Techstars Associate Program: The better Startup MBA?

We were done. After ten amazing pitches, we all stood together on stage, celebrating the end of the Barclays Accelerator Spring 2015 Program in front of over 400 people. This was the end of three incredible months that changed my life for the better. But let's go back to the beginning.

About 18 months earlier, l had rejected offers from two well known MBA programs. A two year opportunity to give my life a new and heavily needed trajectory, after being no longer happy with my professional career for a long time. 

Instead, I decided to do what just felt right. I quit my corporate job, joined a buddhist monastery, traveled around the world and finally got more involved with the startup scene that always intrigued me. It turned out to be one of the best years of my life.

I knew entrepreneurship should be my new playground and a mentor gave me the next idea: Join Techstars as an Associate. One introduction and a personal meeting in London later, I was offered to come onboard the Barclays Accelerator Program. So instead of joining a well known MBA school, I joined three months of startup madness for my own startup MBA. But was it worth it?

 

Three months at the Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars

In March, I met all the Startups, Associates and team members who would become my family for the time ahead. It didn’t take long and the program took off and with it, our jobs as Associates to add as much value as possible to the teams with our skills and experience.

During your time as an Associate you get the chance to build great connections with mentors, help the teams in any area you are interested in, attend amazing masterclasses and learn how to tell a compelling story. I worked with the startups on anything around Business Development including Business Models, Customer Development, Sales Pipelines and Digital Marketing. On top, I had the pleasure to get deep insights into the operations of the program.

Three months turned into the perfect startup MBA

Looking back, I realized that, skipping the typical MBA for this program was the perfect choice to prepare myself for my new playground - The Startup Ecosystem. But let me also tell you why:

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1. Build the Future - Don't Manage the Past

When you work with ten smart and driven startups for three months, you definitely learn one thing: how to solve our biggest problems and build a successful business around it.

Most MBA programs focus on turning corporate soldiers into corporate officers and managing an existing business as good as possible. While these are valuable skill for work in a global corporation, it does not prepare you to start your company from scratch.

Learn to build the future instead of managing the past.

While growing a company is hard, there are tried and tested methods that work and you’ll learn them at Techstars. This can not give you a guaranteed success, but it can increase your chances and make sure you avoid mistakes others have done before.

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2. Deal With Real Business - not Case Studies

During my time in the business, I learned that books, lectures and case studies can only take you so far. At Techstars, the startups constantly deal with real customers, real products and a real ping pong table to recover from all of that, and so do you as an Associate. 

Only when you get confronted with reality, you actually learn and get better.

While case studies are usually based on real problems, they cannot take into account the dynamic and complexity of a running business. It is one thing to come up with the perfect solution on paper, but once you are facing real business, things change.

At Techstars, many experienced mentors support you in handling the real life and you can tap into their knowledge every day. When your goal is to build a company, this is the perfect setup to get you used to reality from day one.

3. Enter a Network of Makers - not Managers

One of the most valuable assets of an MBA is the alumni network. It gives you easy access to new contacts that can speed up your career. But ultimately those contacts can turn out to be just like you - the BizDevs of the world.

Your future aspirations should define your networks.

A network of consultants, bankers and corporate managers can be a great asset, but if you are reading this right now, it might not be the right one for you. For a startup career, you want to look into a different direction.

Techstars' global network of founders and mentors is a diverse network of amazing people who devote themselves to building great companies and supporting startup communities around the world. If you feel that startup spirit inside you, that is the network you want to join.

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4. Get a Positive Lifetime ROI - not Personal Debt

I believe that the best investments you can make are the ones into your own skills, experience and knowledge. They stay with your forever and make your life worth living. But they also need to pay off at some point down the line.

Getting a well recognized MBA today comes with a major investment, due to the high tuition fees and a long time with no regular income. With a fatal result for many graduates who make the payback a priority for their career.

Personal debt can be the biggest killer of your personal freedom.

When you join Techstars as an Associate you get a guaranteed positive lifetime return. All you have to invest is your time, energy and knowledge. With the provided stipend, you can easily bootstrap your life for the duration of the program and get the experience you desire.

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The Right Family to Start your Journey

When I read Philip Broughton’s experience of an MBA at Harvard, one short line stuck to my head forever. He told the story of an MBA student who complained to the HBS staff about all the pressure that came with the program. The student asked „Why are you treating my like this? I’m the customer.“ And all the staff member replied was „No, you’re not. You are the product.“

At Techstars, you don’t become a product, but the lifetime member of a family.

In this family, paying it forward is taken seriously. I had the pleasure of experiencing that myself several times. And like in every family, there will be good and though times. But in the end all its members will support you and embrace you for who you are.

So no matter if you want to change your career from corporate to startup, prepare yourself for your own startup or just have an amazing three months full of new experiences and contacts: Consider joining Techstars and get your own Startup MBA.

Six Lessons I learned from my Corporate Escape

Eighteen months ago, I made a decision that would change the rest of my life: I walked into my manager's office, handed in my notice and left my corporate job behind.

It was the end of a tough process, with many personal obstacles.

It was the beginning of a new life, with opportunities I didn’t know about. And it was full of lessons that I decided to share with you here to hopefully make your escape a bit easier than mine.

1. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MBA — ITS ABOUT YOUR LIFE

Three years before I made the leap, I realized that I felt unhappy with work and somehow also with life in general. It was just a slight feeling, but it was there.

One year later, the feeling became stronger and while on vacation in France, I got the idea: Let’s do an MBA! The career step that everyone will understand and that looks like the perfect move on your CV. It took me an unbelievable two years, two full GMATs and two rounds of successful applications to elite programs to realize: This wasn’t for me!

An MBA is not for everyone and maybe not the solution to your problem. Read 8 Ways to Escape the MBA Debate from Escape the City before you get on the MBA application treadmill. Work through it and possibly save yourself from a lot of debt and disappointment.

In the end, an MBA turns corporate soldiers into corporate officers
and you should seriously consider if you want to become one of them.

Once the MBA debate comes up, it turns into something bigger. Its about what you want to do in life. Its about what you value and what makes you get up in the morning. Its about asking yourself the one big question that Alan Watts framed in perfection:

What would you like to do if money was no object?

So if you have recently thought about getting another degree: First sit down, grab a cup of tea, and throughly think about what it is you want to get out of life. That is the question that sits behind that idea in the end.

2. Your Escape Fund is your Gate to Freedom

I never really cared about possessions. So after college, although making good money, I barely raised my cost of living. I didn’t treat myself with luxury items in life.

This felt strange at times. While everybody seemed to enjoy the rewards of their hard work and I just continued to live my college lifestyle. But those steps up the spending ladder just didn’t feel right to me. 

Funny enough, this turned out to be a blessing. Without realizing it, I built up my own escape fund. Every month, I saved more money that would eventually determine my financial freedom later on.

Only when I read about the idea of the escape fund in a great book on corporate escapes, I realized that I subconsciously had already finished the first step in preparation of my leap.

So, if there is just the slightest chance that you might go for a career change some day in the future:

Start building up your escape fund now!

There is a lot of advice out there on personal budgeting and saving. The one I found most appealing and even entertaining in the end was a great book from Ramit Sethi, that teaches you a path to financial freedom, without strangling yourself every day.

Keep this in mind when you are about to move into the next bigger apartment to keep playing along the game everyone plays and that you might not want to be part of in the end.

3. Your fears are the Key — Face and Embrace them

Looking back, I cannot believe how long it took me to hand in my notice and just get out of that corporate job. But it all happened for a reason. First, I had to face the fears that held me back.

Very often, we are full of subconscious fears that stop us from making a step that is just the right thing to do. What worked for me was just taking some time for myself and writing down every idea, thought or feeling that held me back from escaping the rat race.

Only when you face your fears on paper,
you get a chance to evaluate, rationalize and eliminate them.

For me, that meant not becoming homeless after the escape, because I could always get a job with my education and experience. It meant not loosing all my friends, because I could be sure that they would stick with me no matter what I did.

Those fears, as crazy as some of them might sound looking back now, kept me subconsciously from my escape for a long time. But eventually I could face them and turn them into good strategies for the time ahead. So remember always:

You should not let your fears stop you from anything.

Face your fears, write them down and think about what you can do to eliminate them. While in your old job, you can map out your real situation, check your risks and test out in your thoughts how far you want to go. Just don’t let your fears hold you back from making a step that might have long been necessary anyway.

4. Sometimes — you are your best friend

It is probably deep rooted in our human nature that we want to talk about big decisions with everyone and hope to get full support for our choice. Sometimes in life though, you have to act against your nature and this is especially true for making a decision of that scale.

When you talk with your friends about your plans, keep in mind that they have their own life set up and that you play a role in that as well.

When you change your life, others have to change
and people don’t like to do that.

Your friends might try to seduce you to just play along or tell you that it is all not that bad, hoping to keep life the way it is. While this can be a valuable test for your willingness to make a change, it can also hold you back for no reason.

Find other people who have made the same step you are thinking about and get their advice. They will be happy to help, having been there before. And they will give you independent advice that can be very valuable for you. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

In the end, its a decision that only you can make and that you should discuss mostly with yourself. Once you made your choice, be smart to whom you talk about it. Let them know once you made your choice. Never feel bad about it, no matter what they say.

5. Do everything different — Before and After your Escape

One thing you want to avoid is to keep living the life that you left behind. So sit down, let your mind go wild and write down all the things you always wanted to do. Now is the perfect time to start doing things differently.

For me that meant going on a retreat in a peaceful buddhist monastery, backpacking through Thailand for a while and attending an outstanding personal coaching in California. 

Afterwards, I was detached from my old life, full of new ideas and ready to plan the new life that was ahead of me. You should treat yourself with the same.

One thing I should have done differently, was to try out new things while I was still in my corporate job. But you still have a chance today to do that.

You don’t have to make an Escape to broaden your horizon.

Starting as early as you can will give you a chance to even better prepare your new life while you still enjoy the comforts of your old one. Maybe you even find enough satisfaction in areas outside of work.

Use this time to build a structure around your new life. When you get a chance try out Business Model You - a concept that gave me great assistance and results during my journey. It turns the Business Model Canvas into a concept to reinvent your life. 

Build your own personal company and brand
with all the values and passions that matter to you the most.

Start reading books you have never read before, attend events that you have never been to before and talk to people you have never met before. All this will offer you new ideas and inspiration for the unknown but vivid path ahead of you.

6. Its easy and hard at the same time

Looking back, I could now pretend to be smart and say I should have made my step much earlier, but I think that would be wrong. We all take the time we need and we all have to make our choice when it feels absolutely right for us.

Making your escape from the corporate job is in the end easier than you think: You hand in your notice, say good bye to your colleagues and life goes on for you and them the next day. That’s it.

So not only consider doing it and talk about it. Take action on it, because you will experience a freedom you may not have known before. 

In the end you are not giving up — you are opening up.

You are opening up to all the possibilities, surprises and options life may hold for you.

But it can be hard at the same time. Your friends might not understand your choice, the credibility your job might have given you is gone and there is nobody who will tell you what to do anymore.

You should also not expect any easy answers to the big question that we started off with:

What you want to do with your life?

But take your time to think about this though one, because the results will shape your choices and those choices will shape your life.

Many people like you have struggled with that question before. Don’t feel bad if you don’t have that immediate answer. See it as a process since it is not a decision you make once and forever. And don’t forget to enjoy your new freedom as well.

IN THE END: LIFE IS GOOD

Today, about 18 months after my leap into a new life, I think it is better to live everyday happy in the unknown than unhappy in certainty.

It is great to look forward to Mondays again
when everybody else is facing the Sunday night blues.

It is great to be the shaper of your own destiny again. To take on the opportunities life offers when you see the world again with open, curious and joyful eyes.

I hope you will make the right choice and that you were able to take away something from my experience. Feel free to share your thoughts, comments and questions with me.

Send me a line to hello@dirk-lehmann.com or drop me a comment here. 

I’m here to help. 

Always.