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5 reasons a college degree won’t help your business

Ameena falchetto, graduate, college degree, entrepreneurI had an interesting discussion on my last post with Robert Dempsey about the importance of education to the entrepreneur, specifically a degree or MBA.

It’s not the first time I have questioned how much my educational background has actually helped me become an entrepreneur. At times I feel that I may have wasted a lot of time (and money) when I could have just gone out there and done it.

1.  You, and you alone, choose your path

At school or university the only choices you make are which courses to take and if you’ll actually go to class. The rest is mapped out. The curriculum, the case studies and the exams.

Now, in the real world, when running your own business, there is no map, no curriculum and certainly no test date. You get tested everyday.

You are on your own. Yes, you may have people to help you in the way of service providers or manufacturers but you have to find your way.

2. You are not taught the skills you need

Can you teach someone to think? Be innovative? Be creative? No.

Either you possess those qualities or you don’t. Education kills those qualities by telling you what to study, how to think and there certainly is not room for innovation if you plan to actually pass the exams.

Studying case studies of the past does not help you with your business.

Hindsight is 20:20 – yes you can see where the company went wrong and what they could have done better. But! When you get thrown a curve ball in your business how will that help you from falling flat on your face? It won’t.

3. The myth that education can only be found in the classroom

Many feel that real education can only be found in an institution.

Gaining a qualification can help you grasp some basic knowledge as Mark Schaefer says “Get a degree if you can” but real life experience is what will make the difference.

Experience in business can be learned from many different sources. A Saturday job waitressing in a tea room when I was 16 helped me learn the importance of customer service and basic maths far quicker than I’d ever learn in a classroom.

At the end of the day, all the traditional education in the world cannot replace real life experience and make you an entrepreneur.

4. Most successful entrepreneurs don’t have a college degree

Reinforcing the fact that you either have it or you don’t to becoming an entrepreneur is the long list of incredibly successful dropouts (you may have heard of some of them):

  • Richard Branson
  • Steve Jobs
  • J.K Rowling
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Bill Gates
BUT! I am not saying that you don’t need a college degree.
Sometimes its the experiences that surround your education, the people you meet and the basic skills you learn that will take you to the next level.

5. You can’t learn everything

Time and time again I read about how entrepreneurs need to have an understanding of every aspect of their business. This is simply not true.

 

Being a successful entrepreneur is about playing on your strengths, acknowledging you weaknesses and knowing where to get help.

As an entrepreneur I am not striving to be a “Jack of all trades” – I can’t know everything about every aspect of my business and trying to do that is a waste of time.

I’m not a designer so I hire one, my accounting isn’t great so I hire an accountant and as far as the legal aspects are concerned, well, I consult a lawyer.

Success is subjective and highly individualistic.

However, it’s something you can’t learn. You can’t learn how to create and develop a successful business anywhere except on the ground. YOU have to do it. YOU need the mindset.

A college degree can build credibility with your clients but so can experience.

Would you rather hire someone with a PhD and no life experience or someone with 5 years real life experience with a proven track record?

What do you think?

Does a college degree help your business or not?

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39 Responses to 5 reasons a college degree won’t help your business

  1. Ameena, wholeheartedly agree and echo your sentiment on the waiting job – in fact it’s something I often tell others; “everything I learned, I learned waiting tables”. From high school to college I worked in restaurants and served the public and it taught me a 100-fold more than my college courses ever did. Working with customers, seeing how the masses act, react, their ups, downs, was very foundation to my current business. I highly recommend going to college but don’t let that path pigeonhole you into what you think you have to do.

    • Hi @Jacob Yount Thanks for stopping by!

      YES! I agree – often institutions “groom” you for a certain path – in my case with my masters it was to go on to research or a PhD. All those career fairs they put on, the idea you need to go on to a graduate recruitment programme etc … if you want to do anything different you are usually told to follow traditional paths before. Education is what you make of it but as I said to @RobertDempsey I strongly feel that an entrepreneur has the makings before they go to college even if they don’t know it yet.

  2. Hi Ameena – it was great having the debate with you here on your blog, and I really appreciate the ability to have a civil discussion about this topic. Few are as welcoming to debate as you were. I can see by this post that you are, as I said in my previous comments, passionate about it. Great to see. Having said that…

    I think our school experiences were quite different. When I first went to college (which I really shouldn’t have done) I thought that school and real-life were completely separate. However I got more into science, and at one point considered going to dental school. Glad that didn’t happen (no offense to dentists – you all do great work). However when I started my MBA I was running a business that I had built up to 9 employees with significant revenues. I did all of that before getting any formal business education (my undergrad was in computer science). I went into the MBA program to see what the corporate people learned, and I was not disappointed. While much of the education is applies only at the executive level of corporations, I learned a lot about finance, accounting, (some) marketing, working in teams, working against competition, etc.

    Now I am not saying I think someone needs an MBA to be successful, or to do all the work themselves. I have a CPA that does my taxes but for me keeping tabs on the finances of my business on a daily basis ensures that everything is in order. I’m not saying you don’t, I’m saying that is a role I take on. And of course I do all the marketing for the business, and hire out as much as possible (my design skills really suck). However…

    Many entrepreneurs I know do not have thousands of dollars in revenue each month to hire people to do work, at least not when they first start out. So they are left to wear all the hats. I am sure many can relate to that. It’s tiring. That is why I recommend education, be it in a college or self-taught, in the areas of finance, accounting and marketing. With that combination you know how to bring in the money, and how to keep it.

    I don’ think we’ll see eye to eye on this one 100%, but I think we’re most of the way there. Again, thank you for allowing this debate here. I appreciate you being open to it.

    • @RobertDempsey Great to have your input on this – I am really interested in your take on the subject. Now I have to say I agree with you. Education IS important. It’s hard for me to separate education from experience as I have both. Experience and education are intrinsically linked – through experience you get an education. Personally I feel that all those years of studying taught me HOW to learn, be it in the classroom or in real life.

      I also agree that majority of new businesses don’t have hedge funds so they need to make do with what skills they have so obviously the more the merrier – an yes, a quick way to learning those skills is through an institution. At the end of the day you have it in you to be an entrepreneur BEFORE you enter the classroom.

      What you take away from those classes is a different story hence the argument as to whether or not you need a college degree. I guess the next post should be about possessing inherent qualities vs. skills :)

  3. MSchechter:

    You’re wrong. Just kidding :)

    As a dropout myself, I can attest that it isn’t necessary, but is helpful. I was lucky to have somewhere to go with a family business, but friends who do not have any level of a degree

    Most people focus on the school part of school, but when I look back, what I really missed out on were the years to take the networking aspects of school seriously. I was so focused and so disinterested in the classes that I let it blind me to the opportunities that were there for me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my decisions, I knew what I wanted to do and believed I was better served actually doing it. However for the sake of, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” there were some serious trade offs to leaving and some that held me back regardless of the head start I was able to get by jumping in earlier.

    • @MSchechter I do wish I’d focussed more on the other aspects of university – hindsight is 20:20 and all those live bands I saw as a student fed my soul and that’s about it!

      Since you knew what you wanted to do it sounds like it was a very logical step. Perhaps, had you continued the story would have been different. Personally I think I needed to stay at uni and grow up (a tiny bit) before heading into the real world.

      Thanks for passing by! Have a great weekend and good luck surviving without your MacBook!

      • MSchechter:

        @Ameena Falchetto Know what you mean, plenty of good music and good times, but I made a bad use of the little time I spent there.

        I could have used the time to grow up as well. Needed to age a bit. Still pay for it from time to time.

        As for the Macbook, broke out the old MB pro and have a nice little interim system going :) I am a junky.

  4. alternativehousewife:

    Interesting post! I don’t think that a degree is necessary, but a few courses – even taking a new class every year – can be helpful. I do web design and blogging and would find taking a new design and a new writing class annually to be incredibly helpful. It isn’t in my budget right now but truthfully I bet it would pay for itself.

    College as a whole though, seems to set people up to fail. The college grads I know all think a certain way and expect things to go a certain way… that is not in sync with the ‘real world’ as I know it.

    • @alternativehousewife I agree that doing some courses can help tremendously and for some a degree is important to give them the confidence to go out there.

      I have to disagree that college sets people to fail. Give unrealistic expectations, for some, perhaps. Fail? No. It’s what you make of it to be honest. It’s often the education that surrounds education at college that can be more useful in real life.

      Thanks for coming to my new (2nd) home :)

  5. KimDavies:

    Hi, Ameena.

    This is a topic very close to my heart, being an undergraduate myself and having lived through the latter part of my teen years with ears chewed out for not finishing my studies. Although a college degree is quite important, I agree that it is not the be all and end all of becoming an entrepreneur or a writer or anything you want to be.

    I got into media even without a college degree and I went out having carved a name for myself, especially among my peers and my bosses. I showed them that talent, drive, passion and enthusiasm for learning more make up for any paper that you might get from any college or university. Now, I am working for a boss who believes in me despite my educational attainment because I showed him that even if I have no degree, there is more to me than just that piece of paper.

    And, I think any college dropout can achieve what they set their minds on, as long as they believe they can do it and work for it. Education in institutions might be important in forming your foundation, but it is up to you to make this foundation grow.

    Love the new look of your site, Ameena and of course, your beautiful photo. This is the first time that I got back since I spent several harrowing weeks dealing with illnesses among myself and the rest of my family. Although I am taking small steps in getting back on track, I am glad to be taking them.

    Hope you have an amazing weekend. :)

    Kim

  6. Hey Ameena,

    I typed a pretty long comment and some network problem deleted the whole thing off so this comment won’t be as pretty as the earlier one! ;)

    I am a big fan of education, keeping entrepreneurship aside; how many employers are ready to hire you without the “qualifications”. But then I have been rejected at times because I don’t have ‘that” experience! Life does give that experience which a degree doesn’t. But then how ready are you to apply it, to use it. Go for a college degree, but be ready for whats coming next!

    • @Hajra Hey Hajra, it’s the chicken or the egg scenario isn’t it? I remember when I first graduated for the 2nd time and went in search of a job no one would hire me because I had no experience. It was really frustrating – I got my 2nd job because I had a masters. It’s a really tough call! When you work for yourself you usually find yourself doing things that only a decade at university would teach you and learning on the job. I still find it hard to quantify in percentage terms how much of my every day tasks are aided by my degrees … not a lot to be honest.

      Thanks for coming back! I appreciate you taking the time to rewrite your comment.

      Have a great weekend

  7. Ameena, I resonate with what Sir Ken Robinson says about our current educational system, whereby we are preparing students for a future that doesn’t exist. If we believe (and I do) that, in Daniel Pink’s words, we’re in a conceptual age, we require conceptual, creative thinkers. Much of our current educational system is still preparing people in ways that will not exercise the “right brain” sufficiently to deal with the world we’re living in.I cannot say it better than Sir Ken Robinson, who spoke at TED talks on the subject of education. The video can be found here http://youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY and is worth the twenty-minute watch. Cheers! Kaarina

    • @KDillabough I’ve seen this video before and I think he’s spot on. It’s sad because I do think there is a value in education but just not in the institutions that are in place. I’ve always been a creative thinker – I went to art school before I decided to go to university. I see things in pictures and was always criticised at school for asking too many “irrelevant” questions even if they brought me to the same conclusion as the rest of the class and I managed to pass the exams MY way. There is rarely one path to follow!

      Lovely to see you hear and thanks for linking up the video. I really do love what he has to say. Have a great weekend!!!

      • @Ameena Falchetto Isn’t that video amazingly spot on?! It is so sad that educational institutions, as a rule, stamp out creativity at an early age. I yearn for the “kindergarten” approach, where finger painting, dreaming, napping, laughing and playing were all seen as so essential to growth potential. When we put a lid on dreams, we put a lid on the entrepreneurial spirit. And I would add, there is never one path to follow:) Cheers! Kaarina

  8. RAAckerman:

    I find it a little disingenuous to list five folks who made it without a college degree- when then are billions who never did without one. That is NOT the proper way to advance your cause. As an example, Steve Jobs never graduated from college, but advises all NOT to do that.

    You ARE right that being an entrepreneur may not require the skills and knowledge offered by a college degree or an MBA. This is especially true, if like Jobs or Zuckerberg, you develop an entire new business segment where most prior knowledge is of little use.

    And, the scope of your enterprise has a lot to do with it, as well. If you plan to buy product that is manufactured cheaply and sell it over the web or in a retail store, you degree in literature will probably fail you. However, if you KNEW your vision first, a degree that included courses in logistics, sales management, marketing and the like would help put you ahead of others who (IMHO) incorrectly adhere to ‘the no education needed’ credo.

    I am not a fan of having everyone go to college and major in literature or history or journalism- just to get a degree. I am a greater fan of folks waiting until they have a plan or dream, then getting the education they need to succeed.

    Regarding your concept that you can hire accountants, designers, and lawyers- you are correct up to a point. Are you going to hire an accountant to help you plan your next product launch to insure that your cash flow is accommodating or the number of units needed to break-even or whether there is a return on that investment? If so, you better have deep pockets (which most entrepreneurs sorely lack). Or, are you going to run EVERY change in personnel policy by your lawyer- or your return policy- or your location search? Of course not- you need to know certain facts to succeed.

    Pick the proper course, get the education you need, and succeed.

    Get an advisory board comprised of folks with skills you need to help you.

    And, learn something new every day.

    • @RAAckerman The list of 5 people was to highlight how some made it without a degree. Of course there are many who succeeded who happen to have degrees. My point is not to say don’t go to college or university at all. I am just pointing out that many feel that it is necessary when it possibly isn’t. I have to disagree that a degree in whatever subject, be it journalism, history or underwater basket weaving, won’t help you. Most degrees teach you skills such as the ability to research, analyse, question and put forward an argument. What ever the subject those skills can invaluable in business.

      There is no degree on this planet that will give you the ability to create, innovate and break free and decide you are going to an entrepreneur. That comes from within.

      Most people today get their degrees as a logical step from high school – many countries use it in a way to hide unemployment. Did I know what I wanted to do when I was 18? NO. Did I know at 21? NO. As I said to @Hajra response to her comment – it’s really the chicken or the egg – do you get the experience first when many employers ask for a degree? Or do you get the degree and then the experience when employers ask for experience?

      As far as an advisory board is concerned, that’s an interesting concept. Only now am I getting together a few people I respect and trust to advise but for years I was going it alone.

      Do I believe education is important? Yes.

      • @Ameena Falchetto @RAAckerman@Hajra I know that personally I shouldn’t have gone to college right from high school as frankly I wasn’t ready for it. When I went later (after a few tries) I did very well. However I did go the first time as that was what was expected of me.

        • @RobertDempsey@Ameena Falchetto @RAAckerman So it’s more like we are focusing on making children more empowered and somewhere focusing that they have an idea of what they are getting into before they actually get into it. I mean, how many of us knew EXACTLY what we wanted when we were 17 – yes, that’s the age we (following the Indian curriculum) leave school and move into college. It’s just a natural progression. But there isn’t a strict system of how we choose our further course (aptitude, interest and the likes). There are entrance examinations and merit criteria but there is even money and people can actually “buy” their seats in college.

          Having a clear cut decision is a tough call; but that’s the most important in a way :)

  9. I love your approach Ameena. (BTW, who’s the hot chick in the photo?? ;-) )

    JK Allen spoke of this subject not too long ago and he shared many of your same thoughts. I think with the information age now fully upon us, the concept of ‘business schools’ are less relevant than ever. In fact, they can put people behind in their progress.

    Like Mark Twain said: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”

    I know this statement to be true. I’ve lived it. And it makes all the difference.

    Marcus

    • @Marcus_Sheridan do you put that forth as the rule? Would you say that I’m behind as a result of going to business school?

      • @RobertDempsey@Marcus_Sheridan Sorry for jumping in … only you can answer that question. Do you think you could have spent your time doing something more productive? Perhaps. Did you learn new skills in your classes? If yes and you could apply them and succeed in your business then no. It’s a double edge sword.

        • @Ameena Falchetto @Marcus_Sheridan I didn’t get “behind” at all as Marcus says it, but when you make a blanket statement it can require some explanation. I would like to understand what Marcus is trying to say Ameena with his.

          Much like you and I had a friendly argument, I’d like to do the same with Marcus. Perhaps a blog post on my site is called for so we can do that there :)

    • @Marcus_Sheridan Thanks Marcus … gotta love graduation photos … holding a plastic tube and smiling in a funny costume that represents NOTHING of the past years spent at university!

      I do wonder about the future – especially with BiP. I was of the generation where lots got degrees so I went and got a masters – what’s next? Employers want PhD’s? I was offered a PhD position and I refused. I would have been 25 with a PhD and no work experience and YES that would have set me back. BIG time.

      Thanks for the Twain quote. I wholeheartedly agree!

  10. Crystal:

    I generally have an issue with any conversation that starts with the premise “is college necessary?” because I believe with every fiber in my being that it is. Absolutely. Non-negotiable.

    The people that you cite as examples are examples because they are the exceptions to the rule. Their success is so shocking/noteworthy because the vast majority of people fail, college degree or no college degree. It’s like citing Jaycee Dugard’s story as reason to never let your kids out of your sight–statistically your kids have a better chance of getting hit by lightening twice than they do of being abducted by a stranger. You can’t make a life plan based on such a ridiculously small chance of success (or failure, to take the Dugard analogy further).

    Study after study says that you are far less likely to be financially successful without a college degree.

    So what IS the value of a college degree? Far more than a secondary school atmosphere, college teaches you to think critically and be more evaluative (if it doesn’t, you’re at the wrong school). It broadens your horizons in terms of general knowledge (assuming you don’t just pick one subject for all your electives and waste your money). It helps you create personal and professional contacts.

    In short, college is very much what you make of it. Can it be a waste of 4 years and a lot of money? Absolutely…but that speaks far more about the type of person you are at the age you went to college than it does about the college experience. I would argue that someone who wastes their college years isn’t going to immediately step outside the door and be a successful person at that point in their life regardless.

    Is college something that not everyone should do immediately following a secondary graduation? ABSOLUTELY. I speak from personal and professional experience (both as a student and a teacher) that the push to go directly into college is not always well-advised.

    Nor should it be for everyone…people need to work in the service industry, people need a technical education (plumbers, etc) rather than a traditional 4 year liberal arts education, people need time to figure out their direction in life.

    I suppose it could be argued that I “wasted” a great deal of time and money with my education. I got a BA in History with minors in Literature and French (a very useless trio of majors, I’ll admit, as I had no interest in going into law school or another financially lucrative field…I studied them because I loved them). I started a MA/PhD program in women’s history, which I abandoned once I saw the reality of my career trajectory (ie, teaching a podunk school in Kansas, praying for tenure and a never ending cycle of publish or perish). Not sure what else to do, I got a Master’s in Education and taught for 5 years before I left work to have my daughter.

    Now, to be fair, I didn’t *hate* teaching, but it’s not my passion. Had I married someone with different finances, or chosen not to marry, or if tomorrow I were made a widow…I could make a reasonable life off of that degree. I’d likely eventually get a PhD in education and become a principal for the financial boost, possibly a superintendent to provide the life I feel is appropriate for my daughters.

    However, as things stand, I have the financial luxury (because my husband has a Master’s from MIT–there’s that education=money equation again, and because MIT gave him the professional contacts to get a job that puts us into the top tax bracket) to pursue my interests.

    I am making money as a writer about sexuality, pregnancy and the post partum experience. The education I received in these subjects was not in an academic classroom (until now)–I trained with Planned Parenthood, I trained as a sex educator in college, and I taught sex ed as a middle school teacher. I have had the experience of pregnancy and the post-partum period. I saw a lack of information and am trying my best to help fill that void. I also have had a story accepted for publication in a short story anthology (which you can argue is base talent, but I would argue that talent was helped along by many years of writing and English courses).

    BUT I have reached a point in my career where, to advance, even as an entrepenuer in my field, I need additional education. I’m taking courses in social work, counseling, and furthering my sex education in areas where I have less professional education. This will probably turn into a Master’s in Social Work at some point.

    Do you need business school? I’d say no. Like you, I hire people to do my taxes, and at some point I’ll hire someone to do a better website than I can manage on my own. But that doesn’t mean college, or professional education with credentials isn’t important for those of us who are not the 1 in a billion exception to the rule.

    But the reality is that most of us can’t support ourselves with our innovation right away…it takes years of effort to be successful. To pay the bills in those years, to fund your enterprise, to pay for those web designers and accountants….it’s helpful to have a useful (ie NOT history) degree to fall back on. Otherwise, your chances of making a middle class income are slim and an upper class income virtually null.

    Money isn’t everything to everyone, but as someone who has been on welfare and who is now financially stable, I’d make a strong argument that it helps. Otherwise, you have a dream and no means to afford it.

    • @Crystal Wow, thank you for your great comment and sharing your experience. I do think degrees are useful but so is constant learning and retraining where necessary (as you highlighted in your own experience). Asking the question if a degree is necessary is a great way to start a rich conversation. Yes, a degree is a great insurance policy, yes, it teaches you skills that you can take forward, if you are so inclined, to start a profitable business. There are exceptions to the rule but they are exactly that, exceptions.

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your story!

    • @Crystal This is a post all in itself! Loved the input :)

  11. bdorman264:

    Yes & no, for the true entrepreneur who plans to strike out on his own, probably not. For the less inclined the university education might be the only door opener to get started. This is also predicated on what type of profession you are going into.

    University forces you into discipline and motivation or you won’t make it so those are not necessarily bad skills to have. It also can help with social skills and if you want to succeed in anything you will have to know something about people.

    I would say I use very little of what I actually learned in university in my day job except the social part; and I’m still working on my PhD with that.

    You can make it without it, and university could do a much better job of preparing you for the ‘real’ world, but I still think it makes the path much easier.

    Those are my thoughts for the day. Happy anniversary!!!

    • @bdorman264 Thanks Bill. I think the skills you gain AROUND the subject you study at university are probably more useful that the actual course content for most. How many people actually go out and do something totally different from their chosen degree?

      Thanks for the wishes and for stopping by!

      • bdorman264:

        @Ameena Falchetto When I got to upper level I thought I’d get an accounting degree; after one semester marketing sounded a lot better. I didn’t even know there was such a thing called a risk management and insurance degree. I kind of fell into it and double majored in marketing and risk management. It was the risk management degree that opened the door for me in insurance. However, they didn’t teach us one thing about how to sell it…………….:)

  12. jens:

    Hi Ameena,

    I have a masters degree in political science, but I’ve never had a job related to it. I believe that my University degree was important to help me become confident, and to help me get jobs, but not anywhere close to being an entrepreneur. To me, education can actually be the opposite. The teachers didn’t encourage us to be different, they encouraged us to learn the same things and do the same things, and if we did, we would get better grades. It was all about conformity.

    I don’t regret anything, but it sure didn’t help me with my business (but it might have if I had attended different classes) :)

    Jens

  13. Steve | ROI detector:

    Really good point, having both an engineering degree and an MBA I totally understand what you mean. My MBA didn’t teach me how to be an entrepreneur, but it did teach me how to analyze issues and formulate plans to solve them. Unfortunately the MBA really designed for corporate settings and having tons of data to analyze. Most entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury :-)

    Of course I really wasn’t an engineer until I started working for a Defense Contractor and actually building hardware, but my engineering degree was absolutely necessary to get there. Both from a job requirement and the ability to quickly learn new and complex tasks.

    #4 is an interesting point (successful entrepreneurs not having MBA’s). Warren Buffett is probably the most famous MBA holding entrepreneur and while Steve Jobs doesn’t have one his successor Tim Cook does. In the end, it’s more important to surround yourself with the smartest people you can find. Way more valuable than any degree, in my opinion.

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