Which MBA specialty should an entrepreneur who wants out pursue?

If you're an entrepreneur hoping to sell off your business and join a corporation, play to your strengths, but keep in mind the differences between running your own business and being a part of somebody else's

Dear Bob ...

I was reading one post with regards to choosing an MBA specialty. You recommended finance as having the best prospects as having a higher demand-to-supply ratio for those looking for a career change.

Well, I too am in this position, but with a twist. You see, I moved to an Asian country almost 10 years ago and started my own manufacturing company. Prior to that, I had been self-employed through importing household goods from the same country.

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Over the years and current situation here I have gained great experience through managing and being an entrepreneur in a foreign country, with exceptional language skills, which you would expect after 10 years living and working in a country.

Expansion, though, has never taken off, due mainly to financial restraints, due both to not being able to get local bank investment in my company and some personal challenges related to multiple divorces. The result has been having to grow at a very slow pace.

Having said this, the foundations are solid. The small buyer base we have is solid, and it is growing with us. The problem is I feel I am missing out on earning my true potential, which I could if I was working for a large company.

So I have enrolled into an MBA program and doing quite well in the first semester with an A grade average so far.

I am thinking that, at the end of 2010 with an MBA under my belt, I'll pursue that corporate option of a salary instead of being an entrepreneur with not enough financial resources. So I too am in the position of choosing which specialty to direct my MBA toward. Should I specialize in international business, entrepreneurship, project management, information systems, or, as you suggested, finance?

No one can really give me a clear cut answer to my prospects of employment having been self-employed for the past 20+ years, which means no history of working for any known companies and references are from me, as I am my own boss.

So what would you suggest for someone in my position, so I can move back into the world of working for a salary? And like you suggested -- could finance be a good option for me in case of an MBA specialization?

- Coming in out of the rain

Dear Coming in ...

Yes, that's a twist alright. Interesting challenge.

A few thoughts occur to me, for whatever they're worth:

  • You appear to have a going concern. If you had access to capital, you think you'd be able to achieve enough growth to support you and your family in the style to which you'd like to become accustomed. Your best alternative would seem to be selling your business to a large competitor, and as part of the deal having them retain your services for a defined period of time ... either to continue to run your business as before, only with more capital to invest, or in a different executive capacity that makes sense for them given your knowledge, experience, and abilities.

    If you haven't already explored this, I'd recommend making it your top priority. M&As aren't my specialty, so you should engage someone who understands the various methods of establishing a selling price for a business. Getting this chunk of cash plus the salary they'd pay you would seem to make this the most financially attractive alternative. Plus, I'm guessing you like the business you're in.
  • Assuming you've already thought of something this obvious and have rejected it for one reason or another, let me offer a caution: Entrepreneurs generally find large corporations intensely frustrating. Large corporations are inherently political in nature -- they run on relationships. Entrepreneurs rarely have any patience for the kind of consensus-building that is a required competency in large-corporation executive and middle-management positions.

    Also, there's a fundamental difference in style between entrepreneurships and large corporations: In an entrepreneurship, the general style of decision-making starts with the question, "Is there any reason we can't make a decision yet?" In a large corporation the general style starts with this question: "Is there any reason we have to make the decision today instead of holding off on it?"
  • If you're still sure you want to pursue employment in a large enterprise (you certainly don't want to try working for an entrepreneur -- you'd go nuts being second or third-fiddle in someone else's lemonade stand), I see no value at all in specializing in entrepreneurship. It isn't a large-business skill-set, no matter how much lip-service an enterprise gives to "wanting to be entrepreneurial."

    Given who you are, what you know how to do, your language skills, and your history of being successful at it, I'd say specializing in international business is the clear and unambiguous winner for your specialty. It passes the "three circles" test: You're good at it, you enjoy it, and other people will be willing to pay good money for it.

Oh, one more thing. What on earth are you talking about when you say you have no references? The vendors and customers you've worked with over the years should be excellent references for you, as should key employees who have worked for you.

If they aren't, I'd say you have some soul-searching to do.

- Bob