The MBA will never die. And while most optimistic professors would like to attribute that to the knowledge it conveys, the most valuable aspect of business school might just be the network.
Say what you will, but a library card is free, and business school eats up valuable time. For the entrepreneurs solely looking to launch their startup, the case for B-school has to be built on the network it provides.
“Right now is a great time to be launching a business,” says John Harthorne, co-founder and CEO of MassChallenge. He admits the money, right now, is there, but “if you wait three years, who knows? It might be too late.”
Harthorne has seen both ends of the spectrum. He received his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2007, quickly landing a job at Bain & Company after he graduated. He understands the network MIT Sloan has to offer, and has carried those connections with him while trying to cultivate a network at MassChallenge.
The difference? “Ours is much more specific to the world of startups,” Harthorne says. “At MIT, the core mission is to educate you. For us, we also offer training, but our primary mission is to connect startups with key resources.”
What Harthorne sees business school doing is offering an entrepreneur credibility outside of the startup community. “It’s a longer term play,” Harthorne says. “An MBA won’t help me in the short term.”
Aaron O’Hearn, program manager at TechStars Boston who’s also a part of the operating team at Boston Startup School, breaks the real value of a network down into two components: the brand of the program and the specific cohort you’re a part of.
“Just as HBS is a stamp of credibility in some situations, TechStars provides the same in others,” O’Hearn says. “The composition of a cohort is where the special connections happen. ‘Classmates’ bond so closely largely because everyone is going through the same experience, with a similar goal, at the same time. The same is true with the network founders build within TechStars, and is precisely what we’re trying to achieve with the Boston Startup School.”
Whether it be in business school or in an accelerator program, everyone’s moving in a fast-paced environment together, which allows for quicker, deeper relationships. They’re the relationships O’Hearn says he’s seen form between previous TechStars founders. The relationships that have opened several doors, whether it be jobs, financing, acquisitions or lifelong friends — all of which he claims “contribute to a healthy network.”
But, as Augie Llona, a relationship manager at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) says, “a lot of it has to do with your goal.” Llona received his MBA from Carnegie Mellon, and admits he attended business school because he had taken a lot of classes piecemeal and wanted one package that was going to put him through the ringer and help him develop a network.
Similar to startup accelerators, co-working spaces can also help entrepreneurs grow their networks, and Llona has seen the CIC thrive on organic, serendipitous meetings. You can visit the building and still meet someone from MIT Sloan, therefore gaining access to the business school network. The difference to Llona is, working in the CIC doesn’t feel like a competition.
“As an MBA, you’re in an environment where you’re looking at your classmates as competition,” Llona says. “At the CIC, specifically, there’s really a sort of community — team play at work.
Geoff Mamlet, the managing director of the CIC, agrees. “You can meet someone over the espresso machine and walk away with a great new contact,” Mamlet says. “That’s the value of being in a very dense community of entrepreneurs. People tend to be very well connected, and people tend to want to help entrepreneurs succeed.”
Mamlet warns heeds caution to everyone walking through the door, however. “On the network here, we always tell people your mileage may vary.” Although there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to connect with serial venture capitalists and angel investors, an entrepreneur’s ability to access those resources will be dependent on them, which Mamlet admits “is no different from anywhere else.”
Travis Lowry, founder and CEO at Rainbow Chronicle, grew a network at the CIC immediately. Within 30 seconds of stepping into the building, he says he ran into someone he knew, who claimed the experience was going to be worth it. Considering they’d been running their company out of Lowry’s kitchen for four months, moving into a co-working space instantly grew their network.
Yet, Lowry admits he still doesn’t view it as experience versus school. “You need both,” he says. “I’ve used school as a ticket to the game. You go to high school so you can go to college. You go to college so you can apply for jobs. And no, not get a job, but apply for jobs. An MBA is an expensive ticket to the game.”
But, he also calls the MBA a “lifetime resource,” describing it as “a well you can visit over 20, 40 years.” At the CIC, that network just isn’t the same, but as Lowry says, “They’re not marketing themselves as that.” Although he claims they’ve been “very pleased,” he would “never say the CIC is a replacement.”
To Nicholas Tommarello, founder of Wefunder, however, if you want to be involved in startups, “co-working and accelerators are far more useful for building a network than an MBA program.” Tommarello says that when he earned his MBA at Babson back in 2004, although he made a lot of great friends, most of them went into finance and consulting. “Many were better analyzers and planners instead of doers,” he says, “which is death at the early stage.”
He admits his most “valuable” relationships — both personally and professionally — have been made either when he was in TechStars or at the CIC. The three other Wefunder co-founders are friends of Tommarello’s he was introduced to over a year ago at either TechStars or the CIC. The first two developers he’s now in the process of hiring are also TechStars alumni. “For startups, there are plenty of other options for building a network.”
Jesse Waites, founder and CEO at PNTHR, claims that as far as the network at the CIC goes, “hands down [he] can say that things move 20 times faster in that building than anywhere else.” He also says he’s interacted with a lot of people that have MBAs, many of which “are simply not going to make it” and some of which who get it. “My point is, that any network is what you make of it,” Waites says. “You have to be an ambitious, actionable person to get anything, anywhere. No one is going to hand success to you.”
What it boils down to is your end goal. If you’re looking to launch a startup right away, without having to sort through case studies and participate in lectures, then skip the MBA and get involved in a co-working space or accelerator program. That will be your short-term fix. If you want longevity, or are unsure of your idea and need the room to learn and grow, then pay the price and add that MBA onto your résumé.
If you’re a real entrepreneur, it doesn’t matter what your background is, it only matters that you’ll always find a way to broaden it and make your own connections along the way.