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Is a college education worth it? Flickr photo via John McStravick.

Higher education is very important for certain professions. I wouldn’t want surgery from a doctor who learned on YouTube. I wouldn’t work with a lawyer who did not finish law school. But, for an entrepreneur or developer in the tech space, there are other avenues of learning that will likely yield more success than traditional education.

The majority of my customers have known me as one of the Greenvelope support agents who answered the phone when they called with questions. What most people did not know is that between their phone calls, I was studying at Washington University in St. Louis and finishing my homework.

Balancing school and a growing business was a challenge. During the week days, I would start answering calls at 8 a.m. to service the East Coast customers and would work until mental exhaustion in the evenings to catch up, after being away at school during the day. This rigorous routine was sustainable for a month or so, but after a full semester it started to take a toll.

I didn’t have time to exercise. I barely saw my girlfriend. And I always had to tell my college friends I was either too busy or too tired to go out. I knew I needed to make a decision.

If I wanted to live a healthy and happy lifestyle, it boiled down to this: school or startup. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for both.

Last winter, I decided to take a leave of absence to dedicate full-time to my startup Greenvelope. Friends and family were initially skeptical, but I convinced most of them that taking “a leave” was the best decision for me. Even my Ivy League-educated father wrote in my last birthday card: “I am 100% supportive of what you are doing even if you don’t go back to school.”

Sam Franklin
Sam Franklin

For a man of few words, this meant a lot. And it showed that even those with 23 years of formal schooling realize that there may be other paths. Even though I still tell most people I will finish up school (because I think that’s what they want to hear and it avoids a long conversation…), my true hope is that I will have enough success that I will be able to continue supporting my passion for adventure, creating, and entrepreneurship.

I didn’t just become skeptical about formal education after starting Greenvelope. My high-school yearbook quote was Mark Twain’s: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

Once I turned 18, I was able to sign my own notes (for excused absences) in high school. My second semester of my senior year, I think I set a school record for missed class periods.  The missed class voicemail recording from my high school each day became white noise to my mother and father.

But, I was not wasting time when I was skipping class – I was working. I started my first company: pressure washing the moss off of people’s driveways.

There were only so many hours of light in the day and, unfortunately, most of those hours fell during the school day.  This was my first experience in business (creating a customer base, delivering great customer service, and managing finances). I loved it so much that when a friend asked me to take a gap year before college to work and travel, I deferred my admission to Washington University in St. Louis without hesitation.

During my gap-year, I discovered my passion for entrepreneurship, and realized my desire to make a difference on a large scale. Since I had heard so many people say “you can’t teach entrepreneurship,” I felt the sooner I started creating, the more I would be able to learn.

Without further ado, here are the eight reasons why I decided to take time off from college. Hopefully, it will help other young entrepreneurs in a similar situation.

Members of the Thiel Fellowship program
Members of the 2012 Thiel Fellowship program

Reason 1. A college degree no longer “guarantees” a job: PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel started a controversial program that chooses 24 people under the age 20 who have agreed to drop out of school in exchange for a $100,000 grant and mentorship to start a tech company. For my parents’ generation, a college degree ensured a job. But now, since an abundance of people are receiving degrees, most students are coming home after college to live with their parents or taking unpaid internships to get more “real-world” experience before entering the competitive job market.

Reason 2. Schools “Kill” Creativity: One of the most watched TED talks, with over 8 million views, is Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity.” Robinson argues that “if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.“ For most assignments in school, it works better to closely follow the prompt and construct an obvious argument rather than thinking outside the box.  Students and faculty place such importance on grades, which makes students often afraid to take academic risks (and be wrong!). Instead of challenging the mind, most students go through the motions and stick to what they know works.

Reason 3. Mismatch of Skillsets Taught vs. Skillsets Needed: We had a panel of graduates come speak in my marketing class that are now working for Capital One. The consensus was that very little of what they learned in the classroom could apply to their corporate level jobs. Their employers listed the most important qualities they look for in an applicant: “a quick learner, past job experience, a hard worker, technical computer skills, personable, and excellent communication skills.” These qualities are rarely taught in a formal liberal arts setting.

education-jobsReason 4. Open Computer Science Positions: Code.org suggests there will be one million more computer science jobs than computer science students by 2020. Despite this trend, 9 out of 10 schools do not even offer computer science classes. Less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science. Unfortunately, since our educational system is not producing enough engineers to meet domestic demand, most technology companies are forced to recruit outside of the United Stated, despite the U.S. unemployment rate at 7.7 percent. We need to more closely integrate technology training into the current education system if the US wants to keep up with the growing technology demands in the business world.  In addition, some basic coding knowledge is helpful for entrepreneurs to better communicate with their developers.

Reason 5. The Lack of Developers is Stifling Innovation: The most common question I am asked by other entrepreneurs is “How do you find developers?” The truthful answer: It is incredibility difficult. Most entrepreneurs are more business oriented and do not have the technical coding skills, so we rely on “coders” to fulfill our vision. The difficultly keeps many great entrepreneurs stuck in the idea stage. If the universities could find a way to produce more engineers, the students that are now moving back in with their parents could instead be enabling entrepreneurs to innovate right after graduating college.

Reason 6. Learn to Sell: While I was in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to meet briefly with Square co-founder Jim McKelvey. The most important advice he gave me was that a successful entrepreneur “must learn to sell.” This made sense, but I mentioned that I didn’t think of myself as a “Salesman.” Jim assured me that anyone can sell – it just takes practice. Since that conversation, I have started to realize the truth in his comment. The more experience I have talking with customers, the more confident I become in the product and my own ability to communicate the value. This is something I could never learn in a classroom environment. Entrepreneurs are always selling – pitching the product to investors, presenting at conferences, establishing business partners, and talking to customers. The sooner you can start “selling” in a real world environment the more quickly you will develop into an entrepreneur.

lyndaReason 7. The Internet: The Internet is a tremendous source of information that was not available when our education system was built. Libraries “used to” be the best way to obtain knowledge. The best schools had the best libraries, which allowed more opportunity for learning. Now, with the Internet, many of the texts and subjects studied at school are quickly accessible to everyone (whether or not one attends university). At university, I found many of my peers were skipping classes and watching the lectures online or reading the class text on their Kindle/iPad. I learn best from focused study sessions (at my own pace) out of the classroom, rather than attending lectures. I realize this less structured style of learning is not for everyone, but I think most entrepreneurs thrive when they can set and achieve their own goals. While I was attending school, I found myself learning most of the skills that interested me outside of the classroom during my spare time. I learned graphic design software like Photoshop and Illustrator by watching tutorials on Lynda.com. I am now learning to code on Treehouse.com, which has engaging videos, quizzes, challenges, and tests. If a student committed to pursuing four years to code through online courses, instead of attending university, they would be ensured a job (without huge student loans).

Flickr photo via Tax
Flickr photo via TaxCredits.net

Reason 8. The opportunity costs: In a fast-paced efficiency driven world, time is our most valuable asset, and I have a drive to make the biggest impact possible during my time here. Some of my frustrations at school came when I was writing papers or creating presentations for imaginary projects. The paper would be graded with a few comments, end up in my backpack, and then recycled. The point was to mimic a real life experience, but the time could have alternatively been spent creating a real project or plan and then testing it in the “real world.” Not only would a real project hopefully make a difference to others, but also this real-time feedback from customers/clients is likely more relevant than comments from a TA (that often does not have real-world entrepreneurship experience).

These eight reasons combined with the high price tag on higher education helped guide me in the decision to defer college until a later date. Because of my decision to take a leave of absence from school, I am a completely different person/entrepreneur than when I first started the business in 2008.

I have learned from many mistakes along the way and think I could now build another business in half the time and for half the cost. I am sure I will look back at my current self in three years and observe mistakes that I am currently making. But, as Ken Robinson argued, we learn from each mistake and are hopefully innovating along the process. If I decide to go back to school, it will be with a broader perspective of what I wish to accomplish.

If you are a student and unsure of your career path, I’d strongly encourage you to consider taking time off to explore other avenues of learning. I am curious to hear other’s opinions (especially other students who are taking time off to pursue a technology venture) and welcome a discussion in the comment section.

Do you think entrepreneurs should attend college?

Sam Franklin is CEO of Greenvelope, an online invitation service based in SURF Incubator in Seattle. 

College Fund photo via TaxCredits.net.

 

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/McCaffrey1 Andrew McCaffrey

    Good work Sam!

  • Paul Morse

    Great thoughts, Sam. You are a Rhodes scholar in the classroom of life :)

  • Brian Butt

    Peter Thiel needs to open a “fraternity house” for college-skipping entrepreneurs so they won’t regret missing “Animal House” social experiences.

    • Caldwell Winston

      Is your last name actually Butt?

  • http://twitter.com/prestonjholland Preston Holland

    Well written Sam!

  • http://www.artsumo.com Naysawn Naderi

    Great post. I particularly like you’re point about what’s taught vs what is needed. While it’s a nice theory that university teach you what is needed in the workplace, most people learn more in their first year on the job than they did their entire time in school. For any gaps, there’s the internet…

  • JackMMD

    I dropped out of high school to pursue my dream. Totally didn’t humblebrag about it enough, though, which I now regret.

    • Peter Pallow

      Because dropping out of college is cool. Dropping out of high school is for teenage moms and dope pushers.

  • Dropout

    I followed your advice, started a business, and after 3 years had to give up because it wasn’t successful. My college educated friends are now in high paying jobs and have promising futures, while I’m back in college surrounded by people 7 years younger than me who haven’t skipped a beat from highschool. Catching up has been extremely difficult and humbling to say the least.

    Good luck on your startup (really, I mean it), however to tell aspiring entrepreneurs to consider skipping college…is foolish and unfair. Come back in 10 years and preach that message if you want, but as of yet you haven’t earned that right.

    • Sam Franklin

      I appreciate the comments and think you are right that skipping college entirely or leaving college with the mindset of never returning may not be the best advice. But, I wasn’t suggesting people “skip” college. Rather, I suggested that “if you are a student and unsure of your career path, I’d strongly encourage you to consider taking time off to explore other avenues of learning” (perhaps temporary).

      I think a SINGLE year off before attending school helped me accomplish more out of my time at college. In fact, many of the Ivy-league schools encourage a gap year before attending school. And so far, I am learning a tremendous amount from my time off, but, like anything, if things are not working out I will need to reassess. This may mean going back and finishing a degree. If this is a case, I feel I would go back with an entire new set of skills that would help make finishing school even more productive. I do not see anything wrong with being a year or two older than the students in my class standing if I decided to go back next year. School will always be there and gaining some real world experience and bringing it back to school is valuable.

      I would hope you learned a great deal from starting your business that distinguishes you from “all your high school friends.” If you felt those three years were wasted, than perhaps there should have been more assessment going on throughout that process. But if my math is correct, you only had one year of school left and then you were back on the typical path with 3 years of startup experience under your belt that you could apply to your final classes, share with your colleagues, and set you apart when searching for jobs.

      Lastly, not sure how old you are, but the job landscape is completely changing with thousands of open positions at startups interested in hiring entrepreneurial and technical talent. It may have not made sense to “dropout of college” ten years ago, but times are changing and I think it is important for people to really think about what their interest are, and if it is technology and entrepreneurship in the startup environment then four years of college may not be the best fit.

      • vixen devoe

        i actually hold the truancy record in nor cal for missing every day except the 1st and last day of senior year. thankfully my twin was there to grab my homework so I can maintain my 4.0. I would love to drop out of college to pursue my business but I just dont know where to start

    • Hohenheimsenberg

      It’s good to hear about the experience of those who are not bill gates, because we always hear about those successful people but not of those who fail, not that I’m happy of your failure.

      But remember that failing is experience you gain, as Sam said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pacificev Ricardo Rowe-Parker

    Very well written. Great article!

  • Dave

    In high school I developed a computer game called Snowball Wars to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society. Ever since then I’ve been toying with the idea of starting an online game studio but I’ve never had the time because of Engineering studies and more “reliable” shift work during the summer to pay for school. I did start up a website design company (solo operation) and I’ve created about 10 websites for small businesses, but always as a side operation to school and shift work. Id love to take this summer to just develop a game and sell it online. I have a folder overflowing with ideas and sketches for potential games. I will most likely end up taking shift work and not having the time for a game, because if I come up short by the end of the summer then I can’t continue studying. I find this all very frustrating. If you can relate to this or if you’re curious about comparing our plights, I’d love to hear from you. Good luck with Greenvelope! -Dave

  • ninad14312

    hey sam its easy for you to say as you from USA. but here in india education system is so poor. i completed my grad in 2010 computer science but didn’t get the right job . salary is also 10% of what USA companies offer. i am really confused what should i do whether to go for ms or start a startup. also bigger problem in starting a startup is no one ready to take risk and join startup so its too difficult .
    what should i do..?

  • Anthony Lazzaro

    Sam, great article. I left college halfway through my Junior year to pursue my first tech start up. I was able to pick up funding, and expand to 8 different markets with it, however I encountered many problems along the way with my approach to it. Business was good, however the partners I chose and investors did not align as I hoped. I rushed into it and took the first person who said “let’s do this” and as things progressed, seeing eye to eye did not. I ended up exited my start up after a year and a half, and decided to go back to school and finish my degree where I currently am. I got involved with a business incubator / accelerator on my campus and am currently working on my second start up, much different than the first. However this time I have taken the time to plan, and learned from my mistakes the first time I did it. Everything that you stated I agree with and back.

    If you don’t take a risk and chance of pursuing your passion then you will live everyday with regret.

    Nice article and best of luck to you with Greenvelope!

  • sumit

    i want to take a startup i have an idea but i need dedicated coders

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