There is no direct path to entrepreneurship. If you want to be a doctor, you study pre-med, go to med school, get a residency and then, become a full-fledged doctor. There are fairly clear steps to climbing corporate ladders, as well. However, for entrepreneurship, the path isn’t well-defined.
History- and the media- are littered with tales of a handful of successes that didn’t graduate from college but made billions in business, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and John Paul DeJoria. . And of course, there are many, many more who did grab a college degree and made a success, some early on and some later in life.
With the costs of attending college skyrocketing and student debt reaching record numbers, what should you do if entrepreneurship is a part of your plan? First, there’s never one right answer when it comes to entrepreneurship. So, you have to look at your own goals and objectives, as well as where you stand in your life currently.
Personally, I am a fan of education in general, regardless of the form. I think you need to have a commitment to lifelong learning to keep growing personally and professionally. So, the question needs to be reframed as how do you go about obtaining that learning, and how much should you pay for — or rather invest in it — based on your objectives.
A key question to start with is what do you want to do? While this may change over time, it’s almost impossible to evaluate alternatives if you don’t have a starting point in mind. Now, let’s say that you want to learn the plumbing trade and then open your own business, or perhaps become a hairstylist with the goal of eventually opening a salon, specialized vocational training may make more sense.
However, I want to impress upon you that no matter what you intend to do as an entrepreneur, there are key business skills that everyone should study, develop and acquire. These include accounting, marketing and data analysis. I’ve never once heard an entrepreneur say that they wish they knew less about their own financial statements, data or marketing, so find a way to get those skills. This can even be through online study or job training before becoming an entrepreneur, but put that into your plan.
I would also evaluate getting experience by working for someone else first. This can be the best kind of learning, as you take in different opportunities and challenges in a business and an industry. You also get to learn leadership styles that you may want to emulate or even definitely not replicate.
Now, if you know you want to start a big SaaS or IoT company, should you then study business and/or entrepreneurship? With more colleges and universities putting entrepreneurship and business programs in place, it can be helpful, but remember that it’s not the be all end all. It can be helpful to have that type of study under your belt, but 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.
I will say that if you want to start a high-tech company, that it does help to have studied tech and/or engineering. 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.
Once you establish what you want to do as an entrepreneur, another key question is the amount of financial flexibility you personally can and are willing to operate under. If you want to try entrepreneurship earlier, because you have less obligations (like a mortgage and a family), that may be a reason to study business in school or it may lead you to not want to go to school.
If you want to have financial flexibility (my preferred option for my own path), you will want to get a high paying job first, which gives 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). That path will likely more often lead you 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 — and incur in terms of college debt — for schooling. It’s difficult to be a successful entrepreneur and continue to invest in a business and/or not draw a market salary when you have five or six-figures worth of college debt hanging over you.
This may lead you to say that college is the answer, but that 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).
Again, it can be valuable to study key business skills as noted above and to get some real world experience before you ultimately venture out on your own.
Finally, if you are a bit later on in your life and want to take the leap, trial and error may in fact be your best option. Get a real-life MBA by working in someone else’s business in the same industry and then, if it still is your desire, go out on your own with that real-life education.
As I said, there’s no perfect answer for everyone, but if you think about who you are, what you want and how you best operate, the information above can help you make an informed decision about what kind of learning is the right type for you and your future business.