My Story: A Serial Entrepreneur Finds Value In An Oxford MBA

I actually didn’t go to Oxford with the intention of starting my third startup right away. I did assume I’d meet a terrific set of people who I might want to work with in the future. As luck would have it, both happened sooner than I expected.

The Vizibility team was built from both old relationships as well as new ones formed at Saïd Business School. Early on, I had several classmates on my board of advisors. I was also introduced to some early investors through Saïd connections. When you’re building a team, the conventional wisdom is to hire slow and fire fast. I don’t think it works as cleanly as that, especially when you’re looking for high quality people willing to accept alternate forms of compensation like equity. In our case, we were very lucky to have rich connections that provided a stream of solid talent as we needed it.

We initially funded Vizibility on an equity-for-services basis with a large software development shop in Toronto. We agreed to exchange 10% equity for the first commercial version of the service. A long-time friend of mine was the co-founder and president of the dev shop at the time and immediately fell in love with Vizibility. This had two immediate benefits. First, it reduced development risks for early investors, and; second, it valued the common shares of the company.

Skipping graduate school and going right into a start-up may be the right path for some people. There is nothing like the crucible of live fire to teach real world lessons that cannot be absorbed in the same way by reading a case study. In my case, I started two companies before going to get my MBA. Now that I have one, I’m not sure the order matters as much but I do think most will find it helpful to go through the MBA process at some point.

As Will said in the movie Good Will Hunting, why spend “fifty grand on an education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” I think this over simplifies the value of an MBA.

For me, earning an MBA degree was akin to tempering steel…hardening the lessons I had learned over the previous 15 years in my professional career. In essence giving names, history and theory to processes and systems I intuitively understood.

First, getting an MBA is a highly structured process that many of us need. Second, you do form valuable relationships that can lead to opportunities you might never have had access to. Finally, an MBA from a well-regarded institution does become part of your personal brand for life which, like it or not, others will use to quickly judge you.

Saïd Business School was founded around entrepreneurship, so it’s in the DNA of the school.

Alumni have access to a wide range of resources from faculty and staff as well as an annual startup fundraising contest and online research resources.

Personally I have used all of these tools for the benefit of Vizibility. In one case, right after we launched the company, the director of the MBA program at the time arranged for me to attend a major fall conference at the school for the sole purpose of making a personal introduction to a well-known CEO of an even more well-known social networking company. He just walked me right up and made the introduction.

I have been impressed by the school’s efforts around supporting all kinds of entrepreneurship, most notably around corporate social responsibility. The new dean of Saïd Business School, Peter Tufano, has been working hard, not only introducing new programs, but also on alumni activities and outreach through the worldwide Oxford Business Alumni (OBA) network.

The New York chapter of OBA is quite active, and I have many local connections as a result. We have frequent opportunities to reconnect with faculty and staff at regular events and I know many good ideas have come from these pro-active interactions.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I’ll offer three lessons I’ve learned along the way. First, when I was younger, I used to say that I was often wrong but never in doubt. One of my big lessons in life is coming to grips with how little I actually know. Recognizing this forces me to slow down, listen to those around me, challenge my assumptions and be constantly learning.

Second, while it may seem that we did it all on our own, in most cases we had a lot of help along the way. Whenever you can go to places and events where you can meet people who might be able to help you, do so; and recognize people when they do.

Third, always offer to help someone before you accept their help. It may be as simple as offering a suggestion or a small piece of advice. Just asking how you can help them up front will set you apart.