Drop Out to Start Up? The Debate and What I Really Think

As I said in An International Strategist’s Perspective on Dreaming Big, my recent articles have lead to insightful online discussions, including a debate that took place on my Facebook profile.

The article How Getting Rejected From Every University in Saudi Arabia Helped Me Launch a 5-Million Dollar Business sparked some controversy, especially because I wrote “Today, I encourage Saudis to drop out of school, abandon their family businesses, and quit their jobs if it helps them get serious about entrepreneurship.”

Many people weighed in on whether it is right to encourage students to drop out of school. In this article, I will share just a few of their comments, then explain what I really think about this controversial topic. For ease of reading, I have combined different sets of comments when written by the same person, as well as added links. Otherwise, the comments are unedited.

A Dream Alone is Not Enough

Khalid Suleimani, President of the SIRB angel investment network, disagreed with the idea of encouraging entrepreneurial students to drop out:

Even though I’m one of those who dropped out of the Ph.d program to start a business, I think you need to clarify that a dream is not enough.

Being equipped with the right tools, capital, and a proper study of the market is an absolute requirement. Taking a test to c if u can endure the pressure of business should also be recommended. Some people get into this for all the wrong reasons, loosing time and money they can’t afford.

I talk about this dropout myth in my book. Few became rich after dropping out, but the majority had a good education (YouTube, yahoo, and instegram) . Some only dropped out after securing/foreseeing a huge deal. Like the google founders, and bill gates.

Osama, I would not encourage someone seeking heigher education to dropout if he/she has the enrtrprenuership bug. Education might broaden his horizons to create a disruptive solution to change the world. Google founders algorithm was part of their Phd work. They only dropped out to commercialize it. Had they not went to Stanford, they would never had thought of it.

If u don’t have the bug, it don’t matter. Depends if your next job requires it or not.

Khalid is definitely right in saying that a dream alone is not enough. The idea that all it takes to become rich is “a dream and hard work” is a fairytale, as I discuss in 4 Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Before Launching a Start-Up in Saudi Arabia. A dream is just the beginning, but we all have to begin somewhere.

The person who left the next comment also expressed herself clearly on this matter.

The Dangers of Fetishizing Drop-outs

Nermine Hassan, Consultant at Elixir Management, took a strong stance against encouraging entrepreneurial students to drop out:

In my opinion, encouraging Saudis to drop out of school is very damaging to their futures and may lead to grave consequences. Ideally there should be no trade off between entrepreneurship and education and ideally education, knowledge and self development should be a tool of empowerement and knowledge towards more successful entrepreneurship. I think your real argument and underlying statements here should be: 1. to “up” the Saudi educational system to reflect the current needs of the job market / entrep opportunitites in the kingdom; 2. the israr / perserverance one must have (as you did) in the case that he was rejected from schools and jobs he was striving for and to keep trying. 3. Encouraging angel investors to give youth a try, and easin up legalitiles needed for startups as setting up an enviroment for entrep is critical in the first place.

Those who fetishize the dropout are perpetuating a very particular logical fallacy: The path of leaving school is what leads to success, and not the extraordinary abilities of those who chose it. “It’s insane—you drop out and you become successful?” says David Rose, CEO of early stage angel investing platform Gust. “I would posit the people who drop out and become successful do so in spite of it, and not because of it.”

Again, Nermine is right in advocating for an educational system more aligned with the needs of the business world, as discussed in the article Grading the Saudi Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: A Report Card by ICT Veteran Barig Siraj. Likewise, an entrepreneurship-friendly business environment and entrepreneurs with perseverance are important features of the ecosystem we need.

However, both of these responses seem based on the idea that I am encouraging most or even all entrepreneurial students to drop out.

The next comment shows a different interpretation of my article.

Enjoying Freedom to Fail

Moizuddin G. Muqri, Strategist for Business, Marketing & Social Media at House of Specialties Group, considered this to be my message:

Freedom to Fail is what you preach and you are right. Thank you for this article. Having gone through failures of my own in the last 5 years, I finally came to realize how much of those failures were a blessing for me. In fact the problem you highlight is more or less present in all of Arab & Non Arab Muslim societies. Everyone wants to play it safe, whether he/she’s a student opting for a career path or an established business owner or business familia. You are encouraging Saudis to believe in themselves & not be dependent on the goverment or the private sector which is in the control of few. God bless ya buddy. You are not encouraging people to drop out, you are encouraging them to not to fear possible failures for initiatives that will make them independent & real contributors to society, economy & nation

This last comment reflects my mindset in How Getting Rejected From Every University in Saudi Arabia Helped Me Launch a 5-Million Dollar Business. After all, that article is the story of how I wanted to go to school so much that I kept applying until I had been rejected from every university in Saudi Arabia, then kept trying after that.

I clearly don’t think getting a college education is a big waste of time for everyone. But it is also not a magical experience that is wonderful for all young Saudis and must never be given up or even criticized.

A college education is an investment. Like all investments, it is right for some people and not others. This is true for entrepreneurs as well.

My View: Dropping Out as a Business Decision

The idea of dropping out of school as a business decision, like quitting a job or choosing a co-founder, is offensive to some people. But everything in an entrepreneur’s life becomes a business decision eventually.

The idea that dropping out to start a business should be encouraged or discouraged takes away from how complicated this decision can be and how different the lives of entrepreneurs are.

I hope the following case studies will show why this is true.

Case Study #1: Kassem Bagher

Kassem Bagher is one of the co-founders of ShopMate, a mobile platform that connects customers to the types of products they are already interested in. He dropped out of KAUST in 2012 to launch ShopMate, and I think he made the right choice.

After first joining the recently-formed ShopMate team as an iPhone developer, Kassem felt himself swept up in the idea of this innovative new app. He believed so strongly in ShopMate that he soon poured his entrepreneurial dreams into the budding project. With his course load cutting into the time available to work on making the app successful, Kassem soon dropped out to devote all of his time to its development.

Alongside him was his friend and fellow ShopMate programmer Abdullah Asiri, the serious KAUST student who had come up with the app as a weekend project and ended up dropping out in pursuit of an entrepreneurial future he had never seriously considered before.

I know because I incubated ShopMate. Kassem, Abdullah, my team members, and I started out working together in Office 51 of the Al-Bassam Business Center in Jeddah. Eventually, our project evolved into App51, a company that designs and markets lifestyle-based mobile applications.

We worked together for almost two years. Now that investment for App51 is well underway, Kassem and Abdullah have partnered with our own founders to launch Waqood Tech, an IT company focused on providing mobile application, Web development, user interface, user experience, and branding solutions to other app developers.

So, looking at attending KAUST as an investment, Kassem weighed it against the investment of launching his first start-up and picked the second. Considering that, in his case, staying in school was taking time away from his goal of launching his own business, he stayed true to his dreams by dropping out.

Case Study #2: Rinaldi Medali Rachman

Rinaldi Medali Rachman is a member of the entrepreneurial team known as ROFix (Reverse Osmosis Fouling Index). ROFix has created an innovative device that predicts when membrane fouling will occur at a water desalination plant and what type of fouling will occur.

KAUST has provided Rinaldi and the ROFix team significant amounts of seed funding. Rinaldi’s team includes one of the Principal Research Scientists at KAUST, Dr. Noreddine Ghaffour, who has over 20 years of experience in R&D and aquatic management. Rinaldi also has access to KAUST’s Sea Water Reverse Osmosis Potable Water Treatment Plant, where his team will be able to test their prototype.

When I first posted the article titled How KAUST’s Latest Seed Fund Winners Are Shaping the Future of Saudi Arabia, which started the series on research-focused KAUST entrepreneurs like Rinaldi, one of the first comments posted was “I thought you said universities are waste of time”.

I responded “Yes they are if you are an entrepreneur with a ready product and a ready market. If you are a researcher, then a research center or a university is the best place for you. BTW KAUST is more of a science and technology park and less of a University”.

Honestly, why would I want Rinaldi to drop out of his Ph.D. program? The prototype he and his team created will need to be refined before it’s ready for the market, and KAUST seems to be giving him the money, mentorship, and testing grounds he needs. He is being true to his dreams by staying in school.

Swimming Against the Tide

Above we have case studies focused on two young, male KAUST students, one who found staying in school the best investment, and one who found dropping out the best investment.

I don’t think Rinaldi, the current Ph.D. student, needed much encouragement to stay in school. Our culture assumes that smart, hard-working young men like him will stay in school once they have begun a degree program.

I do think Kassem, the drop-out, needed encouragement to choose a start-up over school, as did Abdullah. For many people, it takes encouragement to go against ideas that society has reinforced for us, like the idea that all smart, hard-working young men should get a higher education.

That is one reason you hear me encourage some young entrepreneurs to drop out of school, but not the opposite. The entrepreneurs who are best off in school are already showered in encouragement. Instead, the entrepreneurs for whom dropping out might be the better business investment are often told by their family and friends that they will ruin their lives if they leave school. They need to hear the other side of the story.

Staying True to Your Dreams

What I want, like Moizuddin said, is for entrepreneurs to be true to themselves and believe in themselves, whether that means dropping out or staying in school. I want them to make a smart business decision as to whether finishing their education or leaving school will bring them closer to their dreams.

I don’t want anyone to go to college only to get a degree or impress their family, just like I don’t want anyone to start a business only to be known as an entrepreneur or impress their friends. Either of those paths would be a waste of time.

The best path for entrepreneurial young people is that which will offer value to our society and bring each one closer to his or her dreams. That path leads toward universities for some and away from universities for others, but in the end, both paths lead to a better world for them, and for us.


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