The Startup Illusion

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered his now-famous Stanford Commencement Speech, wherein he explained that attempting to attend a four-year university had been a poor choice. The school was astronomically expensive and “[he] had no idea what [he] wanted to do with [his] life and no idea how college was going to help [him] figure it out.”

Jobs’ statement seems to resonate with today’s youth; more and more students are dropping out in search of startup stardom. In fact, in January 2014, the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) reported that more than 40 percent of full-time college students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Granted, not all drop-outs leave their university in the pursuit of entrepreneurship. However, I know first-hand that many do.

I am an entrepreneur. I founded my own startup and we are currently developing a mobile application that aims to compete with Craigslist and other online classifieds services. Last year, I seriously considered dropping out of school to dedicate my focus on developing our product. I was incredibly passionate about the app — and equally confident of its enormous potential to forever change the way people buy and sell. What a load of crap.

Not long after I began planning my temporary exit from the University of Washington, the entire team behind our app disintegrated. Feelings were crushed, people were burned, and friends became bitter rivals. While my glass monolith shattered around me, I began to ponder the “what-ifs” of the project, including what might have happened if I had gone through with putting my education on hold. I realized I had been duped.

Entrepreneurs are choosing to embrace the lie of probable success whilst ignoring the daunting statistics.

Contemporary entrepreneurs no longer adhere to the traditional model of professional success; work hard for many years and, one day, you’ll “make it.” Instead, today’s collegiate youth have bought into the Zuckerberg model. Young, aspiring entrepreneurs believe that with a brilliant idea and a little bit of luck they, too, can be billionaires, potentially overnight.

Entrepreneurs are choosing to embrace the lie of probable success whilst ignoring the daunting statistics that contradict such thinking, such as the fact that 80 percent of startups fail within 18 months. I, too, turned a blind-eye. It’s difficult not to buy your own hyperbole. However, after an entire year’s worth of work crumbled in a matter of hours, I opened my eyes and saw through the startup illusion.

Most realistic entrepreneurs know that they’re not the next Steve Jobs, but that doesn’t stop them from keeping their dreams firmly planted in unprecedented success. No collegiate entrepreneur dreams about selling their startup for $100,000. Instead, they dream about being at the helm of their own company with $2 million in seed funding.

Consequently, to ensure their monumental investment, entrepreneurs leave school. They say goodbye to the “system” and hello to the sweet, welcoming arms of the startup industry. That is, of course, right up until it spits them back out with a bruised ego and tens of thousands in looming student-loan debt. I need not provide statistic after statistic to explain this, it’s simply the truth; a majority of startups fail, therefore we can’t all be the country’s next instant billionaire.

I have no quarrel with dreaming big. I have since rebuilt my startup with a new team and I, too, daydream about the potential for overnight success. Yet, I have no plans to put my education on hold. If I work hard, a degree in finance is a guarantee.

The same is not true with startups and success. Granted, there are circumstances where walking away from your education to build your business is appropriate, but those instances are few and far between. Furthermore, if you are a young college student, I can guarantee you know next to nothing about starting a successful company.

Having an idea is easy; being able to make it into something profitable is what separates the failures and the success stories. As a student, you have the opportunity to take advantage of an enormous amount of collective experience to help you build your business — in the future.

In short, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, see through the veil. I am acutely aware of both the potential for failure and the chance of success, so heed my warning; the startup game is rigged. Hedge your bets and stay in school, but don’t ever stop working toward transforming your dreams of entrepreneurial success into a reality.