Does a small startup really *need* someone with an MBA?


Inspired by this question, I want to know if people think a small startup (3-5 people) actually needs someone with an MBA. Especially if the group has reasonably diverse skills and isn't going the big-money VC route.


MBA Co-Founder Hiring

asked Oct 27 '09 at 08:30
Gabriel Hurley
785 points

11 Answers


I don't believe you do. I am not planning on having someone with an MBA, but, then I have my M.S. Engineering Management.

You need:

1) Someone to develop

2) Someone to sell
3) Someone for marketing
4) Someone to ensure bills are paid
If you have a concept that you think is marketable, so you don't really need a business plan, then just make the product, then start to sell it.

I personally think an MBA is over-rated, but then I am probably biased from my education.

If you reach a point where you are stalled and you need new ideas, then an MBA may be useful, as, like lawyers, they have read a great deal, of case studies, and they may have ideas that may help you moving forward again.

answered Oct 27 '09 at 08:38
James Black
2,642 points
  • Generally a good list there... at the same time, only having one developer is pretty rough. I'd take 2 or 3 of those in addition to the rest ;-) – Gabriel Hurley 14 years ago
  • I am looking at minimums. Ideally you want a small team of developers and more than one sales person. (3) and (4) can be done by the same person. I am just looking at skills more than actually people. – James Black 14 years ago
  • What is the difference between selling and marketing? – Jpartogi 14 years ago
  • Advertising is marketing, talking before a group will be salesmanship. Determining to whom you will try to sell to, who is the target market, will be marketing, as they use focus groups or just throw darts/spin wheels/read tea leaves. So, you need people to talk with those in your target market, to close the deal. I guess the big difference is that marketing will point the direction, sales will close the deal. – James Black 14 years ago


In doing more research on what an MBA actually entails (Business Leadership as a focus at most good schools), I think the answer has to be a qualified No.

A small, self-owned startup with fewer than 5 people is going to be practically governed by concensus and group agreement. The CEO needs to have the last word, and if there are serious disagreements they probably need an outside mentor who can provide guidance. Bottom-line though, if 3 or 4 people can't come to agreements about decisions, they probably shouldn't be working together and certainly won't benefit from someone with a fancy degree telling them what to do.

On the flip side, if your goal is to raise quick VC funding and get big or sold fast, it may be in the best interests. MBAs look good to VCs, and will definitely prove their worth if you suddenly grow to 100 people over the next month.

What needs to be made clear is that MBA does not equal "Marketing Guy" without other experience to prove it on the resume.

answered Oct 27 '09 at 08:40
Paul Mc Millan
601 points
  • I agree completely, though I'm not sure that 4 people who can't come to a consensus on a topic simply "shouldn't be working together"... – Gabriel Hurley 14 years ago
  • @Gabriel Hurley - If the four have the same vision and are all focused on the same thing, they should be able to come to an agreement. If they can't agree on a vision and are all doing their own thing, then they shouldn't be working together. – James Black 14 years ago
  • MBA has never meant Marketing Guy. At least not that I was aware of ;) – Nick 13 years ago


It really depends on the current configuration and background of the existing members of the startup. One doesn't necessarily have to pick an MBA per say but the key is to bring diversity and complementary skill sets to the team.

Aaron Patzer gave a really good overview summary of what skill sets you should be looking for at different stages of your startup.

He mentions that MBA etc are actually worth -$250k to the valuation of a startup whereas an engineer is worth +$500k.

He is clearly onto something as he recently sold his startup for $170m.

answered Oct 27 '09 at 10:11
Usman Sheikh
1,728 points
  • Interesting link, thanks! – Gabriel Hurley 14 years ago
  • I wonder if he took that from Guy Kawasaki or if it was the other way around..... (the +500k / -250k). I think thats unfair. Investors should judge the businessperson as a whole. An MBA is not intrinsically negative, just like it doesn't intrinsically make you successful. – Nick 13 years ago


After I read all the answers I had to pause for a moment, in total disbelief at what I was reading. I am shocked that people can feel so smug in there own domain that they marginalize the misunderstood, yet inherent expertise of a different domain.

After some reflection, I believe what's happening here is an outpouring of frustration from people who have had no real experience or bad experience with someone who had an MBA. Just as there are terrible engineers, there are also terrible MBA's so it doesn't make sense to pollute what should be a pragmatic decision regarding the complimentary skill sets with poorly made, overly broad assumptions.

There are literally hundreds of successful startups born at an university when an engineering and an MBA student get together and build a business plan and then execute on it. Look up all the start up competitions, business plan competitions, etc. and the real businesses that spawn from these exercises and I think you might get an idea of how real the value is of having both sides of this equation present.

That said, I don't want to down play the value of experience at all; experience can also be a critical factor in this decision. Ideally, if you are forming a startup, you should get the most experienced, highest educated people you can find who have complimentary skill sets with minimal overlap.

answered Oct 28 '09 at 07:56
156 points
  • The question is biased, which is why you see this outpour of negativity. If someone defines themselves as "I have an MBA", it's a red flag, because they are hinting that their degree is their main asset. If instead they said "I'm a great business person, and a while back I got an MBA", then everything would be fine. If the original poster had asked: "does a startup need a great business person?", the answer would have been YES. Instead, it read "does a startup need someone whose only qualification is that they got an MBA?" - NO. – Alain Raynaud 14 years ago
  • I guess I read the question as "Does a start up need a great business person?" and since the MBA program is geared to produce great business people, just like engineering programs are geared to create great engineers, the more education a person has, the better. I still see people agreeing with you Alain and discounting the benefit of the education...that's really scary. – Cary 14 years ago
  • Alain my only comment is, if the MBA is complementary to the business experience and personality needed to run a business, great. If the MBA is all that is there? That's not enough, not even close. FWIW an MBA is 1000x easier to acquire than it is to create a successful business. – Nick 13 years ago


What Alain said in his comment holds true, and I'll take it a step further:

MBAs come from a diverse set of backgrounds: some have 20 years of experience and a great network, while others went to B-school just a few years out of undergrad and hoped to use their degree to catapult their career upward.

Ultimately, it comes down to three questions:

  1. What skills/knowledge will this person provide for my business that nobody else can?
  2. Who does this person know that will help my business?
  3. Am I planning to do something that will look better if I have someone attached who has "MBA" after his/her name?

Bear in mind that #2 is extremely important, and that the top-level schools (Tuck, HBS, Sloan, Wharton, etc.) create fantastic networks. Adding the HBS MBA network to your business is a pretty good thing, at least for most start-ups.

Anyway, the short answer is "No," you don't NEED an MBA - and bear in mind that this is coming from someone who has one.

answered Oct 28 '09 at 09:52
Josh Sam Bob
1,578 points
  • So you are saying that its important to have a good business person in a start up, just as long as they aren't an MBA? ;-) – Cary 14 years ago
  • Har har. No, I'm saying that it's important to have a good businessperson in a start-up - whether or not they have an MBA. I know people like to rag on business school, but the fact is that it does teach a good deal of theory. If theory is applied properly, then there's significant value to the company. – Josh Sam Bob 14 years ago


I don't think there's any documented evidence that bringing an MBA onto the team of an early stage company increases your probability of success.

But, I have heard people joke about the opposite.

Having said that, as it worked out, about 6 of our first 12 hires had MBAs (but that's not why I recruited them). I solve for smart people that get stuff done.

answered Oct 28 '09 at 14:08
Dharmesh Shah
2,865 points


As a software engineer turned software development manager currently studying for an MBA from a top UK business school, I would have to say no - you do not need an MBA at a startup. However, that doesn't mean having an MBA on board is a bad thing.

MBA is a generalist degree with students tackling diverse business subjects from Strategy to Marketing to Economics to HR to Innovation to Operations. For businesses who have no understanding of these things someone with an MBA can be very useful, however, you don't need an MBA to know about these things.

Ultimately you have to consider the balance of the team and what skills each individual brings to the table. Getting an MBA for the sake of having someone with those three letters after their name is a bad path to go down.

Final point to make - quite a lot of MBA programmes are primarily focussed on corporate environments rather than startups and SMEs. Consider this when selecting someone and make sure they have the right background.

answered Oct 29 '09 at 00:47
61 points
  • A good point about it being a generalist discipline. – Gabriel Hurley 14 years ago


experience experience experience experience experience

Did I mention a person with experience? They can save you a lot of time, a lot of money and greatly improve your chances to succeed. They may have an MBA or not, doesn't really matter in a lot of situations though.

answered Oct 27 '09 at 08:36
4,214 points
  • Very true. Experience is tremendous. – Gabriel Hurley 14 years ago


In general you should avoid hiring MBAs into a startup. Most MBAs are not going to be valuable to a startup and can actually be a drag so it's generally not worth the risk. I was an early employee at a successful startup ($1.0b IPO, $1.5b acquisition) that actively avoided MBA candidates. The problem with MBAs is that they can be expensive, aren't always ready to roll up their sleeves, don't always have the "street smarts", rely too much on "textbook" experience, etc. MBAs burn two years and upwards of $300k (tuition plus lost salary) which would be much better spent gaining real world experience and investing into the business.

answered Oct 31 '09 at 08:26
379 points


Short answer no, long answer:

I recently read an interesting blog post on the issue called "Geeks Rule and MBAs Drool":

answered Oct 29 '09 at 07:35
131 points


As someone who HAS an MBA I get frustrated when I see people say that it "counts to the negative". I initially got my MBA as a means to accelerate myself up the corporate ladder. I focused in entrepreneurship and picked one of the better entrepreneurial programs in the country at Bentley College. (now Bentley University). I think I learned something, but to be honest I learned 10x as much in running some of my other small part time businesses than I did getting the MBA.

Here's my philosophy: pick the right person for the job. Don't let someones education or background cloud your judgment. It doesn't matter if someone has an MBA, or even just a high school education. Talk to them. Find out what motivates them. Find out what their passions are. If it lines up with what you are doing, then education and pedigree shouldn't matter.

I am working on a new startup idea with a friend now and we are in the middle of building a prototype. I sure hope no one holds the MBA against me.

answered Mar 31 '11 at 22:00
1,171 points

Your Answer

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • • Bullets
  • 1. Numbers
  • Quote
Not the answer you're looking for? Ask your own question or browse other questions in these topics:

MBA Co-Founder Hiring