I gave a talk yesterday to a group of students who are interested in being entrepreneurs one day.
Many of them were wondering what they could do now to begin preparing.
Should they get a business degree?
Should they take accounting or finance courses?
Should they learn to code?
I used to ask myself similar questions. Though I was a Classics major at the University of Michigan before I dropped out of college, I always wanted to start a business one day. Peers who were in similar shoes began enrolling in the new “entrepreneurship” degree track on campus and I considered briefly following them.
Luckily I chose to drop out. I didn’t quite know how I would learn “business” but I figured there had to be some way outside of the classroom. After all, how much can you learn from people who, for the most part, aren’t actually doing business?
I spent the next year working with different companies, mostly through various contract jobs, and an interesting thing started to happen. I started to see opportunities to make money where in the past I would have seen nothing. I felt more confident to dabble in ideas than I had in the past. I had gotten an inside look at some pretty successful companies and organizations and saw much of what made them work.
In short, I was starting to learn “business.”
Over the next 2 years I realized that in terms of becoming a self-employed entrepreneur, there is simply nothing, absolutely nothing, that beats working for or with other successful entrepreneurs.
Here are a few reasons why:
It helps you build a portfolio and establish credibility
I have written elsewhere that one of the reasons I get so many opportunities coming my way these days is because of my work at Praxis. Being the Director of Marketing at a growing startup and getting an insider look at how to operate and grow a successful business has done wonders for my credibility.
Being able to say “I worked on this campaign and it achieved X results” has been huge. I can go to people and instead of saying “I know this” I can say “I accomplished this.”
It’s a signal that no degree could ever confer.
It teaches you things about business that no textbook could teach
Here’s one small example. I worked with a client once who mentioned that he was having trouble creating a scalable gift card system for his online store.
Gift cards are something that are so ubiquitous that I thought “that should be easy!” In reality, it wasn’t. How do you manage lost cards? How do you prevent fraud? How do you tie an e-gift card into a point of sale system? How do you manage expirations?
Now, this is a pretty basic example but it’s knowledge like this that moves businesses forward, not fancy MBA lingo.
The more experiences like this you get, the more you’ll be able to bring those experiences over into your own business ventures.
There’s no book that could prepare you for this.
It will help you build a network
It’s hard to start a business on your own. Praxis CEO Isaac Morehouse has talked and written openly about how he relied on his network when starting the company.
Without these connections, many of which came from the over 10 years he worked in fundraising, Praxis would have taken off much more slowly.
And don’t make the mistake of confusing this kind of network with a college network. The kind of network you develop in the real world is usually much more vertically diverse — it includes people at all levels in their life and career rather than peers in your own age group with no experiences different than yours.
You’ll learn things you can’t learn on your own
Even if you can get a business started, there’s still value in seeing how different businesses operate at scale. Running a single person business is dramatically different than a building a 20 person team.
One of the reasons people do Praxis is so they can get the experience seeing firsthand how a successful startup runs.
I learned more working with my colleagues at Praxis than I ever did doing freelance marketing, despite that being very valuable.
One more thing that is not mentioned often.
Young people I meet who are interested in business regularly tell me that they “can’t come up with ideas.”
The solution to this is the solution I’ve been giving throughout this post: work for another company. If you pay attention, participate in all areas of the business, and create value, you will start to become an idea machine. You’ll have so many ideas that it’ll be difficult to remain an employee for long because you’ll be bursting at the seems to start.
In closing, I’ll say that this is NOT always the right path.
I’ve met many people who have a great idea and the knowledge to execute on it who wait to do so because they think they “need more experience.” This is nonsense. The preparation mindset is a disease that will kill good ideas. If you can do it, do it, but don’t be afraid to go back and work for a company later on.