Drop out or not is the wrong question

I did a keynote interview last night at kbs+ ventures for their new book's launch event. Since I talked a bit about CS183 and the Thiel Fellowship program, a few people came up to me afterwards and asked different versions of the same question: if I wanted to be an entrepreneur, why did I get several degrees from Stanford instead of dropping out?

My quick answer was that it’s important to avoid blanket statements about education and entrepreneurship. Certainly many successful entrepreneurs have name brand college degrees. But many don’t.

Last I looked, Wikipedia’s list of college dropout billionaires is 31 people and counting (and only one of them is a drug lord). I thought that was a shockingly high number, as most of us only know the most famous three or four. If we wanted to talk about dropout millionaires, there are so many that we’d probably need scientific notation.

One of the reasons for this is that the market doesn’t necessarily wait 4 years for you to get your BS or 6 or 7 years for your PhD. In 2003 and 2004, Mark Zuckerberg had a huge advantage in that he was working furiously toward something he sensed was important while his peers were still locked into school. Starting Facebook in 2007 would not have worked.

One key distinction is between businesses that require a lot of specialized domain knowledge and businesses that don’t. Often, this tracks the distinction between enterprise/B2B and consumer models. Bright, well-adjusted 18- or 19-year-olds can develop the kind of social insight that’s at the core of many great products, maybe even better than older folks can. If their engineering skills are adequate, they can build the vision and more or less take over the world. This isn’t to say this is easy, of course—only that it’s very possible.

Facebook was one example. Another may be Gumroad, a novel e-commerce company run by 20-year-old Sahil Lavingia. If you aren’t already familiar with it, Gumroad enables anyone to sell something online in a matter of seconds. If you want to sell an e-book, for example, you create a product listing and get a unique link that you can share throughout the web. If, as Sahil says, Gumroad “becomes a thing,” he will have succeeded in turning all of Facebook and Twitter into a global online marketplace, i.e. in building a billion dollar company.

Other businesses require a great deal of domain-specific knowledge, which often entails specialized education. For example, my company, Judicata, builds radically better legal search and analytics software for lawyers. This requires great engineers, but it also requires great lawyers who deeply understand how the law works. For better or worse—and I actually suspect for worse—one almost invariably needs to go to college and then law school to become a lawyer. At the very least, being in law school affords one a structured opportunity to learn how to think about the law.

For some ventures, getting a technical or professional education is unquestionably the right move. For others, college is absolutely the wrong move. More interesting than the drop out vs. not question, I think, is the set of questions that aims at unpacking what a college education really is. To really understand the nexus between education and entrepreneurship, we’d be better off starting there.