I was speaking to a room full of MBA students two weeks ago about investing. One of the last questions was a common question I hear from business students: “how can I get into a startup without a technical background?”
The room seemed surprised by my answer. I said:
“forget you have an MBA and start hustling.”
I did not mean the MBA is not valuable — you learn a lot in business school about finance, accounting, strategy, pricing, competition, business analysis, organizational behavior and much more. But you also take two years out of daily working and gaining on the field experience. At large companies, consulting, investment banks, etc, these improved skills can be very valuable when applied to the right problems, and those companies have good training programs and roles for business school grads to come in and gain experience.
It is very different at a technology company. At a startup, after finding more engineers, the next-most-important need is usually: “How can we move faster? How can we get more done?”
My advice to these MBA students: Think about how you could help the startup immediately.
Here are the common misconceptions: You won’t get a role that will let you do strategy — there is too much going on just building for survival to have a full time person just “strategize”. You won’t get a role to do finance — they will most likely hire someone with experience specifically in that.
So what can you do? I shared two principles
- Show that you can hustle.
- Show that you love the product
On #1 — it’s about hustle: You can chase down sales or business development opportunities. You can call 2000 potential influencers and get them excited about your product. You can run community events, you can find cheaper food and catering options. You can do anything the company needs to move faster.
On #2 — it’s about emotional commitment: Show how how much you love the company. Make sure you are an active user and have been pulling in friends and more to use it with you. Because no early-stage startup will take a risk on hiring someone non-technical who doesn’t love the product.
(Full disclosure: I did one semester of business school before dropping out to join LinkedIn as a product manager in early 2004. For product management, it helped that I had a technical background — I had been leading engineering and program management for RealPlayer before business school, but looking back I followed those two principles to hustle into that job)