As I enter my final semester of business school and get ready to head out to the Bay Area for a week in early January, I can’t help but think about how MBAs are received by the early stage tech community. Last spring, Ben Horowitz wrote a post asking whether it was time to hire MBAs at startups again (as if it ever stopped). He argues that ambitious MBAs gained a sense of entitlement during the late ’90s and early ’00s but got a dose of humility in the aftermath of the bubble and are now actually undervalued. But is it really true that the damage MBAs caused over a decade ago has carried over to now, a time in which MBAs are still regarded with skepticism in the startup community? For a sense of what I’m getting at, see this Tweet from Sarah Lacy after a post was published on PandoDaily. I asked Ben during his PandoMonthly interview what it would take for MBAs to gain more respect in the startup world (jump to around 1:56:10 to see the question), and he cited Tristan Walker, a Stanford MBA whose hustling to get a job at foursquare, is well-known and well-documented. Though, Ben even added that Tristan likes to “keep it a secret” that he went to Stanford GSB, and it would take “one MBA at a time.”
While many people cite similar explanations as Ben or mention the stereotype of the “d-bag MBA” as to why MBAs aren’t more prevalent at startups, I’d argue that the primary reason many current MBAs trying to enter the startup world aren’t getting respect is because former MBAs who have been successful to varying degrees in early stage tech have, whether purposely or not, re-branded themselves - no one even knows they have an MBA.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire (and Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects) famously said, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Now, MBAs aren’t the Devil (though there are some in the Valley who would disagree with me), but when it comes to former b-schoolers entering the startup community, they seem to have pulled off a similar trick, suppressing their degree and dispelling a number of myths along the way.
Myth 1: No one technical gets an MBA.
Contrary to popular opinion, not every single business school student worked in finance or consulting prior to going back to school. In fact, there is a sea change being undertaken at top b-schools to admit students with engineering / CS backgrounds or product managers who are seeking business expertise to complement their technical skills. For example, I have been surprised to realize how few people know that Chris Dixon has a MBA from Harvard Business School. Adam Nash, now COO of Wealthfront, earned a BS and MS in computer science from Stanford before getting his MBA at HBS. Or more recently, Amanda Peyton, a mobile and web designer and co-founder of multiple startups, graduated from MIT Sloan in 2010. Currently, I have several friends who have CS degrees and/or were product managers at startups and large tech companies before entering b-school, including one (Nick Patrick) who’s set to work at foursquare as a PM and even built an app for foursquare Superusers.
Myth 2: MBAs can only be founders - they don’t know how not to be in charge unless they’re in big companies.
Somewhere along the way, a stereotype emerged that MBAs don’t know how to work well in teams or deal with not being “in charge.” Aside from Tristan Walker joining foursquare, there are countless examples of MBAs at startups. Hunter Walk, another Stanford GSB grad and author of this amazing post about having an MBA – not being an MBA, led product at YouTube from 2007-2011 after being on the founding team at Linden Lab, which created Second Life. Sheryl Sandberg joined a small company called Google in 2001 and of course joined Facebook in 2008. But before that she earned an MBA from HBS. More recently, I look at Chris Kurziel, who graduated from Cornell’s Johnson School in 2011 and worked at Shelby.tv for much of his 2 years in school, Matt Hunter, who graduated from UVa’s Darden in 2010 and now does software product design at Jawbone after founding a couple startups, and Justin Overdorff, who graduated from Wharton and then spent time at TechStars in NYC before joining Yelp. Additionally, Andrew Rosenthal joined Massive Health as Chief Strategy Officer, Cynthia Samanian is now a PM at Path, Josh Yang works on product at thredUP, and Jon Dick does business development at Klout – all of whom graduated from HBS last year. This list is far from exhaustive and isn’t just a result of companies thinking MBAs are undervalued.
Myth 3: A “real” entrepreneur wouldn’t get an MBA.
This may be the most laughable of all three myths. I can’t tell you how many times people told me not to even bother going to business school if I ever intended on founding a company. Ryan Allis, the founder and CEO of iContact and Connect.com and a current first year student at HBS wrote a phenomenal post on how valuable b-school has already been to him. Aside from the aforementioned MBA founders, few people realize that Kevin Ryan has an MBA from INSEAD. Or Eric Paley, who graduated from HBS in the same class as Chris Dixon, founded a company before returning to b-school. Or Jeremy Stoppelman, a CS major, dropped out of HBS during the summer between his first and second years after founding Yelp. Or Mark Pincus graduated from HBS well before launching Zynga. Mark Suster, graduated from Chicago GSB (now Booth) before founding a couple companies and Jeff Bussgang, a CS major, graduated from HBS before founding Upromise. And more recently, Scott Belsky graduated from HBS (and even worked for Goldman Sachs after undergrad) before founding and exiting Behance and Josh Kushner co-founded Vostu before earning his MBA at HBS (forgetting the success he’s had as an investor).
Side note: Or this list of companies, founded by recent MBAs, that I came up with off the top of my head: Warby Parker, BirchBox, Streak, RelayRides, Gilt Groupe, Rent The Runway, BabbaCo, Kiwi Crate, Insight Squared, RallyPoint, Handybook, Snapette, LearnVest, thredUP, Take The Interview, BaubleBar, StyleMusee, Zumper, Quincy, Locu, FashionStake (acquired by Fab), EverTrue, Shoptiques, Tough Mudder, Trendyol, Baby.com.br, Peek, SilverLining Systems
To those who have been dismissive of MBAs joining or founding startups, I hope this sheds some light on those people who made a name for themselves to the point that they aren’t defined by a degree – and I haven’t even touched on phenomenal investors like Bill Gurley (a CS major who went to UT’s McCombs), Fred Wilson (an engineer who went to Wharton), or Roelof Botha (who went to Stanford GSB before joining PayPal).
In the end, I go back to Ben’s post on hiring MBAs and agree with him that many are great fits at early stage tech companies provided they have the right kind of ambition – they just need to be given a chance. For those founders who are skeptical about MBAs, you may very well be passing on the next Tristan Walker, Hunter Walk, or Sheryl Sandberg. Evaluate the person’s skills, personality, drive, passion – not their degree.