Do you need an MBA to do a successful startup?
Of course not.
But when it comes to using an MBA experience to launch a company, you won’t get much of an argument from the business school graduates whose companies have landed on Poets&Quants’ third annual ranking of the Top 100 MBA Startups.
For the first time since the rankings were created, the top spot goes to a venture that had not already been sold. SoFi, a Stanford-founded student loan refinancing company, charged to the top of this year's list with a monstrous $1.4 billion raised for operations in the past five years. Their leap up the rankings was anchored by a $1 billion Series E round announced last September. Next was GrabTaxi, the Southeastern Asia taxi booking app founded by a team from Harvard, with $680 million in venture backing. Rounding out the top three was Stanford-founded RelateIQ, which was acquired by Salesforce for $390 million and is now SalesforceIQ.
Cultural Moment or Frothy VC Market?
While SoFi and Grabtaxi certainly set the pace in the race for later series funding, they were not the only two startups to make big moves this year. Harvard-founded Oscar Insurance zoomed from $150 million and ninth place last year to $327.5 million and fourth place this year. Wharton-founded razor venture, Harry's, nudged up one spot to fifth this year, with $287 million in total funding. And PillPack, founded by an MIT Sloan School of Management team, catapulted from 70th to 13th, with total backing of $62.8 million.
Whether they're enjoying a cultural moment or a frothy venture capital market, startup fever on business school campuses has never been hotter. Last year, 84 out of the 908 graduating MBAs from Harvard launched their own companies, with one in five entering the school having already decided to start a business. More Harvard MBAs did their own startups than headed into healthcare and consumer products combined. In fact, launching a company was the fourth most popular career path, after finance, consulting, and tech.
At Stanford, sitting in the heart of startup mania, more MBAs founded their own companies than went into consulting, a mainstay of MBA employment. Some 16% of Stanford's graduates did their own thing, eclipsing the 14% who took jobs at consulting firms—and nearly three of every ten Stanford MBA founders started their companies outside the U.S. Similarly, at UC-Berkeley's Haas School, a record 31 MBAs last year founded companies, up from a mere half dozen in 2014.
And MBA entrepreneurship is not merely a U.S. phenomena. At INSEAD, with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abi Dhabi, last year more MBAs started companies than were hired by Microsoft, Google, Apple, Deloitte and Citi combined. Some 49 INSEAD MBAs, or 6% of the class, went the startup route last year.
From Solar Energy in East Africa to Brain Diagnostics
The enterprises that found their way into the Top 100 are among the best of the bunch, disrupting incumbent rivals, changing the competitive landscape of industries, and influencing the way people live, work, and play from East Africa and Southeast Asia to the bread basket of the United States.
They include Off Grid Electric, founded by a team from the University of Oxford's Said Business School. With headquarters in San Francisco and offices in Tanzania, Off Grid Electric provides electricity to 10,000 households and an average of 50,000 people each month. And then there is UCLA Anderson School of Management-founded Neural Analytics, which is creating products and services to measure, diagnose, and track brain health. Or consider Unite Us, which was founded by military veterans at Columbia Business School to connect fellow veterans with needed resources from healthcare to mentoring to housing to fitness.
Many of these new companies boast highly sophisticated approaches to their markets. Take, for example, Stitch Fix, a tech-driven online clothes styling and sales platform founded by Harvard MBA Katrina Lake. The company employs 60 data scientists, 50 of them with PhDs. Data analysis maximizes supply chain efficiency and, crucial for a company selling ephemeral styles, offers a window into the future.
"Our data science is really good at making predictions about how likely someone is to love something," says the 33-year-old CEO. Lake started the e-commerce company in 2010, during the second year of her Harvard MBA program. Her San Francisco company has now received a reported $46.75 million in equity funding, placing the company 16th on our list, and just moved into what will be five floors of new offices in downtown San Francisco.
While Lake's pre-MBA background in consulting with e-commerce and retail companies helped inform her ideas about launching a startup, it was her two-year MBA experience, she says, that provided "backbone skills," including leadership knowhow and the ability to state a point of view confidently and concisely (as required by the case study method).
The First Ever Google Glass Startup
Other founders, such as 32-year-old Ian Shakil of Augmedix, have jumped on new products and created markets. A few months after graduating from Stanford—which he calls a "cauldron of entrepreneurship"—in 2012, Shakil experienced a serendipitous moment in an unlikely place. According to Shakil, a "Googler" passed around a prototype of a confidential product called the Google Glass. "He said, 'I'm not supposed to have it out in the wild, but here it is,'" Shakil recalls.
He became immediately enamored. "I kept thinking, this product certainly doesn't need to be in the hands of consumers yet, but it does need to be in the hands of doctors. And I knew exactly how to do it. And there's no better time to do it than right now, when you're right out of business school and the world is eager to forgive you if you take big risks."
Shakil recruited Pelu Tran, an MBA and MD student at Stanford, and Tran put his studies on hold to co-found Augmedix. The first Google Glass startup, it allows physicians to populate and retrieve patient information from electronic health records by voice command. The efficiencies, Augmedix claims, provide physicians with an extra 15 hours a week in time. The company's $23 million in venture backing places them 26th on our list.
Harvard & Stanford Still Dominate
Once again, the two schools that completely dominate the list are Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. MBAs from this pair of B-school giants can stake claim to 14 of the Top 20 startups. On the surface, the two schools are in entirely different worlds. Their campuses rest more than 3,000 miles apart. While Harvard is blanketed in snow, palms wave in the temperate Bay Area. The GSB enrolls about 400 MBAs each year and Harvard routinely enrolls about 900. Still, the two business schools continually produce far more venture capital-backed startups than any other school across the world.
This year, HBS had 42 startups among the Top 100, up from 40 last year, and the most ever by one school in the three-year history of the rankings. Meantime, Stanford MBAs were behind 22 of this year's ventures, down from 31 last year. They also boast numerous ventures at the apex of the list. The first venture not started on a Harvard or Stanford campus was Grofers, which was founded by Albinder Dhindsa, a Columbia Business School MBA. Grofers is in eighth place with $165.5 million raised. Harvard's ventures on the list combined to raise nearly $2 billion. Stanford's enterprises reaped more than $2.5 billion, largely thanks to the success of SoFi.
All told, the top 100 startups raised nearly $5.2 billion, compared to $4.9 billion last year. The money raised by SoFi and Grabtaxi would have allowed them to top the previous two rankings as well. At the same time, those two race horses seem to be stringing out the pack, as the Top 100 cutoff fell from just over $6 million last year down to $2.4 million this year—a sure sign that the bubble is deflating.
More Investors Than Ever
By almost all accounts, however, many of these companies have raised their cash in a "frothy" climate. "I think there are more people investing in startups than ever before," says Vincent Ponzo, the senior director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. The availability of seed capital in the past five years has led many to enter MBA programs with the intent of using the experience as an incubator. "The students coming to business schools are coming with the idea and intention to becoming entrepreneurs," adds Ponzo. "Because of that, we're seeing more creative and innovative businesses."
For the past three years, Poets&Quants has set out to identify those creative and innovative early stage ventures and rank those that garner the most venture capital backing. In addition to a published casting call on our site, we spent months working with the very best business schools from around the globe to identify MBA-founded startups that have raise the most venture capital cash. To quality, each founding team had to have at least one MBA and the company had to to make its debut in the past five years, from 2010 to 2015.
Angel investors and venture capitalists are in a unique position to judge the quality of a new idea, the leadership team behind it, and a company's prospects. They are making intelligent bets on the best in the context of a wide range of investment opportunities. And while it may be helpful to judge a company's progress based on its revenue and profits, those core numbers are hard to come by in private companies. So how much money a startup can raise is a strong barometer of its likely success.
How to account for Harvard's exceptional track record in startups? After all, when most people think of Harvard Business School, they think it's the training ground for big time CEOs. But Tom Eisenmann, the faculty co-chair at Harvard's Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, credits Harvard's dominance to curricular and extracurricular offerings. Every Harvard MBA gets trained in entrepreneurship in their first year, no matter what they actually plan on doing. "Everybody learns about entrepreneurship," Eisenmann explains. "And it's not just startups. We view entrepreneurship as a way of managing, where you're starting and building something new and facing a lot of uncertainty, and facing resource constraints. That's true in all sorts of organizations."
A Safe Environment for Experiments
Still, the two entrepreneurial Goliaths showed some vulnerability, dropping to a combined 64 ventures on the list, compared to 71 last year. Schools such as Columbia Business School, which leapt from two ventures on last year's list to seven this year for the third most of any school, have shown some recent entrepreneurial prowess. Meanwhile, MIT's Sloan School of Management fell from 10 startups last year to a half dozen this year. Pennsylvania's Wharton School held steady with six ventures, creating a two-way tie for fourth place with Sloan.
School rivalries aside, business school has become an ideal habitat to incubate and test new business ideas. "The MBA is a safe environment to experiment," Ponzo insists. "You can spend a year-and-a-half or two years trying to start a business, meeting people, finding engineers, testing your hypotheses, trying your products online. If things don't work out, what's the worst case scenario? You've got this amazing degree that's going to allow you to get a job."
Not only are more students entering MBA programs to start businesses, they are more frequently partnering with students in other schools and departments from computer science to engineering and medicine to create their startup teams. "That helps not only with the viability of the business but also with the creativity," says Ponzo.
B-Schools Are Also Investors
Besides providing the training and space for early stage entrepreneurship, schools are increasingly pumping resources into helping students get their ventures off the ground. At the Wharton School, it's not uncommon for students to receive a little seed moola for their ventures. Karl Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation, says "virtually anyone" at the school can receive anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000—and sometimes up to $350,000—in equity-free university funds to fuel their startups. At Wharton, the funds largely come from alums.
At Harvard, Eisenmann sees students gaining valuable entrepreneurial skills and business fundamentals in an accelerated way. "You can learn this stuff over time with great mentors and teaching yourself, but I don't think there's any question an MBA can accelerate all of that learning," Eisenmann says.
The List's First and Only Turkish Street Food-Inspired Fast Casual Food Chain
That was certainly true for Dominik Stein, 28, and Michael Heyne, 31. When they entered the full-time MBA program at the University of Texas' McCombs School of Business in 2009, they did so with a plan to open a Turkish street food-inspired restaurant chain in the Lone Star State.
Investors had the right to be skeptical. Hand-made falafel in the land of steak and chili? But co-founder Stein says the pair "leveraged our time in university to really explore the market, and we used the resources at the university to dig deeper into different subjects like finance, accounting, and marketing," Stein adds. "While we were studying, we were already planning and researching our startup."
Two days after graduating with their MBA degrees in 2011, the duo opened the doors to their first restaurant, calling it VertsKebap. Five years later, they have 26 restaurants in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and plan on opening 45 more in a major expansion to the East Coast by year's end. And they are doing it with $36 million in venture capital backing.
But don't tell Stein and Heyne, who come in at 20th on this year's list, that they own a startup. "The true and honest answer is [VertsKebap] is not a startup, anymore," Stein says. "At 30 restaurants plus, we've got several hundred employees. It's difficult to compare that with a company that's just starting up," he says.
For many of these enterprises, this next year could be the toughest they have ever experienced in raising cash. Harvard's Eisenmann believes it's more difficult now than it was as little as six months ago. “The bubble is deflating,” he insists. “Bubbles can deflate slowly. Or they can even stay the same size and the world can sort of catch up, if you will, with the valuations. But we have seen a deflation over the past six months or so. It’s getting tougher.”