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Which College is for me?
Just a few months ago in April I was sitting on the floor of my living room in Bradenton, Florida with five acceptance letters laid out in front of me. I was wondering both which college was for me and if college was for me.
Let me go back a bit so you can understand how I had come to that April day.
I am fortunate to have been raised in a family that encouraged me to go to college from day one. Until I was about 13 I simply assumed that everyone went to college. I did not know where I would go, but I knew I would go to college one day.
In high school I had gotten pretty good grades and after doing well on my SAT and ACT I was excited as I might have the opportunity to go to a school outside of Florida. I had always been a very independent person and since I had been in Florida for about eight years I wanted to go somewhere different.
My search began in August of 2001. I sat down with a book that reviewed about 500 four-year colleges and started my search first geographically and then by major. I looked at the Northeast, Southeast, and California and focused on schools with good business programs. In the end I came up with an initial list of about twenty colleges. From there I narrowed the list down to about six by learning a bit a more about each one. Later that fall, I sent in an application to each of these six.
In the Spring of 2002 I visited each of these six colleges and got a much better idea about each one. I was able to take two off the list and was put in order the other four. It was down to the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Florida. My choice would depend on the financial aid package I received.
So here is where I began – sitting on the floor in my living room not knowing which college I would attend. Fortunately, a few days later, I received my financials from each school and after discussing things with my parents I settled on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the cost was considerably less than NYU and UPENN and outside the state unlike UF.
So now I knew I would accept my offer of admission from UNC. I was able to relax a bit. However, circumstances gave me a new decision to make. Should I even go to college at all?
Should I go to College?
You might ask why I was even considering the possibility of not going to college. I was a good student and had a chance to go to a great university on a near-full ride. Here is where my story really begins.
You see, since August of 2001 I had been working with a guy who had developed a product that was effective in treating arthritis in humans and pets. He had heard that I owned a website development business by reading an article on me in the local newspaper and asked me to come in and meet with him. I set up a website about his product and got a shopping cart and merchant account for the site so we could take orders online.
By that time I had some experience with online marketing so I after I got the initial site up I began to market it. We started an affiliate program and soon had a few hundred affiliates who promoted our product through their websites and customer lists and were paid a commission on each sale. We also started a monthly newsletter and sweepstakes and began to write a lot of informational content for the website. We set up two informational websites, one on arthritis and the other on arthritis in pets, and drove each to the top of the search engines for our targeted keywords.
Things progressed slowly the first few months but soon picked up. In January we did $31,130 and in April alone we did $87,578. These sales were with on one product with just the owner, myself, and one person to ship out the product. Our net profit was 51% and we were growing at 20% per month. In short, we were doing very well.
So it was now April and I saw that the company was taking off. I knew that if I deferred college for a year I had the chance to make quite a bit of money – perhaps one or two hundred thousand dollars. I was seventeen and had the chance to make a couple hundred thousand dollars in salary and commission if I would just defer college for a year. Now you can see why I was seriously considering not going to college right away after knowing my whole life that I would.
But I had to make a choice. Should I accept admission from UNC or defer? I had until August to make my final decision.
The Argument for Not Going to College
That summer the company had continued to do well and in July we did $131,000 in sales. I started writing a book called Zero to One Million that essentially is an extended case study on how I took the company from zero to one million dollars in sales (we hit $1,000,000 on October 26, 2002) and an exposition on the trends occurring in business and changes that globalization has brought. I began an accompanying website, http://www.zeromillion.com, and started writing articles for the site and collecting content and interviewing entrepreneurs. I was in the process of developing some of my own companies and products and was starting to receive some serious media attention.
During that summer, I had met two younger persons like myself who had deferred admission to their respective colleges and had built very successful companies. I knew I could do the same. I knew that college would prepare me to work for someone else and I knew that I did not want to work for anyone but myself. I knew that in college my time would be taken up learning things I would never use and be in a constant battle to get a good GPA so one day I could get a good job. I knew this was not what I wanted. I knew I had the skills and resources to succeed without college. I would have a book published in a few months, would develop some software and informational products, and my career as an in-demand author and consultant and successful entrepreneur and investor would be launched. I knew I could do it.
However, I wanted something more than this and knew there was much more to life than money. Further, I was not sure that I could survive the psychological stress of being 18 and not having a single friend younger than 27. I knew going to college, at least for a year or two would probably help me develop my network and would help me learn to live on my own without my parents.
In the end, I chose to accept the offer and on August 14, 2002, my eighteenth birthday, I drove up to Chapel Hill, North Carolina with my dad and moved into the Ehringhaus dorm.
So why did I choose to go to UNC? If I had the chance to earn more at age 18 than the average person with a MBA why did I forgo this opportunity to go off to college? And do I feel now that I made the right decision?
I felt I needed a change. I had lived in Bradenton, Florida for eight years and although Bradenton is a beautiful place with white-sand beaches just ten minutes away it offered me little stimulation. The city is a wonderful place for older persons to live, but perhaps is not the best for teenagers or young adults. I just felt that moving to a place with a good university, lots of young people, and a dynamic entrepreneurial culture would be for the better. I went off to UNC hoping to have a new experience, meet new people, and learn new things.
New Knowledge, New People, & New Surroundings
I know now that I made the right decision. Although I still become frustrated at not having enough time to work on my businesses or read what I want to read, I know I have done what has been best for me. College really makes one go through many formative and developmental changes. I have learned how to take care of myself. I have learned that I must put the twisty-tie back on the bread or else it will mold. I have learned that I should not put whites in with my colors in a hot wash. I have learned who I am.
Just as important, I have developed a network of contacts and built strong relationships that will be a great asset to me in the future. I have found other students like me and have made some friends that may turn out to be my business partners in years to come.
I wasn’t so sure about all this a couple months ago, however. In late September after having an especially grueling week academically I wrote the following in a journal I add to every so often,
"Now in college, I have begun to develop a helpless, poor man’s attitude of dependency. I have not had the time to do interviews or make many business contacts here. I have lost all the momentum I had when I left Bradenton. If I would have stayed I could have made $200,000 this year, bought a house, invested in real world education, and traveled the world at my leisure. Now, I am just a normal college student. Why am I here?"
Well two months later I have found reason to have a more positive attitude. Here is what I wrote in my journal earlier today after seeing my September entry.
"I have developed some great relationships and have made a good friend who I’ve been working with to develop some software products. I have incorporated my business, Virante. I have taken a leadership role within the Carolina Entrepreneurship Club and was able to go to Washington D.C. for a conference last week free of charge. There I met Michael McNyne who I talked to about getting my book published. I also met Mike O’Brien who I talked to about online marketing and his .com company in California.
Here I have met Jeff Reid, the head of the UNC entrepreneurship program. I have worked with him to develop an Independent Study in Entrepreneurship for next semester. He has also given me permission to take an MBA class here called "Launching the Company" next semester. I may also be able to do an Independent Study in Online Marketing next semester.
I was in the Daily Tar Heel, our school’s newspaper, on Thursday for my business and was interviewed on Student Television on Wednesday. Even with school I have still been able to work about twenty hours each week and have made some great progress on developing my websites. I have created entrecoalition.org for my non-profit organization, have created intellicontact.com for my email management software, have added additional content to and have begun to market zeromillion.com, and have redesigned virante.com and ryanallis.com. Plus I have been able to work on my book a bit.
In school I am learning calculus and statistics and accounting. All these things will benefit me in the future. I am also taking a wonderful class on globalization that really stimulates my mind. I am glad I am working towards my degree because if I had deferred this year I might never have come. I am glad I am here."
Why I am in College
In sum, I feel that these first three months of college have been a great experience for me. I have learned how to take care of myself and how to live away from my parents. I have met some great people and built some key relationships. I learned how to use the resources of UNC and will be studying what I want to study next semester yet still working towards my degree. Finally, I have had a wonderful change from Bradenton and have been stimulated by my new surroundings. I might have had plenty of money but I do not think I would have been living if I had stayed in Florida.
Now, whether I will stay here at Carolina until I graduate, take some time off to work on my businesses and book, leave college altogether, or transfer to another university is yet to be seen. My plan right now is to take my third and fourth semester off and work on building my businesses and getting my book published and then come back to either UNC or another college to finish off my undergraduate degree. I do feel confident that I will come back no matter how successful I am in my time off since I would love to study economics further and perhaps go off to the London School of Economics and go into finance from there.
Even if I never make it back to school after this year I know I will have tremendously benefited from my experience. It would have been much harder to succeed without the strong network that I now have and I surely would have had a tough time taking care of myself without ever living away from my parents.
College is not for Everyone
In case there is anyone reading this that is considering starting their own company and not going to college, let me say this. Be very careful. For most people I would say that both a college degree and the college experience would be extremely beneficial. I feel that I may have been part of a select group that already had such specialized skills and such knowledge about the way the world worked that I might have been fine without going to college. If you feel you are in this group by all means go for it.
However, make sure you have a mentor and a support team to help you along the way. Both of the two young adults I know who have been able to create successful companies without going to college had mentors that helped them with their businesses, developed a support team of lawyers, CPAs, and a board of directors, and hired top quality talent to help manage and grow their businesses. Further, you need a good idea. No matter how hard you work if you cannot provide a service or product that the market demands you will not succeed.
College can be a great time to refine a business plan and build the contacts needed to make it a reality, so choose carefully. However, at all but the best schools it may simply not be the best use of your time if you know exactly what you want to do and feel you have the means to achieve it. There are plenty of ways to network, develop as a person, and to learn what you want to learn without being in a structured educational environment. College is not a prerequisite for success in business by any means. However, if you have other goals such as becoming a teacher, scientist, engineer, or working in Corporate America a degree will be necessary.
On a final note, I have seen many motivated people not go to college and instead of building a support network and successful businesses have fallen into the hands of idleness and in some cases drugs. Do not let this happen to you. Either way, you will reach your dreams. Just keep at it and work hard.
Read part two of this article.