Aug 30, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Starting a business is a leap of faith for entrepreneurs of any age.

For undergraduates looking to take a risk with a fairly wide safety net, launching a start-up has its perks. It is no surprise that student entrepreneurship is on the rise, with millions of college students going for that first angel investment right out of high school. 

Many universities even have business incubators for students who want to give it a whirl.

It is not for the faint of heart, though. As venture capitalists make some hearty investments in young entrepreneurs and the gig economy continues to explode, these youthful programs in entrepreneurship help to develop skills, build companies, and create jobs.

What can young entrepreneurs learn from the successes and failures of Silicon Valley? A lot. 

Let's take a closer look at a few lessons young entrepreneurs should learn before they take that leap. 

1. Don’t drop out of school

The successes of drop-outs are few and far between -- outliers in a highly competitive, highly selective field. 

The idea that some Silicon Valley startups embraced -- that dropping out is the way to go -- is much overplayed. For every inspirational school-dropout story you hear, there are several other school-dropout stories you do not hear, precisely because they have not had great business success worth telling thousands of people about.

So stay in school.

In 2011, PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel started The Thiel Fellowship, which would pay deserving students $100,000 to drop out of college to start a business. 

He wanted to show young entrepreneurs that they did not need school and that most of their coursework was overpriced and unnecessary.

While some of his startups earned high public praise, the fellowship is generally considered to have not worked.

Thiel has since reimagined a more successful fellowship by offering a scholarship and alternative business education to budding entrepreneurs.

2. Know when to approach investors.

The short version: not too early. 

Do your homework. You should approach potential investors once you have established your primary metric. Make sure your business plan is solid, and you have a clear vision for where you want to go and how you are going to get there.

You want investors to take you seriously, and not like some young kids who dreamt up an idea the night before.

Practice, anticipate investors' questions and keep at it until you feel like you have something solid. 

3. Find a mentor

You need to talk to someone who knows what they are doing, who wants to see you succeed, and who has the time and energy to show you the ropes.

Personal connection is key.

Startups need coaching, connections, and funding. The right mentor can help with all of those. You need the outside perspective of someone who's been there, done that. 

Want to find one? Start with your university, and then start reaching out to incubators. You will find someone. Be picky. It's worth it.

4. Evolve 

You are never done. The project is never finished. Think of everything as a work in progress. 

You will need to constantly update your product, reinvent your systems, and overhaul ideas. It's a never-ending process. If you stop too long, you will not make it. 

Silicon Valley, that bastion of tech innovation, did not see success overnight. It took millions of people making millions of small decisions in the name of doing better all the time. 

5. Contrary to what you think, the best entrepreneurs are middle-aged

In Silicon Valley, it may look like everyone is under 30, refreshing, and interesting. 

Some of that is true. Some of it is not. 

Vivek Wadhwa, who wrote the 2014 Washington Post article, "Here’s what it actually takes to make it as an entrepreneur," found that the average and median age of successful technology company founders when they started their companies was around 40. 

He said, "seventy percent were married when they launched their first business; an additional 5.2 percent were divorced, separated, or widowed.  Sixty percent had had at least one child, and 43.5 percent had had two or more children."

He went on to cite the ages of several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs when they founded their companies: Salesforce's Marc Benioff was 35, LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman was 36, Netflix's Reed Hastings was 37, Zynga's Mark Pincus was 41, Juniper Networks' Pradeep Sindhu was 42, and Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs was 52.

Take heart. If you are not ready, wait. You will know when the time is right.

Learn more about entrepreneurship. 

 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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