You’re in your mid-to-late 20’s and your thinking about being a first time entrepreneur. Maybe you already have an idea for a solution to a problem that needs solving or perhaps you just know in your bones that the entrepreneurial journey is your destiny. You’re probably in your first or second job after undergrad and feeling like now’s the time to figure out how to make the most of this “prime time” in your life — this is the tail end of your defining decade. Perhaps this is the right time, before you have family or other life commitments; or maybe because you feel if you wait too long, you’ll never do it.
Regardless of where you are in life, if you’re feeling like you are at a cross roads in the early part of your entrepreneurial journey, you probably fit into one of these categories:
I see aspiring entrepreneurs approach these categories in a few ways: Learning as they start their companies, enrolling in an MBA or certificate program and/or applying to a startup accelerator. Some also choose to join an early stage company while they noodle their idea(s) so they can see how others do it and learn from their successes and failures before they strike out on their own. There are pros and cons to each approach and each is a highly personal decision based on your risk threshold, what you’re building, and who you are as a human being. There is no “right” way to do it, but here are a few ways to think about each approach, noting that sometimes doing more than one can be the best formula.
On the Job (OTJ)
I am a big proponent of experiential learning. Touch a hot flame, you know not to do that again. Take an active listening role face to face with a customer and you’ll learn more about their needs and how you can solve them vs. running a survey or doing passive research on-line. However, some might argue that OTJ learning is a “two steps forward, one step back” approach as you’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way. Some mistakes will be recoverable, but some may be life threatening to your business and almost none of these mistakes can be predicted. Many of the most successful startups got that way because of luck and timing or because they had made/raised enough money to dig themselves out of a hole or two until they got it right.
Questions to ask yourself if you are thinking about this approach:
- What is your pain tolerance in terms of how far you can stretch your money, lifestyle and idea? Your about to get on a roller-coaster. Do you think you can handle it? Are you ready to hear “no” a lot and live off of ramen noodles and pizza indefinitely?
- Do you have a strong network of mentors, coaches, advisors, investors and friends to get advice (and potential capital) from? Do you know how to get that advice/money and will you take it or not?
- How easily do you make decisions? Will the noise of endless advice, competition, differing opinions from employees/co-founders/investors thwart your progress?
- Are you a good salesperson? Can you recruit talent, fundraise and acquire customers?
- Do you understand the product development process for your idea? Have you fully explored the problem to be solved, who you’re solving it for and the potential solutions? Do you think you have an MVP that will get you off the ground as you work towards product market fit? How confident are you that there’s an addressable market worthy of you/your co-founder and/or investors taking a risk of time and money on this idea?
- Are you as in love with the problem you want to solve and passionate about the possible solution as you are in love with being a leader/CEO? Where is your ego in this process? Starting a company is one of the most humbling experiences you’ll ever have — it’ll touch your insides in ways you never thought it could. Are you ready for that?
If a few of the above points give you pause, either figure out how to resolve them before forging ahead, or consider some of the other options below.
Applying To An Accelerator
I’m a big fan of well structured accelerators with strong reputations for developing entrepreneurs and their products (e.g., Y-Combinator (YC) or TechStars). The programming is usually very solid and the results are almost always positive — companies are typically much further along with their business plans and messaging by their usual culminating event, “Demo Day”. Fundraising is also a big part of an accelerator program and the better ones have a pretty strong network of investors eager to fund each cohort. That said, in my recent Twitter poll, 50% of the respondents said that the network was the top benefit. I’ve seen this firsthand from my years of experience as a mentor with TechStars. Whether it’s needing help with introductions, getting advice on business strategy, building products or even just a shoulder to cry on, these networks have proven to be invaluable for entrepreneurs who’ve gotten into a quality program.
There are many accelerators out there. In addition big brand names like YC or TechStars, there are a myriad of others that range from niche areas (biotech, robotics, healthcare, fintech…) to city-specific, to those that cater to underserved populations, etc. The list is endless! Here’s how to think about applying to accelerators:
- Figure out which accelerators are a fit for your idea/company and what you want to get out of their program. It’s no different than applying to college — everything from where you want to live to who you’ll hang out with 24x7 counts in the decision process.
- Make sure your idea/company is far along enough to apply. I often see founders trying to apply way too early and while it can be a good experience just to go through the process, it’s a big time waster for you, your company and for the accelerator who is evaluating your application if you are not at the right stage.
- Talk to alumni from programs you’re considering. Find out about their application process and any lessons learned (things they think they nailed, what was the program worth it to them, tips on how to get the most out of the program, etc.)
- Understand program expectations while you’re running your business. Many founders who get into the more intense programs don’t appreciate how hard it is to keep the momentum of their business while going through the program. It’s like having two full time jobs!
- If you are definitely applying to a program, line up your references in advance and try to get warm intros to the Managing Directors (MD) of the program. Warm intros are worth a lot in all parts of business, accelerators included. Also, you may find that a warm intro can serve you well if your timing was out of sync with the accelerator’s application process. Sometimes. a company drops out of a program last minute, just before the start date, and a warm connection with the MD could be the fast track to fill that open spot (several companies I’ve worked with have been accepted into programs because of this situation).
- Apply to more than one and know that some may push you to another location of theirs or class depending on where you are in the process, stage of your company, other cohort needs, etc.
- If you don’t get into a program, either decide if the time to apply was worth it (maybe it forced you to learn more about you, tune the story of your business or products?) and try again, or move on and keep on trying to accelerate your business on your own.
Getting Your MBA
There are countless reasons one should or should not get an MBA, all of which I will not cover here, but if you are thinking about how to learn about entrepreneurship or further your business, it can be a great way to go. Of course, in most cases it is very expensive and yes, it’s ~2 years “checked out” of the real world, but in the right type of program, it can be a great solution.
DISCLAIMER: I am on the faculty at Harvard Business School, but I try to be unbiased here and cover more general aspects of MBA programs with an entrepreneurial focus. Also, full disclosure: I enrolled in a dual MS/MBA program early in my career and in the end I only completed the MS as I found that particular program adequately met my career needs. I was also self-funded, and in debt from undergraduate school; despite some scholarship money, the added debt was untenable. Most B-schools now have great financial aid and fellowship programs (50% of our HBS students get fellowships), but MBAs are still not for everyone!
Considerations for whether to apply to an MBA program with an entrepreneurial focus:
- Cost — can you afford both your time and money?
- Do you have an idea/company already in process that you want to move forward? How will the particular program help you do that? Are there specific courses for your stage of business, industry or problem you’re trying to solve? Are there faculty, peer mentors or other on-campus experts available to students starting businesses? Is there time during the program to actually work on you company (e.g., experiential courses where you build your business for credit, summer programming, etc.)
- Do you want to be somewhere where you can find an idea and/or a co-founder? Are the programs you’re looking at known for incubating new ideas and/or fostering co-founder relationships?
- Are you unsure if you want to be a founder, but would at least like to become a joiner to learn more about startups? Do the programs you’re evaluating offer opportunities for joiners to meet founders building their companies while in school? Do they offer courses that educate the joiners as much as the founders?
- Beyond the curriculum, what e-ship programming is available in a given program? Do they run accelerator programs or have space for young companies to connect and incubate their ideas?
- Is startup funding available such as contests, access to venture funds, loan forgiveness for startups coming out of the program, etc.?
- What access do students have to the school’s network such as alumni, the local startup community, investors, other universities in the area etc.? How do they add value to the entrepreneurial experience of admitted students? Will this network fill in gaps in your current network?
- If you’re considering the venture side of entrepreneurship, do the programs you’re looking at have an investment-oriented curriculum and/or opportunities for aspiring investors to experiment with investing and learn to work with founders while in school?
- Finally, what is the entrepreneurship track record of a particular program? How many startups were founded by their alumni (either while in school or within five years of completing their MBAs)? What is their alumni companies’ funding track record? In what other ways are their alumni founders successful (revenue, social impact, focus on diversity & inclusion, strong and ethical business ethos, etc.)
In the world of entrepreneurship, there are so many variables to consider when making just about any type of decision — from what product to build, who to hire, how to sell and how to finance your business. The list is endless and extremely tied to the type of business you are building, your customers and who you are as a leader. Similarly, which route you take to develop your entrepreneurial skills is highly personal. The route one entrepreneur took that worked out well for them does not ensure the same will hold true for you. Consider all of the above and decide which one or combination of all options makes the most sense for you.
Have you done one or several of the above to help kick-start your entrepreneurial journey? Please share your experience and lessons learned in the comments!