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.