Redefining Work: Why I’m Building a Business Around the Gap Year
One type of entrepreneurial bet: will it pay off to launch a business in a relatively fledgling market?
As I said in my last post, my business centers on the gap year, a concept and an industry in its infancy. It’s so off the radar that you probably did a double take reading that sentence. “A gap year? Isn’t that what my sister’s kid did when he didn’t want to go to college last year?”
The gap year industry gets a bad rap, but it’s actually one of the more logical ideas I’ve come across. Why do we think it’s better to throw an 18-year-old kid into college, and then almost immediately force him or her to come up with what they want to do for the rest of their lives? Sure, there are a few that succeed without major setbacks, but the vast majority of teens aren’t making the right decision.
Research will back me up here: over 70% of Americans are disengaged from their jobs and only 27% of people are working in fields related to their college majors. Uh, guys? The system isn’t working.
I digress. I love the gap year. I wish I had taken one. I wish I could take one now and never come back. A year spent traveling the world, volunteering, learning about new cultures and meeting interesting people? Maybe people are opposed to the gap year because they’re envious that their lives don’t have nearly that level of excitement.
From a business perspective, the gap year makes a lot of sense to me, too. Here’s why:
It’s growing like wildfire
Gap year fairs — the equivalent of college fairs — have seen an increase in attendance of over 294% in the last five years. Because so many students take independent gap years, it’s hard to gauge exactly how many are taking them, but when I talk to colleges across the US, they all confirm the trend.
Everyone from The Ohio State University to Florida State to UCLA have recently put formalized processes in place for gap year deferral requests. And it’s not just liberal arts schools. Harvard has supported the concept for over 40 years, and both Princeton and Tufts have their own gap year programs.
It’s (more or less) an untouched space
Maybe this is a red flag, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s a sign of generational differences. Many Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers don’t “get’ the gap year or take it seriously, so why would they put any effort into laying claim to it?
When done right, a well-planned gap year leaves students with higher levels of confidence, resiliency, maturity, self-awareness and direction. Oh yeah, and students also get better grades once they do go to college, in addition to reporting increased job satisfaction post-graduation than their peers.
If you’re a business, isn’t this exactly the type of employee you’re looking for?
I think it could have helped me, so I think it can help others
For years, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. This lack of direction teetered from slight annoyance to all out rage. If I had been given the opportunity to hit pause before going to college, would I have chosen differently? Would I have gathered more life experiences, or gone down a different path?
I didn’t travel internationally until I was 21-years-old. But when I finally did, I felt like my world exploded. I became more curious about life. I started asking more questions. I discovered more about myself. Had I traveled earlier, would that process have started earlier? It’s hard to say, but I’m willing to bet yes.
Since I scrapped the first iteration of my business idea, I’ve been working on building up a community of students who’ve already taken gap years. It’s harder than you’d think. Have you ever tried to get a group of 18- and 19-year olds to participate? I’m working out how to do that now, but building a community from zero isn’t easy.
I’ve also debated about whether to build the community or a product first, but what I’ve realized is that the two must be built in tandem. The problem is, the product is still pretty murky, as the business model will be driven largely by the needs of the community. It’s a “chicken or the egg” type question, but I’m moving toward a model that connects students who’ve taken gap years to employers who see the value in the gap year experience.
The reasoning here is two-fold: gappers spend more time identifying what makes them tick, which translates into more satisfaction on the job because they’re clearer on their direction. In turn, that creates a more engaged employee, which research shows correlates into lower turnover and higher productivity.
I’m simplifying here. Obviously an organization that treats their employees terribly won’t see these positive gains, but that’s also the beauty of starting my own business: I only have to work with companies where I see a real values match.
My thinking is that if I can save companies money on turnover (it costs roughly $15,000-$25,000 to replace a Millennial, and Millennials will be 75% of the workforce by 2030), a portion of the money saved on recruitment can be reallocated into a central pool that’s used to fund the gap years of younger students before they enter the workforce.
Instead of the traditional model where companies are simply paying a recruitment fee for someone to source talent for them, they’re actively investing into the younger generation — a necessity as younger generations look to align themselves with businesses that understand the shifting paradigms of purpose-oriented work.
This is far from a finished product, and I’ll continue to write about the evolution of the model in this series.
I’m curious, though — how are you, or your organization, adapting to the changes in the workforce surrounding Millennials?