Jan 2014 - Sep 2015
Four months into my Executive MBA I left my previous job to start an online payments business. Five months later we closed our first round of funding from Europe’s leading early stage syndicate, Seedcamp, representing investors like Fidelity Growth Partners, Index Ventures and the European Investment Fund. This is a short story about why starting a new business during your EMBA makes perfect sense.
Thinking takes time
Bill Gates famously took time off work to go on so called ‘think-weeks’ when he would disconnect himself from the people he saw all the time in order to discover fresh thinking. Allegedly he would go on these retreats twice a year, much to the envy of business professionals around the world who are so busy they don’t have time to reflect on their work. Well, you’re in luck; every EMBA week in Oxford is like a think-week, and you get about nine of them a year for two years! The added benefit of being surrounded by your EMBA peer group is that some of them can help your start-up get to the next stage by sharing their expertise or making introductions to connections in their network. Others might become your first customer or even the first investor.
Two birds in one assignment
When given assignments you are often encouraged to discuss a situation your employer is facing and offer your solution. That’s great for your employer, if they bother to actually read it – which they won’t – so instead you should opt for always using the assignments as an opportunity to research your own business idea. That way you get university credits for doing the start-up work you would have to do sooner or later anyway. This becomes even more straightforward in the Entrepreneurial Project, which is a module that spans several months and is undertaken in groups of three to five students. Sell your vision to some people you get on with and use the collective intelligence of the group to define your business case, validate the market, launch your MVP and perhaps even raise some money. This is not to say you should start the business with that particular group, just that you work together on completing an assignment everyone needs to do, even if only one of you actually goes off to create the business. (Discuss upfront to avoid any unnecessary confusion later on.)
Leverage university assets
Service economy businesses are not started in garages, but in universities (case in point; Facebook, Google, WordPress, etc.). Apart from the people and networks already discussed, as an EMBA student you have access to the Oxford libraries online, which means among other things you can access industry reports that otherwise would costs thousands. Facts and figures are, of course, a fundamental building block in any self-respecting business plan. Some professors are also happy to get involved in student-run businesses they believe in, offering equity for an advisory board role. The Oxford Entrepreneurs (http://www.oxfordentrepreneurs.co.uk/) society is the largest of its kind in Europe, with over 10k members, and they put on regular events to help inspire and develop business ideas. The Launchpad (http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/community/school-university/collaborations/oxford-launchpad) can offer you free office space, should you be based in the Oxford area between modules. The SBS Seed Fund (http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/ideas-impact/entrepreneurship/venture-creation/seed-fund) can provide you with a small amount of money to get you going.
At my old company, a $90m VC-backed San Francisco start-up, my boss used to regurgitate a version of the standard mantra in that region: ‘move fast, break things’. In this context it means that the earlier in your EMBA journey you can begin researching a start-up idea, the more time you have to get it validated. If you start early, even if you realise as you uncover more facts that one particular idea isn’t worth pursuing, you might still have time to consider another one. The EMBA is your two-year window of opportunity to explore a business idea in a safe environment, away from the day-to-day issues of home or work. Use your time wisely and you might just get handsomely rewarded.
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