Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

Do Angel Investors Care About University Degrees?

There is a stream in entrepreneurship lore that the entrepreneur doesn’t need or want education, a fire fed by legendary dropouts Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. Why waste your time studying? Just do it; or so it goes. So how do angel investors fall on this question? Does the degree add credibility? Is it worth it?

My bias, as an angel investor: other things being equal, yes. In general, the university degree means you’ve accomplished something that took several years; the grad degree means more so; and the more prestigious the institution, the better. But of course there are exceptions. There are idiots with degrees and gifted entrepreneurs without them.

Looking beyond my specific bias, thinking of people I’ve worked with in my groups and in different investor venues, I think it’s fair to talk about some general rules that will apply to most situations: most investors, looking at most potential deals. And of course there will always be exceptions, but, in general:

  • Unless proven otherwise, a lot of investors would agree with my bias in the second paragraph.
  • Degrees work a lot better if they have some relationship to the job. For example, it’s good to see medical degrees for the biomed businesses and pharmaceuticals, and physics for the clean tech.
  • Those liberal arts degrees (disclosure: my BA was in Literature) are tolerated as proof that you were able to stick to something, but not of too much else. They don’t hurt unless you push them too hard.
  • Engineering, physics, chemistry, and higher math … those degrees seem to say “smart person.”
  • There are some specialty fields like design and development in which degrees can be strangely, ironically, suspect. Not that the Computer Science Degree from MIT or Caltech doesn’t mean a whole lot; but coding and interface design tend to be self taught rather than classroom knowledge. And designers, as another example … the designer for hardware and consumer tech is definitely enhanced by the degree, especially engineering; but in web and software, not so much. Sometimes I get the impression a prestigious degree in engineering, higher math or physics does more for a developer’s credibility than straight computer science. But that’s weird; I’m wary of taking that one too far.
  • For the MBA degree, prestigious schools are still golden, but MBAs need a few years before they’re really credible. Somebody said somewhere that the best investment is to buy a recently graduated MBA for what they’re worth, and sell them for what they think they’re worth. MBAs generally need seasoning.
  • Business degrees are better than no degrees, but this one is hard for me to stay objective. I’d rather see the kind of education that a good liberal arts degree gives a person – how to think, analyze, and communicate, I hope – than an undergrad business degree.
  • That point above this one is an example of another problem with predicting angel investors’ feelings about the degrees. We tend to like what we did ourselves. I was a liberal arts undergrad, so there you see bias in action. Engineers believe in engineering degrees, math people in math degrees, and we almost all believe in the institutions we went to. That’s just unavoidable human bias.

And please allow me to end this post with the plain statement of the obvious: I’ve tried to give you a picture of what random groups of US Angel investors are going to think, but there’s no way I can keep my own opinions and experience from influencing my guesses about others.

Angel investors are all individuals. Nobody thinks exactly like anybody else.

Written by Tim Berry

user Tim Berry

Tim is the founder of Palo Alto Software and bplans.com, the co-founder of Borland International, and the official business planning coach at Entrepreneur.com. He has been called the "Obi-wan Kenobe of business planning" and "The Father of Business Planning." He is a serial author of books and software on business planning.

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