Should Entrepreneurial College Students Go Big or Go Small After Graduation?

Should Entrepreneurial College Students Go Big or Go Small After Graduation?
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I spoke to a group of University of Virginia students last week who were interested in entrepreneurship. One of them asked me, “Isn’t it a good idea to go to a big-name brand firm straight out of college? You can always go to a small company or start your own business later.”

It’s a very good question. There are indeed many benefits to working at a big company and getting that experience under your belt. You learn how large firms work and organize processes. You typically go through a very well-put-together training program. You gain skills and detail-orientation. You make some friends and contacts. You get socialized as a professional --  it takes a bit of time to get used to dressing well, being punctual waking up early every morning, etc. The money’s typically better than what you'd get at small firms too. Last, if you’re not sure what to do later, it’ll be a compelling couple lines on your resume.

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What a list. When a college student asked me how to spend his summers, I advised him to try and get an internship at a large firm for some of the reasons above.

Okay, so slam dunk right? Big company it is!

Well, it actually depends on what your goals are. Let’s say your goal is, “I want to be a middle manager at a big company.” Then, it really is a slam dunk -- you should head that direction right now.  

But let’s say your dream job includes things like,

“I want to have real responsibility from day one.”

“I want to feel like my work is having a positive impact.”

“I want to be able to touch a lot of things.”

And the big umbrella goal: “I want to be in position to start, run or manage my own business or organization within 10 years of graduation.” That is, you want to be a founder or CEO of either a company or non-profit while you’re still young.

A lot of people share that goal. But not a lot of people actually get there. In their senior survey, 10 percent of Harvard’s 2015 class said they hoped to be in entrepreneurship in 10 years -- but less than 3 percent are involved in entrepreneurship now. And if they’re not involved in entrepreneurship now, they almost certainly won’t be in 10 years. In 2013, only 3.6 percent of households headed by adults younger than 30 owned stakes in private companies -- a 24-year low.

So if you happen to have such lofty goals, the thought process gets more complicated. What do founders and CEOs do?  How the heck do you learn how to become one?

There’s no easy answer. Here’s a partial list of things that CEOs do:

They evangelize products.

They raise money from investors and sell to customers.

They open an office, buy furniture and arrange for cleaning.

They hire and manage people without much in the way of a brand name or resources.

They establish a culture.   

They convey conviction and determination.

How does one learn to do any of these things?

The absolute best way to learn how to do these things day in and day out is to work with someone who’s doing them. Imagine if you could team up with or shadow a CEO or founder for a couple of years. That would give you a running start.

Okay, so how can you work directly for a CEO or founder? That sounds like a dream job.

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This is where it gets a little tricky. If you work for a small company or startup, you may have a direct line-of-sight to the CEO and the executive team. You could be given real responsibility. If the company does well and grows, you could develop into a manager and leader in a few short years and have an amazing experience.

But there are risks.

I’ve found that many young people would actually prefer to work for a smaller company in a bigger role -- their main concerns are around the risks. What if the company goes south?  Then what?

It’s one reason I founded Venture for America. We connect enterprising young people with small teams to learn how to start or manage their own business. I’m sure of the value of this experience because it’s how I learned -- I worked for a small startup for four years before becoming the CEO of Manhattan Prep when I was 30. There is no way I would have been ready for that if I hadn’t seen my own CEO in action each day.

There’s a saying that “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The biggest piece of advice I would give a young person is to try to spend time with someone who has had a career like the one that you want, and then do your best to figure out how they do what they do.

You want to be a chef?  Find a kitchen. Want to be a filmmaker? Find a director. Want to be a CEO? Go find a role where you’ll see the CEO do his or her thing and pick up a thing or two. Think about the person’s whole life -- not just their job -- because they’re often tied together. What you see as a couple lines on your resume is actually thousands of hours spent with a group of people with values, stories and institutional memories.

If you want to run a big company, there are two ways. Join one and climb the ranks. Or start your own and make it great. The truth is that there is no one path to your goals. Your goals will shift and evolve over time. It’s a little bit like when you started college -- you probably imagined things a certain way, and it completely changed over the years as you gained experience. The same thing will happen with your career.

The main thing is to see yourself as a work-in-progress and know that every environment and organization will give you different attributes and tools to develop. There is no one right career path or way to start your career. You can learn what you need wherever you go as long as you stick with it, push and take it seriously. 

I’m now 40 and have seen hundreds of people’s careers and lives take shape. The risks aren’t what you think they are when you’re young -- the real risk is never giving yourself the chance to become the person you wanted to be.  

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