From Steve Jobs to Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, some of the world’s most successful founders are college dropouts. In fact, the average net worth of billionaires who dropped out of college is about three times more than the average net worth of billionaires with Ph.D.s ($9.4 billion vs. $3.2 billion).
However, forgoing a diploma isn’t the only option for a budding entrepreneur. It’s possible to launch a startup from your dorm room, and still manage to graduate. You may not become a billionaire, but you will get a ton of real world experience that will help you with your second or third venture. It will also make you a more attractive candidate should you decide to ‘get a real job’ after school.
My husband and I launched our first business while we were still in law school. That was 1997…a time when a college or advanced degree still pretty much guaranteed a good job. These days, many graduates end up back with their parents taking an unpaid internship to get more hands-on experience. In this crowded job market, it’s smarter than ever to get a head start on your entrepreneurial pursuits.
If you are thinking of balancing school and a startup, here are seven tips:
1. Take advantage of university resources
There won’t be another time in your life when you have so many academic, technical, and advisory resources right at your fingertips. A professor can be an invaluable mentor. Depending on the target demographic of your product, fellow classmates represent the perfect beta pool. And there are numerous entrepreneurial competitions and conferences geared toward students; here’s a sampling of some of the top business plan competitions for students that will give you a unique opportunity to find mentors, funding, and publicity for your idea.
2. Find the right partners
On a university campus, you are surrounded by hundreds of incredibly bright, energetic and curious people. So how do you go about assembling the right team for your venture? It might be fun to start a business with your roommate, but he or she may not necessarily be the right person. Paul Graham of Y Combinator had some great advice for finding a co-founder: “I’d look for the people who are not just smart, but incurable builders. Look for the people who keep starting projects, and finish at least some of them.”
3. Set aside time to work on the business
Your classes, exams, and other coursework are scheduled for you, but making time for your business requires discipline. Ideally you’ll want to pick a day or two per week where you and other members of the team all work together in the same room. Many find it easier to juggle this time commitment when taking classes that meet once per week for a few hours.
4. Don’t view your studies and startup as mutually exclusive.
Consider the types of coursework that could help you run your business. For example, if you’re studying engineering, take a few economics and marketing classes. You don’t need to become an expert in every field, but exposure to these topics will give you a broader understanding of what’s needed in the business world.
5. Set your “boat burning” target
What will it take for you and your other co-founders to leave school and dive in full-time to the startup? 10,000 active users? $500 million in revenue? Seed funding? It’s good to talk about these issues ahead of time so everyone understands and buys into the game plan. If you and your co-founder aren’t on the same page, it’s better to discover those differences early on.
6. Don’t be afraid to fail
No matter what type of startup you choose to launch, keep in mind that most people’s first business ventures don’t succeed. Many fail miserably, but that hardly makes you a failure. School is one of the best times to times to give things a try; it becomes harder to take risks when you have a mortgage and family to consider. With every attempt, you’ll gain valuable experience and insight into what works and what doesn’t. In fact, a failed startup could be your best teacher during your school years.
7. Remember that school is expensive
Whether you are taking out loans or your parents are paying your tuition, school is a massive investment that requires both money and active participation. Every time you find yourself pulled between classes and working on your startup, ask yourself which one is most important and which activity will you learn the most from. If time and time again working on your startup comes out on top, you might want to think about taking a leave of absence. School is too expensive to be half-assed the whole time.
By Nellie Akalp