Dropping out

I read a post entitled The Startup Illusion from Noah Benesch on TechCrunch yesterday. Noah is a junior in college and he shares how he recently considered dropping out of school to pursue his startup. He was about to do so when his team came apart and he decided to stay in school.

There’s so much hype around startups these days that many young college students, or even high school students, want to be the next big entrepreneur. There are also enough examples of very successful college dropout entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg to justify experimenting. The problem is that for every successful dropout story you hear about, there are thousands who don’t make it. For every under 30 year old multi-millionaire you hear about, there are thousands at the same age who are left without a college degree after a failed startup. Sometimes they just weren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs, and sometimes market forces weren’t in their favor. In either case, it’s a tough spot to be in to rebuild your career.

I also worked on a startup while in college. It was a company called ExStat, short for Extreme Status, where users would create polls and rank everything in the world. Rather than officials ranking the best basketball team in the world, the masses would. The same would hold true for ranking colleges, musicians, and rankings in other fields.

I was a solo founder (not necessarily wrong but this stacks the odds against you), had an outsourced IT team build the website (definitely not recommended), and targeted all subjects that could be ranked from the outset (effectively not targeting any of them, because unless you have tremendous resources, it helps to focus on succeeding in a specific niche before expanding elsewhere). I also wasn’t aware how much reiteration after the initial release would be required to achieve product market fit. I mistakenly thought that users would simply come to version one. I launched ExStat on the MIT campus and a few polls were built and votes were given, but the site clearly didn’t take off. I was two months away from completing my classes so I gave up on the startup and graduated. We started Romulus Capital a few months later.

Every stage of ExStat’s journey was an opportunity for me to drop out of school. And although I didn’t, there are thousands of students each year who do. They drop out after forming their initial team, after getting some angel funding, after launching their product, or at another stage. But for most people, it doesn’t work out.

There’s no formula to tell you what the right decision is for your specific case. But given the hype around startups, more and more students are thinking about dropping out. You need to be honest about the specific reasons why you want to build a startup and what you’re willing to sacrifice to do so, rather than driven by the general hype around startups, to make the right decision for you. If you believe that your answers to these questions place you in the top 0.1% of students having the same debate, maybe you have a chance. Otherwise, finishing college is still a pretty good bet. It’s also what Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Reid Hoffman did.