On April 9, I had an opportunity to teach two classes at Wharton. Prof. Shawndra Hill, who was a member of my CIS PhD committee at Penn, is teaching a course on data mining, and she invited me to present the insights from the startup world to undergrads and MBAs, focusing on data mining in real world as well as operations and everything else which makes a company a reality.
Having bootstrapped operations and backend, as well as staffing and setting strategy for several groups in several companies, it was a great way to summarize some findings so far which could make business majors and MBAs more successful entrepreneurs in the startup world. Wharton has always been a technology-focused business school, but until a few years ago it mostly served large corporations, investment banking, and the like. Despite their business spirit, MBAs from top schools tend to be rather conservative, as our study at TopProspect had shown (based on studying LinkedIn histories of MBAs from the top schools).
In Shawndra’s class, a majority of MBAs had a startup idea or actual startups in various stages of formation! My last slide listed my LinkedIn profile, and by the end of Q&A, I had a dozen requests to connect. MBAs were much more pressing in their questions, but both sections provided many insights.
My two key points were as follows. Startups, SOMA-style, are formed by core founders who want to master an aspect of the world and make it better through their understanding encoded in technology. Learning is at the heart of this endeavor. It is a shared experience of the whole team which plunges into a new area, absorbs everything there is to know about the domain and the technology facilitating it, and discharges a system into the world, like a neuron, which starts propagating new connections and adds value by connecting users with the improved view of the world, even if in the small.
The second, inherently related, and key point, is that the developers building that worldview are key members of the team. A typical fallacy of stereotypical MBAs or “business cofounders” is that they are “idea people,” or “product people,” while the engineers are conveniences for such ideas, or even commodity tools to prototype ideas, get funding, and be replaced by better commodity, “production quality” engineers. I know startups where such a dichotomy had lead to a massive exodus of engineers, after which “idea people” were left with a “careers” page hiring essentially an entire company. (By the way, such startups are excellent sources of talent, so an experience working with them should not be discounted, but may come rather handy for better startups.)
After living in the SOMA startup bubble for a few years, it was rather surprising to me that Wharton folks find many of these beliefs, widely held in the Bay Area, quite new. Being the organizer of the largest Scala meetup in San Francisco and connecting with a community of founders, founding and lead engineers, visionary product managers, designers, and other key characters of the Bay Area, taught me that immersion in the community is the only way to master its ethos and is a prerequisite to building a successful startup. There is a reason why startups thrive in the Bay Area, and whole companies formed in Israel, Russia, or even Malaysia are transplanted en masse here if they find their lucky strides. In the end, this is a people’s business. You learn by experience and by connecting to like-minded folks. The meetups are gamechangers here — there are more that four thousand meetups in the Bay Area, and the majority seems to be about technology (and singles…).
Wharton has a great presence in San Francisco — I pass by its building on the Embarcadero every day, and see its banners advertising executive education. But we can do so much more to immerse the aspiring business cofounders in the startup culture! One way to do it is to run a Startups 101 course where a mix of VCs, founders, and developers will work with the students on specific projects and also to share their experience. 95% of all startups fail, and the experience of failure is invaluable. Learning from others’ mistakes can shorten a founder’s path to success dramatically, so this must be a course on failure as much as it will be a course on success.
Interestingly, on the way back, I got a call from a Harvard Business School MBA student, contemplating a social recruiting startup similar to TopProspect. He systematically asked me about what worked and what didn’t, and I was happy to share that knowledge which would possibly make him succeed. The mind economy of the Bay Area is an amazing culture, and we will see new kinds of companies founded by new kinds of MBAs — hopefully many of them from Wharton/West!