Tech hubs like Silicon Valley and East London’s Tech City are attracting people from around the world—individuals who are on their way to becoming tech-startup entrepreneurs. They’re drawn by the excitement of working in a nimble industry where it’s possible to develop products quickly and make changes on the fly. (There’s also the enticing possibility of hitting on the next billion-dollar idea, of course!)
I’ve heard from several young people lately that they’re excited by the possibilities of the technology sector and want to start their own businesses, but aren’t sure how to go about learning the technical skills to help them succeed—or whether they need to know the technical side in the first place. So let’s start from the beginning.
If you envision building an app or a business that is otherwise based on code, it would make sense for you to master the basics while you’re in school. Learning to code used to be quite daunting, but now there are many options that make this process easier. Codecademy (a company that I invested in) offers a user-driven experience based on a set of modules that would be easy to fit into your studies.
Other solutions you might check out include Udacity, Girl Develop It and Code Racer, just to name a few. Whatever path you pursue in the long run, these skills will be an asset to you—at Virgin we are encouraging our employees to try their hand at coding, since it’s increasingly useful.
But if you don’t have a knack for coding, that’s not a problem—you can work with colleagues who do. Meanwhile, you should focus on developing your skills in the areas you excel at. For instance, you might consider joining organizations that offer help with learning the basics of starting up a business. Even the highest-tech companies need people with a solid grounding in the fundamentals.
When you begin tossing around ideas for your startup, don’t just limit yourself to apps. A great idea is a great idea, no matter what sector it’s in. We launched one of our newest non-profits, Virgin StartUp, with the aim of helping fledgling entrepreneurs to flourish through low-interest loans and a mentorship program. Many of the businesses that we have helped are not at all software-based—they are being launched by bakers, hairdressers and fashion designers. One innovative idea that caught my eye was the pitch for Intrepid English—a business where a teacher, Lorraine Venables, offers English courses to non-native speakers that are tailor-made to each student’s specific requirements.
The startup phase is where the IT industry does offer some real advantages, since such businesses can be very nimble. Their offerings can be adapted fairly quickly to new markets or tweaked to reflect a change in emphasis, and that in itself has helped to enable the development of a new and more flexible culture of entrepreneurship. It now seems to be more accepted than it used to be that entrepreneurs will make mistakes along the way—that not all projects work, and sometimes you just have to pull the plug. It’s all part of the process.
Finally, the possibility of starting your business from the desk in your dorm or at your parents’ kitchen table may be best, partly because your overhead would be very low. This would give you more time to find investors, raise capital and recruit employees or partners—it could very well be your recipe for success.
One of the most important things is to develop a strong sense of where your interests lie. You also need to plan now for the day that you launch your business. Don’t be discouraged if your first idea doesn’t work—everyone starts out as a beginner. Successful people are just further along in their careers.
If you try and try again, when you do succeed, your enterprise will join the list of thriving organizations that were started up by people who had no experience in business—people like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They just gave it a go and ended up driving real change in their industry. You might be next!
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies