By Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas leads inbound marketing at Highfive, a startup backed by Andreessen-Horowitz, Google Ventures and some of the top investors in Silicon Valley. Previously he was the founder and CEO of SkyRocket. He blogs about startups, marketing and technology on his personal blog.
A year ago, I decided to leave school and start a company. However, I quickly realized that at 18 years old I had a lot of catching up to do. Not only did I lack any real world experience, I lacked something much more important: a network.
In the early days of my startup, I struggled to validate my idea because I didn’t know anyone in education administration (the logical buyer of my product). Once I was able to validate the idea itself, I had a hard time recruiting a team to help me build the product. And finally when I figured out a solution to both of those complications, I hit a third wall when I decided to raise money.
The phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” kept resonating in my head. So I crafted a solution.
One day while walking around Kitsilano beach in Vancouver, a mentor of mine told me about an old strategy that IBM sales managers used to employ. They called it 10 before 10: reach out to 10 people before 10am every morning. That meant calling, cold emailing or leaving 10 different people a voicemail every morning.
The idea appealed to me and at the time I desperately needed capital — whether it was revenue or angel investment — so I created my own 10 before 10 strategy. Every morning, I reached out to 10 people on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or in many cases via a cold email.
It didn’t always work. As you might imagine, many of the people I called or reached out to blew me off. But the 10-20% that did respond added up. After 30 days I “touched” 300 people and connected with about 30-60 of them. Then those people introduced me to their colleagues and pretty soon my network was snowballing.
In the process I learned a couple tricks that I thought I would share. Here were the three main conclusions I was able to draw:
“Take the initiative and you can meet just about anyone you like”
This month I had a chance to meet with the founder of Mint.com, Aaron Patzer. After a great conversation in San Francisco’s South Park, I followed up and received this email in return:
This statement summed up the core of my strategy. We’re all human and there’s no reason you can’t meet with anyone you’d like.
Be methodical in who you reach out to
In general, if you reach out to someone you should have a specific ask and a suggestion for why the meeting will benefit them. In my previous case with Aaron Patzer, I asked for help crafting a pre-launch inbound marketing strategy (something he is famous for). Then I told him that I knew some programmers that might be good fits for his latest project.
Without an idea of how either party will benefit, getting coffee with someone is a waste of both people’s time.
Be concise and direct
Along the same lines as my last tip, it’s important to be concise and direct when you reach out to people. Sending a long email with multiple questions or open ended questions yields lower response rates across the board and wastes people’s time, so send brief ones.
Today, if I email someone I write three concise sections that aim to address the recipient’s initial questions:
1. Why the heck are you emailing me? (ie. some background information on what I’m working on or how I heard about them)
2. What do you want from me? (ie. a specific ask. Usually 30 minute meeting)
3. What’s in it for me? (ie. a reason why they should help. Usually benefitting their current business venture)
If you want something in life odds are you will need some help. For some that means reaching out to friends and old co-workers, but for those of us with little professional experience, it’s important to get scrappy and find an alternative. Over the last 12 months I’ve built strong relationships with hundreds of interesting people. The ensuing conversations have taught me more than I could have ever learned in school.
The goal was never to reach 500+ connections on LinkedIn; it was to find mentors, friends and in some cases customers whose problems I knew I could solve. In summary, the key to building strong relationships is giving more than you take and a whole bunch of ambition.
Anmol is an aspiring UX and Interaction Designer. He gets really excited about the idea of startups and hacking his education. He is a “learning junkie” who loves asking questions, doing research, attending conferences, reading about personal development, finding new ways to improve his health and well-being, meeting like-minded people, downloading new and exciting eBooks and joining the next life-changing eCourse.
Bobby found UnCollege through a friend, who thought it was awesome. After reading Dale’s book himself, he was fascinated. For him, Gap Year is an opportunity to bring his music into the world. During the launch phase, his goal is to master his his music, reading, and writing skills, as well as study philosophy and business. He is very excited to learn from the rest of the fellows.
Colin is 23 years old and is from the metro Detroit area. He came to UnCollege to pursue computer programming, and land a job at the end of the year that will lead to a career. His interests include hockey, kayaking, journalism, film, and graphic design.
Dane is a 20-year-old hackademic who attended the University of Tennessee for two years before leaving to pursue opportunities that school can’t offer. He comes from a competitive suburb in Virginia, where the expectation is to graduate from college and makes six figures. This is a concept he wants to challenge by forging his own path. Dane is coming to UnCollege to explore his interests (e.g. real estate, screenwriting, and playing/watching sports) and use them to craft his career.
Ilana Sawyer is a writer from Walden Pond, Massachusetts — Thoreau’s neck of the woods. She is a natural Transcendentalist and a resolute advocate for the education revolution. Right now she is writing a book (92,224 words in!), and is launching herself into freelance humanistic journalism. She’s excited to sit in coffee shops with fellow rebels, drinking in their idealism and their vigor — adrenaline far more powerful than caffeine. Ilana is preparing to gain perspective on the human condition by traveling to Nepal to teach English in the rural towns of the Himalayas.
Kylee was born in Santiago, Chile and grew up in Parker, Colorado. During high school, she traveled between Chile and the US, attending several different schools. At the beginning of her senior year she decided to forgo traditional high school and instead get her GED. After a brief stint at college she then decided to take her life and learning into her own hands. Her self-appointed learning plan consists of traveling, working, and using online resources to learn about anything from music to art to computer science to motorcycles to auto mechanics.
After becoming disillusioned with university, Trevor began unschooling himself by travelling and working around the U.S. Too many Jack Kerouac books at a young age then led him on a 13,000 mile motorcycle trip. Now, he and his motorcycle have reunited and pointed their compass towards San Francisco. Trevor comes to UnCollege hoping to find news ways of learning and solutions for opening education. He recently won a lifelong battle against having two left feet by learning to swing dance and prides himself on being a banjo aficionado.
By Jean Fan
If you could offer one piece of advice to fellow hackademics, what would it be? What is something you’ve realized that has changed the way you act? What is something you’ve done that has helped you learn and grow?
For me, it was having a variety of different work experiences early on. This was instrumental in my process of self-discovery.
The piece of advice that I always give is this: if you’re trying to figure out what you want and don’t want to do, get an internship.
My first internship was at a charity fashion show. I was 15 and convinced that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I helped promote the event, working remotely until the day of the show. It wasn’t glamorous, though I should’ve anticipated this from watching The Devil Wears Prada.
I learned a lot about the fashion industry during this internship. But I learned even more about myself — including the fact that I didn’t really want to work in fashion.
So a few months later, I tried something new. I got an internship at a hackerspace in Silicon Valley. Again I worked on the business side of things, this time helping out with their fundraising campaign. As you can imagine, there was a huge contrast in culture. The people that get excited about hacking are quite different from those that get excited about clothing.
Having these work experiences opened my eyes to the spectrum of different communities out there, each with a distinct culture. Internships, I learned, are a great way of accessing them.
Later on, I interned at a yoga studio, and after that, at an education-technology startup. By doing internships in many different fields, I had to learn how to succeed in a variety of work environments. I also had to understand what implicit and explicit skills I needed to thrive.
Internships vary greatly in pay, structure, industry, and so forth. Some of my internships paid me in money. Others “paid” me by giving me knowledge and experience. Sometimes I was given a lot of guidance. Other times I was able to choose what I wanted to work on. When you’re doing an internship, you have a lot of freedom in deciding what you want to get out of the experience.
And you can get a lot by doing internships. If you’d like to gain skills and knowledge, friends and mentors, and understanding of the world and of yourself, getting an internship is a great way to do so.
By Jean Fan
Some people break laws; they are convicts. We put them away. Others break unenforced rules, like the guy who cheats when the professor isn’t looking in order to pass a test. They are cheaters. We don’t like them very much. Still others unknowingly break rules — rules of social conduct. They may seem awkward or abrasive. They aren’t very cool, either.
But then you have hackademics, who actively defy social norms and challenge “common sense.” They break many rules. Yet people like them, look up to them even.
Why? Because hackademics break rules with good intent.
They are not trying to hurt anyone. They are not doing it unintentionally, either. Rather, they purposefully disregard ideas that limit them from reaching their full potential, setting a precedent for others in the process.
You will inevitably break rules. There are simply too many of them. Therefore, learning how to break rules — and which rules to break — is really important, especially if you’re trying to hack your education.
So what rules do you break?
UnCollege is hiring an apprentice to assist the program team in the operation of our Gap Year program this Spring. This is an excellent opportunity for a young person to gain experience working in a quickly moving startup environment.
As an apprentice at UnCollege you will:
Support the UnCollege staff with operational needs
Assist in supporting the program participants (Fellows)
Schedule guests speakers, collect feedback, research sweet events and organizations for our fellows to take advantage of
Take initiative and work on projects that match your skills and interests
To be an apprentice, you must be:
willing to live at the UnCollege house in San Francisco, CA
an excellent writer
smart as hell, dedicated, and organized
Why should you apply for this position?
It is a paid position.
This is an apprenticeship, not a long-term job. However if it works well it could turn into something longer-term.
You will interact with well-known people and make connections that will advance your life and career.
I know lots of people who do interesting things, and, if you perform well, will gladly serve as a reference.
To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and writing sample to [email protected]
Written by Alex Clifford
Taylor Fogarty was an English major at Virginia Commonwealth University before dropping out to participate in UnCollege’s Gap Year program. Read her story below.
Why did you want to participate in UnCollege’s Gap Year program?
I was in college, and I was stressed because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt like I was wasting my time.
After reading a New York Times article about Dale, I did more research into UnCollege. It was the most well-rounded gap year program I could find. It wasn’t just about going abroad. Instead, Gap Year was everything I had wanted from college, but didn’t think I was going to get if I stayed in school.
How did your parents feel about this?
My dad was calm about it. He had a similar experience, having only gone to college for a month before feeling unfocused. In fact, he was proud that I had found something else to do instead of dropping out and doing nothing.
My mom was the same way, although she was a bit upset because she had taken out a loan to help me pay for college. But both of them knew that I needed to do this for myself, so they were overall happy and excited for me.
You’re now in the first phase of the program. What are you working on?
The thing I’m most excited about has been creating my fashion blog. That’s been a big thing, in addition to building my social network and going to networking events.
Then I have my internships, which are AWESOME. I wasn’t actively looking at this stage in the Gap Year program, so getting them was totally unexpected.
The first one is at a boutique and gallery named Wonderland. It’s really close to the UnCollege house, and I’d dropped in to shop before. One day I asked if she needed some extra help. She was psyched! This is my “fun” internship. I model for Irene, the owner, and write up her blog.
I’m learning a lot from my position at Wonderland, especially about the small business side of the fashion industry. Irene buys and sells clothings, and it’s interesting to see how the industry works on a local scale.
My other internship is with a woman named Sarah Liller, who I emailed after finding online. She’s a designer and has her own line. She’s very established! People recognize her name, and she’s doing some work with Macy’s.
I initially emailed her about sewing lessons. She replied: “I don’t have time to give lessons anymore, but I really need an intern!”
I go for hours at a time. It’s very intensive in the design world. I’m learning about the way clothing is made — which fabrics are used, how to assemble them, and how Sarah takes her ideas from paper to fabric. Watching her and how she works is amazing!
It’s a great balance between the internships. One is really fun and the other is really hard. I’m learning a lot from both.
How has Gap Year equipped you for the real world?
I’ve learned how to network and better use the resources around me. It’s made me become a more open person and approach things with an open mind.
Now I feel as though I could travel to any city and thrive in it. I landed in San Francisco just a few weeks ago, and already I’ve gotten two amazing internships and built a huge network of supportive people. I feel like I could do this anywhere… Spain, New York, you name it!
I no longer feel as though I’m meandering through life, which is how I felt in college. Instead I’m waking up everyday feeling excited, thinking: “Let’s do this!”
How has it been living alongside the other UnCollege fellows?
Everyone here has an amazing story and is so smart. There are conflicts from time to time, of course, but all in all it’s a great environment.
I definitely feed off the energy of other people in the house, who are so positive and driven. They’re great resources!
Would you recommend taking a year off to other people?
Heck, yeah! I want my sister to do it too. She’s graduating next year.
You don’t know who you are when you graduate high school (or even college). Taking a break, getting outside of your comfort zone, and stepping back from the traditional system is really important.
Where do you hope this will all lead?
My end goal is to be in the fashion industry (accomplished!) doing something I really love. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I’m learning a ton about that now. I’m confident I can get there.
By Jean Fan
As I’m observing this cohort of UnCollege fellows and taking a gap year myself, I’m noticing patterns. Here are two essential meta-skills you have to practice as a gap year student:
1. How to be comfortable with uncertainty
It takes guts to take a gap year, because you’re admitting to the world that you don’t have your life all figured out. No one does, obviously, but being able to admit this openly is a sign of maturity.
If you choose to go the college route, you’ve chosen a path that is well-traveled and “safe” in the eyes of society. College students know for certain what they’re going to be doing for four years: going to school. Gap year students don’t have that luxury.
Perhaps you chose to take a gap year because you didn’t know what you wanted to study in school. Perhaps you took a gap year because you didn’t know if you even wanted to BE in school.
On your gap year, you’ll be confronted with a lot of uncertainty as well. Your plans during your time off from school will most certainly change, or not pan out the way you expected them to. And that’s okay. Welcome to real life.
2. How to be a misfit (and explain yourself!)
“So where do you go to school?” This is a question that I get asked by almost everyone I meet. (A more neutral question, by the way: “Where in life are you?”)
People make the assumption that every young person is in school. Not all of us are, of course, and people who are taking a gap year have chosen a noticeably different step.
Usually people can answer the question above with one or two words, and then the interaction is over. Interactions as a gap year student go more like this:
Other Person: “So where do you go to school?”
Gap Year Student: “Actually, I’m not in school right now. I’m taking a gap year.”
Other Person: “Whoa, that’s really interesting. Why are you doing that? How are you spending your time? What will you do after this year?”
Gap Year Student: “Well… [insert rather long explanation here]”
The thing above doing unusual things is that you have to justify them constantly — which is great, actually. You immediately seen as someone interesting to talk to. You get extra practice pitching yourself, which will come in handy in the long run. You delve into the why behind what you’re doing, and as a result have a platform that allows you to have more meaningful conversations.
What are other skills that Gap Year students have to learn? Send in your thoughts to [email protected].
By Melanie Ellison
I was going to be the type of student to never transfer, not take longer than four years to graduate, and certainly never quit college. I had been awarded a nearly full-ride tuition scholarship to the private college of my choice, and by the end of my first year had made the Dean’s list with my 3.8 GPA.
Little did I know how my type-A degree-path plans would change! After a year of college, I realized that I personally did not need a degree to be successful in life—I needed skill. I knew I could develop skill much quicker and more effectively without the interference of arbitrarily required courses, which did not directly advance my life. I saw that the value I obtained at college was mostly through times of one-on-one instruction with my professors and through stretching myself to study and write papers. This I knew I could continue outside of the college framework.
As one who was fortunate enough to be rigorously homeschooled all my life, I have always seen the benefit of pursuing education at one’s own pace, either through one-on-one instruction or independently. This is how the children of royalty were educated: those who sought to shape them into leaders realized that the path to excellence was not through mass education in the classroom, but rather through individualized shaping of their unique potential. After realizing this, I discovered that in addition to the downside of mass education, other losses can accompany a college education.
One of the biggest things that a young person loses by going to college is four vital years. Now that my classmates have graduated, I have been granted an acute view into the difference between where we are now based on our different uses of the last four years. A few weeks ago, I watched a video of the senior speech of one of my classmates. It was a very instructive moment for me as I analyzed how stale and untested her theories were. Compare that to a person who found creative ways to work (without a degree) in their field of interest for four years. That person would have so much more experience of what actually brings results and what doesn’t. For myself, by having the last four years in my own hands instead of an academic course planner’s, I have been able to start several businesses (including www.LifegivingLinen.com which offers garments and bedding made out of the supercharged healing fabric of linen) and also simultaneously study subjects in depth that directly interest me.
The difference between the creative experience-gaining person and my classmate is real-life learning that benefits one immediately versus textbook learning that oftentimes has to be thrown out of one’s mind as no longer pertinent when he or she enters the workforce. Compare the invested quality of learning that comes from starting a home business to taking a college course in business, for example. Actually starting a business gives one a hands-on education. In this economy, having a degree isn’t a guarantee of landing a job anyway. You don’t get a job; you make a job (thanks to The College Conspiracy documentary for that idea) by finding a need in the market and meeting it for less than the next guy. Anybody can have him or herself a business (and a fantastic real-world education in the process) by following that formula, regardless of whether they have a degree.
Another major loss that graduates incur results from being sucked into the financial vortex of inflated college tuition. Student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, with students graduating with an average of $28,000 worth of debt (some are snowballed with as much as $160,000 that they can’t shrug off even through bankruptcy). As I wrote on page 91 of my book Chucking College, “Doing the simple math reveals that financially, one would be better off with any job, even minimum wage, or a small home business, than to face seemingly insurmountable figures of debt with the highest-paying job around. Four to eight years of saving money, living at home, and being entrepreneurially productive have proven to advance some far beyond their friends who chose the college route. After all, a plumber without a degree earns more over a lifetime than a doctor or a lawyer (when educational loans are subtracted from their lifetime income).”
Granted, some are called to one of the handful of professions that do require a degree (and there are creative ways—such as CLEP tests—to get that degree in less time and for less money than attending college). However, for the great majority, thinking outside the box as to how to gain skill and knowledge will propel them further in life and vocation than going to college. It is a freeing thing to know that there are options on the path to success.
Melanie Ellison is the author of Chucking College: Achieving Success Without Corruption, a guidebook for Judeo-Christian young people who seek to design their own 21st-century higher education.
During the first ten weeks of the Gap Year Program, UnCollege fellows live, work and play together in a big house in San Francisco. A question members of our community ask us frequently is this: how do fellows typically spend their time during the Launch phase? Here’s a quick peek.
1. Getting coaching and making progress on their goals
To start off each week, fellows meet with their program specialists, who help them determine their goals and set action steps for the week. This fresh perspective is helpful for fellows who aren’t making as progress as they want to be. Having a personal coach to keep you on track is a great system for accountability.
2. Attending in-house workshops and jam sessions
Because Gap Year is designed to help fellows succeed in the real world without a degree, UnCollege’s in-house workshops focus on practical skills like getting internships and finding mentors. Fellows spend time in jam sessions working together on skills like writing and researching. Guest speakers like Gregg Pollack (founder of Code School), Sandra Aamodt (former editor-in-Chief of Nature Neuroscience), and Bay McLaughlin (startup advisor and consultant) will regularly come in and give workshops.
3. Going to meetups, hackathons, incubators, and so forth
Fellows have a wide variety of interests, and will regularly go to meetups on anything from Bitcoin to photography to growth hacking. Last week many of the fellows went to Hacktech in Los Angeles, and the week before they visited Highway 1, a hardware incubator in SF. By going to events and “hustling,” as it’s often referred to by people in the startup world, fellows meet like-minded people and strengthen their networks.
4. Exploring San Francisco with new friends and mentors
We also like to have fun. Luckily we live in San Francisco. Whether it’s going out for a nighttime hike or to a rooftop party in the Financial District, fellows spend lots of time with new friends and mentors. Playing together is the best way to cultivate meaningful relationships.
5. Developing their personal brands and portfolios
One of the most important aspects of being a hackademic is having a reputable and recognizable online presence. Unlike what we’re taught in school, it isn’t enough to just censor your Facebook account and call it a day. You have to be a lot more proactive than that. During the course of these ten weeks, fellows are spending a lot of time actively developing their personal brands and adding to their portfolios.
By Jean Fan
Q: Tell me a little about yourself, Caleb. What do you like to do?
I love making videos. During high school, I got the opportunity to learn video production, which I really enjoyed. It was a great way to start out the day. Because I had access to equipment and software I couldn’t afford on my own, it really made a big difference in my trajectory.
Last year, I won first place in a video competition in the Long Island Region, sponsored by SkillsUSA. My piece was done through linear editing — which means if you mess up, you have to rewind, find the beginning of your last scene, and tape over it. I later went to the state competition, held in Syracuse, and won second place. That was a fun experience.
I also love golf. As my summer job for the past few years, I’ve worked at as a caddy at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, where they’ve held the US Open multiple times.
Q: What was your experience like in school?
I had a very limited worldview during much of high school, as did my friends. We didn’t know what it was actually like in the real world, and we hadn’t been exposed to the concept of “hacking” your education.
During school, I started spending time thinking about my motivation for being there. I realized that most of us just did activities and took classes to make us look good on college applications. That bothered me.
As I read into it, I began to understand the fallacies that exist in the world of higher education: for example, that you need 4 MORE years of school to get a respectable job. You don’t.
My mom was very much on the same page. During my junior year of high school, after hearing about the success of the European gap year tradition, she introduced the idea of taking a gap year to me as well.
Q: What excited you about UnCollege’s Gap Year program?
I’m just beginning my life in the real world, and I’m at a point where I want to explore and become more well-rounded. General ed classes aren’t great for that purpose, but doing things in the real world is — and I’m excited because Gap Year will help me do that.
Coaching is also a big plus for me. It’s been wonderful to have someone sit down with me every week and help me talk through my goals, figuring out what’s working, and what isn’t. Having someone to talk to very frankly about what I want to accomplish — and knowing that I won’t be judged or ridiculed — is so helpful.
Q: How has your time been in the program so far?
It’s been great. I love the setup of the program so far, and I’m really enjoying the curriculum. I feel like I’m learning new, tangible things every time I go into a workshop. Learning things that are directly applicable in the real world, and being explicitly taught key skills (instead of being somehow expected to naturally pick them up in a college environment) is important to me. I especially enjoy the jam sessions — when we get together as a group and make progress on specific goals, from brainstorming to creating a plan to taking action.
Also, being around this group of kids is so cool. Everyone is always so willing to offer helpful advice and share their perspective. We all come from such diverse backgrounds, so we’re able to help each other out quite often.
I’m excited to partner with some of the other fellows on video projects. Erik is a musician, and we’re thinking of making a music video together. Alex is interested in doing a series of interviews with entrepreneurs, so there’s a possible collaboration in that as well.
Q: Do you see yourself going back to college?
As of right now, I simply don’t see myself wanting to. After a year of learning how to be self-sufficient and successful in the real world, what’s the incentive?
Q: Where do you want to be at the end of the launch phase? At the end of the program?
My ideal situation for the end of this year is to have traveled a bit, and then to start a job in the real world. I’d love to go to Argentina.
I have a couple key goals in mind for the launch phase. I’m getting back into blogging, so I can have a written record of everything exciting that I’m doing here. I want to get my website and online portfolio together. I want to meet even more interesting people and see what they’re up to.
UnCollege has been really exciting so far. I can’t wait to see how much I’ll have grown by the end of the year!