Reader Response: Should I Go To College Or Start A Business?

Much to my surprise, a good number of my readers are either in high school or college and I regularly receive questions about our online store from students currently in school.

This one particular student became inspired after reading about our story and now wants to start a business venture of his own. The only problem is that he is also contemplating skipping college to pursue his dream. J, this blog entry is for you. I apologize for taking so long to respond to you.

Here is his original email.

I have read some of the blogs on your website and I couldn’t agree more with your views on schooling and entrepreneurship. I feel we share a lot of the same views on life.

I am only 16 and in high-school. I used to earn good grades ever since elementary school, but lately I haven’t been so caught-up in getting an A and more focused on how to become successful in life.

Some people will earn the grade in school and follow up with being an employee while others become the employer. Your website leads me to think you aspire to be the employer, and I am writing this to ask if you knew this before you went to college.

I am deciding whether or not I should go to college, and starting my own business seems like the way to go. What made you go to college?

After hearing stories about successful people like Bill Gates and other wealthy entrepreneurs who either skipped or dropped out of school, it is no wonder that many people now consider skipping college altogether. But keep in mind that these people are definitely in the minority.

I can not emphasize how important the college experience was to me. Going to college essentially made me who I am today and allowed me to discover what I truly wanted to pursue in life. If I had to enumerate some of the key reasons to go to college, this is the list I would come up with. As you are reading this list, keep in mind that it is much easier to go to college first and then start your own business later rather than doing it the other way around. Don’t worry about student loans for now either.

You Will Make Important Friends And Contacts

During your college career, you will meet a multitude of people, many of which will become important contacts for you later on in life. When you are in school with thousands of people, it’s easy to find people that share similar interests. Let’s say you are interested in entrepreneurship. There is bound to be a group or organization dedicated to students wanting to start their own business. If there isn’t, you can start your own. Finding other members to join is simple because you are in constant contact with thousands of people.

At Stanford, there were a ton of groups and organizations dedicated to entrepreneurship and you bet that I was a member of many of them. I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship or how to start a business when I first arrived and I had no clue about the process or mindset of how to begin. By joining and taking part in various entrepreneurship programs, I established many contacts and learned from them.

Just to give you an example, when I took part in the Mayfield Fellows Program which is an entrepreneurship course at Stanford, I met many venture capitalists and other successful entrepreneurs who mentored me. I had the opportunity to really pick their brains and ask them detailed questions on how they became successful. I learned how to evaluate the viability of my business ideas and the proper guidelines with which to start a successful business. I also discovered how to take advantage of the various resources available to me. Today, if I ever need funding for one of my business ideas, I know where to go. If I ever need a mentor or advice, I know who to contact.

The reality of it all is that a large percentage of the success of your business is about who you know and who you can contact for help when you need it. Going to college will provide you with the opportunity to meet your future partners.

You Will Gain A Depth Of Knowledge

Arguably, you can learn everything that you would learn in college on your own. However, the college environment greatly facilitates the speed and efficiency of the learning process because you are surrounded by classmates and professors who are there to help you.

I’ll use computer science and programming as an example. Anyone can pick up a book and learn how to write a computer program on their own. However, the best programmers in the world also understand how the underlying hardware works in conjunction with the code that is written. Without the necessary depth of knowledge that you would pick up from a class or professor, it would be extremely difficult to attain the same level of proficiency in a given subject matter.

Is proficiency required to start a successful business? Yes and no though it is much easier to come up with a viable idea for a business if you are already an expert in a particular area. Bill Gates could drop out of school because he was already an expert with computer software. Because he was one of the early pioneers for operating system development, there wasn’t much that Harvard could offer him.

A College Degree Will Open Doors For You

What if you need to raise money for your business? What if you need to get a job to make ends meet if your startup fails? A college degree will open many doors for you for practically everything that you may need to do.

I highly recommend getting a regular day job before starting your own business. Why? Because it’s helpful to experience different working environments and learn how larger businesses are run so you can get an idea of how you’ll want to run your own venture. It’s extremely difficult to jump into a new startup with no knowledge, no capital and no backup plan and hope to succeed.

Without a college degree, it will be more difficult to raise capital and more difficult to find a job. You might be an extremely intelligent and capable individual but the reality of it all is that most people in the world will judge you differently based on whether or not you have a college diploma.

College is Fun

Most importantly, your college days will be some of the most memorable years of your life. If I could drop everything and relive my college years, I would do so in a heartbeat. Your college years will be one the few periods of your life where you can focus just on learning and having fun.

You will have the opportunity to test the waters and discover what you are truly interested in doing with no responsibilities whatsoever. Take some time to explore different subject areas because who knows? You might just find something else that excites you.

Should You Go To College?

Based on my own personal experiences, the answer is a resounding yes. So J, even though you may aspire to be your own boss, you need to recognize that you may not have enough knowledge at this point to succeed. But who am I to be the judge? Only you can make that decision. But for me, going to college was a no brainer.

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32 thoughts on “Reader Response: Should I Go To College Or Start A Business?”

  1. the Bill Gates example is really a bad one. During the years he was in University he signed up for classes and never attended them, except for the tests. The classes he attended were the ones that were supposed to be too hard for him, and the only classes where he learned.

    Gates has an IQ of about 160. The average is 100. 65 is fully retarded and over 135 is approaching genius.

    If J is not into getting A’s, but he can get them without attending class he may (MAY) slightly, possibly and probably not be able to make it without higher education.

    My step daughter goes to university in Canada. There, she started a business. She does not make a fortune, but she makes enough to spend $300 on a purse when the mood hits her. That is the kind of thing that is a good unit of measure – she gets the same grades as before while taking classes that are more difficult and runs her (not online) business.

    J, go to University while running a business.

    1. Hey Richard,

      That’s not a bad idea if he can handle it. J, you should treat college as a learning experience and a time to experiment. Don’t limit yourself to any one thing. If you have the luxury of going to college, you are a very fortunate person. Take advantage of it!

  2. Great answer Steve! I’m 30 and wish I was able to go to college out of high school. Of course it’s never too late but lately over the past few years, its not been the right time (unemployment, divorce, significant loss, etc). I say, take advantage of it while you still can. It still may be a few years down the road for me.

    1. Hi Carla,

      I think it gets harder and harder to go back especially once you have all of these responsibilities and people to worry about. I hope you eventually get the opportunity!

  3. most startups fail.

    You can always conduct business while going to college. Just focus on college!

  4. I would say that going to college is probably the right way to go – unless J has a very clear business idea, has tested the market, etc.

    If I had to do it again, I would do most things the same, but I’d start a business while in college. I’ve learned so many lessons from entrepreneurship that I wish I would have learned 10 years ago; I’d be much more wealthy and happy. Going this route, J would likely learn to take risks, and taking risks is one of those things that entrepreneurs have to do.

    Were J to not go to college, s/he would probably take the safe route in business because that’s all s/he’d have. And there would be the lingering “should I have gone to college?” question that would linger; from teaching college students, I can tell you that most people on the fence regret not having done it. If you know that you don’t want to go, that’s a completely different matter.

    So, J: sign up for some classes, play with ideas, do some growing up in a relatively safe environment, and start your business on the side.

  5. I didn’t read all the above comments, but if this was my kid, my advise would be:

    Don’t go to college unless you know what you want to get out of it.

    I would encourage my kids to go get a job, or if it’s a low-cost start-up (like an online business) go ahead and try it. Chances are, they’ll get a poor-paying job or their business will fail. But hands-on experience will help them to learn and grow, and if nothing else, will help them realize what they need college for. I would actively discourage my kids from going to college straight out of high school, unless I feel that s/he has a clear sense of what they want to get out of college.

    ari

  6. Bill Gates only dropped out once he had a very promising and lucrative offer.

    If someone cares only about money and not education – they need to get educated! It’s a good reason to broaden their horizons.

    If they are more of a do-er then maybe college isn’t for them. They need a mentor.

    Most people who make money start out working for other people – to gain knowledge about the business and market. Q: What’s the difference between a great opportunity and and a scam where you’ll do your money? A: knowledge. If you want a job (depending on the industry) to get paid to educate yourself you may well need a qualification. The qualification may also provide you with valuable information.

    I think people should go to college – not for the sake of money, but because life is about more than money.

  7. Gates dropped out of Harvard, if you can get into Harvard then you can talk about quitting. If not go to school.

  8. Bill Gates also had a large trust fund, and if he had failed, he could have easily returned to Harvard with a focus

  9. Now poor J is going to feel he’s being compared to Bill Gates! ;) Seriously though, I agree with Evan … life is about more than money. It definitely IS easier to go to college at 16 than at 40. J has the youth, stamina and concentration to go for a more rounded life experience right now, and I’d suggest college plus business experiments on the side. After all, multi-tasking effectively is a good skill to have for a successful businessman. :)

  10. You are offering sensible advice. I’ve seen far too many ads or sales talk that you can make it BIG and QUICKLY on a get rich program on the web, only to know that it is not quite as easy at it sounds. I also like Charlie’s advice on starting young with entrepreneurship. There is so much to learn. I also wish that I began 20 years earlier than now.

  11. I’ve had to face this dilemma too, and I don’t regret making the decision to go to grab that higher education (university = college, up here in Canada). But I think the experience of “managing business” while going to school (as Richard mentioned) does help both challenge and stimulate the mind. To me, it’s a contemplating and refreshing experience.

    First time reader and commentor, but I think I might stick around. Great post, Steve!

  12. Hi guys,

    My first instinct was to say “Do BOTH!” But that’s me. I’ve always had side ventures going. Lately, I have been on a “do what’s in you heart kick”. I’m 28, have my MBA, and I have been sickened by the amount of unsolicited advice about what I should do with my life.

    Go with your gut J. If any of this advice sounds good then go to college. If it all sounds stupid to you then go and start a business. Use your youthful enthusiasm to your advantage.

    My only question is that if you are two years away from starting college why are you not starting some business right now?

    “He who hesitates is lost.” – Cato

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  13. Without a doubt you should go to college. Not only will you learn and experience so many amazing things but you have so much fun. Nothing in my life has ever come close to comparing to my college years.

    There’s also no reason you can’t start a business while at school. Everyone always says how busy they are at school but in the end you still have multiple vacations (month in the winter, 3 in the summer, various other days off). These are all great chances to push your business forward and even while class is in session you will have time minus maybe mid-terms and finals week. Also you gain access to so many resources that you would have to work vigorously for on your own. Alumni are usually always willing to help out students starting their own ventures, you have access to professors and advisors that can proof read, give advice, and brainstorm more ideas.

    Above all I think it’s a great place because it gives you 4years to slowly grow your business. It’s very possible your venture will fail the 1st time around. This gives you the chance to fail and recover. Not to mention there’s that degree to fall back on if anything every happens.

    Don’t get serious to young…..go have some fun!

  14. Hilary says:

    Hi Steve .. seems like you’re getting a good response .. & those that work hard and perservere will succeed .. they’ll learn from their mistakes.

    Perhaps the other thing is the customer base & friends around one in College – while testing & trying out new ideas .. honing their entrepreneurship skills, while still achieving.

    Thanks – Hilary

  15. J says:

    Thanks for responding to my email and to all the people who left comments.
    Seems like everyone is saying go to college.

    I have this idea in my head that I will not go to college and instead spend those four years working all the fun jobs I’ve always wanted to have (like @ starbucks, being a waiter, or being a pool boy at a fancy hotel lol). I want to work extremely long hours (like 100 a week). I want to test what I can do and what I can’t.
    Then in my twenties start my business after raising some capital.

    If I go to college, I’d always be thinking , “What will the rest of my life be like? And could I suceed in starting the business I’ve always wanted?” I wouldn’t know what to do with my college degree, because being an employee will make me feel strapped down.

    I’m thinking I should see if I can last doing odd-jobs for 2 years and if I can’t, go to college at age 20.

    PS: my names not J, it’s Josh. lol

  16. I like Jeremy’s idea, but I don’t think it’s always applicable. I think whether you go to school or start a business should be on a case by case basis. If you have a really compelling arguement for starting a business, start the business! Give it a year and if the business doesn’t pan out, head off to college. Something to think about is it gets more and more difficult to go to college the older you get so if you are going, go as soon as you can after school.

    Thanks!
    -HIB

  17. Hi Josh,

    In your own words, here is why you need to start a business NOW!…

    “If I go to college, I’d always be thinking , “What will the rest of my life be like? And could I succeed in starting the business I’ve always wanted?””

    I think you already knew the answer to your own question and just wanted some reaffirmation. I’m going to go against everyone else’s advice and tell you to forget about college for now. Like you said, you wouldn’t know what to do with a college degree and it might be a waste of time and money for you when you could be investing time and money into a business.

    There will be plenty of schools that would accept you if you wanted to go later. I used to work as an admissions advisor. I would take a 20 year old who failed at trying to start a business over an immature and inexperienced 18 year old any day. Yes, you still have to get good grades and do well on the SAT/ACT but college admissions requirements are pretty low at a lot of colleges. Plus by waiting to go to college you will avoid something I call “freshman folly”. Thinking school is more about partying then it is about studying.

    Everyone’s advice is well meaning and good. But that doesn’t necessarily make it right for you. If a business is what you want, then go after it with gusto! If you want to talk about it more always feel free to come to my website and submit a comment or use my contact form.

    Best of luck to you Josh!

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  18. College is not for everyone. College’s one and only purpose is to teach you to ask questions and challenge assumptions. That is the value of a college education. If you are, for example, a mathematics major, you will also take history, science, English, art, foreign language, and other subjects. Similarly, a business major will take all of the above in addition to various business classes. The object is to give you the tools to do things that have not yet been done in that field.

    You can teach yourself everything else that you’ll learn in college. College is *not* about making connections. That is a side-effect of having enough funds available so you are not running directly from classes to your waiter job. If you have to work anywhere close to full-time, especially if you are studying and doing homework, you won’t have the time or energy. Likewise, college is not about getting a piece of paper. No one has any idea whether that paper will get you a job four years down the road. The paper is a bonus, but do not force yourself through college if your only reason for going is because you expect the degree to open doors.

    If you have a particular subject that you want to study as preparation for future employment, and that is all you want to do, go to a trade or technical school. You will learn the minimal set of information that is believed to be needed to get started in your chosen field.

    Having said all of that, start your business part-time and attend either college or trade school. I recommend college, particularly for developing the ability to think outside the box, and the ability to try a lot of different things that you would not get in a vocationally-focused institution. I would ask myself what most of the students on your campus are lacking and would be willing to pay for, then provide that thing for an appropriate fee.

    Having gone to college soon after high school and then returned years later to finish up, I know from experience that it is better after you have tasted the real world and know why you are going. I don’t generally suggest that any young person go to college without at least two years in the workplace first (or two years trying to get hired, which has a similarly maturing effect). When you are on campus, you can tell the difference in the students who have work experience versus those who are still riding on daddy’s wallet.

  19. V says:

    It depends on lot of things. If you have strong entrepreneurial skills, you may want to start business right away and then go to college with your real time experience.

    Another easy way to success is to join B-School, you will get tons of real time experience in college.

  20. Bradly says:

    i have a ? i am 21 years old and when i graduated from highschool 19, i joined the millitary the coast guard i joined for 4 weeks and then got out because i didnt think it was right for me i thought no i want to go to college because i dont want to get out in 4 years and be in the same situation as i am right now its like starting over again unless i did somthing i learned from the coast guard as a carear.any way i got out and then i moved to denver colorado with a friend for 6 months i worked at coke and skied for 6 months and i was really really depressed. i dated this girl for 3 years in highschool and out of high school for a while and i think she crushed my life to the fullest of being crushed u can say im a pussy ect….. wehatever but this girl crushed me so i was depressed in denver colorado for 6 months and then i moved to austin texas because i wanted to start school first of all high school wasnt my thing i meen i look back on it and my highschool evolved around this girl i didnt care about school and i no it was stupid but i was in love or thought so anyway because when she figured out i wasnt going to go to a university and then i got out of the coastguard and her mom was making her break up with me bye saying you are going to be white trash her mom was going to take away her car and not pay for her to go to school lol i noooooo it was messed up kind of but im not a parent but anyways i moved to austin texas to start school i thought u no maybe i will go to community college and transfer into a university well i thought i would do that but i droped my classes because just like highschool i hated it the teacher would say one thing and it would go right in one ear and right out of the other well 2 years go bye and now im 21 i have been doing construction for like 2 years and i want to make the money so sos sos sos sos sos bad more than a lot of people i get depressed. i just need help and what i should do with my life? should i try school again even tho i dis like it or should i work and try to open up my own buisness down the road. i meen i can go to college when ever i want my Parents will pay that not a problem i just need help with my future and what i should do?

  21. No, Bradley, college is not where you should be right now. “i droped my classes because just like highschool i hated it”–this tells you that you should be somewhere else.

    You should be looking into a trade or vocational program or maybe look into an apprenticeship program. Think about what kind of work you think you would like to do. Then look for a program that will train you to do that kind of work.

    We haven’t done you any favors by telling you that you have to go to college. As you found out, you did not gain any benefit from your college classes.

    Later on, you may find college helpful. But right now, what you need is a way to support yourself while doing something that you don’t absolutely hate.

    1. Auke says:

      In addition to that, you might first want to calm yourself down, as it looks like you are quite desparate.

      What’s important is, you should calculate, think, but you cant make a wise and clear decision if your mind is completely messed and stressed up.

      While I don’t have a special recommendation for you what to do, it looks like you should do something physical / not academical.

  22. grjdjd says:

    Well, I think you should “go” just so you won’t have that “what if” itch… If you do not like it and do not find it useful towards your life goals, by all means, drop out. I’m certainly glad I went so I can say I went to college and had that experience, but even if I would have finished with a piece of paper, it wouldn’t have been useful whatsoever for any career I want to pursue.

    I am definitely in that “counter culture” part of society. College, especially prestigious ones are very much mainstream culture and tied directly in to getting some corporate/government or academic job in the future. BLAH, more power to you, just not for me.

    College didn’t necessarily give me direction on what I wanted to do, but it certainly crossed out many things that I would never want to do! I went 2 years and decided it was enough and wanted to do something that college just couldn’t teach me, I also worked in a law firm and an insurance firm so I knew the office jobs were also OUT. I dropped out and got an apprenticeship as a sous chef instead.

    By the way, I was a straight A student and went to a very prestigious school. It just isn’t for me or what kind of life I want to live.
    It was only putting me into more debt I would need to pay off later in a job I didn’t want to work, as well as delaying what I wanted to do.

    So yeah… I work in a restaurant (college doesn’t teach this), participate in grass roots far left politics (college doesn’t teach this), and write(I was already an avid writer before I began, so while it could teach this, I didn’t feel it offered me that much value.) I also speak 4 languages, Korean, English, Spanish and French. I learned this not from taking classes, but from actually living there immersed in the culture. Which I think if you get the chance is a MUCH better way at learning a language.

    Eventually I would like to own my own restaurant, make some more income off my writing, and live a more sustainable lifestyle on my own land in the country.

    If you are like me, I am not sure college has much to offer you, especially at the current tuition rates…

  23. Lisa says:

    Free Christian dating website!!!! no way!!!

  24. power says:

    ok! now i know straight that,i should do what my heart says i should do. actually i don’t believe in education to succeed my goals.every time i get to class i become board.i was doing matric this year but i drop out just like that.am interested in doing business for my self,i don’t believe on working for somebody and get some salary end of the month.i believe on starting my own new things publish like that.

  25. tm says:

    Help!! I am currently a college student. But every morning I wake up to go to school I ask myself why am I doing this. I do not even have a job and I have to be doing homework like if I was a fulltime student. I ask myself is this what I really want. I really want to open up my own restaurant but i have that scared feeling that tells me what if everything goes wrong if I drop out but am just doing remedials right now and its hard for me plus I have a seven month old baby and college feels like a fulltime job because of all the paked homework especially math I hate math. and am always worried on finishing my homework and about the quizzes we have every monday. But I get frustrated because I really do not knw what to do but deep down inside I knw I want my own buisness..The real question is DO you think college is really necessary..I understand that is a good experience but everytime I go I find it difficult to really pursue my dream..Help please

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