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Build Your Own MBA

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Within the first two years of existence, one-third of small businesses will fail.

Within five years? Half will be gone.

Lisa Hall Zielinski has met one-on-one with enough small business owners to know the very simple reason why those numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ring true: a lack of a basic business education.

“A lot of businesses I work with really struggle to take off,” says Zielinski, director of the University of Scranton Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “It comes down to the fact that they simply don’t know what’s holding them back.”

Don Mestas, owner of several Maaco shops in Maryland, and Sam Mikhail, owner of Prestige Auto Body in Garwood, N.J., have never felt that way. In fact, from day one, they say their MBAs helped them immediately get their respective collision repair operations on solid footing. While a graduate school degree certainly is not a prerequisite for business success, Zielinski says the knowledge and skills obtained through an MBA program can be invaluable in helping your shop reach new levels.

And she has a solution for gaining those benefits without forking over tens of thousands of dollars to enter an MBA program; instead, she says, simply create your own. By piecing together educational offerings through various resources, she says you can formulate an educational plan—your own “shop operator MBA”—as a viable alternative that can be accomplished with a just a few thousand dollars through area universities—or by spending nothing at all with free online courses.

Zielinski breaks down how to identify your educational needs as an owner, while both Mestas and Mikhail name the classes that have been most beneficial to their success.

Realize the Benefits

While creating your own unofficial MBA might seem daunting, Zielinski says it’s easier than it sounds, and the benefits will far outweigh the costs:

Classes are easily accessible. Many community and technical colleges offer courses open to the public. Organizations like SBDC have several locations in many states and work together to find schools that offer the classes you need.

In addition, Zielinski says it’s getting easier each year to find MBA-level courses through online platforms—such as Coursera, Udacity and edX—that partner with universities to create massive open online classes, making it much easier to conform your business education to your schedule.

“For most of our clients, unless it pertains to technical pieces of business, they’re not spending a lot of time pursuing educational opportunities because they’re too busy,” she says. “That’s where online classes can benefit. SBDC offers all kinds of webinars specific to certain industries.”

You can’t pick and choose your classes with online services, but you can check in periodically to check if they are offering classes that could help improve your business skills.

“There’s just so much available online where you can just sit down for free, pick a topic and learn a little bit more about it,” Zielinski says.

It’s cheaper than an MBA. When it comes down to it, spending money on the select classes you need to grow is more affordable than the tuition for a larger MBA program, Zielinski says. While it ranges from school to school, you can expect to drop a few hundred dollars per course, which can typically be completed in 4–8 weeks.

Also, Coursera, Udacity and edX offer classes for free or discounted rates and take about the same amount of time to complete.

Realistically, you can expect to spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, Zielinski says. It entirely depends on your course load and ability to find free online classes.

You have the chance to brainstorm. Mikhail says the biggest benefit of obtaining his MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1977 was the collaborative environment. At the end of the program, each student stood and presented his or her business plan and answered questions from the group.

“You were really required to think about every possible facet of the business,” he says. “You’ve got to put together financials, lay out a production plan, your plan for marketing, cover all your legal requirements. It was very effective as I prepared to start my business.”

“When you’re running your own business, often times you don’t have a lot of people you can bounce ideas off of,” Zielinski adds.

Identify Your Weaknesses

A lack of business know-how can exist in a number of different areas, from accounting to marketing to law. Each shop owner is different, and you should be working with professional coaches to figure out what classes will help your business expand, Zielinski says.

“Your background, resources, goals, and definition of success might be different than the guy down the street,” she says. “You need to lay your information out and find somebody that will listen and point you in the right direction.”

Hosted by universities across the country, SBDCs partner with the Small Business Administration to help small business owners identify their weaknesses and find local educational opportunities to address them. Find a nonprofit or governmental agency in your area that will help evaluate your company.

Pick Your Classes

While every shop owner is different, Mestas and Mikhail have identified a few classes in particular that have gone a long way in shaping their businesses, which can be found at area universities or through online services:

Accounting. Mestas, who spent years in the aviation field and obtained his MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1990, thanks his accounting classes first and foremost in getting his business off the ground. Knowing his way around an income statement, a balance sheet, and a statement of cash flow was important for him to determine the health of his business and where he had opportunities to make improvements.

“The numbers don’t lie. If they’re telling the truth, you need be able to understand that truth,” he says. “There’s nothing like a good financial statement to help illuminate areas where you may want to do some discovery and explore why you’re on or off what targets or benchmarks you’ve set for yourself.”

Project Management. Mestas’ project management class gave him the knowledge and ability to not only plan production, but execute his plan as well.

“When I work with my production manager to put together the production schedule, realizing that the first car we’re going to work on today or paint today may not be the one that’s due first. You have to be able to plan and account for the time and all the steps that it’s going to take to complete a project so that you can orchestrate the shop and utilize the resources you’ve got,” he says. “You’ve got so many resources at your disposal, from employees to your management system, and you need to figure out the most effective way to deploy them such that you can accomplish the objectives you need to get done.”

Marketing. Zielinski claims that her clients are most ignorant when it comes to marketing. In class is where you can learn about targeted marketing and how execute a marketing strategy.

“When it comes to developing a strategy, they have no idea where to start or how to carry it out,” she says. “You really have to understand your target market. If you specialize in European vehicles, you have to ask, ‘Who has those vehicles? Who is going to pay someone to work on those vehicles for them?’ You have to know who are these people, where might you find them, and the tried-and-true strategies for getting them in your shop.”

Mikhail says an education in marketing has truly set him apart from his area competition.

“When you start a new company, marketing is very important,” he says. “During slow times for the economy, the first thing most shops do is cut marketing. But that can hurt you badly, and sometimes you cannot recover. Because we kept our strategies, we were in a better position than other competition.”

Business Law. Business law helped Mestas form a better understanding of the legal framework of his business. Whether it’s loan documentation or contracts or other kinds of financing, having enough knowledge to assuredly read, assess, and negotiate those documents has been beneficial.

“In the few cases I’ve run into, I’ve been confident when a customer is not happy with something and threatening legal action in recognizing whether they’ve got any real grounds,” he says. “I feel very comfortable when I pull out a contract and have to read it. There are a lot of people who get these documents and don’t know what to do and just sign.”

Organizational Development. Learning how to attract, develop, train, lead and motivate employees was one of the unexpected benefits when earning his MBA, Mestas says.

“Everybody is an individual and is motivated by different things,” he says. “Realizing that and then utilizing whatever it is that drives that person, whether it’s they love working on cars or they need as many hours possible because they need the money or they like recognition from their peers—getting to know that person and what motivates them helps goes a long way in advancing your business.”

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