Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

Reflections on MBA experience 0

Gilded GraduationThe prestige of the MBA degree is tarnished quite a bit since I got mine in the early 1980s. And that’s for pretty good reasons. With the world of startups like it is, and the progress of high tech, there are some good arguments against stopping a career for two years to go back to school. Still, my two years with the MBA were the right thing for me, for my family, and for my entrepreneurship. Everything is case by case.

So I find myself reflecting on my own MBA experience, and MBAs as a stereotype, and what the MBA degree might or might not mean today. The following thoughts come in no particular order.

  1. The curriculum used to be a lot more about business analysis than about doing business. Things have changed for the better though, because now entrepreneurship is all over the MBA world now, and MBAs are much better off for it. When I was at Stanford University the entire “small business” curriculum was one course — an excellent course, but still, just one — taught by Steve Brandt.
  2. I screwed up the recruiting process myself and chose the wrong job for the wrong reasons. That story is in this blog as a stupid mistake. I was hardly the only one. I saw somewhere that 80% of the MBAs of my time changed jobs in less than a year after graduating.
  3. The two years I spent studying business were among the best of my adult life. My wife and I and our three kids moved from a fifth-floor apartment in Mexico City to a townhouse on campus at Stanford, for half the rent. I enjoyed the classes immensely.  Our kids had great elementary school on campus. We needed only one car.
  4. I had a friend a few years older than myself who already had the MBA degree when I met him, before I had thought of it. He always said “it’s just a union card. You get it so they pay you more.”
  5. After the first quarter as a full-time student I couldn’t take the pressure of the bank account going one way only, withdrawals and no deposits. So I worked as a market research consultant with Creative Strategies for the rest of my time studying. I made a  full-time consulting income, but  because I was a an early adapter of technology and I did most of my work at home, it was still a good time for family.
  6. By the end of the two years, some of my classmates were disappointed that they had been taught business analysis more than business. I wasn’t disappointed at all, I had learned what I went there to learn. I expected them to teach me stuff that lent itself to chalkboards and lectures and readings and they did.
  7. I wasn’t the typical MBA student. I was 31, married, had three children, and had supported my family for years as a business journalist in Mexico, making more money freelance than on salary. I figured that whether I knew how to deal with people or not, they weren’t going to teach me that; they were going to teach me what I wanted to learn, the analysis.
  8. Getting there was hard for us. It involved quitting a fairly good job in Mexico City and moving back to the United States without a job. I had just won a long-sought-after transfer to Hong Kong, which I had to turn down. That was a hard choice. I’ve never regretted it.
  9. It was expensive. I paid my own way.
  10. Samuel Johnson said that the ultimate happiness is anticipation of happiness rather than realization. During those two years studying, family life was close to idyllic for us so the present was really good, and the grapevine kept telling us that the future would be much better.
  11. It was a lot of work, but it was good clean work, and it made sense.
  12. I’ve dealt with some young people fresh out of business school with shiny new MBA degrees who were full of themselves, ignorant and arrogant. I’ve dealt with some who weren’t. Generalizations suck. Still, generally you want an MBA 10 years later, not in his or her first job out.
  13. I hated the group projects. I had a family to go back home to, and consulting work to do, and group projects had too many people who liked the social aspect of group meetings too much. I usually tried to negotiate a chunk of the project we could separate from the rest so that I could do my part on my own, without going to meetings.
  14. I had been doing business-journalist work for several publications, of which the most well known was Business Week (as McGraw-Hill World News correspondent for Mexico). I was amused sometimes that some of what I did after the MBA was very similar to what I’d done before the MBA, but for much more money.
  15. MBA studies are best for people who’ve had significant work experience first. I don’t know if that’s three years, or five, or seven, or what. I had been out of school eight years when I started.
  16. What’s with the people who put the letters onto their business cards and behind their names on websites, like they were CPAs or doctors or something? Isn’t that awkward? I always think if it isn’t MD or PhD or maybe CPA (for commercial reasons) then it makes me nervous to see it there. Is that just me or what?
  17. Final thought about MBAs: I deal today with a collection of very smart people between the ages of 30 and 40 who have picked up so much business savvy in 10 or more years of high-tech business that I don’t think they should go back to school and get an MBA degree. I do wish there were a test somewhere, like the GED for high school, so these people could take the test and get the [expletive deleted] MBA seal of approval they deserve.

So how to conclude? It’s up to you, and your situation, whether it’s right for you. And, at the very least, don’t hold the MBA against those who have one.