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
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.