A question I hear a lot from young entrepreneurs is whether a university degree is important to startup success, or just a distraction in achieving their purpose in the world. They are quick to point out that many of today's top entrepreneurs, including Evan Williams (Twitter), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), dropped out of school to get on with their dreams.
I certainly agree that you won't learn all you need in school to run an innovative and successful startup. But I don't believe that universities and entrepreneurial efforts have to be mutually exclusive or serial paths. In fact, I think the evidence is clear that many entrepreneurs started their journey while still in college, and capitalized on resources there, before moving on.
1. Extend your technology focus with business basics.
Most colleges have now added classes in entrepreneurship to include the necessary business focus to technical majors that usually drive innovative ideas. Contrary to a popular myth, a great invention and passion alone won't drive a great business. Good business basics are not intuitive.
Mark Zuckerberg, while still in school, tested the viability of his "FaceMash" technology as a business by rolling it out to other students at Harvard as customers. He learned quickly that several pivots were required for business, legal, and customer acceptance reasons.
2. Take advantage of free startup programs and mentors.
Every school recognizes the power of hands-on work to help you develop your own ideas into a business. They provide peer group organizations, usually called incubators, with free resources, practice environments, and outside mentoring that can help you learn and pivot with minimal cost.
For example, I do business mentoring at Arizona State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Both provide entrepreneurial head-start programs for aspiring entrepreneurs, free legal guidance, and access to experienced staff members.
3. Initiate networking to find peer partners and investors.
Universities have the links you need to patent attorneys, prototyping companies, and investment groups, as well as a wealth of peer talent to round out your team and share the work. Startups are not a solo operation, so the sooner you find the right connections and partners, the faster you move.
For most young entrepreneurs, the best networking you can do is to pitch and discuss your startup idea with peers in a school-sponsored startup weekend or competition judged by outside investors, where everyone wins with minimal cost and no jeopardy.
4. Write a business plan and pitch deck for learning.
Many real entrepreneurs don't get beyond the passionate talking stage until later, and then find that building business plans is costly and time consuming. School mentors, professors, and peers will give you the critical feedback without passing judgment. Learning by doing is the only way to go.
It may seem strange, but I find that entrepreneurs still in school procrastinate less and are less intimidated by the process of writing their plan. Unfortunately, most people can't tell a consistent story and fill in the gaps until after they have a written plan and pitch.
5. Build a website and incorporate while in school.
These tasks are not rocket science, but there is no better way to learn than to start doing the real job, while you are still in a supportive and risk-tolerant environment. Your experience will put you well ahead of most of your competitors and familiarize you with the issues of contracts, insurance, and taxes.
6. Find employment connections with other startups.
If you are not absolutely confident in your own startup idea, it pays to work first for another startup to solidify your view of the skills and resources required, to assess your own risk tolerance, leadership interests, and generate some required funding. Make a summer internship your best learning class.
In the entrepreneur world, all the facts you might have memorized in school change quickly and will be of minimal value. The real value of schooling is learning how to learn, and building a broad base of processes and connections to keep you ahead of your competitors.
Rather than focus on academic credentials, keep your focus on getting business results, and investors will find you.