There are dozens of well-known examples of billionaire businesspeople without college degrees. (Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg will get that list started nicely.) What may surprise you is that the category of people most likely to start a business are high school dropouts. Clearly, formal qualifications are not a requirement for success in business.
Nevertheless, business continues to be a quite popular course of study at traditional colleges. In fact, it's the top undergraduate major in the United States. It's also the major on which students spend the least time studying, score the lowest on the GMAT, and have the least demonstrated gains in writing and reasoning skills after two years of college, according to a 2011 investigation by the New York Times and the Chronicle Of Higher Education.
For independent learners, finding quality — emphasis on quality—resources both online and off to learn the nuts and bolts of business and entrepreneurship can be surprisingly difficult. That's because the market is saturated with hucksters—high-charisma confidence men and women running intellectual pyramid schemes. So buyer beware: be wary of four-figure weekend "seminars" or webinars by anyone with a book to sell, anyone whose web page has an endless scroll of text, anyone who makes you sign up for an email newsletter before showing you their entrepreneurial "secrets," or, basically, anyone with a literal or figurative bad combover (Donald Trump and his "Trump University" are now under investigation by the New York attorney general).
There are, however, plenty of legitimate resources for those who want to get a DIY MBA that will actually equip them to go into business. Here are our picks of the online and offline institutions that offer a legit, useful start to a business education for under $10,000.
The third major MOOC platform to come out of Stanford (the other two are Udacity and Coursera), is focused entirely on business and entrepreneurship. They currently offer free online video-based courses from Stanford, Babson, and UCSF, and courses for $150 and up from the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship.
Besides the focus on business, there's something else that makes NovoEd a little bit different, and that's the existence of team projects. "You can’t find the multiple choice questions to test if someone’s an entrepreneur," says founder Amin Saberi. So from his first iteration of an open online course, taught when he was still a professor at Stanford, "We decided to mimic the dynamics of entrepreneurship: form teams, work on projects, and get feedback from peers and mentors." Eighty thousand students signed up for that first course.
Today, you can take a free Crash Course in Creativity taught by Stanford d-school star Tina Seelig, another free Stanford course in tech entrepreneurship, or a Mini-MBA course in management science taught by a VP at Oracle for $249.
In each course, students divide into teams of five to seven—sometimes meeting face to face, sometimes from around the globe—and complete challenges together. Since January, students have formed around 8,000 ideas for new businesses. The top 200, based on peer feedback, found a mentor from NovoEd's network, the top 20 pitched a VC, and a handful of startups—hailing from Chile, Bolivia, India, Malaysia, and Germany—have been funded as a result.
"We're based on the belief that in this transition from bricks and mortar to online learning, you shouldn’t strip away the social, experiential, and collaborative aspects of education," says Saberi. "Instead, we use the power of the social web to amplify this."
Benefits: Real world teamwork, real professors, real courses.
Drawbacks: No accreditation, not a complete degree program, lots of hard work to get results (get used to it).
Cost: Free to $1,000 per course.
60 Day MBA
Designed to work like a personal trainer, 60 Day MBA is modeled in part after the face-to-face tech training program Dev Bootcamp. "My business partner and I don’t have MBAs," explains Dave Llorens. "We do have a couple successful businesses. We built 60 day MBA to be a cheaper way to help the yoga studio owner in Duluth, Minnesota, build his or her business and stay motivated by getting to a paying customer as soon as possible."
60 Day MBA has been in business for about six months, charging $6 a day, or $180 for two months of access to video lectures, Google hangouts, an online community. The fees include hands-on mentoring from the two founders themselves, who have sold companies to Microsoft and Zynga, and their network of contacts. "We're not interested in growing as a core metric," says Llorens. "We’re interested in producing successful students."
Benefits: Start from scratch, go at your own pace, geared to the non-startup entrepreneur.
Drawbacks: still tiny, model not proven, bare-bones/shoestring.
Many of the resources already named in the Tech and Design guides, including Lynda.com, General Assembly, Udemy, and TUTS offer quality resources in business as well. Some of the MOOC platforms— Coursera, Canvas—let you sample courses from top MBA programs for free. Wharton, one of the top names in business education, just launched a "foundation series"—a bundle of four of its introductory courses on accounting, operations management, marketing, and corporate finance, to run consecutively through the fall—on Coursera.
CreativeLive offers free live video seminars—you'll pay to stream or download them after the fact—in business, marketing, social media, and the like.
If you want an immersive face-to -ace learning experience in business, start a company. If your interest is in tech entrepreneurship especially, and you need a little more hand-holding than that, try the world of incubators and accelerators. The model, pioneered by Y-Combinator in 2005, can encompass anything from a several-month residency to a weekend-long hackathon or workshop. In both cases, these programs combine exposure to the basics of investigating a market, writing a business plan, developing a value proposition, and honing an elevator pitch, with plenty of access to knowledgeable entrepreneurs and investors as well as potential cofounders to form your winning team.
Participation in an incubator or accelerator also provides access to a powerful alumni network, a traditional strength of a conventional university or MBA program. "One of the loneliest things in the world is starting and running a company," YC alum Matt Brezina, who went through the program in 2006, has told Fast Company. "YC puts a bunch of like-minded people together to support each other."
On the incubator side, membership in a space such as General Assembly (New York and DC), Impact Hub (20 locations worldwide), or http://cic.us/
brings with it office space, administrative assistance, a runway of up to several years, and access to legal and technical help.
But there are now so many accelerators and incubators to choose from (check out: TechStars, Dreamit Ventures, Startup Weekend, AngelPad, Launchpad LA) that choosing one may require a good deal of research.
The great thing about business pop-ups is that you can actually walk out with some money to start doing your idea, not just talking about it. However, there's no such thing as a free lunch; in exchange for their time, energy, and resources, many incubator and accelerator programs put a finger in your pie. For short-term accelerator programs, the stake ranges typically from 4% to 10%; for incubators where you stay much longer, it's up around 20%.
Benefits: Learn from industry leaders, find a network, get funded.
Drawbacks: Highly competitive. Many are best for tech companies and startup ideas already established, not just as a proving ground. They'll take their piece.
Cost: If you can get in, they'll often pay you, in some cases with up to $30,000 in funding for accelerators.
One word: crowdfunding. These days, if you have an idea for a product or business whose unique value proposition you can articulate clearly, the distance between you and startup capital is vanishingly small. College roommates Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz started hatching their idea for a gourmet cricket-flour protein bar in the spring of 2013, graduated from Brown University in May, raised $50,000 on Kickstarter in a matter of weeks, and now have a high enough volume of orders to begin industrial production. Their MBA is happening on the, er, fly.
- "Fast Company's Guide To The Gen Flux College Degree"
- Programming: "The $10,000 Technology Degree"
- Design: "The $10,000 Design Degree"
- World Changing: "The $10,000 Social Innovation Degree"
[Image: Flickr user USDA | Photo by Lance Cheung]