Learning from the MBA program

In November, I posted about an alternative MBA program that I was going to launch. Unaccredited, residential, free and six months long. A new way to learn about a new way of doing business.

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Launch and selection:
More than 48,000 people visited the page that described the program and 350 really cool, talented people applied. I picked 27 finalists and all of them flew out to New York to meet each other. This was the most fun I’ve ever had at a cocktail party (it helped that it was at eight o’clock in the morning).

The conversations that day were stunning. Motivated people, all with something to teach, something to learn and something to prove. I asked each person to interview as many other people as they could. After three hours, I asked everyone to privately rank their favorite choices… “who would you like to be in the program with you?”

After they left, I tallied up the results. It was just as you might predict: nine or ten people kept coming up over and over in the top picks. I had crowdsourced the selection, and the crowd agreed. (It turns out that the people they picked were also the people I would have picked).

On January 20th, the most selective (one in 40 got in) MBA program in the world got started. Since then, they’ve never failed to live up to my hopes.

It's interesting to realize that the way I did the application process certainly changed the list of who applied. Same thing happens with jobs, I bet. Your applicants reflect your methods.

None of this would have worked if I was trying to manipulate the process or the people involved. My goal was easy to state and easy to live: I was there to teach (and hopefully to learn as well). The great news is that the students who appeared were beyond my wildest expectations.

I had originally planned on having people work on some of my ongoing projects, because, just as you can’t become a doctor without cutting bodies open, you can’t earn really learn an MBA without running something. It turned out that the group wanted to run their own stuff, not mine, so in fact the group didn’t mess with my stuff. Which was just fine.

Clay Hebert and Ishita Gupta are launching fear.less, a passionate free ebook on stories of overcoming fear. They've interviewed courageous artists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, business and non-profit innovators and how they've dealt successfully with fear. Learn more at fearlessstories.com.

Susan Lewis and Jon Dale are launching Sales Club. It's an exclusive society for top sales performers with attitude. There's a monthly fee, it's invitation only, and you have to be nominated by a member to even be considered. (They've agreed to let my readers self-nominate. If it sounds like your thing, send them an email to sell them on letting you in – salesclub99 (at) gmail.com.) If you think about it, what sort of person would actually pay money to associate with great salespeople?

Rebecca Goldstein is focusing on best practices to create online
communities to help companies with support, sales, marketing and
innovation. She started the 150 Project and is already
working with several companies to build their tribes.

Al Pittampalli spent time building Blue Finch, a directory site on various high-interest topics.

Alex Krupp is hosting
Swagapalooza, a social media experiment
auditioning companies in front of the world's most-followed bloggers.

There are other projects, but not online.

The educational lesson that I found the most striking is that the book knowledge was easy to transmit and not particularly essential. Once you get this far, it's sort of a given that you're good at school. We read more than a hundred books, and the book learning happened quickly . Our culture has done an amazingly good job at teaching talented people how to learn concepts from books.

I taught for five to twenty hours a week, and very little of it was about the books. So, if concepts from books are easy, what’s hard?

Doing it.

Picking up the phone, making the plan, signing the deal. Pushing ‘publish.’ Announcing. Shipping.

We spent a lot of time on this area. Every morning, each person came in prepared to push someone in the group to overcome the next hurdle. This is what growth looks like, and it was energizing to be part of.

We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on.

It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff?

Another lesson: The Samba blog shows just a tiny portion of the writing the group did. Everyone posted every day (sometimes on that blog and sometimes on our private blog), often personal items, sometimes questions or chaff. The act of defending your work in writing became a habit, and once it was a habit, the quality of everything improved.

Another lesson: We used Basecamp. It’s the perfect tool for coordinating this sort of work.

Another lesson: I kept an oversized (perhaps giant is a better word) Moleskine by the door, and we wrote down great moments and quotes as the days wore on. We’ve already worked our way through it frontwards, and now we’ve turned it over and are working back the other way.

There were some great guest lecturers as well. Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby and David Simon, a former colleague from Yahoo both showed up. Doug Rushkoff came by, as did designer Red Maxwell. Greg Linn from Columbia Records did a killer presentation about relationships as well. Stephanie Henry, who used to work in Ronald Reagan’s post-Presidential office stopped by. Uber-agent Stuart Krichevsky came to talk about his business as well. Michael Cader talked to us about publishing, and Bill Godin, the world's #1 manufacturer of hospital cribs came by for a world-class presentation.

Megan Casey gave us both business insights and a lesson in improv, while her former boss, Adrian Zackheim gave us the inside scoop on book publishing. Jay Parkinson, who is singlehandedly reinventing medicine also stopped by, but left us with no Tamiflu. Frank Eliason gave up Tweeting for a day to share his thoughts with us as well. Dave Balter, a model entrepreneur (as opposed to a model who's an entrepreneur) had plenty of inspiring insights.

Field trips included a detailed exploration of the fabled Stew Leonard’s supermarket, an engagement with maestro Roger Nierenberg at the Essex House and first-hand lesson in leaning at Fahnestock State Park on skis. We also spent a beautiful morning with Sarma Melngailis at her restaurant. Food seemed to show up a lot, and I was privileged to be allowed to cook lunch for all of us a few times a week. Not to mention discovering the power of melted ginger (on rice).

It’s surprising and disappointing that real companies don’t expose their people to this sort of learning. Too busy working, I guess.

While we’ve covered a lot, it’s pretty clear that this is a beginning for the crew, not the end.

Next steps:
Some of the people in the program are already committed to flying off to become entrepreneurs (though we all agree it might take a few cycles before it clicks.) Jon is building a practice of helping authors and book publishers use private social networks to build tribes online.

Susan Lewis is already looking for a new gig. But instead of asking someone to hire her, she is looking to hire a boss. Her unique skill is getting things done, and she wants a place where she can exercise that power to the fullest. Check out the susanhiresaboss site for position qualifications and to apply.

As for me, this has been (and it’s not over yet) an extraordinary learning experience. I have no plans to do again immediately (so please don’t ask and please don’t apply!) but I promise that when I do something like this again, you’ll read about it here first.

Here’s what I told the group, “Maybe the most important thing you'll learn in this program is that you don't need this program. There's not much I'm going to tell you that's not in my blog posts or books. What this program will do is give you the structure and support to encourage you to do what you already know. But you can do that by yourselves.” I think that’s true for the people who weren’t able to be part of it as well.

Final takeaways:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you're stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it's an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I'm glad that I got to know them.