(Flickr photo via Chris Samuel)

If you’re young and thinking of starting a company, then you might be tempted to go to business school to get an MBA. The theory is business school will teach you how to run a business and expose you to a lot of great contacts.

Only trouble is a typical MBA can set you back $30,000 to $150,000. And unless someone is going to pay that for you, do you think that jumping in an entrepreneurial venture is going to help you pay that off? The answer is no, especially since the starting salary for entrepreneurs is zero.

You don’t need to go to business school to learn the lessons you need to be an entrepreneur. There are alternatives to getting that experience and knowledge. Here are eleven.

Invest in a company

Average completion time: 5 years

Average cost: $25,000 and up

Naturally, the first thing on the list of alternatives for would-be entrepreneurs is to go out and start a business. There are no qualifications or tests you have to pass. You just have to have an idea you think will make money.

If you want help developing that idea, it’s always worth a shot applying to seed-stage startup funding firms like Y Combinator, DreamIt or TechStars. The mentors and investors behind these firms will help you accelerate your startup through focus, community, execution and, of course, funding.

This way you take that money that you may have spent on an MBA and invest it into something that will actually make you money.

Create your own MBA curriculum

Average completion time: Lifetime

Average cost: $100 and up

If you’re not ready to build that startup just yet and would still like an education without the mountains of debt, then you can always create your own MBA.

Author Neil Patel

There are several ways you could do this. For instance, you print off the program schedule at a school you are interested in and start to work your way through the reading list. Most universities and colleges publish the recommended and required reading list for each class.

And if you spend 10 hours a week driving, then you could use that time to listen to podcasts in your car over a topic you are interested in. By the end of the year you’ll have over 500 hours invested in a particular field. Apple iTunes U is a great way to get your hands on educational content from schools like Yale, Stanford and MIT. And it’s all free.

Finally, you could create a personal curriculum by picking up workbooks like Beginner’s Guide to Being Congruent, Passion+Profit Workbook or What Color is Your Parachute? Workbook.

If you want something that is more academic, there are some great resources available online. They include:

The Khan Academy: You could discover all the behind the scenes stuff on the mortgage crisis, brush up on statistics or finance and even learn about the building blocks on valuation of companies.

The Personal MBA:  Josh Kaufman will teach you how a business actually works, help you hone your skills and save you a fortune in tuition.

Travel to a foreign country

Average completion time: One month

Average cost: $10,000

If you are fresh out of high school or college and don’t have a family to support and aren’t really sure what you should do with your life, but you think you want to start your own business, here’s a little assignment: take about $10,000 and travel to a foreign country. Spend a month there if you can.

Traveling to countries where you are a stranger will force you to fight or flight. You’ll discover who you are and you’ll discover more about the world. If you find yourself relishing the challenges and obstacles, then a life as an entrepreneur is right up your alley.

However, if you find it a frightening and intimidating time, then you’ll know that you probably are NOT cut out to be an entrepreneur since there are lots of similarities between traveling to a foreign country and running a startup, like uncertainty, communicating well and dealing with pressure.

And if this sounds like impractical advice, just consider successful entrepreneurs like Rolf Potts or Josh Linnes and Park Wilson of Emerging Terrains who have built tiny empires from world travel.

Write a book

Average completion time: 30 days to two years, depending on your speed and complexity of topic.

Average cost: Sweat equity

Why would I recommend someone who was thinking of getting an MBA to write a book instead? Well, writing a good book is probably equal to the work you might have put into going to business school.

Think about it: a 250-page book on a particular topic probably far exceeds anything that an MBA graduate puts out. Sure, he’s got his dissertation that he’s basically taken two years to write. But he’s deeply in debt. Sure, he worked closely with professors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to professionals to help you.

Tim Ferriss is probably the most famous and recent example of an entrepreneur writing a book. Although he was fairly successful before the book, Four-Hour Work Week launched his career to unprecedented levels. In some ways, because the business landscape is so competitive, a book is the 21st Century version of a business card.

Visit seminars and conferences

Average completion time: Two or three years or more.

Average cost: $1,000 to $5,000 per seminar or conference two or three times a year.

If you would prefer to travel and network with people, attending specialized lectures, seminars and conferences is a great way to get the training you need to build a startup. What’s great about seminars and conferences is that you can easily work them into your schedule. Check out Joiner Up’s list of major conferences that every entrepreneur should attend.

While there are a lot of different options you could choose from when it comes to seminars, here are a few that stand out:

Tech Entrepreneurs Week: This week-long, intensive seminar will show you, among other things, how to build a business plan into a winning VC presentation and how to pick the right financial path. You’ll also hear from top-notch thought leaders.

Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar: If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, you can meet and share ideas with the speakers in this series of seminars.

Northwest Entrepreneur Network: This community holds seminars and workshops to help you with bootstrapping or showing you how to use cloud sourcing to lower expenses.

Get certified

Average completion time: Six months or less.

Average cost: $10,000 or less.

One thing about an MBA is that they tend to be pretty broad. A certificate is basically a program that allows you to keep working while you learn about a specific topic…and it usually happens in less than six months.

You can get a certificate in process optimization, information systems or entrepreneurship, such as the one offered by University of Washington. These programs are designed to prepare you for a life as an entrepreneur without the kind of commitment that a MBA demands.

Attend an entrepreneurship development program

Average completion time: One week

Average cost: $10,000

If you want a formal education in targeted areas, but don’t even have a month to commit, then an executive program might be the thing you need.

With an executive program, you can tailor the course around your needs, rather than in an MBA where you are required to study a variety of topics whether you want to or not. The topics an executive program can cover leadership, public speaking, strategy and negotiation skills.

Most major universities have executive programs. For example, UC Berkley offers an executive program that focuses on venture capital, innovation, microfinance and strategic advantages.

MIT’s Sloan school has a week-long entrepreneurship development program designed to help high-tech entrepreneurs. The cost is nearly $10,000, which is a lot, but a far cry from $30,000…and can be viewed as a business expense.

Engage an executive mentor

Average completion time: Lifetime

Average cost: Varies

If you want something more informal, look into hiring an executive mentor. Look for a veteran in your industry.

And if someone you know ever volunteers to coach you, and you admire that leader, jump on that opportunity! These mentors have invaluable insights and wisdom that can save you lots of time, money and energy.

The best way to look for these mentors is to ask for recommendations from family and friends.

Apply to your company’s leadership-development program

Average completion time: Two or more years, including your commitment to stay with the company.

Average cost: Usually no cost since the company treats it as an investment.

If you are currently working with a large company, before you quit and go get that MBA and chase your entrepreneurial dreams, look into their management and leadership development programs. These programs are usually tailored to young professionals who show a lot of potential. And the company pays the cost of your education.

There are basically two types of these programs…specialized or general. The specialized programs will train you in specific fields, like marketing, accounting or finance. The general leadership-development programs will rotate you through various jobs and responsibilities every six months to give you exposure to every aspect of running a business.

Of course you are typically required to devote a number of years of your career to the company in exchange for the leadership-development program, so make sure you take that into consideration when investigating this option.

Just about every major company has a leadership-development program, from GE to NASA to Geico.

Read books

Average completion time: Lifetime

Average cost: $12,000 (12 books a year at $25 each over a 40 year period)

I know some successful entrepreneurs who do nothing but read books. They love to learn. Some even have a goal to read as many as 200 books a year.

You can get a lot of knowledge cheap from reading books. You can even use books to supplement your studies on Kahn Academy or your meetings with an executive mentor.

If you’re wondering what books you should read first, here are four books every entrepreneur should read:

Four Steps to the Epiphany: This book by Steven Blank is the closest thing to a manual for building a startup. It’s like a roadmap for how to get to Product/Market Fit.

Lucky or Smart? Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life: One of the greatest ways to learn is to hear the insights of people who’ve gone through the trials.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion: Dr. Cialdini teaches you how to sell and deal with customers by learning why people say “yes.”

The Innovator’s Dilemma: You’ll read about customers who miss out on new waves of innovation by “focusing” on disruptive technology.

Attend a One-Year MBA

Average completion time: 12 months

Average cost: $15,000

If you are dead-set on going to business school, why not consider a one-year program instead of a two year program? These programs, while not mainstream, are being offered to people who want a narrow focus on a particular field with half the time and half the cost!

However, these programs are more technical than typical MBA programs, focusing less on managerial skills. On the other hand, most MBAs require five years of work experience for entrance, but these one-year programs only require a year or two.

You might think about taking one of these programs if you want to start a company in an industry you are not familiar with. After 12 months you could graduate and be prepared to work for a company in your specialized industry until you get enough knowledge and experience to launch off on your own.

Northwestern University, Emory University and University of Florida offer some of the best one-year MBAs.

Conclusion

Listen, you don’t have to get an MBA to be an entrepreneur. However, you do have to be smart and you do have to love learning, because you’ll have a learning curve to overcome when you form a startup. Fortunately, like I demonstrated above, there are plenty of resources out there to help you that won’t put you deep in debt.

What other ways can a would-be entrepreneur learn the necessary business skills needed to run a startup?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions.

More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

Comments

  • http://www.startutorial.com XuDing

    Thank you Neil for another valuable and insightful article.

  • http://twitter.com/WhiiteSauce Nick White

    1. Seminars and conferences can be a lot cheaper than a couple of thousand dollars. For young people one can have a 50%+ success rate at getting in for free by volunteering to help set up/take down and networking/attending speakers in between.

    2. $10k! Where do you travel? :) Someone in their 20s would struggle to spend $10k in a month traveling around the globe. They’d be pretty comfortable (and tipsy) in most places I’ve been to for something more like $3-5k.

    3. What about networking beyond mentorships? An MBA’s alumni network, and specifically the students they go through school with, are generally cited as the most productive result of going to graduate business school. Your argument would have really been strengthened had you acknowledged it and discussed work arounds – and I’m sure that you could come up with a litany of those.

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