In June of 2013, I wrote “Dropping Out” — a post summarizing my experiences after dropping out of university to start a startup.
While I’ve received more emails in response to “Dropping Out” than anything else I’ve written, many who emailed had missed the points entirely. Likewise, I’ve talked with a number of recent and soon-to-be dropouts who didn’t bother to read that post (or any post) at all.
So I thought it was worth re-visiting my thoughts on dropping out of school, and using the additional data I’ve gotten from talking to CodeDay attendees to simplify the thoughts into more specific recommendations.
Should I drop out of college to start a company?
Probably not. I know a lot of people who’ve dropped out of college to start a company, and most of them spent several years not really knowing what they were doing. Arguably, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my last company.
The idea that hundreds of 19-year-olds are starting wildly successful companies is a myth. Neither the Thiel Foundation, nor Dorm Room Fund, nor any other high-profile student-focused investing program have produced any traditionally successful company. Indeed, in a study of startups to achieve a $1B valuation (as listed on the Wall Street Journal’s “Billion Dollar Startup Club”), fewer than 5% were founded by someone under 22. 1
And while not fitting into the “stereotype” makes founding a company more difficult in general, it makes it almost impossible when talking about college dropout founders. Almost every young founder of a $1B+ company was white, male, and came from at least an upper-middle-class background. 2
When is it a good idea?
After having spent several hours compiling those pretty negative statistics, I still think that if you’re working on an idea which is genuinely, personally meaningful to you, you should go for it.
However, most drop-outs I’ve met do not fall into this category. It’s really easy to get swept-up with dreams of being rich and famous, but don’t confuse caring about your dreams with your actual product. It’s rare to meet someone truly passionate about the next mobile-local-social food sharing app.
One other mitigating factor: while few successful startups were founded by young college dropouts, a lot of unsuccessful startups still result in a somewhat positive outcome for the individuals, usually being acquired for a small sum by a large company just for the team. 3 Still, it’s very disingenuous to plan on failure for your own personal success, 4 and it’s still much harder unless you fit the stereotype.
Should I drop out of college to join a company?
Maybe. I know a lot of people who went this route, and most of them are doing pretty well. This is the only choice which I think people should widely consider.
There are a lot of upsides to this approach. Rather than taking on debt, you’re getting paid (pretty well!), and doing something which is often more fun than school. Also, if you’re able to land a good position to start out, you may be quite far ahead of your peers by the time they graduate.
Most usefully, you can shop around for job offers before you even leave school, taking out a lot of the risk!
There is still a risk, though: if the tech market crashes and there’s a sudden glut of programmers, you might be unemployable. This will probably be less of a concern once you’ve worked in the industry for several years, so the real question to consider is how likely you think the tech industry is to crash in the next several years and to what extent.
Additionally, like with dropping out to found a company, it’s hard to succeed here unless you fit the stereotype. I’ve seen several very talented Black and Hispanic students try to go this route, and not get a single offer, or even interviews. 5
It’s also harder for low-income students, since it’s easier when you’ve already met the right recruiters, and few low-income students make it to the big tech universities. Of the low-income students I’ve met who have succeeded with this path, none started at an A-list tech company, so try that if you’re not otherwise finding success.
Should I drop out of high school?
No. The previous version of this guide strongly hinted that this was a bad idea, and I’m just going to simplify this version and say that, unless you’re in a life-or-death personal situation, you shouldn’t do it.
There is an absolutely real stigma attached to dropping out of high school. Aside from making (in my experience, wrong) assumptions about your intelligence, people often also look down on the lack of self dicipline to finish something when you’re so close to the end. You can overcome this with a long history of exceptional work, but it does slow you down and require more work.
You could potentially lie (by omission), and just not mention you dropped out of high school — few employers will ask — however, it’s still likely to get you in the end. In my experience, people who’ve dropped out of high school also tend to exhibit far more imposter syndrome than those who graduated, which has left them making far less than they’re worth.
I cannot recommend this path unless it’s for your personal safety and wellbeing.
If you’ve gotten this far, and still think you’ve decided to drop out, I’d still recommend you at least skim the original article. There are a few other drawbacks to dropping out which aren’t often discussed.
If you’d like to discuss anything in this post, I can be reached at [email protected].
It’s possible that some of these founders have graduated early, and that some older founders dropped out, but I’m writing this to address the “19-year-old college dropout millionare” stereotype. It is also true, as has often been pointed out, that the median age of founders of highly successful companies is much lower than might be expected, but that median age is still 31.↩
This effect is quite strong even in less successful startups! While it’s at least becoming slightly more common to see female founders, almost all founders are still white or Asian and come from an upper-middle-class background.↩
Even if you’re not acquired, founding a startup can still be good for your resume, especially if you launched a complex product or raised investment from well-known investors.↩
This is one of the many reasons it’s ridiculous to look at companies not hiring minorities as them rightly refusing to “lower the bar”. Even if a company is judging minorities solely on their merits, many also “lower the bar” for stereotype candidates, like the white male college dropout.↩