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Masters in Business Artistry: When MBAs Get Hands-On

Models and simulations are great, but startups require intuition and artistry.

This week, Andrew follows up on his introduction promise and writes a little about Boba Guys from the perspective of an MBA graduate.

Business schools are not exactly targeting entrepreneurs looking to start boba shops, so not everything I learned there is applicable at our shop; that said, I hope to draw some ties.

I recently read an interesting GOOD article on about how Harvard is experimenting with a more “hands-on” approach to business school. As an MBA, I've always felt that the most enriching experiences in school combine application and theory. Since officially starting work on Boba Guys in September, my perspective on business has evolved a bit, especially as my two years of business school memories fade into the background.

My first “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not a Kansas anymore” moment came when Bin and I went to buy restaurant supplies. In school, we get a conceptual understanding about inventory and cost accounting. Even the simulations, though extremely fun and illustrative, could not prepare me for some of mundane, real-world operational issues. It finally hit home when we had pots, pans, induction burners, measuring cups, and containers littered across the tiny living room of my San Francisco condo. Where was this part of the story when I read The Goal? By the way, The Goal is a fantastic, though melodramatic, read for people curious about operations.

Some of my training in came in handy, as I was able to model some of the queuing problems and throughput times when we had to figure out how to move all our supplies and drinks from location to location. The most helpful skill I got from business school is the ability to solve a problem by dissecting it into digestible pieces. If only all problems were mechanical!

The analogy used by the professor in my favorite class of all time, game theory, is that the tools learned in school are not a magic key—you can’t expect them to open every lock you find. In my opinion, most business lessons and principles are more artistic than scientific.

In my pricing class, I learned how to measure a product’s price elasticity—how much a change in price affects volume— but quickly realized that the models typically apply to sizable businesses with large data sets and a lot of time on their hands. In a startup, prices are largely strategic choices that rely more on intuition and common sense than on a robust model. If anything, an iterative model, which relies more on technology and a feedback loop than static pricing analysis, is more ideal. I would still take that class over again in a heartbeat, but it illustrates a point that I only realized until after finishing school—business, or even life, is not something you can always model or rationalize.

MBAs sometimes get a bad rap for all sorts of reasons—both good and bad—but it defines very little of me. I loved my two years at a fantastic school, but my experience starting Boba Guys is just as stimulating and challenging. In later entries, I will share more about my perspective and keep it real.

The Boba Guys share their adventures in food enterprise every Monday.

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