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Harvard Is a Hotbed for Entrepreneurs (But Needs More Authenticity, Less Whiteboarding)

April 14, 2015 · 6  min.

Editor’s note: We recently published original research on the startup activity of Harvard Business School classes between 2008 and 2014. NextView’s David Beisel and Dimitri Dadiomov recently sat down with Michelle Tandler (HBS, Trinity Ventures) on her podcast to analyze this data further. This is a paraphrased summary of that interview.

Why did you do this report?

Dimitri: The origin of the report really came out of a number of speakers that came through HBS my first year here who said that business school is a waste of time if you want to start a business. “Just get going. VCs don’t want to fund MBAs.” And that just seemed blatantly untrue to me.

We realized you could put some data to it, so we looked at the Harvard database of HBS alumni who self-identified as founders and cross-referenced that with CrunchBase. The claim that they don’t get funded is debunked when you look at the numbers. Since the class of 2008, founders have raised over $2.5 billion coming out of HBS.

YCombinator just released its numbers which said that its companies have raised around $3 billion all-time. YCombinator is a great organization, but I think now the idea that HBS is an also-ran when it comes to creating well-funded startups is debunked.


Do you believe that getting funded means these startups are “successful”?

Dimitri: I don’t think raising money is a sign of success. At the end of the day, success means building lasting companies. But if you look at the companies in that group of HBS classes, there are a number of companies heading towards an IPO and others that will be good acquisition candidates. It’s a little too early to say how many of these will be great companies, but no, capital alone isn’t success.

David: It’s a proxy for early indications that something might be working. Great companies take awhile to build. In the research, we cited a number of companies that had early exits north of $100 million, and I’d expect, as these companies grow from seed to Series A, B and beyond, that the exits will follow. But it just seems like every year, one or two really great companies come out of HBS. We’ve funded a few companies right out of the school at NextView, and we’ve been seeing big potential for awhile that seems to still be overlooked for some reason.

To name a few, we’re investors in thredUP, which is one of the best-funded players in its nice, RentJuice which was acquired by Zillow, and InsightSquared, one of the top companies today in Boston which launched in 2010.

At first glance, HBS founders and lots of MBAs seem to have really great presentation skills. Does that help them impress investors, or what else about getting an MBA could help these entrepreneurs succeed? 

David: I have a Stanford MBA, and I think that throughout the MBA process you learn a number of things that can help you as an entrepreneur. Part of it is that you learn some of the softer skills, certainly around presentation, and also other things like teamwork which really helps when you have a founding team.

But when you look at dollars invested in these companies, those [$2.5 billion in our study] aren’t coming at the seed stage. Those are coming as the companies are building towards Series A, B, and beyond. That’s not just a PowerPoint presentation and a smile; that’s because there are real fundamentals underneath these businesses. So it’s not just about presentation. Certainly that’s part of any CEO’s role is to effectively communicate, but these MBAs are much more than that.

Is the fact that so many HBS grads seem to be good founders causation (they go to HBS and are turned into entrepreneurs) or correlation (HBS attracts people likely to do this anyway)?

David: I think it’s correlation. The people that are likely to come to HBS do so because they’re exceptional. The people who are starting great companies do so because they’re exceptional. It’s not a cause one way or another; it’s that the people who are exceptional tend to do these things, especially when you look at a place like HBS or the Harvard iLab where you have these great people coming together and ideas coalescing. That’s where the magic happens.

When is the right time to start? During school? After?

Dimitri: I think great companies are built out of solving problems and not just thinking, “Oh, I want to start a company.” So if you find the right problem to solve and it’s worth solving, then great, go for it. That could be during the first week of school, or it could be later. A lot of companies like CloudFlare and Alfred enter venture competitions while they’re in school and do well, so they get wind in their sails and leave school to pursue their businesses. That’s great, but it’s still all about finding a problem to solve.

David: One of the phrases we use a lot at NextView is authenticity. It’s about how authentic the ideas are with respect to a founder’s background or whether they were created based on true experiences. We find that companies are less likely to be successful if you just whiteboarded it in an MBA class. But if it came through an experience you had before your MBA or experiences with multiple people here together that were able to exchange ideas and were able to find new solutions in an authentic way, then that’s where something special happens.

It’s very difficult to whiteboard a list of 100 ideas then somehow whittle it down through positives and negatives and come up with the winning idea.

Is school the right time to launch if you’re looking to get funded, or should you go and get operating experience?

David: I think school is actually a great time to start a company, if you have an idea that you truly believe in and are authentically passionate about, as opposed to saying, “School is the best time to launch a startup, and I need to do this now, so I better find something.”

There’s always an opportunity to put it off, but to some degree, if you start something and take that risk and it doesn’t work out, MBAs kind of get that “get out of jail free card.”

I’ve heard some frustration from MBAs who feel there’s a bias against students. Some VCs have said they only want to invest after the founders leave school or drop out. How do you view that situation?

David: At NextView, we’ve written checks to student that were still in HBS. We actually invested in a founder who was an undergrad at Harvard College. He started Plastiq, a payments company, in his college dorm room. But I think it’s tough to discern as a VC how committed people really are to starting a company when they’re a student. There has to be some indication from the entrepreneur that they’re taking that leap of faith. In all the cases where we funded students either during school or right after, it was overwhelmingly clear that it was their passion the only thing they planned on doing. It wasn’t one of three options they thought would be nice to do.

What advice would you have for students that are thinking about taking that leap?

David: It’s about getting off campus, and doing that in two ways. First, you only have the student card to play for so long. You can call almost any HBS alum and really anyone in the entire startup world and say, “Hey, I’m an HBS student, and I’m thinking about XYZ. Can I have a minute of your time?” But as soon as you graduate, you’re another HBS grad of which they’re thousands, so you should reach who you’d like to reach while you’re still a student.

Second, it’s easy to stay in the bubble of campus. But there are lots of events in and around Boston. You could take a long weekend and got to New York and there’s a startup scene there. There’s a startup scene here at Harvard but think about how you expand on that.

Dimitri: Startups are really hard, so if you’re going to get serious about it, then get serious about it. Part of the challenge with students is that, if things are going well and you’re building for success, then you need to drop out. Certainly if you’re starting something in your first year, you shouldn’t expect to be around the second year … unless you plan on the company not succeeding next year, in which case, why are you starting a company in the first place?

I’m not advocating for not graduating, but if you find a real problem to solve, then make that binary decision to do it or not. Startups are this sexy thing now, and it’s sort of viewed as a hobby, but startups can’t be hobbies. They’re just too hard. You can’t just walk around “thinking about it,” so if you’re looking to start a company, then that should become the main thing you’re doing.

David: One of the people we backed said that when he graduated, he just planned on being unemployed. He said it tongue-and-cheek — but I think that mentality is important. There can be a little bit of a stickler attitude from HBS about getting jobs at recognizable companies, but this guy said, “No, I’m just going to be unemployed and pursue this idea.” And you need to embrace that if you’re a founder.

For the full report, check out the SlideShare below: