Why startups are better than business school

I’ve been obsessed with business school for almost ten years now. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and I love businesses of all types, and I’ve always thought it would be a great experience to go to a top business school. However, something has been troubling me about business school and what they seem to emphasize.

Disclaimer: I applied to four business schools last year and ultimately didn’t gain admission, so this post could be subconscious adaptive preference formation to protect my ego. You’ve been warned.

I read something during the admissions process that I hadn’t really thought about: once you gain admission to a top school, you’re pretty much set. The graduation rate at top programs is essentially 100%, meaning that no one drops out or gets kicked out because it’s too hard. The barrier to entry is at the beginning, not the middle or the end.

Things with the barrier primarily in the middle or the end:

  • Special forces training (it’s easy to get a slot for Navy SEAL training, but only 20% pass)
  • Entrepreneurship (starting a company is easy, succeeding is hard)
  • Almost any self-taught skill that’s easy to start and hard to master

Now, obviously not everything that’s worthwhile is easy to gain entrance to. Y Combinator, medical or law school, working at Google, etc. are all examples of things that have high barriers to entry, but I think the difference is that they also maintain higher levels of difficulty throughout the process, and you do see an attrition rate higher than 0%.

Things with the barrier only in front just feel like a private club rather than a meritocracy. Once you’re in, you’re one of us and you can expect to succeed. This is allegedly an educational program, but you’re really here just to schmooze. If you were truly here to learn, be challenged, and become a better businessperson, some of you would fail.

But they won’t fail, which makes me think it’s really just about the brand and the network. It feels like the difference between democracy and monarchy, and I guess I feel that if you come to a fork in the road, you’d be well-advised to take the path that’s more challenging and will force you to grow more. More and more, I’m wondering if that really describes Harvard Business School as much as I thought it did.

Note: if you’re reading this and you went or are going to b-school, don’t take this as a personal insult. I may still go to business school, because I’m not sure this is really how it works, and even if it is, sometimes you’re better off fighting the system from the inside. It’s interesting to read this post and contrast it with this one that I wrote four years ago.