Startup Tips From College Dropouts: Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates, Dell, Ellison, Branson, and Disney

Investor and entrepreneur John Greathouse, partner at Rincon Venture Partners highlights seven entrepreneurs who never graduated from college, and shares the lessons they learned from setting out and succeeding on their own.

startup tips from college dropouts

According to a January 2012 Forbes article, nearly 16% of the 400 most affluent Americans do not have a college degree. When one considers the 400 richest people on the entire planet, the percentage of non-college graduates doubles. Shocking? Hardly.

PayPal Co-founder Peter Thiel has granted 24 people under 21 years old $100,000 each, with plans to allocate additional scholarships in coming years. The primary stipulation is that each Thiel Fellow must drop out of college, for at least two years, and pursue their “entrepreneurial ventures, research and self-education.”

For many entrepreneurs, college has little appeal. Academia’s arbitrary, bureaucratic structure, combined with its predominant focus on theoretical issues, causes many entrepreneurs to depart college early. Others, such as Walt Disney and Richard Branson never even enroll.

Given the advent of “drop out of college” scholarships and the success of high-profile entrepreneurs who only earned a high-school diploma, it is prudent to consider their business advice.

1. Mark Zuckerberg: “The dynamic of managing people and being CEO in a company is a lot different than being college roommates with someone.”

Although it may be comfortable to start a company with your friends, it is a mistake, unless your friend(s) happens to be ideally suited to their role in your venture. Hang out with your friends when you are relaxing and work with the most talented people you can recruit.

Facebook had to resolve expensive and time-consuming litigation related to promising early hires senior positions and substantial equity stakes. This could have been avoided if, from the company’s outset, Mr. Zuckerberg had focused on hiring all-star employees and not simply friends and friends-of-friends.

2. Steve Jobs: “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’”

Even if an established leader in your industry does not see the wisdom in your ideas, do not waiver. As Clay Christensen aptly points out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, a large company’s defense of its legacy clouds its ability to appropriately assess the potential impact of disruptive technologies.

Entrepreneurs are misfits. Our resumes are routinely non-linear, incomplete, and seemingly random. If you are hiring Bank Robbers, you must look beyond their lack of accomplishments and assess their innate abilities. When you interview candidates during the early stages of your startup, who is far more important than what, because the tasks the candidate previously performed may be only partially applicable to the role they will play in your venture.

3. Bill Gates: “The best way to prepare [to be a programmer] is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. In my case, I went to the garbage cans at the Computer Science Center and fished out listings of their operating system.”

Gates’ experiential approach to learning programming is typical of entrepreneurs, especially those with little formal education. One could broadly recast Gates’ quote by saying, “The best way to prepare to become an entrepreneur is to start a business and study how great startups succeed.”

No one ever accused Mr. Gates of being a master programmer. However, his first-hand knowledge of how to write, test and commercialize code facilitated his ability to lead Microsoft from startup to world dominance.

4. Michael Dell: “As important as school was, I found that it could be very disruptive to a steady income.”

Michael Dell promised his parents that he would return to school if the sales at his startup did not meet his expectations. “I had to give it a full go and see what happened. I couldn’t resist the opportunity. The deal was, I would start into business full time in May, and at the end of August we would take a look and decide if it was doing well.”

Although he has spoken at numerous graduation ceremonies since he left college, Michael never returned to school as a student. “I was, you know, rebellious, an 18, 19-year old and just did what I wanted to do and all worked out OK.”

5. Larry Ellison: “I have had all of the disadvantages required for success.”

Entrepreneurs are often societal rejects. We often avoid the rational path and make our own job because we are unable to accommodate the rigidity associated with taking a job. Iconoclasm is not a requirement of entrepreneurship, but it certainly is a common trait. The tendency to challenge and reject the norm often puts entrepreneurs at odds with conventional wisdom.

Underdog status is also a common driving force among successful entrepreneurs. A feeling of inferiority due to a lack of family wealth and connections, formal education, and traditional career accomplishments often drives entrepreneurs to work frenetically as a way of compensating for such perceived shortcomings.

6. Richard Branson: “My mother was determined to make us independent. When I was four years old, she stopped the car a few miles from our house and made me find my own way home across the fields. I got hopelessly lost.”

Similar to Tony Hsieh’s parents, Richard’s mom reinforced a heightened sense of self-sufficiency. Richard dropped out of school at the age of 16 to begin publishing a magazine targeted to young people, called Student. Richard leveraged the fact that record companies were Student’s biggest advertisers to subsequently launch a record store. He then built his initial store into an international chain which ultimately led to the creation of a highly successful record label.

Richard’s lack of formal education no doubt caused him to feel lost at various times during his entrepreneurial journey. Fortunately, his mom instilled in him a tenacity and sense of purpose that successfully guided him “across the fields” and helped him overcome his lack of “book learning.”

7. Walt Disney: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

The best advice in Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start is on page 9, “Get Going.” Start. There is little likelihood that the value proposition you initially explore is the go-to-market strategy your venture will ultimately pursue. However, you will never discover the intersection of your core competencies and the market’s desires if you do not start somewhere.

What are you waiting for? School will always be there should you decide to take a few years off from startups to hone your beer drinking skills.

John GreathouseJohn Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by John Greathouse, partner at Rincon Venture Partners and co-founder of RevUpNet. It was originally published by Forbes.

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