You Don’t Need an MBA for Startup Success
I don’t have an MBA. I used to fear that this would put me at a disadvantage in starting my own company, but now I’m convinced that it may be the other way around. In some recent surveys, as many as two-thirds of entrepreneurs felt that their entrepreneurial spirit was more ingrained than learned, so a specific education level is at least irrelevant.
For business professionals who aspire to an executive position in a large company, most people agree that an MBA is always positive. It will get you a higher starting salary, and a valuable edge in your credentials at every promotion opportunity.
What’s different about the entrepreneurial environment? Many people argue that it has to do with the requirement for entrepreneurs to use “effectual” reasoning, compared to “causal” reasoning taught by most of the major business schools.
At any rate, I had trouble thinking of famous entrepreneurs with an MBA. With a little research I found a few notable names in recent businesses, although each of these actually started with some big-company experience:
- Scott McNealy, Chairman of Sun Microsystems. He co-founded this company along with three partners in 1982. McNealy’s background is surprisingly all business, after an MBA from Stanford, rather than computer science or programming, and unlike most members of the Silicon Valley community.
- Meg Whitman, President and CEO of eBay. Although not a founder, in ten years she grew the company from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue. She is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MBA from the Harvard Business School.
- John Scully, CEO of Apple, who has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. During his ten-year tenure, Apple’s sales increased from $800 million to $8 billion. Yet he was ultimately replaced by a one-semester college dropout, Steve Jobs, who was the original founder.
These probably feel that their MBA was worthwhile. But I’ve found so many on the other side, here’s my net on when an MBA really helps an entrepreneur:
- If you are already an entrepreneur, more education, including an MBA, will only slow you down. Consider it a waste of time.
- If you plan to become an entrepreneur, and already have business experience or an undergraduate business degree, skip the two-year delay and cost of the MBA.
- If you have a technical career with no business background, and you want to start your own business, an MBA can be a blessing by giving you the basic knowledge you need to manage your business.
- If you are still in school, and contemplating an MBA before stepping into the entrepreneurial world, go for it. An MBA will extend your education more broadly into the world of business strategy, and give you more credibility with potential investors.
What’s the difference between causal reasoning and effectual reasoning? According to Professor Saras Sarasvathy, who teaches entrepreneurship at the Darden Graduate School of Business, causal reasoning begins with a pre-determined goal and a given means, and seeks to identify the optimal way to get there. Effectual reasoning, on the other hand, begins with a given means and allows goals to emerge based on situational dynamics.
That’s all a bit academic, so for me, an MBA is not gold. But I have to admit that I feel blessed when I’m invited to guest lecture at MBA classes at one of the local universities. As in all my articles, I always hope to add a dose of reality to the theory and make some gold for entrepreneurs and executives alike. But I’m always open to learning from you as well.