The MBA Entrepreneur: Bucking the Herd Mentality

by Stella Fayman on December 12, 2012

Business school, like any community, is a microcosm of human nature. From the initial awkward conversations with classmates to the real feelings of peer pressure during recruiting, one aspect in particular runs abound: the herd mentality.

Students recruit for consulting…just because everyone else is. Students take classes with “the good professor” because that’s the word on the street, etc. etc. Just a few days ago, I was chatting with a student who is being sponsored by a consulting firm (meaning, the firm is paying for his education assuming he returns for a certain period of time post graduation to apply his learnings). As a representative of the firm, he is seen by other students as part of the recruitment process even though he mentioned having no say in the matter. Regardless, students set up chats with him and tried to kiss up to him to one up the herd. He found the whole process amusing.

So how do you stay away from peer pressure and maintain your sense of individuality? And what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?

To answer the former, I’ll address the latter. In the startup world, the herd mentality is abound. Last year at Techcrunch Disupt in SF, I was amazed by the number of startups in the mobile/social/geolocation category. Sure, it’s a hot trend…but is it hot enough to support that many potential companies? No…the majority of these herd followers went out of business 6-12 months after. Or think about daily deal clones, while they were the hotness 1-2 years ago, now daily deal sites are considered pase in the startup world. Why is it that entrepreneurs would rather jump on the bandwagon than create one of their own? Is it that successes are the leaders of a trend and a minority of followers will also taste success? Whenever I visit the Bay Area, I’m amazed at how much of an echo chamber the startup community is.

I’m not sure what the answer is but I will default to my psychology background and guess that both the herd mentality in business school and the startup world have to do with validation. Validation squashes inadequacy and makes individuals feel that they are making the right decision (if everyone else is jumping off the bridge, it’s probably a good idea, right?). Here are a few strategies I employ to make sure I don’t get sucked into the herd (hey, I’m human!):

1) Recognize the problem- If you don’t see it for what it is, it’s likely you’re part of the problem. Why  is it that you want to do banking? Should your startup be within the social media space? Or are you following these trends blindly?

2) Separate yourself from the crowd- I try to finish exams in school early and leave as soon as possible. NOTHING is worse than getting sucked into the pool of students discussing how they feel about an exam/recruiting event. This is the same with startups: be part of the community, but not so involved that you’ve become part of the echo chamber. Living in Silicon Valley has network effects for sure, but I wonder how original and unique the startups are compared to more isolated startup communities.

3) Use data as validation- Don’t derive your sense of validation from the feelings/actions of other. Let it come from data. In the startup world this is as easy as following Lean Startup principles and ramping up Google Analytics and KissMetrics. Are you implementing a feature because every other site has it? Or is it because the A/B test you’ve done has a higher conversion rate with the potential feature. In school, this is a matter of soul searching regarding your class decisions and career path. Sure, consulting has a lot of great benefits, but how does it fit into your career aspirations? What are the alternatives you may be forgoing? Sometimes the pass less traveled is the right way to go.

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