I teach entrepreneurship for Cornell University where I get the following question each semester:
"Hey, John, I've got this great opportunity to do a startup. I'm a senior in engineering, but man, I really have to do a startup ASAP. The hitch is that the team insists I'm full time, so I'll have to quit school. What do you think I should do?"
Wow, that's a real, important, life-changing decision to be made. Gut serious. Soul searching, maybe even scorching. Or it should be. More than a casual "What the hell, why not?"
This student is real, just asked the question over the weekend. Maybe he is like you?
That person has lots of company. Female and male. History is filled with them. The number rises and falls with the heat of each startup bubble as it gets bigger and bigger, crashes and begins again.
As an old startup geezer, I recall vividly the dot-bomb era (1995-2002) when masses of students caught startup fever and quit pursuing a degree. It's one of the signs that we are in another bubble -- the only uncertainty is when it will pop. The timing is unpredictable. The great Kindleberger and contemporaires gave up. Too tough. Like timing the second coming of Jesus Christ. [Dig further here]. Sure, I've hear it before: "But it's different this time." Of course it is, time has marched on. But it will pop, that's for sure.
Kids quit high school to become professional athletes, right? And we know about the Harvard et alia dropouts who became startup superstars in the last great startup tsunami .
So what's a student supposed to do?
SOME THOUGHTS TO PONDER
- Do you believe what you hear and read about startups? Bloggers and venture investors tell positive stories every time they get the chance. That comes with the territory, how they make a buck. But it's only part of the real story. There is a dark side to doing serious startups. Seldom do the Pied Pipers take you aside and give you the balanced picture of what doing a real startup is going to be like. Beware.
- Are you willing to go bankrupt? Your startup's chances of going bankrupt are around 85 percent. Yes, I know yours will not -- at least you believe that passionately. But hey, I've been there, done that, seen it and kept track of the numbers. Statistically speaking that new enterprise child of yours is going belly up within three years.
- When you become unemployed in a couple of years, what will you do next? Got a plan for that? Non-degreed ("a quitter"), foolish ("jumped at the first chance"), unskilled ("did a bit of everything trying to keep the business alive"), and so on. All those will be thrown at you. Can you take it? Can you find a job? Any job? To pay for those student loans (trust me, Hillary won't pay them off for you). I recall vividly how one of my Masters of Engineering students -- brilliant computer science grad born in China -- was crushed when the startup laid him off "This is just not working for both of us."
- What fresh skills will you bring to your next employer? Marketing? Accounting? Engineering (coding?)? Operations? Startup savvy? Which skills are transferable to your next job? Which to another startup? Which to a large, public, multi-national corporation? Any? Or did you just get used up by the startup, tossed out with the waste?
- What is your plan? Just "doing a startup" is not a career move. That's an emotional response to provocative stimuli. It little more than a doing a one performance gig. A serious plan would include a statement something like "I plan on choosing wisely and working hard so I grow professionally on the ladder leading to becoming a world-class entrepreneur while mastering the art of startup marketing." I rarely hear that these days. Instead "Ready, shoot, aim!" dominates.
- Are you ready to work very, very hard for a very, very long time? Startups are marathons, not sprints. That's unlike what you've heard. Investors are expecting you to work your fingers to the bone for 5 to 10 years. What if you don't like the startup after a year on the job? Try mediating on some super mind provokers in the excellent blog on this subject by David Cohen of Techstart: "Giving up the ghost early".
- Can you learn from the past? We've been here before. The dot-bomb era (1995-2002) was filled with waves of students leaving school "to do a startup." Research reveals most bombed. And they will this time, again. Sure, you might be part of the next [insert here the name of your favorite startup, the one you lust after]. Odds are otherwise.
- Is she worth it? My student was so excited as he exclaimed Microsoft had bought his dot.com startup that he had created while remaining school (minimal credit classes). Eighteen months later he came back with "Was not worth it, got some money, but lost my girlfriend."
BOTTOM LINE: Yes, startups can be a lot of fun. And they can be very psychologically rewarding. Some people just belong in new enterprises for all of their careers. However, most startups are a very hard slog, with long hours, major problems, impossible people to work with, discouragement mounting daily. So make your decision wisely. Face the odds of failure. Count what you'll gain from your startup experience. Count your savings and student loans. Then compare that to your alternatives. Draft a personal plan for doing a startup and stare at it for a while. Then show it to someone who will be frankly honest with you -- maybe your boyfriend? And finally make your decision and live with it. Such preparation will help you begin to build a rich professional career. And start construction of your personal unfair advantage. I'm cheering for you.
I wish you The Best on your Adventure!