A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Are you an entrepreneur that is thinking about dropping out of college? Answer the following four questions first.
The startup careers of Zuckerberg, Ellison, Disney, Gates, Jobs, Branson and Dell make it seem that the path to entrepreneurial success is enhanced by avoiding a college degree. I even played into this mythology with a provocative article I wrote about college dropout successes.
However, as made clear in Should Millennial Entrepreneurs Skip College?, most students benefit greatly from the college experience and are far better off maturing from the age of 18 to 22 in a nurturing environment, rather than attempting to start a business without a college degree.
Yet, for a small number of collegians, leaving school to focus on their ventures full time is the appropriate path. What differentiates this small minority of entrepreneurs who are better off dropping out of school (or never enrolling) and running their startups full time?
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In my role as a Professor of Practice within UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial Technology Management Program, I council several students every quarter who contemplate quitting school to focus exclusively on their ventures.
I advise almost all of these students to remain in school. However, I consistently encounter a handful of young entrepreneurs who are better served by taking a break from school. The trick is to know if you are destined to be LeBron James or Jonathan Bender. Both skipped college to play professional basketball. LeBron was the exception to the rule, immediately dominating the league and enjoying an All Star career. In contrast, Mr. Bender joined the all-too-long list of 18-year old high school graduates who failed to thrive when pitted against professional athletes.
To help my students determine if they are James or Bender, I ask them four questions. If they answer “Yes” to each, I advise them to take a temporary leave of absence from school and pursue their ventures.
Are You LeBron?
- Funded – Have you raised adequate money from sophisticated investors that will allow you to operate without additional funding for at least a year?
- Team – Have you assembled the foundation of a legitimate team? This could just be a solid Co-Founder or an initial key hire or two. Teams have shelf lives. In most cases, great potential teammates won’t wait around while you earn your degree.
- Product / Market Fit – Have you proven that your product’s value proposition and price point resonates with your target market. (i.e., dogs love the dog food)?
- Execution – Have you established meaningful sales traction which validates your team’s ability to survive and ultimately be victorious?
In the rare instances when a student drops out of school to pursue their ventures, I strongly encourage them to continue their studies part time. If they weren’t willing or able to do so, I council them to define a milestone-based timeline. If key milestones are not met on the anticipated dates, they should have the discipline to abandon their venture and complete their education.
A High School Graduate Who Hedged His Bets
Although he opted to skip college, LeBron James signed major endorsement deals upon entering the NBA. Even if he had not lived up to the hype that preceded his NBA debut, the money from his endorsements would have sustained him for a lifetime. Financially secure, he could have subsequently attended college and pursued a variety of non-athletic careers.
The “Are You LeBron?” questions encourage students to only drop out of school if the downside of failure is mitigated by four important precursors to success.
b/t/w – Do you think you are LeBron? If so, I’d love to hear from you.
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