Is it crazy to be crazy?
“University can either be a degree and a thousand forgotten nights out, or it can be the three years that change your life.” GB
I have no experience. I have almost zero skills and zero savings. I will graduate in less than a month [update: graduated in July 2017], and this statement sums up my feelings. University is undoubtedly a crucial part of life. It certainly was for me. I went from being an awkward 18-years-old Steve Jobs fan to discovering what I love: tech entrepreneurship. And this is mostly thanks to Manchester Entrepreneurs, a society that complelety shaped my university years, infinitely more than my academic degree. Freshly arrived in Manchester three years ago, the very first event I attended was called Silicon Valley Comes to The UK, which was the beginning of my obsession with entrepreneurship. From that day on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, especially in the technology sector — not only computers, but anything that helps our society do more, with less. Be more efficient, with less time. Be more creative, with less hassle. Consuming more energy, with less environmental pollution. I always believed that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, and thus one can always aim for the moon (or these days, aim for Mars), especially at the very start of one’s career, without family and boring adult obligations. And for me, founding a startup seems to be the best way to have a great, positive impact in the world. It might not have been the case throughout in history, but it probably is in 2017.
Anyway, this is why I want to go and make a startup right after university. Let’s now go beyond my personal case to see whether it is rational or not.
This career path is often considered as a crazy move by 99% of the people I know. Depending on how straightforward people are, it either feels bizarre or naive for the listener. I am 100% convinced it is the right move to do after one’s studies, but at this point I know it is only a personal opinion. I’m pretty sure you’re not going to start a business after reading this article (although I would be kinda proud). All I want to do is to explain the rationale, and even benefits, of ditching graduate jobs or further education.
Now let me be crystal clear: there are so many articles online on misconceptions about entrepreneurship that I don’t want to end up writing a bland copy-paste. Long story short, having “a great idea” or “a strong network” or else “loads of funding” are myths. While these things obviously do help, all you need is having great cofounders, building something people want and spend as little money as possible. But this is very important to understand these untruths, because if you believed one of those myths, then it does indeed look almost impossible to succeed as a business: everyone would feel discouraged if you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding to start a project.
Instead, I want to talk more about one thing: the fact it would be apparently “super risky” to start, and much safer to pursue classic higher education. I do believe it is something that even the startup ecosystems lowkey acknowledge. “You HAVE to be at least slightly delusional”, some say. I don’t think it is objective whatsoever to underlie that a “sane” being is necessarily risk-averse. But since I did nothing in my life so far, I’m not in a position to claim that my stance should be listened with special care. However, when I read this quote from Y Combinatir legend Sam Altman a few months ago, it felt like gold: “Starting a startup is not in fact very risky to your career — if you’re really good at technology, there will be job opportunities if you fail. Most people are very bad at evaluating risk. I personally think the riskier option is having an idea or project you’re really passionate about and working at a safe, easy, unfulfilling job instead.” Furthermore, starting a company is now cheaper than ever thanks to many basics services like website, hardware and software costs. Most can even work on the side to survive financially while working on a project, at least at the beginning. That’s personally part of my plan. There’s also rags to riches stories, so the financial aspect should definitely not be an obstacle. I’m not talking about the rockstars such as Bill Gates, because that would make an argument for people telling me it’s almost impossible to make it. I can cite people who were broke and still became very successful in my own city (Steve Bartlett is a nice example in Manchester). No, it’s not “one in a million” who succeeds. It can be anyone who has a passion. To be perfectly correct, it’s not exactly “anyone”. There are people born in third world countries that are not even eating properly, so they couldn’t care less about kids like me chatting about startups because they cannot read, go to school, or have access to basic resources. However, if you read this, I am pretty sure that you have an internet connection and I suspect you are falling into that “anyone” category. You might not be passionate about something, but you might also need to understand that for people who are, it is definitely not risky for them. Again, I’m not going to talk about passion in entrepreneurship because it has already been largely covered in other articles.
This paragraph has essentially opened up about financial and cultural risks. Cultural barriers around entrepreneurship sound very familiar to me, especially because I’m French. There is historically a fear of failure seen as a social embarassment, a worship of long studies (that lead at best to executive jobs, but cannot really teach entrepreneurship), and a generally poor education on how to actually apply research into products that could benefit millions of people, despite the great engineering talents in the country. These stereotypes were probably true ten years ago, but since stereotypes are bullshit, let’s focus on the positives: at least in Europe major cities, including Paris, people are becoming more and more aware of the startup ecosystem. For instance, The Family is an amazing network of french startups that aim to kill cultural barriers. And be more like California.
The last kind of risks I will face, in this special case, is having almost zero experience, literally. Wow. This one looks shocking at first. Alibaba founder knew nothing about computers and said it gave him an edge, Elon Musk always starts from the most obvious statements to find room for innovations, Steve Jobs had a beginner’s mind and Silicon Valley experts go as far as expecting that the medicine sector is probably going to be disrupted in the future by someone from the outside. When you don’t know anything, you cannot possibly have any bias that people in a field can’t see. That’s actually one of the only useful thing I learnt in my business school years: cognitive bias killed companies, like Kodak or Nokia. After learning the basics and seeing something from a different angle, it is time to start learning as much as you can in order to succeed and improve whatever one wants to learn. Since I do not need a degree because I do not want a corporate job, I do not need to go to university anymore. At least not the standard schools. There are Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCS, that can teach you any subjects from Harvard teachers, for free. I did my final year academic dissertation on it, so I know what I’m talking about. I will use MOOCs to help myself build a startup. It completely removes the need for academic knowledge. But what about network and social interactions? No risks. There are events everywhere in the world, on just about anything you could ask for. I met and discussed the future with many people from the best business school of France, HEC Paris, even though I probably would have never made it to that school because I am not interested in working for diplomas.
That said, I am about to have one. In July, I will possess an undergraduate degree at the age of 20. That will be absolutely useless in my case. I would have loved to drop out, to fail university, to be expelled. For the sake of rebellion, perhaps. More profoundly, because I believe that a piece of paper will not help me in any way, and I could have spent my time entirely learning useful skills and building great relationships, while saving the tremendously expensive tuition fees. Only skills and ambition count when you don’t want to secure a stable job that would be easier to get, but when you don’t have as much opportunity and freedom to impact the world your way.
One potential criticism of this article would be that I only cite people that already succeeded. I didn’t yet. But these entrepreneurs all said at one point that they were told that they were delusional or naive. They also tend to believe since day 1 that they will, one day, succeed. Am I allowed to dream too? Yes. Once thing is for sure, I will never know if I don’t try. Many people post on Instagram “Follow your dreams”. Well, that’s exactly what I am doing. If Steve Jobs didn’t make it clear, we only live once. I hope my arguments address the fact that it’s not as risky as it seems when it comes from a deep passion. Maybe I’m myself delusional and crazy, and that’s why I can’t see it. But one day, I hope to build something that has the biggest impact possible to make the world better. I am not sure about how long it will take, and if I’m ever going to comfortably succeed, but I am convinced I will put all my heart on it. I’m currently thinking about Artificial Intelligence potential applications to increase productivity in the common workplace. It could be applied anywhere. I think about it every single day of my life.
Next time you consider putting down a passionate entrepreneur or someone aspiring to start a business, telling him it’s less risky to do an internship for more experience, get a job or a degree, don’t bother. We are not listening. We only take advice from people who are where we want to be.