The Disruptors: Abilitie’s 12-Week MBA

Abilitie CEO Bjorn Billhardt and Chief Research Officer Nathan Kracklauer have written a book that compiles 20 years of management education lessons into one volume

There are 300 million management positions around the world, says Bjorn Billhardt. If you count up the MBAs from all the business schools, there are only about 3 million.

It’s a huge market, and that’s where Abilitie, the leadership program developer founded by Billhardt, steps in. With a portfolio of programs, certifications, and simulations, Abilitie helps the 99% of managers with no formal business training acquire skills and advance in their careers.

No wonder business is booming: With its core 12-Week MBA program and others, Abilitie isn’t competing with B-schools — it’s working with people the schools don’t reach.

“Ninety-nine percent of management positions are filled by people that don’t have an MBA,” Billhardt says. “So I actually don’t think this is a competition with business schools. This is getting the word out that in 12 weeks you can get the basics of business acumen and people management so that you can advance in your career and have the confidence to advance in your career without getting that big elite-school MBA. So I don’t think we’re in competition with the two-year MBA, because that’s for the 1%.”

THE 12-WEEK MBA: QUICKER, LESS COSTLY, MORE AGILE

Bjorn Billhardt: “We are big fans of community and a big believer in that being part of the value proposition. You’re going to pay a lot less for a 12-week mini MBA, so you’re not going to get all of it, but you will get a lot”

Billhardt and Nathan Kracklauer, Abilitie’s chief research officer, have been collaborating on the same startup since 2001. That’s the year that Billhardt, fresh out of Harvard Business School, founded digital learning design company Enspire Learning. “I basically took one of my professors and twisted their arm so that we could develop some of the interactive online tools for Harvard. That became the origin of our first company.” Enspire created custom interactive learning programs for universities and large companies. After about 14 years the company transitioned, selling part of the business but keeping a small but key component: the business simulation unit.

Billhardt and Kracklauer built that unit out as Abilitie, rebranding in 2015. They then focused on building out a business curriculum. In 2021, they began an open enrollment program that they called the Invited MBA. At the start of 2024 they officially renamed the program The 12-Week MBA, with dozens of certified faculty teaching a core set of business skills useful for rising leaders in any industry and at any level: things like value creation, people leadership, decision-making — and, increasingly, AI. They do it in less time and at a much lower cost than a traditional MBA program (around $2,300, though discounts are available). And they graduate students into a world that is not significantly different than when they started, something a two-year program cannot guarantee.

Last year, across all of its programs for managers, directors, executives, and others, Abilitie had about 30,000 students, the vast majority of whom came from corporate clients — Fortune 500 companies like Dell, Coca-Cola, Southwest Airlines, Marriott — for which they ran private, customized, closed-cohort programs. Since 2021, more than 100,000 incoming professionals have gone through one of these programs; the company has more than 850 clients in all, all over the world. “A lot of large companies realize that those 99% of managers that don’t have an MBA need some type of training and are looking for training for them,” Billhardt tells Poets&Quants. “And so the social proof we have that this is working is that 30,000 people a year, 100,000 people in total, have been our students.”

Abilitie’s open-enrollment program is comparatively small, with hundreds of graduates from two cohorts of 70 to 80 each year. Billhardt hopes that will change.

“It’s smaller, but it’s rapidly growing and it’s that open-enrollment part that we hope the book and the new name ’12-Week MBA’ will really propel forward,” he says. “Our hope is that we’ll get into the thousands of people with the open enrollment, similar to what we have in our closed cohorts.”

Nathan Kracklauer: “It took us about 20 years to really feel 100% confident that we have something that others do not. But that actually makes a lot of sense and conforms to what people’s expectations are for what it means to manage and lead in the world”

‘100% CONFIDENT THAT WE HAVE SOMETHING THAT OTHERS DO NOT’

The book is The 12-Week MBA: Learn the Skills You Need to Lead in Business Today (Hachette Go 2024), due to be published February 6. It condenses the wisdom of two decades of digital business education into 352 pages. (Read a Publishers Weekly advance review here.) But with an already successful business, why do they need a book?

“It is tru that the usual path is that somebody writes a book and then builds a business on its back, so we’re doing everything backwards here,” says Kracklauer, who graduated in 2001 from UT-Austin and soon after went to work with fellow Longhorn Billhardt. “I think that the single biggest reason is, we actually are very present in the corporate markets, and we would like to reach out quite a bit farther. That does not necessarily mean only individuals, but it could mean small, medium-sized businesses that don’t have a function dedicated to developing internal management leadership capacity. Some companies that have 10,000 employees don’t have that. They’ll have HR, they may do some coherent work around getting people to develop their management skills, but even at that size, you could expect them to be on the lookout for things that would take the place of a large global leadership development program, but not have that 25- to 30-person volume even annually.

“And of course, when you get down to 5,000 or 500, there’s a lot of need to go out and try to find MBAs who might not know anything about the industry, and nothing about the company,” Kracklauer continues. “A lot of what it takes to run a smaller business is actually really deep knowledge of the company, its processes, its customers, its industry, and everything. So to find accessible solutions that fit within the budgets available and the organizational capacity of a smaller organization, that’s part of where we want to go. Now to reach those participants or those buyers, those companies, we actually need to do a much larger marketing effort than a small company like ours can do — but a book is an excellent way to have something that clearly states what it is we do and tells people explicitly what they’re going to get out of it. It makes it accessible and is a very easy way to spread the message larger than we’ve been able to so far.

“It took us about 20 years to really feel 100% confident that we have something that others do not, but that actually makes a lot of sense and conforms to what people’s expectations are for what it means to manage and lead in the world. So I think it’s just the right time to put that together and to set up the growth that should come from reaching this wider audience that we haven’t been able to access so far.”

It is not a book you can, or should try to, read in an evening, Billhardt adds.

“The whole idea is 12 weeks, so it’s something that you really have to digest and tackle in small increments,” he says. “But I think from the perspective of giving people an understanding of what the essence is that you need to understand that every MBA knows, I feel like we’ve accomplished a wonderful consolidation of that degree to the timeless and universal elements. There’s lots of other stuff that you learn in an MBA that is not timeless because it changes and it’s not universal because it may be constrained by supply chain management in Nigeria, for example — which is a fascinating topic and you should learn about it, but you may not need it in your day-to-day life.”

A SURPRISINGLY ROBUST CONSTITUENCY: TEACHERS & MILITARY

Who is the ideal student for Abilitie’s 12-week MBA program? Billhardt says his expectations when they launched were different than the reality of who it proved most appealing to.

“When we started the open enrollment, our assumption was that the ideal student would be someone looking at getting their MBA one to two years out of undergrad, ready to take a leap to the next level and wanting to advance in their career,” he says. “We do have those students, and I would say they comprise about 30% to 40% of the student population. But we actually have found that 60% to 70% of the student population are a little bit more mid-career professionals. The curriculum is valid for both, and we are seeing enormous interest from people who may traditionally just not even have thought of getting an MBA because time has passed.”

A short-form program can provide valuable lessons to anyone, Billhardt says. Abilitie has found a strong constituency in people who are mid-career, who comprise the majority of current students. But about 10% of their students are from another group: those who are not in business but are trying to enter the business world through a parallel track. Among the big feeders of this group are Teach for America and the military. “We see a lot of teachers and former military who are looking to make a jump into corporate and realizing that they just need the lingo of business and the confidence to do it,” Billhardt says. “They know they have skillsets that are useful in corporate America, they just don’t know how to talk the language and they don’t have time or money. They’re too late in their career to get a full two-year MBA. So we’ve had a lot of success with them, and we are really excited about those types of careers.”

A key value proposition in the 12-Week MBA, as with any mini-MBA, is that it is not as ponderous as a full-time, two-year program. It is more agile, and graduates learn the very latest in tech and other innovations and then emerge into the world of business while that knowledge is still relevant.

“The curriculum is evolving,” Billhardt says. “And more importantly, it is highly practical, highly real-world-focused and highly interactive. So unlike many of the executive education programs, we don’t have lectures with PowerPoint slides, we don’t have just the standard classroom — listen to an instructor and then ask a few questions. All of our programs are interactive through and through. The core of the curriculum actually are interactive business simulations, so for the entire time that you are in the curriculum, instead of being lectured to, instead of reading materials, you actually are playing in these business games. That is a unique differentiator even from other short-form MBA programs.”

There is definitely an element of gamification to the education process of The 12-Week MBA, he agrees.

“Not just you playing a game with a computer, these are team-based simulations. So it’s you and others in a team competing against other students in your class in these virtual team-based competitions. And then as of last year, we added AI as well. So you’re competing for market share and as you’re making decisions on how to price it, you have a virtual character that pops up and you have to negotiate with them.

“It’s enormous fun. We really have these phenomenal experiences that we’ve created and that are continuously evolving and that we are now perfecting with AI. I think one of the interesting things is when AI is getting into the business curriculum. We have some really interesting stories to tell on that side.”

‘YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET ALL OF IT, BUT YOU WILL GET A LOT’

A big question about min-MBA programs — which also lingers for online MBA programs — is what about the networking? Business school is so much about who you meet and the connections you make, so how can other formats, particularly digital formats, compete?

“This we tell students upfront, one of the biggest reasons why people go to business school is to make a connection and network,” Billhardt agrees. “And no matter how you slice and dice it, in 12 weeks part-time you’re not going to make as deep connections. I met my wife in business school, so I have a personal ROI on that two years. And in 12 weeks, part-time online, you are not going to get the same. You are also not going to pay $200,000!

“One of the things that I think what our program has as an advantage over the others, the Power MBA and others who are our big competitors in the field, is they are not nearly as social. Our whole curriculum from the kickoff to the graduation where we have a virtual cap and gown is a virtual, social experience. And I think given the shortness of the curriculum, we’ve made more connections between people. We haven’t had a marriage yet — but I know it will happen, and I will fly around the world to be part of that wedding when it happens!

“But what we have had happen already is, we’ve had someone get a job with a mentor that was part of the program. We’ve had groups that have met up after the curriculum a year later and had a reunion in New York City. We’ve had lots and lots of real friendships that have formed and connections that have been made, and we’re building out that networking component where we’re basically creating a place for the community to be later on. So we are big fans of community and a big believer in that being part of the value proposition. You’re going to pay a lot less for a 12-Week mini MBA, so you’re not going to get all of it, but you will get a lot.”

Of the 297 million people in management worldwide who don’t have an MBA, Billhardt says, the biggest challenge is not the competition to reach them but “people actually thinking, ‘Oh, well, maybe I don’t need it,’ or ‘I may need it, but I don’t even know that something exists that isn’t a really even more expensive executive MBA.’ You spent $10,000 for a weekend at Harvard and that’s fine, that is not our competitor. Our biggest competitor is people not knowing that there are options for them.”

Abilitie’s next 12-Week MBA program gets underway March 6. The deadline to apply is February 25, and tuition is $2,350; those who apply by February 15 will automatically receive a $500 discount. Abilitie will have another intake in April.

Learn more about Abilitie and the 12-Week MBA here. Pre-order “The 12-Week MBA: Learn the Skills You Need to Lead in Business Today” at Amazon here.

DON’T MISS FOUNDER OF ‘AN ENTIRE MBA IN 1 COURSE’: IN 30 YEARS MOST DEGREE PROGRAMS WILL BE ONLINE and THE DISRUPTORS: THE BUSINESS CASELETTE

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.