Much has been written about MBA students pursuing startup jobs after graduation. Most of the reactions have been from an entrepreneur or investor perspective, and are generally skeptical of the value these people bring to the table. This attitude really crested about a year ago, enough to trigger the contrarian instincts of Ben Horowitz who wondered, “with everyone convinced that MBAs are useless…Is now the time to hire MBAs?"
Personally, I won’t knock any MBA student for trying to break into this world. The alternative is to follow the more predictable career paths that 95% of their classmates are on towards banking, consulting or other roles within big companies specifically set aside for grads.
The main problem I see is that a lot of b-schoolers lack an understanding of how startups view hiring, and come across as clueless in their approach. This is especially the case when it comes to earlier-stage companies. Perhaps that’s a good thing and an easy way to filter out people who are not cut out or committed enough to begin with. There is certainly no unmet demand for MBA’s in tech startups like we see for really good programmers or iOS developers.
So at the risk of annoying anyone who wishes these tenacious little monkeys would take their fancy new diplomas and head back to Wall Street, below are a few small pieces of advice for anyone on the outside looking to get in.
Know what you are up against
Running a startup is an advanced game of resource optimization. Burn rate is top of mind, and every dollar is deployed based on its expected impact on traction, scale, profitability and/or raising the next round of financing. Do I hire this MBA from a top school who has no startup or coding experience but promises to be hungry and hard-working? Or do I instead bring on this front-end developer who will get our new product to market weeks or even months faster? For most early to mid-stage companies, UI/UX, design and engineering talent moves the needle most. You’ll need to assume that your MBA as a credential is worth zero in this analysis, and make a convincing argument that you’ll be able to add value in some other measurable way.
Oh yeah, for any full-time position, be prepared to throw salary comps out the window and forgo any titles that make you look or feel important.
Unlike your actual classes, homework is required
Before approaching any startup, know everything there is to know about its founders, the product, market and culture. If there is something live that you can use, sign up for it and become very familiar with the product or service.
Understand stage and what the current priorities might be. Consumer-facing app trying to scale as fast as possible through social and viral channels? Enterprise software targeting SMB’s? Mid to later-stage outfit turning its focus to revenue and profits? Know all of this stuff cold and tailor any correspondence or conversation accordingly.
Culture is King in the land of startups
Startups are like little tribes, particularly during the early stages when each new employee can make a big impact on culture. Each company will have its own unique personality and set of quirks, and the best founders and CEO’s use cultural fit as a leading criteria when building out their team. From the first contact with anyone - resume, email, phone call, coffee meeting, intro at an event, etc. - there will be an underlying evaluation on whether or not you would be a good fit for the tribe. Don’t use the formal tone you would put on for Goldman or McKinsey, and don’t sell yourself on your school experience alone. If your story is that you would make a great addition simply because of your degree, you’ll be quickly stereotyped as the entitled, clueless MBA coming off a two-year vacation. The best way to stay out of this bucket is to be humble, honest and focused on results as opposed to credentials.
Your online identity should be consistent with this as well (assuming you are truly passionate about tech and startups and it’s not just an act). There is a very good chance you will get looked up on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, etc. to get a sense of your personality and interests.
A good way to target companies is to think about transferable skills. Relevant, real world experience at a bigger company can definitely help if the startup you are pursuing operates in the same or an adjacent space. E.g. - work at a studio or cable network could be useful to a startup looking to disrupt online video or advertising. Knowing a particular foreign language or having a background in advanced math or statistics could be useful in certain cases. Similarly of value is a strong network of contacts among people or companies with whom the startup is looking to partner.
Conversely, don’t pitch yourself for a technical or product oriented role when you lack the specific experience it calls for. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of MBA resumes come in for a Product Manager role that we posted for App.net - each came from someone smart and accomplished, and each one was easy to immediately ding.
Bottom line is that you need to demonstrate that you and your specific skills can help the company in some tangible way. B-school is all about abstract analysis, but in a startup everyone is expected to ship something real.
If you can’t code, you better be able to sell
The most common role for MBA’s to target is anything related to sales, marketing and business development. This is where you might be able to play to a strength. For many companies, early hires all happen in engineering or design, and at some point the company reaches a stage in which talking to and working with outside partners is key to accelerating growth. Where this is the case, you have a chance to position yourself as someone who can work internally with the product team and then face outwards as part of a sales, business development or marketing outreach process. If this becomes an angle, be ready to demonstrate your ability to write, communicate, influence and most importantly SELL.
Also know that what makes a good sales or BD person, along with good communication and closing skills, is an intimate knowledge of the product/service/technology being offered.
Take learning into your own hands
These days it’s quite easy to learn the basics about web and mobile development environments, software stacks and basic building blocks like HTML and CSS. From online courses to classes through Skillshare or General Assembly, there are tons of resources available and no excuses for not getting your feet wet. Set a goal to become baseline conversant in the difference between native apps and HTML5, how APIs work and which are most commonly used, viral mechanics on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social platforms, key user acquisition concepts like CPA, LTV, retention, MAU vs. DAU and other commonly used metrics. For the totally uninitiated, this classic Dave McLure presentation Startup Metrics for Pirates is a good starting point.
Otherwise, stay informed on what's happening but don’t come across as overly so. I.e. - read your TechCrunch, Techmeme, GigaOm, Re/code, Hacker News, Pando, etc. but don’t get too caught up in the hype cycle or flavor of the moment. A firm grasp on today’s headlines is useful, but less important than knowing how to execute on older information.
Create engagement in the absence of a FT opportunity
It’s rare that a cold e-mail or intro will lead immediately to a full-time role with a startup unless you have a very specific set of skills the company values (by the way, cold e-mails will get a response when they are creative and really well written). If you are still in school, think about ways to engage with startups and entrepreneurs prior to graduation. You may have better success offering your services during the summer as an intern or during the school year as part of an independent project.
One strategy here may be to outline what you can bring to the table (e.g. - background in stats or marketing, or a particular class you are taking on price optimization or something else that could be relevant), and offer to create a case study, report, market analysis or presentation that would be useful. It’s much easier to get to a Yes when you are offering free labor to tackle a problem the company might be facing. Worst case is that your work is useless but no one is out of pocket, and best case is that it’s actually helpful and leads to a reference, intro or even job offer later on.
Another strategy is to meet undergrad or grad C.S. students and team up to hack together a web or mobile app. A number of schools are creating environments to facilitate those types of efforts, like this "Startup Lab" recently opened by Columbia Business School. You could also use a service like oDesk to test ideas and get some exposure to developing software. It doesn’t have to set the world on fire, but it will show some initiative and at the very least you should learn something useful along the way. Just make sure you don’t end up on this website.
Passion will win the day
B-school is a great experience in and of itself, and a terrific credential that pays dividends over time. Much of the curriculum and critical thinking frameworks are tremendously useful, even in the context of early stage companies.
This degree does not, however, open doors with startups the way it does in more traditional fields. What will make the difference instead is a high level of passion and persistence, and a dedication to continuous learning. The best startups grow and succeed through constant iteration. If you are passionate about this career path, follow the same process. You will make mistakes along the way, but learn from each one and continue forwards towards your goal.