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!


The First Truly Free MBA Degree

The Smartly MBA is 100% online and 100% free for students.

Folks, hang onto your hats. The free MBA has finally arrived. Over the past several years we’ve seen a variety of business education options tailored toward price-sensitive students. Starting around 2012, MOOCs made it possible to get a top-tier business education for free, minus the degree of course. (That, of course, was the goal that launched this website.)

Last year, the University of Illinois launched its iMBA, a MOOC-based MBA degree for $20,000 - still a big chunk of change but much more affordable than a typical top-25 MBA program. Then, earlier this year the University of the People introduced a “tuition-free” MBA, though students still need to pay about $2,000 in testing fees to get the credential.

But, a new provider, Smartly, has done them all one better. Smartly is offering the first truly free MBA degree. Not a scholarship, not free-to-audit, but a fully free business education resulting in an MBA degree.

How the Smartly MBA Works


The Smartly MBA is delivered online through a highly interactive technology application. No PowerPoint, no lectures. To complete each lesson, students must interact with the system constantly, every 8.7 seconds on average. The curriculum includes 600 lessons on 9 business subjects, a full MBA education.

The program is one hundred percent free for students. Smartly makes its money on the back end, by charging recruitment fees to the employers Smartly expects will eagerly snap up its graduates. Job placement is an integral part of Smartly’s offering.

Students are accepted by application only. A first cohort has recently been selected and has started studying. For this first round, all students are US-based, though the second cohort and future cohorts will include international students.

Become a Web Developer in 2016 with Coursera

Perhaps even more incredible than its price is that fact that students can finish the program in just four to eight months. Even at the outside, that’s less than half the time it takes to complete a traditional MBA.

The Smartly MBA was created by a company called Pedago, which was founded by Tom Adams, Alexie Harper, and Ori Ratner, all of whom worked together at the language learning company Rosetta Stone. The Smartly MBA is built on Pedago’s interactive web and mobile app. “We had succeeded in bringing active learning principles to the language learning market, but were frustrated that most of the online learning industry was stuck in the lecture-and-broadcast mode of instruction. So we decided to start Pedago with the mission of delivering mobile-first, bite-sized lessons on an active learning platform that could support content in any subject-area,” says Harper, Chief Product Officer at Pedago.

“We were frustrated that most of the online learning industry was stuck in the lecture-and-broadcast mode of instruction.”

Is it really an MBA?


At present, the Smartly MBA is not accredited, meaning it hasn’t been reviewed and accepted by one of the official bodies that accredits business schools. However, Smartly is licensed to offer an MBA degree by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in Washington, DC. Smartly decided to launch their offering into the marketplace without waiting to complete the lengthy accreditation process, which can take multiple years. Smartly does plan to seek accreditation in the future.

“These aren’t your typical online MBA students. These are Ivy Leaguers, entrepreneurs, investors, top-tier coders, consultants, and graphic designers.”

Who’s doing it?


The typical Smartly student has already achieved considerable academic and career success. That is certainly the case with Yash Jain, one of the members of the inaugural Smartly cohort. Jain currently works as a strategic business development consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. His a long term goal is to become a venture capitalist in the area of health technology. Jain holds an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering from The George Washington University and a graduate degree in Biotechnology and Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania. He describes his ideal professional role as “the bridge between the engineering and business worlds.”

While Jain did have some hesitation about joining an unknown and untested online MBA program, he says those fears evaporated once he started to meet the other members of his incoming class. “These aren’t your typical online MBA students,” he says.  “These are Ivy Leaguers, entrepreneurs, investors, top-tier coders, consultants, and graphic designers.”  


The catch? You probably won’t get in


Does a free MBA sound too good to be true? Well, for most people, it still is. Smartly advertises itself as “the world’s most selective MBA.” With an acceptance rate under 7% and an average GMAT score among accepted students topping 700, Smartly beats out programs like Harvard, Stanford and INSEAD when it comes to selectivity. So, while its technology program is scalable, Smartly serves the same kind of students that would typically be found in the most elite MBA programs. Members of Smartly’s first cohort have work histories that include Morgan Stanley, Accenture, KPMG, McKinsey and Company, and Google; and academic transcripts that include schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.

Going forward, Smartly plans to keep its MBA highly selective but says that the company is still solving an important problem for many talented students. Not everyone who who is able to get into a top MBA program can afford to go. With the Smartly MBA, price is not a barrier. Additionally, as the company expands, it plans to develop other programs and degrees that will be open as well as free.

Coursera Business Vertical



Smartly is currently accepting applications for its second cohort of students, slated to begin in late September 2016.

To apply visit


What do you think about the Smartly MBA? Is it a good option for people seeking an affordable business education? Let us know in the comments below!

Meet the Silicon Valley VC Who Squeezed An Entire MBA Into One Course

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Haroun wants to teach you everything you need to know about business.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.


My new favorite business course wasn’t produced by a business school, and it isn’t on any of the academic MOOC platforms. It is, however, the single most comprehensive, practical resource I have found for learning business on the cheap. An Entire MBA in One Course, created by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Haroun, is also one of the most popular courses on Udemy.

For obvious reasons, when I learned about a resource promising to be An Entire MBA in One Course, I had to check it out. Haroun’s background includes time at big-name finance and management consulting firms like Goldman Sachs, Citadel, and Accenture. He currently works at a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm and is a frequent guest lecturer at Bay Area business schools, including Berkeley and Stanford. Haroun received his MBA in finance from Columbia University.

If anyone can teach the entire MBA curriculum in a single course, Haroun certainly has the resume to do it.


Entrepreneurs, this course is for you


Incredibly, An Entire MBA in One Course  is pretty much as advertised. Haroun manages to distill the most important parts of his own MBA in finance, as well as his years on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley into a single, jam-packed course. Haroun follows a hypothetical company from birth through maturity.  While the course is geared towards entrepreneurs planning to seek funding for a startup, it is filled with insights that translate beyond startup world. An Entire MBA in One Course is fast-paced but accessible, and Haroun’s palpable enthusiasm keeps interest high.

As someone who has been in literally dozens of online courses, this one stood out to me for its practical usefulness and grounding in real-world experience. If you are an entrepreneur looking for concrete information that can help you start a company, raise money, and grow into a great manager, this is the course for you. But even as someone who isn’t planning to raise venture capital, I found Haroun’s tips on networking, sales, and presentations to be highly insightful.  


Chris Haroun’s advice about your business education


I recently caught up with Chris Haroun to ask him a few questions about business education, career management, and his experience teaching one of the most popular business courses on Udemy.

Note: Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Laurie Pickard:  What inspired you to become an educator, and what do you get out of writing and teaching?

Chris Haroun: One of my students called me up for mentoring, and she works at Udemy. So I checked it out, and I thought, this place is unbelievable. It reminded me of YouTube in the early days. Udemy is the quintessential education platform that is going to democratize the global education market. I was blown away.  And I decided to put up a course. I already had the slides.

I’m incredibly bullish on ed-tech because if you fix education, and if you incentivize people who teach, you can attract the best and the brightest. And I believe that with education every problem gets solved. Literally every problem in the world can be solved with education.


LP: Given all the materials and resources that are available today, I’m curious whether you think a traditional MBA is a good investment. How would you advise people who are considering their options for business education?

Every problem in the world can be solved with education.

CH: I think an MBA is worth it if you want to change careers. If you’re happy in the career track you’re on, I don’t think you need it at all. When it comes to business, I believe that business is common sense, except for two aspects of it, accounting and finance. You have to learn that language.


LP: Entrepreneurs pitch to you a lot. What would you think of an entrepreneur who had opted to take their business education into their own hands rather than pursuing a traditional MBA?

I never judge someone based on their education. All I care about is their passion for their industry.

CH: It’s different here in the Bay Area. There are fewer barriers. I never judge someone based on their education. All I care about is their passion for their industry. I see five- or six- hundred business plans per year. It never comes up where they go to school. My favorite success stories, and when I teach, my favorite students, are the ones who are poor, smart, and hungry. It doesn’t really do much to say, “I have an MBA from a top school.” I’m a firm believer in common sense and passion.

No-Pay MBA is thrilled that Chris Haroun is offering his course to our readers for 50% off!!  An Entire MBA in One Course normally costs $40. Use the link below to get it for $20.

An Open Letter to Coursera

Dear Coursera,


Let me start by saying that I love what you do. Having used MOOCs to put together a business education equivalent to an MBA, and now as someone who gives advice and guidance to people seeking high-quality, debt-free business education, I am a major proponent of your work.


Which is why I feel compelled to say something about your newest revenue model, in which you charge students for access to quizzes and assessments.


Since this is an open letter, let me break it down for people who aren’t as intimately familiar with your services as I am. Coursera offers massive open online courses - MOOCs - taught by university professors from well-respected institutions of higher learning. At first, these courses were totally free, including a certificate if you finished a course. Then Coursera started offering identity-verified certificates for a fee, and gradually free certificates were phased out. Most recently, Coursera has adopted a new model in which it is still possible to watch course videos for free, but users must pay a course fee in order to access quizzes and assignments.


Coursera, I understand that you need to find a way to earn money. After all, it is expensive to create and deliver university courses, even online. But this latest model feels like a big step toward the closure of a resource that was so exciting precisely because it was radically and truly open.


When MOOCs first appeared, they seemed almost too good to be true. It was thrilling to be part of such a bold experiment in higher education. What would happen if everyone in the world were able access courses taught by the brightest minds on the planet? Would people be interested in free university courses? (Yes.) Would they find value in the courses? (Big yes.) Would employers recognize the additional knowledge and skills being transferred through MOOCs?


The answer to this last question is still unknown. And in chipping away at the foundation of free-ness upon which MOOCs were initially built, you’re making it more risky for us to try to find out. You’re also facing a PR problem, as even die-hard MOOC fans begin to question whether pseudo-free courses, where the assignments are hidden behind a paywall, are as exciting as truly free ones.  

Rather than gradually closing off your courses, what about focusing instead on value-adding products and services that can complement them?

I’ll continue recommending Coursera courses to readers of the No-Pay MBA blog. You continue to have the biggest and best catalogue of business courses around. But I’m disappointed by the incremental reductions in offerings that were once available for free. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. I am writing this letter on behalf of the MOOC students in my community, many of whom have expressed their frustration in our community discussion forums.


I have to wonder, rather than gradually closing off your courses, could you instead focus on value-adding products and services that can complement them?  

I would be excited to recommend to my readers the following course add-ons, some of which you are already piloting:

  • Mentorship. One of the big criticisms of MOOCs is that completion rates are low. Your new mentor-guided courses seem like a great way to boost motivation, keep people on track, and give them a way to form the kinds of relationships that make in-person education so transformative.


  • Assignments graded by experts. Rather than charge for computer-graded quizzes and peer-graded assignments, why not add assignments that are graded by professors, graduate students, or industry professionals? Additional assignments, for which students receive feedback from subject matter experts could be highly valuable.


  • Industry connections and job placement. Not everyone who takes a MOOC is looking for a new job. And that’s fine. In fact, that is what’s so wonderful about these courses. They allow people to explore. But for those who are not just tourists in the world of online education, the big value is in bridging the distance between where they are professionally and where they want to be. And that means making connections with industry. You’ve already started working on this with industry-designed capstone projects. Why not help some of the top MOOC performers get interviewed by top companies and then charge a recruiter’s fee if they end up getting a new job placement?


These are just a few ideas of how you could boost your revenues without alienating your current base. You won our gratitude and our admiration with free courses. You can keep it by building additional value on top of them, without taking away what made us love you in the first place.



Laurie Pickard

Founder, No-Pay MBA

What will you learn this year? 3 ways to use MOOCs in 2016

It’s New Year’s resolution time. Apparently MOOC platform edX’s new year’s resolution was to create a ton of new business and management content. edX has a bunch of great courses coming online in the new year, including some on specialized topics that aren’t covered on other platforms. This is great news for MOOC business students and a good sign that we will continue to see increases in the number and variety of courses available to us.

edX’s expanded business content provides a helpful starting point for showing the range of ways to use MOOCs. Whatever your professional goals, here are three ways MOOCs can help you reach them. 

1. To become more productive, whatever your industry

Some of the most popular MOOCs cover topics that apply to nearly every industry. Leadership, time management, design thinking, and communication are a few such subjects. One of edX’s new courses is project management from Australia’s University of Adelaide. Project management is one of my favorite topics, and I find that I learn new tricks from every course I take, even though I have been managing projects for years. Another edX course I’m excited about is Get Beyond Work-Life Balance from Catalyst. One of the interesting things about this course is that it was developed not by a university but a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women advance in business.  Get Beyond Work-Life Balance is a self-paced course and is part of a series of Catalyst courses on inclusive leadership. The next course in the series, Becoming a Successful Leader, starts mid-January.

2. To learn about a particular industry

You can also use MOOCs as an introduction to an industry. For example, edX has a new course on hospitality management from Cornell University, a must-take if this is an industry you are considering moving into, especially given that Cornell is home to one of the top programs in hospitality. For entrepreneurs, edX’s new course on getting venture financing for a startup could be the start to your journey into the world of venture-backed startups. Take this course on its own or after learning the basics of entrepreneurship in MITx’s popular suite of courses, User Innovation, Understanding Your Customer, and What Can You Do For Your Customer?

Online education allows learners of all ages to be life-long learners and acquire new skills or brush up on the latest business trends.

3. To achieve expertise, or as a pathway to a professional degree

This is where things get interesting. Are MOOCs meant to be previews of coming attractions, or are they feature films? Universities seem torn on this issue, and it is fun watching them negotiate what must be a sometimes frightening new reality. On the one hand, MOOCs have the potential to open up new revenue streams; on the other hand they have the potential to cannibalize the core business of the university. Many universities would be happy to have MOOCs act primarily as marketing materials for the programs that produce them, serving perhaps as a pipeline for admissions into traditional programs.  

But the real movers and shakers are dabbling with more radical alternatives.   For example, last year MIT announced a new way of getting a master’s degree. Through edX, students can take a semester’s worth of courses from MIT’s highly-ranked Supply Chain Management program. They can then spend one semester on campus to earn a master’s degree. Or, students can complete just the online portion of the program and earn what MIT is calling a MicroMaster’s in supply chain management.   Perhaps the most exciting part of the supply chain master’s program is that it relies on an inverted admissions process. The supply chain courses on edX are open to the public. Admissions into the master’s program is based on completion of those courses. Hence, admissions happens after a student has demonstrated mastery, not just potential. Classes start February 10, 2016.   I’m certainly partial to status quo-challenging approaches like the MicroMaster’s and professional certifications such as the one edX offers on mergers and acquisitions, which provide affordable options for career transformation without taking on massive debt or leaving the workforce. As CEO Anant Agarwal explains, edX is committed to continuing to offer more of this kind of content.

“We know that professionals and employers are interested in new forms of credentials that demonstrate in-depth knowledge and skill. And, online education allows learners of all ages to be life-long learners and acquire new skills or brush up on the latest business trends. It also affords an evolutionary path for universities in the face of mounting costs, and a way to leverage technology to blend online and on-campus learning pathways.”


Making your New Year’s Resolution

With all these great courses coming online in early 2016, it’s the perfect time to set a learning goal for the year. What’s yours?

altMBA: Business education by Seth Godin



Question: What would business school look like if it were designed by marketing guru Seth Godin?  

Answer: It would be immersive and intimate, accessible from anywhere in the world, and focused on shipping a ridiculous number of projects in a short time frame.

Seth’s latest venture, altMBA, is precisely that program.


A four-week sprint with peers from around the world

altMBA is a 4-week intensive business education that blurs the line between online and in-person.  The curriculum centers around hands-on projects, created by Seth Godin, which participants complete in small groups. While the program is designed for maximum person-to-person engagement, participants are not physically together; the entire experience takes place in an online environment.

I recently got the chance to speak with Winnie J. Kao, who is the director of the program and a strong voice in the world of marketing in her own right. She explained to me that the short-term, intensive nature of the programs is one of its main benefits. If you were doing it on your own, you might give up. But because you’re in this 4 week sprint, you’ve already paid the tuition, and your group is counting on you. It makes it hard to leave, so you stick it out. When you stick it out, you give yourself a shot to get through the dip. You trudge along doing the hard parts because your group will kindly call you out when you’re avoiding difficult decisions, and you make it through on the other side,” she said.

Winnie also explained that one of the most important things she has learned by running altMBA has to do with the power of technology to enable true, meaningful, and lasting connections to form. “When altMBA alumni meet up for the first time in person, after an intense month of working daily together online, it feels as if we’ve known each other for years. Alumni meet up all over the world for barbecues, dinners, and mastermind groups, and continue to support each other long after the sprint ends. We connect one another to relevant colleagues, root for each other, and celebrate when people get promotions, launch products, launch companies. It’s a beautiful thing.”

“If you were doing it on your own, you might give up. But because you’re in this 4 week sprint, you’ve already paid the tuition, and your group is counting on you. It makes it hard to leave, so you stick it out.” 

-Winnie J. Kao


Why I’m blogging about the competition

So why would I spend a blog post to tell you about a program that could be seen as a competitor to No-Pay MBA? Here’s why:


I think you’ll be interested in altMBA

I see No-Pay MBA readers as being savvy and inquisitive, interested in a variety of unconventional approaches to business education. You’re high achievers, not status seekers, so you’re excited about transformative educational experiences whether or not they come with a degree from a brand-name institution. As Winnie J. Kao told me, “altMBA is for people who are hungry to do more and be better. It’s for people who see possibility and reasons to say yes. People who are ready to level up.”  I would describe No-Pay MBA’s audience in the same terms.

When I choose topics to write about, I think back to myself pre-No-Pay MBA, when I was thinking about how I could get the transformative business education I sought without going tens of thousands of dollars into debt. Many No-Pay MBA readers are in a similar situation. My goal with this blog is to make you aware of your options and to help you make the best decisions about your business education. altMBA is a program I would have been interested in (in fact, I still am); by extension I assume that No-Pay MBA readers will want to know about it.


I don’t see altMBA as competition

I don’t really see altMBA as competition, for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s at a different price point than No-Pay MBA. Tuition for altMBA is $3,000 - much more affordable than traditional business school, but still significantly more expensive than joining No-Pay MBA’s network.

The curricula also differ significantly. No-Pay MBA is MOOC-based, while the course materials for altMBA’s curriculum were created by Seth Godin. Furthermore, altMBA is a sprint, whereas No-Pay MBA is a marathon. altMBA requires a serious number of hours over just a few weeks. A No-Pay MBA is a bit more fluid, designed to be completed in 18-24 months and adaptable to all kinds of schedules. There are pluses and minuses to both models, but they’re different enough to appeal to different people.


Now is the time for online learning with a human touch

Truth is, I feel validated by altMBA. Smart, famous people like Seth Godin and Winnie J. Kao agree with me that you can have a transformative educational experience in an online community. That’s cool! They also agree that making human connections and putting skills into practice are key to having such a transformative experience.

I’m also excited that Seth Godin thinks that now is the time to launch a business that brings together online learning, human connection, and hands-on practice. Winnie described to me a blue-skies process that she and Seth went through to develop Seth’s next venture. They could have done literally anything, and altMBA is what they chose.


We’re all in this together

“Can I run a program like this on my own?” asks altMBA’s FAQs section.

“You can and we hope you will. I hope you can find twenty talented people, earn their commitment and together go through a process like this one. I know it works, and the transformation is extraordinary. We’re building this because most people have a hard time organizing something like this and a harder time keeping it moving.”

As someone who is in the trenches building such a group, Seth’s words ring true. It is difficult to organize a group of people to form a true learning community in a virtual environment. But when you get it right, it’s extraordinary.

When I started the No-Pay MBA project, MOOCs were in their infancy, and the MBA was still singular in the world of business education. Since then, so many exciting opportunities have emerged, many of them intimate, innovative, and entrepreneurial. I’m happy to use my small megaphone to get the message out about the ones I find most exciting.


Where to learn more

For more information about altMBA, check out their website at

I highly recommend Seth Godin’s Startup School Podcast, an excellent primer to both building a startup business and to the inspirational force that is Seth Godin.

Winnie J. Kao writes an excellent blog about marketing, filled with insights about culture and human psychology.

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