Up until they met while studying abroad in Isreal, Jojo Hedaya and Josh Rosenwald—the cofounders of the email startup Unroll Me—were following a more or less traditional route towards success. They’d both grown up in New York City attending school and they both decided to attend a four-year university when they graduated from college. But that’s as far as they got in the traditional education system because the two decided to put their studies on hold when their startup, Unroll Me, started attracting attention from hundreds of thousands—and soon to be millions—of users.
An Idea Born of Frustration
While still in college, Hedaya and Rosenwald were communicating—but having trouble doing so—about different business ideas they each had. However, they soon became frustrated because their emails to each other kept getting buried under a mountain of subscription emails that they had signed up for at one time or another. After the initial frustration subsided, the two realized that they could do something about it. And that’s when they thought of Unroll Me—though the final name would take some time to decide on.
It would be an application that users could download for free that would scan the user’s inbox, compiled his or her subscription emails into one, single email, and provide a one-click unsubscribe option. In addition to the easy unsubscribe feature, users could also compile the subscription emails they wanted to keep in one, consolidated email newsletter that the founders of Unroll Me decided to call “The Roll Up.”
The app turned out to be a runaway success, attracting over one million users in just a few short years. Soon after that, the company attracted interest from venture capitalists and potential acquirers alike. That attention culminated in the successful acquisition of Unroll Me by Slice Technologies, a shopping application also related to email.
Alternative Routes are Risky… but so is College
The details of Unroll Me, and particularly its founders, speak to a bigger point. And that is, four-year college doesn’t have to be the only path. Of course, that’s not to imply that going out and founding a software company is. Realistically speaking, millions of ambitious entrepreneurs like Hedaya and Rosenwald are working on their ideas at this very moment. A precious few of those millions will find anything close to the success that Unroll Me’s founders did. But focusing on the high rate of failure that every startup founder must grapple with misses the real point.
According to Business Insider, college tuition has increased faster than wages have since 1970. As a result, student debt in the United States is at an all-time high of more than $1.5 trillion. Even worse, almost half of millennials who went to college and currently have or previously had debt from student loans think college was not a worthwhile investment.
In short, college is not the riskless investment it’s generally been made out to be. Moreover, it’s not necessarily a given that college will result in higher earnings potential, particularly if you’re not pursuing a degree in a lucrative field of study. Alternatives, such as starting a company like Unroll Me or learning a skill can be just as, if not more, lucrative. What’s more, while you can surely argue that these career paths are risky, you can also argue that taking on mountains of student loan debt that can follow you for the rest of your life is quite risky as well.
An Economy that Prioritizes Skills
The private labor market, as represented by leading companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Walmart, and more, is showing an increasing willingness to toss away traditional, outdated job requirements such as the college education. Of course, that doesn’t mean these companies don’t want skilled workers. On the contrary, the reason they’re tossing out traditional requirements is that leading companies recognize that there are skilled workers who can provide fantastic value to their company but may not have had the financial resources to pursue a college degree.
For example, software engineers can develop their skills by going to a boot camp or similar institution to learn the fundamentals of coding. While these types of organizations aren’t free, they’re significantly more affordable and less time-consuming than a four-year university. In fact, one of Unroll Me’s early employees was an individual who had been working for a restaurant group but decided to do a career switch. To accomplish that, this individual started taking classes and learning the fundamentals of software engineering. In the middle of this person’s learning curve, Hedaya chose to hire this candidate. According to Hedaya, this person went on to become a significant contributor to Unroll Me’s success as a company.
What if They Fail?
Anytime someone makes the decision to forgo a traditional college education, as the founders of Unroll Me did, and pursue some other way of making money… either by developing a skill on their own or through an alternative education or by starting a company, you hear people bring up the risk of failure. To be sure, this is a fair counterargument but the people who make it often neglect to mention the colossal risk of failure associated with taking out a student loan and attending a four-year university, despite that being painted as the “riskless” alternative.
When you go to, for example, a coding bootcamp—as an early employee of Unroll Me might have—you pay for that education. The average cost of that kind of boot camp in the United States is $11,906 and it usually runs for about 6 months. Compare that to the average cost of a degree in the United States, which is $99,417. Of course, if you’re financing the cost of your degree at 5.8 percent (the average student loan interest rate), assuming you took out a loan of $30,000 of that total cost, you’d pay $9600 in interest over 10 years. With a larger student loan, you’d pay even more.
Even worse, if something goes wrong and you’re not able to work when you’re in college, your student debt just keeps piling up. In other words, college is not a risk-free investment. In fact, alternative paths often present far lower downside risks while still delivering a comparable return on investment.