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Should You Forgo College to Start a Business?

Eugene Cheng
Eugene Cheng

A college degree is no longer absolutely necessary for a young person to succeed in life.

Over 62 percent of millennials have considered starting their own business, and 72 percent feel that startups and entrepreneurs are a necessary economic force for creating jobs and driving innovation, according to Forbes.

Yet, the idea of choosing entrepreneurship over a university education is seen as a risky option that most young people shy away from.

When we launched our company, I was 19 and had a spot waiting for me in a university's communication design program. My parents were constantly urging me to pursue a university education for "a better future," but I ultimately decided to forgo that to run a business.

Naturally, the thought of forgoing a well-trodden path for one of uncertainty can feel daunting to most, especially when all of your peers are heading in the opposite direction. That said, I have zero regrets about my choice, because I've learned and gained more as an entrepreneur than as a college student.

Below are four advantages one experiences when choosing entrepreneurship over a university education.

Learn and grow by doing.

Entrepreneurship can be scary, but it can also be wildly enriching.

The bad news: There is no lesson plan and hardly ever a fallback. The good news: You'll benefit from the independence. Not to mention, you can save heaps on the increasingly hefty costs that come bundled with the college experience.

Billionaire and Napster founder Sean Parker even goes as far as to suggest you "Skip college and Google your education."

To get your first customers, you'll need to step out of your comfort zone to reach potential customers you might not be familiar with. Further, as an entrepreneur, you'll often have to wear many hats in the early days. You'll need to manage different aspects of your business, including HR, marketing, sales, just to name a few, all in a single role. You'll have to upskill yourself in various areas that might not have been your strengths in school.

In my case, one of the most difficult lessons revolved around working directly with executives who were much older than me. Learning to successfully negotiate and sell our company's services to intimidating prospects is something I learned in the field and not in a classroom.

There are some things a college education can do for you, but it simply can't prepare you for every scenario you'll face in your career. The lessons you learn in practice and execution beat theories anytime. Even starting out as a freelancer can be a good step in getting your feet wet and picking up some of the necessary skills to run a business.

You failed? No problem.

The great thing about launching a business when you're young is that you have a lot less to lose. If you're not supporting dependents or ailing family members, failure is not something that should discourage you.

You lost some money, so what? Chinese ecommerce giant Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, has stated that the company wasn't profitable the first three years. In the beginning, it expanded too fast and nearly went bankrupt when the dot-com bubble burst. At one point, Alibaba was just 18 months away from bankruptcy. Today, it's the biggest ecommerce company in the world.

Roughly 20 percent of new businesses survive past their first year of operation. Don't be discouraged if you hit a roadblock early on in your journey, you're in good company. The best thing is that as a young entrepreneur, you can afford to fail, because it's likely you don't have kids or a mortgage holding you back.

You'll need to grow up, fast.

Having no bosses or teachers breathing down your neck may sound attractive, but that also means that there's no one telling you what to do next.

You'll think twice about spending $8 on that latte from Starbucks and feel a tinge of guilt when you take a day off. You will realize that whether your business succeeds or not depends on the decisions you make right now.

The Dollar Shave Club made a killing after its video marketing went viral, netting 12,000 sales in a single day. Founder Michael Dublin didn't spend a lot of money on his witty online advertisement – just $4,500. But when there's a lot riding on your habits, you have no choice but tweak your lifestyle and mindset for the better if you want to succeed.

Look forward to an income without a ceiling.

One of the limitations of working for an organization, like most college students do when they graduate, is that unless you're in a profession like sales where your income scales proportionately to your effort, there will always be a ceiling on how much you can earn.

As an entrepreneur, once your business has a sustainable pipeline of deals and works, you can expect your income to increase based on how hard you choose to work.

In addition, not having a student loan to tie you down financially puts you ahead of many of your peers. Coupled with the potential income you stand to gain from your business if you succeed, you can look forward to a financial and career headstart while your peers are studying for finals.

A college degree is no longer absolutely necessary for a young person to succeed in his or her career. With the availability of quality, free, online educational courses in today's age, starting a business, coupled with self-study on the internet, can be just as enriching and possibly even more financially practical as obtaining a degree from a university. And if things don't work out, universities are here to stay. You can always go back to school if your business idea doesn't work out.

As for whether you should start a business instead of finish college first, that's up to you to decide. If you consider yourself a self-starter with the discipline to manage your time and self-education, starting a business might bear more fruit.

If you're more comfortable with a structured learning environment and are averse to risk, getting your college degree might be the better option in the short term. You could always explore entrepreneurship at a later time.

Image Credit: nenetus/Shutterstock
Eugene Cheng
Eugene Cheng Member
Eugene Cheng is Partner & Creative Lead at HighSpark a strategic presentation consultancy and training company serving Fortune 500 companies based in Singapore. In his free time, he also manages a blog on freelancing: FreelanceFuel.