Charlie O’Donnel and Jon Steinberg recently wrote two excellent posts about the value of business school and advice to graduates looking to join a startup. Their feedback is quite challenging and a little negative on MBA programs. I’ve said myself that most MBA’s are unable to really build something or sell something, which are basically the only two jobs that matter at an early stage company.
I do fear that the sentiment around MBA’s is swinging a little too negative these days. I’d like to offer a slightly more positive view, and some suggestions to MBA programs to better prepare their candidates.
Unlike some graduate programs, an MBA is not a trade. You don’t walk away with the ability to do something unique like you would coming out of dental school or law school. In fact, most people who go into business school are actively leaving their “trade”, whether that’s banking, consulting, product management, sales, or something else.
So what’s the point of Business School? In my view, the point of an MBA at a top tier B school is to provide students with the perspectives and pattern recognition to be a really great C-level executive. It allows a person to feel like they have “seen this movie before” in more situations and respond more decisively. There is a TON of value in this, but the further you are from making meaningful decisions in an organization, the less useful this learning becomes.
In my view, MBA entrepreneurs shouldn’t be looking to join great startups. They should be looking to start great companies. If they feel poorly equipped to do that, that’s a signal that they went to Business School too early. I love the example of guys like Brian Shin and Dharmesh Shah who had started companies in the past, went to B-school relatively late, and used the resources there to cultivate their next company.
Unfortunately, I can’t change the way Business Schools operate overall. The talent market is such that students are applying to Business School earlier and top tier schools are trying to admit younger students as well.
So here is what I would do differently at business schools to make students more effective in the startup ecosytem.
1. I’d make sure there is a class on early stage product creation. This would include the nuts and bolts of forming a founding team, best practices in early stage product marketing and product management, and best practices in early stage customer acquisition. I think this class should also require students to produce something and find users. It could even be as simple as starting a blog and attracting readers – it doesn’t matter.
2. I’d push more students to take classes in sales. I would make most of this learning occur outside of the classroom. Imagine if you could create a program where a bunch of top tier MBA’s are working for different companies and actually helping them sell product. That would be tough to coordinate, but make a big difference.
3. I’d rethink the case method. The case method is great at creating a lively, analytical discussion. You can generally guarantee that a class of 50-90 students will pick apart the main issues of a decision, and discuss all the costs and benefits of all the options. The problem is that business isn’t about analysis. It’s about decisions. And decisions are as much about the gut and conviction to trust your judgement as it is about analysis. During my two years in Business School, I don’t think I ever felt the the discomfort in my stomach that comes with making an important decision with incomplete information. But that’s what has to happen all day long at a startup (or in any management role).
4. I’d push students to get out of the campus. B-schools are great a bringing in great speakers and executives. It’s easy to get complacent. But entrepreneurship tends to be a local endeavor in the early days. You have to recruit locally, fund-raise locally (usually), find your first customers and partners locally (usually), etc. Cities like Boston, New York, and SF have a lot of resources for early stage entrepreneurs and have thriving startup-ecosystems. But I rarely see a B-school student at WebInno, OpenCoffee, PopSignal, or other local events. Maybe the situation is better with the NY Tech Meetup, but I’m not sure.
Those are my thoughts – and I’d love to to whatever I can to help MBA programs better equip students for roles at early stage companies.