If you're a college entrepreneur, you can be forgiven for thinking that you would be better off dropping out and starting your company rather than waiting until you earn your degree. After all, your heroes Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg did not finish college -- why should you?
As a lecturer of strategy and entrepreneurship at Babson College--the nation's top-ranked school for entrepreneurship for the last 25 years, according to US News and World Report-- I think you should not drop out unless you have their off the charts levels of talent.
As I kick off another school year -- this time with about 100 aspiring entrepreneurs in my classes -- here are five principles to help you get the most out of school should you decide to earn your degree.
1. Be an entrepreneur working for an established company
Entrepreneurship does not happen only in startups. It can be important in well-established companies as well.
That is certainly the case for large companies that are run by their founders -- Amazon comes to mind.
College students hoping to get a large company entrepreneurial experience should boost their odds of success by doing the following:
- Get good grades in courses that are valuable to those companies.
- Develop student startups working with a team.
- Network with alumni who work in top companies.
Do all these things, and you may find yourself leading large new lines of business within an established company -- something that might be very professionally rewarding for you.
2. Launch your startup after big-company training
When I started college, I had in mind that I might like to start a company someday. But I also knew that I did not know enough about business to do so successfully. I did know that I wanted to do strategy consulting for high-tech companies, and I ended up working in the best consulting firms that would hire me.
As a result, once I decided to start my own company, I was very confident in my ability to manage client relationships and do excellent consulting work. What's more, I was fortunate to have developed relationships with colleagues who could help me get my business off the ground.
Most aspiring college entrepreneurs should apply the scientific mindset to their own careers -- admit what they don't know and conduct experiments to get answers. If they do, they will recognize that the vast majority of startups fail and that they can boost their odds of success by learning foundational insights by working at a company.
If you work at an established company, you could learn business skills, find an unsolved problem that could become the basis for a startup, and develop a network of talented people who could become your co-founders.
3. Learn lessons in college to boost your current startup's odds for success
At Babson, there are many courses I teach that give people insights and skills that help them boost their odds for startup success. For example, I teach students that one of the biggest sources of startup failure is solving the wrong problem -- one that is more important to the founders than it is to potential customers.
To avoid that, I teach them to apply four tests:
- Are you passionate about the problem space?
- Is there a huge market opportunity for companies that solve that problem?
- Are customers are willing to pay you to solve the problem?
- Can you build the world's best solution to the problem?
4. Fail less expensively in a startup class
In one of my classes, students work in teams to come up with a business idea, build and get feedback on a prototype, interview customers to estimate the size of their target market and learn how to beat the competition, and build a financial model that helps them raise capital.
If students' business ideas don't pan out, the lessons learned are much less painful than they would have been if they had taken on millions in capital to preside over a failure.
5. Use your school's network to build a great team or raise capital
I also teach students to start with the resources they have. They should seek advice from their college's network of talented founders and financiers, as they scramble to build teams or raise capital.
You are probably not the next Steve Jobs, so the benefits of learning these lessons are likely greater than the missed opportunity of delaying your startup.