A common question I receive is, “How do I become an entrepreneur?” Or, “How do I start my own business?” My response to aspiring young entrepreneurs is counterintuitive – skip college. While there are many benefits and reasons to attain a degree from a university, they don’t always align with the needs of being an entrepreneur. And it’s not just aspiring entrepreneurs, more and more I’m hearing from business owners that college degrees are overrated.
I grew up with the expectation to attend college. From an early age, I remember the common question I would hear often from adults, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But I don’t recall ever answering, “An entrepreneur.” But now that I look back, several experiences heavily influenced my decision to start my first company at age 23, and it wasn’t my formal college experience. In fact, I don’t recall any “entrepreneurship” classes in the 80’s at Auburn University, my alma mater. I know it’s a very common curriculum and major at universities these days, but I’m not sure it’s the best option for aspiring entrepreneurs. My path may not be textbook, but it certainly prepared me for business ownership.
Get a Job Early in Life
From a very early age I was encouraged and supported by my family to have part-time jobs. My earliest memory of an “official” job was around age 12. A broken arm prevented me from any playing time with my little league baseball team, which was a blessing for my teammates since I was a terrible ballplayer. Relegated to the bench, the coach asked me to keep the statistics for each game. This knowledge eventually led to a job with the league keeping the stats for every game, running the scoreboard, announcing players and submitting a game recap to the local paper. Looking back, I’m sure it was a violation of child labor laws, but I certainly enjoyed the $5 a game to run the scoreboard and announce the game. Unfortunately, my vision of being the next Harry Caray never materialized.
I followed my first part-time job with many subsequent positions, including a newspaper route, scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, working behind the counter at a convenience store, teaching archery at a summer camp, and an ever-evolving role at a local mom-and-pop print shop. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a part-time job during high school. It was during these formative years that I came to understand the importance of work. None of these jobs paid well, but they ultimately gave me the grit to do hard and sometimes monotonous work.
When I went to college I continued my work habits with as many as three concurrent part-time jobs while I attended school. The work ethic I established in high school allowed me to do multiple part-time jobs and still graduate in less than three years from Auburn. I believe the hours I spent working were more impactful than the hours spent in the classroom, which probably explains my less than stellar GPA.
Find a Mentor
My experience at the mom-and-pop print shop was a major influence on my entrepreneurial bug. Not only did I experience every position from delivery, bindery, typesetting, platemaking, accounting, and even running a press, I found a mentor in the owner. It was the first time an entrepreneur took the time to explain to me the basics of business. He was constantly sharing stories about how and why he did certain things, including converting from a franchise to an independent business, how he took care of customers, how he managed employees, his decision to start another company, his negotiation style, and many other simple but insightful decisions. In hindsight, many of my foundational beliefs about business were formed before I graduated high school. It was additional confidence that I could do hard work and run my own business.
Pick the Proper Path
A lot has been written about “finding your passion,” but I think too often that advice is misunderstood. Most people, especially kids, interpret “passion” as a personal interest, issue or hobby. I hear common responses like “helping others,” “cooking,” or “computers.” It took me many years to understand that if I wanted to be an entrepreneur, the industry didn’t matter. I learned about entrepreneurship from scooping ice cream, collating brochures and programming computers. It was these experiences that ultimately led to many opportunities to freelance and consult before I graduated college. Ironically, after graduation my first fulltime job offer was for less money than I was making at my part-time jobs while in school. It was the final sign that being “employed” wasn’t an option for me.
I’m sure I received a lot of value from the social aspect of attending college, but it wasn’t the courses in business school that prepared me to be an entrepreneur. No, it was the time spent working and learning from others that taught me business skills. I found a path that led me to becoming an entrepreneur – a combination of my printing experience from that mom-and-pop print shop combined with my computer skills to launch my first advertising agency. I successfully launched and ran two agencies for over 20 years despite never having taken a single class in advertising. If you want to be an entrepreneur, the best option for college might be to skip the classes and get out in the world to do hard work, learn from others, and find your path.
A graduate of Entrepreneur U., Rob Simons is a business coach at Simons.Coach – a Texas-based company that helps organizations build a culture of purpose, alignment, and accountability by implementing the Rockefeller Habits. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 210-845-2782.