By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan
A month ago, I turned down a very good opportunity from a just-funded startup to continue my job for the rest of the summer. It was in an industry I was passionate about, I would have had a leadership position and having just received a raise, the pay would have been substantially higher than most jobs for 20-year-old college students. I had worked there for a year (full-time during last summer and part-time during the school year) and common sense should have pushed me to go back.
But I didn’t.
I’ve never been one to base my actions on others’ expectations. Just ask my dad, with whom I was having arguments about moral relativism by the time I was 13. That’s why I didn’t think twice about the implications of turning down an opportunity most people my age would kill for to start my own company. When you take a leap of faith of that magnitude, you can’t look back.
That’s not how the rest of the world sees it, though. As a college student, I’m expected to spend my summers either gaining experience in an internship or working at some job (no matter how menial) to earn money. Every April, the “So where are you working this summer?” conversation descends on the University of Michigan campus like a storm cloud. When I told people I was foregoing a paycheck for at least the next several months to build a startup, the reactions were a mix of confusion and misinformed assumptions that I couldn’t land a “real job.”
This sentiment surfaced recently with a conversation with a family member that asserted I needed to “pay my dues to society” by joining the workforce. And most adults I know tell me I need to get a real job first before starting my own company. One common thought is, “Most of the world has to wait until they’re at least 40 before they can even think about doing something like that. Why should you be any different?” It almost feels like people assume we have some sort of secular “original sin” that demands I work for someone else before I do what makes me happy. Even when I talk to peers who don’t understand entrepreneurship, their reaction can be subtle condescension and comments like, “Oh that’s cool, but you’re going to get a real job next summer or when you graduate, right?”
This is my real job. Building startups is what I want to do with my life, preferably as a founder. I’m really bad at working for other people. I have no deference to authority figures and have never been shy to voice my opinions, oftentimes to my detriment. I also can’t stand waiting on people that are in higher positions than me. It makes me feel like I should be in their place and really gets under my skin. All this makes me terrible at learning things from other people and taking advice. I need to learn by doing things and figuring out how to solve problems by myself. I’ll ask questions later.
As a first-time founder, I can’t escape admitting that starting fetchnotes is an immense learning experience. I’m under no illusion that I have any idea what I’m doing. I’m thankful I had a job where I learned a lot of core skills on the fly — recruiting, business development, management, a little sales and a lot about culture creation. But what I learned — and what most people learn in generalist, non-specialized jobs available to people our age — was the tip of the iceberg.
When you start something from scratch, you gain a much deeper understanding of these skills. Instead of being told, “We need Drupal developers. Go find Drupal developers here, here and here,” you need to brainstorm the best technical implementation of your idea, figure out what skills that requires and then figure out how to reach those people. Instead of being told, “Go reach out to these people for partnerships to do X, Y and Z,” you need to figure out what types of people and entities you’ll need to grow and how to convince them to do what you need them to do. When you’re an employee, you learn the “what”, when you’re a founder, you learn the “how” and “why.” You need to learn how to rally and motivate people and create a culture in a way that just isn’t remotely the same as a later-hired manager. There are at least 50 orders of magnitude in the difference between the strategic and innovative thinking required by a founder and that of even the most integral first employee.
Besides, put yourself in an employer’s shoes. You’re interviewing two college graduates — one who started a company and can clearly articulate why it succeeded or failed, and one who had an internship from a “brand name” institution. If I’m interviewing with someone who chooses the latter candidate, they’re not a place I want to work for. It’s likely a “do what we tell you because you’re our employee” working environment. And if that sounds like someone you want to work for, this article is probably irrelevant to you anyway.
That’s why I never understood the argument about needing to get a job or internship as a “learning experience” or to “pay your dues.” There’s no better learning experience than starting with nothing and figuring it out for yourself (or, thankfully for me, with a co-founder). And there’s no better time to start a company than as a student. When else will your bills, foregone wages and cost of failure be so low? If I fail right now, I’ll be out some money and some time. If I wait until I’m out of college, have a family to support and student loans to pay back, that cost could be being poor, hungry and homeless.
Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of hyperbole, but you get my point. If you have a game-changing idea, don’t make yourself wait because society says you need an internship every summer to get ahead. To quote a former boss, “just shit it out.”
Alex Schiff is a co-founder of The New Student Union.