Category Archives: Business Education

I Want to be An Entrepreneur. What Steps do I Take?

What Steps to be a Tech Entrepreneur?

I’m 18 years old and want to be a successful tech entrepreneur. What steps should I take?

That one, specifically, popped up in my email today from Quora, the excellent questions-and-answers site that I frequent often. But that’s just today. I saw a very similar question from a different person yesterday, and another on Monday. So that question, in various versions, has become one of those questions that pop up everywhere.

Here is My Answer:

Get Your Degree

Steps to EntrepreneurshipThere is only one obvious answer that will be generally true for anybody your age that asks this question: focus on completing your education. Get yourself a college or university degree, the classic BA or BS.

Choose your course of study as if you knew you were going to die when you graduate. Whether it’s computer science, engineering, math, pure science, liberal arts, fine arts, or business, if it is what interests you and what you want to study, then that’s the right step to take. You’re young and the world is full of options. If you study what you want, you discover who you are. You are quite likely to change your mind once or twice after you start – most students do – but that’s also fine, it’s part of the normal course of education, you’re in a discovery phase.

Education is About Clear Thinking and Communication, Not Specific Knowledge

Your education isn’t about specific business knowledge. It’s about clear thinking and communication. It’s about skills and understanding that apply to whatever else you do for the rest of your life. It is not easily measured by direct correlations to what entrepreneurs need to know or do. Yes, it is true that there are many parts of entrepreneurship that can’t be taught in a classroom. And it’s true that you can pick those up elsewhere. But it is also true that what you do learn as you get that degree is extremely important for your long-term career, and happiness; and will be directly applicable to what you have to do to be successful as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship, business, and tech startups require a lot of common sense, a lot of clear thinking, a lot of hard work, and usually a significant dose of experience too. Studying some business topics can accelerate learning. Cash flow, for example, is a body of knowledge worth learning in a classroom. But all of these can be learned outside of the classroom too.

If you like data to go along with this, check out the Kauffmann Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. What you’ll find is that success seems to correlate mostly with having education and experience both. Successful entrepreneurs tend, on average, to be in their 40s and holders of one and often more than one advanced degrees. But dig deeper into degrees and you’ll find very little correlation between what they actually studied and their success. Look around you and you’ll find that the liberal arts people are as likely to be successful as the tech and science people. What matters most is the ability to bear down and do the work, and clear thinking, and sticking to goals.

Don’t Measure Education in Earnings

Don’t get distracted by those studies that relate degrees or areas of study to future earning power.  There’s no direct connection between what you study and what you earn for your lifetime. What happens in real life is that getting a higher education degree only happens for people who can stick to a goal for several years, get work done when they have to, follow through on assignments in time and as needed, and accomplish something. Of course what happens is that people who can do that end up being more successful because of what they learned how to do and the simple fact that they stuck to it long enough to finish with a degree; but it isn’t they they know something special that made them worth more money. It is that they worked more, smarter, and better.

You Aren’t Jobs, Gates, or Zuckerberg

Those amazing billionaires who dropped out of Harvard and Reed College, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs, are about one in ten million. You aren’t them. In each case they were seriously engaged in getting an education when the big idea changed their lives, made them obsessive, and became the business history we now all know. Two facts are very important: 1.) there are ten million or so of the rest of us for every one of them; and 2.) they weren’t skipping steps or avoiding anything, they dove towards something. First they fell in love with the idea and the possibility of a specific business, then they dropped out. (Steve Jobs doesn’t quite fit that description, but then he didn’t quite drop out either; he hung around Reed College, auditing courses, and got his education before he started Apple. He just didn’t pay tuition so he didn’t get the formal certification of his education.)

Give the Big Idea a Chance to Reach You

I think there’s an interesting similarity between successful entrepreneurship and successful marriages. The people I know who end up as successful couples, married for decades, generally fell in love with each other first, then got married, and then continued learning and evolving over decades as they grew together and changed together. Similarly, with the great tech startup successes that I’m aware of, there was a spark as the key people fell in love with the idea, the mission, the way they were going to change the world. They had that burst of passion first, and then followed it for years with learning, evolution, and course corrections.

If your question were about how to develop and pursue this amazing thing you want to do that is going to change the world, I might give you a different answer. But face it, you’re like me, like most of us, you’re trying to figure out not how to get to some specific destination, but rather what direction to travel in, generally. You aren’t blessed with the actual spark of the entrepreneurial idea. Don’t worry, though, very few of us are.

So you get your education now because that gives you future options, skills, and experience sticking to something. You advance your possibilities and give your career a chance to develop.

For the record, my own career shows that I practiced exactly what I’m suggesting here. My advice is based on what I’ve seen work, in the real world, and is what I did myself.

Infographic: Stats and Rankings on Schools Teaching Entrepreneurship

I don’t agree with everything in this infographic,but at the very least it’s an interesting summary. Notice the huge increase in the number of institutions offering courses on entrepreneurship.

The question it asks — can schools teach entrepreneurship — isn’t one to be answered with statistics and rankings. Of course that takes a qualitative answer, sifting through what elements business schools can teach and what elements business schools don’t teach. I say in those posts that schools can teach cash flow, business planning, general business fundamentals, communications skills, and skepticism. And they don’t (I wrote don’t, not can’t) teach dealing with people, right and wrong, having a life, managing risks, and when to give up.

And I don’t think listing famous people who did or didn’t have formal education does anybody much good.

But still, this is a nice summary:


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Top 10 Mistakes Made by Entrepreneurs

For some really good startup advice, and lots of good reminders, here is Guy Kawasaki’s Top 10 Mistakes Made by Entrepreneurs, on YouTube, courtesy of Stanford Business.

I don’t agree with everything Guy says here but I really like his being comfortable with his own opinions, and how he presents them as opinions, not fact. This is a really good one for startup founders and in a classroom situation, for teachers of entrepreneurship to share with students. 


(If for any reason you don’t see the video here, click here for the source on YouTube.)

Do You Want Your Daughter to be a Successful Entrepreneur?

I stumbled on this question on Quora: How should I raise a 12-year-old girl to be a successful entrepreneur? I have four grown-up daughters. Some of them are “successful entrepreneurs,” all of them have tried, some are still trying. So I care a lot about this subject. 

Quora 12-year-old entrepreneurship

There are good answers already posted. The answer I like best, happily, is the one with the most votes.  It’s also posted by a friend, David Rose, founder of and head of a New York angel investor group. His highlight is:

By FAR the best thing you can do is be a great role model! Show your sister that girls CAN be entrepreneurs! That being an entrepreneur is cool! That entrepreneurs live larger lives, have a greater impact on society and basically have more fun, than anyone else on the planet!  Tell her stories of Mary Kay Ash and Anita Roddick, of Esther Dyson and Heidi Roizen, of Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey…and of yourself!

Although I completely agree with that, I really want to add more. This seems important to me, from my experience:

  1. Do everything you can, as a parent, to promote and encourage academic education in whatever your daughter likes. For every successful entrepreneur who dropped out of college there are thousands more, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, who didn’t drop out. Life and entrepreneurship are easier with a college degree. 
  2. Fight the stereotype: Don’t let your daughter swallow the stupid and obsolete idea that boys do math and science and technology and girls don’t. That unfortunately is a self-perpetuating myth. It’s dangerous.  
  3. Don’t, however — please — be that parent pushing the poor kid towards specific educational directions. Drop that agenda fast. The more you push for a specific path (business, entrepreneurship, high tech, for example) the less likely you are to really help your daughter. It’s her life, not yours. For the record, I know many more successful entrepreneurs with degrees in liberal arts than with degrees in business or entrepreneurship or computer science. 
  4. Give her as much technology as she wants. That means — within reason of course — the computer, the laptop, broadband, smart phone, etc. And of course you have to be careful, as a parent, because there are those well-known dangers. My daughters grew up with computers. I gave them domain names as birthday gifts when they were as young as 10 years old. All of them had laptops for school. One of them liked computer games, so I got her all the games she wanted.
  5. Don’t push your definition of success on her. Help her find her success. It’s her life, not yours. 

I have to add something related to point #5 here, and the qualifier “successful” entrepreneur. That’s a dangerous concept. What we want, as parents, is for them to end up happy, which usually means productive, economically self sufficient, and independent. Is it dangerous that we’re in the context of “successful” entrepreneur instead of entrepreneur? And is a successful entrepreneur happier than than an unsuccessful one, or a professional, or middle manager? Especially where your daughter is involved, always pause to question your assumptions. 

I think I’ll go add this to the question on Quora, but I wanted to put it here first. 

Why Steve Strauss Hires English Majors

By the way, did I say I was an English major for my BA? Yes, software entrepreneur, yes, business planner, erstwhile programmer, and MBA … but I carry around a degree in English Literature. I don’t push that up a lot in my bio, but it’s there in the fine print.

English Major hired

So I like what Steve Strauss, Mr. Small Business, USA Today expert, says in his post Why I Hire English Majors in yesterday’s Huffington Post. Here’s some reasons he likes us. He starts with (you can see why I like this post) “smarts:” 

They are taught to think critically, and that is exactly what I want in my business. … They know how to think, to think for themselves, and how to analyze a problem. Business majors are fine, but they are preoccupied with theory, proving themselves, and doing it “right.” But the English majors are used to getting a tough assignment, figuring it out, and getting it done, (usually) on time.

Yup. That’s me. 

And how about this one: boldness. Wait. What? Steve says: 

… these folks have to be bold simply to make such a choice of majors at a time when everyone is advising them to think about making themselves as practical as possible in this shrinking, global job market, but the nature of their gig is that they have to be bold. Reading Chaucer, making sense of it, writing a term paper on it, and then being able to defend it, takes far more bravery than, say, analyzing the fall of the Soviet Union.

Well, that’s maybe a stretch. 

Then his third point is writing ability. Of course. One of my favorite clients in business plan consulting told me his group liked me more for readable communications than for anything else. I think that was only half a compliment. 

And his last point:

Easy to work with: This is an underrated trait that I think many people applying for a job don’t get or appreciate. People like working with people they like. I find that, usually, English majors are interesting, well spoken, can take a position and defend it with logic and reason, are (obviously) well read, and are, well, pleasant to be around.

Who could argue with that? 


Can We Disrupt Education Without Losing Its Benefits?

I’m conflicted: On the one hand, I’m very much in favor of technology disrupting traditional education. On the other hand, what about the value of traditional educational institutions as rite of passage, validation, and cultural catalyst? Can we possible have it both ways?

can technology disrupt education

So many people agree education has to change. Imagine a tablet-based program for early education through high school. Investigate MOOCs. Google disrupt higher education. It seems so obvious. I believe this is part of the future, for sure. I’ve been doing online courses myself, including business plan tutorials for the SBA, several courses for the bplans school of business (with Udemy), and for a new venture not yet launched, Silicon Valley Startup Academy

But over the weekend somebody asked me what I look for in degrees and such when I am evaluating a person for a job in my business. And the question made me think about it. 


  • A college degree serves as a rite of passage. It means the degree holder stuck to a program, did the work, dealt with the system, and finished something. I don’t have the same assurance from the self educated. 
  • That degree is validation. The institution has a stake in it. While it is true, as my dear mother-in-law used to say, that “there are millions of idiots with papers;” I look to the degree as a minimum proof of something. 
  • The degree can serve as cultural catalyst. In a lot of the better residential campus-based institutions, the degree means this person went from high school to a college campus where he or she was able to integrate into college campus life and life with other young people, as students, for a few years. 
All three of these elements are more important to me, as an employer, than the course content. Sure, I do look for some specialized knowledge with a degree for some specialized jobs like finance/accounting or computer code; but for most jobs the course content is far less important than learning how to learn, study, produce output, and get things done. 

So here’s the question: can we disrupt education, using technology, without losing the rite of passage, validation, and cultural benefits? 

Infographic: Degrees and Money

This Infographic from Mint is hard to read at this size, so you probably want to click on the image to go to the source. On the left you have unemployment broken down according to the degrees held, from PhD at the top to just high school on the bottom. On the right you have average weekly earnings using the same categories. What it shows should have been obvious all along, but still:

More education means, on average, more money and less likelihood of unemployment.

And here’s the data from Mint:

I’m not a fan of directly relating education to earnings. It leads to the ugly logic of not getting education except to earn more money. Still, every so often, we should at least review the fundamentals.

And besides that, I like the way Mint is dealing with data. They aren’t asking people. They are mining financial data in their system.

Can School Make You a Better Entrepreneur?

I’m read by Antonio Neves’ post Can School Make You a Better Entrepreneur? on yesterday. Antonio does a good job giving a balanced view of that very interesting  question, and he asks bonified smart person Chris Guillebeau too, which is always a good idea. business education vs entrepreneur experience

Chris gets the best quote in the piece:

‘You might as well learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can,’ says entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau, author of the New York Times best-seller The $100 Startup. ‘Experience may indeed be the best teacher, but you can certainly supplement that education with more traditional or nontraditional kinds.’

That’s smart. There are some dumb quotes in that piece, but Chris is right on. Absolutes don’t make sense. The right answer is not yes, or no, but rather, “it depends.” 

I’m just one data point, but in my case I’m 100% certain that I could not have managed my successes in entrepreneurship without the MBA degree that turned me, at age 33, from business writer to business doer. But I’m also certain that lots of successful people did it without the luxury of education. 

My opinion: if you don’t have the time, or the money, you can do without business education. If you get caught up in success so quickly that you don’t have time for business education, then don’t worry, you’re already getting it where you are. And if you have the luxury to have a choice, get a real education — math science, liberal arts — first, and then add business training later. 

Brave New World Options for Entrepreneurship Education

Take a look at this list: 20 Essential Open Courses for Budding Entrepreneurs. You’ll see Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Rice, and — between the lines on that one — MIT, among others. Mark Juliano’s Entrepreneurship and Business, Chuck Eesley’s Technology Entrepreneurship

The post in question lists mainly general business courses. Aside from entrepreneurship, they have finance, financial theory, business communication, a couple courses on ethics … it’s not my ideal curriculum for entrepreneurs, by any means. But it’s a fascinating alternative to the more traditional warming-the-seat options.  

I’ve posted here occasionally on business education: try this link for the complete collection. The executive summary is: I’m in favor of it, but only when done right. I’ve got the MBA degree myself but I know lots of people doing just fine in business without it. And times have changed, no doubt. 

I’m thinking that the online availability is a huge step forward; except that it isn’t a step, but rather a series of steps that have been happening for years, in stops and starts. I see the rise in validation, accreditation, and certification of online learning, all of which are part of the problem. 

One of my mentors, a fellow Stanford MBA from a few years before me, always referred to the MBA as “a union card.” He would add: “it means you get to charge more.” 

I’ve never believed viewing the degree as merely that. I always see it as being about the learning involved. The growing acceptance of these alternatives force us to think about whether we’re doing it for the learning, or for the union card. Or not: because you can see in this graphic, some of these online courses come with accreditation and validation. 

Here’s something to think about: when you deal with somebody whose education includes the online courses, how much credence do you give that? As an investor, looking at a business plan? As a potential employer? As a partner? 

Reflection: Does an MBA Belong in a Web-Based Ecosystem?

There was an interesting comment posted on this blog yesterday, on my post from last week recommending classes.

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?

I wrote the following here back in 2007, when I was barely started blogging. I think it’s fair to bring it back now, five years later, in answer to the question above.

  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 [blank] MBA seal of approval they deserve.