Monday, June 25, 2012

Finish a law degree or start a startup?

A friend of a friend recently emailed the following question:

I'm currently undertaking my penultimate year of law, a degree so far disastrously unappealing. Much of this comes from my lack of interest in practicing/ pursuing work in law and partly from the disenchantment in the tertiary education process.

The past 3 months have been a mental debate on what the best decision is in regards to either finishing my degree or cutting my losses and pursuing something of interest. Obviously given the stigma that is a lack of a tertiary education, all those around me have suggested that I suck it up and just finish. Personally I feel as though I would achieve more if I discontinued my study and attempt to immerse myself in the real world and gain some real experience.

So my query for you is - Q. Did completing your Law degree substantially contribute to your success with Shoes of Prey or do you feel as though with your drive and entrepreneurial desires you would have achieved your goals regardless?

Here's my response:

It's a tricky question. There are some programs in Silicon Valley designed to help budding entrepreneurs head down that path without going to uni first and there are good arguments for getting stuck into what it is you love now as you'll learn faster. However I think overall in Australia I would suggest finishing uni, for a few reasons:

1. As an Australian business community we're still culturally quite unaccepting of people who haven't completed a uni degree.

2. There are lots of great jobs out there that require a uni degree, and high marks at that. For example, Google won't hire anyone who hasn't finished uni at a good university, and with high marks. Working at Google was hugely influential for us in starting Shoes of Prey and Sneaking Duck. I learnt a great deal about online marketing there and met lots of amazing people, including Mark Capps who we went on to co-found sneaking duck with.

3. I met my Shoes of Prey co-founders studying law. I met Mike in about 2nd or 3rd year uni. Then I met Jodie in final year uni when I get involved in the Australian Law Students' Association (ALSA). Without finishing my law degree and meeting Jodie and getting to know Mike more, I may well be working for a corporate rather than being an entrepreneur as finding great co-founders is probably the most critical thing you can do in starting the entrepreneurial process.

4. Working for other people is a great way to learn. Mike, Jodie and I experimented with some startups while finishing uni and in our first years of working. Looking back, our ideas and the way we executed them were terrible, there was so much we didn't know. 5 years working for other people taught us lots which has helped us be successful now. Sure, we could have learnt similar things doing startups full time, but that is an expensive way to learn when it's your own money and you're not earning a salary. Learning and making mistakes while working for someone else is much cheaper for you personally.

For those reasons I'd suggest finishing your degree, but find things that you're passionate about that will help with your future entrepreneurial career. Ideally start a startup part time! For me, I hated studying law with a passion, however I got involved in the UQ Law Society as social convenor in my second last year then president in my final year. I loved those roles and running The L Card and the finances of a pretty large voluntary society (we raised over $100k from law firm sponsorship and sales of The L Card in my final year) taught me lots about running a business and motivating people which has gone on to help in running Shoes of Prey and Sneaking Duck.

Also, when you cut it back, studying doesn't take up much time. I attended about 50% of my lectures and became pretty adept at cramming at the end of the semester. I probably wasted a lot of the extra time I had, but you could easily start a business part-time and see how things go before quitting uni. Even some of the most celebrated uni drop outs - Mark Zuckerberg and the Google co-founders started their businesses while studying full time, and only dropped out of uni when their businesses started to take off - that's a much safer approach.

Even when starting Shoes of Prey, Mike, Jodie and I did that part time while keeping our full time jobs and only quit our jobs once we were confident we were onto a winner and the business was getting to the point where we could no longer do it part time. I'd suggest taking the same approach to your study.

That was my two cents. I and the questioner are interested to hear what others think, what would your advice be?


  1. If the questioner has done 4 of 5 years of a Law Degree, s/he'd be mad to drop out now. Law is an awesome grounding to a career in entrepreneurship and once you start practicing, you meet lots of people that will help you in a career as an entrepreneur including investment bankers and so forth.

    Plus after 1-2 years practicing as a commercial lawyer, you'll know enough to save yourself many thousands of dollars on legal fees during the start up phase (draft your own shareholders agreements, manage your own commercial disputes etc).

    I did an interview with David Bushby of Boardoom Radio on this very topic. Here is the link - Making the transition from law

  2. Hi Michael

    Controlling the entrepreneurial energy while being a student is very difficult!

    As a budding entrepreneur and having finished a science degree and being 1.5 years away from finishing my law degree (I hate it and university in general too), I would say the following:

    1. In my opinion,starting a business part-time is possible but you have to be careful about the nature of the business and time demands. I have started 3 - commercial real estate (employed but on an eat what you kill model); furniture removals business and a GAMSAT tutoring business. Of these, the third has been the most uni/time friendly as it is seasonal in nature and at most, I only lose 5 weeks of semester time at the start of the year. The other businesses really took it out of me both emotionally/time wise - it is very difficult to say no to clients that want a meeting and deals/opportunities have a special way of conflicting with exams!

    2. If you wish to re-tool and pursue another degree in the future, having at least 1 degree under your belt will allow you to take the short-cut option by doing a masters rather than the undergraduate equivalent.

    3. My strategy for completing my last 1.5 years of my degree has involved me changing from UQ to QUT so I could study on an external basis. That way, I only spend the minimum amount of time necessary on academic tasks. For example, I no longer lose 10% of my grade because I didn't attend tutorials. I also indulge my entrepreneurial energy by running my little tutoring business and reading anything remotely business orientated such as this blog. On top of that, I play as much golf as possible (my newest obsession) - I find it helps me to kill time while I wait for the days to pass until graduation.

    4. The older you get the harder it is to study, you remove yourself from your year group and consequently experience less 'social support' while studying.

    5. Access to capital is a big factor. If you are from a wealthy family/have an awesome uncle somewhere then go ahead and spend their money. But if you are spending your own cash that you earn at a low-end job somewhere - be careful and finish your degree first. If you take a 'normal' job, the % of your income that you will spend on setting up your first business will be so much smaller than if you earn $20 bucks an hour - trust me, I do the latter and it can be tough.

    In conclusion, my position is finish the degree first. Dabble if you must but at least do 2 subjects a semester so you are still chipping away.

  3. I query whether the questioner is considering completing his or her degree in order to obtain a "safety net". It is easy to be brought around to the idea that safety nets are useful. However, they can also be traps.

    I have never started a business but I imagine the process is so daunting and so hard that if I had something to fall back on (like a law degree), there is a real risk that I'd fall back on it (even if I didn't like it that much). I hear what Michael says about completing his law degree and the experiences and opportunities that gave him. However, another approach might be to deprive yourself of that potential safety net and just start doing what you really want. Sink or swim - no easy way out.

    There are plenty of lawyers in firms who gave themselves 2-3 years to get some experience and are still there after 10, 15 or 20 years - miserable and unhappy. There is little merit in entering the legal profession if you know that you do not want to be a lawyer. If you know you want to be in business then chart a course and start working towards it. In those circumstances, Michael's suggestion to initially work for others strikes me as a sensible way to get relevant experience.

    All of that said, if I were the questioner, I'd complete the degree. However, I wouldn't worry about summer clerkships in firms and would avoid applying for graduate jobs.

    1. Actively avoiding having a safety net is an interesting take. Mind you, after working at a law firm for 10 months after finishing uni I disliked being a commercial lawyer so much it's not an option as a safety net at all for me, in fact the experience of those 10 months probably made it less of a safety net than it would otherwise have been!

      Google is a very comfortable safety net. However once I'd resigned from my job there I don't think having that safety net slowed me down at all, I had so much drive to prove to myself that I could start a business that it didn't matter to my motivation whether that safety net was there or not. And without affecting my motivation, it was comforting and probably saved some sleepless nights to know that if things didn't work out I could probably go back to what I was doing previously.

  4. Great article Michael. I think your advice is spot on and I am glad I have a law degree even though I like you did not enjoy practicing.
    Adding to your conclusions I think you need to make a habit of finishing what you start as a business owner. Quitting part way through anything, when you know there is still something tangible to achieve, is not a great habit to be in. There are always brighter lights, but sometimes you have to learn as a business person that you must stay the course you have chosen. As an entrepreneur the biggest obstacle many people find is committing to the grind, or just simply committing to the process rather than just the idea.. the idea motivates us... but the process/grind is what gets us there. You never learn that reading a book or a blog no matter how well meaning you are, you learn it grinding it out.

    You are also a long time in business and there will always be opportunity for you... if you don't believe that you are not really entrepreneurial so the timing issue really doesn't come into it....obviously if you have an idea than get it started... I worked 2 jobs while studying and it is very doable.... so taking another 18 months to finish what you started with a degree that you will always draw on is certainly worth completing.

  5. Being an entrepreneur is all about taking a (calculated, well thought out) risk and most importantly, betting on yourself and your abilities. If you know you can do it, roll the dice and play the cards that follow to your advantage.

  6. Uni is great as it gives you the gift of time. So skip class, get notes from the previous year, and build your business in between cramming for exams or assignments. Either that or drop out.

    I don't agree with people when they say having a law background is great grounding for business, nor do I particularly agree you need to finish. As an ex-lawyer I believe that it's throwing good money after bad and as such is not a good investment - particularly if you are investing in something that you don't want to do or have any interest in.

    If you want to follow the entrepreneurial route, you are better off starting a lemonade stand and learning about what it takes to grow, your margins, the value of repeat customers and different marketing strategies to deploy - something that a law degree will never teach you.