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Yes, your MBA can be an asset at a young start-up

On a recent networking call, someone called me out for referencing "the handicap of a MBA" in a previous blog post. As a fellow MBA looking to get into digital health, she was curious as to what I meant — and how I’d seen people overcome a perceived disadvantage. 

In my experience of early-stage enterprise start-ups, MBA roles have generally fallen into four categories. B2C start-ups or later-stage companies may offer more diverse opportunities, especially in businesses that rely heavily on DTC marketing or supply chains. And of course, the best way to learn what might be of interest to you is to talk to people in these types of roles about what they do all day, and find what sounds exciting.

Product

Everyone wants to drive product, as it's often the heart of most tech companies strategy and direction. “Product Management” is one of those terms that means different things at different organizations. At some companies, it’s product strategy, setting the vision based on market and company feedback. At other companies, it is a much more technical role, focused on specs, roadmaps, and working closely with the engineering team. For MBAs with a technical background, both definitions can be a great fit. For those of us with a liberal arts background , however, the latter role can be a much more challenging one to get, especially at a smaller company. If you’re really passionate about Product Management, starting at a bigger organization with a strong training program may be a better first step than going to the learn-on-the-job environment of a Series A or Series B start up.

Sales/Business Development/Business Operations

What Sales or Business Development means at an enterprise start-up is depends greatly on two things: where that start-up is on the sales learning curve , and whether product strategy is driven by the commercial or product org.

For a seed or Series A start up, sales and BD are often the same function. The focus is on early partnerships that are as much about finding product-market fit as securing revenue. For later-stage start-ups that are moving up the curve, sales functions begin to grow and fit the traditional model, while BD becomes a separate team that drive partnerships  — and occasionally product strategy.

Most MBAs I talk to are most excited about BD roles placing them at the center of product strategy. Unfortunately, these roles are narwhals (I would say unicorns, but that term now means something else). They do exist, but often require luck or years in the trenches as an early employee. More traditional BD or strategy roles are still an option, but generally at later-stage start-ups. And while most MBAs seem to look down on sales (and most b-schools don’t really teach it), I’m a big fan of learning how to sell and how the sales process works. Understanding how to write a SOW (scope of work) and get it signed is something that will serve you well as CEO of your own company (because that’s what you're gunning for, right?).

One other function of note is the rise of Sales Operations/Sales Enablement teams to support Cold Calling 2.0. While this function sometimes overlaps with Product or Enterprise Marketing, I’ve seen a number of MBAs go this route recently. Its a good way to be part of a commercial organization and build a team without carrying a quota.

For consumer start-ups, BD is usually much more of a partnership role, and is much closer to the traditional idea of business development as responsible for new and adjacent products and arrangements.  If you’re looking to develop these types of skills, as opposed to more direct sales skills, this can be a good fit.

Marketing

Often overlapping with sales, marketing roles, particularly quantitative marketing roles, can also be a good fit for MBAs. In organizations where marketing and product marketing are not yet separated, being able to work through market understanding and product positioning, and then map it to brand, product and sales collateral is a valuable skill. Bringing a quantitative skill set to things like pricing, or running a series of campaigns across various social media can also be a meaty role to own.  Again, the biggest thing is understanding what marketing means for that company at that stage, and how that role could grow.

Account/Implementation Management

The final place where Ive seen MBAs come in and make a difference, especially if theyre strong in organizational behavior and execution, is across account implementation and management. For many enterprise startups, getting the contract across the finish line is only half of driving uptake and revenue. Getting people, be they sales reps, clinicians, educators, or whomever else the end user may be to actually use the product daily usually falls to the account management team. These entrepreneurial folks, through a mix of charm, cajoling and empathy, are what make or break early customers.

On small teams, implementation and on-going management are often rolled into one (sometimes with customer support as well).  As the team grows, these types of roles often allow early employees to build a team and/or focus on one part of the client services journey.

What do you think? Where have you seen MBAs make a difference in early-stage start-ups?