If you’ve been following this blog and the No-Pay MBA project, you may be curious about how things are going with the No-Pay MBA Network that launched in July.
If you’re just finding us, here’s the 5-second recap: My name is Laurie, and I’m using MOOCs to get an education equivalent to an MBA. I recently launched a networking service for MOOC business students, to replicate what many people see as the most valuable component of a traditional MBA program.
The network has been going for about two months now, and I am greatly enjoying watching it take shape. The first cohort of the network is in many ways a pilot. Many of the members of the first cohort of the network are themselves interested in entrepreneurship; part of the appeal of being part of the network in its early stages is getting to help build it. In the short time that we’ve been working together, this group of 35 people has already greatly improved upon the initial offering, suggesting and implementing more and better ways to collaborate.
Bootstrapping a business education
In many conversations I’ve had with members of the network, the word that seems to best fit what we’re doing is “bootstrapping.” For those less familiar with the American vernacular, “to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” is an expression commonly used to talk about a process of self-betterment undertaken without a lot of outside help.
Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is not a new concept; according to Wikipedia, Americans have been using the term since at least the mid-1800s. More recently in business, bootstrapping has come to mean starting a business without external help or capital.
I like to think of the No-Pay MBA Network as a bootstrap model of business school. The members are helping to pull each other up without the external help of an institution. Together, we’re undertaking a process of self-betterment and helping each other to reap the benefits of an MBA education without going thousands of dollars into debt in traditional MBA degree programs.
The bootstrap network effect
One important way we’re helping each other is by acting as one another’s classmates in a virtual business school environment. Network members are connecting through various channels of communication, working on course projects together and helping one another to stay motivated.
Just as in a regular MBA program, there is great value in cultivating a peer network, building strong connections with the future founders and chief executives who are studying alongside you. By connecting with one another early in your careers, the hope is that you will pull one another along, building and sharing in one another’s success. Maybe you join forces and found a company as startup entrepreneurs. Perhaps you or your friend winds up working at a company that the other finds interesting and can offer a personal recommendation. Your peer network is a long-term investment whose value grows over time.
As one member of the No-Pay MBA recently put it, “Over time, our network could lead to successful startups - who knows?! We should always dare to keep on dreaming big, and each and every member is striving to make these dreams a reality as much for his/her fellow No-Pay MBA members as for him-/herself!”
The No-Pay MBA learning laboratory
There is a second way the No-Pay MBA Network is bootstrapping a business education, something I didn’t totally foresee when I first designed the network.
I’m a big believer in hands-on learning. In my opinion, hours spent in the classroom (whether brick-and-mortar or virtual) don’t add up to much unless you’ve had the chance to put your skills into practice. For me, first this blog and now the business have served as my laboratory (in addition to several other hands-on experiences, e.g. as described here and here).
Now, in addition to the benefits of having a community, network members are also finding ways to use No-Pay MBA as a place to practice the skills they are learning in online courses and elsewhere.
One small team is working with me on A/B testing, putting into practice an important concept in digital marketing. Another team is applying concepts from a course on user experience to improve the members area of the website. All of us are honing our skills in project management, coordinating geographically disparate learning and project teams using a variety of tools. As time goes on, network members will continue to work on projects with one another as of honing their new skills.
One of my goals for the network is to have every member walk away from the experience with a strong portfolio of work to complement and add credibility to their studies.
Much more than MOOCs
So, while MOOCs are the backbone of the No-Pay MBA curriculum, the real value No-Pay MBA is providing to its members (even the early adopters in the first cohort) is in networking and connecting members with hands-on learning experiences. So far, it’s going just fine.
How much of the $150,000 - $200,000 that MBA students in top programs spend on business school is for the value of having a great network?
A third? Half?
While we may not be able to pinpoint a dollar-value for the business school network, we can probably agree that it is a significant part of the value of attending an MBA program.
That’s why when I started my project to get the equivalent of an MBA using free massive open online courses (MOOCs), I knew that I would need to be deliberate about building a great network to match the top-tier education that had suddenly become available for free.
Here’s how I did it - and how you can build a network to rival any business school grad’s.
Choose what you want to be known for
You don’t have to be the first, the only, or even the best at what you’re passionate about in order to engage in the conversation; I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that it’s possible to get a business education outside of a university. I’m not even the first person to think of getting an MBA equivalent using MOOCs.You do, however, have to put yourself out into the world, even if you don’t feel totally ready. When I began blogging about using MOOCs to get a business education, I didn’t yet have any credibility in the business world. Over time, I’ve managed to turn my website into an excellent lead-generator for connecting with fellow students, advisors, and potential employers. Now it’s just as likely that I’ll be contacted by a fellow ed tech entrepreneur as the other way around. But it didn’t start out that way.
To start growing your network, begin by identifying what you want to be known for. Then work on bringing your public persona in line with your aspirations. This sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
Comment on blog posts, share articles on social media, tweet about what’s happening in your field, guest post on a blog. Create your own blog or website, or just rock your social media profiles. If you don’t feel totally confident at first, that’s okay. Confidence comes later. Just get started.
Approach networking as relationship building, not trophy hunting
I’ve gotten some amazing publicity, and I’ve been fortunate to get to talk to some of the luminaries of education, people like edX CEO Anant Agarwal. But networking is not trophy hunting.
What has made my network great is engaging with people again and again, finding out where my contacts’ goals align with mine, and being genuine and helpful. That approach has paid off a thousand fold.
A write-up is nice, but the chance to build a new relationship with someone who shares my passion for tech-enabled business education is better.
Your network should include a mix of peers, mentors, and people who can connect you to opportunities. The thing is, you don’t always know which are which. Don’t neglect building relationships with your peers just because they might not be able to help you today. Opportunities can arise from many places. By the same token, don’t be afraid to circle back to big shots you’ve been fortunate enough to make contact with.
Be a human online
The internet can feel impersonal, but I’ve learned that you can change your experience of the internet by treating all interactions as human ones. It’s incredible how far you can get with people when you approach them as human beings, even if you’re writing through a contact form.
My network includes many people I have never met face to face who are nonetheless trusted advisors, collaborators, and friends.
For starters, your LinkedIn profile should include a personal description that doesn’t make you sound like a resume-writing robot.
Next, when someone’s work inspires you, don’t be afraid to reach out to let them know. This goes especially for people who are building something from scratch. My experience is that these are the people who are most receptive to engaging with those who care about the work they’re doing. I’ve managed to make personal connections with many entrepreneurs, writers, and professors whose work I admire, simply by reaching out online in a way that is respectful, appreciative, and human.
Don’t be afraid to be one of the first people dancing
Derek Sivers gives a great TED Talk in which he breaks down how social movements start, using a fantastic video that begins with one guy dancing at a concert. The first person to start dancing seems crazy, the next few to join in risk looking foolish alongside him, but then suddenly everyone joins in. New projects have a similar trajectory.
Being one of the first people dancing - while you’re still visible and exposed - can be scary, but it can also lead to great rewards. No one is building a future on dancing at a concert, so the metaphor breaks down there, but many of the most exciting new companies are built on communities and social movements. Being one of the early joiners can pay off in a big way.
In my case, I am that person dancing alone in a field. Or at least I was. Some people have started dancing with me, but we’re still a small enough group to be able to know one another personally. If you find a movement you can get excited about, don’t be afraid to join in at an early stage.
If you’re inspired by No-Pay MBA’s project of re-imaging business education, taking the content and the people and the resources that are out there and putting them back together as a new breed of business education, then I invite you to join in.
In the spirit of this entire project, I am excited to share my network with you and to build it further with your help. I am looking for those peers, mentors, and providers of opportunity who share my enthusiasm and a desire shape the future of business education.
Will you be one of them?
It’s widely accepted that one of the most valuable components of a traditional MBA is the business school network. For aspiring entrepreneurs, some of the most valuable connections in that network are peers who may one day become co-founders or business collaborators.
After the degree question, one of the questions I am asked most frequently about my No-Pay MBA is whether I am missing out on MBA network. The answer? Not at all! Over the course of my studies, I have built an incredible network of MOOC MBA students, ed tech entrepreneurs, and others.
Even without the advantages that come from blogging and being covered by the media, I believe it is possible for you to build an incredible network to go along with your MOOC-based business studies, particularly if you are interested in entrepreneurship or in working for a startup.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to introduce you to Kevin Meldau.
Kevin Meldau, Founder of Global Teaching Adventures
I met Kevin when he reached out to me to explore possibilities for collaboration. Kevin is a natural entrepreneur. Trained as a graphic designer, he worked for several years in graphic design, including on some very high-profile projects. But while he enjoyed the design aspect of the work, he found the overall work environment too restrictive.
So, a few years into a very promising graphic design career in his native South Africa, he ditched it all and moved to Thailand with a backpack and little else. After trekking around the country for several months, Kevin started to notice that schools in many smaller towns were desperate for English teachers. Again and again, in town after town, he was asked if he would be willing to provide some instruction to students who had never interacted with a native speaker of English.
Kevin wanted to help, but by himself he could only work with a limited number of schools at a time. He saw an opportunity both to help out more schools and to provide travel experiences for English-speakers with a desire to explore Asia. Fast forward a few years, and Kevin’s company Global Teaching Adventures trains people to teach English and places them in school in Thailand, South Korea, and China.
“Asian society is class-oriented. If you are poor, there are few opportunities to move up in life. The one concrete path to middle class for lower-income Asians is through learning to speak English,” says Kevin. “I tell all of our English teachers that they should feel proud to be teaching something that is so important in helping to build more prosperous lives.”
As an education entrepreneur, Kevin is always excited about building his business acumen and exploring new developments in his field. MOOC-based business education sits right at the intersection of those two themes, and that is what brought Kevin to me.
In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, a MOOC MBA student, and a key member of my startup team, Kevin is also a brilliant networker. I have learned a great deal from his approach to networking, and I’d like to share some of those lessons.
Below are some tips on building your network during a No-Pay MBA by networking like an entrepreneur, based on Kevin’s methods.
How to Network Like An Entrepreneur
1. Know the trends in your industry.
A first step in networking like an entrepreneur is to understand the trends affecting the industry you are in or would like to move into. What are the potential disruptors? What innovation is taking place? Who is writing and speaking about the industry? Where are those conversations happening? What publications, websites, and discussion forums are most active with conversation about changes in the industry? What is the media coverage of the industry?
Kevin recognized the potential of MOOC education to change his industry. He saw that No-Pay MBA was one of the places where the conversation about MOOC education was taking place, and he wanted to be involved. “I have a feeling that MOOC culture is going to blow up in a big way,” Kevin told me. “Being on the first wave of this really excites and motivates me.”
2. Find your peers.
It’s all well and good to know the names of the CEOs of the most prominent companies in your industry. But don’t start by reaching out to people at the very top. Instead, look for people who are working in the industry at a variety of levels, including people who are at the same level in their careers as you are, or who are just a bit farther along than you are. How do you do that? Search LinkedIn, check out who is active on discussion forums, reach out to people in MOOC courses, or go old school and ask people you know personally if they can introduce you to anyone. Take part in the discussions that are happening, and make connections with people who share your interests.
Kevin and I were both students in MITx’s Entrepreneurship 101 and 102. Business MOOCs in general - and these two courses in particular - are a great place to meet future founders and collaborators, just as Erdin Beshimov suggested when I spoke with him and Professor Bill Aulet about MOOC education.
3. Reach out to people who are building something and make a great first impression.
People who are already building something - whether that be a company, a blog, a website, an online community - are a great resource to have in your network, and they are usually very open to making new connections. The key is to make a good first impression. When Kevin reached out to me, I was immediately impressed with how he presented himself, and I wanted to know more about him. That is exactly the reaction you should strive for when contacting someone you don’t know. Your message should be short, to the point, and professional (i.e. no typos, no grammatical errors). It also helps to include a link to more information so that the person you are reaching out to can choose to learn more about you. That could be your LinkedIn profile, a personal website, or a portfolio.
Cold emailing is stressful, but Kevin recognizes that it can sometimes pay off in a big way. “I don’t do it often, but when I do, I keep the message short and to the point, and I almost never say what I want in the first message. I’ve gotten a positive reaction most of the time.”
4. Express genuine interest, and be helpful.
When people are passionate about something, they enjoy talking with others who share their passion. At the same time, most people are turned off by someone who is clearly trying to get something from them. This certainly goes for startup entrepreneurs, who are full of passion but also totally time-crunched. Therefore, when you reach out to someone, express interest in their work and in learning more about it. Don’t lead with a request for their time or their help. Instead, start by establishing common ground, expressing a desire to learn more, and being helpful rather than asking for anything.
Given his background in graphic design, Kevin was able to offer some graphic design help to me that has been absolutely critical to the launch of my business. (He designed my new logo! Isn’t it cool?) But you don’t need to be a graphic designer to approach networking with a spirit of helpfulness. Helping out doesn’t have to be a big thing either. Sometimes simply making an introduction to someone in your network, providing feedback on something the person is working on, or sending a link to an article you discussed in your conversation is all it takes. When your new connection takes you up on your offer to help, be prompt and professional, and you will go a long way towards cementing the relationship.
5. Build on the connections you’ve already made.
This is where I have been truly impressed with Kevin as a networker. My dream for the No-Pay MBA community is to build a network among MOOC MBA students that is as valuable as the traditional business school network. This is a service I am not even officially offering yet, but seeing how Kevin has engaged with No-Pay MBA’s connections has given me great confidence that such a network can indeed be built. Through the existing No-Pay MBA network, as small and informal as it is, Kevin has found SEO services for Global Teaching Adventures, explored possibilities for an import-export business, and talked with several entrepreneurs in the MOOC space, all by building on our initial connection and shared interests.