Flickr Founder: Startup, Drop Out of College

I was alerted to a post by Caterina Fake (Flickr founder and angel investor) recommending that “would be entrepreneurs” drop out of college. According to her post,

Rob Kalin, Etsy’s founder, never finished college. Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey — the founders of Twitter — are not college graduates. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, is another dropout. And of course Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. As an angel investor, I’ve invested in two college dropout founders this month. What gives?

College works on the factory model, and is in many ways not suited to training entrepreneurs. You put in a student and out comes a scholar.

Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model. The best way to learn how to be an entrepreneur is to start a company, and seek the advice of a successful entrepreneur in the area in which you are interested. Or work at a startup for a few years to learn the ropes. A small number of people — maybe in the high hundreds or low thousands — have the knowledge of how to start and run a tech company, and things change so fast, only people in the thick of things have a sense of what is going on.

Her post is worth reading and she goes a bit deeper into her argument, but it would be pretty easy to put together a list of people who finished college (and in many cases went on to graduate school) before building their firms: Fred Smith, Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang, Donald Trump, etc.

In many ways, the responses to Fake’s blog entry are more interesting and insightful than her original question — where appears to have been lobbed out there based an a quick, anecdotal conversation after visiting one firm founder who dropped out.

Here is one response from David Whitman that makes some interesting points:

The apprenticeship model makes total sense but I have to dispute the factory model theory. Most examples of successful dropouts, including yours above, were exceptional students when they left the system. They excelled within the factory model, not just in college but in high school and probably pre-school as well. They became successful entrepreneurs after they dropped out but that doesn’t imply causation. In fact, they left because the system was so good. Being nurtured by great teachers and environments is what helped make them great. Larry and Sergey would never have built Google if it weren’t for Stanford. Zuckerberg wouldn’t have been able to have the freedom and facilities to build Facebook v1.0 if he skipped Harvard. Why do so many of these entrepreneurs endow their schools with such generous gifts and continue to be so active within academic circles? Because they know how much they owe to the opportunity they got.

Chris Cameron offers a very thoughtful responses and analysis of some of Fake’s post and the reaction. He likes the same comment as I do, the one from Whitman. From Cameron over at ReadWriteWeb:

Whether Fake intends to say that entrepreneurs should either drop out or avoid college altogether is unclear, but most agree that being a drop-out may indeed be a good strategy. Instead of ignoring college and starting a company, the best solution may be to attend college, learn the early basic lessons, gain access to resources and contacts, and begin the early stages of your company while still enrolled. Then, if the company takes off, leave school. If it doesn’t, then you didn’t drop out for nothing and you can continue your education and even attempt another company.

Aside from the argument for or against attending college, there is an interesting point Fake brings up about college that got me thinking: “College works on the factory model, and is in many ways not suited to training entrepreneurs. You put in a student and out comes a scholar,” she says. “Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model.”

While I think this is largely true among most universities, I also believe this trend is changing. Steve Blank argued recently that business schools need to evolve or branch into entrepreneurial schools. Most business programs prepare students for Fortune 500 companies with traditional business practices, which are still practical lessons for students looking to go down that road. But a student looking to found a startup has different needs.

Do you have any thoughts on this one? Clearly there is a spectrum and various entrepreneurs will fit on various points of the spectrum at various times.


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