As Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and many entrepreneurs before them have proved, getting a college degree is definitely not a prerequisite for running a successful business.
At the same time, college (and graduate school) played an important role in the paths of plenty of founders. Google's Larry Page and Netflix's Reed Hastings come to mind.
So if you're on campus this fall and itching for startup life, know this: you need not trade one for the other. Attending a school with a strong business or entrepreneurship program can be a "huge potential plus" for aspiring entrepreneurs, says Paul Horn, chairman of New York University's Entrepreneurial Institute. Equally valuable, college-educated entrepreneurs say, is the work experience and connections they gained while they were in school.
Read on for some key pieces of advice for students interested in setting themselves up for starting their own ventures:
1. Take advantage of your school's entrepreneurship center.
One of the biggest obstacles that student entrepreneurs face starting out is a lack of resources and connections to get their ideas off the ground. University-run entrepreneurship centers can help you find like-minded people with whom you can discuss your visions, as well as business advisers and alumni who can offer guidance to make them a reality, says Starr Marcello, director and chief operating officer of the University of Chicago's Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "Don't be shy about going in and seeing who holds the connection," she says.
2. Put yourself out there.
Random connections and networking events can be the unexpected trigger for great ideas, says Jeremy Fiance, an investor in the Dorm Room Fund. Run through the venture capital firm First Round Capital, the Dorm Room Fund has teams of college entrepreneurs in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston that scout for other promising student-founded startups. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Fiance, who graduated in 2014 and now works for a startup, says that some of his best ideas came from constantly being willing to meet new people and attend social events. "Try putting yourself where the magic can happen," he says.
3. Intern at a startup.
Not only can working for a startup you admire help you learn what it's like to run a fledgling company, it can also help you forge invaluable professional connections. Perhaps most importantly, interning can also push you to discover new interests and bring your attention to real-world issues outside of the college bubble, says Miles Bird, director of business development for the Kairos Society, a San Francisco-based non-profit that provides support to budding entrepreneurs. For instance, Bird launched a microfinance startup after spending the summer interning for a microfinance organization in Bangladesh.
4. Learn how customers think.
It doesn't matter what kind of business you eventually start--the key to success is understanding what appeals to your customers, Horn says. You can start learning now by taking practical courses that require you to develop and test your products on actual consumers. Psychology courses--particularly those that focus on understanding the mindset of consumers--can also prove helpful, he adds. It's never too early to start testing your ideas with a real audience, even if you need to use a low-cost prototype. Even if you fail, it's part of the learning process and even "a badge of honor," Marcello says.
5. Do something entrepreneurial, even on a small scale.
Learn how to run a venture with an established business model before you apply the techniques to your own ideas. Start with something that's worked for others, say a T-shirt printing operation or laundry service in your dorm room, Bird says. Once you've experienced the challenges of running your own operation, you'll be better prepared to work out those kinks in a venture that you're truly passionate about.