Start Up or Join Up?

Recent graduates from post-secondary schools across Canada have an interesting choice to make: should they start up a new enterprise or accept an offer to join an established one?

The student start-up dream has been immortalized by wild success stories.  Legends abound of university drop-outs like Mike Lazaridis (creator of the BlackBerry) and Bill Gates, as well as graduates like Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg – all students who left university to pursue technology start-ups that changed the world.

Intelligent and creative students across the country are faced with a choice when they graduate.  They may have innovative and ambitious ideas for new businesses, but are inundated with offers from businesses that need the best and brightest new graduates to survive. When faced with the choice between working for an established enterprise like Research In Motion (RIM), Google or Facebook, and starting their own venture, how should a student decide?

The price of failure – risk – is often the largest deterrent for anyone considering an entrepreneurial venture.  Students who finance their education with student loans (about 26% of Canadian students according to StatsCan – I think it’s closer to 50%) might have no choice but to accept an offer of steady income that helps pay down their debt.  Even for those rare few students that manage to graduate debt-free, sometimes a steady paycheque is too tempting to resist.  When you graduated university/college, wasn’t money your largest concern?

Students might also be concerned about missing the opportunities for networking, training and resume building that a large enterprise might offer them.  There’s no doubt about it, yesterday’s start-ups are now large firms with fixed budgets that have attractive perks for new hires.  The trade-offs are similar to the differences between working for a small company vs. big company – only with added risk and potential reward. So what’s stopping young entrepreneurs from getting hired?

A new wave of student organizations have started promoting youth entrepreneurship, encouraging students in high school, college and university to pursue their innovative ideas. Impact, UBC’s Enterprize Canada and EPIC Tech are three examples of student run not for profit organizations that are fostering a new community of student entrepreneurs that aren’t afraid to innovate.  These organizations are supported by venture capital and consulting firms looking to foster a new generation of clientele, as well as government agencies that (like the rest of us) would like to see more jobs created on Canadian soil.

Universities are catching on.

The University of Waterloo has created an entrepreneurship-based student residence called VeloCity, where students form teams that develop actual mobile media businesses over the course of the academic year.   This business community holds seminars and information sessions about starting a successful venture, and acts as a gateway into venture support networks in the wider community, like the Accelerator Centre.  This is a trend that is sure to continue.

Now when asked the question, “start up or join up” what would you do?