Read expert advice on whether you should continue college or drop out to start a business.
- Although a college degree is not mandatory for entrepreneurship, attending college can be very helpful, as it teaches you soft skills like ownership, accountability, time management, prioritizing and emotional maturity.
- Consider gaining experience before starting your business, whether that be through volunteer work, apprenticeship, internship or general work experience.
- There are several questions you need to ask yourself before choosing entrepreneurship over college – you should evaluate your industry, skills, passion, experience, financial stability and support system.
Entrepreneurship can be a great way to financial freedom, but building a successful business takes a lot of time, hard work and perseverance. Many young workers are left wondering when they should start a business and what education is required to do so.
A college degree is not required to start a business, but it certainly helps. College not only teaches students educational topics that can be helpful in starting a business, but also soft skills, like how to be lifelong learners.
Lauren Grech, CEO and co-founder of international event management firm LLG Events, said your industry will guide what type of education you need, but she recommended that every entrepreneur be at least familiar with some basic business topics.
"It depends on what type of business and industry you're entering; however, everyone should have some basic knowledge in business management, marketing, taxes and sales," Grech told Business News Daily. "Legal terminology can be foreign at first and really difficult to navigate, so it's essential to have a general understanding."
Although you may know that it is technically possible to start a business without a college education, how do you know which career path is right for you? It is important to answer several key questions before making a decision about starting a business versus pursuing higher education.
Those facing this decision should take the time to answer these questions honestly and evaluate if the pros of starting a business will outweigh the cons of quitting school. [Get inspired by these stories of amazing young entrepreneurs.]
Will a college education help in your respective field or industry?
Do you need a degree to start a business? Technically, no, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't get one. Especially for industries that are more technical and complex in nature, a college degree can be very beneficial, sometimes even necessary, to your success. If you have little to no knowledge about how business works, or plan on managing complex documents and processes, it may be in your best interest to brush up on your skills with a few college courses.
Grech said getting a degree, or at least some form of higher education, can be very helpful for starting your own business. She said the college experience teaches you skills like ownership, accountability, time management, prioritizing and emotional maturity.
"It may not be essential within certain career choices; however, it really helped me personally," said Grech. "My education helped me develop a proper business model, enabled me to understand certain law documents or tax laws by giving me the ability to think critically and analytically, and provided the tools necessary to read through these documents thoroughly."
Even if you can successfully break into your industry without a college degree, you will likely need some form of continued education to be an entrepreneur – even if that education is informal.
Do you have the entrepreneurial spirit and skills needed to succeed?
Before you dive into your startup, you must be certain that it is what you want to do. Starting a company is very different from working as an employee at someone else's business, and many responsibilities and stressors come with the territory. If you are motivated and inspired to start, don't doubt yourself. However, if you are not positive about how you feel, don't jump in too quickly.
"True entrepreneurship is a full-time, 24/7 job," said Tom Portesy, president of MFV Expositions, producers of Franchise Expo West, Franchise Expo South and the International Franchise Expo. "Are you ready for time away from friends [and] family? Are you ready for rejection, disappointment and failure? Are you prepared for countless sleepless nights – risking everything you've got? It can be immensely rewarding, but do you have the spirit to excel?"
Grech added that entrepreneurs must have patience and perseverance, even in the face of failure.
"If you're someone who needs reliability and consistency, do not open a business," said Grech. "There are no guarantees when starting your own company. The highs are high, and the lows are low, and it's important to maintain your patience when the business is not going in the direction you're steering."
Does your passion exceed your patience?
Sometimes, great ideas can't wait, and spending four years in college will result in missed opportunities. This was the case for Taso Du Val, founder and CEO of global tech industry network Toptal.
"I wanted to go to MIT, but the thought of waiting for four years before starting my career troubled me," Du Val said. "So, I started pursuing my passion for entrepreneurship at a young age and, years later, ended up fixing a problem I noticed in the IT outsourcing industry. It's just something I had to do. I was not going to sit around for years, listening to information I would never need in my life."
If you wholeheartedly believe that your business idea can't wait four years to pursue, skipping college may be the right track. Many young entrepreneurs tackle their business ideas as passion projects while they attend college, but it is important to identify at what point your business needs your full attention.
Do you have any real-world experience in the industry?
Hands-on experience in the industry you are pursuing is helpful, giving you the knowledge to see if you are on the right track. If you are unsure about starting a business without a degree, consider diving into your chosen industry to gain experience – perhaps working on your company as a side project before turning your idea into a full-time business.
Grech recommended volunteering with someone in the field before starting your own business, to learn if you like the industry, people, hours, etc. People in some industries benefit from an apprenticeship or an internship.
"This will help you decide if you like the career enough to dedicate the time to starting your own business, and it will also help you assess your skills to know if you need further education to establish yourself as a professional in that field," said Grech.
For Randy Wyner, founder and president of the restaurant franchise Chronic Tacos, there was no choice when it came to getting a college education. His responsibility to support his young son meant he had to get a job instead of going to school. After working his way up to a managerial position at Jiffy Lube in just a few years, Wyner knew he had all the experience and drive he needed to go into business for himself. He allowed himself time to develop his entrepreneurial spirit before starting his journey.
"Hands-on learning helped me understand how to manage a business quicker, whereas college students learn mostly by memorization techniques and tricks," Wyner said. "Following this path helped me grasp what to do and what not to do when running a business. Although college may educate you on business elements, you can't learn how to run a business until you actually become an entrepreneur."
Are you financially stable enough?
While college is an investment, so is your business. You'll need to calculate your expenses, create a budget and plan your timeline accordingly before dedicating your life to the project.
"Understanding the total costs is crucial," said Portesy. "Before you pursue a new business opportunity, map out the total investment – purchase costs, opening inventory and how much working capital you will need before you break even."
Sometimes, students will go for a degree and work in an industry for a few years, or on the side, to earn money to support their entrepreneurial journey. If you don't think you can cut it without a sustainable career to leverage your success, then you might want to focus on school first. However, if you're currently in school and feel strongly about devoting all your time to testing or growing your business, check with your college about its leave-of-absence policy.
Do you have a strong support system?
Even if you are starting your business by yourself, entrepreneurship is not a solo feat. Portesy said it helps to rely on friends, family, business partners, franchisors or other entrepreneurs for support. Wyner also acknowledged that his entrepreneurial success couldn't have happened without the support of his family and friends.
"Surround yourself with savvy, educated people," Wyner said. "I was very lucky to have some strong mentors in my corner. Having experienced, wise people there to guide and support you is critical."
If you don't have a strong personal support system of friends and family, you can join groups in your local community or online that cater to small business owners. Networking with others who are on a similar journey to your own can be extremely helpful.
"Do your due diligence and connect with other small business owners who have succeeded and struggled," Portesy said. "Learn about the challenges overcome, and welcome guidance and best practices."
Do you have a good reason for starting a business without a degree?
This is perhaps the most important question: Is there a good enough reason for you to stay in college, or for you to drop out?
Matt Brown, co-founder and CEO of freelance management platform Bonsai, is also a volunteer advisor with the Thiel Fellowship mentor network. Thiel selects and grants funding to high-achieving students who could do more good in the world by not attending college, focusing on research and innovation instead.
"Everyone should think critically about the value of investing four years and an incredible amount of money into a university education," Brown said. "Is there somewhere else where you can be learning faster, meeting more interesting people and working on projects you care about? Do you want to drop out because you have a burning need to create something and being in school blocks that, or are you dropping out because it seems cool and the Facebook guys did it?"
Dropping out of college without a good reason is just as silly as staying in school without one, Brown added. "Just think for yourself."
Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela and Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.