Harvard MBA vs Startup Founder Experience: Which is Better?

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What is a better education? A Harvard MBA or the REAL “Startup Hustle?”

There's no denying that a Harvard MBA carries a certain cachet in the business world. The program is known for its rigorous curriculum, world-class faculty, and extensive alumni network. It no doubt opens certain doors and makes it easier to raise capital. 

But how does it translate to real-world experience?

When my guest on the Startup Hustle podcast, Rob Snyder, was accepted into Harvard's MBA program as an undergrad, he jumped at the opportunity, assuming it would provide him with all the tools he needed to build a successful startup.

However, as Rob quickly discovered, the reality of entrepreneurship is far different from the theories and case studies taught in the classroom.

Theory vs. Startup Reality

While Rob's time at Harvard provided him with valuable knowledge in areas like finance, leadership, and general management, he found that the entrepreneurship curriculum fell short in preparing him for the real challenges of starting a business from scratch.

The problem with many business school entrepreneurship programs is that they focus too heavily on theoretical frameworks and not enough on practical, hands-on experience that relates to early-stage startups.

As Rob put it, "There are books and stuff out there. There are frameworks out there, but most of them are counterproductive and simplistic at an unhelpful level, which kind of steers you straight into the iceberg as a founder."

There are some amazing books out there, such as Rocket Fuel, Traction, Rework, etc. However, these books and others are not very valuable if you don’t have real-world experience to relate to them!

They make waaaaayyyy more sense if you have been an entrepreneur for a while and then read the books. Then, you can relate to the lessons and apply them.

You can’t learn to swim by reading a book, but you can learn to be a better swimmer by reading a book!

The tools, frameworks, and case studies taught in business school are often geared toward established companies with existing products, customers, and revenue streams. 

They don't account for the unique challenges faced by early-stage startups, such as:

  • Validating a product idea with limited resources

  • Finding and acquiring first customers without a proven track record

  • Pivoting quickly based on market feedback and customer needs

  • Building a minimum viable product (MVP) to test assumptions

  • Navigating the uncertainty and ambiguity of the startup world

In the early stages of a startup, the focus is on experimentation, learning, and adaptation. 

The rigid frameworks and methodologies taught in business school can actually be a hindrance, as they often assume a level of certainty and predictability that simply doesn't exist in the startup world.

Moreover, many of the tools and techniques used in established companies, such as extensive market research, detailed financial projections, and complex organizational structures, are not applicable or feasible for early-stage startups. 

Startups need to be lean, agile, and able to make decisions quickly based on limited information.

A traditional MBA would be very helpful to those in an established company looking to maintain the status quo and grow the company. However, for entrepreneurs in the trenches of early-stage startups, the most valuable lessons come from hands-on experience, trial and error, and a willingness to adapt and learn on the fly. 

This is where the real "startup hustle" comes into play. It's about being scrappy, resourceful, and resilient in the face of constant challenges and uncertainties. 

It's about learning from failures, pivoting quickly, and staying focused on the ultimate goal of finding product-market fit and building a sustainable business.

In my experience, the most successful entrepreneurs are those who are able to combine the fundamental business knowledge gained from their education with the practical skills and mindset developed through real-world startup experience. 

It's not about choosing one or the other but rather leveraging both to navigate the unique challenges of the startup world. 

You also need different skills at different stages of a company, and it is very difficult for one person to be good at each stage.

The Value of Startup Experience

So, if a Harvard MBA isn't the key to entrepreneurial success, what is? In my opinion, there's no better teacher than real-world startup experience.

When Rob graduated from Harvard and raised $1.2 million for his first startup, he thought he had it all figured out. But as he puts it, "Reality just kind of punched me in the face for two years while I tried to make it happen."

Rob learned invaluable lessons about what it takes to build a successful company through a series of pivots and failures. He discovered the importance of finding product-market fit, listening to customers, and adapting quickly to adversity.

These are the kinds of lessons that can only be learned through the trials and tribulations of actually running a startup. No amount of classroom education can prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship or teach you how to make tough decisions under pressure.

Pillar of Entrepreneurship

MBA Teachings

Startup Experience

Ideation and Validation

Theoretical frameworks for identifying and validating business ideas

Nobody likes your idea, or everyone says they do, but they don’t actually care

Product-Market Fit

Case studies and theories on achieving product-market fit

Confused about how to do messaging and target audience

Customer Acquisition

Marketing strategies and frameworks for customer acquisition

Nobody responds to your cold emails or cold calls

Leadership and Management

Principles of effective leadership and management techniques

The whole company is you

Financial Management

Financial modeling, budgeting, and accounting principles

🤣 You don’t have any money

Resilience and Adaptability

Case studies on successful entrepreneurs and their strategies

You are in a constant state of depression

Networking and Partnerships

Importance of networking and building strategic partnerships

Your dad didn’t go to Harvard

Scaling and Growth

Theories and frameworks for scaling a business

Working 16 hours a day to get more done

Exit Strategies

Overview of various exit strategies and their implications

Won’t matter for 5-10 years

Continuous Learning

Emphasis on lifelong learning and staying updated with industry trends

Learning from every mistake

The Power of Perseverance

One of the most important qualities for any entrepreneur is perseverance. 

When you're starting a business, you're going to face countless obstacles and setbacks. The ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep pushing forward is what separates successful entrepreneurs from those who give up too soon.

This is something that Rob learned firsthand during his two years of struggles with his first startup. Despite multiple pivots and failures, he kept pushing forward, determined to find a way to make his vision a reality.

And that's the thing about entrepreneurship: it's not about having all the answers from the start. It's about being willing to learn, adapt, and persevere in the face of adversity.

One of the dangers of an MBA could be learning that things should or always work a certain way. In the world of startups, things rarely go to plan.

Combining Education and Experience

Now, this isn't to say that a Harvard MBA (or any other form of business education) is useless for entrepreneurs. In fact, I believe that the ideal combination is a mix of both classroom learning and real-world experience.

The knowledge and skills you gain in business school can be incredibly valuable when applied in the right context. Understanding finance, marketing, and management principles can help you make better decisions as an entrepreneur and avoid common pitfalls.

But that knowledge needs to be tempered with the practical experience of actually running a business. The theories and frameworks you learn in the classroom are just a starting point. It's up to you to take that knowledge and apply it in the real world, learning and adapting as you go.

The Startup Hustle

So, if you're an aspiring entrepreneur trying to decide between pursuing an MBA or diving straight into startup life, my advice would be this: don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. There's no substitute for the lessons you'll learn in the trenches of entrepreneurship.

At the same time, don't discount the value of a solid business education. Used correctly, the knowledge and skills you gain in the classroom can be a powerful tool in your entrepreneurial arsenal.

The MBA will be useful when growing and scaling a business once it gets off the ground.

Above all else, remember that success in entrepreneurship comes down to perseverance, adaptability, and a willingness to learn from your failures. These qualities can't be taught in a classroom, but they can be cultivated through the hard-won lessons of startup experience.

They are learned by getting punched in the face daily as a startup founder.

Welcome to the Startup Hustle!

Who is Matt Watson?
Join 44,000 others, and follow me on LinkedIn. I am also the host of the Startup Hustle podcast, which you can listen to on any podcast app or YouTube. I’m the CEO of Full Scale and other SaaS companies.

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