Like a lot of students, I went into business school a decade ago with a set plan to start a company coming straight after graduation in co-founding an internet startup (… again). During the following two years I did a number of things which prepared me for that endeavor, but then also in retrospect, I completely missed out on a number of opportunities and valuable resources immediately in front of me which I didn’t recognize at the time. My alternative working title for this post was: “Eight things I kind of knew and only mostly followed as an entrepreneur during b-school.” My own circuitous path graduating a couple years later intentionally without a job (see bullet #1) eventually led me onto the venture capital investing side of startups, but I still regret not fully taking advantage of the two years that only a business school environment (and calling card) can provide. Recognizing the academic year is starting now for MBAs (as well as all other entrepreneurial-minded students, for that matter), I wanted to articulate a set of recommendations for b-school students looking to start a company immediately after graduation:
- Commit to graduating without a job. It’s a challenging leap of faith to take, but entrepreneurship requires a full all-in effort. If it’s there’s an irresistible urge to hedge a bit in exploring alternative paths or engage “just a bit” in on-campus recruiting for traditional roles, then it’s better to fully pursue one of those routes (at least for now) than be distracted by an entrepreneurial pursuit which won’t materialize.
- Master the coursework basics, but then develop soft-skills rather than specialized ones. Part of the benefit of a generalized MBA program is developing a broad fundamental skillset across many areas of functional expertise, from finance to marketing, and everything in between. After those core skills are developed, however, it’s more advantageous to spend additional classtime developing higher-level softer skillsets which will be used throughout the entrepreneurial process rather than deeper point-solution “hard” expertise which can be hired or learned on-the-job as needed (e.g. take Interpersonal Dynamics not Global Financial Reporting.)
- Take classes from the best “star” professors. You’re paying quite a bit of money for this education, and the different between star instructors and the solid overflow ones is step-function not incremental. For example, Irv Grousbeck and Mark Leslie at the Stanford GSB fundamentally changed my thinking about life and business, and unsurprisingly Felda Hardymon has the reputation for doing the same at HBS. Regardless of school, there are always the premier professors. Use your entrepreneurial drive to go around “the system” to get into those specific classes – beg, borrow, and steal to do so. Camp out at their offices. Or just show up for the classes and literally take the course twice, once with the star (unofficially) and the “standard other” instructor officially. It’s worth it. Really.
- Go outside the business school to meet co-founders. Business schools are very insular islands, but they’re surrounded by an ocean of students in all disciplines. Your developed skillset won’t be much different from your immediate classmates’, but it certainly will be from someone in engineering or computer science. “Recruit” your co-founders there; it’s more difficult, but that’s the point. Diverse thinking will create better thinking.
- Go off-campus with your student ID. Your “student” calling card immediately disarms and can open all sorts of doors which won’t be as inviting the second you have a diploma in hand. Proactively and persistently reaching out to people directly who could add insight and credibility, as well as potentially initiate a process for company-making deals, for your startup. In our NextView Ventures portfolio, Eliot Buchanan (Founder CEO of Plastiq) was the master of this approach and was able to bring on high-profile partners (think: Mastercard) to his business before even graduating from undergrad!
- Immerse yourself in domain to develop authentic idea. Rather than whiteboarding different potential business ideas, think about your own previous work experiences to solve problems for constituents in that business which you know first-hand. If nothing comes out of that exercise, spend time truly immersing yourself in a specific industry or domain.
- Do what you’re classmates are not. MBAs are notorious for sheep-herding towards a particular category of startups (recently, daily deals and online new e-retailing). Aim for the upper right quadrant on the the consensus/non-consensus vs. right/wrong 2×2 matrix and develop a (hopefully correct) thesis that’s not following a common assumption.
- Take a summer internship to hone expertise or a functional skillset, NOT for resume padding. Once you start a company, nobody will care what you did for ten weeks one summer. Really. But the chance to just drop into a company and industry for a couple months, without any strings attached, can help develop real knowledge and facilitate connections. For example, in the NextView Ventures portfolio, Fred Shilmover worked at Salesforce.com before starting SaaS-based InsightSquared straight out of school… and now Salesforce.com is an investor in the company, too.
- Find yourself. Taking two years out of the workforce before fully pursuing an entrepreneurial endeavor grants a luxurious amount of time for self-reflection. Utilizing this time to better recognize and appreciate not just your strengths and weaknesses, but also your underlying motivations and intentions, will help prepare you for the many challenges of starting a company.