As an entrepreneur myself — having being involved in 4-5 startups over the last 10+ years – I am frequently asked if business school makes sense for a would-be entrepreneur. Admittedly there is a tension there, after all some of the most successful entrepreneurs never went to business school, and in fact, some never even graduated college. And if the business idea is so great, does the founder really have time for business school?
My response to these questions are manifold. First off, don’t think about all the non-MBAs who became wildly successful, think about all the thousand of businesses that failed because the founder did not know the basics of business. For every Elon Musk, there are a few thousand John Smiths, back at a normal job because their ideas fizzled. Also, understand a successful startup is not an idea, it is the idea operationalized. In simple terms, this means you can actually do what you say you want to do. If you can, good luck – no MBA needed. If you recognize you can’t, ask yourself why not, because the answer to that question may clearly lead to business school.
Here are a few tips that would-be entrepreneurs need to understand to successfully be accepted at a top business program.
• A business school application is not a business plan. Some applicants use their essays to lay out the idea for a business, hoping that the admissions committee will be so wowed that their acceptance is on its way. Simply put, this is not how it works. By doing this, you are asking admissions professionals – not venture capitalists – to judge the likelihood of success of an idea that exists only on paper. They are not going to even try to make this call, and they are not going to let you in.
• It’s all about what you want to learn. If admissions committee members are not impressed about what you want to do, they will be impressed by what you want to learn. Being an entrepreneur requires many different skills: yes, basic finance, accounting, operations, but also leadership, communication, organizational behavior, and other soft skills that are frequently overlooked. [Remember a good entrepreneur is part snake-oil salesman; they need to motivate an under-paid, over-worked group of people to pursue an idea that is likely somewhat farfetched.] Which skills do you have and which do you need? Of the ones you need, how will you get them at business school? If you can answer these questions, you have a compelling application.
• It’s relationships, not network. Business schools are pretty tired of hearing that would-be startup founders want to go there to create a network of venture capitalists and angel investors who will fund that first business. Hmm, no. First off, business schools don’t want to be rolodexs, nor ATMs. Second, you have to understand that that is not what you need. Someone just starting out in a start-up needs mentors and supporters; they need someone whom they can turn to when the questions are not straightforward. A grey hair, an experienced hand, a mentor, a friend, this is what you need from business school, not just a “network.” And the admissions committee wants to make sure you understand this.
• Why you? It doesn’t matter who you are but you have to make the case that entrepreneurship makes sense for YOU. If you have been on the straight and narrow all through life (4 years of college, 2 years as an analyst/consultant at a big firm, etc.) you have to explain why you want to completely change, not just gears, but your entire approach to life, moving from a conservative life to one that is risk-filled and not-traditional. Help business schools understand why this is a logical step for you, rather than your doing practically anything else.
So do future entrepreneurs need business school? Maybe. If you know why you are going, what skills you need, what you need to learn, what experiences only business school can give you, then business school is likely worth it. If you can’t answer any of these questions then a different path may be warranted. When in doubt, I tell people, go start a company. If it takes off, then there’s your answer; if it fails, it was likely because you lacked specific skills that business school is good at teaching. Then it may just be time to apply to business school. Just take heart that some of the best business school essays talk about the failure of the candidate’s first business. Now you have to decide if that is the essay you want to write.