Richard Branson: How to decide whether to quit studying to pursue a business idea

Many entrepreneurs come up with ideas for businesses while studying – they're then faced with the decision of continuing with their studies, or taking a chance on their business. Should they drop out of college, like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, to follow their business dreams? Richard Branson, who dropped out of school at the age of 15, has some advice…

“You can likely name several highly successful entrepreneurs who opted to ditch school in favour of focusing on an enterprise,” he writes. “But remember: For every Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, there’s a thousand other entrepreneurs for whom things didn’t quite work out.”

While he says that he doesn’t want to discourage people from starting businesses, he says “it’s always good to be realistic about the challenges ahead”. “Entrepreneurship is all about risk, and you have to be prepared to accept failure at some point on your journey,” he adds. “The good news is that you’ll learn a lot along the way.”

Making a decision about whether to drop out of university is tough, and Richard acknowledges that some will try to ensure that the door remains open so they could return to university and study later.

“Studies can often be returned to at any stage, but timing is more often than not crucial in business. Just think of all the successful entrepreneurs who attribute their success to being in the right place at the right time.”

One example of entrepreneurs who took a risk on an opportunity they spotted at the right time is Maureen and Tony Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet. In 1972, the newlyweds decided to go travelling and venture as far from London as they could. Over the next six months they travelled through Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Australia and other countries on a shoestring budget – all with little prior knowledge of the places they were going. When they returned home to London, they realised that other travellers would like to go on the sort of trip they had taken, but with no guidebooks available it was hard. So they took it in turns to go out on the road and visit as many different countries as they could. As they went, they packed their rucksacks full of as many leaflets and as much information as they could find.

Richard Branson walking meeting with Virgin StartUp

Their first travel guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, was released in the 1970s. They entered an industry with little knowledge of what they were doing, but their entrepreneurial instincts told them they were on to something good, so they quit their jobs and devoted all they had to their business. 39 years later, they sold Lonely Planet to BBC Worldwide for a profit of £130 million.

Ultimately though, if you’re trying to decide whether you should study or start a business, Richard says “you’d be better served to learn on the job than in the classroom.” Adding: “My advice would be to assess the situation, then speak to friends or family and get a sense of what your support network looks like. After that, weigh up what it would take to give yourself every chance of success.

“If you’re still undecided, I say: Screw it, just do it.”

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