Thinking like an Entrepreneur in College

I wrote a brief commentary for Marketplace, a radio program that airs on NPR usually after "All Things Considered". The topic was "Thinking like an entrepreneur in college," since it’s back-to-school time. It aired a couple days ago.

Although I’ve done a couple dozen radio interviews / live conversations, I’ve never written anything in essay format. Much different than writing for print — I had a good time working with the producer to both write and record the piece in the studio (they mix and match your best lines).

I’m starting to like this "get paid to write" thing….

Text transcript below. Will I really be able to be entrepreneurial in college? Time will tell!

Most people, when they hear the word entrepreneur, think of someone who starts their own business.

And while that’s an accurate definition — I started my first company when I was 14 — it’s not the whole story.

Anyone can think like entrepreneur…even about going to college.

Acting like an entrepreneur means exposing yourself to randomness and being relentlessly optimistic.

But no matter how hard you try, you have to be in the right environment. That affects what kind of rebel you might become.

My parents instilled quiet confidence but they never said if you set your mind to it you can change the world.  They were sober.

So was I.  Local governments never go out of business and they have constant customer service needs. So, I created a software company filling those needs.

College has its own atmosphere and influences.

Some schools turn students into life-long learners and problem solvers. Others teach them how to be professional task masters.

But in the end it’s up to me to be as entrepreneurial as possible about my college experience.

I need to cold call professors I find interesting.

I need to do that old business thing known as networking, but in the sheltered world of higher ed, that means genuine friendship-building.

I need to remember that the benefit of going from an A- to A+ is probably not worth the all-nighters it would require. Just like companies need to ship, ship, ship and not tinker till perfection.

In other words, settle for good enough, not perfect.

Sure, like any good entrepreneur, I need to take risks, but this time of the intellectual sort. The college environment might be the one place where changing your mind is celebrated, not dismissed as flip-flopping.

Yes, famous entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college. But to pass up such a defining experience without trying it first?

That’s not what a true entrepreneur would do.

13 comments on “Thinking like an Entrepreneur in College
  • A professor at my business school made a great comment during an orientation event that I think applies well to the discussion of being entrepreneurial in college: “Never again will the cost of failure be so low.”

  • “That’s not what a true entrepreneur would do.”

    Then Rockefeller, Carnegie, Henry Ford, Richard Branson, Kirk Kerkorian, Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, Colonel Sanders and Dave Thomas weren’t entrepreneurs.

    And while their names might not be as famous, the following billionaires didn’t even finish high school: Jim Clark, Carl Lindner, Jack Kent Cooke, Tom Haffa, Kjell Inge Rokke, Joe Lewis, Bill Bartman, Richard Desmond, Robert Maxwell and J.R. Simplot.

    What were all these people exactly if they weren’t “true” entrepreneurs? While some did regret not furthering their education (or did not have the opportunity), others simply did not and seemed to indicate that they felt college would be damaging. Are they less “true” entrepreneurs for it? Perhaps the best entrepreneurs can size things up without having to “experience” it to make a decision.

    I know you’re very into the “life entrepreneur” thing which is great, but you might want to be careful with broad generalizations because it can spill over into creating yuppie-isms.

    If you look back at this post 20 years from now, you might laugh a little at watching your college-aged self defining what a “true” entrepreneur is. A lot of your posts actually come off as being more experientialist than entrepreneurial, which is hardly a bad thing – but it may be worthwhile to recognize that they’re not necessarily the same thing.

    • Hi! look if u use common sense u can find that mirror a window means that u felt that these great people are great by their and experience but i think;

      that if by having that little amount of formal education
      they can become that much great so just thnk if they had
      complete education so ho much great work they would have done!!!
      Its up to you that you believe that the glass is half filled or half empty;)

  • Posted by… anonymous? You bring up some great points – but if you’re going to criticize someone, the least you can do is leave your name.

    • I agree. Posting comments without your name to sign your words sounds like you are afraid of something. Afraid of getting asked valid questions like can you prove your claim?

      Is is simple decency as a human being to introduce yourself.

  • “That’s not what a true entrepreneur would do.”

    An entrepreneur is not a product of his own personality, values, actions, risks and decisions. He is very much a product of his environment, his networks, his support system and to some extent, the privilege of having all these.

    Of all the entrepreneurs you name, I should be interested to know whose PARENTS did not attend college. In most cases, you will find that the parents attended college and built a pathway – and a strong support system and network, which benefited many including Bill Gates – that gave the would-be entrepreneur the stability, the security and hence the choice to drop out, but still have legitimacy and better still, alternatives in case of abject failure. In other cases, mentors and friends gave them a leg up.

    I wonder how the enterprises of these entrepreneurs would have shaped up, had their families been unschooled, low-skilled labourers working minimum wage jobs, and in such cases (such as Jim Clark’s), if they had not armed themselves with good education and advanced degrees..

    Apply the test to yourself too, Ben. At least I would keen to hear your reflections.

  • Thanks for the comments guys.

    Of course not all “true” entrepreneurs went to college and dropped out (or went to college and stuck with it). There are always exceptions.

    On the experimentalist vs. entrepreneurial point, I think they’re very closely related. Most of what being entrepreneurial means to me is experimenting and doing stuff and trying new things. If you aren’t doing anything — or creating anything — you aren’t being very entrepreneurial, at least as I think about it.

    Shefaly – good point.

  • “Sure, like any good entrepreneur, I need to take risks, but this time of the intellectual sort.”

    I think of an ‘intellectual’ as someone who uses the mind creatively. I understand the distinction you make, yet a couple of quotes form Michael Gerber strike me:

    “The entrepreneur is our visionary, the creator in each of us. We’re born with that quality and it defines our lives as we respond to what we see, hear, feel, and experience. It is developed, nurtured, and given space to flourish or is squelched, thwarted, without air or stimulation, and dies.”


    “The entrepreneur in us sees opportunities everywhere we look, but many people see only problems everywhere they look. The entrepreneur in us is more concerned with discriminating between opportunities than he or she is with failing to see the opportunities.”

    I enjoy your enthusiasm for, and celebration of, entrepreneurship. I truly hope that that fire continues to grow.

  • Very accurate here about the things you should do in college. I learned the hard way that good enough is better than perfection. Spend that time building relationships and exploring other areas of study rather than obssessing over the + and –

  • Ben,
    I know this is slightly off-topic from others’comments yet I did hear you whilst driving with my godson Douglas (formerly Dougie, before he started his first summer business), age 12, and a woman friend, age 34.

    We all found you to be conversational and credible in the way you talked “with” us – a rare ability for someone not used to this format on radio. Kudos

    And, yes, we also agreed with your view that the entrepreneurial mindset can help us be active with listening, seeking, learning … life. Now Douglas wants to meet you.

  • My belief is simply that success in college doesn’t correlate to success as an entrepreneur – it’s like comparing a fish and a bicycle.

    Entrepreneurism requires (among other things) the ability to see opportunities that others do not, the willingness to take significant career and financial risks and the ability to understand and change direction based on market and other feedback forces.

    Most of these types of requirements are simply absent from the typical college experience, which for the most part is designed to create either (a) industry-ready employees or (b) researchers and professors.

  • Testify, Kare, testify!

    I went to college when it was all about becoming industry-ready (which I didn’t want to do) or research professor-ready. I’d already gotten an earful on that path from my father, who’d earned a Ph.D. during the 1950s, but chose not to go into academia. (It simply didn’t pay well enough. And Dad wanted to own a home and have a family.)

    That being said, I think the idea of cold-calling interesting professors is a good one. I had to do this when I was a reporter for the campus newspaper, and it was one of the most interesting aspects of my college career.

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