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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Do You Need Business School to Start a Business?

Deciding whether or not to go to business school can be really difficult, especially if you're interested in entrepreneurship. After all, starting a company is all about rolling up your sleeves and diving in headfirst. Do you really need to go to school to learn how to build something you believe in?

The answer is yes—and no. A lot depends on your background, how far along you are in developing your idea, and where the market is for your product. If you’re working with co-founders, a lot will also depend on their expertise.

After talking with a number of entrepreneurs on campus, what it seems to boil down to is this: If you have an awesome idea, enough knowledge to put together a basic business plan, and the right network to find funding, and the time seems right in the market, go for it! Entrepreneurs can get a lot of things out of b-school, but there’s no substitute for striking while the iron’s hot.

B-schools do, however, have a lot to offer entrepreneurs. Here are the main ways in which attending business school could give you and your idea a leg up.

Gaining Business Know-How

We all love writing crazy ideas up on a whiteboard, but when push comes to shove it’s crucial that your startup have a strong fundamentals if it’s going to make it. If you’re like me and have big gaps in your business knowledge, then b-school is probably a good choice because it will give you the foundation you need to run a sound startup.

Most programs require students to take classes in finance, accounting, marketing, management, and operations. While you certainly won’t be an expert in all of these areas by the end of your coursework, you’ll develop an understanding of the most important business principles and learn about what you can do from all angles to make your startup successful. All of this will be crucial as you position your idea to take off.

Finding Co-Founders

Not sure that you want to go it alone? Have an idea but need someone with different skills to help kick things off? Looking for an idea? Many, many b-school students are interested in entrepreneurship and are looking for co-founders to collaborate with, so you’ll get the chance to meet and work with with a hugely diverse group of people who also want to be entrepreneurs. (Many co-founder duos have met in business school, including those of Warby Parker and Rent the Runway.)

In addition to allowing you to meet people, b-school also provides you with the skills you’ll need to select the right co-founder and establish a good working relationship. You will spend a lot of time learning about managing others and building an organizational culture, two things that are necessary for you and your co-founder to work well together on.

Building a Network

Going to b-school will also set you up with a very broad network of people who could be instrumental in the success of your startup idea. Want to create a new medical device but come from the tech industry? You’ll have access to classmates with science and engineering backgrounds, professors and PhDs in relevant academic departments, and an alumni network that likely includes distinguished players in the sector. While you can make connections anywhere, b-school gives you a truly unique opportunity to meet an extremely diverse, hand-picked group of people from all over the world who have already self-identified as having an interest in business. Through your alumni network, you'll also have connections to fellow graduates for the rest of your life.

Many schools even have formal entrepreneurship incubators that connect you with mentors and other entrepreneurs in the area. MIT’s Sloan School of Management, for example, is known for its strong entrepreneurship program and has a wide variety of resources for its students, including a mentoring program and an E-lab that lets students work with and learn from local entrepreneurs. Harvard Business School has both the Rock Center, an incubator dedicated to providing mentorship, financial, and legal support to entrepreneurs, and the i-Lab, a similar institute that is located on the business school campus and open to students from all of Harvard’s schools.

Securing Funding

Oh, funding—there’s no escaping it. Given that entrepreneurship is such a booming field right now, many business schools are eager to fund student ventures with the hope that some of them will make it big. B-schools typically have programs and contests that allow you to compete with other students for startup funding and exposure. For example, Harvard Business School hosts a New Venture Competition that rewards winners with up to $12,000—that money combined with the $5,000 it gives every student to start a business (a part of a course requirement in the first year) is a good amount of seed money to get things rolling.

B-schools also typically offer courses specifically geared towards entrepreneurs that help you with the ins and outs of funding. A quick peek at Entrepreneurship: Formation of New Ventures, one of the most popular courses at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, will give you a sense of what these classes typically cover.

The decision about whether to go to school or start down the entrepreneurial path is a tricky one. But, by thinking about some of the things business school can offer a budding entrepreneur, you can make the decision about whether to go back to school—or just go for your business.

Tell us! Do you think attending b-school is important for entrepreneurial success?

Photo of woman studying courtesy of Shutterstock.