Thinking about business school?

May 12, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Education

An entrepreneurial friend asked about business school. I shared the following with him and thought it might be useful for others. As long as it is, I could have written more.

I got an MBA at Columbia. It was one of the best decisions of my life — different than I expected, because I expected an academic experience. I did it after starting a business in the early 2000’s.

Some people do fine without formal business training. I did well up to a point — getting the project started, getting people onto the team as employees, investors, suppliers, etc. But I had little to no experience in some important basics: accounting, how to read financial statements, managing teams, and a few other things.

Business school was one of the best experiences of my life. I already had a PhD and I thought I would be learning a bunch more information. I did learn invaluable information, but business school is not like regular school. It’s more experiential. You learn things about yourself, relationships, working in teams you can’t get from reading books or writing papers.

It’s also very social. Columbia has a regular Thursday night happy hour — all the free food and beer you want, sponsored by banks and consulting firms. One of the major events of the year is the class play, called Follies. People constantly go on school sponsored trips around the world that are totally social and the school helps schedule meetings with top people at firms in those places.

The point is one of the main things is meeting your classmates, forming bonds, forming networks. At first I thought it was just a bunch of partying, which it is, but it’s also important for business.

There’s also major emphasis on getting you a job. At Columbia that means mostly finance or consulting, but they get entrepreneurs meetings with VCs and other resources around New York City.

My first year was learning the basics. It’s a lot of work — a lot. All classes were in the same group of 60 students. All assignments were done with the same study group of 4-5 people. My study group was amazing so we learned a lot from each other. There’s no way I could have done it without them. Actually, the curriculum is designed to be impossible without teamwork. By the basics I mean: accounting, finance, macroeconomics, microeconomics, leadership, marketing, negotiation, capital markets, strategy, statistics, operations, and a few ad hoc things like advanced spreadsheets, presentations, etc.

The first year is great — I can’t believe I got my business as far as I did without knowing what I learned — reading a balance sheet, cash flow statement, and profit and loss statement, double-entry accounting, and managing teams. If you stopped after the first year you’d have a solid foundation for running a business or managing teams.

The second year was life changing. It’s all electives so you take what you want and your classmates share your interests. Most people are there to get the best job they can afterward, again, mostly finance and consulting at Columbia because it’s so close to Wall Street. Warren Buffet went there and the tradition of value investing is strong there. I focused on leadership, general management, and entrepreneurship. I learned a lot of emotional intelligence, leadership, self-awareness, team dynamics, social psychology. Again, it’s experiential, with many exercises and case studies — not problem sets or written homework like regular school. You end up getting to know some classmates and even professors fairly personally.

Second year for non-entrepreneurs has a lot of interviewing, people wearing suits in class on the way to and from interviews. Once they get their offers there’s a lot of partying. Also the recruiting companies spend a lot on recruiting so you get treated at fancy restaurants and clubs.

The alumni network is strong — every now and then I search the database to find people at a company. There’s always someone high up and they always return my calls. It doesn’t necessarily make a deal happen, but I have the connection.

I don’t know much about resources for these things outside of class. I learned most of my finance from lectures and my study group mates. We didn’t use textbooks much — mostly teacher-created compilations/readers.

Two books I consider essential for business:

  • Getting to Yes — it’s the book on creating deals and negotiation. Every business school student reads it.
  • Competition Demystifiedthe book on strategy. It’s written for big businesses but readily applies to entrepreneurship.

The flip side to it all is that it’s expensive and it takes four semesters. I did Columbia’s January term, which goes through the summer non-stop, no summer internship, which I didn’t want anyway, so the whole experience is sixteen months. You get loans no problem at low rates. I’ll be paying mine off for a while.

I forgot to mention one semester I did Follies one of the videos we did (I say we, but one guy was the major force behind it) was so popular, we got letters from the White House on it. Also that beyond Warren Buffet, Graham and Dodd taught at Columbia, so value investing is in its DNA.

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