Woman counting gold coins on desk.

Why starting a business after university isn’t always realistic

Have you seen The Social Network? It dramatizes Mark Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise from college dropout to the world’s first social media mogul. Before news networks began reporting on Facebook’s enablement of fake news, Zuckerberg was the model for starting a business after university and Millennial success in general—and everyone wanted a slice.

Most media boiled it down to a simple formula:

  1. Come up with an awesome idea.
  2. Become a self-taught computer sciences prodigy.
  3. Leave college to work on a product.
  4. Get investment money and make “disruptor” your middle name.

Simple, right? Yet there’s a reason you don’t know too many people who founded a company right out of college. The content we consume creates a cult of entrepreneurship. You don’t need to buy into it to become successful, though. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there led full careers before staking a claim for themselves, and getting a degree will still help you earn an extra $1,000,000 throughout your lifetime.

This is how it works.

 

Publishers perpetuate the entrepreneur mythos for a reason

News headlines are filled with drop-outs and engineering or computer sciences graduates creating the latest and greatest app, ecommerce website, or some other kind of technology.

Good for them, but we’re not all programmers… but the media surrounding those people tries to make us wish we were, and that’s part of the problem.

Just because these success stories are championed in Entrepreneur, Inc., or Business Insider doesn’t mean they’re the norm. The reporting on those stories is disproportionate to those start-ups in society.

What you might not know is that online news is a business—in fact, even fake news follows a broadly similar business model. It’s not just that these online publishers pick the most interesting stories; it goes deeper than that. Online publishers actually have a vested interest in creating as much content as possible to drive their revenue, and convincing students they should be starting a business after university is a lucrative market—especially during recessions and pandemics.

Readers don’t need to start an actual business for publishers to drive revenue. Readers just need to buy into the culture that puts entrepreneurs on a pedestal and hints that you could be in the spotlight one day, too. That’s not a knock against entrepreneurs or people following their dreams, just a sober look at the media that surrounds the most famous of them.

Every visit to their website can trigger a revenue opportunity:

  • Viewing or clicking on an ad.
  • Following one of their affiliate links and buying something off-site.
  • Downloading a digital product, like an ebook or a course.
  • Signing up for an email subscription to bring you further into their marketing funnel.

Content websites like Entrepreneur or Business Insider have teams of modestly paid content writers to scour the web for celebrity founders and rising stars with shiny new success stories or some “inside track” on the latest social media marketing strategy. You hear stories about people who started companies with a brilliant Instagram marketing campaign all the time, but even the people authoring those articles know it’s not the norm (and often not a repeatable feat).

Publishers need to generate as much content as possible in order to expose readers just like you to ads and affiliate offers, which comprise their predominant sources of revenue. They craft headlines and write articles in a way that makes you feel like you should be a part of the entrepreneurial club, rhyming off headlines like “15 things successful entrepreneurs just do differently.” It’s designed to make you wonder if you’re cut out for it, enticing you to click.

What you need to remember is that content writers need to lean on those psychological tricks because they’ll be out of jobs if you stop reading their work. It’s a form of marketing… and it works.

The lesson: Don’t buy into the culture that measures worth by a single lifestyle (often tied to financial success), or one that perpetuates the worldview that everyone needs to be their own boss right away and forever after.

That pitch is a media business model, not actual advice.

 

Starting a business after university after 40 is your best shot

I used to think I’d be a failure if I didn’t found a start-up. So, I dutifully went to my friend’s father, an actual entrepreneur, and told him about an idea for a social network of my own (original, I know). Of course I had no idea what kind of undertaking it would be: I’d never seen market research, business plans, or revenue models in my life.

The advice he gave me was as practical as it gets.

Here’s what he said: Nobody really becomes an overnight success. Even if I’d possessed similar skills and had an equally good idea compared to Mark Zuckerberg (spoiler alert: I didn’t), here’s the reality: most people need to learn a lot before they can start tackling real business challenges, whether that’s within a company or as an entrepreneur. Skills and knowledge come with experience, and experience comes from learning over time. In fact, he said that my ability to learn was my greatest asset.

And you know what? My friend’s dad was absolutely right. This person, who had actually built a company from nothing, told me how he spent years working in his given industry before setting out to build something for himself. He knew the industry’s gaps and opportunities pretty intimately when he started, but virtually none of that happened before age 40. If he’d immediately taken a stab at starting a business after university, then he would have missed out on the two decades of experience that empowered him to become an entrepreneur in the first place.

Statistics corroborate his advice, too. According to a study of 2,700,000 startup founders conducted by the Kellogg School of Management, founders at the age of 40 are 2.1x more likely to found a successful startup than a founder at the age of 25. That’s a 210% higher chance of success!

In fact, the study has a few golden nuggets worth sharing:

  • A 40-year-old is 1.3x more likely to found a start-up in the top 0.1% than a 25-year-old.
  • 40-year-olds make up 3% of startup founders, while 25-year-olds only make up 1.7%.
  • The average founder’s age is 41.9 years.
  • Founders of the most prolific start-ups averaged at age 46.7 years of age.

Experience and wisdom make all the difference, and you’ll be in good company if you wait until your early 40s to take an entrepreneurial journey. It’s a lot easier to build up your life savings, too.

Success doesn’t happen overnight, and buying into that myth will have toxic consequences for your self-esteem. The truth is that founders need their own foundation of experience… and that takes time to build.

 

You need to build skills first

The entrepreneurs that you read about are usually placed on a pedestal by the people reporting on them. Some of them have incredible advantages in addition to their work ethic, like an unnaturally high IQ or the ability to thrive on minimal sleep for long stretches of time. Some were just hard working people who believed in a dream at the right place and the right time, like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

There are a few misconceptions to unpack here:

  1. Most media only covers ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs for national or international companies, and 95% of them are technology companies. These are the Elon Musks of the world.
  2. Most entrepreneurs are consultants, small business owners, consultants, or independent specialists operating at a local or regional level, but don’t invent new technology.

The media infatuation with start-up culture has a lot of us convinced that we need to come up with software or a widget to be “successful,” but that’s as toxic as it is misleading. Many of the most successful “everyday” entrepreneurs out there used what they learned in their careers instead of immediately starting a business after university, and it worked.

Plenty of successful entrepreneurs started later in life, including some technologists. Consider these entrepreneurs:

  • Oprah had a fantastic career in journalism before becoming one of America’s most recognizable faces.
  • Reid Hoffman worked at Apple, Fujitsu, PayPal, and another tech company before founding LinkedIn (he has a Master’s degree in philosophy, by the way).
  • Vera Wang led a career as a fashion journalist long before founding her own company.
  • Stan Lee worked as a junior comic writer and served in the military before writing his first Fantastic Four comic.
  • Arianna Huffington earned a Master’s degree in economics and authored several books before founding the Huffpost.

Those are just the famous ones, too. If you ask around in your area, you’ll probably find that a lot of local business owners started after building a repertoire of skills, learning about their industries, and grappling directly with the business challenges that they solve as entrepreneurs. Most of them were their own “ideal customers” experiencing the same business pains they solve.

The stories that most publications cover are the overnight successes. Most of those are so closely tied to happenstance that you’d never be able to learn anything from them. That’s why you don’t know too many college drop-out billionaires, even among famous billionaires.

Take a page from those entrepreneurs and give yourself time to explore, learn, and grow. The business world changes all the time; it’s not as if there won’t be opportunities down the road. In fact, plenty of entrepreneurs become consultants by doing one thing (or a few things) really, really well—and they could only accomplish that with experience!

 

You need to build a network first

You’ve probably heard, “your network is your net worth,” right? Connections are even more important for starting a new business than they are for landing a job—and for reference, they are incredibly important for landing new jobs.

So how do you make use of your connections to launch a new business right out of college?

Very few people actually can because they don’t have networks yet.

I know an entrepreneur who told me that she struck out in her mid-twenties to be her own boss and it failed horribly. Now she writes internal communications for large financial institutions, many of which have international operations (think Manulife Financial and John Hancock). She charges $150 per hour, and these companies happily pay that rate because they like her work and she has good relationships with her contacts inside those companies.

 

Why?

  1. She knows people who make decisions in the financial services industry.
  2. She knows those people because she spent 15+ years working in the industry as an employee.
  3. She built an effective skill set and applied it to a niche within her industry—all without reinventing the wheel or some novelty app.

She told me that becoming her own boss before she’d built her network and her skills was a decisive miscalculation in her 20s, but by the time she made it to her 40s it was the best thing she ever did for herself. The key difference was an extra 15 years of networking, personal branding, and skill-building. That was her foundation for success.

Oh, and she majored in history and English—not computer sciences, economics, business administration, or accounting.

Don’t let anxiety gnaw at you just because you haven’t changed the world.  Live for yourself, pursue what’s interesting, and thrive on grappling with the practical problems in your area of interest. As long as you find satisfaction in that then you’ll be content as an employee or working as your own boss.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.