Poets&Quants’ Top 100 MBA Startups


Everyone knows you don’t need an MBA to start a company. But what most people don’t know is how ultimately powerful the MBA experience is in shaping a new business concept and getting it successfully off the ground.

More MBA students than ever are now using their two-year educational experience to incubate new companies, and more business schools are adding professors and entrepreneurship centers to effectively turn themselves into launch pads for new businesses.

At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, a record 18% of this year’s class chose to do a startup. That’s significantly higher than the frothy dot-com days of the late 1990s when 12% of the class went the entrepreneurial route. At Harvard Business School, the professors who teach entrepreneurship now are part of the second largest faculty group after finance.

Entrepreneurship is not only alive and well at business schools all over the globe. It is fast becoming the thing to do, pulling many freshly minted graduates away from the consulting, finance, and marketing jobs that have long been the mainstay of the traditional MBA playbook.

So it’s worth noting which schools have produced the most successful MBA startups of the past five years and which entrepreneurial ventures have made it.

To find the best of the bunch, we contacted more than 50 business schools worldwide and asked each to nominate their most successful MBA entrepreneurs. We interviewed professors, consulted with investors, searched the Internet high and low, and ultimately invited startups to nominate themselves. All told, we looked at more than 400 companies to compile our list of the top 100. PoetsQuants-300x250-MagazineAd2

Getting data on private companies is no easy task. Many entrepreneurs weren’t willing to share such basic financial information as net income, annual sales, or return on equity. But one number was fairly accessible: the amount of financing a startup was able to raise from investors.

So our list of the top 100 is based on that put-up or shut-up metric: the total amount of funding captured by a startup. It is the ultimate vote of confidence in the idea, the business, and the founders. And after both the dot-com crash in 2000-2001 and the Great Recession of 2008-2009, investors in new, fledgling companies are exercising more due diligence than ever before. This is smart money chasing smart people and smart ideas. To account for smash hit companies that started out lean and later sold for millions, we accepted the sale price in lieu of funding figures.

To make our list of the top 100, an MBA startup had to have raised a minimum of $1.6 million, although 61 of the 100 most successful have already managed to convince investors to hand them $5 million or more, and over one-third have raised more than $10 million. The top 100 MBA startups have been able to attract total funding of nearly $2 billion. Not bad for a bunch of MBAs starting out from scratch.

Who came out No. 1? A Harvard/Stanford duo behind the social media marketing company, Wildfire. Launched in 2008 by Harvard Business School MBA Victoria Ransom and her now husband, Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA Alain Chuard, Wildfire hit the jackpot when it was acquired by Google in August of 2012 for a reported $350 million, plus $100 million in retention bonuses. Ransom and Chuard still run the company as a unit inside Google.

Not surprisingly, Harvard and Stanford are well represented in our best of breed. Harvard leads the pack with founders at 34 of the top 100 startups. Stanford follows close behind with 32. MIT Sloan is next with 11, followed by Wharton (3), the University of Chicago’s Booth School (3), and Columbia Business School (3). But there’s a wide variety of business schools whose MBAs are on the list, from the University of Arizona and Babson College in the U.S. to IE Business School and IESE Business School in Europe.

Internet startups dominate our ranking, particularly those in ecommerce. From diapers and baby products in Brazil to designer prescription eyewear and tailored scrubs, MBAs are selling a wide array of products and services online. Others are pursuing highly ambitious ideas across a variety of sectors, including satellite imaging, natural gas, semiconductors, and student loans.

What they all share in common is a game-winning pitch, a successful business strategy, and a keen desire to control their own destiny.

(See next page for our ranking of the Top 100 MBA Startups)

  • Michael Cohan


    This is some great research that will help applicants during the MBA admissions process by giving them greater clarity into what types of startups, receive how much funding, at which programs.

    Michael Cohan

  • JohnAn432

    How was this data collected? I know of several startups that have raised $1.6M+ not listed here.

  • somedude

    If you’re mixing apples and oranges, you should really note that somewhere or change the column heading. As John Mack says, funding != valuation or acquisition price, and for some companies on that list, you’re off by orders of magnitude. Also, your school listing is incomplete, e.g. for Karma Science, while Lee went to GSB, Ben went to Ross which is unlisted.

  • JohnAByrne

    Yep. We know. Ideally, we would be ranking on market valuation but founders won’t share how much equity they have to give up to receive their funding. In any case, on our list are companies that have been sold and are ranked at the price they fetched and also companies that have not been sold and are ranked at their current funding levels. I know that’s mixing apples and oranges a bit. Next year, we’ll probably just rank on the basis of funding and use an asterisk to note which companies have been sold and at what price.

  • JohnAByrne

    We haven’t yet published that profile on our site yet. So currently it is only available in our digital magazine which can now be downloaded on either the iPad or any Android tablet.

  • John Mack

    Karma Science from Stanford raised $2.5m, not $80m. They were SOLD for $80m. They shouldn’t be number 4 on this list, more like near the end. That’s a big difference. Appreciate what you’re doing here John but would not rely on numbers from the business schools for this, especially Stanford who is going to try to pump this up. The Karma Science numbers are right there on crunchbase profile.

  • Tom Carter

    keep up the good work

  • WhartonEntrepreneurs

    What’s the link to the CommonBond profile, please?

  • JohnAByrne

    Zocdoc was founded in 2007 and fell outside our five-year window for the list and the story which looked at startups from 2008 to 2013. The founder, moreover, graduated with his MBA in 2003 and launched the company after a stint with McKinsey.

  • newyork85

    also the hottest startup in nyc – zocdoc? started by 2 columbia mba’s is huge
    not on the list?

  • JohnAByrne

    Common Bond is on the list and also featured in a lengthy profile in the digital magazine.

  • JohnAByrne

    Common Bond is indeed on the list and also has a lengthy profile in the digital magazine. As we did with SoFi, another student loan company, we noted but did not include for the ranking non-equity funding–in other words, we didn’t include the firm’s lending authority. Both student loan companies were treated this way. By the way, these lists were run by the business schools so they could bring to our attention any startups we missed. I’m sure a few startups slipped through the cracks, even with all the double and triple checking we did, because no one has ever attempted to do something like this before. This will be an annual feature of Poets&Quants with a moving five-year window, making it less likely to miss any qualifying startups in the future.

  • Quant

    What about Common Bond that just raised $100m started by Wharton alums? Was this list provided by a bunch of Stanford alums?

  • Randy Amos

    Interesting observation, however I really wonder how accurate this list is. I can think of two started directly by Wharton MBA’s in past 3 years, General Assembly and Common Bond that would be at least in the 25 here and aren’t even listed. Those are some big misses. How was the data here compiled?

  • Jon Doe

    I think I have heard of like 3 of these companies. lol

  • Ryan Allis

    Congrats to all the HBSers!

  • JohnAByrne

    GrubHub and Braintree fell out of our five-year window. We looked at MBA startups that were founded in 2008 through 2013. Had to draw the line somewhere. The two firms you mention were founded in 2007. In our new digital magazine, we do have an article on the companies that just missed the list due to that deadline and note that one of them is GrubHub. Problem with other metrics you note, especially revenue, is that they are not universally available or subject to hype.

  • Nick Crosthwaite

    Doesn’t Happy Family’s (Columbia Business School) ca. $350m acquisition by Danone qualify it for this list?

  • Jon

    Love the idea here, but I think the methodology can use a bit of work. Funding isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all and any VC will tell you that this is a very b-school centric way of looking at things. Some of the very best start-ups will take very little outside money so they can retain a high ownership stake until a liquidity event. I think you need to consider other metrics. For example, as a Booth guy I’d love to see GrubHub ($100M+ revenue after acquisition of Seamless) or Braintree ($800M exit from Ebay vs. wildfire’s $350M acquisition by google) listed.

    Understanding that you need to pick a metric, you should consider either using a weighted average of criteria, subjective evaluation from experts, or have a couple of lists (i.e. biggest fundraisers, largest revenue, biggest exits). I just find it very tough to swallow that the guys who took the most of other people’s money are necessarily the best, regardless of whether they went up in flames.

  • hbsguru

    Nice work John and staff.
    I’d like to address the “per capita start-up per student issue.”
    Given the size of Stanford’s class (small!!!) compared to other schools, e.g. Wharton (real big:
    sorta 740 v. 1611– both years combined), these results are even more lopsided and favor Stanford. . Size also makes MIT performance seem way closer (but not equal) to HBS on a per capita basis (MIT is small, ~790) which is cert. one way to rank this. What is also really surprising is how fast, after you get past H/S/MIT, every other school basically has random results of 1,2 or 3. One would like to know if there are ‘network’ effects at H/S/MIT where classmates and profs introduce you to VC’s, and the school otherwise encourages start-ups. Sure, every school is doing that NOW but during the period this survey covers, how do you explain the extraordinary concentration in H/S/MIT?? And the real, real tiny showing of Wharton, given the fact its student body is smart, rich, fluent in VC/PE, etc. OK, Philly location to some degree–not a start-up hub. Any other guesses???

  • Moris

    John, Thank you for the clarification. Nevertheless, I still do not like the mba folks! I just find myself admire more the real and hard science.

  • mse

    Little firm out of Chicago just bought by eBay…might want to check it out.

  • LaurenEveritt

    To make our list, startups had to be founded within the past five years by at least one MBA who graduated within the past five years. Many of the MBA founders used business school as a time to build connections, gain key skills and incubate their companies. They did not have to start their companies during B-school to be considered; however, most did.

  • jujubug

    Tivli founders were not at HBS at founding (they were undergrads). One of the founders joined HBS after starting the firm. So, your info is not fully accurate.

  • JohnAByrne

    No. The “real founders” are NOT in other departments. What the list shows, in fact, is that in many cases universities are encouraging multi-disciplinary work and creativity. That’s an incredibly important point and a very welcome one.

  • Deep&LONG

    so, the real founders are in other departments, and the MBAs are in fact scroungers here 😉 then why putting the title as its the MBAs thing !!?

  • JohnAByrne


    There are no companies on the list that do not have MBA founders or co-founders. In many cases today, MBA are joining students from other schools and departments at their universities to launch companies. In fact, you’ll see from this list that it is relatively rare for their to be an individual founder but rather a group of founders.

  • Moris

    Just quick note: many of them are not really MBA students, for instance,Balaji Srinivansan, is PhD, MS, BSc in electrical engineering! and many others..B schools should not take advantage of the other departments achievements 🙂