MBA Admissions: Should You Start a Business While Still in B-School?

Posted by Greg Page on 1/20/14 8:55 AM

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Starting a Startup, Step One


As MBA admissions season draws to an end, now a new question is on the lips of admitted applications nationwide--and it's a common question indeed.

Whether from GMAT students, MBA applicants, or students about to enroll in first-semester accounting, the question of “Should I start a business during my time in b-school?” is one that I hear asked frequently.  While the very open-ended nature of the question precludes a simple “yes-no” answer, there are some excellent reasons to launch your dream idea while you’re taking your two-year sabbatical from the real world.  Here’s why:

  • Time is on your side…for now:  During this two-year pause from your professional life, you’ll have the luxury of checking the “Student” box when asked to list your full-time occupation.  This means you’re not directly reporting to a boss and putting cover sheets on TPS reports; professionally, at least, you’re mainly accountable to yourself.  The amount of time you spent studying for tests, preparing cases, or writing assignments is mostly discretionary.  If you choose to dedicate a lot of time and energy to launching a venture, you can do it.  Between now and retirement, you may not have an opportunity quite like this again. 

The summer between your first and second years is the best time to take advantage of this freedom.  These months will give you enough time to take your idea out for a spin, drive it around the block, and then reflect on whether it’s something you want to really pursue. 

  • Networking and publicity are easy…for now:  There’s something people love about helping students.  They’ll take your calls, they’ll meet you for coffee, and they’ll tell their friends how they’re helping to advise “a student at [your school’s name here.].”  Journalists and university publicists love the “student entrepreneur” storyline, too. 

Once you graduate, you can still tap into alumni networks, and can still network in mostly the same way you did before, but things just become a bit tougher when that magic “student dust” starts to wear off. 

  • The opportunity cost is very low…for now:  Let’s suppose your app company, subscription box, or productivity widget fails to take hold in your target market.  It’s all good!  If you launched during your first year, or the summer afterwards, and put in a few solid months of effort before realizing that maybe your idea or your ability to execute weren’t what you first thought, you can still safely land the plane – recruiting season for full-time offers lasts all throughout the second year. And, at this point, you’ve actually got an advantage over many of your peers: When interviewers ask the inevitable “What did you do with your summer?” question, you’ve got a cool story about how your startup crashed and burned (along with all the important business lessons you learned!), while your peers will struggle to convince interviewers that the 14-hour days they spent staring into spreadsheets were somehow meaningful. 

In sum, b-school offers a unique opportunity for any would-be entrepreneur.  And while launching a business during b-school is great for all the aforementioned reasons, one of the toughest decisions you’ll face is whether to stay at it or pursue a more traditional line of work upon graduation.

If the business is very capital-intensive, the decision will be very clear: you’ll either raise the required amount of dough, or you won’t.  If your business has a low cash burn, you might decide to pursue it on the side while you take a traditional finance or consulting job full-time.  That option is not for the faint of heart, however – it may leave no time aside for your entrepreneurial passion.  A third option would be to pursue your venture full-time while working part-time jobs on the side just to make sure your bills continue to be paid. 

And if pouring coffee for the suit-and-tie crowd starts to grate on you, remember that the MBA you earned still has tremendous value in the job market – it’s never too late to make another run at the traditional jobs that you avoided the first time around. 


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Tags: career advice, MBA admissions, graduate school