In the past few months, I've been mentoring a few teenagers who have reached out to me asking for help. They're all in different stages of their life. Some have graduated from college and are struggling to break into their dream companies, and are as clueless as they were before they started college. Some are just finishing high school and are debating if going into significant debt for a bachelor's degree is worth it. And some are in the middle of their MBAs and still a little lost on what to do.
To be honest, I struggled with giving an answer to my high-school-aged cousin who is debating the worth of going to college or starting a company. Until the answer dawned on me: Do both.
1. Sometimes, graduating from college just isn't enough.
Companies want to see your portfolio. They want to see your work experience. They want to see that you're dedicated to your major. They want you to have a great skill set and be a well-rounded professional.
When I'm coaching people on how to interview, I always tell them to answer interview questions with specific examples from their background. Never give a general response.
Here's an example:
Interviewer: "Robbie, can you tell me a time when you had to make a decision when you didn't have all the information?"
Robbie (with just a college degree and no work experience): "Well, when I make decisions I try to gather all the information that I can to make a more informed decision. I'll ask my work colleagues for their input before making any rash decisions. That's how I make decisions."
Robbie (with a college degree, after starting my own company): "Last year, I had to make a really hard decision. My co-founder wasn't performing and our business was starting to decline. I didn't know what was causing his performance to decline, so I was put in a hard position. I reached out to two of my clients to discuss their satisfaction with our work. It was through those conversations that I was able to truly understand our problem, and we made a few adjustments to make them happier. They've been a client ever since, and I have since parted ways with my co-founder."
See the difference? The latter shows grit. It shows your battle scars. It shows that you know what it takes to start something and complete it. It shows that you're willing to fail to innovate and learn.
Going to college and starting a company at the same time shows that you're ready for the real world, and that's what's most important.
2. Starting a company, even if you know it's going to fail, will help your career.
I spoke with a colleague recently to get his input about my cousin and his advice was simple: "Learn how to be a professional." Then he went deep into how he started a company in college that eventually failed, but was a launching point for his career. He met amazing people on his journey, some that eventually became employees of his company and some that are great resources for him.
Compare this with the college kids who have a piece of paper but no real professional experience. Expectations from employers have changed dramatically over the past decade, and they are struggling.
3. It's never been easier and cheaper to start a company.
Let's be real: Starting a company today is the easiest it's ever been. Create a free website on WordPress and social media profiles, and boom. Company started.
Start with the Lean Startup methodology. Talk to customers. Find a problem and attempt to solve it. Do live streams on Twitch documenting your journey. Create videos on YouTube.
Total cost: $0 (besides the cost of a laptop).
Students have zero--and I really mean it, zero--reasons not to create a company.
4. The startup might actually work.
Think about it.
Here is the worst case scenario: You build a company that fails, but you have tons of real-world experience without ever asking for anyone's permission. You have stories to tell future companies that you interview with.
And the best case scenario: You actually build a business. It doesn't even have to be a "never start a career" scenario either. It could be a side business that makes you money while you work full-time.
Of course, you could not go to college at all and just start a company, but that's a risky move. I believe college provides you with unique opportunities and gives you time to explore your options.
Start a company and go to college at the same time? You'll be ahead of 99 percent of people.