Q&A: Are There Business Classes That Busy Smallbiz Owners Can’t Afford Not to Take?

Over this weekend I was in email with a college student who asked me to answer some questions about business education, as part of a class project. I found this one interesting, and one that comes up a lot, so I decided to post the question and my answer here today.

The question:

On your blog, you strongly recommend getting an education for the purpose of living your life better. However, I know many people who have sadly passed that opportunity — they are parents and are overtaxed by their own small businesses. Is there a minimum curriculum you recommend to help these people deal with their own businesses — classes that busy owners can’t afford NOT to take?

My answer:

I like your question and I think that’s a very useful idea. I would recommend basic courses in accounting, finance, and marketing. Most of business is learnable outside of a classroom but understanding cash flow and the principles of marketing is a very real advantage. Debits and credits, the difference between sales, costs, profit, assets, liabilities, and capital, and the difference between cash and profits are essential, in my opinion. Also, the fundamentals of marketing including market segmentation, target marketing, and market focus are every bit as important in the new world of social media as they were 50 years ago in the old world of advertising. Although you can learn those outside of a classroom, it’s the kind of knowledge base you can pick up quicker in a class.

For the record, I practiced what I preach. I did the Stanford MBA while married with 3 kids with no economic help from family, from savings my wife and I had managed from a Journalist’s salary while raising our kids, and working part time. The meager savings lasted just the first quarter of the first year and the rest was financed with my own part-time income and debts. So I know that’s hard to do because I did it, and I don’t want people to think that when I recommend it that I’m being unrealistic about what it takes. And I want to add, also, that when I have recommended it, I’ve always been respectful of the fact that it may be a luxury that not everybody can afford.

Thanks for asking.

(Image: istockphoto.com)


  • Mike B says:

    As someone without an MBA working in business and learning as I go, I am curious to know what you think the value of an MBA is these days? Especially in the tech and web startup sectors. For example, I work in online marketing with emphasis in SEO, PPC, PR management, and social media. These are dynamic and fast-moving sectors that are frequently in a state of change/flux. I have considered the MBA and the costs and I am very much undecided, because as you point our in your answer, there are ways to learn and be successful without an MBA (starting with basics, and then learning-as-you-go).

    So, as someone who has been through the process, how do you feel about the value of an MBA today especially in a web-based ecosystem?

    • Tim Berry says:

      Mike, thanks for this question, right on target with this post … I have so many mixed feelings on this, it’s hard to answer. On the one hand, the MBA was huge for me, and not as gateway to employment but as knowledge and a general sense of things come together in a business that was vital as I built my own business. I could never have done what I did without it. It was tough because my wife and I were in our early 30s, with three kids, and nobody helped us with tuition or expenses. On the other hand, I have several grown-up successful children who are right in the thick of high tech and startups and have not had time to jump off the train and go get an MBA. One of them is way more successful than I am, already, and another is going to be for sure but is still starting, and three others probably will also. So that’s five of five, without any of them getting an MBA.

      Answering your question better will probably be my blog post on this blog tomorrow, Aug. 28, 2012.

  • Anna says:

    It’s important to note that there are ways to grow your business education without getting an MBA. Between community colleges and non-profits, there are many classes out there on writing a business plan, marketing, and financial management. Many are free or low-cost through Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) or community development financial institutions (CDFIs).

    • Tim Berry says:

      Yes, Anna, thanks for that. I think that’s exactly what the question was aiming at. Thanks for fleshing my answer out a bit. Tim

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