Young Entrepreneurs: They Are Lying to You

All over the web, on Q&A sites, blog posts, and so on, in panels and conferences, and in the occasional book, know-it-all alleged experts are lying to young entrepreneurs about the value of education. They sprout clichés that are unrealistic, impractical, and that when taken to an extreme, are even tragic.

Lie: A startup is better than an education.

orangutang_istock_000003420564xsmallIt is so not true, but sadly also so widely believed.

They say education is a waste of time. They say that a “real” entrepreneur skips school to do a startup now. You’re in high school and they tell you being an entrepreneur is a viable alternative to getting an education. You’re in college and they tell you to drop out. They’re tricking you.

That’s crap perpetuated by wishful thinking. Sure, starting a business sounds better to you than sitting in a classroom or doing homework. And, when studying bogs you down—as it does at some point for all of us—they tempt you with this lie you can turn to instead: “You don’t have to do this. You’ll just be an entrepreneur. Way more fun.”

Tragic? Yes. They throw you off track. Tragedy is what might have been, but isn’t because something—lies, maybe laziness (that’s what makes those lies work)—got in the way. I learned that in a classroom at college. They are like those beautiful sirens—mythological Greek ladies, sexy as hell, singing from the sidelines—who lured sailors off course and into the rocks.

But no, wait. You don’t have an education, so you have no idea what that reference is about. Unless you saw it in some low-grade movie.

[see-also]Should Entrepreneurs Attend Business School?[/see-also]

Truth: Get your education first.

Don’t kid yourself: You get the education when you’re young because it makes your life better.

First, it means doing something hard, something that takes a few years, and that builds you up. You do homework, you take tests, you write papers. You lose sleep turning work in on time. You grow. You face challenges and overcome them. The best path goes uphill sometimes. You can’t always take the easy route; you’ll end up nowhere.

Second, you learn to think, digest information, communicate, discuss ideas, evaluate options, and make decisions. You acquire skills and mindsets that make you better.

Third, it’s about options. Ten and 20 years will go by really fast. If you have a degree, then you have options. You have more choices. If you don’t get an education, someday there will be a thirty-something-year-old person living in your body, cursing you.

And, by the way, study what you like doing. I majored in lit, then did journalism in grad school. Ten years later, I went to business school. I ended up a software entrepreneur, writing my own code in the beginning. Your business success—or lack of it—isn’t what you learned or didn’t learn in school. It’s who you are. Life is way better with an education, but it doesn’t have to be a business education. Your education is part of who you are. Business is fine if you want to study it, but if not, no sweat. You can still do your own business later.

Yes, there are an extremely rare few who have earned the right to scoff at education. Peter Thiel, for one; nobody can doubt his credentials. He’s not just another amateur expert reading what everybody else says. And yes, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and a few other rare exceptions. Each of them is one in several million. And all three of them were dragged out of education by one of the biggest deals of the last 100 years. Rumor has it that Jobs actually got the education by auditing—without getting the paperwork—at Reed College. And you won’t find either Gates or Zuckerberg claiming others should drop out. And you aren’t them. They are exceptions, not the rule.

Don’t risk real life betting on yourself as that one in a million. Give yourself options. Look at the odds.

Give yourself time. Startups take seasoning.

In the real world—for the rest of us—actually starting a business takes seasoning first. You need some time. Work as an employee, keep your eyes open. The right time will come. It’s not one of those “now or never” situations until you pass 60 or so. Most of us need a decade or so in the work world, at least, before we’re ready to start our own business. I was 33 when I went out on my own, and 45 when it finally took off.

A few decades ago, before this craziness started, I took a course in entrepreneurship from Steve Brandt, at the Stanford Business School. Look him up on Amazon. It was a privilege I still appreciate.

Toward the end of the course, he paused, looked up at the lot of us, and said (something like): “Listen. I’m not saying you’re supposed to pass this class, graduate, and go start a business. That’s not realistic. You’re too young. You need more experience. So, if you’re serious about this, what you do now is choose the stream you want to swim in. Take a job in an area that interests you. Wait until you’re ready.”

A few decades later I was teaching entrepreneurship part-time, having built my own business, when one of my students asked me how he could set up a business in coffee roasting right out of school. He wasn’t the typical undergrad. He was married and in his middle twenties. I told him to work with a coffee roaster first. He did, for two or three years. Today, about 10 years later, he and his wife own a successful multi-location coffee roasting business called Back Porch Coffee in Bend, Oregon.

[see-also]10 Lessons Learned in 22 Years of Bootstrapping[/see-also]

Data? You want data?

Still, you want more?

If you do get that education, you’ll have a huge advantage over the uneducated in distinguishing data that matters from data that doesn’t. So you’ll realize I’m right. But for a quick data fix, check out what the Kauffman Foundation discovered when they analyzed 479 successful high-tech startups. Here’s what they say:

  • The average and median age of U.S.-born tech founders was thirty-nine when they started their companies. Twice as many were older than fifty as were younger than twenty-five.
  • The vast majority (92 percent) of U.S.-born tech founders held bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, 31 percent held master’s degrees, and 10 percent had completed PhDs. Nearly half of all these degrees were in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related disciplines. One third were in business, accounting, and finance.
  • U.S.-born tech founders holding MBA degrees established companies more quickly (in thirteen years) than others.
  • Those with PhDs typically waited twenty-one years to become tech entrepreneurs, and other master degree holders took less time to start companies than did those with bachelors degrees (14.7 years and 16.7 years, respectively).
  • U.S.-born tech founders holding computer science and information technology degrees founded companies sooner after graduating than engineering degree holders (14.3 years vs. 17.6 years). Applied science majors took the longest (twenty years) to create their startups.

Conclusion: They are lying to you.

Before you swallow entrepreneurial advice from anybody, ask first whether they’ve ever built a business. And even then, don’t believe them; think about it, and decide for yourself.

Don’t believe me either. Look around you.


  • Chris says:

    the statistics are wrong, it’s impossible to gage. I don’t know any business failure that would register or record their failure. I don’t know any requirement for age when starting a business, or any set of records where ages of founders are recorded and fed into a central database, i mean it just makes no sense, the data is so skewed it’s unreliable. There’s also folks that are doing both business and education, there is no criteria for an entreperneuer, could be for example selling bike tyres or garden gnomes online via ebay/amazon in the thousands. If there is a gap they may find it. I don’t see age being relevant here juts risk taking. Perhaps your statistics are from people who want to register their name, age, details and linkdin profiles etc as being self employed and which in this case probably explains your 39 y/o average. Have to say though, logic would point to average age nearer 22-29 after Uni and before needing to fly the nest, low cost of living and opportunity to delay payign back student loans (UK). no kids, no need for cars, mortgages. i think average would be 25.

    • Tim Berry says:

      @Chris, thanks for your input. I’m always in favor of questioning surveys. I cite the source in the post, with a link, so you can check it out; they interviewed successful tech entrepreneurs, so that’s not everybody. And that doesn’t mean it’s entirely right. I appreciate your anecdotal sense of it. For what it’s worth, I’ve been dealing with startups for 40 years now, and I’ve seen hundreds of pitches, and invested in more than a dozen aside from building my own … and my anecdotal sense of it matches the data. It’s not for nothing that the data comes at the bottom of the post, tagged as for those who want data. What I say here is my firmly-held belief, based on a lot of experience — but it’s still just my opinion. So I am happy to have yours here too. Tim

  • alexanderjarvis says:

    So agree. There is this weird startup cheerleader group that tells anyone from any circumstance they can do whatever they want starting now. We need fewer, better quality startups with higher quality teams.

  • Martin Lindeskog says:

    Tim: Have you read Lost Pants Mine: Gold, Love, Adventure?

    • Tim Berry says:

      No, Martin, thank you, I hadn’t read it, but I just checked it out, that is the same Steven Brandt I refer to in the post. Now I can’t wait to read it.

  • Cheese Louis says:

    When you get your degree and still end up at McDonald’s. XD
    No guts, no glory.

    • Tim Berry says:

      So let’s see … are you suggesting that having a degree makes a person more likely to end up working at McDonald’s? Or less? Hmmm … Or is that the only conceivable benefit of having an education, to you, is earning power? Or perhaps that ignorance, and not doing anything hard, makes you more successful?

    • Natalia says:

      I’ve seen sad examples of people who had bright ideas, lots of energy and were great motivators, but lack of education led to failures to execute the ideas.
      If you want to invent a wheel, go for it, but education is exactly there to help you to avoid it.

  • Sachin Ganpat says:

    I agree that a University education is important. But I still think that starting a business is better than getting an MBA. You could do without spending all that money for useless paper.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Sachin, why does that even come up? First of all, who said that anybody chooses between starting a business and getting an MBA? Certainly not me, and not this post either. And neither I nor this post suggests that anybody should get an MBA instead of starting a business. Sometimes I worry that there are armies of young people out there actively missing the point, trying to convince themselves, and each other, that education is bad for business. Education isn’t the same as business, and it’s not to be measured by earnings. Just FYI my absolutely favorite five young people (my children, 42 to 28 years old) are all entrepreneurs, all educated, all successful, (three of them very successful), but none with an MBA. The MBA decision shoud be made case by case, and, no offense, also without the noise added by people chasing chances to pit startups against business school. I like comments here on my blog, because it’s engagement, but you are disagreeing here with something that wasn’t even said. Why are you so anxious?

      • Sachin Ganpat says:

        The MBA came up because your third statistic:

        U.S.-born tech founders holding MBA degrees established companies more quickly (in thirteen years) than others.

        This statistic alone does not imply correlation. It may also mean that people interested in starting a business pursue an MBA. And that has been my experience. That people wanting to start a business believe that they should pursue an MBA, and I believe that’s incorrect. An MBA does not equal an education.

        I definitely agree with an education. But as Mark Twain once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

        Your example about the coffee roaster is a great example of what an education means. Get a real understanding of a business while in the business. Not school.

        A better alternative to an MBA. Spend some time in the public library and read some business books.

        • Tim Berry says:

          And yet, there it is, as a statistic. They surveyed almost 500 successful high-tech founders, and there you have the results. Are you saying they are lying? Or that I should have left that statistics off of the post, because you don’t believe in MBA degrees? I know that in my case my MBA was very valuable to me as an entrepreneur. I couldn’t have started my business without the confidence I had gained from knowing in at least a general way what was involved in all parts of the business, from sales to marketing to admin to finance to product development. And I’m not some idle academic, I built my own company, without outside investment to $10+ M in sales, no debt, profitable, and market leadership, and I (and my wife and kids) own it outright. Oh, and I paid for my MBA by myself, working almost full time, while married with three kids. But I’m still not saying everybody should do it. Just that education is good.

          As to what others do, I’m biased towards education, yes. But I’m not for an MBA for everybody, or for anybody. I’m for people studying what they want, and getting a general education, and not confusing education with business as if it’s either one or the other, not both. Because it usually is both, as statistics show.

        • Tim Berry says:

          OK, and the stat is real, presumably, because its source is one of the most trusted in entrepreneurship. That’s a cool quote from Mark Twain, and makes a good point. But there’s also “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

    • Gerald Richards says:

      Education is vital to becoming an entrepreneur. Bit difficult to put together a business plan if you can’t read or write. The level of education and success will vary with the individual and their drive. A qualification is like a passport, it’s up to you where and how you travel.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Sage advice Tim – well worth sharing. Would love to hear and read your thoughts on the plethora of VC’s out there who have never built a business but have no problem throwing millions at startups for things like “customer acquisition”…

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Jeff. I work with a lot of other angel investors in an angel group and not one of them lacks experience, almost all have built businesses. As for VCs, the ones who invested in my business 15 or so years ago, who are no longer partners because I bought them out, had built several businesses. And the ones who invested in my son’s business too, same thing. The VCs I know are smart and experienced, both. Actually, I’ve never met a dumb VC. Arrogant on occasion, full of themselves, yeah, some … but not dumb.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *