An Alternative to Entrepreneurship

One of the most common aspirations of many MBA applicants and students is wanting to start a business of their own one day. In prior posts, I have cast doubts on whether an MBA is even worth it for aspiring entrepreneurs (at least those who are looking to start a business in the short-term), but I also recognize that it’s just my opinion that others may disagree with. So what I write below assumes that if an MBA was worthwhile for an aspiring entrepreneur, what is one way to navigate the transition from MBA student to entrepreneur?

There are many hurdles in making this a reality. The economic cycle certainly matters, since in good times one is more likely to be optimistic and risk taking compared to bad times when it may be wiser to hunker down. Financial circumstances also matter: with many MBAs taking on significant debt to pay for school, it may be too much to take on that much risk in the shorter-term. Another blindingly obvious hurdle is simply not having a compelling enough idea – that one is in love with the idea of entrepreneurship, without a specific enough business concept in which to channel all that love.

Oftentimes though, as great as all these hurdles may be, the biggest one is simply fear of the unknown. Even those who have started their own side businesses before, there can still be this fear of taking that big leap into becoming a full-time entrepreneur – because the stakes are much bigger if one is looking to make a full-time living from the business.

And in many ways, the psychological shift from working for someone else to being one’s own boss is a big leap not unlike any major life transition (becoming a spouse, to becoming a parent, and so forth). It not only changes the way you work, but changes the way you see your work. And that can be a scary thing because it plants a series of self-sabotaging questions in the back of your head that you may be afraid to answer:

If it fails, will I be tough enough to cope with the aftermath? If it’s successful, what if I don’t like being an entrepreneur?

We are as scared of failure as we are of success, especially when we anticipate that it involves upending our status quo (making a big shift in what we do and who we are in the workplace) to even make that leap. For many aspiring entrepreneurs coming out of business school, it will mark the first time they would be working for themselves on a full-time basis.

Being one’s own boss has been romanticized in our culture, and so much emotional energy can be invested in the fantasy of being the next great pioneer, the next self-made billionaire. And I think most people with notions of starting a business recognize on an instinctive level that it’s not all roses, because if it were that romantic and glamorous, there would be a lot more entrepreneurs out there.

Regardless of which hurdles are the key drivers in preventing you from making that leap, one alternative is this:

Work for a startup.

You don’t have to start your own business right away. While work cultures can vary from one startup to the next, at many startups the chaotic and fluid nature of your workweek and responsibilities requires a different mentality than working for an established company.

Working at a startup (or a more established VC-backed company) can give you a taste for what’s to come. Not only will you get broader responsibilities that have a more direct impact on the company, you will also have more leeway to define what your responsibilities are, as well as initiate and execute ideas without running into a clusterf*ck of committee meetings and approvals. Even if you officially have a “boss” (usually the founders), it can feel more like you’re working WITH them and not FOR them.

While it’s not the same as actually running your own company as a founder/CEO, working at a startup can give you experience in the trenches – allowing you to experience what it truly feels like, while giving you a bird’s eye view of what the founders are going through. And experiencing that startup environment will either scare you away from it, or embolden you in the future to start your own. Or you can walk away from it still unsure, but with that experience, there’s less “fear of the unknown” should an opportunity to start your own business comes up years (if not decades) down the road.

Again, if you have a business idea and you’re ready to go full steam ahead, go for it! But if you don’t have one, you’re unsure, or there’s hurdles you can’t overcome at this point in your life, don’t fret — you can always work for a startup for now, make the most of that experience and take it from there.

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