Vinswers: Starting a business while in university

In which I answer a question about starting a business while you’re studying. Here’s the blog post in question.

Globe Trekking Before Exams

When I was studying in university, I’d watch Globe Trekker (from Lonely Planet TV series) just days before my exams.

Do you have interesting habits/activities you do before exams? If you have “homework music”, what are they?

Nobody hires a dodo hunter

My mom has a Vietnamese colleague with a law degree. Apparently, it’s more lucrative to sell cookware in Singapore than practise law in Vietnam. White collar jobs, welcome to 2011.

There’s an article on the Wall Street Journal, “China to Cancel College Majors That Don’t Pay“. China is tackling the problem of jobless graduates in her country. This is the start of the nightmare of something I wrote over a year ago on education:

They [the universities] might go create more graduates who make higher salaries. What might those be? Those academic fields where the economy pays well for, for example, medicine, law, accountancy, banking, biotechnology and computer science. The arts and philosophy majors are doomed, I tell ya. The education syllabus might well be skewed towards commercially profitable disciplines.

China is at least thinking about it.

A nation-wide purge of university majors that don’t pay means you’re essentially specialising. Individually, a university might use that as a hook, such as offering excellent biotechnology classes taught by world-renown people in those fields. Nationally, it will be a disaster.

How do you determine which majors don’t pay? The implicit assumption is you know which majors don’t pay now and in the future. The implicit assumption is that you know what’s going to happen next. You don’t.

When radio was invented, people thought nobody would pay for advertising, since it’s a broadcast medium to nobody in particular (anyone can listen in).

When the telephone was invented, people thought face-to-face communications would die. We still value face-to-face communications now. Never mind the teenage girl who texts 563 messages a day (though I’m sure she still wants to meet up with her friends. Those messages are probably “Meet where?”, “K” (the short form of OK), and “lol”).

When the television was invented, people thought it’s ugly. Black and white? Who’d watch?

When the Internet was invented, nobody thought it’d be a commercially viable medium. Look at all the online stores now.

When music could be digitised, people started sharing MP3s. Music labels sued their customers. They lost money. Apple iTunes is doing fine though.

When Amazon was started, it was to be an online bookstore. The major bookstores didn’t think it will work. They’re now in financial trouble.

It takes an average of 4 years to graduate with a degree. A lot can happen in 4 years. By the time you graduate with a PhD in ornithology specialising in dodos, nobody is hiring a dodo hunter. The job is no longer relevant…

… but it doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant. Adapt your skills. Become an exotic bird care specialist.

Let’s say China purges all non-manufacturing related majors. That means most of her graduates know only manufacturing related stuff. If the economy suddenly rewards creativity-based knowledge work, China will be struggling to move. Remember, it takes 4 years to churn out graduates. You’ll be 4 years behind.

Hmm? China’s too big? The dinosaurs thought they’d live forever too. A meteor wiped them out. Doesn’t matter how big you are. A big enough meteor will still wipe you out. You may quote me. Hey, let me help you:

Doesn’t matter how big you are. A big enough meteor will still wipe you out.
- Vincent

A university shouldn’t model against Amazon. You should not offer long-tail majors. You can’t afford to. The proliferation of majors is probably to attract as many students as possible.

Nobody hires a dodo hunter.

University degrees and debt

Make the time and money you spend while studying in university count. The value of a degree doesn’t fluctuate much, year to year. But if you take just one year longer to obtain that degree, it means you’ve wasted one year of your life and another few thousands of dollars in tuition fees. Which means it takes that much longer for you to repay the tuition fee loan (if you took out one).

University/college tips from Bryarly
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKL72gzQ58s

University/college tips from Emily
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qG3Df1QC48

Business or degree

Degrees as general intelligence shortcut

Today I went to the library. Never mind the reason. Suffice to say, I decided the best use of my morning was to go to the library.

While I was browsing the shelves, I found this book Spent, by Geoffrey Miller. He’s an evolutionary psychologist, and it happens that his writing is a little… dry at times. Whole blocks of text with few bolds, italics and headings to break the flow.

Degrees and sexual evolution

I persevered and managed to skim through some of the chapters. Basically, his premise of modern consumerism and marketing is affected by sexual evolution. You buy stuff to show you’re a better mate. You buy expensive (but deemed as socially coveted) goods to show off. You buy stuff that’s seemingly a waste to show you can waste resources.

He also pointed out the 2 extremes: the people supporting consumerism (despite the credit card debts and other financial disasters), and the people opposing pure consumerism. He also said both are dangerous, which I agree.

Anyway, he said something about education. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said university degrees are used as a shortcut to determine a person’s general intelligence. He also used the term IQ as well.

He said the people who scoff at the idea of using IQ to determine a person’s intelligence are usually already clever, and hang around people of their intelligence level. “Anyone with average intelligence can understand string theory!”, ignoring the fact that they’re surrounded by janitors and other school staff.

Schools require stringent tests to determine if you’re intelligent enough to attend at their establishment. The most prominent of these tests is the SAT. But the idea of an IQ test to determine intelligence threatens these schools. Because anyone can easily take a short IQ test to determine their intelligence.

If it’s easy to obtain, it’s harder to use it as a screen or charge for it. Thus, the academia typically scoff at the usefulness of an IQ test, ignoring the SAT they used for admission.

If it’s easy to fake, or is almost indistinguishable from the original, then the original loses value. The example used here is cubic zirconia, directly competing with diamonds.

Our ancestors might have developed humour, creativity and kindness to compete for quality mates. Those are alternative traits to body musculature, body symmetry and other physical properties. In time, those “inferior” traits won. There are women who prefer a guy with humour, creativity and kindness to other human beings.

Social status (or showing off)

What I’m getting at (and what I believe Geoffrey was suggesting), is that a degree is a social status object, just like any other social status object. Having a degree shows other people that you had the time and money to pursue a degree, and the discipline to actually fulfill the requirements to get a degree. It’s a shortcut. Having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’re intelligent because there are some graduates who are frightfully stupid.

I will admit right here that I’ve never actually applied anything I learned for my degree in my jobs. Maybe that I learnt C and Unix shell scripts and commands.

My only regret is that I didn’t try to do more during my university days. Maybe learning about how businesses actually work. Did you know an employee typically costs a company 3 times his salary to employ him? This means an employee has to do work that generate a revenue amount 3 times his own salary just to justify his existence in company payroll. Where does the money go? The lights, the cleaning, the pantry, the security, the stationery. How can a company survive then? Because there are sales people that generate revenue amounts equal to 10 times their salary. That’s why sales people can be highly paid.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, degrees.

To increase the value of the original, you can increase the precision of getting the original and/or decrease the credibility of the competition. For example, the judgement of diamond quality and the emphasis that cubic zirconia rings aren’t rare (thus not as “valuable”).

The crux of the matter is that educational institutes are afraid their degrees will lose value. Just read the backgrounds of those who fervently support the obtaining of degrees, and those with a “meh” attitude towards degrees. Are they academics? Do they hold a job? Are they entrepreneurs? Are they open to new ideas? Are they ambivalent? Do they propose alternatives?

I suggest you get a degree if you can. But start a business while you’re there. A degree is still a valuable social status object. But don’t kill yourself trying to get one.

Consider what you want out of your life. I would hate to think you would waste 4 years of your life and tons of money to just scrape by and get a degree. Do something useful while you’re there! Make it more than just a piece of paper!

Did you know that because cubic zirconia is cheap to produce, the processes can be refined to the point where they’re less flawed than diamonds? Imagine, “fake” diamonds that are “purer” than real diamonds!