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My HBS Ding Was The Best Thing To Ever Happen

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In late summer of 2010, I began preparing what I thought was a rock-solid application for my target business schools — Harvard and Stanford. On paper, I was a strong candidate, with a straight 4.0 from Brigham Young University, a 780 GMAT, and several years work experience at Bain & Company, a top-tier global consulting firm.

Week after week I dedicated countless hours to crafting my story, and recruited the smartest people I knew to provide feedback. I lined up recommendations from close mentors and alums of these schools. I was set. I confidently submitted my applications and started the waiting game.

About this time, I received a call from a friend with an invitation to join an early-stage startup, Lucidchart, that was just getting off the ground. Ready for a different experience, and believing it would give me valuable insights to share with classmates when I matriculated, I signed on for six to nine months and joined these three friends in a basement.

FALLING IN LOVE — BUT NOT WITH BUSINESS SCHOOL

Dave Grow couldn't be happier that he was rejected by both Harvard and Stanford

Dave Grow couldn’t be happier that he was rejected by both Harvard and Stanford

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the startup experience. It was an amazing feeling to have a hand in building something and to get hands-on operating experience. In the consulting world, I would spend months with a client and, at the end, we would deliver a stunning Powerpoint deck with recommendations we hoped the client would take. It was rare that we actually got to be involved in the actual execution and results. In a startup, on the other hand, we quickly made decisions based on the best data available–and a lot of gut feeling. Win or lose, we saw the results and iterated from there.

For example, when I joined Lucidchart, my friend and CEO said to me the first day, “We need a new pricing model. Can you figure this out?” Having just wrapped up a four-month pricing strategy case at Bain for a large entertainment venue, I was confident I knew how to do it and began prepping my months-long work plan. Two days later, the CEO asked, “What do you have for us?” Shocked that he expected something this major so quickly, I simply responded, “Give me till Friday to wrap things up to share with the team.” In the next 48 hours, I put together a simple but effective pricing model that we rolled out the following week! The pace and the drive for results was exciting.

Several weeks in to this experience, I was still waiting to hear back about my business school interviews. There was a nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t go to business school after all and instead should ride the startup rollercoaster, even though our fledgling company had virtually no revenue. That night, I stayed up for hours reading every article and resource I could find (including on the recently launched poetsandquants.com!) about why not to get an MBA (See Lucidchart’s flowchart tackling the topic of “Should You Get an MBA?“)

HOW COULD ANYONE SAY ‘NO’ TO HARVARD OR STANFORD BUSINESS SCHOOL?

The next morning, I told my wife, “I’m not sure we’re going to business school.”

But, then there was reality. If I was accepted to Harvard or Stanford, I was unlikely to say no. Who could pass up that opportunity?

A couple weeks later, I received my interview offer from HBS which I gladly accepted. I was dinged from Stanford with no interview but that was okay. I was very confident that I would land at HBS. I enjoyed my campus visit and, despite some curveball questions from the interviewer, I left feeling satisfied.

When I opened the email on decision day, I was shocked. Declined.

Even though I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go anymore because my startup experience had only gotten more exciting, it was a tough day. I watched as many of my friends celebrated their acceptance into HBS and GSB. I sincerely was happy for them but still felt disappointed. I had been accepted to my backup school–another great MBA program in the top 10–but felt no excitement. And so I dove back into the startup, fully committed and determined to make it a success.

A STARTUP WITH A GREAT RECORD OF SUCCESS

Six years later, we’ve raised more than $40 million from top venture capital firms, profitably grown the company to nearly 200 employees, and doubled revenue every year. In that time, I’ve led product management with an incredible engineering team, ramped marketing to attract 10 million users to our products, and started a sales team generating incredible deals with many top global companies. I’ve helped sell the vision to investors and influencers of the amazing company that Lucid Software is and can be. I’ve learned how to recruit, retain, and develop amazing employees, and experienced the tough job of letting go of others when it wasn’t a fit. I’ve come into my own as a leader.

In retrospect, getting declined from Harvard and Stanford was the best thing that could have happened because it kept me on this incredible startup journey. My advice to the thousands of applicants right now? Embrace the journey, wherever it takes you.

Dave Grow is the chief operating officer of Lucidchart. Check out Lucidchart’s summary flowchart tackling the topic of “Should You Get an MBA?

  • Debovoise

    Seems silly not to have applied to the program you love to go chasing rank, especially since you’ve already got a blue chip background and are in position to collect all the brass rings you want coming out of any number of programs.

  • London

    Was Chad Losee, new HBS dean of admission, one the of the other 2 applicants from your Bain office? 😛

    I was dinged a few weeks ago from HBS (28, white, European LDS, IB background, Top 3 UK school etc.). I only applied to HBS because of the name/rank, but in reality I love another school’s program and curriculum.

    Although the rejection stung, I was reminded of the importance of really thinking about what it is that you want to do and how does that particular MBA program get you there.

    Thank you for sharing your story – one mold does not fit all, regardless of how good the mold may seem! 🙂

  • Dave Grow

    No one has a crystal ball so I can’t tell you with certainty. That said, my path would have looked like 2 years at HBS and then most likely 2 years back at Bain (I had received the ‘business school offer’) so Bain would cover the costs. From there, it’s hard to know what I would have been doing for the last 2 years.

    In my current path, I’m content with my compensation and excited about the potential upside that exists in the equity I’ve vested during my time at Lucid. That upside potential would be much less likely at this stage in my career with the more traditional path.

    But who knows? And to be honest, does it matter? At some point, some incremental difference in compensation matters a lot less… and what you do, and who you do it with, is much more impactful. I’m fortunate to have a great situation on both of those fronts too.

  • Dave,

    So let me ask the quintessential bottom line question no one wants to ask you: Wouldn’t you be making more money if you had that MBA degree from Harvard?

  • Dave Grow

    Well, the generic answer is that most people don’t *need* business school to be successful. From a business understanding perspective, I think it was helpful that I graduated with a bachelor’s in business management (finance emphasis) and then spent a couple years in consulting. Of course, starting and operating a business is very different than what I learned in either of those experiences.

    I was fortunate that I landed with an incredibly talented founding team (including a CEO with MIT / Harvard / Google in his pedigree which helped in early fundraising) and we had a very solid prototype / beta version that people were willing to pay for. With that combination, we significantly increased our odds of success.

    So in short, if you have an amazing idea / team, it may be better to pursue it immediately and skip b-school. And if it doesn’t pan out, business school can be an amazing “reset button”. If Lucid had failed in that first year or two, I likely would have reapplied. Either that or joined a high-growth company (like the stage Lucid is at now) to see the inner workings of a successful company before trying my hand at my own venture.

    If you don’t have an amazing idea / team, business school could be a solid route to build the network of folks who may have ideas and/or who you may want to partner with later; it can also expose you to a diverse group of people and perspectives which could spur that initial idea.

    At Lucid, we have had employees accepted to Harvard Law, Stanford GSB and other top-tier programs. I’ve never tried to talk them out of it.

    It’s also worth noting that about half of our executive team today are HBS grads. 🙂

  • Spartan 22

    have* been

  • Spartan 22

    Do you think that those pursuing entrepreneurial ventures actually need business school? The responses I’ve gotten on this from both alumni and those who went straight to their ventures has been mixed.

  • Dave Grow

    I would say my interview was fine, not great. Many of my friends had interviewed and I was familiar with their questions — along with the standard set — which I was well prepared for. My interviewer took a different approach to say the least.

    That said, I think the bigger issue was likely the similarity between my application and many others. For example, I had two close friends apply at the same time — Caucasian males from Brigham Young University who worked in the Dallas office for Bain & Company with GPAs/GMAT scores that were within similar ranges. They were both accepted and there clearly wasn’t room for 3 classmates of that similarity. 🙂

  • Dave Grow

    Interesting – wasn’t familiar with the MSx program. I just recently passed the 8-year work experience minimum. 🙂

  • jenny

    Looking back, why do you think HBS rejected you, especially following a seemingly good interview?

  • WESTern

    Good story, Dave. I think Stanford did not reject you, they just wanted you to come back later for the MSx program 🙂

  • Dave Grow

    Good questions. Studying at HBS/GSB would be a great privilege and I’m sure I would get a lot from the experience, including meeting some fantastically talented peers. That said, I don’t believe that attending HBS/GSB would change the trajectory of my career and the opportunity cost would be high. My goals are to continue in the entrepreneurial realm (start and/or build another company after Lucid at some point in the future).

    Most of the value of attending a top-tier business school comes in the (1) credibility / stamp it provides; (2) the tremendous network you can build; and (3) the actual business learning. For me, the equivalent credibility or stamp has come, or will come, from building a successful business from the ground up; the network I’m building now in the entrepreneurial / venture community is as valuable for my career path; and hands-on operating experience at a high-growth company is providing some amazing learning opportunities.

    While I don’t foresee applying again to business school, I think it can be a great path. Many of my close friends have done it and it has contributed significantly to their success!

  • HBS Reviewer

    Very nice article, Dave! I have couple of questions. Have you ever wondered what you would achieve in life if you were accepted and studied at HBS/Stanford? Given what has changed since your initial applications (your success with the startup), are you still planning to apply to those 2 schools mentioned above since your profile is way stronger now?

  • Dave Grow

    The school was Tuck. Tuck is obviously a tremendous school but it never felt like the perfect fit for me (something I should have figured out before I applied).

    I actually was able to defer at Tuck due to the startup opportunity. It was a nice option to keep in my back pocket in case Lucid failed like most startups do. A year later, when the time came to make the decision again, I let them know I wouldn’t be coming.

  • Thor

    Great article. Very encouraging story.
    But I wonder which top 10 business school accepted him that he declined…