How can an MBA degree help an entrepreneur? [Show summary]
Entrepreneur and Harvard Business School grad Ben Faw reflects on the value of his MBA and the role it played in his successful career.
Why this serial entrepreneur feels his time at HBS was invaluable [Show notes]
What happens to Harvard Business School MBAs after their first job? Do they still value the HBS MBA experience? Let’s ask Ben Faw, who was a member of the HBS MBA class of 2014.
Ben Faw was previously a guest on Admissions Straight Talk way back in Episode 59, just about seven years ago. At that time, Ben had just graduated from HBS and was about to take a position with LinkedIn. Prior to attending HBS, Ben attended West Point as well as the US Army Ranger School, and served in Hawaii, Iraq, and Kuwait. What’s happened since graduating from HBS? Let’s find out from Ben.
When we last spoke, you were about to graduate from Harvard Business School and start a position at LinkedIn. What’s happened since then? Bring us up to date. [1:53]
It’s been a really interesting and exhilarating journey. There’s been a couple of twists and turns. But to start with, LinkedIn was a super positive experience for me. I was able to get a lot of understanding around particularly technology and the digital advertising ecosystem and just a ton of exposure to what a top organization in the technology field can look like, and particularly what it takes to maintain a strong positive culture. As you know, none of these cultures come for free. They’re something you build and then have to maintain, and you’ve got to see all of that.
Then, I had worked with a classmate of mine from business school on a startup project that got to the point where I could actually join full-time in the fall of 2015, about a year and a half after business school. That company, BestReviews, ended up growing quickly. We sold that in early 2018 to Tribune Publishing, which has published the Chicago Tribune and several other newspapers, for over a hundred million. I was fortunate enough to be able to help a lot with that integration, got a little bit of knowledge around the newspaper world, and transitioned to an advisory role there.
I have built out a new software company called AdVon Commerce, leveraging a lot of the insights and perspectives from working in that e-commerce and digital marketing world. I got married at the very end of 2019, which proved fortuitous given the situation that unfolded in 2020.
Do you feel like you’re still using your MBA degree, either the network or the education, looking back on the experience? [3:54]
I personally believe, and the data would prove it out, that I use almost every aspect of the MBA every single day of the week. And that includes Saturday and Sunday. I don’t always work all of those days, but for me, it’s the network that is used almost every single day for me, certainly multiple days per week in one capacity or another directly, and then indirectly in the lessons and insights from the network every day. The skills and perspectives are an everyday occurrence for me. Whether it be thinking about the strategy, the financials, the marketing, each aspect is something that, at least from my work, has been a daily activity. I couldn’t be more grateful. And I frankly don’t think I would have had the same level of success or accomplishments without the training, the network, and also the confidence that Harvard Business School and the MBA experience gave to me.
Do you think the case method was a significant ingredient in that value proposition? [5:03]
I think in my own case it was, just because I learned well through that method. For me, it provided a way to truly see this in action, in an actual scenario. One thing I did was I actually wrote a small journal entry every day while at business school on what I took away from the cases. That process of preparing for a case, experiencing a case in the classroom, and then that final reflection on the case really helped the knowledge sink in a little bit deeper than it might have otherwise.
Did you know when you started Harvard Business School that you wanted to be an entrepreneur in the tech space specifically? [5:49]
I thought it was a place that would be pretty interesting, and having done time at Tesla Motors prior to Harvard Business School, I had a little bit of a taste of the clean tech side of the industry, but there were some things about the tech world within entrepreneurship in terms of some of the collegiality, some of the acceptance, and almost encouragement of failure, the kind of never-ending focus on learning, that I thought were pretty unique. At the same time, I kind of realized that unless you’ve got a project and either you want to go alone or a team that you really want to be a part of, forcing entrepreneurship can be a mistake. For me, I felt confident it would be something I’d pursue. I felt like the timing would make sense. For me, doing that first year and a half at LinkedIn was the right decision.
It’s interesting: Once you get into the entrepreneurial world, particularly if you’re going to do any sort of meaningful partnership or a sale of a business, the counterpart is almost always to put some value, if not a lot, on the other brands you’re associated with. In my own case, that’s one of the areas where Harvard Business School and the MBA had an impact. When a partner can say, “We like your business; we like what you’re doing. However, our superiors are going to have some points of concern,” we can say, “Oh, this guy worked at Tesla; he worked at LinkedIn; he went to Harvard Business School.” Those are ways of de-risking.
None of these things ever hurt us, at least in conversations that I’ve been a part of. In theory, I could have just gone straight into entrepreneurship. But I think I would have potentially been limiting myself over the longer term because of that incremental training brand and network from LinkedIn.
Looking back on your MBA experience, was there any particular class or extracurricular activity that you found most valuable? [7:50]
I’ve thought about that a decent amount actually, like, “What were the things that maybe had the largest impact or that I took the most away from?” There’s probably a couple that really stick out. One was I was fortunate enough to do a couple, actually three, I think, independent projects with then professor Srikant Datar, and now Dean Srikant Datar. If you haven’t met Srikant, he’s just a wonderful, wonderful person and also incredibly brilliant. The tutelage under his watchful eye and encouraging spirit was incredibly meaningful for me and planted a lot of the seeds for how I’ve thought about design thinking and innovation, which have been a big part of all of my different business pursuits so far.
The other, I would say, would be being incredibly deliberate about how I allocated time. I had a smaller pool of a few dozen people that I got to know extremely well. I know some people thought, “Oh, I’m going to somehow get some real small set of knowledge on every single person in the whole class.” Maybe that’s right for some people, but for me, it was the right path to be a little more focused and deliberate. Those relationships and the way those people taught me things beyond the classroom itself was incredibly impactful. It continues to be impactful today.
Anything at HBS that you wish you would have done, and you didn’t get a chance to do, no matter how deliberate and good you were at prioritizing? [9:38]
I think I came short on numerous things. A couple that stand out in hindsight: I did not fully take advantage of the platform in terms of the various schools that exist inside of Harvard. My interactions at the law school, the graduate school of design, the Kennedy school, were very limited. That was a big miss looking back versus what could have been. I think leveraging the overall greater Harvard education community, particularly MIT, which is so nearby. I didn’t cross register for any classes and didn’t get as deeply engaged with that community. Ironically, from my limited engagement, I did meet my now wife. But I think if I’d have been more engaged there, there would have been even more value. I don’t think I took every opportunity. There’s a lot of people who will engage with an MBA student, and I didn’t always take advantage of that. I think I was probably too reticent to reach out at times and leverage either the alumni network or even other people who didn’t go to the particular school I was at who still would’ve engaged.
You have, on some level, realized the entrepreneurial dream: You founded a company (BestReviews), you grew it, and within a few short years you sold it for over a hundred million dollars. If somebody has that dream, what should MBAs interested in entrepreneurship (specifically serial entrepreneurship) pursue to achieve entrepreneurial success? [11:05]
There are three ingredients that I would recommend to anyone who’s going to business school or at business school and knows with reasonable certainty they want to take an entrepreneurial path. I think there are three things you could probably focus on, and they’re almost certain to pay off. One would be leadership skills. The other would be cross-functional skills; I would almost call them general management skills. The last would be selling skills, actual sales.
The reason I say this is if you can’t lead anyone, your ability as an entrepreneur will be hampered almost certainly. You have to build a lead on some level or another or partner with someone who’s very good at leading; that could be a workaround. I was fortunate that I had this leadership experience with banking and in the military. I also had some supply chain and tech experience from Tesla. And then at LinkedIn, I got direct experience selling as well. That understanding of a couple of different functional areas, having worked in them and understanding of some different aspects of business, was incredibly important. Because it’s really tricky to think you’re going to suddenly be able to tell marketing, sales, engineering and product what to do if you know nothing about those functional areas.
Selling itself, I think, is a cornerstone skill. There’s zero entrepreneurs out there that I’ve met who don’t have some selling abilities. People like to demonize Mark Zuckerberg from time to time on many things, including not really being a sales guy. But guess what? He’s been able to sell through some top tier recruits like Sheryl Sandberg, and that’s as much selling as anything.
I was surprised that you listed leadership because you were in West Point. You were in the military; you were in Ranger School. I would have thought that you could have given a PhD in leadership after that kind of training. [13:37]
It’s a valid observation. I think the tweak is the way that you lead. Leading one group of people is not necessarily the same way you’ll lead another group of people. There is certainly someone out there who can jump straight from leading a military organization, maybe, to leading one of the private sector. But for me at least, I needed quite a bit of kind of retooling to be able to fit the situation. The core skills and practices, I think, are very, very similar. But the nuance and the application can be incredibly varied. For me, that time in banking, and at Tesla, and at LinkedIn all helped me better adapt my leadership style to leading an entrepreneurial technology company versus leading a unit in the military.
I was in a very nuanced situation even in the military; I was allowed to operate with a large degree of autonomy. Then I had a large degree of autonomy at LinkedIn in particular in the role I was in. But I think there’s something to be said for being able to put in place and build certain processes. It’s ironic: You hear people thinking that these military guys are going to be super hierarchal. Some of them are. You think they’re very process-oriented and some of them are. However, building processes is not the same as following them. And if you think of people who are really good at building processes, it’s actually not necessarily a military person. You could have someone who’s done incredibly entrepreneurial things. They’ve never been a part of a bigger company, but they actually know how to build processes quite well because they’ve been forced to. Whereas the big company person from Google or whatever in tech, or from the military, they may have very, very limited skills at building the process. Because guess what? Someone already built it for them.
You have your own new startup, AdVon Commerce. Can you tell us about it? [15:50]
It’s been an exciting journey. One of the insights from all the time at BestReviews and particularly through the Tribune integration acquisition, was there are all of these incredible curators of content who built incredible publishing organizations. But they’re simultaneously trying to digitally transform because they were print-focused prior, whether they be a magazine, or a newspaper, or a trade journal. They are at the same time trying to build digital subscription models, and they’re trying to build digital advertising models. This is a lot to take on at once for anyone. And there’s this opportunity in commerce that some of them see and some of them don’t. But it’s hard to simultaneously do two things at once, much less three or four. I realized there was an opportunity to build potentially tools, products, and solutions for these publishing organizations to help them adapt and hopefully even thrive in a very post-print digital world.
One of the exciting things about the Tribune experience was being able to help keep jobs in journalism. We were a profit center within a struggling company. With AdVon Commerce, we’ve been able to have a similar positive impact where we can truly help companies and support high integrity journalism, which I think now more than ever is an important aspect of what America stands for and what the world stands for.
We’ve talked about your experience in the MBA and valuable experiences for entrepreneurs at Harvard, or immediately post. Do you have advice for people before the MBA, let’s say between college and business school? [17:30]
That’s another question I’m not asked very often. There’s a place there for building out mentorship, I think. If you can establish even one or two of those mentor relationships, I think that can be a really interesting time to build that. If it becomes a skill, you probably want to look at, post-MBA, is it one of these places where you always have effectively both a mentor relationship or more than one where people are giving perspective to you, that you engage with? And then also a protege relationship, where you’re a mentor to perhaps someone who’s pre-MBA, or in their MBA?
That journey is best begun prior to the MBA. I was fortunate enough to have several mentors who helped guide and recommend me. Some of them are embedded in MBA and some of them were not. But they each were able to offer unique perspectives and advice to me, and if you start those relationships and that kind of process pre-MBA, you’re going to be that much better positioned for the kind of transition and the post-MBA roles and so forth.
I remember Sheryl Sandberg saying, “Don’t ask me if I’ll be your mentor.” It’s a relationship that develops organically both ways. On your LinkedIn page seven years ago, you had something about, “If you’re just interested in a transactional relationship, please just pass.” I have had mentors where the relationships developed organically, and I’d like to think I’ve mentored some people along the way. How do you think these relationships develop? How did your mentor relationships develop? [18:58]
I completely agree with Sheryl Sandberg on that and with you. Ironically, one of the companies I worked at did have a formal program, and I was assigned a mentor. Actually, a couple of them. And it was positive. I got something out of those relationships. But ironically, the people from that organization that I would consider to be long-term mentors and I’m still connected with were not on that list from the company. I agree with you. It’s something that happens organically. And I think you build a relationship, and you build trust. I feel super fortunate; I actually don’t have any mentors who I have lost touch with or been cut off from in any way. The same mentors that I had prior to going to business school are still mentors I engage with on a regular basis. It’s just the list has expanded, which I feel fortunate about.
They can come from very typical paths. In my case, I was reaching out to some people inside my network for advice as I was preparing for business school and transitioning out of the military, and that produced a pool of mentors. And then at each career transition, I’ve been able to check in with those mentors. I’ll almost inevitably end up with another mentor through the transition process. Because suddenly, when you’re in a different seat, you move from a LinkedIn to a Bestreviews as an entrepreneur, there’s a pool of people who have either context or interest in that co-founding experience, so they’re going to be added to your list in a unique way.
One of the things that you’ve emphasized in this interview is the value of brand. Certainly, you have lots of top brands on your resume. Now that you’re hiring people and MBAs, are you looking at M7 only? Or Harvard, Stanford, Wharton only? Or do you have a wider pool? [21:32]
For our organization, do we value brands? Do we understand brands? Certainly. Our view is that brands are a signal, but they’re not the only signal by any stretch of the imagination. I just took a call with a potential recruit last night who’s definitely not from an M7, definitely not even a top 20 MBA program. Instead, we think a lot about how we can’t train hungry, and hungry is incredibly important in the entrepreneurial world. There’s many roles where it doesn’t matter, but in our org, it does matter. We can’t negotiate with hungry or not. We can’t teach you to be smart or to learn quickly. If you have that attribute, that’s incredibly important. And we can’t teach a good attitude. Those are our big three.
Sometimes, these brands can be a sorting and filtering factor for some of those attributes. But in many cases, not so much. We try to optimize for those things and be just a little bit transparent right out of the gate. These things are incredibly important to us as a company. If these are things that also describe you and that are important to you, that’s awesome. Because that’s where we’re going to start, and that’ll open up the doors. Ironically, we do have some very branded people, but we also have some people for whom you wouldn’t be familiar with any of their brands, who have done incredible things for the company. I would say that we always try to keep an open mind, and it can be a part of the mix for sure. But it’s certainly not something that’s all-consuming or any gating item.
What are your plans going forward? Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur? [23:45]
I haven’t been asked that question. I think I want to optimize for certain things that make entrepreneurship a good fit for at least the time being. I don’t know that it means always, but it’s so hard to find the ability to make such a meaningful impact in such a short period of time. And it’s so hard to be able to work only with the people that you really want to work with. It’s hard to be so aligned economically and incentive-wise. If our businesses do real well, I’ll do well, and I’ll be able to use that resource to help other people. If I’m doing really well in a role for company X, well, suddenly their stock is going to do well potentially, and their shareholders and so forth will do well. But they may choose to use that money to support something that I’m completely not excited about, and that’s a bummer given that we have such, particularly in the recent world, a reminder that life is not infinite. There’s a short tenure we have. Doing things that are super not impactful or that you’re not passionate about is something, I think, you have to be real careful with.
When we spoke way back in 2014, you had recently written an article about things you had and had not learned at HBS, including the value of an MBA experience. You wrote then, “We will graduate from Harvard Business School in a few days with many authentic relationships that have already been incredibly rewarding and made us better versions of ourselves. These amazing bonds are priceless and define our experience here, helping us learn that people matter far more than money.” Do you agree with what you wrote there? [25:11]
I agree with it even more than I did then. Having had some level of what some might consider to be financial or monetary success, for me, it’s certainly something I’m very grateful for. But I think the alternative side of the coin is I have an incredible pool of accomplished, and talented, and incredibly interesting friends. Even within my pool of friends, I feel incredibly fortunate in the relationships that I have throughout not just the US but the whole world. If I value my own kind of life from a relationship perspective, it’s just so incredibly rich. That’s by far the most valuable resource that I have.
Without Harvard Business School, it wouldn’t be nearly as rich. The things that have transpired post-Harvard have only opened even more of those same doors to even more incredibly authentic and, frankly, exciting relationships. I don’t think there’s an infinite quantity. But boy, there is more quantity than I expected. I kind of felt like I had this pool of friendships I’d built through the military and West Point and so forth. And I thought, “Even if Harvard Business School’s two years versus four years of undergrad, even if I have half the same quantity coming out, it’s a huge win, and it’s worth every penny of the costs.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Through all the different kinds of secondary effects and so forth, you can end up with an even larger pool of authentic relationships from HBS and from business school in general than from your undergraduate experience.
I never would have expected that because it is shorter. But because it ties in so deeply with the rest of your life, in many cases, it’s just one relationship that leads to another. There’s individual friends I have from business school who, because of them, I have a handful of other friends now because they’ve introduced me to their friends that we end up connecting on any number of levels. It’s an incredible Flywheel Effect.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [28:18]
One interesting question is, what’s the biggest challenge of the MBA in terms of the experience and how you leverage it? That’s one that I haven’t been asked. For me, the biggest challenge remains that there’s always four right choices, four doors to go through, and four different things to do with that 12 o’clock appointment. I didn’t fully appreciate that, despite being a person who’s pretty good at time management and prioritization, just how many competing good choices there would be. That’s the biggest challenge of the MBA. What I think is incredible about it is if you can really nail it, that doesn’t go away.
Even now I feel incredibly fortunate, but I know I’m not alone. There’s almost always four interesting ways to make a career change or four or five places I could live, or four or five calls I can take at 7:00 p.m. How you weigh and measure and make the trade-offs on what to do with that precious resource of time is, I think, the biggest challenge of the MBA and arguably the biggest opportunity, if you can really nail internal processes and practices that don’t create a fear of missing out, don’t create a bunch of regrets. Instead, they can create confidence in your process and in how you approach time management. I think that can be an incredible foundation for the rest of your professional and adult life. In most cases, if you have any level of success, it will not get easier. It will get progressively harder and harder because there’s just more and more competing tasks and opportunities for your time.
Where can listeners learn more about you and AdVon Commerce? [30:58]
Our site is advoncommerce.com. It’s pretty easy to find us. I’m on LinkedIn and have some of my blog content up on benfaw.com. It’s always nice to hear from people, and I have some writing out there that may be helpful. I certainly hope it is!
- AdVon Commerce‘s website
- BestReviews‘ website
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