Want to Succeed in Self-Led Learning? Act Like An Entrepreneur

Not everyone is capable of succeeding in a self-directed business education.  Do you have what it takes?


Let’s face it. Not everyone is capable of succeeding in a self-directed business education.  I have used this blog to chronicle my journey through a self-made, MBA-style business education, which I put together using MOOCs and other free and low-cost resources. Along the way, I have worked with many other self-directed learners (some of whom you can meet by joining our Facebook group).  I have seen a number of people experience great success with self-directed business education, from gaining confidence at work, to scoring promotions, to launching businesses. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of people who start out with great intentions fail to see it through.

In my years of studying business and working with self-directed learners, I have noticed some common characteristics, behaviors, and ways of thinking that define those people who do succeed with self-directed learning. It turns out, the people who are most successful pursuing No-Pay MBAs have a lot in common with entrepreneurs.

Based on these observations of successful independent business students, here are six ways acting like an entrepreneur can help you get a career-launching business education without breaking the bank.


Online business courses to jumpstart your future.

How Acting Like an Entrepreneur Can Help You Succeed In Your Business Education



1. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo.


Entrepreneurs don’t take the world as it exists today as a given; they are constantly thinking about how things can be improved. Likewise, don’t assume that the holding (or lacking) a particular credential is the most important factor in your success. Entrepreneurs inspire people with their vision of the future. Can you imagine a future in which your skills and abilities are more important than the credentials you hold? So can I.


2. Take calculated risks.


Many people erroneously assume that entrepreneurs are unbridled risk-takers. It’s true that entrepreneurs take risks, but rather than simply betting the farm on whatever prospect comes their way, successful entrepreneurs take smart, strategic risks. Pursuing a self-directed business education rather than an accredited MBA is certainly a risk. But if you’ve done your homework on your industry of choice and the expected financial return on a degree, it could be one of the smartest risks you ever take.


3. Decide when to play by the rules and when to make your own rules.


Sometimes it pays to follow the established path. Other times, it makes more sense to drop out of Stanford and pursue your own dream. Maybe it makes sense for you to get a traditional degree. Then again, maybe you’ll be better of making your own way.



4. Remain curious about the world and open to the fact that you always have more to learn.


Rather than assuming your current skills and abilities are fixed and unchangeable, adopt the attitude that you can expand your horizons, adopt new skills, and seize new opportunities. Many entrepreneurs get bored quickly and are constantly seeking out new problems to solve. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Seek out new ways to learn and grow.


5. Learn from failure.


Perhaps one of the hardest things entrepreneurs have to do is to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after a failure. So you failed Advanced Credit Risk Management on your first attempt? Take a hard look at your approach, tweak it, and try again.

Coursera Business Vertical

6. Develop deep self-confidence.


Entrepreneurs believe in themselves and their ideas, even after experiencing failure, and even when those around them question their decisions. A rock-solid belief in your ability to learn, grow, and succeed will serve you well in your self-directed business education.

Studying Business Online? Your Credential Options

If you’re looking for affordable business education and credentials to show your skills, you may want to consider these options.

First published May 17, 2015. Last updated  November 10, 2016. This post contains affiliate links.


I first published a version of this post just after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released their entire MBA program through Coursera and announced that you could earn a bona fide MBA degree from them via MOOC. Students would still need to go through the regular admissions process and be accepted to the business school, and they would pay $20,000 for verified certificates and other fees, but this was (and remains) the first full MBA available 100% through MOOCs.

Since then, we’ve continued to see a proliferation of new business credentials that you can earn through online study, ranging from certificates for single courses to U-IL’s iMBA, with a lot of new options in between. While most of these credentials don’t enjoy the same level of recognition as a full-scale MBA, there is reason to believe that some form of credentialing could be valuable in the job search. And at a price many thousands of dollars less than a traditional MBA, the cost-to-value of these new credentials has the potential to be quite high.

Here is a rundown of the current options for both degree and non-degree credentials when studying business online, in ascending order of cost.  

The Smartly MBA

Cost: $0  

One of the newest and potentially most disruptive credentials out there is the Smartly MBA. This highly selective program admits just a few top performers (as demonstrated by prior work and educational experience) to earn an accelerated MBA in just 4 months. Content is delivered through an interactive app. While this is not a MOOC-based option, some of Smartly’s content is available to the public. Which is a good thing because only a small portion of those who are excited about Smartly’s free (though as yet non accredited) degree program will actually make it through the admissions process.


Coursera Specializations

Cost: $200 - $600

When I first published this post, Coursera’s Specializations were new, and there weren’t very many of them. Now, you can find dozens of multi-course series on Coursera, typically consisting of 4-6 courses and a capstone project. The topics have gotten more specialized as well, including not just general business subjects such as financial management and entrepreneurship but also niche topics such as construction management and culture-driven team building.

Become a Web Developer in 2016 with Coursera

Coursera has also recently introduced a new subscription-based payment model (something I suggested a while back, though at a higher price than I proposed) for certain Specializations, with fees ranging from $39 to $89 per month. This might make some courses cheaper, though if you tend to procrastinate it could also make them more expensive.  While the value of Specializations in the job market is still relatively unknown, recruiters do report that they are seeing MOOCs on candidates’ resumes and that they generally view them positively.

This might make some courses cheaper, though if you tend to procrastinate it could also make them more expensive.

edX MicroMasters

Cost: $600 - $1700

The newest credential on the block is the MicroMasters, offered through the edX MOOC platform. As its name suggests, a MicroMasters involves master’s level coursework, but in a shorter, more condensed program. The first MicroMasters was created by MIT in the field of Supply Chain Management. The new crop of MicroMasters includes programs in Project Management, International Business Management, and User Experience Design, as well as non-business fields. The big advantage of the MicroMasters is that they shares a direct linkage with traditional master’s programs, allowing students who choose to do so to enter directly into a degree-granting program, with their MOOC coursework counting for credit towards the overall degree. Overall, the value to cost of a MicroMasters makes it a very promising option.



Cost: $1950 - $3600

Harvard Business School’s Certificate of Readiness (CORe) is an interesting one. Harvard being Harvard, the business school has created its own platform, HBX, through which to deliver a small set of business courses. CORe is a sort of mini-MBA, covering just the foundations of an MBA program, designed for people with no previous business background. The big advantage of this program is the Harvard name.

There are a few attractive features of CORe. First, having a credential from Harvard, even if it isn’t a full degree, is bound to be worth something. If you can get the Harvard brand name onto your resume for $2000, even when other more affordable options are available (such as the Wharton Business Foundations Specialization), it might well be worth the price. Second, the HBX is more interactive than many of the MOOC platforms. It still operates on cohorts, and it has an admissions process. Admitted students are invested in the program and the level of engagement is high, which translates to added networking benefits. Finally, HBX also offers an option to take CORe for credit. The price of the for-credit option is double, at $3600, but it could be a good option if you’re planning to do a full-scale MBA in the future.

Professional certifications

Cost: in the range of $2,000 - $5,000

Many professional business certifications are available online, most of them offered through professional associations. Organizations like the Project Management Institute, the Institute of Management Accountants, the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, and many others all offer professional certifications.  The advantages of these professional certifications is that they are very specific, and many are very well-recognized within their industries. The disadvantages are that you typically need to already be a practicing professional in order to reap the benefits of the certification, or even to become certified. Being so specific, these narrow credentials aren’t as versatile as an MBA, but within their respective industries they can be just as valuable.

Accredited degrees from low-cost online universities

Cost: $10,000 - $15,000*

*(varies significantly depending on how long you take to finish and how much credit you transfer in)

Several online-only universities offer low-cost MBA programs targeted towards working professionals. These include Western Governors, Capella University, and Excelsior College. All of these institutions allow students to study online at their own pace. Western Governors is a competency-based program, meaning that degrees are conferred based on the completion of projects. The advantages of these programs are the flexibility, the cost, and the fact that you can earn an accredited degree. The disadvantages are that if you take longer than expected to finish, you may end up paying more. And even though the degrees are accredited, the reputations of these schools aren’t as strong as, say, the University of Illinois.


Coursera Business Vertical

University of Illinois’s iMBA

Cost: $20,000

As mentioned above, the University of Illinois is the first business school to offer a degree based on MOOC coursework. The big advantages of this program are the significant savings over other online programs, the flexibility of the program, and the reputability of the final degree. Downsides? $20,000 is still a lot of money, you’ll have to go through the admissions process and be accepted to the program, and you might still be missing out on some of the in-person benefits of an MBA. Still, if you need the degree and can afford the tuition, this is a great option.  


Online MBAs

Cost: $60,000 to $100,000

Most of us are familiar with online MBA programs. Many universities offer online MBAs. The advantage of these programs is that they are just as well-recognized in the job market as brick-and-mortar MBAs. The downside is that the cost is equivalent – and sometimes greater – than what you would spend on a traditional, on-campus MBA program.  

The MBA Alternative for Small Business Owners

Affordable, practical business education for small business, family business, and self-financed entrepreneurs

This post contains affiliate links. 

If you currently run or have ever wanted to start your own business, but you don’t have a business background, you may be wondering whether you could benefit from an MBA education. If money were no object, the answer would most certainly be yes. But with tuition soaring into the stratosphere, a business degree is not always an entrepreneur’s best bet.

In the US, small businesses make up 99.7% of firms, according to the Small Business Administration. Of these, over three-quarters are sole proprietorships or partnerships employing only the business owners, and over half are home-based. Some small businesses grow and become medium-size or large firms, while many others die off (roughly 50% within the first 5 years). Many small businesses are designed to stay small, so-called “lifestyle businesses,” whose main purpose is to provide a steady income, not to become the next Uber.

With such uncertain odds and differing motivations, it’s no surprise that when faced with the choice between investing in the business itself or plunking down $100K for a business education of unknown ROI, many small business owners forego the degree. In some ways, that’s just smart business. In other ways it’s a shame, since small business owners, managers of family businesses, and people who are planning to start a small business one day could certainly pick up some valuable skills from a graduate business education.


A Better Alternative for Small Business Owners


Enter massive open online courses. For this demographic, as for many others, a MOOC-based business education offers an attractive alternative to a pricey MBA degree.


Start your future with a Business Analytics Certificate.

Business education for small and family-owned businesses is a topic of great personal interest to me, both as an international development professional and as an entrepreneur.  Worldwide, small and family-owned businesses make up the vast majority of all firms. In the Latin American and African economies I’ve worked in, there isn’t a lot of venture capital sloshing around, so new businesses are often built by bootstrapping or taking out bank loans. These entrepreneurs may not have money to spend on a business degree, but they do need to pick up business skills in order to be successful in their new ventures. Additionally, I myself started a small business as part of my No-Pay MBA education. The experience was the ultimate capstone to my business studies, and it brought home the importance of a business education that delivers value, no matter the size of the enterprise.

These entrepreneurs may not have money to spend on a business degree, but they do need to pick up business skills in order to be successful in their new ventures.

If you are running a small business, or looking to start one, you can pick up much of what you need through free and low-cost courses. They key is finding courses that are highly practical and tailored toward your needs as an entrepreneur. Below are a few of my top recommendations.


Introduction to Operations Management


This course will train you to view your business with the critical eye of an operations manager, looking for opportunities to improve efficiency in every repeating process. From filing, to stocking, to customer service, you are bound to find many areas of your business that could benefit from a bit of operational analysis and a few tweaks to pick up the slack.


How to Finance and Grow Your Startup Without VC


Did you know that some of the most successful, fastest-growing companies were built without venture financing? This includes companies like Dell, Shutterstock, GoPro, and many others. The perfect antidote to a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with venture capital. You will learn at least five other ways to finance your startup, all of which are less risky than seeking venture capital.

An Entire MBA In One Course

This comprehensive course is great for demystifying what happens at top business schools. Chris Haroun, venture capitalist and former management consultant, teaches a highly condensed, highly practical course. He covers all the major b-school topics in an intuitive way. In the section on accounting, for example, Haroun focuses not on accounting theory or manual bookkeeping. Rather, he talks about the kinds of accounting software and services that business of various sizes rely on. The section on finance, the least intuitive topic in the business curriculum, is where you’ll find the real meat of this course. Well worth the money, and readers of this blog can get 75% off the course using this link.

Intro to Financial Modeling

And while we’re on the topic of finance, many would-be and current entrepreneurs could benefit from learning the basics of financial modeling in Excel. This might sound intimidating, especially if you don’t have any prior business experience, but don’t worry! Modeling is just a method for identifying all the money coming into and going out of your business, making educated guesses about those flows, and mapping them out over time. This course offers an approachable take on the topic of financial modeling, using the example of a lemonade stand, a simple business.

Digital Branding and Engagement

Many brick-and-mortar businesses are behind the curve on digital marketing. Don’t have a digital marketing strategy? This course can help get you up to speed and get you thinking about opportunities to engage a digital audience.


If you run or plan to start a business, what courses have you found valuable? Share your favorites in the comments!


5 Strategies to Advance Your Career With MOOCs

Online courses can help you get ahead, if you’re smart about how you use them.

This article originally appeared on the blog of the MOOC platform edX


It’s official. Your MOOC coursework can improve your career. Last year, the Harvard Business Review reported on a survey of MOOC learners. Over 30% of those surveyed had experienced tangible career improvement as a result of their coursework, with 26% reporting that they had gotten a new job as a result of studying by MOOC. Others reported promotions, pay increases, and starting their own businesses.  A whopping 85% of respondents said that they had experienced some kind of career benefit from having taken one or more MOOCs.

I’m not surprised by these results, as I am among both those who have been promoted and those who have started a business as a result of a MOOC education. I’m also the facilitator of a community of independent business students and have worked with a number of professionals who have used MOOCs for career advancement. I’ve also spoken with recruiters, who are increasingly seeing MOOCs on candidates’ resumes. Based on these conversations and experiences, here are five strategies for using your MOOC education to get ahead.

Five Strategies for Turning a MOOC Education for Career Advancement


Strategy #1: Develop skills and savvy across a range of subjects.

MOOCs are an excellent way to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge that may come in handy on the job. For students and early-career learners in particular, MOOCs are a good way to explore new areas while you’re figuring out how your career will take shape. This strategy is particularly useful if you are interested in working in a startup, on a small team, or in a small company where a broad range of skills may be required.

One exceptional learner, Joris Schut, took over 140 MOOCs over a two-year period, while simultaneously studying as a full-time master’s student. Joris formally studied Educational Science and Technology as well as Information and Library Science (he holds a master’s degree in each) and used MOOCs to supplement his education with topics like business strategy and R coding.  After finishing his studies, Joris landed a job in a small design unit within Capgemini, a large IT/consulting firm in the Netherlands. He describes the work in his unit as “like running a startup inside a big organization.” As in any startup, versatility is required. “I can do strategy in the morning, chase down project managers at lunch, and code in R to automate sales reporting in the afternoon. A lot of what I learned through MOOCs, I apply here,” he says.


Strategy #2: Build and signal targeted skills.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a MOOC education can be an excellent  way to learn and demonstrate targeted skills. The recruiters I’ve spoken with are most positive about the resume-boosting benefits of skill-based courses. Learn to do data analysis in Hadoop, become an Excel whiz, or study supply chain logistics. Earn a certificate and build a portfolio of work to highlight on your resume, and this strategy just might make the difference between you and another candidate.

“Listing the course made the difference between her and other candidates. She got the job.”

Roberto Hernandez, founder of the recruiting agency Stffng, Inc., says that MOOC coursework is especially valuable when it builds concrete skills. For example, he tells of a candidate applying for a Sales Manager position whose resume included an online course on a particular software, which the employer relied upon heavily. “Listing the course made the difference between her and other candidates,” Hernandez says. “She got the job.” edX student Akshay Kulkarny employed the same strategy, using edX courses to build skills in Python programming and SaaS. His self-directed learning ultimately landed him a job at Microsoft. 


Strategy #3: Accelerate along your current track.



These days, good career management requires continual learning and development. MOOCs not only keep your skills and knowledge fresh, they may also help you move up more quickly. Many MOOC students say that their coursework has boosted their confidence at work. That confidence can translate into new opportunities and may ultimately lead to promotion.

While it may be hard to quantify, I know this strategy works since it’s the one I used to score a promotion within my current organization in the field of international development. My MOOC coursework on business strategy, entrepreneurship, and finance helped me see increased scope to engage with private sector businesses interested in poverty reduction. I became a better representative of my organization was able to raise our profile with potential partners. My work ultimately earned me a promotion and a sizable raise. To get started with this strategy, simply search for courses related to your field and sign up for one or two that look interesting. With just a couple of MOOCs under your belt, you may be surprised by the opportunities you start to see.

Strategy #4: Learn the language of a new industry to prepare for a lateral move.



If you have significant industry experience and have long occupied a certain kind of role, a MOOC education can help you take that experience into a similar role in a different industry. For example, let’s say your functional expertise is in communications. You’d like to make a move from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector. MOOCs on environmental issues, business ethics, sustainability, and global poverty can help you better understand the issues and terminology you will encounter and help you make that shift.

One learner I work with is a physician who is orchestrating a move from clinical care to product development in a fast-growing healthcare startup. Courses in entrepreneurship and human-centered design taught him the language and worldview of startups. In job interviews, he has wowed interviewers with his unique combination of medical expertise and business acumen. He now has his pick of positions with several of the hottest startups in the industry.

Strategy #5: Build experience outside your current role, a.k.a. Job Jiu-Jitsu


While all the recruiters I’ve talked with express a positive attitude towards MOOCs, multiple have commented that work experience is best. Direct experience performing tasks that are similar to what will be expected in a future position, they say, is far more valuable than even a traditional university degree. If you’d like to orchestrate a big move in the mid- to long-term future, a MOOC education can help you with a strategic play that I like to call “Job Jiu-Jitsu.”

Here’s how Job Jiu-Jitsu works:  Start by talking with your supervisor about your interest in taking on projects outside of your regular role. Explain that you are taking courses that have prepared you to do new kinds of work. Next, be on the lookout for projects that use your new skills, and volunteer when they come up. (Note that you can also take on special projects on a volunteer basis, outside of your place of employment.) Then, do an incredible job on the new work, making sure to produce outcomes that you can discuss in future job interviews. Finally, when you’re ready to make your move, highlight your work experience on your resume. You can choose to mention your MOOC coursework or not; your achievements are what matter most.

Whether you’re exploring your options, seeking targeted skills, or planning for a career transition, at least one of these strategies is likely to help you get ahead. Be sure to comment below if you’ve already seen career benefits from using one of these techniques!

Paying It Forward: How A Social Impact Entrepreneur Got a Business Education That Helps Her Make a Difference

Hillary Strobel got a debt-free business education and built the business of her dreams.

Three years ago, Hillary Strobel ditched a dead-end job to follow a childhood dream of creating a publishing company that could share inspiring stories. When she took that leap, she had some publishing experience but no training on how to run a business. So Hillary used MOOCs and a variety of other online resources to pursue the business education that could turn her dream into a reality. As one of the inaugural members of the No-Pay MBA Network, she has earned a world-class business education and built a global network.

Today, she runs The Flyways, a Social Impact Publishing house and a registered Benefit Corporation, which donates 25% of profits to social justice causes around the world. On the side, Hillary provides consulting services to other business owners looking to develop their own social impact programs.

I recently spoke with Hillary as she reflected on her No-Pay MBA experience.

No-Pay MBA: Can you take us back to the moment when you chose to pursue a No-Pay MBA? Why did you choose this method of study for your business education?

Hillary Strobel: Last summer (2015), I was taking a MOOC on gamification design, just for the heck of it. One day at my father’s office, he happened to see me on the computer taking the class. He had never heard of MOOCs before. When I told him that many of them are developed and offered through universities, he wondered if it was possible to get a degree using these classes. So I began to do some research and came across the No-Pay MBA blog. Within minutes of reading it, I knew it was for me.

My daughter wasn’t quite a year old at the time, and I knew I didn’t want to put her in full-time day-care, but that I also needed an education to get my ideas off the ground as legitimate businesses. I’m an ideas person, but I didn’t have the formal training to make most of those ideas sustainable in the long run. So the opportunity to get a stellar business education, from some of the world’s best schools, on the specific topics that would best serve my ideas, on my own schedule, was too good to pass up. I was able to take all of my classes while my daughter was napping or after she had gone to bed.

For someone in a vulnerable situation like myself (a single, working class mother), this vehicle for education is literally like manna from heaven. Many amazing things that are available to me today, because of this resource, may never have been attainable through more “traditional” avenues.

I’m an ideas person, but I didn’t have the formal training to make most of those ideas sustainable in the long run.

NPMBA: What has been the biggest surprise about your MOOC-based education?

HS: I’d say the biggest surprise was how easy it was to do this. I finished my education in slightly less than one year, while raising my daughter alone and simultaneously building a business. The classes were just across-the-board fun. The self-paced nature of the education helped quite a bit, as did the fact that I could take the courses I wanted.


NPMBA: You’ve taken quite a few courses on social entrepreneurship. How did you find enough high-quality, advanced content on that topic?

HS: At first, I just did Google searches for any class I could find on the subject. There were some excellent resources, like the European Business School, Germany’s Social Innovation course on Iversity and +Acumen’s Global Social Entrepreneurship on NovoEd. Eventually, I hit pay-dirt when I found a program on NovoEd for Social Sector Leadership, which is a collaboration between PhilanthropyU and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. This consisted of seven courses, including the best finance class I’ve ever taken (Financial Modeling for the Social Sector). It also garnered me a certification, which capped off my business education.

Build New Business Skills on Coursera

NPMBA: How have you incorporated networking into your studies?

HS: Members of the No-Pay MBA Network have become some of my closest friends and most trusted professional advisors/partners. I’ve also been able to co-create a mutually supportive mastermind group with some members as we progress into similar career plans.

In a typical brick and mortar b-school setting, it’s more likely that you would meet people in your own field or in similar straits, but through No-Pay MBA, I’ve met people from around the world who are working in ways that I never would have imagined. For example, in the process of taking the course Beyond Silicon Valley, I met one of the course assistants, a 74-year-old woman who is retired from a corporate career and is now building a second career as a mentor to female entrepreneurs. She has made many things possible for me, including introducing me to another woman who was my book-writing accountability partner, which in turn has led to a spot as a presenter and a position on the Advisory Executive Committee at the Women Economic Forum in 2017. All of this was possible from taking a single course and meeting the right person.

Taking so many classes also made it possible to be invited to join +Acumen’s newly formed Acumen Corps. This networking opportunity was really made possible by my own drive to take a large number of +Acumen’s courses and show up in a big way for them. The Acumen network will make my newest business project possible, as it is based on a +Acumen class I took, and I will be building on relationships I have with individuals in the Corps and the organization itself. 

All of this was possible from taking a single course and meeting the right person. 

One thing I’ve learned is not to waste any networking opportunity! Everybody has something to offer, so go into the room knowing that anyone you meet can help you in some way, and vice versa. Often, a random encounter can lead to something amazing, even if it’s months down the line.

NPMBA: What advice do you have for people pursuing independent business studies or contemplating their options for business education?


HS: I estimate, truthfully, that I’ve spent less than $100 to obtain everything from this business education. Pretty much every course I took was free. I paid for one workshop and one course certificate in the course of the entire year. I cannot stress enough, as a single parent, how incredible it is to be able to say my education was so inexpensive, along with the fact that I didn’t have to pay for day-care or transportation.

Pursuing independent studies means motivating yourself and driving your own car. You might have a destination in mind, but the road getting there is going to be curvy and bumpy and full of potholes. You might even find yourself on a totally different road than the one you started out on. But what a glorious time getting there, if you’re willing to travel like this!

Another thing I would recommend is a mixture of courses, workshops, real-life projects, internships, and mentorship experiences. It’s quite unlikely that you’re going to develop a robust skill set via a single learning methodology.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was this: “Don’t yell at the seeds you’ve planted to hurry up and grow! Let them sprout and become their fullest embodiments at the pace they are intended to grow. Because everything you plant will indeed grow someday.”


Learn more about Hillary’s education by checking out her portfolio. You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, Medium, and LinkedIn


Do you have a story to share about a self-directed business education?

No-Pay MBA is always looking for inspiring stories of learner success.

Let us know in the comments below or reach out through the contact page

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