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What matters to you most, and why?

Why I turned down a Stanford MBA to keep leading my startup

Lessons learned from entrepreneur by Nick Such
August 19, 2011 | Comments
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/1e0c

[Originally posted on my blog, adventures on the edge of business and engineering]

The title of this post is also the first question posed to students applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business: "What matters to you most, and why?" This question almost seems almost too personal for an MBA program, but then again, the GSB isn’t any ordinary MBA program. I was one of the lucky students who made it through that rigorous application process, and even survived 96% of my 2-year deferral period. But last week, I decided to decline Stanford’s offer of admission for the MBA class of 2013 in order to keep leading my startup company, AwesomeTouch. For those of you who I haven’t already talked with in person, I’d like to explain why. If you’re looking for the short version, here it is:

  1. I discovered that I don’t need an MBA to run a company.
  2. I love what I’m doing right now, and who I’m working with.

OK, now for the longer version. If you don’t know the full story of why I was going to Stanford in the first place, I’ll start with a recap. I spent most of my life wanting to be an engineer, which led me to engineering school at the University of Kentucky. While I was there, I lead a student team where we designed and raced solar-powered cars. Through this experience, I realized that I just liked being around engineers, not necessarily being one. I had heard that combining an engineering degree with an MBA was a good way to do this, and my dad has an MBA, so I applied to the program at my university.

This was when my friend Luke told me that an MBA wasn’t really about the classes, it was about meeting people, and that staying at my alma mater wouldn’t get me that many new connections. He suggested I try some top-tier schools, like Harvard or Stanford. Since I hadn’t heard of any others (yeah, I was that naive), I applied to both. I’m really good at standardized tests (which would be a useless skill if our educational system wasn’t so messed up), so I rocked the GMAT. With a few awesome letters of recommendation from peers, bosses, and professors, I got into both. I visited Harvard, but ruled it out. Ivy League seemed too stuffy for me.

So, Stanford, here I come. But not so fast. Wanting some business context before I started the MBA program, I checked the little box on the application that said “2-year deferral”. This meant I was accepted as of May 2009, but I wouldn’t start the program until September of 2011. During those 2 years, I was expected to “work full-time to gain relevant experience.” I had heard about a thing called “entrepreneurship”, but didn’t know what it was. So, I asked Lee Todd, the president of my university and an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and he suggested I check out the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. I spent my first 6 months as an intern doing due diligence for KSTC’s venture finance group. It was like candy for my brain. I got to meet a dozen new entrepreneurs every week, and spent my time researching the technology and market factors that they claimed would make their business successful. I was learning so much! But after a few months, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table. I didn’t want to watch entrepreneurs, I wanted to be one.

My same friend Luke who introduced me to Stanford’s MBA program also introduced me to his business incubator program, called Awesome Inc. Luke, my friend Brian, and a few others were entrepreneurs who liked helping other entrepreneurs get started. They recruited me to run this part of Awesome Inc they called Labs. It sounded really cool, but I didn’t really know what it was (and neither did they). Eventually, we found out that Labs could work as a conduit between the business world and the engineering school I had just graduated from. Lots of smart kids do amazing projects, but they get shoved in a drawer at the end of the semester. We started off by working with the senior design programs, and helping students to turn their projects into products. AwesomeTouch was our first success. It was actually born out of 3 projects, one of which was the mapping technology we use today. In the beginning, we had no idea whether it would survive or not. But for the past year, it has been a little flame that we just can’t snuff out. It keeps finding new fuel and growing larger.

Through this process, I realized that I didn’t need an MBA to start a company. It felt like it just kind of happened. Well, in reality, I had a lot of mentors. In the business world, mentors are like professors, except we don’t even pretend that we can repay them for all the value they provide to us. Some of my mentors were personal acquaintances, while others were just random startup veterans sharing their thoughts on their blogs. But all combined to deliver a very clear message: if you want to learn how to run a business, the best way to do so is to run a business. Even with this well-supported conclusion, my heart was set on Stanford. If the picturesque campus hadn’t sold me at first glance, I would have been hooked by the location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the amazing peers I met during admit weekend, and the incredible allure for a competitive type-A like me to get to introduce myself as a graduate of the most selective MBA program in the world. However, after 2 years of planning my life around Stanford, I decided to walk away. But, most importantly, I wasn’t parting on some idle whim. I had found a more attractive direction, and this one had a shelf life.

In the spring, AwesomeTouch applied to a startup accelerator program called Betaspring. After a few rounds of interviews, and rejections from other programs, we got in. Huge honor, huge surprise. I had been reading for 2 years that these “startup bootcamps” were the new alternative to MBA programs for entrepreneurs. Here was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I planned to attend Betaspring with our team, but use it to transition myself out and head for the MBA program at the end of the summer. The problem was, I fell in love. Our enterprise touchscreen software company became an indoor wayfinding company. This all of a sudden was Human Transportation, my passion (you can read about it here). After seeing that a startup accelerator program could deliver on its promise of awesome mentors (like Ben, Sean, Brad, Angus, Josh, Charlie, and Jonathan) as well as connections to investors and customers, I realized that I had found a shortcut to all the connections that I wanted to make through the MBA program. So, if my primary reasons to go to Stanford were (1) learn how to start a business and (2) make the connections necessary for it to be successful, then I no longer had a reason to go.

The first week of August, I began throwing this idea around with Brian. I had convinced him to be my replacement as CEO of AwesomeTouch, and the transition had already begun (per our website and LinkedIn profiles). I sought some advice from other entrepreneurs, admits and GSB alumni, and they suggested I try to defer one more year. In the early stage, startups are crazy. Maybe it would be more stable in a year. I emailed the GSB’s admissions staff to explain my story, and got a call back from Derrick Bolton, the admissions director. While Derrick is sometimes portrayed as the GSB’s gatekeeper, my experience lends to a different theory: he’s the designer. When going through the admissions process, I never felt like I was a faceless number, or a hacker trying to crack the code and break through the door. I felt like I was selected, like the missing piece of some unfinished puzzle. When Derrick called me, I asked about extending my deferral. Wisely, he suggested that I reflect not on when I wanted to go to business school, but if I really wanted to go. The extended deferral was not an option. I reflected some more, and concluded that for my prescribed reasons, it was no longer a logical decision. In spite of how amazing the opportunity was, I knew that I must I turn down my offer of admission to the GSB.

Since it prompted me to turn down Stanford, somewhere in here I should tell you about the crazy awesome stuff we’re doing with AwesomeTouch. Here’s the short of it: we’ve found a way make giant touchscreens affordable, so more places will have our maps, and you’ll never have to get lost inside an airport, hospital, shopping mall or college campus ever again. That’s pretty cool. But what’s more important is that we’ve found a scalable way to create maps for inside buildings. This may seem like a small step, but if you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that for all the outdoor roads they’ve collected, they don’t have any maps of indoor hallways. We humans spend 80% of our time indoors, so there’s a lot that Google is missing. We’re calling this project BuildingLayer, and someday it’s going to power the world’s best indoor location-based services.

So, you might be wondering what my Stanford application essay claimed “matters to me most”. My answer was my family. They have been the only constant in my nomadic life, and are consistently a source of inspiration. Both my grandfathers are entrepreneurs, and I recently learned the full story of my grandfather Jim’s career choice. You see, he was a smart kid, too. He spent his whole life preparing to go to a prestigious engineering school. Just before he was to start, he realized that this degree path would train him to sit at a desk and make calculations all day long. He instead opted for the hands-on approach and became a plumber’s apprentice. I, too, have chosen the hands-on approach, and I’m excited to see where it takes the family we’ve formed at AwesomeTouch.

PS: If you’re in a similar situation (startup or b-school?), and need some additional reading, start with these:

 

Steve Blank - Entrepreneurial Finishing School

Vivek Wadhwa - Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World?

Charles Huang - The blue pill or red pill: Start-up life or an MBA?

Brian Scordato - Don't be a hippo (be yourself)

And for kicks, help Mike Moradian decide if he should go to HBS or work on CampusBuddy

(Image source: Entreprenant.us)


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