20/03/2015

By Munya Hoto, idio


I was recently having a conversation with a friend who is about to embark on the journey of obtaining an MBA with a top business school. Curious about the motivation behind this decision I asked my friend why they were pursuing this route and her responses were enlightening and sent me on my own journey of enquiry about what the benefits of doing an MBA actually are. Most people who do an MBA will tell you straight away, as she did, that the institution you select is as important as the course itself.

The benefits of doing the course, as one institution stated, are obvious; higher salary potential, better career opportunities, incredible networking, credibility, practical knowledge about business leadership, personal development, credentials and enhanced communication skills to name a few. This got me thinking about whether or not sitting in a classroom with other high performers - being taught about business by high performers who have retired - was the best approach to equipping ambitious, high potential individuals with the understanding, exposure and practical tools necessary for them to lead successful businesses in the future. I came to the conclusion that there is a better route. And that is working for a startup.

Before I launch into the virtues of working for a startup in contrast to doing an MBA, I have to explain a bit of my journey first. I enrolled to do an Economics degree at Exeter University in 2007 and at the end of that year I met two gents called Andrew Davies and Ed Barrow, who had just started a digital music magazine called idiomag. Fast forward 7 years and idiomag is no longer with us but in its place is idio Ltd - a content intelligence platform that has over 35 staff and has raised over $8 million in funding.

In those 7 years we have learnt a great deal and made many mistakes. Much of what we have learnt, I contest, cannot be taught in a classroom over 2 years. The intended purpose of an MBA is not to teach core technical subjects like mathematics or physics but rather to equip technically sound people with additional skills that will mould them into remarkable business leaders. It is not only my belief but has evolved to become my understanding that these are skills you must learn by experience and that is why I think working for a startup is a much more effective route to preparing anyone for business leadership than enrolling on to a course. So what have we learnt?

Courage: Stay when it would be easier to go and go when it would be easier to stay.

Working in a startup will increase your comfort levels with uncertainty whilst allowing you to recognise that uncertainty around the future of a product or industry is the reason why you stand any chance of success.

Communication: Casting a compelling vision

When you venture out to build something from nothing, one of the questions that will confront you on a daily basis is this: “Why are we here?”. As a leader you will find that not only do you have to have incredible clarity about that question for yourself but you need to reiterate it to your team until they are making fun of you for it.

Building a great team: Get the right people on the bus

Whether in a startup or a colossal organisation, one of the things that is true is that your business will never excel beyond the quality of the people you have working with you.

Thick skin - the way of the rhino:

In the years I’ve been working with the Idio team, we have tried many things. Some of them have worked out in our favour but many have not. What you will learn through working for a startup is that there is something to be learnt in every attempt at doing something unique and that failure is not a sign of weakness.

Versatility: get your chameleon on

In the early days of a startup, job titles are quite nominal because everyone will have to help in areas that they were not necessarily hired for. What this means is that although you may have been brought in to look after business development, you will inadvertently be pulled into finance, product, HR and other areas of business you probably knew nothing about.

Work ethic: we cannot be defeated and we will not quit

What I mean by this is that when you work in a startup or small business, your decisions actually matter and you are responsible for things that move the needle. Because the organisation is small, you will enjoy a lot more autonomy and self-direction than you would in a larger organisation.

I could go on and on about the virtues or working in a startup such as learning how to win friends and influence people, teamwork and character but I think you get the picture. The real point is that I think we have learnt more in this journey than I think a course could teach. We have also had a tremendous amount of fun on this journey - the kind of fun you will not find in many places that people go to work after getting an MBA. Finally, YES we can wear t-shirts to work, our office has sophisticated toys flying around and Skype is our main mode of communication. Those are not reasons to start a business but they help smooth the ride