By Natasha Ashton WG’03, co-founder of Petplan
There’s little debate that an MBA is a great foundation for building a business—but is it a magic bullet for budding entrepreneurs? For us, the answer was an unequivocal “yes!” While many MBA graduates go on to work in relatively narrow fields and only use a fraction of what they learned, entrepreneurs will—at some point—tap into nearly every aspect of the curriculum. In fact, taking an entrepreneurial leap is the ultimate way to put newly acquired business school skills into real-world action.
If you’re like 99% of entrepreneurs-to-be, you’re probably counting on an MBA to help you create a sound business plan, find access to capital and bolster your professional network. That’s the boat my husband Chris and I were in when we began the Wharton MBA program in 2001. We came ready to combine our strengths: Chris had discipline and management skills he learned in the British Royal Marines, and I already had some startup experience. But we also knew how crucial a strong network is to a fledgling business, and Wharton’s is second to none. In fact, we chose Wharton specifically for its Entrepreneurial program.
We ended up relying on that network in many ways while still in school—especially after a $5,000 vet bill for our sick cat showed us the huge potential of a fresh approach to pet insurance in a largely untapped marketplace. We wasted no time in seizing the opportunity, which meant not just relying on our education, but turning to Wharton classmates, faculty, other departments at Penn (particularly the world-renowned Veterinary School), and the entire school’s extensive network to start building a business plan (elements of which we still rely on today).
Over the two-year MBA program, we had unprecedented access to some of the best minds in academia and in business—some of which belonged to our fellow students. The insight we gained from the exposure to a diverse range of ideas, industries and cultures was instrumental in creating our vision for Petplan and getting our labor of love off the ground. The collective effort sent our careers straight to the dogs—literally!
Keeping all of that in mind, an MBA isn’t the answer for everyone. While I’d enthusiastically encourage potential entrepreneurs to consider pursuing an MBA, I’d also caution candidates to remember some of the tradeoffs and weigh the costs: significant financial debt, the opportunity cost of stepping out of the workforce for two years, and time lost in marketing your product while at school. If you are looking to start a business in an industry you already have experience in, and if you already have an extensive network, a sound business plan and access to capital, then pursuing an MBA may not be necessary; you might be better off aggressively pursuing the opportunity and foregoing the huge debt load of post-graduate studies.
In the end, Chris and I gave up two years—including our evenings, weekends and holidays (all good training for the life of an entrepreneur, mind you)—choosing to forego working and forging potential business partnerships along the way. But what we gained by completing the MBA program was a rock-solid education and the human capital to transform our ideas into reality. When considering whether the MBA is right for you, be honest with yourself, and then trust your gut. It may not work for everyone—no magic bullets here, unfortunately—but it certainly worked for us.
Enjoy this post? Read more in our series Is Getting an MBA Worth It: Vikram Joshi’s post “Is Getting An MBA Worth It for an Entrepreneur?“
Bio: Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a BA and MA from Oxford University. In 2013, she and Chris Ashton were named “Entrepreneur of the Year” in the Greater Philadelphia region by Ernst & Young, and in 2014, Petplan was included in Forbes America’s Most Promising Companies List for the second consecutive year. Petplan is headquartered in Newtown Square in suburban Philadelphia.