Encourage young people to create things rather than businesses; which can inspire their future startup aspirations.
College students shouldn’t launch startups.
There I said it.
I’ve been thinking it for a while, but there’s this fascinating with pushing college students to launch businesses that is just unhealthy. If a college student *wants* to launch a business, they will (see: Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Evan Spiegel). But for the most part, they don’t.
And yet we push young people to launch startups.
In 2015, I asked over 100 entrepreneurship students (undergraduates and MBAs) their own timetables for launching a company. Over 90% thought they’d launch 7–10 years after graduation. Less than 2% of people thought they’d do a startup immediately after graduation. Discussions with dozens of college entrepreneurship heads revealed their successful ‘serial-founder’ alums tend to start their first companies 7–8 years after graduation. And data even shows that successful startup founders start their companies at age 40.
And yet there is a cult(ure) of the young founder. And I’m not here to dissuade young founders — but I’m here to dissuade us from what looks like “selling” young people to become startup founders.
“The outcome is something like idea x product x execution x team x luck, where luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand. Literally that much. But if you do really well in the four areas you can control, you have a good chance at at least some amount of success.” — Dustin Moskovitz
Starting a company is very difficult. Failure rates are astronomical no matter how you slice it — particularly if you launch something that is a new business model and technology-driven. The odds are better for a known business model like ecommerce, consulting, services businesses or traditional retail. But it’s tough.
The reason is a business is a multi-variant experiment. Dustin Moskovitz, Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate and his Facebook cofounder said in a lecture to aspiring entrepreneurs, “The outcome is something like idea x product x execution x team x luck, where luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand. Literally that much. But if you do really well in the four areas you can control, you have a good chance at at least some amount of success.”
And so it’s a good chance of failure on any venture you’re working on full time, but then we add another variable called “school” or “your first job”.
The fear of failure is real and for soon-to-be or recent graduates, the failure of a startup venture doesn’t translate well in most job interviews.
I am all for training young people to think and act entrepreneurially — and even helping, supporting and coaching young people who want to start a business. However, I think founders — especially young ones — should decide to start something in spite of everyone telling them not to. Know the risks, understand the challenges and still decide it’s what you must do. That’s the place where founders live. ;)
But for those that don’t feel this way we make “starting” too easy and too simple — which pushes people into the earliest stages of a venture that they aren’t ready for and frightens people away from these experiences in the future. It’s not a wonder that in spite of more and more resources from colleges, universities and ecosystem players into fostering more young entrepreneurs, the current generation is on pace to be the *least* entrepreneurial in history.
In many ways we’ve made launching a venture feel like success if “Facebook or bust” to the millions of aspirational entrepreneurs. Many of the simpler entrepreneurial ventures such as owning a restaurant or opening a franchise or doing consulting or starting a ‘side hustle’ business have been squeezed as we’ve seen larger businesses expand their footprints. And so we’ve taken away many of the avenues to start.
According to research by Inc. magazine, today over 40 percent of 25-to-34-year old Americans said a fear of failure kept them from starting a company in 2014. In the past 15 years that number jumped from 24 percent.
I’ve found that the single biggest way to inspire future founders is to empower them to create things rather than businesses.
- Put on an event where they could make a few bucks on tickets or sponsorships.
- Create and publish a book that develops expertise and let’s you make a few bucks whenever you sell a copy.
- Tackle a project at work that you do some type of “new project” that isn’t a disruptive innovation but just perhaps making meetings more efficient, or using data to sell more efficiently, or saving money on something.
The cult of the founder is real, but at the end of the day I worry we are scaring future founders away by forcing them to fail when they don’t really want to start a company… they just want to learn to be entrepreneurial.
Let’s inspire people to become creators — making things, trying things, showing off things. But let’s stop pushing people to start companies unless it’s the only thing they can see themselves doing. If we teach people how to think and act entrepreneurially — making things, trying things, showing off things, but not typically starting companies — when they hit that 7–10 year window they’ll be ready for the adventure.
That’s how we inspire more founders: help them create things not businesses (yet).
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