MBA or Accelerator: What’s Right for an Aspiring Entrepreneur?

I’m a 40-year-old living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., married with two kids, and I can’t write code. I spent my career flying airplanes in the military. I would not show up as a likely first-time tech entrepreneur on anyone’s radar.

I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1995. Until 2004, I was on active duty in the Air Force. (After that I worked full-time in the Air National Guard until last year; even today I continue to serve part-time.) 

Having been a deputy commander for the U.S. Air Force, I had extensive skills but targeted ones. I knew I needed to make a career transition, and I knew I couldn’t do it with my current knowledge base.

So from 2007 to 2009, I attended the Wharton School of Business, where I met the other two co-founders of my company, Nexercise. After finishing the program, we felt confident that we knew enough to found our company. But we lacked the tactical knowledge to maintain our business, so we sought out an accelerator program. Last May, after applying three times, we were accepted into the first TechStars Chicago class.

After handling the rigor of an MBA program and an accelerator program, I’m frequently asked if one option should be considered over the other. Both have benefits and disadvantages. If you’re weighing your options, perusing the following should help clear things up.

The benefits of an MBA program:

1. An MBA will provide you with the knowledge you need to get your business started and help prevent some silly mistakes that other beginning entrepreneurs make.

2. When pursuing an MBA you are provided access to the university’s resources, programs, talent pool and alumni networks.

3. The total experience will help you establish a baseline of business credibility with potential customers, partners and investors.

4. Business schools provide a safe environment where you can focus on developing your idea while simultaneously receiving class credit and feedback from some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.

5. An MBA will provide you with a working knowledge of business basics, including accounting, finance, management, marketing, operations, negotiation and strategy — all pivotal for successfully running a business.  

6. MBAs are extremely beneficial to those who have spent their careers focused on specialized expertise, at the expense of developing practical business skills.

The disadvantages of an MBA program:

1It’s difficult to dive deep into more than one facet in an MBA program.

2. You end up spending time working on the degree and not actively building your business.

3. An MBA program is not always on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the startup landscape. Some teachings are no longer relevant and do not stand up to current best practices in the early-stage world.

4. If you already possess great business experience and a roster of mentors, an MBA won’t provide as many benefits to your entrepreneurial journey.

The benefits of an accelerator program:

1. An accelerator program’s focus is 100 percent on helping you build your existing business.

2. In an accelerator program, you are learning key, tactical business issues, such as fund-raising, SEO, search engine marketing, email marketing, capitalization tables, key performance indicators, social media, viral marketing, law for entrepreneurs, branding and communication, board management, user experience design, unit economics and sales.

3. Accelerator programs provide the benefit of introducing you to entrepreneurs, investors and connections who may have  experienced the problems you’re facing or will be as an entrepreneur.

4. Completing an accelerator program gives you valuable street cred in the startup space.

5. An accelerator program gives you access to its resources, programs, talent pool, alumni and mentor networks, while helping you establish a baseline of early-stage credibility with potential investors.

6. Accelerator networks are much smaller than university networks, perhaps making them useful because they are more focused on outcomes within a given industry.

The disadvantages of an accelerator program:

1. You may be required to forfeit some of your personal equity to partake.

2. It’s difficult to simultaneously run your business when you’re participating in an accelerator program.

3. Your schedule, during a three-month accelerator program, is not your own.

4. Not all accelerator programs have their system as wired as others. Some may provide conflicting advice, leading to internal conflicts for you and your business.

There’s no one right answer here. While both programs are valuable, no one option can provide the comprehensive knowledge a person requires to successfully run a startup.

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