Here are my Columbia Business School application essays, to complete the series on getting into business school in 23 days. I edited them slightly, mainly to take out personal details.
In the optional essay 5, I can see I was blatantly name-dropping Columbia Business School Professors and my experience at the school. I think I could have used more subtlety.
My graduate school stipend — what I lived on in Manhattan for about four years — surprises me to this day. I think the number was accurate, but wonder if the first number might have been a 2 instead of a 1.
Anyway, here are the essays.
1. What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals? (Recommended 1000 word limit)
In 1999 I co-founded Submedia, an outdoor advertising company based on an invention I patented while earning my PhD in astrophysics at Columbia. Today, Submedia has annual revenues of $[amount withheld], with operations in North America, East Asia, the Middle East and soon Europe.
Within the next 3 to 5 years, I plan to launch my next venture using another of my patents. If successful, I will transition it to a successor and begin work on a new idea.
My long term goal is to continue to found companies of increasing size and scope. Before retiring, I intend to teach at the university level. Beyond my pre-PhD goal to teach science, I hope to teach entrepreneurship, or to combine the two.
My Achievements and Limitations
My second essay describes my achievements at Submedia. I am proud of those achievements, but they ultimately led to my realizing the limitations of my business experience.
Reaching my limits was painful. In May 2002, Submedia’s CFO told me the company had $[amount withheld] in the bank. Then spending $[amount withheld, but a lot bigger than the amount in the bank] per month, we were virtually bankrupt. The CFO had informed Submedia’s president – the other co-founder – but neither had given me an accurate report in some time.
Blame could go all around. I deserved plenty. But blame would not help then. We needed to turn ourselves around in days. Could we cut our burn rate 90%? Raise revenue? In the midst of the brutal post-bubble, post 9/11 market? Some pieces were there. Morale was strong. A June product launch would generate nearly $[amount withheld] per month. Some waste could be cut.
The core team formed a difficult but possible plan. It required layoffs to half the staff immediately, half pay for the rest, extended terms from creditors, and daily financial reporting. It was draconian, but the alternative was bankruptcy and liquidation.
The other co-founder came to resist the plan. Not long afterwards, he took an extended leave (antagonizing everyone) leaving me to lay off staff, keep up morale, and negotiate with creditors. The strain was crushing, but the remaining team rose magnificently to the task and got the job done.
Somehow we reached June’s revenue, then July’s, reassuring existing investors of the possibility of future profitability. By late fall we were ready to pay off the last debt. These last payments required a round of investment. With no alternative source of capital, the existing investors imposed the condition of naming a new CEO. After leading the project for seven years, I could see no way to keep my position.
Ironically, of Submedia’s lead investor’s five investments, only Submedia survived.
For all my early resourcefulness, ability to motivate a team, write a patent, write a business plan, prototype a product, market it, and present to funding sources, or for that matter solve the Schroedinger Equation, I hit a wall. For all the value of an astrophysics PhD, it had not equipped me with all the skills of a CEO. Business is not rocket science.
Why An MBA?
Listing ones limitations is humbling, but valuable. When I first did so, it read like a roster of business school classes. Here are some limitations: I had no formal training in accounting, management, finance, negotiation, mergers and acquisition, or public markets. My business network consisted exclusively of Submedia contacts. My only exposure to venture capitalism was through seeking investment. Nearly all the case studies I learned were in entrepreneurship classes of earlier stage companies.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize where to learn accounting, management, negotiation, networking, venture capital, M&A, public markets, etc. CBS Professor [name withheld], the first person I told of my Business School plans, responded positively to the idea. Why had I waited this long?
My Next Venture
The last piece of the puzzle was to address my doubt whether Submedia had been my one great idea or if I had a true knack for invention. The answer came earlier this month, December 2004. In my second meeting with him, Columbia Law Professor [name withheld] invited me back to discuss a new business idea and plan I had conceived.
The plan would challenge the Free and Open Source Software Movement – of which he is a visionary pioneer – and apply its principles in new ways to education. Free and Open Source Software’s social contract is the license by which, for example, Linux and Mozilla are distributed. Twenty years ago [the law professor] co-wrote the first such license, which has never lost a legal challenge. I needed his decades of experience to help evaluate my plan. With time as valuable as his, only if he approved would he invite me for future review and advice. He did. He knows my idea and likes it.
Following the approval of a patriarch of the movement, pursuing the experience, knowledge, and network an MBA brings became paramount.
2. In discussing Columbia Business School, Dean R. Glenn Hubbard remarked, “We have established the mind-set that entrepreneurship is about everything you do.” Please discuss a time in your own life when you have identified and captured an opportunity.
The period beginning with my conception of the technology that was to underlie Submedia is close to the entrepreneurial ideal and founded my professional identity.
I had no idea in 1996 that a child’s toy would prompt me to leave astrophysics to become an entrepreneur. Four years into my PhD, I was playing with a zoetrope – a cylinder with slits in the side and images on the inside. When you spin it and look through the slits the images appear animated. I asked myself if it would work if it was straight instead of circular. If so, the animation could be arbitrarily long, not repetitive, a potential advantage. But where did people move in long straight lines?
Subways! Linear zoetropes in subway tunnels could show movies to bored commuters.
The Opportunity and Risks
Advertisers would pay to reach this global captive audience. I considered the main risks: the technology might not work, advertisers and transit systems might not accept it, and it might cost too much. The technical, operational, and bureaucratic challenges to building a display in a subway system seemed insurmountable.
Besides the business ones, I had personal risks and opportunities: to invent a new product, to change an industry, to lead a new venture, and to change my role model from Einstein to Edison. On the other hand, I would lose my position in science and give up my dream of teaching university. My personal monetary risk, at least – a $17,000 per year stipend – was small.
Only later, when I understood the business world better, did I realize the opportunity cost of missing the late 90’s bubble. Ultimately, nearly all Submedia’s funding came post-bubble – a substantial achievement, but a huge missed opportunity. I took the time finish my PhD in 1999 I still wonder if the degree was worth missing cashing out in the bubble.
Capturing The Opportunity
Entrepreneurship means managing risk. Breaking the mammoth challenges into smaller ones led to a picture where each step was straightforward relative to the previous one. For example, developing the technology became prototyping small scale models, which led to refining the theoretical model, which led to writing the patent, and so on, to a working model. Each step followed from the previous one.
Applying the same principle led to creating the business model, securing funding, forming the team, and accessing the market.
I led Submedia as CEO through 2003, launching three US displays with Coca-Cola, Target, GM, and other blue-chip advertisers. This summer we opened in Hong Kong and Tokyo, with Europe expected in mid-2005.
3. What personal value means the most to you and why? (Recommended 250 word limit)
I intend to leave the world and its communities better than I found them.
The value restates the Golden Rule, a cornerstone of civilization. It feels good to help and to be helped by others. So many other principles derive from it, I should mention a few before relating it to myself as an MBA candidate.
I care about people I interact with and try to empathize with them. If I can’t empathize, I try to find out more about them, and to let them know more about me, until I can. I care about the environment. I became a vegetarian months after starting college. I use public transportation. I write letters to the editor. I shop at the Union Square farmer’s market.
For me, professionally, these principles lead to working in small, young companies, where every teammate’s contribution to the company’s goals and other teammates is clear. One’s integrity is obvious.
It means that my next venture, which will apply democratic principles of the Free and Open Source Movements to enable teachers and students in the classroom, will likely be my most satisfying project to date. The next project, if I am not extrapolating too far, may involve solar energy and use more of my science background.
4. Please select and answer one of the following essay questions. (Recommended 250 word limit)
a. Please tell us what you feel most passionate about in life.
My art is my passion.
I was fortunate to have had a solo gallery show last year in Manhattan. This year I headlined an event at Art Basel Miami Beach (North America’s largest contemporary art show), placed a piece in the permanent collection of Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, and continued my long-term art residency at the Crobar nightclubs in New York City and Miami Beach.
Creating art – expressing yourself through a visual medium – involves connecting with and communicating feelings and emotions that are otherwise difficult to access. Doing so is one of my greatest personal challenges and rewards.
Showing your work and getting feedback is the other great joy of art, the payoff for all the work that goes into creating it. That 10,000 people per month pass my displays at Crobar is fantastic, a dream. I hope soon to exhibit work at the Whitney.
Five years ago I would have led with my passion for sports. The physical challenge of improving yourself, the grit of competition, and the thrill of teamwork when a season of practice comes together in that one big game can’t be matched. When I played ultimate frisbee at the nationals and worlds level, my season ran every weekend from March to November. Teams on which I played reached the top five nationwide. At the end of four seasons I ran the New York City Marathon.
5. (Optional) Is there any further information that you wish to provide to the Admissions Committee? (Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history.)
My Prior Columbia Business School Experience
After conceiving the idea for Submedia, I recognized my immediate need to learn as much as possible about business. I needed any experience, not even knowing what a business plan was at the time.
Walking next door from Pupin to Uris was perhaps my first entrepreneurially resourceful act. [Name withheld], now the Associate Director of the Eugene Lang Center for Entrepreneurship, was the first person in Uris I approached. She put me in touch with several professors, in particular [names withheld], all of whom I approached for advice.
They permitted me to audit their classes. Over the next few semesters I did. They agreed, even, to the extra labor of grading my work – extra motivation for me to do it. The semesters were difficult, since they overlapped with my writing and defending my doctoral thesis, but effective.
Ultimately we grew to become colleagues. [Name withheld] joined Submedia’s Board of Advisers. [Name withheld] and I work together as a Directors of the company.
What I Have Returned to the Columbia Business School
- Been a multiple-time invited speaker in [name withheld]’s and [name withheld]’s classes.
- Twice mentored students in the annual Lang Fund Business Plan competition.
- Hired from the Entrepreneurship Center.
Finally, An Award
Esquire Magazine named me one of America’s Best and Brightest in its December 2003 Genius Issue.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.