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.”
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.
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.
Reason 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.
Reason 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).
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.