A Class Act

Whether in an MBA program or an online course, hitting the books can help you stay on top.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the December 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Ronn Torossian can't really complain. His company, 5W Public Relations, has grown to $3 million since he founded it in January 2003, and he expects to double his staff of 25 in the next three to six months. But all this success has him a little worried about the future. "My fear is that as we grow, I won't know how to do it properly," says the 30-year-old CEO. "I feel like I have a handle on things now, but if we double in size, at that point you can't just shoot from the hip."

Indeed, as Torossian's business has grown, so, too, has the complexity of its real estate bills, payroll, taxes and other finance issues. Increased regulation and more onerous reporting requirements have also made finance a much more complicated animal in general. Which is why Torossian, who bailed on an MBA program seven years ago after two weeks of classes, is thinking about heading back to school this summer to learn some of the basics in finance, accounting and economics.

For successful entrepreneurs like Torossian, it can be tough to admit the need for formal training, particularly when it was gut instinct that got them where they are. And some may not see how sitting in a classroom will boost sales. But "[particularly] during tough economic times, if sales are tight, you need to find an angle," says Blake Escudier, director of the Northern California Small Business Development Center Network through the San Jose State University College of Business. "Knowledge resources is a definite angle."

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean you need an executive MBA, says Escudier, himself an MBA graduate. "Most owners have a lot of knowledge of business already," he says, noting that experienced CEOs may have to run over a lot of old ground to get to the information they really need. "There are a lot more schools leaning toward 'functionalized' programs."

Nearly all the top business schools now offer such targeted learning experiences. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, for example, offers a Finance & Accounting Certificate Program designed for part-time professionals; and the Harvard Business School offers "strategic finance for smaller businesses" as one of its financial management courses, and a more intense Owner/President Management Program for those with more time. Entrepreneurs can also avail themselves of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) programs at universities all around the country. The Rutgers Center for Management Development, for one, offers a variety of education programs, including a "mini-MBA." "You can do it at your own convenience," says Brenda Hopper, director of the New Jersey SBDC. "We find that is very important to entrepreneurs."

Online programs have added even more flexibility to entrepreneurship education, though some have suffered from the perception that they are not as high-quality as classroom programs. Escudier's SBDC wants to improve that reputation by launching a new program designed "to capture the best of the best of small-business classes," he says. The program, currently in planning stages, will coalesce faculty from around the country who specialize in particular business functions; their classes will be taught online through the Northern California SBDC site.

Torossian, for his part, is thinking seriously about applying for a full MBA at either Columbia University or New York University-and he's already figured out a way to justify the time spent. "The networking opportunities inherent at any MBA program are priceless for me," he says. That, combined with enhanced knowledge, is enough to inspire him to hit the books again. "That doesn't mean that I still wouldn't follow my gut," says Torossian. "But at least my gut will be a little bit smarter."

C.J. Prince is executive editor of CEO Magazine.

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