There are few debates in the startup world more polarizing than whether aspiring entrepreneurs should pursue higher education like a college degree or MBA.
Peter Thiel, the first investor in Facebook, offers $100,000 each to 20 students every year to drop out of college, or skip it all together. On the other hand Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator, believes trying to start a company before graduating college is generally an awful idea with lifelong ramifications.
And while Elon Musk has famously expressed his disdain for MBAs, stating, “As much as possible, avoid hiring MBAs. MBA programs don’t teach people how to create companies,” plenty of business leaders in the startup world tout their MBAs as instrumental to their success.
Representing both ends of the higher-ed spectrum are two cofounders of TheTake app–CTO Jared Browarnik left Columbia University before completing his undergraduate studies to cofound TheTake, while CEO Tyler Cooper believes there is no way he would have founded TheTake or raised $2 million without his MBA.
What follows are their takes on the discussion:
5 Reasons You Don’t Need A College Degree To Found A Successful Startup
BY Jared Browarnik
People (parents especially) place an inordinate amount of value in getting a degree, and in some cases it may be warranted. But the truth is, in the world of technology startups, 99 times out of 100 nobody cares whether or not you have a degree. Nobody asks for your resume when you start your company. You don’t need a degree to file incorporation documents. The college you went to doesn’t matter to your customers, and if your customer base is growing quickly, it won’t matter to investors either.
One universally agreed upon fact about starting a company is that it’s exceedingly hard to do it on your own. Nobody knows everything, and a degree isn’t going to change that.
I have two cofounders, and none of us could have started TheTake without the other two. I’m a competent programmer, but people are far less likely to use your product if it looks like crap, so having a partner with design skills is an invaluable resource.
I’m not interested in making cap tables or financial models, but it’s work that needs to be done if you want to raise money, which is where having a partner with that skill set comes in handy. You don’t need a degree to start a company, but you do need to build a team whose skills cover a broad spectrum and complement you in areas where you’re weak.
The environment of most colleges is intended to impart a certain standard of learning to its students and mandates that each student fulfills specified course obligations. But if you rely predominantly on your professors to teach you, then their curriculum becomes the limiting agent in your education.
This arrangement works well for those students who thrive on a defined course of study. In my case, I started programming at 13, and most of what I know was self-taught by watching videos, reading books, articles, blogs… whatever I could get my hands on. My learning curve was accelerated because I didn’t wait to be taught.
The single most important aspect of building a product is to build something that people will love and want to use–the concept known as product/market fit. The only way to achieve this fit is to understand your customers, and the best way to understand your customers is to go out and talk to them. You won’t find the answer to what your customers want written in a textbook or on the chalkboard; it’s learned through experience.
A college degree is just a piece of paper with no value other than what we attribute to it. In most cases it becomes a symbol of success–a stepping-stone to achieving the American Dream. Too often we lose sight of the fact that college is about the journey, not the destination. The people we meet, the relationships we form, and the exploratory freedom we experience in college are orders of magnitude more important than the piece of paper we receive upon graduating.
I don’t have a degree from Columbia University, but I studied there for two years (as an Egleston Scholar) and I would not be writing this article otherwise. I spent nearly a year consulting my parents and my advising dean regarding what criteria should be met prior to making the decision to take a leave of absence. When TheTake launched to critical acclaim atop the leaderboard at the LAUNCH Festival in San Francisco, I knew my decision was made. I’m not suggesting skipping college, but I am advocating that each person seriously evaluate their current situation and future goals in order to make an informed decision.
A degree can be a good validator of success for some, but seeing as how I don’t have one, I’ll let my company be mine.
5 Reasons Aspiring Entrepreneurs Should Get An MBA
BY Tyler Cooper
Founding a tech startup is hard work and nearly impossible for a founder with strong domain expertise but little technical knowhow. Finding the right cofounders can make or break your venture, and there is no better, more accessible network available than a top college campus filled with bright, energetic young minds. When I enrolled in the MBA program at Columbia, I had years of experience in the film industry, an idea and passion to create something great. What I lacked was technical talent. So, when I got on campus I reached out to as many students and professors with technical expertise as possible. After about a month of emails, message boards, and coffee meetings, I found two incredibly gifted students who liked my idea enough to give me a chance.
When you found a startup, you go to war. When you’re at war, you need a team you can trust. While a college campus provides an incredible network, it also offers you the opportunity to forge tight bonds with those talented individuals.
After meeting my soon-to-be cofounders Jared and Vince on a Columbia Entrepreneurship message board, we enrolled in Steve Blank’s intensive one-week Lean LaunchPad course. It was a week of late nights, crazy deadlines, and lots of harsh but necessary feedback from Steve–essentially your average week at a startup. It was the perfect speed-dating process, creating a bond that formed the building blocks of our partnership. Not only did Columbia bring us together, but it also provided the testing ground we needed to assess how well we functioned as a team.
In the beginning stages of a startup, every decision is hugely important. You need a North Star to set a course, and the right MBA program can provide just that.
Columbia is making a huge push from finance to entrepreneurship and gave me the foundation I needed to get moving in the right direction. Two courses were instrumental in developing TheTake’s initial strategy: Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad and Bruce Greenwald’s Economics of Strategic Behavior.
If you are going to be the CEO of your venture, the skills you pick up in an MBA program will acquaint you with cap tables, fundraising, accounting, modeling, and a number of other proficiencies that you will need to manage your business. The right MBA program and courses can truly jump-start your venture and get you going in the right direction.
People associate great startups with great academic institutions: Facebook and Harvard, Google and Stanford, Dell and the University of Texas.
When we first started pushing the movie studios for meetings, we were “that startup from Columbia.” It opened doors and gave us instant credibility. When everyone is competing for that first meeting, having the brand of a strong academic institution behind you can provide a big advantage.
You don’t break up with a good MBA program when you graduate. If you’ve built the right relationships, the support can continue for years. For us, that started when Columbia provided us with nearly free office space in New York City for the first year after graduation.
Additionally, I’m in constant contact with the folks that run the entrepreneurship program, and just last month they invited us to a meeting with another Columbia startup and a handful of trustees including Ben Horowitz. The right program will want you to succeed and do everything they can to help, even after you’ve thrown your cap in the air.
If you’re a super-brain tech wizard like Elon Musk, you can probably bypass the whole MBA thing. But for the rest of us–those with an idea, domain expertise, and a whole lot of determination–I think an MBA is a must.
—Jared Browarnik, chief technology officer of TheTake, is an Egleston Scholar from the Columbia Engineering School. Prior to TheTake, Jared cofounded a software development company that has developed applications totaling over 250,000 downloads, including one of the first 75 apps created for the Leap Motion.
—Tyler Cooper is chief executive officer of TheTake. Before founding TheTake, Tyler spent seven years at MGM Studios where he ran the NYC-based cable sales office and managed partnerships with MTV, Bravo, History, and numerous other networks. He is a 2013 graduate of Columbia Business School’s Executive MBA program.