There’s no shortage of advice on becoming a successful entrepreneur. From in-person seminars to detailed books and blogs, it’s simply everywhere. The real question is how to find sound advice in a sea of mediocrity?
It’s important to discover resources that are unbiased and run by people who have a wealth of personal experience in the field. You need resources that approach problems from different angles and, maybe most importantly, resources that don’t push products that will “help save you time and money” but instead, stick to simple, actionable advice.
That’s what Barrett Brooks and his colleagues at Fizzle.co are all about – providing reliable advice for creative entrepreneurs who want to work on things that they actually find interesting and exciting.
Every week the Fizzle team, which features a hodgepodge group of entrepreneurs, marketing experts and research junkies, releases a free blog post and podcast that address issues raised by their loyal band of hard-working business owners and young, motivated go-getters. They also run an individualized program that helps members of their community tackle issues that confront their businesses. Over the years, they’ve noticed trends and built foundational advice for young entrepreneurs.
I spoke with Barrett last week to ask him a few questions about the challenges young entrepreneurs face today, how to avoid common pitfalls and what people should be doing on a weekly basis to stay ahead of the curve.
UnCollege:First off, can you give us a brief outline of how you ended up where you are, working with entrepreneurs on a daily basis?
Before Fizzle I ran a company called Living for Monday about 3 years. The company was a way to help college students develop the career search and soft skills they would need to build an independent career or find a job they would care about. I started it after I left my job as a consultant at Ernst and Young.
While I was working at E&Y, I realized that my peers and I had kind of been sold a lie about what the work entailed, what the career path would look like and what the lifestyle would look like. To the outside world our jobs were considered prestigious, but when you really looked at what life was like, it was full of 60-80 hour work weeks, work-related travel and no time to really explore the world. Living for Monday was a fight against that system where I felt college career centers weren’t doing their job. Instead of advocating for students, they were advocating for big companies trying to increase their placement rates, etc.
I raised over $120,000 to support that effort, but in the end found that college students aren’t the best target market. The majority aren’t looking to spend a lot of time and money on career development. Ultimately, we decided to shut the company down. I joined Fizzle shortly after that. It was a great fit because I had personal experience in what a lot of the Fizzle community were going through as entrepreneurs.
U: For a young entrepreneur who decides to delay a college education or bypass it all together, what do you think is the greatest challenge he or she will face?
B: Young entrepreneurs have the massive disadvantage of being naive and lacking the life experience to understand their customers and clients. They haven’t had the time they need to develop all the skills they would need to succeed in business. In many ways, they haven’t had time to develop strong beliefs on how the world works. I think that most successful entrepreneurs have a strong belief about something that was wrong in the world or some opportunity they saw in the world based on interactions they’ve had with people or causes they’ve supported. It’s not that they can’t overcome this, but it’s a challenge.
U: How about the greatest advantage?
B: As a young adult you usually have a lower cost of living and fewer commitments like relationships or children, mortgages and car leases. You are nimble and in many ways, fearless. If you have college debt, however, that affects how you approach things. On the podcast we talk a lot about a minimal viable income and how everyone needs to figure out how much money you need to survive and support your business. Debt and loans can affect this number greatly.
In all cases, we encourage young entrepreneurs to take an intermediate apprenticeship – whether they are transitioning out of a job or a college dropout. They can develop their ideas and belief system while working under someone that they really admire. This gives you a bridge from working and being told what to do to working towards what you want to be some day.
U: What’s the best way to identify if you have a genuinely good idea?
It’s the same for everyone, really. The worst ideas come from thinking they are brilliant. We prefer the lean startup methodology. Fix a problem. Have conversations with real people who would use your product or service. If you talk to as little as 8 or 10 people, you can find trends in the problems they have that you can solve.
U: And how do you know when it’s time to cut bait on a project?
B: As soon as possible, see if people will pay you for your product or service. If you can’t sell, maybe you aren’t targeting the right audience or maybe you aren’t solving the right problem. You can go back and change these things, but even if you have a massive email list or community, if you can’t sell it, you have a problem to solve yourself.
U: If you do not yet have a product, how do you begin to network with influencers in an industry?
B: Start with research. Start with The 10-10-10 strategy (on site). That’s 10 people you would want to work with some day, 10 organizations and 10 dream projects. Start by identifying who your 10 people are and instead of shooting them an email, research their public material. Most influencers have blogs or podcasts or some sort of public facing material out there on the web because they don’t have time to have 1:1 meetings with everyone who emails them. In fact, it’s rude not to read every post they’ve ever done and to try and answer your own questions that way. Once you’ve done the research, if you do reach out, they’ll see the effort you’ve gone through and be more willing to listen to your request for help.
U: What are some essential weekly tasks you encourage entrepreneurs in the Fizzle community to take?
B: It really depends on what stage they are in with their business, but across all stages we recommend the following:
Despite how grim our world can look on the nightly news, there are people out there everyday making a positive impact on the life of others. Sometimes it’s volunteering, but sometimes it’s as simple and quick as gifting an unexpected item. Don’t believe us? Here are some things that people in our local San Francisco community have received with no strings attached. Give it a read; you might be surprised by what you find.
What is the best thing you’ve ever gotten for free?
Here are some of our favorite answers:
Katie (right): A few pieces of used furniture from friends. (table, couch)
Overall monetary value: probably about $400-$600
Katrina (left): An iPod.
Overall monetary value: $300
Gabe: I Recieved a bike from friends.
Overall monetary value: $200
Jon: I recieved a Pendleton blanket as a gift from the Cree nation.
Overall monetary value: $150
Ashley: Recieved a car as a gift from family.
Overall monetary value: a lot
James: A pitcher of beer. Delicious.
Overall monetary value: $19
Brian: Home-cooked meal
Overall monetary value: $10-$15
Cody: Recieved an iPad as a gift from a work community
Overall monetary value: $400
Morgan: Recieved a one-way plane ticket to San Francisco (where I proceeded to get free healthcare)
Overall monetary value: $400-$500
What’s the Best Thing You’ve Ever Given Away for Free?
For the next week, we are giving away free airfare for fellows who apply to our summer cohort. If you want to participate in a gap year this summer and are interested in free airfare, apply now! *Offer ends March 17, 2015.
Editor’s note: SkilledUp‘s Anna Cherry knows millennials. She is one. She deals with the same unique generational issues that millions of her fellow peers face. Anna recently took to the streets of New York City to interview people from the millennial generation. She found many differences in backgrounds and a lot of common themes.
If you speak with a sample of millennials about that question, the one that we’re asked all too frequently by our parents – “What are you doing with your life?” – the same anxieties surface. Money, fulfillment, placelessness.
Depending on which article you read on the Internet, you may find that millennials are ungrateful. Or brave. Or bumbling. Or narcissistic, or we love volunteering. We’re lazy, passionate workers with poor social skills on too many social networks. The apple of employers’ eyes and the bane of their existence.
We’re full of contradictions, apparently — some of which have been put into our mouths.
What are we really doing? Are we succeeding or failing? And what do our parents think of our progress?
We’re all unique, but the majority of us are hungry (hungry sometimes in many senses of the word), and chasing opportunities that we’re passionate about. But let’s not take my word for it. Why not collect millennials’ own words on the matter in our nation’s cultural capital – New York City?
Chris Griffith, 31
Chris Griffith responded gracefully to a stranger’s non sequiturs: “Hey, are you a millennial? Would you let me interview you?”
Chris was on the sidewalk near his apartment, about to head into his local cafe. By day, Chris works as a broker and owns a branch of a broker’s firm. That’s not what he imagined himself doing a decade ago. In college, he wanted to do “a whole bunch of different things,” he said. Criminal justice and European business, for example.
Chris is an only child and very close with his parents, he said, but that didn’t prevent some hard talks about money, living in New York, and going to Korea, where he stayed for six months.
“I was supposed to live there for a year and they thought I was crazy,” he said. “I was a young 23-year-old guy who was in love and came home to salvage a doomed relationship.” Looking back, Chris said, he wishes he would’ve stayed and continued his cultural experience. “But that’s the way things work!”
Asked if his parents are proud of what he’s doing now, his answer was quick and definite:
“Yeah, they are.”
James Mentor, 26
Canarsie, Brooklyn, New York
James Mentor is hungry. He believes you have to be if you want to make it here.
He’s lived in Newark, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Kyoto, Japan. Dubai and Chicago are on the table for future moves. “My mother never fought me on it; she wanted me to do it,” he said. “Part of that is just because she … understands that employment, the work environment, how, you know, people are getting hired, it’s different. Nowadays you kind of get in where you fit in and opportunities are springing not domestically but internationally,” he said. “The world is getting smaller. It’s a bunch of emerging markets that are going to sync with ours.”
Last year, soon after relocating from California, James snagged a sales job at ZocDoc. This year he’s moved on to being a financial analyst for Port Authority. Still, he said, “I’m nowhere near what I want to be doing, or what I will be doing in the next two years.”
Because, his mother knows that “I’m here today, gone tomorrow, she only requires one thing of me, and that’s daily communication,” he said. “…And that’s it, it’s the hardest conversation I ever had, every single day, every time I miss a 24-hour period of communication, I hear about it.”
He understands why. “Every morning you wake up and somebody is biting it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “You’ve got 12 innocent journalists that did not see the end of anything coming … We live in that world.”
But, he said, “At the end of the day, the way I see parenthood is, they have one job: to teach us how to survive in this world.” Their “hardest test,” he said, is “to eventually let us go.”
Max Kimble, 28
West Long Branch, New Jersey
Not far from Chris Griffith’s apartment and Columbia University is Lion’s Head Tavern, where Max Kimble has worked one day a week for almost the past five years. The bar is owned by his cousin’s husband and it comes up when you type “best college bars NYC” into Google’s search engine.
Bartending isn’t Max’s full-time gig. He’s co-founder of Metronome3, a marketing agency with a hospitality-and-restaurant-focused subsidiary agency called Simmer Group Simmer Group.
“I grew up very lucky — my parents are both entrepreneurs and they always kind of knew I was going to go in that direction,” Max said. Still, when he left his first professional job in his mid-20s “to do my own thing and just go for it,” he said, “it was kind of nerve-wracking for them.”
While his parents believed “eventually it would come around,” they worried about his pace in the meantime. The first couple of years “when I was working, you know, 70-plus hours a week and then bartending more than one night a week and just hustling and grinding,” he said, they wanted him to “slow down and take a second to enjoy it.”
Now they can see that the race wasn’t for nothing. “The light’s at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Things are good.”
From left to right: Jessica Cokins, 24, from Amsterdam, Netherlands and Courtney O’Keefe, 24, from Holley, New York
While Max worked at his Lion’s Head Tavern job on this night, Jessica Cokins and Courtney O’Keefe talked over drinks.
Jessica, “an expat kid,” was born in Minnesota and grew up in the Netherlands. After college she moved to NYC to attend Columbia University. With one semester down and two to go, “I had to tell my parents that I didn’t want to go to grad school because I hated it,” she said.
It wasn’t sunk costs they were worried about. “They just thought that I shouldn’t give up what I’d already started,” she said. They advised her to “embrace living in New York,” cut school to part-time, then “get a job and figure out what I wanted to do.”
Jessica currently works a part-time job and continues to study human rights at Columbia.
Courtney is also in grad school, studying media management and media studies at The New School. She’s from Holley, New York, “where nobody goes to college.”
It’s not surprising then, that “the most difficult thing to explain to my mother was the fact that I was going to college,” she said. They “couldn’t afford it … my family was essentially not going to have anything to do with me going to school.”
So, she said, she’s paying for it by herself.
Chris Sinclair, 29
Wyandanch, Long Island, New York
Chris Sinclair had just come from the School of General Studies at Columbia University, where he’s majoring in political science with a concentration in business management. His ambitions are great: go to law school and reform the legal system.
His hard talk, he said, involved finances, which is “prevalent among the [General Studies] community … when you talk to your parents, especially when you’re not on the traditional path and you’re having to find a way to pay for your education, and they’re not necessarily willing or able, or both, to support you financially or otherwise,” he said.
“I had a conversation with my mom about helping me get a student loan without having to co-sign, and she wouldn’t so much as give me a pay stub,” Chris said. “Her alternative was to tell me to transfer to Stony Brook. Meanwhile, I’m in an Ivy League school, so why would I leave?”
Ignacio Moreno Basañez, 23
Viña del Mar, Chile
Ignacio Moreno Basañez is from Viña del Mar, Chile, a town part of the Valparaíso metropolitan area a couple of hours away from Santiago.
He was enjoying the fifth day of his New York visit. “I like it a lot,” he said. “It’s like, a lot of people, movement, the buildings, the statue … infinite things to do.” He was staying with his brother at the hostel leading their group — travelers from Argentina, the Netherlands, Germany, and France.
Ignacio learned some English in school and improved his language skills two years ago working at a shipyard in California. He was doing a three-month internship with a welding company. Since finishing his engineering studies in December, he has been on the job search and going to interviews. Despite loving recent work with a solar energy company, he said, he’s still unsure which direction he’ll take.
One issue is whether Ignacio will stay near his hometown. It’s difficult because in his country, he said, people generally go to college near home. “We don’t leave,” he said. “I live in Valparaíso and the best opportunities are in Santiago, so it’s possible that I’m going to Santiago, but I think that my parents … for them it’s hard.” But, he said, “it’s my decision and my parents … they know that.”
Andrew Gonzalez, 29
Westwood, New Jersey
On a Thursday night at a Harlem Public’s bar, Andrew Gonzalez considered a chocolate egg cream stout. “What is a chocolate egg cream even supposed to taste like?” he asked.
Andrew didn’t have many tough conversations with his parents, he said, because they “have a lot of trust in me.” Except maybe once, he said, in high school when his mom caught him smoking weed. “She was like, ‘You’re smoking weed and you’re not going to do anything!’” he said. “I was like, ‘Calm down, I’m going to turn out just fine.’”
Andrew is the antithesis of “not going to do anything.” He has five jobs: substitute teaching at private schools across Manhattan, tutoring at a math center in the Upper West Side, tutoring a private student, teaching at a small private school with classes as small as one student, and doing Saturday test prep for a supplemental education program called Summer on the Hill.
“I have really cool jobs, I love my jobs,” Andrew said. The only problem is money. “It pays like a part-time salary… So, if you think of what teachers get paid, I get a part of that,” he said.
Tutoring can be lucrative. “I need more students!” he said. “If you know any 13-year-olds…”
Ginger Cline, 26
New Haven, Connecticut
For three years, Ginger Cline lived in Madrid, Spain. Now she’s living in her hometown while working as a coffee shop barista, studying for the LSAT, and trying to save money for law school.
On a Friday night visiting New York, she ate dinner in an Irish pub. She’s “definitively back in the U.S.,” she said, because “my father really encouraged me not to go back to Europe.”
“I was thinking about trying to spend a few more years there, but my parents kind of talked some sense into me,” she said. They made her realize that, “the way to go, since I have wanted to be a lawyer for a long time, is just to get that done, to go to law school, and since I‘ll want to be practicing here in the U.S., it makes more sense for me to be here than it does for me to be teaching English in Europe, as I had been.”
She’d considered spending time in Thailand, South America, or India. But her parents made her see something: “If I wanted to realize my longer-term goals, then I was going to have to make some harder choices right now.”
Earlier this week, we hosted our first ever UnCollege Ask Me Anything (AMA). We decided to broadcast the event live on the Internet after receiving the same question from young adults all over the world for the past several months via email, Twitter and Facebook – What is UnCollege Gap Year all about?
In preparation for the event, we accepted questions related to our program from people all over the world. Below, we listed out 5 of the amazing questions with their corresponding answers to give you a brief idea of how our program isn’t your typical gap year.
Note: At the bottom of the page, you’ll find the whole AMA recorded with in-depth answers and more Q+A.
Question from John R.
Is your program only for entrepreneurs? If not, what are some examples of fellows who weren’t entrepreneurs?
Gabe (UnCollege Program Specialist): We’ve had people come through and focus on writing. One of our former fellows, Taylor, writes a blog that just got its millionth view. We’ve had people who focus on music, marketing and graphic design. Our general philosophy is that we’re suited to help with any field where a body of work speaks louder than a certificate.
Question from Sarah L.
On the website, you guys talk about coaching instead of teaching. What’s the difference and what are coaching meetings like?
Gabe: The most striking difference is that coaching is done one-on-one. It’s exclusively lead and driven by the interests, curiosities, and passions of the people we’re working with. Rather than being a lecture or “content dump,” coaching is much more about having someone in your corner who is going to push and hold you accountable to the goals that you set. Coaching is highly tailored to the individual and operates on a more meta-level than teaching. It’s really about developing the person. A coaching relationship starts with a personal relationship. That’s what the relationship is based on, really knowing a person in a really meaningful way and helping them grow.
Jon (Program Specialist): It’s our job to take an interest in where you’re going and help you get there. There’s a lot of research behind what we’re doing, but it boils down to us doing our best to give our attention to you.
Dale (Founder): Coaching is certainly something I wish I had had more of both as an unschooler and homeschooler. It was something I missed most when I went to university; just the idea that there is one person whose full-time job it is to think about you and your growth and development.
Question from Anonymous
What kind of person do you accept into the program?
Dale : I think it’s easier to speak to what makes a bad fellow. One of the stand out things is someone who isn’t willing to be proven wrong or take feedback. We really look for people who have evidence of being self-directed, and who are self-motivated and self-aware. I’ll let Jon and Gabe tell you what they like most in a fellow:
Jon: The things that UnCollege Gap Year fellows have in common are that they like to bet on themselves, do things differently and ask important questions. As a coach, I like people who are motivated, someone who questions things, who likes to know why and is willing to work, but isn’t just going to trust. There’s a little bit of cynicism and there’s a whole lot of passion. I love that.
Gabe: I think the big thing for me that makes fellows most enjoyable to work with is a really genuine desire to improve, whether that is through a hard skill or through personal or professional growth. Everyone who is in this program is doing it because they want to push themselves, be ambitious and set big goals for themselves and go far. Working with young people who want the best out of themselves is inspiring and makes my job easier.
Question from Carl B.
How are the workshops during the launch phase different from a class or lecture?
Dale: Our workshops during the launch phase focus on three areas: creation, curiosity, and self-advocacy. All the workshops are designed around good pedagogical principles, which means that they include breaks, they’re personalized, and we’re constantly asking fellows how the material applies to them individually.
Gabe: What I would add is that the workshops in the launch phase are more focused on learning skills and are less focused on theory. The skills that we teach are things we think are really important to being successful, but are never explicitly talked about; things that you’re expected to pick up along the way. Everything you learn in a workshop, you’re going to use that week.
Question from Mateus R.
Don’t know about the situation in the US, but here in Brazil we continue to see companies that should theoretically be “open minded”, “paradigm breakers”, etc, stuck to the idea that a traditional college degree is the only option to the ones who want to apply for a job, based on that I have two questions:
How do you guys handle this?
what is the situation like in the US today? Dale: The reality – at least here in Silicon Valley, and increasingly across the country – is that employers are understanding that in order to hire the best talent, they have to look beyond a college degree. Every resume that they’re getting has someone who has a college degree, and it doesn’t say much beyond that they went to college, showed up and stayed there for four years. Over the course of the last year I’ve been increasingly invited to speak to employers and HR managers who are actively trying to figure out how to evaluate talent in a world where everyone has a college degree.
I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew if I went the traditional route, I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted until my junior year of college. I didn’t want to wait that long. And I wanted to do it in an awesome environment, so when I found out about UnCollege, it was obvious to me that I should do it.
How did your parents respond?
They were all for it. They were super excited for me. My older brother is into the same stuff as me, so he blazed the path for me and my parents saw that being entrepreneurial and pursuing a startup is something where people can succeed. And even if you don’t, great things come out of it. You can learn a lot, even from failure.
What are you working on during the Launch phase?
I’m working on my own venture that is yet to be named. It’s an online learning site that teaches 21st century meta-skills through challenge-based learning. It’s a continuation of something I started in high school.I kind of failed at it back then. I’m looking to breathe new life into it with the help of UnCollege’s network and being in Silicon Valley around smart, like-minded people.
What do you think about coaching meetings? How have they impacted your progress during this phase?
Coaching is my favorite aspect of the program. Gabe is an awesome coach who really knows how to customize the program and set goals that are both challenging and achievable and make you go outside your comfort zone and stretch yourself to reach them. It has proven invaluable to me growing as a entrepreneur and restarting my venture
How do you think coaching will impact you in later phases?
Right now the hardest part of any startup is pushing the boulder up the hill. Once you reach a certain point, then you finally know what you have and what you’re doing. After that, the starting part is over and you can actually run the company. It doesn’t get easier, but it’s different than just starting up. That transition phase has different deliverables and coaching is helping me to set different goals as my business changes. I think the coaching will adapt as my venture evolves.
What do you plan to be working on in later phases?
I want to spend all my time working on my startup. I’m not taking a Voyage. I wish I could, but it’s not what’s best for me and my startup.
What’s it like living with all the other fellows in the Gap Year House?
It’s not a big transition for me because I come from a family of 9, so it’s always been chaotic in my household. I’ve learned to live with others no matter how much of a slob they are or how particular they are because I’ve lived with both sides of that spectrum. And it’s awesome living with a bunch of self-directed people who think and do things differently. It’s definitely making it easier to be away from home, being surrounded by a bunch of totally different people.
How has the Gap Year program equipped you for the real world so far?
It’s reinforcing the idea that I need to lean on and sharpen my instincts, not just rely on external knowledge. And it’s showing me that real world skills are what really matter. For example, the ability to communicate, collaborate, thinking critically – these are the skills that matter most in the global economy. A portfolio of your work speaks volumes about who you are as a person and what you can do. For me, personally, there’s more merit to a good portfolio than a degree from a university. I’m seeing it every day that I’m here. It’s great to know I’m putting myself in a better position with the skills I’m learning in the program. I’m confident that I’ll will find them useful no matter what I’m working on.
In what ways do you think you will continue to be prepared by your experiences during your gap year?
The connections I’ve made here with current fellows and past fellows will be something I lean on well after the program is over. There are so many resources that will be continue to be available to me. Whenever you need help or advice, someone from the past cohorts or the coaches or someone they connect you with has experienced the same thing as you, and they can help you along. UnCollege has an incredibly large network of professional contacts. And I’ll take with me the spirit of self-directed learning – that never leaves you. That will always be an integral part of me as I move forward.
Where are you going for your voyage phase? What do you plan on doing there?
The venture I started is about to take off. We have a product, customers, and orders to fill. And we’re making money. There are two things that govern every startup: growth and momentum. If you have that, you don’t stop. And right now, I have both. Even though I would love to do a voyage, at the moment it’s farther down on my list of priorities. The startup comes first and now that it’s in motion, no matter how much I want to go abroad, I have to stay here. But hopefully I can travel later on.
Would you recommend taking a year off to other people?
Oh yeah. It’s a year to really discover what you love and what you’re passionate about and what you want to do with your life. Going to college straight out of high school blindly is a waste of money and time, two of the most valuable things we have. It seems more logical to take a year off and figure out what you want to do with your life.
Where do you hope this year will lead you?
Definitely running a successful startup.That’s been my goal since day one and that’s what I’m working towards and will continue to work towards. By the end of the year, I want to say I’m running a successful startup or company.
What are your plans for after your gap year?
I’m still figuring that out. I’m not ruling out college just because I think it’s a great social experience, a place to make friends, make connections, have fun and learn. But I also see myself continuing my startup, renting a place with friends and enjoying life. But I’m still in that phase of trying to figure it out.
What is your favorite memory so far?
The first night we got here. Seeing the house and meeting the people I’d be living with for 10 weeks, getting to know each other. Seeing how different we are, but how we’re all alike in that we’re all motivated, self-directed people who wanted an alternative to the traditional route. It’s cool. Definitely a melting pot, but we all are united in that quality which we all have in common.
What one word would you use to describe your gap year experience?
Uncomfortable. In a good way.
What is your favorite quality/attribute about the program?
Coaching and being in San Francisco. The beautiful weather. *laughs* You can’t beat it. I love this city so much. It’s great that the program is based here.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met in SF so far?
I met a guy at the party we were invited to at the LinkedIn offices. He went to Harvard, dropped out after two years, started a company, grew it and sold it to another company. He got the golden handcuffs, so he had to work for the company that bought his company, and then that company got bought by LinkedIn and he went to work for them. It was really cool to hear that story of his journey from student to founder to working inside a huge corporatation.
What is your favorite part of your weekly curriculum?
Coaching sessions. Every Monday, I look forward to my coaching sessions. They are what I love most. Gabe is the man! He’s the perfect coach for me, since I can throw out a bunch of information and he responds with such clarity and insight. He listens and gives feedback and helps me set stretch goals. It’s been so helpful working with him to develop expectations, then I have to work my ass off during the week to meet those expectations because he keeps me accountable. Being pushed and challenged like that is something I didn’t get in high school, and I craved it. Now I’m getting full doses of that at UnCollege, and it’s great. Gabe’s the perfect coach for that.
What was the best event you’ve gone to during your launch phase?
We met two UC Berkeley students at an event about a coding language called meteor. We chatted them with about what we’re doing at UnCollege, then we listened to their stories and talked about coding languages. They were cool dudes. We all talked about what we are passionate about, and it was a nice mix between talking as friends and connecting. I wouldn’t even call it networking. That was the best event I went to.
Usually, at 5 am on any given Monday morning, the UnCollege fellows are fast asleep, and the house is still and dark. This Monday morning was different. One fellow was up and preparing for a day of volunteering that would change her life. This Monday, I went along with Ilkin to a volunteer opportunity called Challenge Day. We were on a bus heading away from the Gap Year House before 6 am, before the sun had begun to rise. It would be a long ride. We were going outside of the city and would have to catch three buses.
On the way there, we chatted about everything from homelessness to the state of the world to the sunrise as it came up over the horizon, but the conversation always came back to one thing: Challenge Day. The opportunity to volunteer at Challenge Day had come by way of recommendation to both of us from Jon, UnCollege Program Specialist and Ilkin’s coach. Jon worked for Challenge Day for 10 years, and using his experience from that setting, he developed the orientation program for UnCollege.
Challenge Day is a program designed to help students build empathy and compassion for each other by getting them to be vulnerable and real with one another.
As color started to come into the world with the slow ascent of the sun in the sky, on the second bus of the day, Ilkin told me that she was nervous. We anticipated that it would get emotional at some point and that we would be expected to share our personal stories with others, the way we had when Jon led us through the UnCollege orientation only a few weeks ago. We also knew this would be different. This would be deeper.
“I want to be there to help them, but I don’t really want to share my story. I just want to listen.” She said. “The idea of sharing makes me nervous.”
But she knew she would have to.
As the bus went over the Golden Gate Bridge and we left San Francisco behind us, the sun took its place in the sky, fully shining, the colors of sunrise dissipating. Ilkin snapped a quick picture using her phone and then returned to talking about how this was way outside of her comfort zone.
Before Ilkin could feel ready for it, we arrived at Mill Valley Middle School. We got there just in time to receive an abridged training session and prepare for the kids who were outside the gym, waiting to enter. We would be working with the middle school’s entire 8th grade class.
The day started out high-energy, with the adults and kids playing team-building games and doing improv with a partner or two. Then, after some time playing games and getting to know the kids, each adult volunteer was assigned 4-5 eighth graders. This became that volunteer’s “family group.”
There were two Challenge Day leaders, one male and one female, and they both took some time to share with all of us their personal stories.
The room went from buzzing to hushed as the stories began to touch on emotions we had all felt, or feared we would feel one day. Then, slowly, tears rolled down cheeks, and sniffles began to break the hushed silence around the kids and adult volunteers. The empathy the kids had for the leaders was palpable and incredible. I wanted most and deepest in my soul for none of them to lose that. For none of them to be hurt so badly or so many times or chided by the world for their feelings so much that they would let that flame die.
Once the leaders were done sharing, we got into our family groups again and were given two minutes to share our own stories, whatever we wanted to share. The kids in my group were relatively unscathed, or they didn’t share much. Across the room, I saw Ilkin’s family group exchanging a lot of hugs. There were tears on that side of the room, more tears than on my side. Ilkin seemed to be handling it well.
After we went around our family groups and everyone had shared, it was time to do an activity called “cross the line.” In this activity, there were two lines made on the ground with tape, and everyone stood on one of them. The leaders would say something, and if that thing had happened to you or affected your life in any way, you crossed the second line of tape and looked back at everyone still on the other side, and those people held up the “I love you” sign. The point of this is to get even more vulnerable. That way, their classmates could see how much they had been through, and that these eighth graders could know that no matter what they have gone through, they are not alone. This was the most emotional part of the day by far. The adult volunteers participated in this, as in every activity, but we were also there to support the kids who were dealing with a lot. Ilkin did a great job of reaching out with a hug or a hand for everyone who was hurting, even though she herself was being affected by the emotion of the exercise.
Then, we got back into our family groups and shared again. The kids were more open than before and cried more openly as they shared things they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing earlier. From there on out, after some comforting, the day became more upbeat again and ended on a lighter note. After a brief end-of-day volunteer meeting, Challenge Day was over and we embarked upon the trip home.
A few days later, I got coffee with Ilkin to ask her a few questions about her experience. Since the volunteers hadn’t been around each other much during the course of Challenge Day, I wanted to get her side of the experience as well.
Me: What was your first impression of what you would be doing?
Ilkin: My mindset going in was to volunteer and help out, I didn’t think I would get that affected by it. I walked in thinking it would just be a really long but nice day.
Me: What was the reality of the experience?
Ilkin: The truth was that I came out of there a changed person and it ended up being one of the best memories I have of UnCollege so far.
Me: Did your family group share a lot? How did you deal with it?
Ilkin:Yes, they shared a lot for sure. It got really emotional fast. We had such a connection that it really felt like a family, and after sharing, we all hugged every time. I feel like my group was very strong. If I had done this in middle school there’s no way I would’ve opened up like that. I think these kids were really brave and I thought it was really awesome that they just shared with us like that.
Me: Did you connect with anyone on a personal/emotional level? What were they like? Why did you connect?
Ilkin: I did connect emotionally with one girl who I knew I would have been friends with if I were in 8th grade. There weren’t any words involved, but I just felt this connection. It’s hard to explain.
Me: How did you help your family group? How did they help you?
Ilkin: I just helped them by being there. Everyone told me how brave I was for coming there to help them. I helped them by being present there. They needed that presence of a young adult to help them with what they were going through.
Me: How did the “cross the line” activity affect you?
Ilkin: It was the hardest activity to do and it was all building up to that. It was big. Seeing the kids’ reactions was bigger than my own problems and how it affected me, and I sort of forgot that I had my own problems. I felt like it was a really useful thing for the kids, to see how the people they see every day have been through so much.
Me: How did they respond to you as an adult volunteer?
Ilkin: They responded to me well because there was enough of an age difference that I could understand them and we could relate to each other, but there was still an element of respect to it. Being honest and real also opened up my family group a lot because it made me just like one of them.
Me: What changes did you see in the entire room of kids that you also saw maybe within your own group?
Ilkin: Everyone seemed more connected to each other and making an atmosphere of acceptance. One girl wasn’t into it, didn’t want to do it and was just sitting and crossing her arms, and by the end she opened up so much and was so willing to help her classmates. It was really cool to see that transformation in her.
Me: What are your thoughts now that it’s over? What were your thoughts immediately afterwards? How are they different?
Ilkin: Immediately after, I didn’t think doing it again would help me. I could only think about how hungry and exhausted I was. But now that I see how it has been affecting me and changing me, I want to do it again. Why wouldn’t I? How many lives could I change? Waking up and going and doing something that matters for a day and being able to look back on that is just amazing. I can say I did something that mattered that day and was bigger than just me.
Me: Now, for the biggest one: What did you learn?
Ilkin: I learned that no matter what age you are, everyone has stuff going on in their life that they are struggling with. No one person’s problems are worse than any other person’s, and we’re all in this together.
Me: Is there anything else that you have to say about your Challenge Day experience?
Ilkin: I want to say how grateful I am that I have Jon as a coach because he knew me so well and knew that I would gain something from this and that it would be useful to me. Even though I wasn’t so sure about those things myself, he knew me that well, and now, this is one of my best memories of UnCollege so far, and I want to do it again.
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.
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!
This week, I interviewed our housing team to get a better sense of who they were and why they joined UnCollege. Jo Welch is our Housing Director, and Gabe Stern is our inaugural House Manager. They both have had diverse experiences and hold fascinating perspectives. Below are their stories.
Jo Welch, UnCollege’s Housing Director
Gabe Stern, Inaugural House Manager
Q: What was your educational background?
Jo: I was the nerd at school. My teachers always said that I asked too many questions, whatever that means. I think my fourth grade teacher even met with my parents to discuss how precocious I was.
In the 5th grade, I got into my school’s gifted and talented program. I studied for and took the SATs in the 7th grade, tested into the IB program, joined the Academic Pentathlon team, and learned college logic in the 8th grade. This was all very exciting for me. I felt like I was finally learning in school.
Unfortunately, my dad got sick around that time, and in the midst of family issues I ended up dropping out of school in the 9th grade. Finishing school was always a big priority for me, however, and I went back in the 11th grade.
In order to make up the classes I missed during my first and second year, I found high school correspondence courses through Texas Tech University. I took classes like geometry, and was able to learn at my own pace. Instead of studying 6 or 7 subjects at a time, I did about one subject a month. I really enjoyed this, because it meant that I got the chance to immerse myself in a subject and know it well, instead of glossing over aspects of it as I would’ve done in school.
By going to school during the day and taking correspondence courses at night and on the weekends, I was able to graduate high school on time.
My GPA was terrible though, so I went to community college full-time while also working full-time. That was unsustainable. There was a constant tension between being professionally and academically successful. My career suffered when I focused on college, and vice versa. After 5 or 6 years, I realized that I just couldn’t do both. I saw that there were other ways to get where I wanted, and that college wasn’t the only option.
Gabe: In school, there’s always that one kid who is smart but doesn’t try. That was me. I went to a Waldorf school for twelve years, but it wasn’t until after I took a gap year after high school that I found the motivation to apply myself. Specifically: I spent my time off from school working at a supermarket, and I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
When I went back to school (McDaniel College in Maryland), I took college very seriously and tried hard to do well during the first two years. Getting A’s was a new thing for me, and it felt really good, at first. But soon I became suspicious of the college system.
I spent a lot of time during my senior year of college reading about pedagogy and thinking about effective and scalable ways to educate a population. The Sudbury model of education, where students take complete personal responsibility for their education and lead with their curiosity, was the one that aligned most with my ideology, and it’s very similar to what we’re doing here at UnCollege.
This hands-off model of education teaches self-reliance, and helps young people learn how to get what they want, even if they don’t get a pat on the back for it at the end of the day. That’s key. I think it’s healthy to step back and give yourself the space to ask yourself what you really enjoy doing.
Q: Between college and UnCollege, what did you do?
Jo: Wow. So many things. I’ve had a very wide range of work experiences, and have learned so much on the job — that’s actually what I optimize for. It has not been, however, a clear trajectory of any sort. I think that’s one of the most important things for young people to learn: you don’t have to have your life planned out in order to be successful.
In high school, I waited tables, learning about customer service. I was a dispatcher at a trucking firm for a little while. I worked at a call center. Later I worked as an admin at a construction company, where I taught myself how to use Access and discovered my love of databases.
When I got bored doing that (I had learned all there was to learn), a friend recommended me for an RF drive testing position, where you drive around the country and check data signals. I was traveling all the time, while getting to learn a lot about RF engineering and about how cell networks were structured. I had zero experience in that before, so it was intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun for me.
Then I got a job as a SQL Data Analyst — I still can’t figure out how I got that job — and learned SQL on the job. I fell in love with data analysis and relational databases. They’re beautiful and sexy and I am madly in love with them.
Of course, when the learning slowed on that job, it was time for me to go. There was a company that wanted to do a full data migration from an old system to a new system. I said, “Yeah, I haven’t done that before. Let’s do it.” That was a much smaller team with a much looser company structure, so I was able to get involved with the business side of things as well. For example: I rewrote the training materials, created and staffed a QA department, and redesigned their implementation process. I was able to get really hands-on.
After working with a defense contractor for a few years, I then worked at Dell, which was awful. Big companies are so wasteful with resources.
Gabe: Like Jo, I did many different things before finding myself here. Immediately after graduating college, I worked for the Obama campaign. Then I played in a band in Pittsburgh for a while, and city-hopped between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York City. I also traveled to Israel and Palestine, learning about the history and immersing myself in the culture there.
One of the best learning experiences that I had was working remotely from D.C. for an environmental startup for just under three years. As its third employee, I got to watch the company go from ideation to implementation (and ultimately, to failure), wearing many different hats along the way.
When I moved to San Francisco, I did canvassing for Amnesty International and the Red Cross. I’m very driven by causes that end suffering. It was also very fun for me to interact with strangers — I learned how to use charisma to encourage people to take action, which is a very powerful skill. Eventually, they hired me to do higher-level recruiting, which I did for about a year.
Q: What is the most pertinent example of self-directed learning that you’d like to share?
Jo: I started learning a lot about the Paleo lifestyle and grain-free baking. That grew into my own bakery, called Lembas. It’s a reference from Lord of the Rings to the exceptionally healthy bread that elves make. Yeah, I’m a nerd.
Lembas was a food trailer, and I learned about what it takes to start a small business from my experience there. Perhaps my favorite part of running Lembas were all the amazing people I met along the way.
Gabe: For me, it was learning electronic music production. I watched Youtube videos, outsourced questions to forums, and regularly took people in the industry out for coffee.
Soon I started teaching private lessons, and eventually started my own business. I taught myself a few hard skills on the way. I learned how to code in order to make my own website, for example, and design in order to do advertising.
This is what I was doing right before I joined the UnCollege team.
Q: Why did you want to work at UnCollege?
Jo: From my personal experience, starting projects on your own and seeing them to completion can be a lot more valuable than going to school. I think more people should have the chance to choose this type of learning, and I’m excited to be part of the movement that is giving people that opportunity.
Gabe: Education is one of the most important leverage points for fixing global problems. If you can educate people to be smart, creative, and hard-working, then you’re essentially training the next generation of people to do bad-ass shit and improve the world.
At some point during my sophomore year of high school, I stopped showing up. Shortly thereafter I tested out of my remaining graduation requirements (this was actually more out of a desire to avoid being prosecuted under state truancy laws rather than an actual desire to have a high school diploma). I was 16 years old. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave school.
I found school disgusting. The unctuous behavior of spoiled teenagers desperate to go to Harvard repulsed me. Teachers and administrators were horrified that, despite my high test scores, I displayed zero interest in joining the ranks of US News & World Report obsessed ranks of adolescent drones. One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I left.
People told me I was making a huge mistake. That I was making a mess of my life. That I’d never make it without a college degree. People told me I’d end up on the streets. They insisted that unless I went back, I had no future. But, I stood firm. I was going to make it on my own. I was determined. In the end, I was also right.
I got a job almost immediately after leaving high school as the Volunteer Coordinator on the biggest congressional primary of the election cycle. Then in the general election, I was the Fairfax County GOTV Director for the Obama Campaign (Tim Kaine’s US Senate Campaign also folded into my operation). Today, I’m an Account Executive at a full service political consulting firm based in Washington, DC.
I’ve learned more by living and doing than I ever would have by sitting in a classroom listening to some academic lecture. What seminar will teach you how to manage a large, multi layered staff? When will you ever learn how to make an effective sales pitch in a school? Which degree confers upon you the ability to function effectively in a public relations crisis? I may not have a fancy piece of paper from some Ivory Tower, but I’ve got real world, marketable skills and substantive track record of success.
Not too long ago, I went back to my old high school. Surprisingly, most of the teachers I talked to agreed in retrospect that I’d made the right call by leaving. But they also told me that veering from traditional educational route wouldn’t have worked out for other people. That’s where I disagree. I think that anyone who consistently finds themselves challenging the conventional wisdom of education should seriously consider opting out of the system.
I got my first gig in politics because I walked into a storefront campaign office and asked to help out. I got my big break because I asked the Campaign Manager for a ride to the metro and used the travel time to convince him to fire a top gun twenty something operative and hire me in their place. If you’ve got the balls to ask for great responsibility as a teenager, people will generally give you a shot. If you’ve got the intelligence and talent to handle it you can reap the rewards of that.
The combination of guts, smarts and ability will take you as far as you need to go regardless of what field you choose to enter. What’s more, it’s easy to turn what conventional wisdom would suggest are liabilities like youth and a lack of formal education into a whiz kid persona (which will do wonders for your career). Plus, skipping four years of college will give you a huge head start on your peers.
When you opt out of the traditional educational system, you turn reality into your classroom. The people you meet along the way in your own personal journey of self discovery will be your teachers and your classmates. Your shared experiences will be your textbook and the only tuition is an open mind.
My rise over the last few years has been pretty meteoric. I’ve proved all those who doubted me wrong. I may not have gone to prom, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t go the official inaugural ball. I saw my opportunities and I took them. At the end of the day, that’s why I’ve come out on top. If you’re brave enough to blaze your own trail, you can make it to the top as well.
I’m a huge fan of the UnCollege movement. I found out about it while researching unschooling. I think that as a society, we need to move away from higher education. If people choose to go to college, that’s fine. But it should be a footnote on your resume, no more important or prominent than a summer spent backpacking across India or a stint in the Marines (although I think either of those are a lot more valuable and fulfilling than four years of frat parties punctuated by boring lectures from academics with no real world experience).