Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Entrepreneur's Guide to MBA Applications

Article by Ben Feuer, photo by The Stoe

Entrepreneurship is a growing sector of business worldwide, and many entrepreneurs are looking at MBAs, eMBAs, or other high-level masters degrees to help round out their skill sets, meet new people and encounter new opportunities. These applicants face a unique set of challenges, but also bring a unique set of strengths. In this guide, we'll deliver all the essentials, covering how to stand out.

Areas you're likely to be strong.

1. Hands-on leadership. As an entrepreneur, you've likely had two or more direct reports, overseen budgets and dealt effectively with vendors and lawyers, all strengths the investment banking crowd can't usually claim.  Use these hands-on experiences in your essays and talk to your recommenders about highlighting them as well. But don't just say that you were a leader, say what kind of a leader you were. Be descriptive and make helpful distinctions for b-schools so they can separate you from the pack.

2. Crisis Management. You've probably faced some seriously hair-raising situations where your entire business was put at risk, and come out of them the other side. These make great stories for your essays, but only if you know how to put them in the proper context. It's not enough to simply explain what happened -- you have to help us re-live the experience with you, and walk us through your decision process as a leader, almost like a case study.

3. Visionary goal-setting.  The most exciting thing about entrepreneurs is their capacity to dream big. So don't come to the table simply saying, "I'd like to be a management consultant," even if you do want to be one!  Find a visionary, exciting, empowering way to look at this career change. You're an entrepreneur, a maker, a trend-setter -- don't just be 'another X', be the first, smartest, or best XY.

Areas you're likely to be weak.

1. Volunteering, extracurriculars and non-profit work. Entrepreneurs are often busy, and are usually too focused on succeeding in their business to worry about backup plans. So when their first idea doesn't pan out and an MBA starts to look more attractive, they haven't done all the groundwork b-schools like to see as far as service and community engagement go. If you're in this boat, you have to start engaging with organizations immediately. Look for places where you can offer meaningful skills and help on a high level -- the usual one-off events, mentoring and tutoring are only slight improvements over having nothing at all. Can you fundraise, work on strategy, or develop deeper relationships with streams of volunteers or key donors?

2. International exposure. Diversity is a key element of the mix these days at top business schools, and international diversity is a very important factor in class balance. A student without meaningful foreign exposure risks seeming uncompetitive in today's market. Applicants with time to develop their candidacies should look into forging new relationships abroad, exploring business opportunities or collaborations overseas, or simply take a foreign language immersion course or an extended service trip for a month or two.

3. Comfort discussing failure. Since most entrepreneurs applying to b-school are failed entrepreneurs (no shame, just saying), it's really important to be able to show that you have learned from your mistakes and found ways to bounce back, stronger than ever, in your next proposed venture.  Don't avoid your failure, don't apologize for it, and don't blame others for it. Instead, take a powerful, full-responsibility stance on what happened, and show how you have grown and rebounded after what was probably an emotionally draining experience.

If you bear in mind these basics and incorporate your own set of strengths and weaknesses, you'll be well on your way to success in the application game. But if you're more than a year out from your MBA application and looking for ways to make yourself a stronger candidate, contact us about our leadership action program, and we'll get an expert to help plan your next few pre-MBA career moves.

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One of the most fundamental questions future MBAs (and students in general) face is whether to plan on entering the job market after graduating or devote time and energy to founding a small business.  We break down some of the factors involved in the decision.

Capital considerations.

Many college students are frightened of starting their own businesses because of economics and capital.  “I don’t want to go into debt even more than I already have”, they tell me.  Fair enough.  But there are a lot of great small businesses, like services and software, that require relatively little up-front investment.  And some of the capital intensive businesses, like hardware, are developing economies of scale, with the ability to do short runs at factories.  Plus, fundraising can be a really transformative experience for people interested in business, and sales is a vitally important skill.

Don’t let capital stand in the way of your business idea.

Time considerations.

Starting a small business in college can be a really daunting undertaking.  Expect to be devoting anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week to your business, depending on how involved it is.  This is time you won’t be spending networking, volunteering, taking internships or (of course) studying.

This is certainly one of the biggest sacrifices involved when weighing the pros and cons of starting a business.  There’s no cut and dried answer — a lot of it depends on how certain you are about your future career plans.  Are you seriously considering business school?  Do you want to take a job after graduating, or are you more interested in having a sustainable business already built?  How much appetite for risk do you have?  All of these questions are vital to consider before creating a small business in college.

Success or failure?

Of course, the vast majority of startup businesses fail in their first couple of years.  This observation has been borne out by our clients’ experience.  Many founded businesses in college that never became profitable.  Others made small profits, but the founders lost interest and moved on to other things.

There’s nothing wrong with failing, particularly failing boldly — and starting your own small business is always a bold step to take.  The important thing is that you are able to articulate WHY you failed in a way that demonstrates maturity and responsibility.  Blaming your friends and bad luck is going to kill your chances at HBS, but identifying one or two valuable leadership takeaways that you made use of in subsequent endeavors shows that you know how to turn lemons into lemonade.

If your business is still operating and profitable, it’s important not to ‘declare victory’ — after all, if you were so completely satisfied with the results, why would you be applying to business school?  Instead, either explain how the business will play into your future career plans or how you plan to scale it back over time.  Don’t leave schools guessing about your intentions.

Resume considerations

From an admissions standpoint, a startup on a resume is a good thing — it shows initiative and dedication.  The risks come when applicants start trying to massage their startup experience and make it seem bigger than it actually was — no one likes a braggart — or, more commonly, applicants are ashamed of their ‘failure’ and try to minimize the role their startup played in their growth and maturity.

The smart applicant will walk a middle ground between these extremes, assessing his strengths and weaknesses as a leader honestly and pointing out how they contributed to her business outcomes.  In this way, startup experience becomes an attractive resume item that shows a candidate’s diverse abilities.  


Starting a business with someone is an acid test of a friendship and a potential professional partnership.  One great reason to start a small business, therefore, is to find potential partners that you enjoy working with and would like to work with again in the future.

This doesn’t only go for the big fish, by the way.  Relationships with vendors, suppliers and B2B entrepreneurs can all help you the next time around.  For this reason alone, many startup ‘failures’ are worth their weight in gold.

Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.