Monica Lewinksy and that blue dress. The disappointing Seinfeld finale. John Glenn's triumphant return to space. Saving Private Ryan. The Spice Girls. The year was 1998. Away from the political and pop culture front and to the personal, it was a year in which some of you graduated, got married, had a baby or moved to a new city; it was also a year in which some of you wrecked your car, broke a leg and got drunk in front of 50 of your friends. But for some of you out there, it was a banner year in another way, a year with a milestone that no entrepreneur forgets: You graduated from school and started your own business. It's been two years. How have you been? Was all that schooling worth it? We spoke to four entrepreneurial alumni from the class of '98 who've gone on to start their own companies, and we asked them the question burning in everybody's mind: Who was your favorite Spice Girl?
OK. No, we didn't.
Geoff Williams, Indiana University '92, is a frequent contributor to Business Start-Ups. With the exception of writing a portion of a cheesy infomercial several years ago, he's never used his screenwriting degree in the real world.
Alumnus/age: Michael Sattler, 30
Company/description: WebOnTap Inc., a Newton, Massachusetts, application service provider
Education: MBA in entrepreneurship from Babson College, F.W. Olin School of Business
Background: "My father is a corporate lawyer," says Sattler, "and when I was interning in his office, going through new corporation documents, [I realized] I didn't want to be involved in big companies."
And if Sattler's new enterprise becomes a big company? Pause. "That might be a little different," laughs Sattler, who employs a staff of four full-timers and more than a dozen part-timers to run WebOnTap (www.webontap.com), which opened its virtual doors in October 1999. Sattler, along with partner, co-founder and fellow Babson grad Joe Bardenheier, 32, vice president of sales and marketing, assists small businesses in managing everything from Web sites to finances.
Sattler graduated from Princeton in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in history and worked in sales and marketing for a PBS station. Sattler started another company, Highwired.net, while in business school. Now HighWired.com, it provides free Web-publishing tools to high schools; Sattler sold his piece in 1998.
What an entrepreneurial education taught him: "There's no such thing as an insulated discipline anymore, especially on the entrepreneurial level," says Sattler. "Day by day, we consider everything from financial marketing to direct sales." Which is what Sattler liked about Babson's approach to teaching entrepreneurial classes. Three professors taught each class, which meant he always got three points of view.
What it didn't teach him: "I think a lot of business schools are behind in the business world's changes," says Sattler. "Most professors got their Ph.D.s 25 years ago, and just in the past five years, the business world has turned over on its head."
How his peers are faring: Because they need to entice students, no college wants to put in their brochure "Many of our students graduate and move directly into their new business, receiving no salary and subsisting on a diet of Cheez Whiz and Dr. Pepper." So, says Sattler, Babson encourages its students to allow themselves to be recruited to enormous companies that can pay a starting salary of $80,000.
"Babson trains you to think like an entrepreneur," observes Sattler, "and then encourages you to work for people who don't. Because of that, most of the grads take those high-paying jobs, and within one year, they quit."
Is he glad he went? Without a doubt. "Without Babson, I would not have been able to get this far," says Sattler. "There weren't a lot of surprises in my first [business year]. Babson kept me focused."
Alumnus/age: Christopher Gatti, 33
Company/description: Living Strategies Inc., a Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, national elder-care planning, placement and management company
Education: MBA in entrepreneurial management from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business
Background: For six years, he was a health-care lawyer. Now he's an entrepreneur, running Living Strategies (www.livingstrategies.com) and employing 12 full-time staffers, plus five people who consult part time. Gatti started his company in 1998, right out of the graduation gates.
What an entrepreneurial education taught him: "The old saw that your business is going to take longer and cost more than you ever expected it to is just the truth. It doesn't matter if you've got a great group of employees, like we do; it does cost more and take longer than you ever expected. But you just need to persevere, push against the rock and keep moving. Eventually, you'll make it."
What it couldn't teach him: "How to do it. There is no blueprint for it, and I don't think there can be a blueprint for it."
How his peers are faring: "At Wharton, there's a significant component of students who go into the traditional consulting program. Those people are generally doing well. Others, who didn't go into the real world with their eyes wide open, are scrambling a bit." Gatti has hired some of those Wharton scramblers, and he doesn't have any egg on his face. Sorry-bad joke.
Is he glad he went? "Living Strategies couldn't have been built without an MBA and experience at Wharton," says Gatti, who concedes that even if it had, the company wouldn't be as effective as it is.
Alumnus/age: Joanne Schroeder, 32
Company/description: Environmental Data Solutions Group LLC, a Foothill Ranch, California, environmental health and safety solutions provider
Education: She wins our education overachiever award . . . or she would, if we had one. She left the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles with an MBA in entrepreneurship in 1998 after already receiving a master's in environmental engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1992 and, before that, a bachelor's from the University of California, Irvine, in civil engineering.
Background: Even Schroeder admits the explanation of what her company does is a tough one: "We implement third-party software for industrial customers," she begins. Ah, it's all clear now. But if this were an easy topic, Schroeder's clients wouldn't need her.
Essentially, Schroeder's company provides software solutions for environmental, health and safety management compliance-something that confounds many entrepreneurs in the industrial world who need to comply with these regulations. Schroeder's firm selects and implements the software for companies that need to use it.
What an entrepreneurial education taught her: "The value of market research-how market research is really nothing until you have a customer in hand."
Schroeder recalls being given an analogy she once heard being the parent of a homely child. "Nobody wants to tell you that you have an ugly baby, just as everybody wants to say 'Great idea for a business!' Market research is useful, but until you take it to the level of asking customers for money, you never know just how good your business is."
What it couldn't teach her: "They told me that I would never get customers to pay 30 to 50 percent deposits upfront, and I have."
How her peers are faring: "A good percentage have their own businesses, but not everybody. We have a great alumni network, where every four to six weeks, we meet and talk about the issues we're facing, and we exchange war stories."
Is she glad she went? Certainly. "I'm an engineer by education, and I'm used to numbers and formulas giving me an answer. So it was hard for me to believe that entrepreneurship can be taught, but it can."
Alumnus/age: Michael Cohen, 23
Company/description: The Magma Group Inc., a national marketing firm in Boston
Education: Business bachelor's with an entrepreneurial concentration from Boston University School of Management
Background: "I have a very negative attitude toward my schooling," Michael Cohen freely admits. "I felt as though I took a lot of classes that didn't teach me much. The business world is very different than the textbook model."
Yes, we're back in Boston. And yes, it was just last month that we featured Cohen in our "2nd Annual Hot List." He's just that good. The only undergraduate of our group, he started his business early (in 1996) with '97 Boston grad Matt Britton, 25, two years before graduating from college.
But it wasn't long until "school became an appointment," says Cohen, who listened incredulously to the off-track lectures and then went out and did the real thing.
That "real thing" was a marketing firm focused on allowing Internet companies to reach American college students. Cohen and Britton now have 12 full-time staffers, 6,000 campus reps, and clients that include eBay, MyPoints.com and Websteaks.com. Sales topped $1 million in 1999 and are projected at more than $2.5 million this year.
What the entrepreneurial program was right on the money about: "I think they were totally right in concepts-they have the philosophical part down."
What it couldn't teach him: "They were wrong in the daily operations. They didn't discuss the pitfalls. Professors forget to tell you what to do when the bills come and you have to somehow find money to pay the rent."
How his peers are doing: Cohen isn't certain. "One of my negative pitfalls is that I was so focused on building this company that, during my senior year, I really didn't know anybody anymore. When that bell rang, I hopped into my car and left."
Is he glad he went? Cohen dodges the question. "The school was helpful because you get a general knowledge of the business world."
But he doesn't dodge the question of whether he's glad he's an entrepreneur. "It takes the right person to do this," says Cohen. "It's been the most rewarding experience of my life. So far. Being only 23, I probably have many more rewarding experiences ahead. But it's great to wake up in the morning and look forward to my day. This isn't a job; it's a lifestyle."
Education And Entrepreneurship
From The Trenches
There's something so old-fashioned, so 20th century, about a business that has nothing to do with the Internet . . . like WallNutz, a Portland, Oregon, company that produces kits for painting murals on children's walls.
Becca Williams, 26, completed the entrepreneurship graduate program at the University of Arizona in 1998 and founded her company in the wee months of 1999. She sold her first products last December. A former financial analyst, she's currently a staff of one. But she'd be a staff of zero, she feels, if it hadn't been for studying entrepreneurship.
"Meeting and listening to entrepreneurs was the most helpful part of the program," says Williams. "We talked about boot-strapping, maintaining ownership of your company, how rewarding it can be, and the realization that you're going to be the one doing everything at first."
And there were always plenty of professors on-hand to help "shoot holes in ideas" and address potential problems.
"Studying entrepreneurship gave me the encouragement to do it. I was able to learn the process, get the product out there and market it in ways that I never would have known."
All At Once
If you think that MBA students are dropping out before graduation to start their own Net companies, it only feels that way. Granted, it happens. Last fall, three Stanford students quit midstream to pursue dot.com dreams; Northwestern lost eight graduate students to Internet enterprises; the University of Pennsylvania let go of 25. But it's actually more common for students to juggle both education and enterprise, according to a recent report by the Graduate Management Admission Council. And David Downes, director of the MBA program at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, says 20 percent of his entrepreneurial graduate students are concurrently working on their own Net-related companies.
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