I really want to start my own company. I’ve got some great ideas that I think can impact the world in a big way, and I want to make them a reality. I want to create an über cool culture where I love to work and where lots of other people do, too. We’ll work really hard, but on our own terms. Oh, and I hope to make a bazillion* dollars in the process.
*Actual numbers may vary.
Every year I speak to a number of would-be (and occasionally existing) entrepreneurs who want to pursue an MBA to ensure greater success in their post-graduate ventures. Before we go too far in our conversation, I grill them to see whether they have the DNA of an entrepreneur. If they can’t convince me, I doubt that they’re going to convince admissions committees, much less have fun (or success) starting and running companies. If they can convince me, I’ll have them weave some of their answers to the questions below into their applications:
Are you an initiator? Can you create something from nothing?
This could manifest in a number of ways. If you’ve already started a company, especially if you took it past the idea stage and got some traction, you’re in great shape. I already believe you’ve got a lot of what it takes. Take, for example, one of my clients. While in college, Jake** started an interview-preparation company that attracted two thousand customers and generated revenue. Or you might have started a business, but it failed. You’re fine as long as it wasn’t due to some really huge oversight, decisions that any person with a decent brain wouldn’t have made, or some ethical breach.
Perhaps you’ve started a smaller-scale money-making venture. Growing up in a former Communist country in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, Sasha had only her mother’s Soviet-era-style (read: unfashionable) hand-me-downs to wear. Determined to look chic, she deployed her sewing skills to repurpose these clothes, and soon her friends and others were clamoring for her to make them some as well. Amongst other things, this undertaking funded her eventual move to the U.S. for graduate school.
Or maybe you’ve created an organization, say a college club or a volunteer group. Even though you may not have generated revenue, you may have had to sell your idea to the powers that be to get funding, rally participants, or judiciously and creatively use limited resources to realize your vision. For example, Tony, whose parents were Chinese immigrants, founded an organization in his European birth country to increase political participation amongst the Chinese population living there.
If you’ve been working in a company, you still may have had opportunities show your entrepreneurial chops. This is often easier at tech companies that foster intrapreneurship, e.g., Google, which invites employees to spend 20% of their time on things that interest them. If something you noodle up appears to be a viable line of business and you get to head it up—voilà! Or perhaps even while working in a more traditional type of company, you’ve been able to champion and implement a new idea, for instance, an entirely new product/service or line extension. Working for a major retail chain, Jennifer spearheaded the first-ever in-store sponsorship, collaborating with a natural-foods company on a promotion for a health-related national nonprofit.
If you haven’t done any of the above, did you grow up in a family of entrepreneurs?
Maybe you haven’t launched the Next Big Thing yet yourself, but you were steeped in the entrepreneurial lifestyle growing up. Tony helped out at his family’s teeny restaurant while growing up. His father parlayed this business success into another one, and so on, eventually running a rental-car business and overseeing real estate deals back in China. Witnessing and participating in this, Tony learned some valuable lessons about entrepreneurship. Chaya was pulled into her family’s business at age 14 after the untimely death of her father. She began doing the books and attending client meetings with her mother, ultimately helping sell the business. Both of these clients understood the uncertainty, risk tolerance, resourcefulness, and resilience required to be an entrepreneur—which leads me to my next set of questions.
What’s your risk tolerance?
If you’ve always played it safe, you probably won’t enjoy being an entrepreneur. Are there some examples from your past when you took the road less traveled? What life decisions have you made for which the outcome was really uncertain? Have you made decisions that had a potentially huge downside? These decisions may have had to do with choosing your college or major, summer opportunities, job offers, etc. A prime example of this is Brigitta, who passed up offers at established bulge-bracket investment banks to help build out her company’s brand-new media M&A group. She wanted to be in a more dynamic environment where she could help shape business practices and the organizational culture.
How much security do you need?
This is closely tied to the question above. Can you really handle not knowing when you’ll have a paycheck? How about no health insurance? Are you really okay with ramen noodles and numerous roommates till you get funding (or beyond) after being used to a $100k+ salary plus bonus, “it” restaurants, and bottle service? Having previously chosen a job that paid less (or nothing) than other offers is one way to convince adcoms that you’ll be able to live more frugally if need be. (Of course, if you’re a Rockefeller, the security question really doesn’t apply!)
Are you resourceful?
Since (adequate) funding may be a long way off, do you have a track record for making good use of what you have on hand, or have a knack for finding or magnetizing resources? Have you found creative ways to manage cash (without completely angering your vendors), get things/services at steep discounts or for free, source cheaper or reuse materials, or redesign what you’re doing to save money or time (without unnecessarily sacrificing quality)? When starting your own venture, you won’t have access to the office-supply cabinet, both literally and figuratively. Can you prove you’ll be adept at bootstrapping?
Are you good at identifying and rallying support?
To some extent, this is a subset of the above. Are you resourceful when it comes to people? Are you good at spotting and enlisting people who complement your skills? Seeing how much a summer intern with search engine optimization experience could contribute to his online-directory startup, Tyler brought this intern on board as co-founder. A former VC associate, Tyler had also previously created and cultivated many ties in the VC community, and he very effectively leveraged those when he sought seed financing. As an entrepreneur, you are going to need A LOT of help—in terms of both money and people. Are you comfortable with the ask? Are you good at inspiring people, at either getting them to join you as employees, advisors, or board members; or convincing them to pull out their checkbooks? Can you come up with examples of this?
Are you adaptable?
You may have the greatest idea under the sun, but what if a competitor executes first and seizes your market? This could happen so easily, especially if you’re planning on being an Internet entrepreneur. What if you lose your biggest supplier? What if your funding falls through? Are you able to turn on a dime? Better yet, do you enjoy such challenges? I’ve had several clients who realized at either the prototype stage or even beyond (post-funding) that what they’d planned to do wasn’t going to work. At that point, some decided to give up the goal, while others persevered, rethinking and redesigning their offerings. In which camp do you find yourself?
It’d be ideal to demonstrate this quality through sharing examples of having started something and having been forced to change course; however, if you haven’t had such an experience, we have other options! Perhaps you play a sport that demands agility, like basketball. Or maybe you’ve trained for years in a martial art, so you’re used to having all sorts of unexpected things thrown at you and you’re unfazed by surprises. You may have also had to deal with a drastic change in your family—a divorce, an unexpected death—that may have required you to step up and dramatically shift course.
Are you resilient?
If you take the path of the entrepreneur, odds are, you will fail—at least once. Are you able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn from what happened, and believe in yourself enough to go for it again?
One client’s experience with a beloved, yet maddening hobby provides a solid example of this type of stick-to-itiveness. Wanting to feel closer to her father, who was flying helicopters in the military, Kate saved her allowance to purchase a radio-controlled helicopter. Working tirelessly to construct the model, she thrilled as it took flight on launch day, yet within minutes, the helicopter crashed due to, shall we say, operator error. After fixing the battered model, Kate set it to the skies again and it crashed—ten more times, to be exact—over the following year. Never deterred, however, she eventually learned how to better fly the helicopter with the help of an instructor. When I heard this story in conjunction with the rest of her background, I knew Kate had entrepreneurial DNA.
Still wanna be an entrepreneur?
If the questions above have freaked you out, you may want to reconsider becoming an entrepreneur. It’s a crazy thing to do, if you really think about it. If you can answer “yes” to most of the questions above, can provide supporting examples, and feel even more passionate about the prospect of building your own business or social venture after reading this, fantastic! You’re on your way to convincing adcoms; and future partners, investors, employees, and customers as well.
**I’ve changed all of my clients’ names to maintain confidentiality.
Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.