The MBA Entrepreneur: What Happens When MBAs Trek To Silicon Valley

by Stella Fayman on January 17, 2013

After the fury of finals, a group of weary MBA students headed out to Silicon Valley to visit startups. The goal being to expose ourselves to the realities of startup life, meet entrepreneurs who were former students, and network the hell out of four days.

We visited over 20 startups in SF, Palo Alto and beyond in just a few days. It was a whirlwind of introductions and information, and one that I would highly recommend for anyone interested in pursuing opportunities at emerging companies.

However, having a background in startups, I was both surprised and delighted by some of the stories told by entrepreneurs. Here are some of the takeaways:

1) “Startup” Doesn’t Have a Concrete Meaning– My adopted definition of “startup” is  Steve Blank’s:

A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Therefore, many of the startups we visited were absolutely not true startups. Take for example, AirBnB. While I’m obsessed with AirBnB, it is no longer a startup. It’s a company with hundreds of employees in its growth stage executing on a successful business model. We also visited a number of gaming companies, both mobile and social. While I was amazed to learn how these companies work, a 200 person gaming company is NOT a startup. By day 3 of the trip, I was getting frustrated by all of the “startups” we were visiting. Then we talked to Jason Freedman of 42Floors.

I’d been reading Jason’s blog for a while (read it! especially if you’re thinking of an MBA) and it was so cool to meet him in person. As a former MBA, he knew the motivations behind many of my classmates thoughts. “How many of you want to start a company?” he asked. A few people raised their hands. “How many of you want to work for a startup?” he followed up. More people raised their hands. “Those of you who just raised your hands, you actually don’t want to work for a startup. A startup is a few guy or girls sitting around a table trying to figure things out. You want to work for a growing company with a proven business model.” (paraphrased, my memory is not perfect, but that was the gist). YES! I thought, this is actually what frustrated me about the excess, tons of employees, and razzle dazzle of companies we had been visiting. I’m used to the idea of startups being about hustling, assumption validation, data and a lot of scrappiness. I was so happy Jason mentioned it to my classmates (who had been sick of hearing me complain).

2) An MBA Has a Marginally Different Perceived Value- Basically everywhere we went, all entrepreneurs echoed the same thing: your MBA is not worth very much. I think this was a surprise to many of my classmates (not to me, I’ve known all along). The reason is because MBAs are perceived to be snotty, pretentious, and full of themselves. While I think there is probably some truth to this, not all MBAs are the same. In fact, Stanford Business School wouldn’t be so competitive if an entrepreneurial MBA had no value.

What was different, was how companies thought of MBAs and especially companies that were hiring for roles around data. The biggest recruiting pitch came to us from gaming companies (a surprise for me). These companies have SO MUCH DATA and they need to analyze it properly to build the right games, sell them to the right consumers, then upsell them on other products. They see MBAs as smart, ambitious, data driven individuals who work well in teams and want to grow with companies.

It’s kind of crazy to see super smart, driven MBAs getting excited about blowing pirate ships up and building monster zoos. But it’s not about that: it’s about data and growth.

3) Startup Offices Are Awesome (sometimes)- Have you been to GetAround’s offices? They are amazing. Or AirBnB? Their conference rooms are modeled after their most popular properties. It’s the epitome of how you’d picture a swanky startup. However, those of us in the startup world (especially outside of the Silicon echo chamber) know that office space just means startups have piles of money laying around. Touring so many companies showed that offices reflected company culture: take the company that just raised its seed round working out of a tiny house in Palo Alto, or the laid back gaming company that was still wrecked after a holiday party, or even the Disney-esque security guard outside of Kixeye. First impressions are lasting and I’ll be dreaming about that beautiful GetAround office for a long time. Too bad their product has never worked for me in Chicago…

In all, it was a great trip, an opportunity to network with my classmates. Business school is all about networking, except when you’re working on a startup and you’re in front of your laptop or in meetings all the time.

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