Think you need an MBA to start a business? Here are 6 less costly, more relevant, more fun alternatives

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Recently I read a statistic that shouldn’t have surprised me but did. As many as 90% of MBA students plan to work in corporate jobs after graduation. What? Only 10% intend to start their own businesses? Shocking, right?
Not really. Because you see, business school doesn’t prepare you to start a business. It teaches you theory and vocabulary. If you want to climb the ladder and become a corporate VP or CEO, you’ll probably need the credentials. In fact, a  article early this week  claimed that even in a tight economy, 93% of 2010 MBA grads were EMPLOYED earning a median salary of  $94,542, with their additional median bonus compensation of $17,565. Note the word “EMPLOYED”. I found the title  “Is an MBA worth it for the entrepreneur?” ironic because the article weighs how quickly MBAs climb the corporate ladder, not how fast they hit six figures in self-employment.
We all know about the tech start-ups that began in dorm rooms or garages by college drop outs. But it’s not just high tech companies that have their roots outside of business school. In fact, several years ago, I was having brunch with a group of competitors in the furniture business when the discussion turned to where we’d gone to college and what we’d majored in. We were all earning at least high six figures at the time and some were well above the million mark. We ranged from a PhD in Pschology, a BA in Theatre,  to freshman year drop-outs but not one of us had done even an undergrad in business.  I wonder if any of us would have started our businesses if we’d spent the time and money to get MBAs. Probably not because we’d have left school with lots of theory, no practical experience and gobs of debt. I’m not trying to discouraging anyone from going to college. It’s a valuable experience and I hope to continue taking courses the rest of my life. But, if you want to start a business, not become a corporate employee, an MBA is probably not going to be the best route. Let me suggest a few less costly and more fun alternatives.
-If you know the field you want to pursue, go to work for someone who has a complimentary business. If they can’t afford to pay you, offer to apprentice. Yes, for free if need be.  Remember this is YOUR MBA and you’re not paying $150,000 for it.  Be a detective. Listen to the customers. What’s missing? Look for what you could do to better meet the needs of the clientele.
-Travel.  Things you observe in different cultures can definitely spark a BIG idea. But if you can’t afford or don’t have the desire to back-pack around the world, just get in your car, hop a train or, as my son did at 18, buy an unlimited Greyhound pass and get what I call a “street view” of your own country. Visit big cities and rural areas. Talk to people in small towns. Not just shop-keepers, although you’ll learn a lot. Interview people. Find out what’s missing in their lives. Something you hear from a stranger could set your creative cogs turning and inspire your entrepreneurial spirit.
-Ask questions. Lots of questions. Don’t worry that your curiosity will be seen as nosey. (The only person who ever gets annoyed with and embarrassed by my  “interrogations” is my sister, who thinks all entrepreneurs are pushy and she’ll always be an employee.) Most owners will be flattered that you’re interested enough to ask questions about their business.
-Read. Read. Read. Not just traditional business books and trade journals. Read biographies of entrepreneurs you admire. Read magazines about anything that interests you. You might be flipping through a home or garden magazine and suddenly get inspired to start a fireplace business, design indoor fountains or custom garden gates.
-Go to trade shows. In most states, you can secure a resale license without incurring much cost. That and a business card should allow you entrance to all but the most elite trade shows. Attend shows in your own area of interest but also complementary industries. Make notes of trends and costs and of course, talk to people. Talk to buyers over lunch and vendors when they aren’t busy. Of course, be cognizant of their purpose and don’t keep them from customers but try to connect with them after hours. If you meet someone whose business is similar to the one you want to start but in a different geographical area, ask them to mentor you. Expect to pay them well for their time and expertise. Remember:  this is you MBA.
-Surround yourself with entrepreneurs. We’re a curious, enthusiastic, optimistic and innovative bunch. It’s contagious.

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