Should You Get an MBA or Start a Business?

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A few years ago, I completed my MBA at HKUST in Hong Kong, which is currently ranked 8th worldwide by the Financial Times. I’m now running my own startup (fishfishme.com) along with my friend and MBA colleague Jose Gil Zafra. As I continue to expand my startup, I tend to get this question a lot: “Should I do an MBA or build my own startup?”

Before you can answer that question, I tell my friends, you might want to try answering a broader question: What career are you seeking?

A few possible answers include:

  1. I want to start my own startup or business
  2. I think I lack some skills; I want to improve them and then work in my own startup
  3. I want to work at a startup
  4. I want to work for a big company
  5. I don’t like my current job and I want to change my career
  6. I don’t know!

If your answer is 1, 2 or 3, then you shouldn’t do an MBA. If your answer is 4,5 or 6, then an MBA might be a good choice for you. Why? First, let me explain very briefly what you will get out of doing an MBA:

  • You’ll learn a bit about everything in business (accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, management, operations)
  • You’ll learn about the organizational structure of big companies and how to manage big teams and big departments
  • You’ll learn how to present in front of people and write professional reports
  • You’ll learn how to write a business plan
  • You’ll meet a lot of people and build a great network (the best part of an MBA)

MBA programs are built to prepare students to work in big corporations. As a matter of fact the first MBA program was offered by Harvard Business School in 1908 to prepare Americans for the new era of big co-operations and the new industrialized century. Put in simple words, MBA programs are not designed for startups. Remember, as Steve Blank said, “startups are not a smaller version of large companies.” So what does a startup founder really need to learn?

  • You need to learn how to transform a new idea into a product that people are willing to pay for
  • You need to learn how to select and manage your small team
  • You need to learn how to survive with a small budget
  • You need to learn how to survive the pressure from your family, friends and the whole world that thinks you are crazy
  • You need to learn how to learn by yourself

Business schools will not teach you these things and no one can unless you learn it yourself. And you can’t learn it by reading; you need to learn it the hard way by doing it yourself, by starting your own startup.  Of course, there are some great resources that you should read before starting a business, that it would be great if they taught in an MBA:

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn anything from my MBA; I actually learnt a lot and I built a great network spread in all five continents. I also had a great opportunity working and living in many different cities (Hong Kong, Montevideo in Uruguay, and Granada and Barcelona in Spain). 

I also had the opportunity to do an internship with Endeavor Uruguay and start my first startup with two of my classmates; after that, I later joined Wayra, one of the top incubators in the world, in Barcelona, before returning back to Kuwait.

Yet those experiences proved more valuable than classroom learning. When I now try to assess how much of my MBA teachings I’m applying to my startup, it’s actually not much.

So in short, if you are thinking between doing an MBA and building a startup, you should probably just go ahead and build your startup.

If you need guidance, find a mentor. For getting on your feet, incubators and accelerators are a great option and are currently replacing business schools for startups. Another great way to get advice is to plug in with your local startup community (you could do so by attending one of Wamda’s a Mix n’ Mentor event).

And if you feel that your city doesn’t have any of these resources, then you should probably take the lead and start it yourself, maybe beginning with a blog, a weekly meet-up, or a monthly event, as we did here in Kuwait with StartupQ8. It started small, but we now have a startup community that helps and supports each other.

And again, if you are hoping to work in huge company then doing an MBA is not a bad idea at all.

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