Should I drop out of college to pursue my startup?

by Jun Loayza on September 14, 2009

college drop out

I spent my days at UCLA reading business books in class and building organizations instead of doing homework.  I disliked academics and forcing myself to do homework or pay attention in class would only cause me frustration.   I found that I would constantly ask myself, “When will I ever use these things in the real world?”

Is this you?  Are you thinking of dropping out of college to become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and build a multi-billion dollar empire?  I had those dreams as well, but let me tell you from first-hand experience – the real world is no walk in the park.  I consistently find myself missing my undergrad days because it’s like playing a video game with the ability to hit the reset button when you mess up.  College is like a giant safety net that allows you to try and fail as many times as you want without any major consequences.

So before you give up on college, take a second and let me tell you why an entrepreneur should finish his or her undergraduate education.

A prime example

Before we go into detail about why you should not drop out of college, let me give you a prime example of how to do it the right way if you were to do it.

One of my favorite bloggers is Jenny Blake from Life After College.  In her 3rd year of college, she decided to take a 1 year break to pursue a startup venture with a professor.  She was the youngest in the group and learned a tremendous amount about how to build a company, what the real world was like, and most of all, she learned a great deal about herself.  After a year, she returned to college to finish her BA.

Key Takeaway: The important element of Jenny’s story is that she joined a startup with an experienced professor instead of venturing off on her own.  Because she joined a group of people that were older and more experienced than her, she was able to learn from their wisdom, get paid, get experience on her resume, and build a great relationship with a very valuable group of people. The purpose of the startup was NOT to make it rich and build a successful company; instead, the goal was to learn and grow a new set of skills.

Well, Jenny is a unique case because she’s awesome.  If you’re a normal person like me, then you don’t have professors approaching you offering you a position in their startup.  So why not just drop out of college, save money by not having to pay tuition, and commit full time to your startup?  Here are the reasons you should stay in school and get your degree:

1. You know less than you think

I remember sitting in my apartment reading Guy Kawasaki’s 20/30/10 Rule of PowerPoint.  After reading that post I thought to myself, “I now know exactly what I need to know to pitch to VCs.  Time to build the business plan and get me some funding!”  That was about three years ago.  Looking back, I realize just how little I knew back then.  I was a naive little 21 year old with huge aspirations, but little in terms of practical experience.

Use college as a place to study entrepreneurs as much as you possibly can.  I don’t mean take entrepreneurship classes; I mean get on the phone and call young entrepreneurs from top companies and invite them to have a cup of tea with you.  Pick their brain, learn from them, and if you can, intern for them.  You need practical experience in a startup before you can successfully build your own.

2. If classes are boring, read business books or switch majors

I studied Economics and I hated it!  If you hate your major and think it’s worthless for the real world, does this mean that you should drop out to start your startup?

Of course not!

This just means that you’re in the wrong major.  I found myself in this situation and added a Philosophy minor to my curriculum.  Not only did I love these classes, but I actually used a lot of the writing techniques that I learned in a lot of my writing.

Since I couldn’t get out of Economics as my major, I decided to make the best of it.  Instead of sleeping in class, I decided to read business books and learn as much as I could about business:

  • E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

It’s amazing how much you focus in class when you stop listening to the teacher and focus on something you’re interested in.

3. Hang out at the MBA School and find some mentors

If you find that your peers are not as focused on entrepreneurship as you are, then you need to surround yourself with people who are.  As an undergrad, I made it a point to eat lunch at the MBA School and meet at least one new MBA student everyday.  Because I forced myself to do it, I met some great people who guided me throughout my undergrad years and who introduced me to the people in the Entrepreneurship Organization (EO).  Because of my connections at the EO, I was able to meet some amazing students who introduced me to tech startup events in Los Angeles and to a few VCs.

4. Use your undergrad years as a practice ground

The number one reason you should stay in school is so that you can build a startup without the fear of failing.

When you fail during your 3rd year at college, then you can just brush your shoulders off, come up with a new idea, and try again your fourth year at college.  You have absolutely nothing to lose and a bundle of experience to gain.

But what about once you’re in the real world and you’ve graduated college?  What happens when your startup fails then?

To be honest, if you fail and you have no other previous experience, then you are in major problems.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What high paying job does NOT require a college degree?
  2. How long can you survive without generating a stable flow of income?
  3. What capital will you use to build your next startup?
  4. Do you have a skill or trade the people will pay you to perform?

If you fail and you have no college degree to fall back on, then I think you will be screwed.  Sure you can keep trying and trying, but understand that most startups fail and most small business owners are not living a rich and wealthy lifestyle.

Finish your undergraduate degree.  But don’t do it just for the sake of finishing; take advantage of every opportunity that your university offers.  I have given you some prime homework to do in the list above so get it moving and start your journey towards living the startup life!

About the author

Jun Loayza Jun Loayza is the President of Ecommerce Rules. In his entrepreneurial experience, Jun has sold 2 internet companies, raised over $1,000,000 in Angel funding, and lead social media technology campaigns for Sephora, Whole Foods Market, Levi's, LG, and Activision. Find Jun on Google or Twitter

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  • http://www.owlsparks.com/ Carlos Miceli

    Jun, you show with every post that you really do know what you’re talking about. I told you that I’m going to study in Australia next year, so I’ll be sure to practice many of these tips you’re sharing with us here! Great post bro.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      Thanks Carlos. I try hard to provide great value.

      Australia is going to be sick nasty! If I travel the world, I’ll definitely stop by and party hard with you

  • http://valeriemondesir.com/ Valerie M

    Jun, these are some very compelling reasons to stay in college. I finished undergrad and while it never crossed my mind to drop out, I can honestly say very little of the value I got was through sitting in class.

    People often do say that college is a safety bubble that is not representative of the real world. Just like you, I believe that it depends on how each individual uses their college experience. If you spend the entire four years at frat parties getting drunk, making tons of mistakes without learning from them, and barely squeaking by, then yes, college is a useless waste of time and money. The problem is people go into it without knowing what they want to do anyway, which equals no focus. Maybe there should be a hiatus (like a year long internship for high school graduates) between high school and college.

    My only regret is that I didn’t push myself even more than I did during college when I had nothing to worry about, because once you start working and the bills start coming it’s harder to find the energy to try something new.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      I wouldn’t say that partying and getting drunk is a waste of time and money. I did a lot of that myself and don’t regret it one bit.

      Just like anything else in life, there are people who will be unfocused and just mess around, there will be those who are hardcore and bury their nose in a book, and there will be people that are inbetween. Taking a year long internship is a neat idea; however, I think that’s what summer vacations are for.

      I wish that I had pushed myself harder as well. But, you got to live life with no regrets and cherish all of your experiences.

      Thanks Valerie! Good to see you on here :)

  • http://dcecelia.weebly.com Cecelia

    You have some great insights in this post. My senior year of college I contemplated leaving. I found out that I would have to stay an extra semester, and the thought of additional school made me feel anxious to get out and start working. I had already gained a good amount of experience in my field (journalism) and completed internships, and I felt that I was ready to start my career.

    Ultimately, I’m glad that I stayed. I threw myself into working with the college newspaper, and took classes that weren’t necessarily in my major but that I found interesting. I’m in my last semester now and searching for a full-time job has me wishing I had even more time in school!

    I agree with Valerie, that college is an experience that is dependent on the work put into it. With a college degree I can get a variety of jobs, even if they aren’t in my field, something that is comforting in the current job market.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      Glad to hear that everything is going well Cecelia!

      I wish I had stayed a 5th year at UCLA. Man, if only I could go back to my undergrad days…

      Hahahaha… I sound so old :P

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.com Grace Boyle

    This is such a good post, especially because you are speaking from direct experience. To me, college was much more about the degree it was about the encompassing experience. We can never go back to the key years of growth (~18-22) where we’re saturated with knowledge, higher education, professors, mentors, mistakes, change, new friends, etc.

    Like you said, you hung out at the MBA school because that opportunity is available when you were in college. Being part of a community at a college is pretty advantageous. When I look back on college it’s not about all the classes I took, but it was about the experiences and what I was able to take advantage of. Because my college has one of the best career services offices in the North East I took advantage with fantastic internships. Because my professor was a long-time PR VP and veteran, I leveraged her network to help get my current job. Because I took time to also enjoy social life in college, I have three best friends for life. The list goes on.

    I’m glad you wrote this, Jun. Awesome read!

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      Thanks so much Grace!!!

      I love how you mentioned that you balanced academic and professional experiences in college with a social life. I mean, that’s what college is all about right? I was not the greatest in academics but I knew how to have fun while in school.

  • Diana Wei

    Neat! You should really become an entrepreneur professor one day!

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      hahahaha… that would be neat! Who wants to be my first student?

  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa

    Another bullet point I would add would be this: If you drop out now when you have no/minimal obligations then you will be hardpressed every fall to find a reason to go back.

    And let’s consider, for just a moment, the reality of Entrepreneurship. You are taking a HUGE risk which everyone does not succeed in. You gotta go into it being prepared for both success and failure, otherwise you are just being foolish (as you noted, no one can just be in it “to make it rich.”)

    If we are to guess that SOME start-up endeavors will not sustain, the entrepreneur still has to put food on the table and preferably not live in a van down by the river. Additionally, with the risk taken you’ve gotta assume there was at least some financial loss. So what do you do at that point? You gotta get a job. And now you can’t get a good one without a shiny piece of white paper to hang on the wall.

    While Bill and Steve are great stories, they are also few and far between. And both have gone on record many times saying that while it worked for them they wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      Hahahah, “live in a van down by the river.” Thanks for making me laugh :)

      There is SO MUCH risk involved with starting your own company. Especially when you have no prior experience. You’re pretty much the blind leading the blind if your team doesn’t have startup experience either.

      Thanks for the comment Elisa

  • http://fiwk.blogspot.com Royce

    Jun I love what you wrote about switching to a major you enjoy if you don’t like school. I went with English Lit because that’s what moved me most and I have never regretted the decision. In fact I’d say I got a lot more out of school because I actively enjoyed learning in my classes.

    What surprises me in retrospect is how many applicable skills I learned in a humanities major – my writing is good, my analytical skills are honed, I’m good at research, I can articulate a cohesive argument, etc. I think any undergrad is well advised to go with the subject that moves them, and then think critically about that subject and the skills they learn while studying it. Odds are good that they’re learning a lot that can be applied to the job world, without even realizing it. You don’t have to be a biz/econ major to get job skills…

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      I couldn’t agree more Royce. My philosphy minor has been a hundred times more useful than my Economics minor.

      Bottom line: study want you WANT to study; not what you think you HAVE to study

  • http://www.benjamintwilcox.com Benjamin Wilcox

    The nature of entrepreneurship, as well as small business, is that most fail in the first six months. This is reason alone that it is better to have a college degree to fall back on. Even if your first start-up failure teaches you enough to start another successful company, there will still be a period inbetween where you will need to pay the bills.

    A lot of things can be done during class time when a professor is speaking. Jun, you used to read business books during class and I would finish homework or studying for tests in other classes. College is a great opportunity to experiment with different clubs, testing several hobbies and careers until you find one that clicks. I agree with Jun, if you are able to be in college, test out your ideas while you still have college as a backup plan. Work on your passion as a side project rather than quitting to focus on it full time.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      Hahaha, “I would finish homework or study for tests in other classes.” I’m right there with you.

      I think at some point in life, you have to embrace your DNA. If you’re not strong academically, you better find something else that interests you.

      Hey, at least we didn’t sleep in class!

  • http://akhilak.com/blog Akhila

    Interesting post Jun! I agree with much of what you’re saying but I don’t agree that people should simply disregard what you’re learning in college in order to read other books in class. I mean, honestly, this is a total waste of your money! If you’re going to pay for an education, especially an expensive undergrad education, I think you better make the most out of it. What’s the use of paying if you’re not even going to learn from your classes?

    Also, your GPA is helpful for a graduate degree. Studying hard and making connections with professors can be really helpful – you can learn a lot from professors.

    And if you’re interested in business and related books why study an unrelated discipline? After all you can get a BBA and go to business school as an undergrad. There you learn crucial skills for starting your own business, like the basics of accounting and marketing. These schools also have entrepreneurship majors. So as an entrepreneur, I still think you can get a lot out of your classes.

    • http://junloayza.com JunLoayza

      I don’t think I wasted my money because I didn’t pay attention in class. I think the money I spent was for the opportunity to venture out on my own, meet people from all over the world, and learn about myself. I paid to have that opportunity.

      Grad school would be awesome! But after studying for a few weeks for my MBA, I think that I need to embrace the fact that I suck at academics. I mean, I can do it if I try SUPER hard, but that means I have to forego so many things.

      Maybe I’ll write a post about it…

      Thanks for stopping by Akhila!

  • http://www.ronnienurss.com/ Ronnie Nurss

    I’m feeling this right now as I’m working towards my Bachelors Degree….but I took it different way. My dad (one semester of community college and then started a construction business thats still running today) said you can’t learn entrepreneurship from a textbook. It takes real life experience, real risk, and failing. (success is one step past failure).

    Its like playing online poker with play money – its a very different game.

    So instead I’m majoring in International Comms and Journalism; fields I’ve always been interested and hopefully can supplement with entrepreneurship after college.

    Great Advice though, I’ll be reading!
    Ronnie

  • Pingback: Approach College Like an Entrepreneur « Entry Level Living

  • http://www.thebigdreamer.com Mark Foo | TheBigDreamer.com

    If you’ve failed in business in the real world and you don’t have a college degree, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve always believed that you don’t need a degree to make it in life. I’m not saying a degree is useless, but it’s just not a top requirement to make it big in life.

    If you’ve failed and don’t have a degree, but still want to make it big without going into another business venture, you can try insurance, real estate or network marketing. There are ample examples of people becoming highly successful in these fields. You’ll be able to make a decent income if you just work hard enough. And if you work smart at the same time, you’ll make more than a decent income.

    Also, these are excellent training grounds for aspiring entrepreneurs and for people who are waiting for their next opportunity. I’d strongly encourage any aspiring entrepreneur to undergo training in one of these fields before venturing out on your own.

    So don’t worry that you’ll be screwed if you’ve failed and don’t have a degree. There are always alternatives in life.

    Cheers~

    Mark

  • Pingback: Tyler Regehr | Millennial Man » Should I drop out of college to become an entrepreneur? I did, here’s why.

  • http://tylerregehr.com Tyler

    I read a lot of freakin’ advice when I was deciding whether or not to drop out to pursue entrepreneurship. There are good arguments on both sides, but in the end I decided to go for it and I dropped out. I wrote kind of a “rebuttal” argument on my blog:

    http://tylerregehr.com/should-i-drop-out-of-college-to-become-an-entrepreneur-i-did-here’s-why

    Hopefully, people deciding whether or not to drop out can get helpful advice from both sides with our articles.

    Good work!

    Tyler

  • Pingback: Should you drop out of college to pursue entrepreneurship? I did, here’s why

  • Chris Ball

    I like turtles.

  • Houcine

    I believe my college education was important for sure to some degree ( I studied Accounting).

    Working 9-5 has it’s ups and downs . I sometimes feel that you place future is always in somebody’s hand…Don’t believe me, try hearing the words ”you’re fired’ or ‘we’re gonna have to let you go’ Giving somebody else that much power just seems so sad to me.

    I think for those people who are real entrepreneurs, it takes GUTS for sure ! However the economy really proved that the term ‘job security’ is really an illusion…

    The friends I envy the most are my entrepreneur friends =) At least if you succeed in a business you can build equity & sell it. With a job all you can take is some benefits and maybe a severance (if you get one) if you are laid off or fired…Then it’s onto the next job again.

    My take is: Just as it is possible for a startup can fail in 6 months, so can a college graduate lose their job…then you’re back to square one!

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