Inspired by Mark Zuckerberg, the young entrepreneurs I meet often think the best way to succeed is to drop out of college and launch their startups immediately. They've got no time to waste.
But if you really want to build a company that changes the world, I recommend a contrarian approach: Get a job at a well-known company for a year or two, like another famous college dropout, Steve Jobs. Before Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976, he worked for Atari, the video game maker that invented Pong. The two years he spent there influenced everything from the components he later used in Apple's computers to the culture at Apple, where work was about having fun.
This advice might sound like blasphemy from the founder of the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO today). However, among the entrepreneurs we advise at my firm Gazelles and that I've studied for my recent book Scaling Up, companies scale-up further, faster if they are launched with intact teams, spun-out from larger companies. This is because one of the biggest obstacles to growth is not knowing how to establish the scalable infrastructure for building a substantial-sized company. The best way to learn how to scale is to spend some time working for a behemoth organization. Giant firms may have large bloated bureaucracies, but those in the FORTUNE 500 still generate 2.5 times the revenue per employee than many small to midsize firms.
So how do you find the right company to join? Research those in your industry with the best leadership training programs and finagle your way into getting a job there. Chief Executive publishes an annual list of the best companies for leaders. This year, General Electric was number one, IBM placed second, and P&G came in third among public companies; Deloitte, Hilti (surprised?), and Dell were the top three private firms with the best leadership training.
Once you're situated in your cubicle, keep your head down. Work hard. Volunteer for a nasty project no one wants to do. If it succeeds, you'll quickly be invited into the inner circle. And if the project fails, no one will blame you. You're better off making mistakes on someone else's dime than your own.
Make friends with your colleagues and attend every conference you can. Figure out whom you'd like to help you launch your startup, so you don't have to go it alone. Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman, author of The Founder's Dilemmas, discovered that companies' founding teams are most stable when the members have a prior professional relationship. That's why startup accelerators like Techstars prefer teams of founders to solo entrepreneurs.
Once you're ready to start your company, do it in the evenings or on the weekends. Stay stealth. Then jump ship with your co-founders.
Should you work in the corporate trenches for 20 years? Of course not. Once you've put in a year or two at a big company, you'll have learned what you need to know and picked up a valuable calling card. It's like going to Harvard. You've gotten your ticket punched. It doesn't much matter whether you were there 10 months or 10 years. What matters is how you use the knowledge and connections you picked up to create a killer business.