Why Working at a Startup is Better than Getting an MBA


I learned a lot as a graduate business school student enrolled at Northeastern University. I met some awesome people and had the opportunity to work with world-renowned professors. However, business school was not exactly what I expected it to be. It was not until my second year of the program when most of my pre-requisites were out of the way that I fully realized my misperception. I must note that prior to enrolling in business school, I was the director of marketing at Going.com (acquired by AOL). Thus, I am comparing my experiences and learning at business school to my professional experience working at Going.com.

1. A startup forces you to be creative

In any type of startup you will be relied on to think outside the box, whether it’s to solve a complex business problem or to create a new service or product. Unlike in a classroom environment, your ideas really matter as they directly impact the future success of the business. For a variety of reasons, getting a good grade in class cannot and never will compare to the pressures of being relied upon to think creatively at a startup.

2. You wear multiple hats

As a student you are able to focus your curriculum on your interests. Thus, you spend most of your time in business school around that one particular topic (i.e., Finance, Marketing, Operations Management, etc.). At a startup, you typically don’t get the luxury of allocating your time toward your interests or particular job description. Often, you will be asked to step into a role that you have no clue how to fill. Again, your decisions and ability to fill the void in this role will matter!

3. Witness real-life experiences

As a member of a startup company, you will witness what it’s like to start and manage a business. Whether this involves going through a round of funding or closing a big business deal, you will gain first-hand knowledge that simply cannot be replicated in any classroom environment.

4. A professional network

It would be foolish for me to say that you don’t grow a network at business school–you definitely do. However, it’s a different type of relationship, as you are still perceived as a student. Thus, it is a student-to-professional relationship rather than a professional-to-professional relationship. It’s hard to explain, but the dynamic of the relationship is very different. Working at a startup provides you with the same access to distinguished professionals, especially if you are at a venture-backed company.

5. Years of quality experience

Going to business school full-time is a huge commitment. You are giving up two years of real-life business experience to go back to school.  Even part-time MBA students sacrifice, as often they must defer new opportunities (i.e., extended work hours, mandatory relocation, and additional responsibilities) so that they can fit classes into their already rigorous schedules. Many students bank on the fact that their MBA will propel them into the business world. Guess what? While an MBA will enhance your resume, it definitely does not promise success. However, being at a startup certainly educates you and provides you with quality work experience.

6. Learn the present, not the past

Business school has a funny way of getting students hooked on learning about past events. While it is unarguably beneficial to learn about past successes and failures, many of those examples do not apply to today’s global business economy. This is often a result of changes in the social, political, economic, and technological landscapes. At a startup company you are undoubtedly going to be constantly looking ahead. You will be the one finding ways to innovate your industry and pushing for change. In short, wouldn’t you want to be the one pioneering a new path instead of re-exploring someone else’s?  Startup companies will more than likely provide you with this opportunity. You will learn what works in business today!

7. More than one way to do things

Business-school students often get frustrated with certain professors who believe that solutions in the book are always right. If you are currently in business school and reading this, you know what I mean. Right? The beauty of working at a startup is that there are usually no right or wrong solutions. A good CEO will want you to challenge the business and provide intelligent recommendations on how to change the current course. Moreover, the problems that your company is trying to solve are not given–that’s probably why it’s a startup. In short, a good startup will not restrain you from searching for new answers or strategies.

8. Making money is a good thing

One of the hardest realities any business school student faces is coughing up the dough. Business school is very expensive! While you probably won’t be making six figures at most startups, you will be revenue positive. Making money is always better then dishing it out—especially for those students who have to take out loans that accrue interest. Either way, working at a startup provides you with both money and valuable work experience, neither of which is possible in business school.

9. Equity is a good thing

One thing you will surely not get in business school is equity. Most early-stage startups will give their employees a decent salary and equity in the company. The idea of dishing out equity is that it makes you more invested in the venture. Therefore, not only do you get paid to work at the startup, but you also get a piece of the action. I don’t think I need to explain the advantages of this one any further.

10. A startup is a sure thing

It’s true not every startup will succeed–you will learn and you will grow. Prospective business-school students ask me all the time how to measure the investment in an MBA. I simply tell them, “I have absolutely no idea. I don’t think anyone does.” Some schools may disclose how much their graduates make, but I would like to leave you with this question:  “Was it solely because of their MBA that they got the job?” I highly doubt it.

1 Comment

  • Reply January 7, 2014

    John Hinde

    Incredible, finally I read a article that tells the truth. im all for skipping the B.S also. I have a college degree and while it was a great learning experience and teaches u how to think, I much rather would have liked to start my own business, or in my case gone right into the PGA. Now im starting with a new company and gives me all the opportunity to be innovative. Thank you for the article.

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