We often hear about people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who dropped out of college to a business when they were young and became hugely successful. If you consider their stories, you might assume that you can easily start a business without any education or experience and become a billionaire. However, founder education and experience are really key to the ultimate success of their ventures. And, both men had significant experience, even if they lacked a college degree.
The truth behind the success of these men doesn’t fit this narrative as both gained significant experience in less formal settings. Gates was a computer whiz long before starting Microsoft, where he and co-founder Paul Allen (shown below), started programming for themselves and companies like Honeywell long before dropping out of Harvard after 2 years, which is still a significant learning experience. Gates also grew up in an educated household where both men got time to a university computer as youngsters. Steve Jobs followed a similar path to success, having spent years working with computers, as a developer for Atari and hobbyist, before founding Apple. Although, for both Apple and Microsoft, the role of their founders in their success was due to being visionary more than their technical skills, the technical experience helped them visualize the future.
The impact of founder education and experience
Rather than assuming only a college degree contributes to success, the career pathways of folks like Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and many others, we see that founder education and experience come in many forms in addition to college. In the case of many founders, we find they followed a passion developed early in life and backed by many years of participating in a passion that created an industry.
The benefits of starting early
There are some significant benefits of starting early, but only if you have some experience to back up your ideas. Founder education and experience guide ideas as well as provide the necessary skills to succeed. And, while you might point to these successful founders who dropped out of college as examples of where education and experience aren’t needed, you’ll find millions of founders relegated to the ranks of “also-rans” who failed in the same circumstances. So, if you want to become a successful founder at an early age, you must start dedicating yourself to a craft early and focus on that craft to the exclusion of most other activities. Just as a professional athlete practices hours a day in their chosen sport, a budding entrepreneur must work toward acquiring skills if they want to start early.
First, the earlier you start acquiring skills for the business you want to create, the more time and effort you can dedicate to building these skills early. You’ll also have several years of your life dedicated to making this idea work out. Starting earlier gives you a chance to learn from your mistakes and develop skills that come in handy later on in life. Also, when you start young to pay your dues and hone your craft for many years, it shows potential investors that you’re capable of seeing an idea through to its fruition.
The thing is, the failure rate for new businesses is high, no matter how old you are and many more businesses don’t grow to do more than replacing the income for their founders. Starting a business in your 20s gives you a chance to fail early and learn from those mistakes so you can do things better next time around. Sometimes failure is the best teacher. For instance, Henry Ford failed multiple times before he succeeded with Ford Motors.
Why you should consider business school
Starting early does have its benefits, but that doesn’t mean founder education and experience don’t count toward success. Sometimes, going to business school really makes a difference in the success of your venture. In business school, you’ll learn a variety of business skills to help you run a successful company, such as the digital marketing skills needed by any business operating in today’s digital environment (see below).
Business school also helps you learn from the mistakes of others through case studies and exposure to business executives associated with the school. And, you’ll make many valuable connections with other students, potential investors, and leaders who can help guide your venture. Just keep in mind that getting into the best schools, like Harvard Business School, can open up huge opportunities, but they’re also very competitive. You’ll need to make sure your application is perfect and it helps to do plenty of HBS MBA interview prep beforehand, as these activities enhance your chances of getting into the more competitive schools. Once you complete a business degree, you’re a lot more prepared for the challenges you likely face in the early stages of your business.
Going to business school also stands you in good stead when you are trying to pitch to investors because you can demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills to successfully run a business.
The advantages of gaining more experience
Experience is crucial for any business leader because it enables you to the nuances of a successful business as well as gaining specific skills. The more experience you have, the better understanding you have of all aspects of a business and what you need to do to make it a success. For instance, if you want to run a successful restaurant, working in a restaurant is critical for success. By working in a restaurant, you learn about scheduling, kitchen operations, ordering, and handling customers. These are invaluable when it comes to running your own restaurant.
Business school can teach you a lot but you don’t gain the same knowledge of a real-world situation like you get from working in a similar business. Remember, both Gates and Jobs worked in the industry before starting their tech companies. The decision-making skills and quick thinking required as a successful business owner only come with experience.
Everyone assumes that working in a company gives you invaluable experience, but that isn’t always true. Although working for a company teaches you a lot, there are things you can only learn by running a company of your own. Thus, another option is to start up your own side hustle while still employed elsewhere. This not only gives you experience in running different types of businesses but also allows you to develop relationships with potential investors down the line.
However, if you spend too long working in your industry because you want more experience, you lose valuable time that could use for getting your business off the ground, so it’s a trade-off.
Overall, founder education and experience are important and you shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can just jump into running your own business and assume you’ll have a successful venture down the road. On the other hand, there comes a time when you just have to take some risks and if you wait until you know absolutely everything there is to know about running a business, you’ll never get started.
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Hausman and Associates, the publisher of MKT Maven, is a full-service marketing agency operating at the intersection of marketing and digital media. Check out our full range of services.