Making leap from startup to corporate world may be harder than you think

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 30, 2017

To MBA or not to MBA — that is the question.

It is not Hamlet’s question, but it seems to be one that is on the minds of lots of young entrepreneurs. I am probably not the right person to opine on this. My route from yesterday to today has been circuitous to say the least.

I got a fair amount of classic education — an English degree from Tufts University, followed by an incomplete master’s degree in photojournalism, followed by the Army, followed by film school at New York University.

The streets of New York are a terrific proving ground for learning “the hustle.” Then I was off to Los Angeles and Hollywood. It has been said that the only business more rotten than used cars is probably the movie business — so again I got the rest of my “MBA” and some “street smarts” working the edges of Sunset Boulevard. I attended night school at UCLA where I took classes in law and real estate. And then finally I left Hollywood, stopped off for 13 years in real estate development and finally plopped into technology where I am today.

So — do I regret not getting a real MBA?

That leads me to the core question — do you want a job or do you want a career? A young friend writes a blog post that poses the lament of the entrepreneur. When he goes to get a job, he is often confronted with the statement that he can’t do that specific job — he has no previously proven, demonstrated skills for that job, (he has just come from the COO position at a venture-backed and now failed startup). He argues that he has skills, and most importantly, he can adapt and be flexible and learn and apply leadership, etc.

The human resources person says, “Well, you are an entrepreneur, so you are going to pick my brain and leave as soon as you can.”

“No, I really want this job, I am committed to being part of this company,” he replies. Then the interviewer asks this famous question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

The person looking for the job is now confronted with Sophie’s Choice. “You know I see myself working here at the same job that I am trying to get and I will always be there for you, baby.” (And then he goes outside and throws up).

The HR manager does not want what our young person is selling. But the irony is that statistically the average tenure at Google and Facebook is less than two years. They hire knowing you will move on. And they are bastions of innovation.

So the question is when you get an MBA, do you want a job or a career? And then the dark sentence — namely that an MBA from other than one of the top 10 schools is valued marginally in the workplace that wants someone to do a specific job — and particularly a job they have previously done. Think Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22.”

I have compassion for the young people who visit me. There are countless who are talented and they seem to be stuck between Scylla and Charybdis — “I can’t get a job, so I guess I will just be an entrepreneur” — without really understanding the risk of that sentence.

The truth is that my boomer gang was lucky. We hit everything right, increases in real estate, available jobs, the stock market — we caught the wave. (And we should be forever grateful.)

Here is the crusher sentence from my blogger. “All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” — by which he means that a corporate pedigree (the kind you get in a first or second job with an MBA) will help you get a startup gig, but not all startup pedigrees will get you back to the corporate world.

You will be branded an “entrepreneur” like the adulterer in “The Scarlet Letter,” cast out to prison and then haunted throughout life. The irony is that the social status of the word “startup” is not necessarily of commensurate value when you take it to the corporate world.

Crossing over is not easy, and in fact, maybe the door only opens one way.

Rule No. 534:  I’m a square, and I’m stuck with it.

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