Last night I was privileged to be the guest speaker at a UNSW AGSM Business School Executive MBA dinner of those graduating 2017. (I graduated in 2013.)
The conversation was how having an MBA can make a difference and to talk through my personal learnings and journey. After working internationally for the previous five years, my MBA helped connect me to a local network of key decision makers, it provided the assignment discipline for me to focus my strategy and assessments on Digivizer, and gave me access to first- rate lecturers and a peer brains trust I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
In my final year, I wrote my strategy and plan for Digivizer in which I was able to secure $2 million in funding. It was definitely tough working full-time in my startup, studying for my MBA and raising my family, but it gave me amazing resilience and the conviction to pursue the opportunity I see for Digivizer (now seven years in and 50+ employees).
For those wondering how to make an MBA and a start up work, here are my top-five MBA insights for startups and entrepreneurs.
1. Do, don’t just think
Business success is about actually doing, and this is especially-true for startups. There are plenty of consultants, advisers and commentators in the Australian startup ecosystem. The ones to listen to are those who have successfully launched and grown a company, those who have delivered value to customers, and earned revenue and profits.
Many startups suffer for the lack of a plan, and they can be light on strategy. MBAs are good at helping develop both.
It is important to develop a meaningful plan with key measures of success. Then you need to translate your plan into actions and delivery. You need to measure all that you do and refine on the way. I love Eisenhower’s quote on planning and plans: ‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’ This is true in preparing your business for success.
2. Define, then evolve, your strategy
When I co-founded Digivizer in 2010 we developed a clear vision: to provide value at the intersection of social media, big data and CRM. To help our customers in acquisition, retention and loyalty by knowing more about how to engage their customers. Back then this was new thinking as most focus back then in social was on volume measures of mentions and very little in connecting social to your customer base. Much of our time was spent explaining to marketing managers where the value was to be found in social media let alone linking it to actual customer acquisition and management programs.
Today that vision remains the same but we have had to evolve our strategy. We now talk to boards and C-levels about how to help to better understand the digital footprint of their customers and have this central in their customer engagement strategies and how to measure their digital investment.
Business of all sizes and at every stage in their growth now need to know exactly how their digital and social marketing budget is working, and to be able to take action on real time insights. We deliver those data and insights and have 7 years now of proof points.
We are also now working on going direct to the SMB business owner. A more simple message but largely the same vision (helping them grow their business by helping them know more about how best to engage their customers and know what is working and what isn’t).
Entrepreneurs are good at having instinctive visions, MBAs are good at building out business concepts against changing market conditions. The learnings in a MBA help form points of differentiation and bring frameworks that help you navigate the different stages of organisational growth.
3. Be flexible, ship value early
Back to doing: the value in any company is in what it ships and how that makes a difference to its customers. At Digivizer we started delivering value as soon as we could, and have built our company and technology primarily on the back of bootstrapping through our own revenue and cash flow. We received funding at a point that we wanted to accelerate building out our enterprise technology platform which allowed us to engage and serve some of the biggest technology, telco, financial, FMCG and retail clients. We are at the stage where we will be taking our technology and our learnings into the broader global SMB market in a SaaS model.
Part of shipping early is flexibility: you can’t wait for the perfect plan or the perfect product. You need to ship and learn from customer feedback. Today’s customers and users are very generous when taken on the journey with you, acting as beta testers when you’re developing a product (especially software).
MBAs can be guiding hands on these Agile environments, balancing product usage with product revenues. This helps remind the startup of the direction they should be heading in, and the ways to measure progress along that journey. Nothing validates a product more than a paying customer!
4. Develop your people and leadership teams
People are everything inside the organization. Startups have to compete against larger companies with larger budgets and established brands.
Yet startups also attract talent, often the best in the market. They offer opportunities to make a real difference from the first day at the company, and to do things never attempted or delivered before. And do so in new and more flexible ways.
To keep these people, you need to develop a team culture and develop them as individuals.
This means understanding everyone as unique individuals, having a clearly-articulated vision for the company, having well-defined opportunities to contribute, to share success, and to reward when the big prize is won (and with smaller prizes along the way). The biggest value you can offer is “the MBA every day”. Involving them in strategy, planning, pricing – all key decisions. Ensuring that everything we do is measured by impact on results, not ego or past experience. It keeps the organisation flat, fluid and provides plenty of ideas and leadership opportunities. It certainly provides learnings.
MBAs can bring insights into structures, systems and programs that can help a start up grow through different stages. For example, at Digivizer we have introduced project management by objectives, and key results (OKRs, as espoused by Christina Wodtke). Anyone at any level can own a x-platform objective to deliver. We can connect all we do to the direction we’re heading towards (and why), and we can support our teams on the way.
5. The customer is everything
A great idea is just that without a customer. And, it must be said, an MBA is just a business degree without a customer. All businesses from start up to established are successful when they put the customer first. MBAs are most successful when they bring their knowledge to bear on the needs of the customer, working through the products and services of the companies they work for.
I’ve benefited personally from having an MBA, and Digivizer has as a company as well. Having an MBA means I can switch between structured thinking and creative development, between the growth mindset and the longer-term business mindset.
The result is that we have accelerated, evolved, and grown. We continuously check we are ready and relevant for our future.
Robert Kennedy said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” If there is a difference in having an MBA in the startup world, perhaps this is it: having the business rigour and training to sit alongside your passion, vision and experience, to instil the confidence to take risks, to be prepared to try new things, to be prepared to fail, and to inspire in leadership so you can achieve great things.
This article is also published on LinkedIn.