Before Mark Zuckerberg left for college in 2002, his father offered him a choice: Either he could have a Harvard education, or his father would purchase a McDonald's franchise for him to run, according to a report at CNBC.com. The franchise would likely have provided many years or perhaps a lifetime of steady income. Today, franchise owners typically earn $90,000 a year or more, CNBC.com says. [Disclosure: I'm a CNBC.com contributor.]
Each of the four Zuckerberg children got the same offer from their dad, who was a dentist, Mark's sister Randi Zuckerberg recalled in a CNBC interview. It was, in effect, a choice to either get an education and make their own way in the world or follow an easier path and be set for life.
If someone had made me that offer before I went of to college, I have to admit, I'd probably have taken it. Zuckerberg, who'd already demonstrated his programming prowess and created video games for his friends and an early version of chat software for his father's practice, could have spent the rest of his life pursuing passion projects without worrying about whether there was a market for them. That sounds very appealing to me. But he opted for Harvard instead.
You know the rest of the story. Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room, and then dropped out of college during his sophomore year to work on his new company. Their parents reaction was, "OK, you probably should have taken the McDonald's franchise money if you wanted a business," Randi Zuckerberg recalled. Still, they were always supportive of whatever their kids wanted to do. Of course, as it turned out, Zuckerberg had made the exact right decision. His presence at Harvard contributed a great deal to Facebook's early success, first because he was able to exchange ideas with fellow students (some of whom, of course, sued him for stealing those ideas). And the fact that Facebook membership was initially limited to Harvard students, and then students at a handful of elite colleges, such as Stanford, Yale, and Princeton, made the new social network highly desirable.
The Warren Buffett approach
Although he probably didn't know it, Zuckerberg was following advice that Warren Buffett often gives young people. "Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do -- anything that improves your own talents," he said. So he would certainly have approved of Zuckerbeg's choice of an education over lifetime financial security, and later, his choice to bet on himself by leaving Harvard to work on Facebook. (The university gave him an honorary degree when he made a commencement speech in 2017.) He bet on himself again two years later when Yahoo came calling and tried to buy Facebook, offering more than $1 billion, which would have been a nice payday for 22-year-old. People familiar with the offer say he never seriously considered it.
What would you have done if someone offered you the choice between a college education and a fast-food franchise that might set you up for life? Would you have opted for financial security, or bet on your own talents? And whichever choice you made, would it have been the right one?