Whether to go to business school is an important decision — in many respects, the most important of your life. Like buying a house, it is a milestone in your life and one of your biggest investments.
As with every important topic, it is also a controversial one. Some well-known business people like Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss argue that an MBA is not worth the significant debt and the two years of commitment. These views are still in the minority, however, particularly in the corporate world, where an MBA is still well-regarded.
An MBA helps you boost your career and get a nice job, so doing an MBA is often required if you want your career to move forward. But not just any MBA. Overwhelmed by the number of candidates, recruiters use top business schools as a filter.
WORTH THE INVESTMENT?
People who want to start their own business, however, cannot think this way.
The stamp of a business school on a CV has limited value for entrepreneurs. Their professional successes are not the result of a manager hiring them. Entrepreneurs are only accountable to their customers and shareholders. So if your plan is to start a business, the question you must ask is: “Is going to business school worth the investment?”
(Of course there are more variables — too many to explore in one article. My insights are based on my experience at London Business School, but having talked with many entrepreneur friends, they are applicable to other top B-schools, as well.)
SHOULD A ‘WANTREPRENEUR’ GO TO B-SCHOOL?
From my experience coaching entrepreneurs, I see these two cases:
1. You are willing to run your own business. But it is obvious that you need more experience. You do not have yet the right network and business skills that will allow you to succeed.
2. You have wanted to start a business for years. You already know people who have done it but you have been too scared to take the risk and do it yourself.
There is a fine line between these two boxes. But you should know where you stand. If you fall in the first category, going to business school can be the right decision. To help you make the right decision, the best thing to do is talk to entrepreneurs who went to B-school. Find out how the experience impacted their entrepreneurial journey.
Here are the things I learned from my experience at London Business School.
1. Thinking More Strategically
Theory has limited value. There are dozens of great books that give you easy and cheap access to business theory. (If you are wondering which ones, my reading list offers a good selection.)
The real value of business school comes out of the connections and projects that are built throughout a business school program. When you go to business school, you’re immersed for one or two years in a business bubble. Being surrounded by great talents, working with them on the many aspects of business and management, discussing case studies, and meeting world-class experts — all these things definitely help you think more strategically. In fact, it actually helps you understand what strategy means.
Here’s a before/after business school comparison:
Before going to London Business School, I was already running GoudronBlanc, a brand of high-quality T-shirts. GoudronBlanc still exists and this is an opportunity for me to compare how I used to think about strategy and how I think about it now.
Before, I had a basic commercial mindset: Buy low and sell high. There was not much of a strategy at the time. Now, I’ve noticed, I make strategic decisions with more clarity. A good strategy requires tradeoffs. You must understand your market, see where the competition is going, and learn how to iterate fast while keeping your focus on your long-term mission.
Without business school, it would have taken me years to reach the same level of thinking. Going through many business cases, discussing with my peers and my professors, and meeting with speakers helped me get there much faster.
2. Getting Support (Even After Graduating)
Author and journalist Po Bronson wrote: “There’s a powerful transformative effect when you surround yourself with like-minded people. Peer pressure is a great thing when it helps you accomplish your goals instead of distracting you from them.”
Being surrounded by ambitious people pushes you to do more, especially after graduating. You see them succeed, and they’re willing to help you when needed.
I have had many sessions thinking through the future of GoudronBlanc with my friends from LBS. The thing with business school is that most people who go there are “business geeks.” They talk a lot about work, but that is because it is something they genuinely like. And trust me, seeing your classmates and friends on the path to success and having their support are great motivators.
3. Broaden Your Horizons
Even though everyone comes with a similar goal, going to business school opens your mind like few other experiences will.
Students come to LBS from all over the world. Some of my greatest friends are from China and India. Without them, I would certainly not have learned as much about these two fast-growing countries.
Too many entrepreneurs don’t think globally. Yet adopting a global mindset matters now more than ever. This is something that is not natural when you haven’t traveled much and don’t know about other cultures. But once you’ve had the opportunity to make friends with people who come from other countries, it is much easier to learn about these countries and their local markets.
Going to the right business school and going on an exchange program open the door to a more global mindset.
4. Grow Your Network
It is astonishing how powerful networking can be when you understand what it really means. Dale Carnegie, author and public speaking expert, summarises this very well: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Without my friend, David Duckworth, inviting me to attend an event with Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, I would not have been able to meet the renowned investor in such companies like Airbnb and Dropbox. And Altman would never have become a customer of GoudronBlanc.
Networking is not just the ability to ask people for a favor. Too many people think that way, unfortunately, Networking is the ability to stay connected to like-minded people you can help and who may help you, too — though that is something you should not take for granted.
5. Business Is More Than Theory
One of my classmates, Nico Gerst, started a gourmet gelato shop in Munich called Gecobli. Far from the fame of tech startups, he is building a brick-and-mortar business that requires a specific set of entrepreneurial skills.
He believes that going to business school helped him by preparing the ground for his entrepreneurial journey. But as he told me: “Honestly, you cannot learn about the problems you encounter (as an entrepreneur). A few lessons from B-school might apply later, like how to motivate employees, how to optimize taxes and overhead, etc.” But the main lessons, he says, are things he’s learned since then:
- Don’t try to do it on your own; get a partner
- Dream big, but start small and slow
- Don’t do it for the money, do it for the vision/purpose
- Work 24/7 but take personal time whenever you can
There are things you cannot expect to learn in the classroom, not even working for someone else’s business. Being an entrepreneur requires skills that can only be learned by running a business.
6. One Last Thing
Of course, there is the word “business” in “business school.” But not everything is about business. B-school is also a place where you have a lot of fun, meet lifelong friends, and learn a lot about yourself.
It’s a school of life, too. You meet people who are in a transitional moment of their lives. Everyone is considering what they should do next and how to approach that next step.
Going to business school gives you the opportunity to take a real break, and have the time to reflect.
THE CHOICE IS UP TO YOU
Business schools were designed to educate managers before they get a job in a large organization. There is no doubt that B-schools need to keep adapting if they want to keep the interest of future entrepreneurs.
Today, their principal competitors are business books for entrepreneurs, accelerator programs, and alternative education programs like Udemy and General Assembly.
Whether going to business school is the right move is up to you to decide. But I sincerely hope going through these ideas will help you make the right choice.
Guerric de Ternay graduated from London Business School in 2015 and is now a member of the LBS International Alumni Council. Guerric runs GoudronBlanc, an e-commerce-driven T-shirt brand, and works at ?What If! where he helps the large organization run their innovation projects.