Juggling education & business

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You’re still in school when a great business idea pops up in your head unbidden. What to do? Do you drop out of school and pursue this dream or wait? Well, why not juggle being a student and an entrepreneur?

Q: I’m studying mechanical engineering, expecting to graduate this year, and I have an interest in doing something in the automobile sector. Should I start working toward being an entrepreneur now, or should I continue in my technical field of study? – Harsh Jethani, India

When you’ve got a great business idea, there’s no time like the present, no better day than today, and no righter time than right now. There’s no point in waiting for the perfect time to materialise, because it won’t.

But does that mean you should quit your studies and go into business? Not necessarily — sometimes you can do both.

Balancing formal education and entrepreneurship can make for a terrific learning experience, with the two working in tandem to great effect.

As you may have read in this column, I quit school to become an entrepreneur because the things we were learning weren’t relevant to my passions or the career path I had in mind. But in your case, it sounds like you’re learning important technical skills that relate to your interests. You may want to continue your schooling so that you can use those skills to bolster your business.

For most people, the biggest barrier to entrepreneurship isn’t a lack of access to resources, support or mentoring, but not being able to quit a day job or a course of study in order to further develop a concept.

This can be a difficult obstacle: When you have bills to pay and a family to take care of, the idea of focusing solely on a startup may seem unrealistic.

You don’t have to give up your dream. Your best option might be to become a part-time entrepreneur.

While it’s likely that your studies are time-consuming, so is starting a business. Some of the world’s most successful companies began as side projects, with their founders working evenings and weekends to turn their ideas into reality.

Virgin is a prime example of this — all of our businesses started while we were working on something else. For example, years ago, when our team was running Virgin Records, I saw a gap in the airline market when my flight was cancelled and I had to improvise a solution.

We launched operations as a side project: We started small, with one plane, to see if there was an opening.

In your case, Harsh, a startup might be good for your education. Launching your own business requires you to become a jack-of-all-trades. In the early days, you’re often the head of marketing, operations, business development and technology.

When I launched my first business, I had at least 10 job titles (depending on who I was talking to). Working across so many areas enables you to learn quickly, broadening your skill set — something that will undoubtedly make you a better student.Keep in mind that school can be a great place to find a mentor, particularly if you’re learning a trade.

Some of your teachers may be juggling teaching with outside work themselves. Tell them about your plans and ask for their advice.

The part-time route can also help you limit the downside. Entrepreneurship is an incredibly risky vocation, so much so that eight out of 10 startups fail within the first 18 months. If you work and study at the same time, you’ll do better in the classroom and in the real world.

We worked hard to grow Virgin Atlantic into an international carrier. We eventually had to sell Virgin Records to focus on the airline, but only after we had proved that there was a market for our idea. There was, and we were ready to take a leap — we were sure that we had a success on our hands.

On the other hand, if you already have all the information and skills you need to start up your company, then go ahead and leave school!

You won’t stop learning when you become an entrepreneur — I learned more in the first year of launching Virgin than I ever did in the classroom. — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

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