5 Questions to Consider When Making the College vs Startup Decision

5 Questions to Consider When Making the College vs Startup Decision

School vs Job vs Startup

Not long ago Gwen (my spouse), Joshua (our teen entrepreneur) and I went through the process of deciding whether Joshua would attend college right out of high school or run his angel funded tech company full time.  It was not an easy decision at the time and the conversation continues.  I wrote about this in an earlier post.   We get quite a few questions on this so I thought it might be beneficial for both parents and teens if I walked you through the process and the key questions our family considered.

Let me set the stage for this commentary with some background.  Joshua’s company was selected as one of three finalists in the ARK Challenge business accelerator when he was a junior in high school and acquired $150k in angel funding as a result.  This was great but the company would need more funding to be successful so it was only the beginning.   Gwen was pretty strong in her opinion that Joshua should go to college.  Less risk and he’ll need the degree to get a job someday.  I had come around to thinking that college was still a good idea but didn’t have to happen in the traditional time frame given his current business opportunity.  Joshua placed a high value on his Catholic High education but was far more interested in product design and development than tolerating what he thought was an inefficient higher education system where he would get very little of the practical experience he needed.

  1. IF HE DOESN’T GO TO COLLEGE RIGHT AWAY, CAN HE MAKE IT ON HIS OWN?  In Joshua’s case, we had little doubt about this one.  He’d been making his own money since he was 13 by hacking the iphones of his class mates (a practice Gwen and I stopped when we found out), repairing smart phones and computers, and editing pictures and videos.  He never asked for an allowance.
  2. BEYOND SURVIVAL, DID JOSHUA HAVE THE SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE AND MINDSET TO LAUNCH A SELF-DIRECTED CAREER?  No!  He still had so much to learn about technology, project management, dealing with people, and a whole host of soft skills that come only from experience.  Yet, he had a burning passion for the work and a drive to succeed.  We had little doubt that, while it would be a struggle at times, he would figure it out.
  3. WERE THERE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES WITH MAJORS THAT FIT HIS BROAD INTEREST IN TECHNOLOGY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP?   Yes, some, at least on paper.  The number of universities offering entrepreneurship programs has exploded right along with the public’s interest in technology, high profile entrepreneurs and the new found cool factor in being a geek.  What we found in our research was that very few of these programs incorporated real world experience with academics and even fewer had a culture where science, engineering, design and business were truly integrated.  As much as they touted that students and professors in various colleges did joint projects, the typical silos still existed.
  4. WAS IT IMPORTANT TO ATTEND A COLLEGE IN AN ENTREPRENEURIAL CITY?  Absolutely!  Because I am somewhat familiar with entrepreneurial cities around the country and the resources they offer, I knew it was important that the school be located in one of these cities.  Even if the academic program proved to be less experiential than anticipated, access to the entrepreneurial community would provide access to talent, opportunity and experience.  Our research of colleges focused on highly ranked programs of study where science, engineering, design and entrepreneurship were highly integrated in schools located highly ranked entrepreneurial cites.
  5. WHILE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL, WAS BUSINESS OR GOOD GRADES FOR COLLEGE THE TOP PRIORITY?  This was a tough one for us.  There was a constant balancing act between spending time on the startup and studying.  Catholic High was demanding and Joshua took great pride in doing well there.  We felt our role as parents was to help Joshua learn how to make these decisions on a case by case basis, with the help of some basic guiding principles, so that he could learn the skill of prioritizing multiple things that all seemed important.  Thus, school was not always the top priority and we accepted lower grades and test scores that we knew might keep Joshua from being accepted into certain universities or hurt his qualification for scholarships.

So what did we decide?  In our case, Joshua’s passion and drive to pursue building his own tech startup was very strong and the opportunity, including a $150k initial investment, was too great to pass up.  College can wait for now.  As I stated earlier, this is a bit of an ongoing decision since Joshua has not abandoned the option of going to college. When and if he does go, one thing is for certain.  He will do it on his own terms in a program that allows him to customize his educational experience to focus on the applied knowledge and skills he needs to make him a better entrepreneur and leader.

THE TAKEAWAY:  This was, and still is, a challenging situation for us all.  Like most tough decisions, you have to ask yourself the hard, penetrating questions and not be afraid of the honest answer.  Having some guiding principles to help you decide and keep you on track are important.  Parents and teen entrepreneurs must honestly assess each path and the preparation, passion and skill it will take to be successful with each one.  As with most situations in life and business, if you don’t manage them, they will manage you.

College vs Startup

College vs Startup

School vs Job vs Startup

I never thought we’d be in this position.  If someone would have told us three years ago that we would actually be okay with Joshua, our teen CEO, not going to college directly from high school, we’d have told you that you were crazy.  Gwen, his mom, still wants him to go someday as a backup plan.  Something true entrepreneurs seldom have.

Our thinking was that a legitimate opportunity for Joshua to start his own tech company was not one he could pass up.  If the business becomes a lifestyle business or fails, then Joshua can still go to college.  Most of us go to college to gain knowledge in an area that hopefully starts us down a career path, typically working for someone else.  If you have an opportunity to start that career path early and make some money quickly, why not take it.  What convinced us was Joshua’s clear passion for technology, his insatiable appetite to learn the necessary skills and to do so on his own time, and his obvious gift to see new products and solutions clearly in his mind.

Due to the timing of his startup effort, he still applied to colleges.  That, as it turned out, was almost a full time job all by itself.  He focused on schools with highly ranked entrepreneurship, design or technology programs.  He applied to a dozen or so schools, was accepted to Babson, Baylor, and Rensselaer Poly, and offered over $100k in scholarships. Early on, we thought Joshua was headed toward Electrical Engineering as a major but his experience in the ARK Challenge business accelerator uncovered his passion and talent for product design.  At that point we realized that no matter what Joshua ended up majoring in, he is, and probably always will be, an entrepreneur.  My experience is that college curriculum doesn’t teach that very well.  We thought that if he was in an entrepreneurial environment, he would immerse himself in that culture and access the resources surrounding it to continue to create and build products and companies, no matter what was going on in the classroom.

So we went through the application process but never pulled the trigger.  Since being selected for $150k investment in the ARK Challenge, his company has raised an additional $100k in investment and Joshua is running the company full time.  For now, college is not on the radar.  Until his company starts to bend the growth curve, his mom still holds out hope for college.  Should he go to college, he won’t need to major in entrepreneurship, he is already earning that degree.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Be open to non-traditional paths, regardless of how intimidating they may be.  The rigidity of high school and college schedules, and their associated academic requirements, make it difficult.  If the passion and drive are there, it can work and you are not alone.