The Young Entrepreneur’s Conundrum: Should They be Learning by Doing or Learning by Watching?

In the second article of our two part series (part one here), Techvibes looks at the Canadian entrepreneurial landscape through the eyes of students and young entrepreneurs. In this article we entertain an age-old debate: should young people start their own company first or learn and gain experience at a startup first?

As Canada’s federal and provincial governments invest more money into seed-stage innovation, startups are increasingly viewed as a significant part of the nation’s future economic growth.

Government institutions aren’t exactly discouraging the idea of high-potential 21-year-olds declining entry positions at large engineering firms. They could be starting the next Facebook after all.

PART I: Does Canada Provide Young Entrepreneurs the Resources They Deserve?

Amid the glamour and euphoria of starting up a web-based company comes a common debate: should these high potential young entrepreneurs be encouraged to start their own companies or should they “learn the ropes” for a few years before hand?

Jordan Satok encouraged young Canadians to get up and do something rather than to expect universities to provide them with resources. But when it comes to a university student who wants to found their own startup he says they should reconsider.

At just 18 years of age Satok became the youngest CEO to raise venture capital when OMERS Ventures led a round of $1.8 million to invest in AppHero. But that was only after he spent years working for Toronto-based startup Rypple (later acquired by Sales Force).

“The difference between having an idea and being able to execute on it in my mind, is the experience you have,” said the 19-year-old. “I’ve been working in this space since I was 12 and over the last few years I’ve received some really good mentorship from some amazing people and I wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing today without their help, so I really think people should focus on learning and growing before they jump in.”

Satok references a twitter exchange that he had with three fellow startup founders including Rypple cofounder Dan Debow. One founder described the trade-off between starting a company and working for a startup as “money now vs. experience you won’t get elsewhere”. Debow remarked that “too many folks forget that entrepreneurship is an apprentice biz sometimes.”

Ilan Saks agrees with Satok that there are benefits to taking a job at a startup and learning under others, possibly even making a comfortable salary. But the man behind The Founder Project, a Montreal-based micro investment fund for young entrepreneurs and student startups, thinks that young people should be starting their own companies. Regardless of experience many will agree that only while running a company will one retain the greatest amount of real experience.

For Saks a rational fear is if the entrepreneurial community discourages some of these young people from starting their own companies. Their growth as an innovative young mind could be stunted while working at a large company. Large companies are integral to Canada’s economic growth but the country’s top young minds shouldn’t be coding in a cubicle at a large firm. According to Saks there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be solving a new problem through their own innovative startup.

Saks mentions the case of Hamed Al-Khabaz, the former Dawson College student in Montreal who was expelled after exposing a vulnerability in the school’s data security. The college remains a laughingstock two months after the incident, and an easy target of ridicule among bloggers and critics.

One could argue that the college’s actions perpetuate a thought-process whereby young minds are discouraged from acting individually.

Al-Khabaz was allegedly offered a part-time job at SkyTech Communications, the large IT firm that designed Dawson’s site. According to Saks a logical next step for a young mind like Al-Khabaz should be starting his own innovative company. “That’s the type of student where instead of going to SkyTech, why doesn’t he start the next Norton anti virus?” he said.

Saks may present valid arguments but Michael Carter thinks students should be gaining experience at another startup first. As a program director at the Digital Specialization Program (DSP) at Ryerson University, Carter has prepared dozens of young entrepreneurs for the startup life.

“Behind every entrepreneur is an army of people with very specific skill sets and lots of experience that are supporting that individual,” said Carter. “If people were lucky enough to have the opportunity to start off for the first time and to be able to hit the road running that’s great, but I’ll guarantee that they’re going to need other individuals who have the skill set and expertise.”

Students who are taking the DSP at Ryerson University are in an incubation-like environment where they’re expected to build on an initial idea over a three-month period. While several student startups have emerged from this program, Carter still feels that they’re better suited learning under experienced entrepreneurs.

“Its really being able to understand that, ‘hey, I’ve got a great idea but I can’t do this idea all on my own’,” said Carter. “‘I need to have support and mentorship and I need to recognize that I don’t know it all so I do need to have those individuals who will secure the funding or secure the first job that will bring in the money’.”