I’m 18 years old and want to be a successful tech entrepreneur. What steps should I take?
That one, specifically, popped up in my email today from Quora, the excellent questions-and-answers site that I frequent often. But that’s just today. I saw a very similar question from a different person yesterday, and another on Monday. So that question, in various versions, has become one of those questions that pop up everywhere.
There is only one obvious answer that will be generally true for anybody your age that asks this question: focus on completing your education. Get yourself a college or university degree, the classic BA or BS.
Choose your course of study as if you knew you were going to die when you graduate. Whether it’s computer science, engineering, math, pure science, liberal arts, fine arts, or business, if it is what interests you and what you want to study, then that’s the right step to take. You’re young and the world is full of options. If you study what you want, you discover who you are. You are quite likely to change your mind once or twice after you start – most students do – but that’s also fine, it’s part of the normal course of education, you’re in a discovery phase.
Your education isn’t about specific business knowledge. It’s about clear thinking and communication. It’s about skills and understanding that apply to whatever else you do for the rest of your life. It is not easily measured by direct correlations to what entrepreneurs need to know or do. Yes, it is true that there are many parts of entrepreneurship that can’t be taught in a classroom. And it’s true that you can pick those up elsewhere. But it is also true that what you do learn as you get that degree is extremely important for your long-term career, and happiness; and will be directly applicable to what you have to do to be successful as an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship, business, and tech startups require a lot of common sense, a lot of clear thinking, a lot of hard work, and usually a significant dose of experience too. Studying some business topics can accelerate learning. Cash flow, for example, is a body of knowledge worth learning in a classroom. But all of these can be learned outside of the classroom too.
If you like data to go along with this, check out the Kauffmann Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. What you’ll find is that success seems to correlate mostly with having education and experience both. Successful entrepreneurs tend, on average, to be in their 40s and holders of one and often more than one advanced degrees. But dig deeper into degrees and you’ll find very little correlation between what they actually studied and their success. Look around you and you’ll find that the liberal arts people are as likely to be successful as the tech and science people. What matters most is the ability to bear down and do the work, and clear thinking, and sticking to goals.
Don’t get distracted by those studies that relate degrees or areas of study to future earning power. There’s no direct connection between what you study and what you earn for your lifetime. What happens in real life is that getting a higher education degree only happens for people who can stick to a goal for several years, get work done when they have to, follow through on assignments in time and as needed, and accomplish something. Of course what happens is that people who can do that end up being more successful because of what they learned how to do and the simple fact that they stuck to it long enough to finish with a degree; but it isn’t they they know something special that made them worth more money. It is that they worked more, smarter, and better.
Those amazing billionaires who dropped out of Harvard and Reed College, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs, are about one in ten million. You aren’t them. In each case they were seriously engaged in getting an education when the big idea changed their lives, made them obsessive, and became the business history we now all know. Two facts are very important: 1.) there are ten million or so of the rest of us for every one of them; and 2.) they weren’t skipping steps or avoiding anything, they dove towards something. First they fell in love with the idea and the possibility of a specific business, then they dropped out. (Steve Jobs doesn’t quite fit that description, but then he didn’t quite drop out either; he hung around Reed College, auditing courses, and got his education before he started Apple. He just didn’t pay tuition so he didn’t get the formal certification of his education.)
I think there’s an interesting similarity between successful entrepreneurship and successful marriages. The people I know who end up as successful couples, married for decades, generally fell in love with each other first, then got married, and then continued learning and evolving over decades as they grew together and changed together. Similarly, with the great tech startup successes that I’m aware of, there was a spark as the key people fell in love with the idea, the mission, the way they were going to change the world. They had that burst of passion first, and then followed it for years with learning, evolution, and course corrections.
If your question were about how to develop and pursue this amazing thing you want to do that is going to change the world, I might give you a different answer. But face it, you’re like me, like most of us, you’re trying to figure out not how to get to some specific destination, but rather what direction to travel in, generally. You aren’t blessed with the actual spark of the entrepreneurial idea. Don’t worry, though, very few of us are.
So you get your education now because that gives you future options, skills, and experience sticking to something. You advance your possibilities and give your career a chance to develop.
For the record, my own career shows that I practiced exactly what I’m suggesting here. My advice is based on what I’ve seen work, in the real world, and is what I did myself.