MBA Value to a Small Business Owner

“Is an MBA degree valuable for a small business owner?” I put this question to Google, and (essentially) these were the results:

  • 75% clever marketing for MBA programs
  • 10% value-based articles answering the ‘why should you/why shouldn’t you’ question about MBA degrees (Forbes, Entrepreneur, BillyBob’s blog, etc)
  • 15% social media ads cluttering up the page (‘you can do it faster and cheaper here!’)

The Two Schools of Thought

Really, Aristotle and Plato have never stopped arguing about the best and right paths in life. Christopher Hann ( did an interesting comparison of an older white grandfather-type and a mid-40’s Latina woman with vastly different opinions on MBA programs. In other Entrepreneur article,  Thomas Robertson of Wharton (PA) and Henry Mintzberg of McGill (Canada) grappled with the idea of relevance between an MBA degree and entrepreneurship.

  1. Yes, Do It. You can get through piles of School of Hard Knocks information, network with bright thinkers of the future, and position yourself for the greatness of companies like Yelp, JPMorgan Chase, and General Electric… all in a shorter amount of time than the amateur path affords. Gather with other global thinkers, develop business plans, and all in a safer environment than looming bankruptcy from your first struggling startup. Schooling will help your funding, banks will like you better.
  2. Waste of Time. MBA schools are just proving grounds for CEO’s and accountants, not the hub of innovation and creation that the real world provides. The School of Hard Knocks is harder and more efficient than any fuddy-duddy program that makes money off of school fees without offering more than couch-potato management styles. Learn your marketing and finance in a better place. Go out and do stuff, and see what works.

The New(er) Method: Certification

While researching this path – since my business focuses on the wordsmith trade for small businesses (editing and writing) – I suddenly wondered if anyone had come up with a Business Administration Certificate. Boy, have they ever!

From Keller Management to UC Irvine to Notre Dame, everyone with a shingle has hung out an extra sign for certificate programs. When I searched for words like “valuable”, i.e. “is this certificate valuable to small business owners”, I got nothing….other than tips on how to get government contracts. By the time you get a government contract, I don’t think your company is all that scrappy anymore.

One other response was even better – the Certificate of Business Administration qualifies the holder to get an entry-level position. Office Manager. Executive Assistant. Really, if that’s all you get, why spend months of your life in night classes or staring for a few more hours on weekends at your computer? Surely typing, answering phones, and learning an office system are not that difficult!

This is the essence of a Certificate in Business Administration:

  • Qualification for an entry-level position in a small to medium company
  • No concrete marketplace value, but a stepping stone to more education
  • Much less expensive than an MBA ($5,000 versus $35,000+)
  • Quick-and-dirty overview of topics covered in an MBA, at a fraction of the price ($2,500 – $5,000 versus $30,000 – $90,000)

This Australian article from the Sydney Herald really resonated with me, if only for this quote:

“I don’t know too many business owners who can invest $30,000, let alone $100,000, in their education, or are prepared to take a huge student loan that takes years to pay off. That’s assuming they have enough time for such study in the first place.”

Even if various studies show an MBA paying for your future in raises and wages….that’s really not the dream of a small business owner.

Culture Shock: Big versus Small Business

I tried explaining to a business coach, who had bought into the Big Corporate dream after leaving the farm, that I would never want to add on big business contracts. He tussled with that idea for a while, gave it a chew, told me I should rethink my position if I managed to hire on some contractors or employees with experience in large companies. I finally said, “It just wouldn’t be a culture fit.” He proceeded to explain that big companies have finally caught on to the fact that they weren’t hiring enough Milennials to fill their empty suit positions, so they’d “really worked on” revising their culture.

To me, that encapsulates the essence of Big Business. Something isn’t working right, so we have to brainstorm and implement some new plan to attract what we want. We will change who we are to get what we want in the end, because Who we are or Why doesn’t matter. Keeping the game going, and building it as big as possible, IS the game.

That’s why I will never build a tower as far as it can go, just to see it come crashing down. I believe in building small towers linked by communication systems and leaders who understand the others’ visions, respect them, and don’t have to make everybody fit into the big lobster pot so they can all scrabble for positions.

Apparently, an MBA is not for me. I’m also interested in The Roadside MBA Story, in which a group of three graduates take to the backroads of America to find out business lessons and principles that small businesses use. Eventually, I’ll do a book review.

Photo Rights: Thanks to Begoña Martínez at Flickr  

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