Executive MBAs Catch The Startup Bug

EMBAs’ attraction to entrepreneurship has also strengthened in Europe. French business school HEC Paris surveyed 8,500 alumni from five classes of MBA and other business master’s programs – 2004, and 2011-2014 – and found the number of graduate entrepreneurs grew to 25% in 2014 from 10% a decade earlier. “The percentage of entrepreneurs is particularly high (44%) amongst participants in the Executive MBA program,” HEC’s “Entrepreneurship Barometer” report says. The major drivers of entrepreneurship are a desire for independence, and innovation. The desire to be one’s own boss is the main motive. The desire to innovate and create new business models is the other main factor in starting a business.”

Vlerick EMBA Bart Van der Roost

Vlerick EMBA Bart Van der Roost

Bart Van der Roost of Belgium hadn’t thought much about entrepreneurship until he got to B-school. He was the production leader for the Brussels Philharmonic, managing the meticulously orchestrated, complex events. To advance his career he wanted to acquire the range of business knowledge an EMBA program should impart: economics, corporate finance, organizational structures. “I love the Philharmonic. I saw my role in the company evolving, and I said, ‘I need some more solid ground to put my feet on,’” says Van der Roost, 34. “I never could have dreamt I would own a business.”

He enrolled at Vlerick Business School in Belgium in 2012. “This is where I found out there was an entrepreneur in me – it was always in there, but waiting to come out,” Van der Roost says.

Meanwhile, two friends – one the principal bassoon in the Philharmonic – came to him again with an idea they’d first proposed in 2008, for a company selling digitized sheet music. Van der Roost had dismissed the idea initially – laptops on symphony music stands weren’t likely to fly. But since then, the iPad had launched, and other tablets. And as in 2008, less than 10% of sheet music was being sold in digital form.

The Vlerick program gave Van der Roost the business fundamentals he’d come in wanting, and facilitated understanding of business culture. He hit his steep learning curve straight away in Economics 101, where the professor told the class that since they’d all studied business before coming, he’d skip the first 800 pages of the textbook and go directly to macroeconomics. Van der Roost had never taken any economics.

“I can assure you that I wanted to quit at least 20 times during the two years,” he says. He describes the EMBA program as “an attack on your private life” and says, “You really have to give up your friends because there’s no room for anything else.

“I hated it, I cried over it. It was really also one of the best things I’ve had in my life.”

After going to professors to lament the lack of entrepreneurship-related material in the curriculum, Van der Roost found a faculty ready to help with his startup idea. For a capstone project, the EMBA candidates are sent to work in companies for three to four months. Vlerick allowed Van der Roost to create a business plan for his sheet music startup instead. One professor gave him a copy of “lean startup” education pioneer Steve Blank’s book The Startup Owner’s Manual.

“She said, ‘We will not talk until you have read the book,’” he says. The book, he says, has become his Bible.

Van der Roost and his two friends founded neoScores in 2013, while he was still in the EMBA program. They raised about $500,000 in their first year. The company sells sheet music that can be bought and transmitted securely, displayed on mobile devices, edited, annotated, and shared – for example by a conductor to an orchestra. NeoScores has deals with 11 content-owning companies, including major players in Europe and the U.S. It has 4,500 users trying out its beta version, which includes a metronome and tuning fork function. Gross income for 2014 was about $65,000; the company forecasts this year’s income will top $650,000. The company was named Most-Promising Startup of 2013 by the Flemish Chamber of Commerce. Last year, it was named the second-most-promising startup in the world by a jury at the third Startup Nations Summit, in Seoul, South Korea.

Van der Roost’s EMBA prepared him well for the duties of a startup CEO, he says. “I now feel confident, when I go to a banker, or I go to a VC,” he says. “Every day I wake up, ‘Is this still something, is this really happening, are we really building this company?’”


Haas’s Breen predicts an increase in the pace of U.S. startups over the next 10 years. “The rate of disruption and disintermediation in tradition business models is only going to accelerate,” Breen says. EMBA programs that provide entrepreneurial education will hold strong value for innovators in existing companies as well as startups, Breen says.

But Rosenberg at Booth warns of a generalized downside to the startup economy: ideas are infinite, but funding and the market are not. “We’re creating an awful lot of startups now and in a lot of ways you’re coming close to the law of diminishing returns. There are fewer and fewer breakthrough ideas so we’re starting more and more mediocre startups.”

Many angel investors who took a chance on tantalizing startups over the past five years have been “very disappointed,” and venture capital is stepping away from early-round investment to late-stage, Rosenberg says. He believes that in coming years, investor interest in startups will slacken. “You’ll see fewer and fewer people doing it and people being more selective,” Rosenberg says.

One incident, when he brought a student startup team to the home of a prominent West Coast investor, illustrates the degree to which startup fever had spread in a giddy investment environment. The leader of the student team had a promising business idea. The investor wanted to introduce her to his daughter, because the daughter had a fund that invested in companies started by women.

“His daughter was 17 years old,” Rosenberg says.

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