Should Entrepreneurs Get an MBA? Hell No.

Should you get an MBA before founding a startup?

Hell no.

If you intend to found a tech startup I believe that an MBA is a complete waste of money.

There is one exception to that rule. An MBA from Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Wharton, and maybe 1 or 2 other schools in the entire world might be somewhat useful. An MBA from one of these schools may be useful not for what you learned at those schools but because of the social connections you made with some of your fellow students and professors. If you’re lucky you might make some alumni connections to people not in the startup world but working at potential acquirers and partners during your time at one of these schools.

If the possibility of making a couple of interesting alumni connections is worth enough to you that you’re willing to spend two years of your life and accumulating an average of $88,000 in debt, go nuts. It isn’t to me, nor I have I seen it payoff for anyone I’ve encountered during the last 15 years.

Coming out of school with a ton of debt would make anyone more risk-averse. That’s not a quality you want in a startup founder. I recommend that you try everything in your power to be entirely debt-free before founding a startup. It’s hard enough to sleep at night as a startup founder without being in personal debt, don’t add any unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Wait, isn’t it easier to raise capital if you learned how-to analyze spreadsheets and dissect a business case at school? Nope.

As an angel investor I’ve never given any advantage to a start-up because one of its founders had an MBA. Recruiting a talented engineering team is far harder, and more impressive, than recruiting a building full of MBAs.

What if none of the founders are MBAs. Should they hire any MBAs into their companies?

For me an MBA wanting to join a startup has always been a worrisome sign. I guess this is because when I see this happening it makes me feel that MBAs are starting to think there’s a short-term possibility that joining a startup is going to make them rich. If you’re interested in making money then please don’t start or join a startup. Anyone who has started a business will tell you there are far easier ways to make money in this world than founding a startup. Despite the urban legends you hear about very, very few startup founders ever make any money let alone get rich from their startup.

Marc Andreessen, a superstar entrepreneur and startup investor, says that when MBA graduating classes start wanting to go into tech startups we’re seeing a leading indicator of a bubble forming.

If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, were lucky enough to make some money, and you feel like going back to school to get your MBA for fun, go for it. I have many friends who have done just that. But these friends were already successful entrepreneurs, they never rested their hopes on an MBA helping them found a business and neither should you.

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"You can't learn in school what the world is going to do next year." - Henry Ford

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Customer (not Competitor) Focused

I was recently speaking with an entrepreneur whose company is in the same space as my previous company, Performable (which was acquired by Hubspot). He was asking how I thought they should compete with a particular competitor. This competitor is good at producing software quickly and extremely adept at copying its competitors -- they went as far as copying much of Performable's copy and product names after we were acquired.

The situation this entrepreneur is in is not unique -- this happens to most companies in competitive markets every single day. If you are doing something worthwhile, others are going to try to do it too.

At HubSpot we have competitors who copy-n-paste our copy and messaging daily. But the thing that none of these cloners understand is the thought that goes into each message and product -- the reasoning behind why we use the words we used and why we built the features that we built.

It's the why that is important, and it is the why that they are missing.

The why comes from genuine interest in solving your customers problems. Not knowing why is something you can't fake for long. Sooner or later, customers catch on and move out.

My advice to this entrepreneur was the same advice I gave my team every day at Performable: "Focus on customers, not competitors. If we do that, we'll win.” Writing software is the how, not the why.

Always focus on that why. Always focus on solving customer pain and good things will follow.

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Your Priorities

"Truth be told, the idea of everything being in balance on a daily basis is a myth." - Dave Ramsey

Based on what I've learned from talking to people over the past decade, there is no clearer path to misery than attempting to live the lie that is work/life balance.

Achieving perfect work/life balance is impossible -- for starters, there simply are not enough hours in the day for us to exercise, walk the dog, have meaningful interactions with our kids, read a book, learn something new, eat good food, help others, meditate, nurture our relationship with our spouse, be sexy, drink a good wine, watch a great TV show -- oh, and do our full-time work. You won't ever be in perfect balance and you're going to drive yourself, and the people around you, nuts if you're always trying to get there.

Recently I was talking to a founder about being out of balance.

Business is going well for this guy, but he is frustrated about one thing: his success is causing him to be so busy that he doesn't have time to do the very thing, his passion, which led him to start his company in the first place (his company makes software for CrossFit gym owners & athletes).

I don't think anyone can achieve perfect work/life balance, especially if you're running a startup. Stop trying. Think of it this way: if you even have the luxury of contemplating work/life balance in the first place, you're ahead of 90% of the world's population. Maybe 95%.

Is there a middle ground between the guy who decides that "life is too short" and moves to Brazil to surf full-time, and the guy who works 20-hours days? I think there is but it starts with killing the work/life balance myth.

So how about this: instead of aiming for perfect balance, try prioritizing your days based on the top 3 things you care about.  

My top 3 priorities are cliché, but true. They are:

  1. Family
  2. Me + Friends 
  3. Work

Using these priorities to guide my daily decisions has really helped me feel like I could better pay attention to all the areas in my life that need to be nurtured without feeling guilty that I was letting someone down or something slip.

Free yourself from the myth of work/life balance and focus on what matters most to you.

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