When we started ranking and celebrating successful MBA startups in 2013, we did so with one goal: to recognize startup founders who met and incubated a successful startup while still in business school. Early on we decided to measure this by funding amounts raised in the first five years of a company’s existence. There may be several ways to measure the success of an early-stage venture, but one common and publicly available data point is venture funding.
Over the six years we’ve tracked and measured MBA startup activity, there might not be a better story than Branch Metrics — literally a modern-day, American, Zuckerbergian classic. First, you have an incredibly selective, elite school like Stanford; next you have a team composed of a baby-faced college dropout, a crafty and determined immigrant, a hard-working and resourceful Midwesterner, and some Northeastern prestige. Since entering Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 2016, Branch’s co-founders have gone from multiple failed startups to one of the most successful ever.
Launched in 2014 by Alex Austin, Mada Seghete, Mike Molinet — the three MBAs — and Dmitri Gaskin — who dropped out of Stanford as an undergrad — Branch has slowly climbed our annual ranking of Top MBA Startups to the first-place spot this year. Since launching, the mobile linking platform has raised $242.10 million in venture backing.
STARTUP FUNDING RESURGENCE
Branch set the stage for the most dominant performance we’ve seen from Stanford’s GSB grads since compiling our first list in 2013. Of the 101 startups to make this year’s list, Stanford MBAs were behind 39 of them. Those 39 have raised more than $1.3 billion in combined venture backing. The number is a leap from last year’s 27 Stanford startups to make the list and represents a steady climb from the 23 startups on 2016’s list. The gain came at the expense of Harvard Business School. After claiming 40 spots in 2015 and 42 in 2016, HBS ventures dropped to 21 this year — the lowest number of startups ever for Harvard Business School on our annual list.
As a reminder, here’s how we determine which startups qualify for our ranking. All startups must have a founding or launch date between January 1, 2014, and December 31, 2018. They must also have at least one founder or co-founder who graduated with an MBA during that same period. With those simple criteria in mind, we scour the Internet and reach out to schools to nominate recent startups from their respective schools.
Compared to the previous two years, competition to make this year’s list was stiff from top to bottom. At the top, three Stanford-founded ventures zoomed past last year’s top finisher, Farmers Business Network, which was founded by a team from Harvard Business School and Cornell’s Johnson School. Farmers Business Network stayed put at $193.9 million, while Branch notched a massive $129 million Series D haul last September. Plenty, another agtech company which finished second this year, was also buoyed by a recent $200 million Series B round and has raised $226 million total. And in third, Rivigo moved up one spot from fourth place last year with a Series D round in December and a Series E round at the beginning of 2019 giving it $216.2 million in total funding.
At the bottom, it took at least $5 million to land on this year’s top 100. Last year, the 100th-place venture had $3.67 million in backing while $5 million earned 78th place. In 2017, the cutoff for the list was $4.3 million and in 2016 it was $2.65 million.
The total amount of funding also ticked up this year after hitting a five-year low in 2018. Among the 101 startups to make the list, a combined total $3,172.85 million was raised — up from $2,455.15 million last year and $2,925.52 in 2016. It’s still a dropoff, however, from 2016’s record year of $5,180 million.
One reason for the surge of startups — especially at Stanford GSB — could be a general rise in interest in entrepreneurship. “The level of interest in entrepreneurship is staying quite steady at Stanford GSB over the past five years, but certainly has increased relative to 10 years ago,” says Deb Whitman, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford’s GSB. According to Whitman, every single student from the GSB’s full-time MBA graduating Class of 2018 took at least one class related to entrepreneurship and innovation. That rate has been in the 98-to-100% range over the past three years, a slight uptick from the 92 to 95% range it was before.
The percentage of GSB students actually launching ventures immediately after graduation has climbed to 15-to-17% per class compared to 8-to-12% in the 2007 to 2009 time period. What’s more, Whitman says, over the past few years graduates joining a startup for their first job after graduation has been consistently in the 19-to-24% range over the past few years. In other words, anywhere from 34% to 41% of Stanford’s full-time MBA graduates are now directly involved with a startup immediately after graduating.
“If you are thinking only about the 16% of students starting a business right out of their MBA program, one might imagine that the strong job market and rising salaries might encourage students to wait and start a new venture a little later in their careers,” Whitman reasons. “But I think those forces may be balanced by a reasonably strong funding market, keeping the entrepreneurial interest strong and steady.”
At Harvard Business School, the percentage of MBA graduates launching ventures immediately after graduation has ranged in the 7-to-9% area, but because of HBS’s size, the actual number of founders is larger than the GSB. For example, over the past five graduating classes (2014 to 2018), 356 HBS graduates reported founding or co-founding a startup immediately after graduation, compared to 297 at the GSB. The school with the next highest amount is The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which had 216 founders or co-founders immediately after graduation.
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