Working for Yourself: Founders and the MBA Application

Founders and the MBA App

It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of MBA applicants come from the corporate world.

Want to change careers? MBA.

Trying to move up the corporate ladder? MBA.

Dreaming of starting your own company? Sure, why not. MBA.

But what if you’re already there? With blood, sweat, and tears, you bootstrapped yourself to Founder of a company. An MBA is your next step, but because these applications were designed with corporate applicants in mind, you’re now struggling to find a way to convey the significance of your own work. At your very own company. Where you work for… yourself.

What’s an up-and-coming founder to do?

You’ve already done the hard part. The truth is, business schools love entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are the kind of risk-taking, self-motivated people that an adcom can trust to succeed after graduation and bring money and prestige back to their alma mater. Simply by taking the risk to start a company, you’ve set yourself apart from a huge number of applicants. But that’s not enough in and of itself: we also have to prove that what you’ve achieved is actually impressive and on par with your peers at your future b-school.

And that’s the rub because you can’t compare your performance to that of peers or predecessors. The challenge is to prove that you did better than most other people would have, in a role at a startup that only you occupied.

Here are some suggestions for each part of the application:

Resume

On a resume, the challenge is capturing performance without clear comparisons. While an MBB consultant might say “earned ‘Excellent’ rating all four years, granted to the top 5% of senior consultants” an entrepreneur has to come up with his own measures of success.

Growth is an obvious one: revenues achieved or final team size are good proxies for the overall success of your company. However, these numbers don’t tell us whether or not your company led the competition, or what was extraordinary about your leadership. For that reason, investments secured or the company’s sale price (if applicable) are superior. When an investor buys your company or a part of it, they presumably do so after comparing it to the competition. A high price from a savvy investor implies that someone did their homework and decided your company was worth it.

Here are some examples of how you can highlight this on your resume:

  • Recruited and managed a team of six, achieving $2 million annual revenue in year two and exceeding investors’ revenue expectations by $750,000.
  • Developed product from ideation to launch, presenting to XYZ Capital and securing $5 million in series A funding.

>> Recommended Reading: 7 MBA Resume Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs


Letters of Recommendation

The obvious issue here is that you don’t have a direct supervisor to write a recommendation for you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have people supervising your work! Investors or co-founders are the best choice, particularly if they are no longer involved in the company and therefore don’t have an existing financial stake in your success.

Big B2B clients with whom you worked on joint projects are also possible choices, though their lack of visibility into your internal deliberations prevents them from giving the adcom a full perspective. Try and avoid getting recommendations from employees—ex-employees are better, but still far from ideal. An unbiased recommendation can only come from someone who could be extraordinarily critical without fear of consequences or retribution.

Essays

Here’s where your entrepreneurship can really shine. Admissions essays are all about narrative, and founding a company always makes for a great story. The problem is that founders often end up wearing a huge number of hats, and if you try to tell the adcom about every one of them, your story will lose focus.

Keep your eyes on the high-level leadership decisions—those matter far more to an MBA adcom than the time that you filled in for the delivery drivers, or the fact that you did all the accounting for the first year.

Hiring, team leadership, setting the vision, negotiating, pitching to investors—these are the skills founders should emphasize.

Finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: exits.

The simple fact is that most entrepreneurs who are applying to business school failed. Part of it is simple numbers—most new startups will fail. Part of it is the nature of an MBA—if you’re already running a successful business, why would you leave to get an MBA?

If your startup is doing well, be sure that you address that issue WHILE arguing your need for an MBA!

If not, the mistake we see most often is clients simply not explaining why their company wound down. This leaves adcoms with the impression that the applicant either doesn’t understand what went wrong, or that it was so bad they don’t want to talk about it.

The best approach is a frank admission of “defeat,” with an explanation that shows that the applicant has carefully considered their experience and learned from it. Don’t be too positive (the Silicon Valley “failure is better than success because you learn more” shtick is tired at this point), but make it clear that the failed project was an important step toward bigger things in the future.


Entrepreneur or Founder? Our MBA Consultants and Essay Specialists are ready to help you ace the structure and content of your MBA applications.  Hop on over and take your first step toward rocking those apps.

Cracking the “Why MBA Now?” Question