In silico veritas.

Of college degrees and start-ups

Posted: October 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Tech | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Former classmate Ben Casnocha has some astonishing statistics up at his blog about the underemployment of degree-holders across the spectrum:

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

That’s from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. […] For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one’s economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.

Pivoting off this information, TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy covers an intriguing Founder Institute presentation (with video) from angel investor Mike Maples about resisting the urge to give in to the predominant build-it-and-flip-it culture in the Valley right now:

In the talk below, Maples walks you through three examples he invested in: ngmoco, which did a pricing pivot; Chegg, which did a product pivot; and Odeo/Twitter, which did an entire company pivot. Maples doesn’t do that thing that startup PR departments love. He doesn’t sugar coat how horrifying and uncertain these moves were at the time. He doesn’t make the startups or investors sound like they’d seen the future through some magical product/market oracle. He shows that each of these pivots were made out of semi-desperation, and he talks about how risky each move was. In each case the entrepreneurs had something, but not enough to make a big business and they had to throw that thing they’d already slaved over away in order to get to the larger business. Watch the video for the details.

I keep hearing from other super angels out raising funds that LPs are ga-ga over Maples and until this talk I wasn’t sure why. Now, I get it. In one talk, he details severals ways his investing model is distinct from the broader super angel movement: He still believes this business is about homeruns. He still believes you have to have a business model. He believes product fit isn’t just lots of people using your product, it’s about being able to make money delivering it, otherwise, it’s “wasted innovation.” He still believes that huge upside usually requires huge, gut-wrenching risk.

On the one hand, a college degree generally (but especially in economics or business) instills the kind of attention to detail and perspective that would give potential entrepreneurs a good idea of how to craft a solid business model — and, more importantly, to know when to “pivot” (that is, transition) to a new state of doing business in order to make the business a sustainable entity. Of course, anyone who knows Ben knows that he has repeatedly extolled the idea of self-education for those highly predisposed towards curiosity and motivation, so it’s clearly not required for everyone. But for the vast majority of entrepreneurs, is a college degree still required to achieve something greater than a build-it-and-flip-it product?

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