Oct 142011
 
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Entrepreneurs don't NEED university

An Entrepreneur Does Not NEED University Education

I get asked a lot if an entrepreneur needs a college degree or university-level education in certain areas, in order to be successful as a business owner.  My answer to this question is:  No – of course not!  The list of entrepreneurs who have been extraordinarily successful without college degrees is “a mile long”.

As someone who spent a lot of time and money on college, it pains me to say it, but you don’t NEED a university education to succeed as an entrepreneur.  I emphasize the word “need,” because although I don’t think a college education is a must for entrepreneurship (it is for some other professions, obviously), I do believe it can be helpful in many ways.  For me at least, the most important thing learned in college was a broader perspective on how human beings have approached life and conquered particular challenges in the PAST.  That said, there’s no reason you cannot learn those things on your own, and further, as entrepreneurs, we’re really mainly interested in the FUTURE.  The past can provide guidance, but you should not believe that the future will be exactly the same as the past.  Rather, as an entrepreneur, you must condition yourself to create the future, and if past “realities” stand in the way, you find a way over, under, around, or through them.

I have written elsewhere that, in my observation and experience, five key character traits to succeed as an entrepreneur are the following.  Let’s look at them in the context of what a university education provides.

  • Perseverance:  Yes, you can learn to persevere in a college environment, but you can also learn it on a farm, on an athletic field, in the military, or on your own in a multitude of scenarios and environments.  Perseverance and the ability to tap the strong willpower that we all possess, come from inside.  Your experiences in earning a college degree can help you further develop these skills, but you can learn them just about anywhere else too.
  • Goal Setting:  If there was a goal-setting course somewhere in my college education, I must have missed it!  Everything I’ve learned about goal setting, I have learned on my own, from experience, from coaches, or in seminars.
  • Tolerate Uncertainty:  I’m not sure going through college really helps much with tolerating uncertainty.  College, at least in my experience, tends to be a very structured environment, where you are told which courses you need to take to obtain a certain degree.  There’s usually flexibility in some of the curriculum, but generally speaking, there’s a lot of imposed structure and not much uncertainty.  An exception may be if you pledge a fraternity or sorority, but that’s another story, and you don’t need to go to college to join groups that “put you through the ringer” to become a member.
  • Strong Desire To Succeed:  Having a strong desire to succeed is something that comes from inside.  You can help yourself nurture this desire by setting goals that really fire you up, but in the end, this desire comes from within you and cannot be taught at college.
  • Different Definition Of Failure:  Again, college is a very structured environment, unlike that of entrepreneurship.  In college you get a grade from A to F.  True, you can either pass or fail, the binary nature of which is more parallel to what you see in the world of entrepreneurship, but again in college it’s occurring in a protected and structured environment.  There’s little reality in a protected environment.  Some professors do a great job of mixing “real life” scenarios into the education process, but by and large, the university environment is its own little world.  Quite frankly, that may help with the issue of having a “different definition of failure,” where it’s not expected that every test and every person be 100% successful right out of the gate.  There needs to be room for “many small failures” and course correction along the way; that’s how entrepreneurship works best.  The utility of college on this one could go either way, depending on the particular student, the particular university, the particular course of study, the particular professor, etc.

Let’s add five other key “things” that are very helpful in your quest to be a successful entrepreneur, and let’s also look at those in the context of a university education.

  • Basic Understanding Of Finance And Accounting:  These can certainly be learned in the university environment.  You don’t need a college degree to understand them though.  In fact, the key issues can be learned in a long weekend, or even less, if you’re already comfortable with numbers.
  • Being Able To Differentiate Opportunities From Ideas:  A good course in new venture initiation at the college level will get you pretty much all you need to know about how to filter through ideas and determine if they’re opportunities.  Again though, you can learn how to do this easily without ever stepping foot on a college campus, or taking an online college course, never mind obtaining a diploma.
  • Knowing How To Sell:  You may learn a bit about selling and persuasion in your college experience.  It won’t likely have anything to do with the courses you take though; rather, it will happen in the many social interactions that occur during college.  There are university courses on negotiation and sales, but they also exist outside the college environment and tend to be much shorter and more focused.
  • Networking Well:  Learning to network well is something most people do by trial and error.  It can help to have a mentor or two, whether it’s in a college environment or not.  You certainly don’t need a college degree to be good at networking.
  • Knowing How To Market:  Marketing is as much art as science.  It’s very helpful to learn the theory behind it, which you can do in college, at your job, on your own through self-study, or in your entrepreneurial experience.  In the end, marketing is about testing, testing and more testing.  You need to understand how to run the tests and how to interpret the results, then run the tests again.  How you learn this, is up to you.

So, what do you think?  Do you NEED a university education to be successful as an entrepreneur?  If you agree with what I’ve said in this article, the answer is obviously:  “No”!  If you have a university degree or are pursuing one, I’m not saying it’s worthless!  The way I look at it, just as athletes who are considering pro sports are wise to have a university degree “in their back pocket” as a form of insurance, so are entrepreneurs.  Like pro sports, entrepreneurship is a highly competitive endeavor with significant uncertainty regarding how long you’ll be able to do it and what your ultimate level of success will be.

That said, many would say that such college degrees have now become commoditized, and except in specific circumstances, don’t really offer you much “insurance” or differentiation in the job market.  It’s your life; you’ll have to be the judge of course!  But if entrepreneurship is your focus, you have every opportunity to be successful whether or not you have a college degree on your wall, or in your closet.  I would not change or trade the time I spent in college, but that’s not because it taught me to be a good entrepreneur.  It’s for a host of other reasons.

In my own experience, I created a great network of friends and business contacts during my time in college, which has been very beneficial to me throughout my entire entrepreneurial career.  Also, given that I focused a lot of my college activities in the area of entrepreneurship, I had some great mentors and some great entrepreneurial growth and learning experiences during my college years.  This did not happen because I was in college though, or because I ultimately earned a couple of degrees; it happened because I’ve always made sure that wherever I was, I was making progress toward my goals of improving myself as an entrepreneur.  Wherever you are and wherever you’ve been, you can certainly do the same!

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

paul@companyfounder.com

www.companyfounder.com

 

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  • Akshay Shah

    Another important ingredient of becoming a sucessful entrepreneur is ‘PASSION’. Unless an entrepreneur has loads of passion, its tough to survive & life the life of an entrepreneur!!! Infact PASSION, PERSISTENCE & PATIENCE should be an Entrepreneur’s DNA according to me!

    Well written – Cheers!

  • Good points, Akshay! Passion and patience are also very important in the success of most entrepreneurs. Similar to persistence, though “higher education” may help you develop them further, they really need to come from within. Paul

  • commenter

    You already contradict with the title of your post when you say “This did not happen because I was in college though, or because I ultimately earned a couple of degrees” You met all these people and had opportunities because of the college, so don’t say to people to miss this thing. It’s good to go to college. The unecessary part is to graduate, if you have a strong feeling that the profs there and the environment is not challenging. In that case a good move would be to change college and gain even more contacts and networks 😉 All the famous dropouts(Gates, Jobs etc) had no choice to go to other schools, cause they were already at the best ones..
    Another point I want to make: You can’t innovate if you have highschool education.. How can you create a new sky rocket, a new fibre, a new type of fuel, a new type of food. If you have no knowledge base. You can’t just be the confident-greedy boss wall street style and at the same time have no clue about ideas.. To be a leader, you need education.

  • Julia

    Post by @penelopetrunk about getting graduate degree – http://ow.ly/6PJMk has similar arguments.

  • Another good post Paul.

    I think an entrepreneur should be a BELIEVER ! In himself and in his own idea !

    Plenty of experts out there will tell you it is impossible to do what you do !

  • Dianne

    It isn’t really the classroom lessons that are important these days. You can learn that online, however universities do provide a good place to just practice. You can practice writing for publications, practice marketing, however these skills can be acquired outside of college.

  • Ryan Williams

    I totally agree that an Entrepreneur Does Not NEED University Education!! Thinking back through the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with some of the most passionate business owners I’ve met have risen from nothing and created success through sheer force of will. As for me, I have found the college experience enriches my adventure by adding a depth and stability that I have enjoyed and fallen back on in times of doubt. Great blog – I’m encouraged to reconnect with some old (passionate) carpenters who taught me great wisdom that I didn’t appreciate till much later in life.

  • Just took a look at the post you mentioned. It’s focused on graduate degrees, but yes she has a similar train of thought. The bottom line is that you don’t NEED a university education to become an entrepreneur. It can be helpful in some circumstances, but in many others it can be a hindrance. Whether one should pursue a college degree is highly situation-specific. In the case of most successful entrepreneurs I know, they could have done it without any college degree. Education is important, but it does not have to happen in a formal college setting.

  • Thanks for your comment. I don’t see the contradiction — yes, I made contacts in college, but I’d contend that I could have made good contacts most anywhere. They wouldn’t have been exactly the same contacts, but as you know, there are many other venues besides college to make great contacts. As I said in the article, I would not trade my college experience for anything, but the reasons have very little to do with entrepreneurship. To your point about innovation and leadership requiring education, I agree 100%. However, I don’t agree that you need to get that education in a formal college setting. For some technical areas, yes, you will need to follow a specific course of study, over the course of several years, and undoubtedly, that will be easier to do in college. For many other types of innovations, such as creating new business models, you really don’t need a formal educational environment to learn or do that. The overall theme of your comments brings up a great point: in the end, in order to do well, or let’s say do something extraordinary in any endeavor including entrepreneurship, it’s always helpful to surround yourself with “great minds”. This is a purpose that formal education can serve, at some educational institutions. The great minds would include the professors, the students, the adjuncts and all sorts of other people who are attracted to the educational environment. If you don’t find you’re surrounded by what you’d consider “great minds” in your educational environment, whatever and wherever it may be, then you need to ask yourself what you’re doing there and what you’re likely going to get out of the experience.

  • Thanks, Ryan. As I said in the article, I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything, but the reasons have little to do with entrepreneurship! I agree that by expanding your frame of reference, you can create depth and stability, which can be relied upon in difficult times! I do believe that you can readily expand your frame of reference outside the college environment though, too. Paul

  • Agreed, Anne. In order to be a successful entrepreneur, you must be a believer! You may not believe that everything will work out as planned, but you will believe that you can always find a way to make it happen. It’s not necessary to get a university education to be a believer!

  • Hi, Dianne. I agree that classroom lessons are not really where it’s at. They can help for certain subjects, but in the end, for most subjects related to entrepreneurship practice and experience are the best way to learn.

  • Pingback: Does Formal Education Matter For Entrepreneurs? | The Entrepreneur Blog()

  • Jimmy

    I really like what you are saying, and am glad I found your website. Please keep it up.

  • For me it is not always the degrees that makes an entrepreneur successful in life. It is the passion that run to it veins. Even without proper experience you can be one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. Anyways Paul, I really liked your post. Hope to hear more from you.

  • Thanks, James. Happy to hear that you enjoyed the post. I agree that passion is a key ingredient in the success of most entrepreneurs.

  • Alex

    Great post! Here in the Philippines, you’re considered trash unless you go to university. I’m already at the best university you can possibly go to here, but it doesn’t feel right. I agree about networking, though. So I’ll probably follow through college with a light course just for fail-safe. If my business takes off, though, so will I. I will definitely be subscribing to this site. Hoping to start a blog on young entrepreneurs here in the country who are too afraid of risks- this site will surely give me ideas. Thanks!

  • Spoken like a true entrepreneur. All the best in your ventures. Stay in touch.

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  • Kmadsen

    You don’t need any education to be a successful entrepreneur in my opinion. You definitely need to know the stuff above and your specifics of product/business etc. But that’s it. You don’t need to know anything extra and that’s what college is. One or two pieces of golden advice or tips among a sea of information you could have learned on your own. People always run to degrees these days for everything; even when they don’t need it. It’s sad. People don’t even realize that piece of paper is for someone above you, not if you want to be your own boss! Thank you for this post Paul and I can’t wait to read more!