College Or Startup? A Thiel Fellowship Mentor Shares His Advice

“A Dilemma” (Photo courtesy Julia Manzerova)

One might expect a Thiel Fellowship mentor to answer a prospective entrepreneur’s question, “College or startup?”, with an automatic reply of “Startup!” But Bop.fm CEO Shehzad Daredia holds that leaving college for startup life is not always the best choice as he explained in a recent interview.

Daredia’s own path to entrepreneurship took what may seem a long, meandering route in today’s heated startup environment. He describes it as an “incremental path to entrepreneurship” that began at the University of Pennsylvania and continued at multiple jobs, including one at a venture capital firm and two at startups. After developing a solid base of skills and relationships, he then co-founded Bop.fm with CTO Stefan Gomez.

Daredia also serves as a mentor in the Thiel Fellowship program. He wrote in an email:

“Early on, I spent more time mentoring individual fellows one-on-one on various topics that I had expertise in (online marketing, fundraising/pitching, etc). Lately, I’ve spent more time at the institutional level — helping the org recruit and select new fellows.”

I recently interviewed Daredia about his approach to learning to be a startup CEO but included neither his thoughts on the fellowship program nor his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs faced with the question of staying in school or leaving to build a startup.

It’s Not The 20,000 Under 20 Fellowship

Daredia chuckled when asked about the seeming discrepancy between Peter Thiel’s widely noted comments about higher education and his own embrace of college as a solid learning environment and responded:

“Peter Thiel has some pretty opinionated views on the matter of education. I won’t comment on his particular views cause it’s easy to read up on those but…the way that I interpret his program is that it’s called the 20 Under 20 Fellowship. It’s not called the 20,000 Under 20 Fellowship. Right?”

“So is it believable that there are 20 kids under the age of 20 years old every year that can be like Zuckerberg and have the capability to create big impact right away rather than run the risk of losing that potential by going to an expensive college and then being tempted to take on a high paying job immediately to pay down that debt and stay in that career path and never go back to that particular passion that drove them in the first place?”

“I think that’s totally reasonable for 20 kids every year to get that opportunity.”

“And, by the way…the fellowship does not preclude you from going to college later in your life…All it does is say that right now you have a particular passion project or aspiration that you’re really eager to work on and all you need is some resources to be able to sustain yourself while you continue to hack away at this idea that will change the world.”

“It could be a 2 year hiatus after which you return to traditional schooling or it could be the start of something big that you continue on further.”

Startup or College?

So I asked him what advice he gives young entrepreneurs who are contemplating leaving school to dive into the world of startups:

“I personally found the incremental path to entrepreneurship to be very helpful for me. But that was partly because I didn’t have any specific thing that I was willing to put my fists through walls in order to build at that particular time until more recently.”

“When someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about starting a company. Should I do it now or should I spend some time and tech first learning what other people have done?’”

“If they come to me with that question and they don’t have a clear understanding of exactly what it is that drives them that they want to do right now I always say, ‘Most successful companies are not created by someone who says to themselves, man I don’t like working for someone, I want to be my own boss, I think it would be cool to be called the founder or called the CEO. I’m going to create a whiteboard and just whiteboard out a bunch of different industries and brainstorm opportunities and find a place where I can start a company and then do that.’”

“Most successful companies don’t get started that way. Right? The way that they get started is that someone has experienced a real deap-seated problem personally and they stumble upon an opportunity from their own experience, keyword experience, and used that to drive them towards the solution…”

“Now if you already happened to have experienced a problem that you are extremely passionate about but you don’t necessarily have the tools to achieve the solution right away, you may be the kind of person that says, ‘Well I’m here. I’m going to start working and solve this problem with whatever tools I have and pick up the tools along the way or find people that will help me get those tools to solve this problem. Because I care so much about and it and I want to tackle it right away.’”

“If that’s the case, so be it, go for it. If that’s not the case then it’s a fool’s errand to think that you can just take a mild passive interest in a potentially lucrative business opportunity and turn that into a successful enterprise.”

Though one could make the argument that experience is best found outside the halls of academia, Daredia’s approach does give those committed to getting an education a way to consider whether or not they’re truly driven to pursue a great idea or simply desire a seemingly more exciting route forward than going to school.

Learning To Be A Startup CEO:
Bop.fm CEO Shehzad Daredia’s “Incremental Path To Entrepreneurship”
Nico Perez On Where Mixcloud’s Founders Turn When They Have Startup Questions

Tips From Startup CEOs:
College Or Startup? A Thiel Fellowship Mentor Shares His Advice

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Clyde Smith is a freelance writer and web publisher with a doctorate in Cultural Studies from The Ohio State University. He began building websites and creating content in 2000 eventually launching ProHipHop, the first hip hop trade blog, in 2005. From 2011 to 2014 Clyde wrote about music tech and the DIY music biz at Hypebot. He is currently planning a relaunch of DanceLand.

Be in touch via twitter.com/fluxresearch or fluxresearch.com.