Recently, I was privileged to be asked to speak at a panel discussion at a local high school during a "career day" event where young professionals (like me) spoke to a leadership class about what life is like after high school and how to jump-start your career after graduating.
I was one of four speakers, and I was impressed with the diversity of our group: there were two men, and two women; one worked for a university, one worked for a bank, one worked for a private company, and then there was me—the only entrepreneur. Also, our educational experience was quite varied: two people had master's degrees, one had no college at all, and one person (me) had a bachelor's degree.
Opportunities like this are something I always take seriously, not just because I want to help young people who are wondering what to do with their future, but also because it helps me understand myself better and "frame" my own past in a deeper way. For example, how often do people ask themselves "If you could go back in time and give your high-school-aged self advice, what would you say?" Odds are, not very often.
During the discussion, a moderator asked us some pre-selected questions, then opened up the floor for questions from the kids. Not all of the questions were profound, of course, and not all of the answers were life-changing, but there were a few things I think are worth sharing since I think they're helpful to anybody considering becoming self-employed; not just high schoolers.
At this event, I was the only self-employed person in the room, so I was honored to be there representing entrepreneurs. It's definitely the road less traveled, and I am very often one of the only (if not the only) freelancer or solopreneur in a room filled with other business people. Very often, I'll meet 10, 20, or even 30 people at a business networking event or chamber mixer, and maybe 2 or 3 of them are self-employed. Everyone else works for big corporations with salaries, benefits, retirement plans, and the "security and stability of a stable paycheck."
Sometimes this makes me feel like a social outcast; like there's something wrong with me, since I don't fit neatly into the same mold as everyone else. So on this day, being asked to go speak to high schoolers was great, because it was nice to be in a room where I was treated as an equal to people who work for large financial companies and who have MBAs or MPAs. It's also nice because I like telling school-aged kids that "there are other options besides just going to college."
So, having said all that, here's a selection of questions I was asked in our panel discussion, lightly edited for grammar and brevity. I hope the high schoolers we spoke to found it helpful, and I hope anybody else reading this does as well.
Q: What's your name and position and what does your organization do?
My name is Ron Stauffer, and my company is Lieder Digital. I build websites, and perform digital marketing and SEO (that's search engine optimization). So, basically, I'm self-employed. I have a small company that I run myself. So, it's mostly just me. I have a virtual assistant but essentially, this is it: this is my whole company - my whole office, in my backpack right here.
Q: What was your career path, and how did you end up in your current role?
Well, I took a very complex, expensive, complicated, nontraditional, circuitous path to my career… long story short, my wife and I got married when she was 19 and I was 20. We were both going to community college at the time, but we became parents right away.
So what that basically meant was it took me 16 years to finish going to college. So, there was a lot of night school, a lot of weekends, a lot of juggling work and school at the same time, raising babies, answering phones, returning emails, and doing homework all at the same time. So it technically worked in the end, but yeah… I mean, if you look at the labyrinth of my life's journey, it makes no sense at all.
Actually, I never even set out to get into marketing, but I always liked technology a lot. The idea of building websites or doing things digitally with the internet or using computers or things like that, I was always fascinated by that.
And the way I got into it was, I was a marketing director at a construction company, and I got laid off. And I thought, "Well, the entire construction industry is totally tanking," right? This was during the 2008 global recession, and everybody in real estate and construction was just firing everybody left and right.
So I thought, "Hmm… I can go try to get another job at another company, or I can start my own business." And I started my own business. Well, fast forward a couple of years, I ended up saying, "Ugh, being self-employed is too hard. I'm going to go back and get another job." So, I did that. I got another job working for someone else. But then I got laid off again. …and again… and so, after losing my job at the third company, I said "That's it! I'm never getting laid off again as long as I live! I'm going to be self-employed for the rest of my life until the day I die!"
And so, basically, that's how I ended up in my current role. And, actually, I've done a lot of things in that role. You know, building websites, doing marketing, that sort of thing. But also, what's cool about it is, like I said, I get to take my business everywhere I go. I have clients here in Tucson, but I have a lot of clients in Colorado, and I get to fly back and forth to visit them sometimes. You know, I work virtually, a lot of the time, but, you know, face-to-face is also really important.
So, I guess, yeah, that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing. It wasn't really planned (laughs), but it works.
Q: What's one of the biggest things that you wish you knew before graduating high school? What would you tell your senior high school self?
One of the biggest things I wish I knew as I was graduating high school is that I didn't need college at all. And unfortunately, I'm from a generation which is — I'm older than I look — people tell me I look young, but I actually have two high school kids myself.
So, when I was getting toward the end of high school, people told me, "You will fail if you don't go to college. You absolutely cannot get a job without it. You will be completely unemployable. You would be stupid to not go to college. It would be the dumbest mistake of your entire life. And you will be poor forever."
But I wanted to get married and have kids, so just try to figure out like "Well, how can I support a family if I'm gonna be poor and if no one will ever hire me?" was hard. But that was kind of true: no one would hire me for the jobs that I wanted because the world was absolutely obsessed with college degrees.
Fortunately, I think that's changing now. Unfortunately, it didn't change fast enough for me. Like I said, it took me 16 years to finish college, and that was ridiculous, it was expensive, and it was very inefficient.
So what I would say now is, if I had to do it over, the biggest thing I would say to my high school self is "You don't have to go to college."
But the trick is: you still have to become educated! There's no such thing as somebody who finishes high school — no offense, but — nobody finishes high school and then says "I have all the knowledge I now need to go take on life!" You don't. I promise you, you don't. The world is harsh. High school prepares you a little bit, but not entirely. There's definitely a lot of education you still need, but the trick is figuring out where you get that from.
In my industry, we can Google things, every day. You know how many times I've had a client who asks me something like, "Hey, Ron, can you do this thing to make my website do this?" And I say, "Yeah, but that's going to take some complicated coding." And then, three days later, I'm just, Googling stuff, I'm watching YouTube videos, like, "Oh, wow, that's how I can do it! Cool… great!"
And then I do it, and it looks really impressive. And my client asks, "How did you do that?" and I say "Hey, I'm just… I'm a genius! It's very complicated code. You wouldn't understand. Now I'm going to send you a very expensive bill." And they pay it because I've solved a huge problem for them.
So, that's the thing: becoming educated. Again, in my industry, there are things besides college like coding boot camps, and even high schools do them now, too. This is such a different generation than what I had growing up.
You can actually do — Google has a program called "CS First" where, as a teenager, you can sign up and they'll give you a certification and they'll even fund it and they can even give you a free computer to use and stuff like that. Maybe you're already doing this here, but there are entry programs, and sometimes there are even direct-to-hire programs where you can get an internship at tech companies, and they will help teach you the skills, and then hire you when you're done, which is an amazing opportunity.
And, again, I didn't have that opportunity, but I think if I wanted it bad enough, I could have figured out how to get by without college.
Actually, the weird thing is, by the time I finally finished college, I didn't need it anymore. The only reason I finished is so that I could show my kids that once you start something like that, you should finish it. Plus, I really wanted to graduate from college before my kids did.
I know some people who finished high school — my wife's uncle, actually, he recently passed away — Then he became a grandpa, and I think, you know, his kids, and maybe even his grandkids finished high school before he did… but he did. He finally finished high school. It was like that for me too.
Note: at this point, the panel's pre-selected questions ended and the kids in the room got to ask us questions directly.
Q: So, what is it like owning your own business?
Oh, wow. Well, every day is terrifying. I wake up afraid every single morning saying "Maybe this is the day I'll have to go out of business."
Boy... what's it like? Yeah, in 60 seconds or less, it's… let's say... it's a rollercoaster of emotion. It's a thrill, it's frightening, it's wonderful. I'm my own boss. I can do whatever I want. I have no agenda, right? I could leave from here, in this room right now, and I could go get in my car and drive to Mexico, and nobody would even know, and no one would care. My wife wouldn't even care!
Um, well, okay, so, no, she would care... but I would just call her and tell her, "By the way, I'm going to Mexico for a few days." And she'd be like, "Okay, is there enough money for groceries in our bank account?" because that's what she cares about.
So, it's great. It's hard, but the ability to create your own future and be accountable only to yourself is absolutely awesome.
Q: So, after all that, do you regret going to college now?
[Note: I was really surprised by this excellent question. I hadn't anticipated it. I had to think for a bit before responding. There was a long pause here.]
No, I don't regret it... but here's why: I did not gain skills in college. I only sharpened the skills I already had.
I would not have gotten the skills that help me in my job in college. I just know that. I would never have gotten a computer science degree or anything like that. I would have gotten something really dumb like philosophy. No offense to anybody here — I love philosophy — but that's kind of a pointless major if you're going to be a computer programmer or something like that.
But what I did is, because I went to college after I already got my career started, I found ways to take classes that helped me. So I took things like public speaking, acting, photography, and journalism, and things like that so I could learn to be a better writer, a better photographer, a better speaker, and… I took graphic design and stuff like that.
I guess... I found a way to make it all make sense in the end, so it wasn't a total waste. So, no, I don't regret going to college, but... boy... if I had just done it the right way from the very beginning, my life would have been so much easier.
Q: Any final thoughts or words of wisdom you'd share with us?
I think one thing that's extremely important that I forgot to mention is mentorship. Mentorship is one of the most important things that nobody told me about when I was younger.
People would say like, you know, "Get an education," or "Take classes and study hard," or "read lots of books" or things like that. But mentorship was a crucial component that nobody talks about.
There are four mentors I've had so far, and the first three drastically changed my life. Because when you sit across the table from a person who's older and wiser than you, who has been there and seen things, and they're sitting there looking in your eyeballs for the sole purpose of telling you how you can improve your life — and they're not charging you and they even don't want money — that is an unbelievable gift.
And so three times now, I've had three men in my life who sat across from me at a table and asked me really complicated questions, where I thought, "Whoa, that's a wild idea. What if I did do that?" They got me to think in a much, much bigger way than I ever would have on my own.
So, seeking mentorship is huge. And here's the secret, most people are willing to be a mentor if you just ask them. I've had really high-powered CEOs, who are pretty influential people in their communities and they run big expensive companies and I get to sit down with them for free and they say "Yes" to meeting with me. That's amazing. That's flattering.
So, not being afraid to ask for mentorship is a really important thing.
But I would recommend you do it in a formal way. Like, you know, through a high school, or a college, or, even the county you live in might have some programs or something like that, right? Like, don't just walk up to someone and say, "Will you be my mentor?" Um, I suppose you could, but there are better, more formal ways to do that.
Also, when you do have that structure, there's also accountability where, at the end of a mentoring relationship, you know, usually it's one year or something like that — at the end of that, you can ask, "How did we do? What did I learn? What did I get out of it?" So I highly, highly recommend mentorship. It's life-changing.