This post is part of our StartupDad Series, in which David Moody — father of a teen entrepreneur and founder of the StartupDad blog — explores the trials, tribulations, joys, and achievements that young entrepreneurs and their friends and family face.
When our entrepreneurial son, Joshua, was 15 years old we were talking about engineering school. When he was 18, we all agreed that going to college was not the best route for him despite relatively high ACT scores, a high grade point average, being the Vice President of his class at Catholic High in Little Rock, AR, and having multiple college scholarship offers. If you’d have told me when he was 15 that he wouldn’t go to college right out of high school, I’d have said you were crazy. However, having researched college programs around the country and having some knowledge of the inner workings of our education system for high school and college, I believe there are some strategies that young entrepreneurs should consider:
- Set your priorities – When Joshua was in high school, we made business pursuits a priority equal to his formal education. His grades suffered a bit, but we were willing to accept that for him to pursue his entrepreneurial goals. Follow the traditional path of high school and college, but recognize that most entrepreneurial knowledge and skills development happens outside a classroom. Striking the right balance is challenging but it can be done. Be prepared for most people around you, especially educators and parents who believe in the traditional path for their kids, to not understand your choices. Traditional classrooms may be a good place to convey knowledge, but knowledge without application is limited to talking about concepts not putting them into action.
- Go to college, but focus on building your product/company – The college part of this balancing act is to attend part-time, to select an area of study that will be less challenging in which to get a degree, or to accept mediocre grades that will still permit achieving a degree. The part-time approach allows you to make progress toward a degree but at a slower pace. The strategies of majoring in a less challenging field of study or accepting lower grades just to get a college degree is a recognition that the real skills and knowledge acquired outside the classroom are of equal or greater value as a college degree. This is a bit of a hedging strategy in which one gains real world entrepreneurial experience while also meeting the requirement by most employers that requires a college degree. Use online sources to maximize your schedule flexibility.
- Delay college – Focus 100% on building a product and growing a company. The is the reverse of the traditional path whereby getting real world experience comes prior to formal education. Many colleges now offer a gap year to allow students who have been accepted to attend to delay their entry into college. While I like this concept, the timeline is controlled by the university. Building a company doesn’t follow a schedule. If college is your first priority, but you want to get a little real world experience before you go, work in someone else’s startup. If you are serious about your own startup, give yourself a time constraint for achieving a certain level of success. If those milestones are not met, then consider your other options. You can always go to college and you will likely be a more mature, focused student.
Joshua has chosen strategy #3. He’s been out of high school for two years and has not taken any college classes. The company made no progress for nine months due to involvement in a trademark legal dispute. Given that challenge, Joshua could have started college or taken classes. Instead, he used that time to design hardware complimentary to the company software and to investigate other market opportunities. If his entrepreneurial pursuits are successful, I’m not sure he will ever pursue a college degree. I do know this, if and when he does pursue more formal education, he will do it on his own terms.
THE TAKEAWAY: Make formal education work for you. If you are serious about entrepreneurship, develop a strategy, set priorities and timelines, maximize your schedule flexibility with online courses, and make it work. If you pursue a degree, it may take you longer than your classmates from high school. So what!! Don’t let that make you feel like you are behind. Your real world experience will win out in the the end. Besides, if any of them eventually start a business they will likely be in their late 30’s. You may have built several successful companies by then.