your own new venture. Otherwise, you should try to work directly for an experienced entrepreneur who can help you learn the ropes.
Try to meet with the people whose careers you admire. You’ll find that many people will give you advice and help you tweak your plan.
Go get to work.
This steps will give you the very best chance to succeed. You’ll develop your entrepreneurial skills and lay the groundwork for a great career. There are no guarantees, of course, and luck will certainly influence the magnitude of your results. But give yourself the best chance possible, and start working on your 20-years-from-now resume today.
JON BURGSTONE was co-founder of SupplierMarket, acquired by Ariba for $1.1B. He now teaches at Berkeley, where he helped launch the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He is co-author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship. @jburgstone