Thoughts on dropping out to do a startup

October 28, 2012starting up

In the past couple of years, I’ve been through a number of interesting experiences through building Buffer. One of the things I’ve ended up thinking about a lot is the subject of whether you should drop out of college to work on your startup.

I personally didn’t drop out, but my co-founder Leo has as a result of the success we’ve had with Buffer and I’ve talked to him a lot about the topic. I also talk to many startup founders regularly who are still at college and are thinking about whether they should drop out. As a result, it’s been necessary for me to have an answer to this question.

College is powerful

"One of the amazing things about being in college is you can work on all these hobbies and code a lot of stuff and try a lot of different things. It’s this amazing flexibility that I think most people take for granted." - Mark Zuckerberg

One of the things I’ve realised only looking backwards is just how powerful college can be if you want to build a startup. In my own time at Warwick University, I had many many side projects and even two courses in which I did projects which looking back felt a lot like startups.

No pressure

When you’re studying, there is absolutely no pressure on you in terms of building a startup. As a result, you can experiment and try lots of different things. You can learn new languages, you can try different startup concepts such as customer development and lean startup. You can get out of the building and try talking to people about the problems they have, and then try to solve them. You can easily try charging for something you build, with no pressure to make enough money to be able to eat. Everything is taken care of, so you can relax and experiment.

Like minds

It’s relatively easy to find like-minded people at college. There is such a vast number of students at any university that as long as you have the desire to seek these like-minded people, you will find them and you can work with them. I know that countless great co-founder relationships started at college. That’s the case for Buffer, Leo and I met whilst we were both at Warwick University, and we met at an entrepreneurship event we were both helping out with. So go out there and take advantage of the environment.

Start an experiment

When you’re in college, you can have many ideas and try them all out in your free time. Each of these ideas can potentially be a great startup, but since there’s no pressure you can use the concept of an experiment and this can help you in many ways. I think Vinicius Vacanti, the co-founder and CEO of Yipit put it best:

"The beautiful thing about experiments is that disproving your hypothesis isn’t thought of as a failure. It’s thought of as progress."

You can really take this “experiment” approach at college, and learn a massive amount about startups in a short space of time.

Blocks of free time

Every college student has something in common: that they have various blocks of time throughout the year where there is less workload. It’s in these times that you have a great opportunity to create something that could become big. There’s no better example for this than when Facebook started:

"I wrote the first version of Facebook in January of 2004 and released it in February. The reason why I did it in January is that Harvard had intersession."

My best advice for students is to use these lighter blocks of time wisely. Start a new project each time, take the learnings and keep building stuff.

Dropping out is not usually so dramatic

My belief and experience with going through Leo dropping out is that when it is good to drop out for your startup, you will know it. That said, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to abruptly cut everything off and burn all your bridges with university.

How I’ve seen it play out more often than not, is that someone does many different side-projects during college and then when something begins to work, they go through a massive amount of learning and progress in an incredibly short space of time. This is very much related to Paul Graham’s notion of compressing your life:

"You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four."

This is exactly what happens and how it feels when one of your startup ideas begins to “work”. Another great way to describe it is how Marc Andreessen describes reaching product/market fit:

"You can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers."

I think when you reach this point, you’ll feel that it may be worth dropping out of college. The interesting part is, even at this point you don’t need to dramatically “drop out”. You can just take a term off, or take a year off. In fact, we’ve now reached almost a $1M annual revenue run rate with Buffer, there are 7 people in the team and we’ve hit 370,000 users, but Leo is technically still in college. He hasn’t officially dropped out yet, and you don’t need to hastily do that. I was fascinated to hear Zuckerberg describe his experience in a very similar way:

"Harvard has this policy where you can take as much time as you want off from school. So why don’t we just take one term off and then just try to get it under control and build the toolings so we can go back for Spring semester and grow it more autonomously. Spring term came along and we hadn’t quite built the tooling and automation so let’s take another term off. Then finally at some point we decided we were out, but by then we had millions of users."

Keep studying. Keep building.

Unfortunately, startups are pretty hard. I know that for myself, it’s been a tough few years since I realised I wanted to build my own startup, for it to actually work in reality. I had a few failures during college which were much more learning than failure, and the fact I was still studying meant it didn’t matter at all.

After I graduated, I worked on another startup whilst working as a contract web developer on the side. I can assure you, it’s a lot harder to stay committed to making a startup work once you’ve left. I think many don’t make that leap because it’s so hard. It’s much easier to get a normal job and have a definite salary each month.

As a result, my advice to anyone thinking of dropping out is to keep studying, and use every opportunity to build projects and startups on the side. When something starts to work, you’ll have that same feeling that many others have, and you’ll know that it’s your duty to keep building it and bring it to the world. Until that happens, keep studying and keep building. When it happens, drop out slowly.

Have you had to think about whether you should drop out to pursue your startup? Did you drop out?

Photo credit: Steve Garfield

Thanks for reading

If you have any comments or feedback on this article, I’d love to hear from you. The best way to reach me is on Twitter.

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