August 22, 2011

College & Startups

Disclaimer: I tend to write posts for this blog, maybe sleep on them (at most), then publish them. Very rarely do I edit or ask for feedback. However, this is a topic that I feel strongly about and wanted to speak intelligently on, so I asked for feedback during its drafting process. Ahmed Al-Sudani, Kevin Purdy, Matthew Turland, Ryan MacGillivray, and Tino Galizio were all instrumental in getting this post written. I owe them a debt of gratitude for working with me through multiple drafts to come up with the post you're reading now. It's still not perfect, and never will be, but they gave me a safe environment to learn from my initial failures.

I might not be the most qualified person to write this; I’ve never run or worked at a startup and I refuse to take my expected role in college. But it seems like nobody is saying this, and I felt it needed to be said. So my unworthy voice is going to have to suffice.

You’re working crazy hours of the night. You’re broke, collecting massive debt, and all you’re getting in return is the chance that your investment may lead to a better life. You seek the wisdom and guidance of mentors. A small group of people can decide your future with their whims.

To two groups of people, this sounds agonisingly familiar: startup founders and students. There has been a lot of hype recently about how degrees are over-rated and students should drop out and start a company, but little has been said about how similar the lifestyles are. How seemingly insane both lifestyles are. But one is widely recognised as an expectation for the teenagers leaving high school, and I have to wonder if it’s the wrong one.

First, let’s take a look at the two concepts we’re dealing with here, to avoid any confusion.

Startups are, I believe, one of the most interesting jobs a person can ever hold. Startups have a culture that makes learning not only possible, but unavoidable. It’s an almost Darwinian system; the best survive, those that aren’t up to the challenge die off. I love that, because it requires engagement. You can’t just punch a clock at a startup; if you aren’t entirely consumed by what you’re doing, you’re not going to be doing it for long. Odds are you probably wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. This is the side-effect of the interesting nature of startups; a startup surpasses a job, becoming more of a lifestyle and a mindset. It technically is any company that is trying to deliver a new product or service and is living in a great deal of uncertainty. For our purposes, and in its most common usage, it is related to technology. Just as we’ll be talking about the institution of college as a whole, rather than a specific college, we’re going to look at the culture and ideologies of startups (gleaned from things like TechCrunch, Hacker News, and Paul Graham, amongst other sources), rather than a single startup.

College is more difficult to explain, because it exists in what’s almost a split personality. There’s what college is supposed to be and what college is. College is supposed to be a safe environment for teenagers to grow into adults. It’s supposed to be the final transition between being prepared for the real world and actually living in the real world. In practice, it is an accreditation system; it’s a way of saying “I can verify this person knows this information”.

There’s one final concept I want to hammer out before moving on: growth. I believe, firmly, that the best way to grow is to fail. To fall flat on your face. Why? Because if you aren’t falling on your face, you’re not learning anything—you already know everything you’re working with. It’s impossible to grow without failing. Remember when I said that college is supposed to be a safe environment in which teenagers grow into adults? That means it’s supposed to be a safe environment in which teenagers can fail. Even if you’re simply watching people smarter and more experienced than you do their thing, you’re realizing how much you don’t know, and that’s still a (more gentle) kind of failure.

Now that we’ve got that conceptual work out of the way, let’s move on to the point. Startups are a bigger risk than pursuing the same sort of project in college; in a startup, failure can mean you don’t eat. Unlike college, startups aren’t the expected path for today’s youth; when you tell someone you’re an entrepreneur, chances are they hear “unemployed”. So, if we have an environment where risks have very little consequence and where there are a lot of people, why is it producing nowhere near as much innovative thinking as the environment where risks carry the highest consequences and where there are relatively few people? That seems counter-intuitive, and yet it’s how the system currently works. Why? The answer lies in the split nature of college.

The environment I described with lots of people and little consequence is college as it should be. The truth is that startups are closer to that role than college is in reality. Some colleges (MIT, Yale, Harvard, etc.) seem to be closer than others (mine, for example), but the reality of the situation is that the students in colleges aren’t given much opportunity to experiment, to try new and daring things. In short, they’re not given much of an opportunity to take part in those consequence-free risks I spoke of. Instead, that type of research is reserved for the professors. Professors have a low-risk environment in which to conduct research. While students get to help them, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? The student doesn’t have the same investment, the same engagement in their professors’ problems as they would in their own problems.

And that’s the crux of it. That’s the problem. College exists in the paradigm of measuring knowledge; it measures knowledge to verify that the student has it. But for that knowledge to be measurable, it has to be known. It means the student can’t be the pioneer in the field, because there’s no way to measure that. It means the student is always relegated to walking in the footsteps of another, so the college has a known quantity to measure the student against. In return for those metrics, that ability to measure its students, college has lost the most valuable asset of startups: the competition. In college, you know something or you don’t. There isn’t a constant push to be better. There is no concept of better.

This concept of better is one of the three things startups have that college sorely needs. The second is interest. While it’s true that those not engaged in their startup won’t have a startup for long, this confuses the effect for the cause. The truth of the matter is that those who would not be engaged in their startup never start one in the first place; passion is what drives the exploration that startups do. College, however, has taken that exploration and handed it to the adults. Professors, not students, lead most the research done in colleges now. The professors’ passions, not the students’, are the ones being explored and engaged. Consequently, the professors are the ones engaged, not the students.

The final concept that college needs to appropriate from startups is the concept of action. College measures what a student knows, not what a student does. In startups, the importance is reversed; what you do matters, what you know is immaterial. And really, the reasoning of startups is more logical: when I die, what I know dies with me. Only the things I’ve done can contribute back to society.

Without these three concepts, college isn’t engaging. Students show up to class, check off their course lists, and graduate without really learning anything. So we have things like Peter Thiel’s 20 under 20. We have a society that is rapidly losing faith in college at the same time the cost of attending a college is skyrocketing.

College needs to take a good hard look at startups and think for a bit about how it can offer its students more opportunities to fail. I’ve written a fairly successful application that has been covered by several large tech publications, has over ten thousand users, and is part of a rapidly evolving ecosystem. I am, purely by luck, in an amazing position to learn at a rapid pace. The fact that college is unequipped to and disinterested in taking advantage of this situation is nothing short of a criminal misuse of potential.

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