Seth Godin’s “Alternative MBA”: A model for training future entrepreneurs?

In late 2008, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin posted an online announcement, inviting applications for an “Alternative MBA” program that would involve spending six months in residence with him and a small cohort of fellow learners who would create and execute plans for new enterprises (link here).

The idea

In pitching the idea, Godin took issue with both the cost and substance of current MBA programs. His homebrewed, unaccredited MBA program would emphasize hands-on project work and would not charge tuition. The original proposal anticipated students providing help on some of his projects, an expectation that was dropped once the program got underway.

This is how he originally described it:

Here’s the program I’m interested in creating:
One hour a day of class/dialogue
Four hours a day of working on my projects
Three hours a day of working on your personal project
Five hours a day of living, noticing, doing and connecting

Results

Godin’s announcement generated a lot of interest, including this exchange on Business Week’s forum discussing whether it was a worthwhile undertaking for participants. Some 350 people applied, 27 were chosen as finalists, and ultimately 9 were selected.

Near the end of the program in 2009, Godin posted a report about what the group had accomplished (link here), sharing his delight with the results:

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

Here are two projects that came out of the program (with excerpts from their websites):

Fear.less

fear.less is a free online magazine that empowers people through unique stories of overcoming fear. From entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists and scientists to survivors of extreme experiences, these stories demonstrate the hidden potential we have to confront our fears and come out victorious.

The 150 Project

The 150 Project believes that the future of marketing is utilizing online communities for sales, marketing, support and innovation. We help companies connect to their customers or “tribe” through social media and online community platforms. We lead with the problem and solution and not the technology. We work with everyone from best selling authors to enterprise public companies.

“Final Takeaways”

Godin listed four major lessons from the experience:

  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.

What’s (very) old is new again

A millenium ago, many of the earliest universities were guild-like groups of scholars who offered instruction to small cohorts of students seeking their expertise and guidance. Later on, as universities began to assume their more modern forms, schools such as Cambridge and Oxford would adopt tutorial style teaching methods that emphasized one-to-one contact between instructor and student.

Against that historical backdrop, Godin’s “alternative” program bears strong similarities to the origins of higher education.

A model?

Does this mean we’ll see more such efforts from accomplished practitioners and academicians? I don’t see a groundswell yet, but the opportunity to do intensive work over an extended period of time with leaders in a field is an awfully attractive approach.

Furthermore, at least in the U.S., the costs of pursuing undergraduate and graduate degree programs have reached alarming levels, as I’ve written before (here on student loans; here on higher education generally; here on legal education). In the case of a budding entrepreneur, why spend upwards of $100,000 or more to get an MBA if Godin’s approach is a faster, cheaper, and more effective avenue towards creating a start-up?

More such initiatives could emerge, and perhaps proliferate, in niche contexts where people have specific reasons for participating and where the educational experience, networking opportunities, and affiliations will outweigh the lack of a formal degree. Given the price tag of higher education these days, a lot of folks might be happy to pursue that route.

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