Why You Don’t Need a Business Degree to Start a Business

lawn mower
Plenty of teenagers run successful businesses without so much as a high school degree. Photo: Sean Hobson

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

Do you need a business degree to know how to run a business?

Most of the business lessons that have helped me become successful as an entrepreneur were not learned in college. They were learned by starting businesses that either worked or didn’t work, and constantly learning from my experiences. I learned many other lessons from business mentors, who were able to help me avoid some of the pitfalls they made.

I ran a lawn-care business as a teenager, which was later sold. The marketing plan for the business was something we came up with on our own: Let’s talk to friends and family and create fliers to leave on people’s doorsteps in the desirable neighborhoods where we wanted to increase our business.

If something worked, we did more of it. If something didn’t work, we tried something else. Simple as that. Not knowing how things “were supposed to be done” was actually an advantage, because we didn’t sit around and debate things for long; we just took action.

When we ran into a problem and didn’t know what to do, we turned to my business partner’s dad, a successful businessman who helped us with things like budgeting, strategy, and bonding employees to minimize risk.

If teenagers can run a successful business without a business degree, so can you.

Try, Fail, Learn

While attending college holds social and educational merits, getting a business degree from college is far from mandatory to starting and running a successful business. In fact, some say you’d be better off investing all that tuition money in your first business instead.

Billionaire Peter Thiel, a legendary contrarian and part of the PayPal mafia (along with Tesla founder Elon Musk), went on to start the Founders Fund and was the first outside investor in Facebook. Thiel has a fellowship program that offers ambitious, creative high-schoolers $100,000 grants along with training, connections, and mentorship that Thiel says cannot be matched or replicated in a classroom.

Simply put, many of the skills needed to start and run a business in 2015 can’t be learned in business school. The work ethic, optimism, judgment, and ability to sell and grow a business often aren’t taught in school.

Recently I was having a conversation with a college grad who doesn’t have a business degree. He has been working in business for 15 years and was thinking about breaking out on his own. In speaking to him, it sounded like he has the experience, skills, resources, and network to make starting his own business feasible.

Yet something was holding him back. What was it?

It was the fear of the unknown and a lack of experience taking risks and failing. He thought there was more to it, since he didn’t go to business school. He was wondering what he was missing, and what he might not know how to do.

I told him he wasn’t missing anything. Having graduated from the business school at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’m grateful for the quality education I received — but none of the skills necessary to start and run a business needed to be learned in a classroom.

I pulled out the “Business Model Generation” book and reviewed its nine building blocks of business with him:

  1. Customer segments: Who is your organization going to serve?
  2. Value propositions: What customer problem(s) are you going to solve?
  3. Channels: How are you going to deliver your value proposition to your customers?
  4. Customer relationships: How are customer relationships formed and maintained?
  5. Revenue streams: How will your company generate revenue? How many ways?
  6. Key resources: What are the assets required to offer and deliver your value proposition and serve customers?
  7. Key activities: What are the key activities of running your business?
  8. Key partnerships: What partnerships are needed to run your business? Will things be outsourced?
  9. Cost structure: Operating your business requires some capital and costs — what are they?

We recognized he already knew how to do some of these, while he might need some guidance or help for others.

You need a tech guy? You’re smart enough to find one. You need an accountant? Turns out he had a friend who is an accountant.

With the rate of change in business today, another key component of starting and running a successful business is the number of experiments you are willing to run.

Proponents of the MVP (minimum viable product) strategy have said to knowingly go to market with a product or service that is less than 100% done and let your would-be customers tell you if it is solving a meaningful problem and if they’re willing to pay for it.

If they say yes, then you have a business. If not, they will (you hope) provide you with feedback about what needs to be tweaked before they would be willing to pay for your product or service.

The optimism, perseverance, and action orientation to get started in a business are not taught in most business schools. The person who runs the most experiments with pig-headed discipline and continues to innovate, improve, and iterate on the business will be in far better shape than someone who attended business school and needs to make everything look good on paper before getting started.

Even without a business degree, just take massive action and keep running experiments.

Joe Sweeney is a social entrepreneur, committed to helping individuals and organizations grow and solve problems. Most recently, he was the co-founder and CEO at 100state, a nonprofit, startup community of entrepreneurs, educators, and innovators in Madison, Wis. Joe was recently named one of 53 entrepreneurs on Madison Magazine’s “M List: The New Who’s Who” for his work with 100state.