There is no direct path to entrepreneurship. If you want to be a doctor, you study pre-med, go to medical school, get a residency and become a full-fledged doctor. There are clear, linear steps to climbing corporate ladders, too. The path to successful entrepreneurship isn’t so well-defined.
History often focuses on a handful of successes who didn’t graduate from college but made billions in business — people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and John Paul DeJoria. Of course, there are plenty of people who earned a college diploma en route to their success, too.
But, with the costs of attending college skyrocketing and student debt reaching record numbers, does it make more sense to ditch class and start working early if entrepreneurship is a part of your plan?
The answer isn’t the same for everyone, because there’s never one right answer in entrepreneurship. Instead, there are just more questions.
Question 1: What do you want to do?
This may change over time, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate alternatives if you don’t have a starting point in mind. If you want to learn the plumbing trade and open your own business, or become a hairstylist and open a salon, specialized vocational training may make the most sense.
No matter what you intend to do as an entrepreneur, there are key business skills — like accounting, marketing and data analysis — everyone should study, develop and acquire. I’ve never heard an entrepreneur say they wish they knew less about their own financial statements, data or marketing, so find a way to get those skills, no matter whether it’s through online study, job training or formal schooling.
Question 2: How valuable is work experience in your field?
Hands-on learning is often the best kind, as you take in different opportunities and challenges in a business and an industry. You also get to learn leadership styles you may want to emulate . . . or not emulate.
That said, getting a formal education in some fields can be even more valuable than work experience. If you want to start a big SaaS or IoT company, you might probably study business and/or entrepreneurship — especially as more colleges and universities implement entrepreneurship and business programs. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it can be helpful to have that type of study under your belt. Even so, very few successful entrepreneurs go directly from an undergraduate entrepreneurship program to starting their own successful venture without adding on some type of real-world experience working for someone else first.
If you want to start a high-tech company, having studied tech and/or engineering is definitely a bonus. While not all founders on a team are engineers, most of the really successful tech companies have been founded by those with a tech competency.
Question 3: How much financial flexibility and how many financial obligations do you have?
If you want to try entrepreneurship earlier in life because you have fewer obligations (like a mortgage and a family), you might not want to go to school and rack up student debt.
If you want to have financial flexibility (my preferred option for my own path), you will probably want to get a high paying job first, because that will give you the ability to put away money and then try entrepreneurship (although you then have to contend with the “golden handcuffs” of walking away from that high salary). This path more often leads towards college.
Depending on your answers to all of the above, you also then have to figure out how much you are willing to pay for schooling. It’s difficult to invest in a business or not to draw a market salary when you have five or six-figures worth of college debt hanging over you.
If you don’t want that debt, a community program or other cheaper option may serve you better. My rough benchmark is that you shouldn’t take on more college debt than the equivalent of what you reasonably expect to be earning per year when you are five years out of school (or seven years, if the earnings are greater than $150,000 per year).
Finally, if you are a bit later on in your life and want to take the entrepreneurial leap, trial and error may in fact be your best option. Learn your lessons by working in the industry you want to invest in, and if you still think it’s a good idea you can go out on your own with that real-life education.
Again, there’s no perfect answer for everyone.
But, if you think about who you are, what you want and how you best operate, these questions can help you make an informed decision about what kind of learning is best for you and your future business.