On one hand, there is the specter of burgeoning debt to obtain a college degree and the tendency for people to end up working in careers unrelated to their education. On the other hand are the larger-than-life examples of successful college drop-outs, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
To answer this question, The Daily Transcript checked in with three successful entrepreneurs, two of whom did not finish college, and an entrepreneurship expert at technology accelerator Connect, which has helped more than 3,000 companies spin their ideas into commercial reality.
They concurred that there is no right or wrong answer, but they raised interesting viewpoints.
Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co.
Stone Brewing Co. is the 10th-largest craft brewery in the United States and has more than 425 employees. In 2011, the company had revenues of $84 million.
Koch has a B.S. in management from the University of Southern California.
Q: Is going to college necessary?
A: It doesn’t have to be a name college, but it’s very helpful. You learn how to learn. You learn what possibilities are and the foundational basics that are very important. A lot of entrepreneurs skip college, but some college experience is helpful. Completing a degree is important only if you need a resume to go get a job. Even with my USC degree, I am not employable. I don’t know who would want to hire me and I don’t know how to show up for a job. I definitely have that entrepreneurial trait, I’ve never created a resume. The only thing my USC degree helped with was how to learn. Most of my knowledge is real world.
Every entrepreneur thinks their path was the path, but I don’t think mine was -- there are a hundred ways to success and a million ways to failure.
I wanted to go to college, I won’t say it was wrong for me. It delayed my entrance into the business world, but it also gave me maturity and confidence.
Q: Did college help you with networking?
A: No, I was a loner. The only reason I network now is because people come to me. I am shy. Nobody will believe it, but I’m introverted.
Q: If you hadn’t gone to college, would you still have achieved this kind of success?
A: I can’t hazard a guess. I’m certain I would have been involved in entrepreneurial endeavors because that’s just my nature. I discovered good beer because my USC friends went to this little dive bar and that’s when I realized beer could be more than the industrialized yellow stuff.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: You have to follow your heart, whether it’s jumping into business or going to college. If you don’t want to go to college, you may not perform well. Frankly, I didn’t, although I chose to go. It wasn’t really for me. My university experience didn’t reflect back, I didn’t find it personally fulfilling. But quitting just wasn’t something I contemplated, so that’s why I stuck with it.
Clifford Boro, managing partner, The Team Group
A serial entrepreneur, Boro began working for Michael Steinhardt and George Soros on Wall Street at age 17, he progressed quickly from intern to trader to managing trading computer systems. He co-founded a financial news feed company that merged with AOL in 2003, formed venture capital group; then co-founded KidZui, an Internet browser for children. He is now working on Team Group to invest in early stage companies and has raised upwards of $100 million.
Boro has not finished college.
Q: You attempted to go to college several times.
A: Yes. I applied to NYU and got in, but not Wharton -- my grades were not good enough. Had I gotten in, I would have gone and who knows how my life would have unfurled -- you never know what can happen. When I worked with Michael Steinhardt, a car service took me to NYU, then I went back to the office, completed homework and work, then went home. Michael taught me most of the valuable things in my life, about creating wealth.
My day job was so exciting, at 19 I was appointed as head trader for one of the up-and-coming partners, and I was trading in tens of millions of dollars in stocks and bonds. NYU just couldn’t compete with that. I enrolled at three universities over the years, but I never went beyond freshman year.
Later, my first venture began in my dorm room. I created a computer system for billionaire boat owners to use to do their work while out at sea. During my first semester, I went to Holland four times for this project and studying just couldn’t compete with that.
Q: Do you think you missed out on skills you may have picked up?
A: I am a reader and self-propelled to learn, I don’t feel disadvantaged. When I was growing up, my dad -- without making a big deal about it -- would encourage my interest in any topic. I would come home and there’d be a couple books on the topic on my bed. The whole passion for me about KidZui was fueling kids’ curiosity. If I was interested in financial accounting, I read balance sheet 101 books and put in the labor to learn things I needed to know, but I didn’t do it the traditional way.
Q: Is going to college necessary?
A: Truth is, it’s probably safer for kids whose smarts aren’t evident to go to college, even if they accrue the debt that comes with it. College helps you figure out what you’re interested in and what makes you tick. I wouldn’t recommend kids start their life training on Wall Street. I would recommend they go to college. It’s a safe place to learn and explore, and see what interests you. If you happen to have a spark for entrepreneurship or computer coding, then for those people, it’s a fair decision to not go to college.
Q: If you were to redo things, would you take the same path?
A: Yes, I likely would. I’d like to think I’d do the same things better and smarter within my own path -- my path hasn’t been an easy one.
Q: What was your family’s reaction to your unusual path at age 17?
A: My mom actually talked about it the other day, and she told me how all my life, she had taught me not to be ordinary -- but when I became unordinary with this crazy path, she didn’t like it (laughs). But she also planted the seeds in me and she’s seen the amazing pressures I’ve had as a kid on Wall Street and as a CEO dealing with venture capitalists, and I’m sure she wishes I’d taken a more traditional path because it would have been easier.
I don’t know how Bill Gates’ or Zuckerberg’s parents feel, but it’s easier for parents of the billionaires because they’ve been uber-successful. I’ve had some successes, but also some hard lessons in my life. We live in a society that tends to judge financial success as the sole marker of achievement, not whether the path made sense. Financial success is the litmus test. I still think for most parents, if they want their kids to succeed, going to college is the right bet. Except for those kids who have a talent like Zuckerberg did -- but even for the unusually talented, college is a great step because you learn about yourself, I did when I attended. You can succeed without going to college, but it’s harder.
Tyson McDowell, CEO of Avadyne Health
McDowell helped invent San Diego Zoo’s PandaCam at age 18. He co-founded Benchmark Revenue Management, which provides financial management software for hospitals, at age 19. The company merged with Avadyne Health in 2012.
McDowell has never attended college.
Q: Did you want to go to college? Was there any family pressure to go?
A: There was no family pressure, I wanted to go to Caltech and my plan was: if I got in I’d go, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. My family let me have my own way, they advised me to go but they were supportive of my decision, although they would have been more comfortable if I had gone.
When we began Benchmark, my co-founders were in their 40s and 50s. I thought they were idiots, I didn’t think they were very smart! (Laughs.) We worked together in another company that disappeared in the dotcom boom, raised money in 2001, went through Connect’s Springboard in 2006. We operated it for five years from our revenues and when we wanted to grow, we went to Connect. Co-founders were both CEOs and top executives at other firms. One of them sold their house to do this; we didn’t take pay for a few years. I started as CTO, writing the software, and as we gained a customer base, over time I emerged as CEO.
Q: Did you compensate for skipping college with a lot of reading?
A: No reading, it was all direct exposure in the market. We learned so much and if we had gone with prevailing wisdom, our business would not have been successful.
Q: Would things be different if you had gone?
A: Things would have been different, but I would not have gotten as much as I would if I were to go now. My personality is to figure things out for myself -- so I would not have had as much respect for my teachers then as I would now. I will go back to get an MBA in the next five years. I’m trying to find one that won’t require me to do an undergrad to get an MBA. I’d like to go to the Stanford Executive MBA program, but don’t know if I can do that.
Q: Is going to college necessary?
A: Oh gosh, no! For people that want to do things on their own, are inquisitive and driven, college is not necessary. It’s not very useful, and they do get back to it later. But there are others who need guidance and structure to lead the way, for them college is necessary to become more successful, more quickly.
I think the main personality trait is those that are highly self-directed versus those looking for guidance. Some people are really lazy and start a business because they don’t want to go to college. I meet a lot of people who think they want to be entrepreneurs, but it’s really to avoid going to college and responsibility. I also meet people who are self-directed and could bypass college and do very well, but they don’t like to work very hard, so they go to college as the easy road. So people need to know if they will enjoy the hard road or if they prefer the easy road. My road was the hard road.
I’d have made a lot more money a lot sooner if I had gone to college. I would have earned more earlier, worked a lot less and had more family time.
Q: Do you think you missed out on skills you may have picked up?
A: I definitely lacked refinements that led me and my family to pay for amateur mistakes I made, specifically in programming. For a technical job, college training in software does make a difference. I wish I had gone to college for programming. But in other areas -- legal, management style, hiring and firing -- I’ve been really underwhelmed with people who came out of college with that exposure. If I am hiring a designer or marketing executive, their college doesn’t mean anything.
Ruprecht von Buttlar, VP of business creation and development, Connect
Manages Springboard, Connect’s mentoring program for startup entrepreneurs looking to refine their commercialization strategy.
Q: Would you work with someone that came to you if they had no college education?
A: When Tyson came into the Springboard program in 2006, he was a young punk, today he is 31. He had an experienced COO and senior marketing guy, and the first thing that surprised me was that those two senior guys were following instructions from Tyson. I didn’t know if he had gone to college or not, but once I got to know him, it didn’t surprise me that he hadn’t. He founded his first company in high school and just kept going.
I think there are entrepreneurs out there that just have a special talent and can see opportunities and future trends that can become businesses. I don’t think that going to college can turn an academic person into an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are not made in college. But there are a lot of them that come out of the woodwork from programs like UCSD’s Rady School of Management, which has a lab-to-market program. Going to college helps you create a network that can push you toward that entrepreneurial track -- and just the experience in developing that kind of network is important. The majority of people who enter Springboard have gone to college.
Q: So are you on the fence about whether college matters or not?
A: I think college is important for a very specific purpose, to allow a young person to build their network and develop tools for whatever career they choose, but it doesn’t make them an entrepreneur. The capability to see inefficiencies in the market is what triggers someone to start a company.
I think college gives life experience and serves as a stimulant for their intellectual curiosity, which leads them to choose a certain path.
Q: Would you advise a college-age entrepreneur to stick with school, or quit and start a business?
A: I’d assess if their idea is more than that, or just that -- do they have a business model or it just an idea? If there’s more to their idea, I’d encourage them to go through Springboard and see if they can see their idea through to fruition, and then decide if they want to go college.
Investors don’t worry about where they went to college, they look at the team’s experience. That gets you to the door, and then they look at your technology, whether it’s unique and marketable.
Like Cliff, I would encourage everyone to go to college unless they have an idea they’re passionate about that they want to explore.