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Do You Need a Degree to Start a Business?
Written by: Carolyn Young
Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.
Edited by: David Lepeska
David has been writing and learning about business, finance and globalization for a quarter-century, starting with a small New York consulting firm in the 1990s.
Updated on April 29, 2023
Do You Need a Degree to Start a Business?
To be an entrepreneur you need determination and drive, but you don’t need a formal education.
While you may gain useful skills in acquiring your MBA or bachelor’s degree, many people without such degrees are perfectly capable of launching a successful business. What matters most is perseverance, confidence in your abilities, and knowledge of the trade.
Having said that, the value of a degree should not be under-estimated. Attending college, especially with a business major, will teach you soft skills such as time management, organization, accountability and emotional maturity. It will also provide considerable knowledge about entrepreneurship and potential business contacts, and could open doors that lead to crucial experience.
Formal education has helped many budding entrepreneurs better understand business management and organizational leadership. To become a successful entrepreneur, the most important asset is your commitment and persistence. Following that comes your skills and knowledge. How do you rank in terms of knowledge versus determination?
Here are some other factors to consider when choosing between finishing college or starting your business.
1. Formal Education & Your Field of Interest
The first thing to consider is whether or not formal education will help in your respective field of interest.
The learning required for a degree often provides necessary knowledge and skills for industries that are more technical or complex, such as IT, science or the law. Of course, you cannot become a lawyer without a formal education, but on the other hand, there are countless coding courses out there that can enable just about anyone to begin a career in programming.
As an entrepreneur, the most crucial bits of knowledge often involve business operations and management, marketing and sales, certifications and legalities. A few courses at a local business school or community college could provide the necessary insight and experience.
Many experts agree that a college degree is key to running a successful business, helping you develop realistic business ideas and models and better understand legal and tax matters. But it’s not necessary.
Still, if you decide against a degree, there’s no reason not to embrace some form of continuing education, to learn entrepreneurship or business management, or to gain the required technical skills. What matters is not where you’re coming from, but where you intend to go.
2. Entrepreneurial Spirit & Skills
Before launching a startup, ask yourself if you have the spirit and skill to be a successful entrepreneur.
Starting your own business is a world away from having a job at someone else’s firm. It’s important to be absolutely clear on what you want to achieve and how you expect to get there before you embark on this journey.
Business ownership brings with it many responsibilities and stressors, and any self-doubt will hamper your success.
Successful entrepreneurship is beyond full-time work, it’s a 24/7 commitment. That means minimal time with family and friends, accepting rejection, and even risking everything you have.
Entrepreneurs must have patience and perseverance, regardless of success or failure. While the business world is immensely rewarding, it is equally testing. Don’t jump into the arena if you lack the fire needed to excel.
3. Passion & Patience
You might have a great business idea you’re passionate about. But being patient and deferring your entrepreneurial plan until after college may result in a lost opportunity.
Many entrepreneurs took a leap of faith and started pursuing their dream at a young age. Steve Jobs, for example, dropped out of college after one semester. He was just 17 years old, but the next year he got a job as a technician at Atari. Within a few years he and his high school pal Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer. The rest is history.
If you feel certain that your business idea is unique and necessary, deciding against a college degree might be the right move. At the same time, many entrepreneurs start their business while in college, and then realize they don’t need a degree. One of the best-known examples is Mark Zuckerberg, who launched an early version of Facebook while he was a freshman at Harvard, then dropped out during his sophomore year.
Of course, not all of us are Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Still, understanding when giving all your attention to your business is the right move is critical.
4. Real-World Experience
Do you have any real-world experience in the industry you plan to pursue? Your answer to this question will go a long way to determining the value of a college degree.
Hands-on experience equips you with the knowledge to respond appropriately to a variety of situations and to know when you’re moving in the right direction.
If you plan to start a business without any formal education, you might first gain some experience by taking on a job or internship in your field of interest. You could even start your company as a side gig during this time.
An apprenticeship or internship is likely to help you in the long run, while volunteer experiences can also help you gain insight on the industry, its patterns and its trends. Entrepreneurs who never went to college have said that the hands-on experience gave them clarity in managing their own business. It’s a quick route to better knowledge.
You can start a business with or without a degree, but experience will bring you closer to success.
5. Financial Stability
Now we come to the brass tacks. Both college and business tend to be sizable investments. If you don’t have the money for one, you probably don’t have the money for the other.
Having said that, starting a business is often considerably cheaper than four years at a decent college. Assuming you have a solid business idea, it’s wise to create a business plan, laying out your expenses, logistics and required financing, to know exactly what’s feasible for you.
Understanding the cost is crucial before pursuing a new business opportunity. There are numerous examples of students working in an industry or on the fringes to fuel their entrepreneurial journey. There is no right or wrong here.
Getting your degree should be your focus if you’re not confident about your entrepreneurial vision or success. At the same time, if you’re strongly motivated to devote all your energy and resources to developing your business, then you might take a leap of faith.
If you’re already enrolled in a degree program, you might want to check with your college about its leave-of-absence policy, so you can come back should your business not work out.
6. Support System
Even if you get all your entrepreneurial ducks in a row, launch your business and feel secure in terms of financing, there will more than likely come a time when you will need to lean on a friend, for moral, financial or emotional support. Even for self-starters, entrepreneurship is not a solo flight.
Successful business owners always acknowledge the contribution of friends, family, and business partners.
If you don’t have close family members or friends, you can always join online groups related to your industry or that support small business owners.
It’s always helpful to connect with others on a similar journey, and learn from their successes and failures. It’s also wise to surround yourself with savvy, educated people to serve as mentors.
7. Reason(s) to Drop-out of College
Finally, ask yourself, is there anything keeping you in college? Maybe you’re fascinated by a new professor or intrigued by your latest management course. It might be a good idea to follow that thread and see where it leads.
But if, on the other hand, college has little appeal and you can’t stop thinking about your brilliant business idea, then maybe it’s time to move on and start your entrepreneurial journey.
Think carefully. Weigh the pros and cons. Consider the value of investing your time and resources into a degree or an MBA as opposed to building your own business. Which seems more valuable to you?
Keep in mind that dropping out of college without a decent reason is no more ludicrous than continuing to study when you have a great business idea.
Don’t drop out of school because it’s ‘cool’, or because Steve Jobs did it. Do it if you have a legit business plan.
Entrepreneurship can be a passport to financial freedom. But that freedom won’t come without hard work and sacrifice.
If you want to be a business owner, the first step is to start thinking rationally. That’s a prerequisite for any budding entrepreneur.
Once you do that, start thinking about when and how to start your business. Weigh your options realistically and then make a choice based on your environment and circumstances.
Whether you start a business with or without a college degree is secondary. First and foremost is to evaluate your drive and commitment, your knowledge and experience, and the value of your entrepreneurial idea.
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