Student Life

Why I Didn’t Get a Real Job

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.



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


43 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Get a Real Job

  1. I identify with you wholeheartedly. I absolutely cannot work as a cog in a big machine. I’d just die slowly bit by bit everyday. The most uninspiring to do in life must be to climb the corporate ladder, especially if you disdain authority figures..well, all the best!

    Posted by stymt | June 6, 2011, 4:33 am
    • Thanks so much! I’ve only worked in small companies. There are some larger organizations that I would for sure have to consider joining (Facebook, Google, etc.) but that’s because they really maintain an entrepreneurial and startup culture. Even then, I get bored easily when working for other people, so I’d probably hop off eventually to start another company if I did join a larger one.

      Are you working on a startup right now? I’d love to hear about what you’re doing if you want to email me at alex(at)fetchnotes(dot)com.

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:34 pm
  2. “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?”

    like Warren Buffet said one day : “It’s like saving sex to your old age”

    Posted by abdeslem | June 6, 2011, 4:44 am
  3. Dude! Crush it!! Follow your vision and if you fail, you pick yourself up again and start again with more experience! Love your attitude… keep it up!

    You should follow TWIST to keep you inspired:


    Posted by Daniel de la Cruz | June 6, 2011, 4:51 am
  4. Hi, coming from Hacker news.

    I’m in the same place that you are. I have the same personality trait that you have too and have a very hard time with “authority”.

    “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?”

    My father told me something like that too. Interesting that he always dreamed about having the freedom to take decisions for himself, but his bosses never let him(and he got hight into the hierarchy of the companies he work for). Now he is retired but he is in fear(along with my mother) about me making a company.

    Now I know that getting a job, later do your company is not going to work. It is not only your wife and children and your home loan, it is that the most difficult company you create IS YOUR FIRST ONE. You need to learn a lot of practical skills and you need to fail to be able to success, and as you pointed out, they are different skills to working for someone else. It is way easier and easier then.

    If you had shaped your life around working for other people, at 40 you will have to fight not only with yourself, but with the life you have created around working for others. Some people around you wont like it and you will have to face them, way harder at 4x that at 2x because you have 20 years of routines!!. Humans are habit machines.

    I have entrepreneurs in my family too, and they are the fuel that makes me work on my projects every single day. You are the people you surround with. If the people that surround you(family friends and colleagues) do not know about making companies, you are going to fall down.

    My advice is that you get in touch with other people that are in the same place that you are, and with people that already got what you want to get.

    That way, for every “erosion of your willingness” from someone near you, you will have someone else replenish with new material and even making it grow stronger and brighter.

    Posted by Jose | June 6, 2011, 6:03 am
    • Hey Jose, thanks so much for the words of encouragement. I’d love to hear what you’re working on – shoot me an email at alex(at)fetchnotes(dot)com

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:27 pm
  5. I agreed with everything you said. (And I usually find fault with most things.)

    Just to add more to the argument against “paying your dues”:

    Most people who say that phrase work in industries w/ slow development and high barriers of entry. Examples: accounting, retail store, etc. They are protected through government regulation and/or high startup costs. So they don’t experience t0o many 20-something competing against them.

    Age/experience become a smaller factor when you are in a low-barrier industry. Examples: PC software in late 70s.

    By parroting “pay your dues” they are exposing their laziness in trying to understand a changing world. In most other industries, you can go bankrupt if your first 5 companies fail. In the software world, 5 failed companies can be considered your warm-up.

    Also: Their burning desire is to get a 6-figure salary from a “prestigious firm”. Your burning desire is to make useful stuff. They just won’t understand and don’t want to understand.

    Lucky for you, you can drown them out by talking with your customers. That should be more productive and fun.

    Disclaimer: I know nothing about business and this whole thing is just guessing.

    Posted by da99 | June 6, 2011, 6:29 am
    • Well that’s probably true for a lot of people, it’s not necessarily true that that viewpoint comes from laziness or being in a non-competitive industry. It’s just a different perspective for some people based off of their life experiences and what worked for them.

      And yes, I do plenty of drowning out by talking to customers!

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:38 pm
  6. Interesting perspective! Although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the internship route. Used well, they can lead on to much greater things and be hugely beneficial. I suppose it just depends on the person really. Good luck with all of your plans!

    Posted by daniellery | June 6, 2011, 1:29 pm
    • By all means! I don’t mean to disparage anyone taking an internship or going the corporate route. They lead where they lead and they are very good experience and lead to great jobs. I just wanted to argue that it’s not the ONLY way to pick up useful skills, as many people seem to think. Moreover, my bigger point is that you don’t need an internship or job to pick up skills every summer or every chance you have time. Spending your summer or year or whatever building a valuable product will teach you a lot.

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:31 pm
  7. I could not agree more with you. It’s like this post was taken right out of my head :).

    Posted by Matías G. Ventura | June 6, 2011, 1:32 pm
  8. I wish you all the luck in the world! This is coming from 50 something year old wishing I had a bit more freedome in the working world! I would love to be self employed, it gets much harder as you are older! GO FOR IT!

    Posted by LindaGeez | June 6, 2011, 2:10 pm
  9. Bravo! Really like your thinking, and great writing too. Never give up and don’t put too much faith in what others say, most likely they are miserable anyway. Be a trailblazer all the way.

    Posted by Blue | June 6, 2011, 2:48 pm
  10. Well said.

    Posted by Jackie Singh | June 6, 2011, 3:13 pm
  11. The main reason to work for others first is that mistakes can be very expensive. It’s much cheaper to let others pay for your mistakes.

    Of course, menial jobs that most college students perform are such a waste of time, that there are very few expensive mistakes you’re likely to make on the job…

    Posted by joe user | June 6, 2011, 3:21 pm
    • Agreed. That said, in a lot of jobs you just don’t have the room to fail and learn. I would say working for a startup, as I did last summer, is a good choice before starting your own as you get to “learn in chaos.” I don’t mean to say you should go from no experience to founder. I just want to say that you don’t need to get an internship or job every time you have time on your hands if you want to learn something — you’ll learn more by failing yourself.

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:43 pm
  12. Brilliant, well said!

    Posted by Nono | June 6, 2011, 7:02 pm
  13. Thanks so much!

    Posted by Alex Schiff | June 6, 2011, 7:44 pm
  14. Starting your own business is the only way to stay true to your goals.

    Posted by a better day ahead for america... | June 7, 2011, 3:23 pm
  15. Really well said, I enjoyed reading it and certainly identify with your sentiments.

    I agree that you just have to go for it and learn. The worst case scenario is an incredible learning experience that will teach you more marketable skills than any school could hope to.

    I dropped out of high school because I had a daughter at age 15. It forced me to learn in a way my peers didn’t have to. They just followed the rules.

    Startups are for people who are willing and able to learn in this extreme environment. And it’s freaking awesome.

    Posted by Eric Ingram | June 7, 2011, 6:24 pm
    • That’s quite an experience Eric. That’s the thing – you really need to force yourself to break those rules and make new ones. Those are the leaders of this world.

      I agree – it is freaking awesome!

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 10, 2011, 5:27 pm
  16. It’s a great idea to start off on your own. Most people think they should first get some experience before doing something on their own. I think the experience is a bit overrated.

    You can learn all that you need to learn on the way of creating your own startup. It is also a far more satisfying experience than working for someone else.

    Posted by Parag Shah | June 10, 2011, 2:02 am
    • I think some experience is good. A base is really helpful and you get a chance to observe how others do things. But do you need an internship or job every summer or break or every chance you get “to get ahead”? Hell no. That’s the biggest point I want to make.

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 10, 2011, 5:28 pm
  17. As a recent college grad in the same position, I couldn’t agree more. Really. I don’t think I could adequately express how much I can relate to this.

    Raging thumbs up for you, sir.

    Posted by Scott A. Johnson | June 10, 2011, 11:52 am
  18. Could not agree with you more as creating a new start up is the essence of everyone’s dream – to be your own boss and create something unique and valuable to the market. Also, at your age this is the perfect time to take these risks. But one thing I would urge you to think about it is that no man is an island and every successful venture requires a team that buys into the vision and committed to attain that – in other words, working with people, leading them and managing is all essential. Best of luck.

    Posted by Raghav | June 12, 2011, 4:01 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Raghav. I definitely agree – I have a great co-founder and a great team working with us, so that certainly helps keep my sanity!

      Posted by Alex Schiff | June 12, 2011, 6:32 pm
  19. Hey Alex, I know your dad. Saw his facebook brag about the aol founder tweeting your blog. I am a realtor for 12 years. Very self employed. Before that I had a small graphics company for 20 years. After the corporate climb, I never felt treated right. Was an assistant manager for TJ Maxx at 22 with 110 employees. Very stressed and unhappy. Loved my entrepreneurial attitude and glad that I forged my own way. Good luck to you.

    Posted by Metts Group - Keller Williams Realty | June 12, 2011, 6:17 pm
  20. Congratulations, Alex! Don’t wait to start, that’s the point!

    But try to learn from others, too… People will give you advices… that you can take… or not! That’s your power as an entrepreneur, and you probably improve any advice thanks to your own thinking! But don’t do the mistake to think you can learn everything by yourself ( you certainly will, but that will be slower).

    Posted by Sébastien Flury | June 14, 2011, 4:21 am
  21. I completely agree with you that the learning experience you get while doing your own startup is hugely different from the one you get when you work for another organization. In former – anything you do right/wrong can impact the startup in a significant way – there is complete ownership and complete responsibility. You become more resourceful – actually, there’s no choice but to be that. Whereas in case of latter, you have buffers, there are others who are also involved in making things happen. You can afford to be a specialist when you work for others, but when you run your own startup – you have to learn and excel at so many different functions.

    That said, startups are not for everyone – you really need an appetite for the roller-coaster. 🙂 But, it is one of the most incredibly awesome experiences!!

    Hey good luck, Alex!

    Posted by rachna | June 20, 2011, 4:34 am


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