There has been a lot of discussion about the best educational background for founders and for those who want to join startups. Earlier this month, TechCrunch ran an article from Vivek Wadhwa which argued in favor of an MBA education. Similarly, Vinicius Vacanti (a former banker) wrote a great post, “5 Reasons Why I-Bankers Make Bad Tech Entrepreneurs“. Steve Blank wrote a very practical and balanced post about whether folks should get an MBA or an Engineering Management degree. Guy Kawasaki has pegged the value of an MBA to a post-college entrepreneur at negative $250k.
There’s clearly a lot of conflicting wisdom out there. After reading some of these articles, my initial concern was that some of these perspectives could lead would-be entrepreneurs to question their ability to start a company based on whether they had the right background. But the concern is misplaced because anyone who could be dissuaded from starting a company based on one person’s opinion probably isn’t ready anyway.
The bottom line is that if you are looking to start a company, formal education matters little: it is about what you can do. And what you can do – if you’re talking about founding a tech startup – is all about your vision and passion for the product and your ability to execute. For this reason, if you are deciding where to focus your formal education, I strongly suggest engineering. As my dad told me, it’s difficult to learn “hard sciences” once you’re out of an undergraduate program (unless you’re building on a background in hard sciences). While you might pick up a history book for leisure after graduating, you’re probably not going to relax by doing calculus or learning Cocoa. This is not to say it’s impossible to gain these hard skills once you’re out of college (I’ve had to do a bit of this), it’s just easier to learn these things in an academic setting when you probably have more time and fewer real-life distractions.
I wouldn’t be overly concerned about gaining accounting and finance skills at first – these are very valuable, but again, the core value of a startup is not finance and accounting, it’s the product. You’ll acquire business skills with experience and if your startup gains traction, you will be in a good position to raise money and attract the talented sales, BD, and finance folks needed to build the product into a moneymaking enterprise.
Assuming you have the knowledge, passion and ability required to start a company, get started on it. You don’t need to get an expensive graduate degree. And, if you have an expensive graduate degree, that doesn’t make you any less “able” as a founder or startup exec. Everyone has innate abilities regardless of educational background and, if you’re building a founding team, it’s your job to find people who complement your abilities. And if you’re a startup looking for exceptional people, it’s your job to recognize talent independent of a candidate’s pedigree or formal training. Finding the right people is complicated: use too coarse a filter (Ivy-only, college-grad only, no MBAs, MBA-only) at your own risk.