- Luisa Zhou is the creator of the Employee to Entrepreneur system, which teaches people how to leave their day job and start their own six-figure-plus business working for themselves. She's been featured in Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, Success magazine, and more. Get her free blueprint for building a profitable online business that frees you from the 9-to-5.
- Zhou argues that not having an MBA when she started her business was actually beneficial — and part of the reason why she's made over a million in revenue in less than a year.
- Not having debt — and having a steady income from past jobs — allowed her to invest heavily in getting her company off the ground.
- Not knowing what she didn't know also allowed her not to get stuck in the weeds worrying about nailing down her business plan or stressing about how hard starting a business is.
- And learning on the job forced her to be open to changing her way of thinking and make mistakes that became learning lessons.
- "It doesn't matter what you know. If you have an MBA, great. You still have plenty to learn. If you don't, that's fine, too. You'll learn as you go," she says.
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After about a year of college, I'd made up my mind. Getting my bachelor's degree was the last piece of formal education I was ever going to get. (More schooling just wasn't for me.)
So years later, when my friends and family advised me to get an MBA before starting my own business, guess what I said? "No thank you."
And I'm glad I did. Because here's how not having an MBA helped me grow my current business to over a million dollars in revenue in less than a year:
1. I had no debt
Through a combination of financial aid, scholarships, and the college fund my parents had saved for me, I was lucky enough to have zero student loans or debt.
However, that would have changed dramatically if I'd decided to expand my formal education with an MBA. When Bloomberg Businessweek surveyed over 10,000 MBA graduates, they found that almost half of the students at top schools had borrowed $100,000 or more. So it's safe to assume that's approximately the amount of debt I would have taken on as well.
Having been raised to avoid debt, I would have made paying it off my primary financial goal. Which means I wouldn't have traded in my steady paycheck for the much more financially risky option of building a business.
Having no debt wasn't the only financial advantage I gained. Because I was earning money at a job instead of spending it getting an MBA, I was able to set aside over $20,000 specifically for my "business fund."
Strategically using that money in paid advertising and premium branding relatively early on played a huge role in helping me grow my business faster.
2. I didn't know what I didn't know
Looking back, there are a few reasons I'm incredibly grateful for what I didn't know as a result of not pursuing an MBA.
First, I didn't get bogged down with the "theory" of building a business. When I started building my first business, I hadn't thought about my business plan or done a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis.
Instead, I focused solely on getting one client at a time. I didn't overcomplicate it, either. I started talking to people — acquaintances who I thought might be interested in hiring me as well as potential clients I found through Facebook groups — about how I could help them while answering their questions about my area of expertise.
And that's how I got my first client. And then my second. And my third.
Second, I didn't know how hard it would be. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20% of small businesses fail within their first year. And by the end of their fifth year, roughly 50% of small businesses fail.
Not knowing this at the beginning of my business journey was a massive blessing for me. Instead of thinking about the odds stacked against me, I blissfully assumed that success was inevitable if I worked hard enough and created enough value in the world.
3. I wasn't attached to a certain way of thinking or doing
What's more, because I didn't know much about traditional marketing and sales, I wasn't attached to a specific way of marketing or selling. Instead, I followed the good old trial-and-error method.
Here are two examples of how that made a massive difference:
- It helped me get my first clients faster. I didn't know anything about traditional content marketing, SEO, or other growth strategies. So instead, I did what made the most sense to me at the time. I figured out where my potential clients were spending their time online (by asking them). Realizing they were in Facebook groups, that's where I went. In the first few months of my business, sharing valuable advice and connecting with potential clients in Facebook groups led to over six figures in revenue.
- I created a unique method to sell out my first product (an online course). Not knowing the traditional strategies for marketing and selling a new product, I came up with my own. Having observed how well potential clients connected with me via my video content, and knowing that competitions and rewards can be huge engagement boosters, I cobbled together a "Challenge" product launch strategy: Over five days, I shared one information-based prompt a day that showed participants the value of what I had to share. What's more, I hosted daily video live streams during the Challenge to engage with participants and establish rapport. Finally, I gave participants incentives for engaging via a points-based system that rewarded participants based on their engagement, with the prizes being my course and software that my potential clients would want. This allowed me to sell out my first course despite being a newcomer in my industry and not having a lot of brand awareness.
4. I got a different sort of education
Last but definitely not least, that time I spent not getting an MBA wasn't wasted. Instead, I used it to earn a different type of education.
Here's how I spent the four to five years leading up to my seven-figure business: I built an (ultimately failed) tech startup, a career coaching business, and a Microsoft Excel consulting business.
Through these experiences, I learned so many valuable lessons that helped me cross a million dollars in revenue in the first year of my current business:
- Action beats theory. My tech startup failed in large part because we spent way too long — years, in fact — thinking about our business plan, adoption strategy, and marketing material when we should have been taking action and selling our product. Any action would have been more impactful than the great strategy we had (in theory) but didn't execute.
- Prioritize building relationships with your audience. Each time I got paying clients at the start of a new business, it was because I had taken the time to connect with them, human being to human being. They hired me because they trusted me after speaking with me and getting my help (through my free content and answers to their questions). They didn't hire me because of my beautiful website (I didn't start out with one!), rockstar marketing, or perfect product — essentially, the things it can be tempting to focus on instead of building relationships.
- Make sure you know your clients: who they are and what they truly care about. In my Microsoft Excel consulting business, I spent months working on my first product, a small course teaching Microsoft Excel shortcuts. When I finally tried to sell it, it completely flopped. The reason was because I had created the product after assuming that since I was interested in Microsoft Excel shortcuts, other people must be, too. I hadn't spent any time on figuring out who my potential clients were and what results they'd want with Microsoft Excel. Which meant that I created something no one cared about.
These massively valuable lessons taught me to focus ruthlessly on the right things — and not waste time on things that didn't matter.
At this point, having run my current business for six years and having in the process helped over 1,000 students go from employee to entrepreneur by building their own online businesses, here's what I've seen: It doesn't matter what you know. If you have an MBA, great. You still have plenty to learn. If you don't, that's fine, too. You'll learn as you go. What matters infinitely more is if you are open to learning — and taking action based on what you learn — every step of the way.
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