If we go by our favorite startup legends, entrepreneurship is a natural career path for determined college dropouts. After all, Mark Zuckerberg left mid-degree to start Facebook, a company now valued in the hundreds of billions. Bill Gates, a serial classwork procrastinator, meandered away from his sophomore year at Harvard to co-found Microsoft. The list of names goes on: Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison. All were young, ambitious, and unbelievably successful; their stories are the ones that established the idea that entrepreneurs need to be young, hungry, and unwilling to follow the herd through university life and the corporate grind.
The last thing an aspiring entrepreneur wants to do is settle into a nine-to-five daily grind and further someone else’s vision, especially when they have a blueprint for innovation ready at hand. But here’s the problem — the straight-to-success story that made innovators like Zuckerberg and Gates household names is more of a myth than a template.
The truth of the matter is that while so-called “unicorn startups” and miracle founders make for inspirational stories, their experiences are very much exception to the rule. Statistics show that the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs are far older and more experienced than The Social Network would suggest. In 2011, analysts at the Founder Institute found that older age correlates with more successful entrepreneurship in founders up to the age of 40. Or, to borrow one Inc writer’s summary of the unicorn-founder mythos: “While tech publications are rife with stories of crazy-successful 22-year-old founders who become billionaires, the truth is that 40-somethings are much more likely to start companies–and succeed.”
Ambition is no replacement for hard-won experience. While some entrepreneurs may be able to found a business without taking the time to gather practical skills in the field, more will inevitably fail. Launching a startup without first working in the industry is a little like attempting to mountaineer before you know how to climb — you’ll end up blindly reaching for handholds and hoping you don’t plummet to the ground.
My own career progression colors my perspective on this. I first entered my chosen industry, real estate investment, as a college intern. I loved the work and the complex challenge that each day held; I wanted to find new ways to put the fragments of possibility that I saw together and create solutions that no one else had even thought to pursue yet. But as an intern, you don’t have the room — or even the desk allotment — to be an entrepreneurial thinker. Instead, your manager wants you to execute your role in a way that adheres to the company’s plans. You’re a cog in the machine — and leadership has little need for a gear that would prefer to grow, rather than turn.
It was a profoundly frustrating experience. There were countless moments when I wished that I had the freedom to pursue my own ideas. However, I knew that I wasn’t in a position to do so quite yet — and that I needed the experience and industry exposure if anyone was to take me seriously later on in my career.
After college, I worked for the company I interned at for a while before moving on to work at a bank. The feeling of frustration persisted; however, while I was in the latter role, a coworker gave me advice that would follow me for the rest of my early career. He told me that while being a corporate cog wouldn’t suit me in the long term if I stuck it out and stayed in my job for another few years, I would gain the tools and experiences I needed to thrive in real estate investment’s high-risk and high-potential environment.
He was right; after a few years, I left my job at the bank and managed to leverage my industry knowledge to make a name for myself in the market. My early successes allowed me to build a foundation that would ultimately help me launch my business to all-new heights of profitability.
The lesson here? Don’t pin your entrepreneurial career on being a Zuckerberg. Be patient, be thoughtful and take the time to learn about a field before you run headlong into it — otherwise, you may end up stumbling before you can succeed.
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