Do I Need an MBA to Start a Company?

If you’ve been struck by the entrepeneurial bug, navigating the next steps can be murky. Should you go for your MBA and build up your business fundamentals, or can you jump right in and start a company? While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to career development, there are several important factors to take into account.

Online Resources & Incubators

The good news is that there are more resources than ever to help you determine the best route for pursuing your entrepreneurial aspirations. Incubator programs like Y CombinatorTechstars, and 500 Startups are growing startups in record numbers. Read up on key literature in the field, like The Lean Startup, Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and Paul Graham’s essays. And of course, use the internet: Hacker NewsStartup Engineering, and other MOOCs are all wonderful ways to boost your skills and insight.

Cost 

The price tag associated with an MBA might be the most daunting, and deterring, element when making your decision. Average MBA costs for a two-year program hover around $60K, while top ranking schools can soar about $100K for tuition and fees. The good news is that while debt is growing for most grad students, debt from MBA programs has generally remained stagnant since 2004 (even as tuition rose—implying that grads can afford the increase). There are a number of ways to get creative in terms of financing a business.

On the flip side, there is no quantitative number that accounts for the value and prestige you accrue by earning an MBA. It’s more than just a line on a resume: industry professionals and the culture at large respect the hard work, time, and learnings. If you’re skipping an MBA to save some money, that doesn’t reflect the reality: most startups fail, and require a huge amount of personal financial investment if you don’t have funding.

Networking and Support

Regardless of whether or not you go for an MBA, the one thing every successful entrepreneur has in common is a strong network and connections to mentorship. Most programs give you access to mid-level execs and organize events with top leaders in the startup realm. With an MBA, you get built-in structure. Without one, you have to be diligent in creating a successful professional ecosystem. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop a network of your own without the degree—you’ll just have be a go-getter and forge connections autonomously. And lest the term “networking” puts a bad taste in your mouth, there are steps you can take to cultivate real, honest professional connections without being fake. Research networking events, entrepreneurial meetups, and hackathons in your area. Listen in on webinars and send emails to companies in the area that you admire - ask to grab a coffee! You’ll earn valuable business advice, and who knows, you might even meet a potential investor.

Experience vs. Classroom-Based Learning

With the rising boom of startups, a trope has emerged in pop culture outlining the typical startup trajectory: a hoodie-wearing programmer had a brilliant idea, worked diligently and scrappily out of his parents’ basement, and is now a billionaire based solely on the strength of his initial groundbreaking concept. Unfortunately, this is rare, and not the basis for a strong business model. Most startups fail and an MBA won’t engender success in the field. It’s important not to romanticize startup life, and recognize that you have to be willing to invest huge amounts of time and money into something that may not pan out, which is true whether or not you attend business school.

That being said, more startups have begun actively recruiting MBAs. When weighing the pros and cons, acknowledge the type of learner you are. Do you benefit from structure? Do you want a traditional picture of the business landscape? An MBA will give you a holistic view of business and tangible skills that support a broad array of fields. Or are you comfortable with diving in headfirst, which gives you direct experience but may require learning on the fly? There’s no correct way to go about it, but if you’re honest with yourself and your needs, you’ll set yourself up for as much success as possible when starting your first business.

In business as in life, the pathways are limitless. Some people get overwhelmed by the variance of choices, and ultimately are stagnated.  But the more you break down your business idea into manageable goals and keep the basics in mind, the more you’ll see your hard work pay off in the right ways: whether you choose to start at business school or aim straight for the startup jugular.