In the spring of last year, I dropped out of college. Leaving my friends and school behind, I shipped out to California to get my hands dirty with some real-world software engineering. Being one of the first employees at Gumroad, a San Francisco-based startup, was an incredible education in how to run a company. It meant learning everything from dealing with changing team dynamics as we grew to how to handle Wiz Khalifa's and Eminem's Twitter followers' barraging our website.
For a while, I had no plans of coming back. I really liked the idea of getting my education “on the streets.” A lot of smart people are questioning the value of a college education, especially for students interested in entrepreneurship. But after a year of working, I realized that there are a lot of advantages to having gone to college that I was giving up. In college, your only real priority is self-improvement, and you have the freedom to shape your own experience. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations, here are some great ways to make the most of your situation.
For starters, learn how to code; if you already know how to code, learn how to code better. I can't restate how important this is. For those of you with no programming experience, it'll give you a huge boost of confidence as an entrepreneur. Learn to build websites or mobile apps and you'll be able to prototype your ideas and show them off to your friends quickly, instead of having to shell out thousands to freelance developers. Learn how to automate your work and remove as many boring tasks from your daily life as possible. This will never be easier than when you're in school—right now you're surrounded by smart people, many of whom will be more than willing to help you out. Once you're working and focused on your job, this will likely drop as a priority.
If you already know how to code, remember that some of your professors are working on potentially world-changing technology—get to know them and try to get involved in research that you find compelling. While there's a chance that you might stumble upon a project with real commercial application, the real benefit here is getting in the habit of reading academic papers, which is one of the best ways to stay up to date with the latest advances in technology. Moreover, having a deep set of technical skills will broaden your perspective on what kinds of products and businesses you are capable of building. If you choose to start a business that tackles a hard technical problem, having a deep network of computer scientists and engineers you can call on for advice—or possibly employ—will prove invaluable.
In addition to just acquiring hard skills, college gives you something else: the opportunity to procrastinate and be OK with it. If you're working for or trying to start your own startup, focus is key. And while you're still going to have free time, it's hard to think about doing other stuff. While you're trying to get your linear algebra problem set done, on the other hand, it's natural that your mind will wander. Take those opportunities to think about how you'd improve the world. Think about the drudgery most people have to go through on a daily basis and think about how to eliminate it. Talk to your friends who are studying problems in other countries. A friend of mine who studied abroad in Kenya told me about how there are many farmers who don't know the price of grain in neighboring villages. Many of these farmers have access to cell phones and can text, so this is a problem that can be solved by software. Remember how in your first year you were told to “broaden your horizons” in college? This is what that means.
So, aspiring Columbia entrepreneur, appreciate the amazing situation that you're in. You have four years with no responsibilities except to make yourself better. Don't let newfangled technology or traveling to far-flung places scare you. To solve hard problems, you need to become capable of solving hard problems.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in computer science.
This article is part of a series reflecting on Columbia's start-up week, and the relationship between entrepreneurship and students on campus and beyond.
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