Thinking About Thinking

College Optional

Posted in Philosophy, Venture Capital by larrycheng on August 26, 2009

I have always believed that a great education is invaluable.  The ability to learn new things, grasp new concepts and retain information are all important ingredients of success.  But, how valuable is a college education – which is only one form of education?  In the business world, I think a college education is extraordinarily nice to have, but not a must have.  I’d certainly recommend that everyone get a college education, but if for some reason you can’t or you didn’t – perhaps your best bet is to go find a career in business.

Reinforcing that point of view is the sheer fact that there are many successful CEO’s that do not have college degrees.  Some of these include but are not limited to:

  • Richard Branson, CEO, Virgin Group
  • Michael Dell, Founder and CEO, Dell
  • Barry Diller, CEO, Interactive Corp
  • Bill Gates, Founder and Chairman, Microsoft
  • Paul Allen, Founder and Chairman, Vulcan Group
  • Dean Kamen, Founder and Chairman, Segway
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO, Facebook

You could say that they are outliers, and you would be completely right.  They are outliers in their lack of formal education – but also outliers in the magnitude of their success.  Even if you look at my portfolio of six emerging technology companies, two of the CEO’s do not have college degrees.  And both of those companies are going gangbusters.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that the traditional college educational process of reading a textbook, listening to a lecture, and then taking a test is a process that is often replicated in the real world of business.  Sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher every day for four years in so many ways is exactly the opposite of what someone with an entrepreneurial DNA should want to do.

After seeing many talented executives come in without a college education, there seems to be a blueprint to succeed if you don’t have a college degree:

  1. Learn how to sell.
  2. Find a problem you’re passionate about solving.
  3. Be courageous and more willing to take risk.
  4. Make a lot of friends.
  5. Develop instincts by failing quickly.

And perhaps the most fundamental thing you need to learn to succeed in business whether you have a college education or not is to learn how to take $1.00 and turn it into $1.10 (without lying, cheating, stealing, swindling, etc.).  I don’t mean that in a theoretical way.  I mean literally, take a dollar bill out of your pocket right now, and figure out how to get someone to pay you $1.10 for it a week from now.  Usually that means you take the $1.00, go buy some stuff, package it up in a value enhancing way, and see if you can sell the end result for $1.10 to someone other than your mom.  If you can do that with $1.00, you’re off and running.  The same principles that enable you to turn $1.00 into $1.10 are the ones that will apply for turning $100 million into $110 million.  That ability is what some call business instincts – and instincts aren’t always learned in college.