How to Create Your Own Real-World MBA


(Photo: DavidDMuir)

It’s fun to think about getting an MBA.

They’re attractive for many reasons: developing new business skills, developing a better business network, or — most often — taking what is effectively a two-year vacation that looks good on a resume.

In 2001, and again in 2004, I wanted to do all three things.

This post is the first of two that will share my experience with MBA programs and how I created my own…

In the process, it’s my hope that these writings will make you think about real-world experiments vs. theoretical training, untested assumptions (especially about risk tolerance), and the good game of business as a whole. There is no need to spend $60,000 per year to apply the principles I’ll be discussing.

Last caveat: nothing here is intended to portray me as an investing expert, which I most certainly am not.


Stanford University Graduate School of Business (GSB). Ah, Stanford, with its palm tree-lined avenues and red terra cotta roofing, always held a unique place in my mind.

But my fantasies of attending GSB reached a fever pitch when I sat in on a class called “Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital,” taught by Peter Wendell, who had led early-stage investments in companies such as Intuit. The class is now co-taught by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and Andy Rachleff, founding general partner of Benchmark Capital.

Within 30 minutes, Pete had taught me more about the real-world inside baseball of venture capital than all of the books I’d read on the subject.

I was ecstatic and ready to apply to GSB. Who wouldn’t be?

So I enthusiastically began a process I would repeat twice: downloading the application to get started, taking the full campus tour, and sitting in on other classes.

It was the other classes that got my panties in a twist. Some were incredible, taught by all-stars who’d done it all, but others — many others — were taught by PhD theoreticians who used big words and lots of PowerPoint slides. One teacher spent 45 minutes on slide after slide of equations that could be summed up with “If you build a crappy product, people won’t buy it.” No one needed to prove that to me with differential calculus.

At the end of that class, I turned to my student guide for the tour and asked him how it compared to other classes. He answered: “Oh, this is easily my favorite.”

That was the death of business school for me.

How to Make a Small Fortune

By 2005, I was done chasing my tail with business school, but I still ached to learn more.

Then, in 2007, I started having more frequent lunches with the brilliant Mike Maples, a co-founder of Motive Communications (IPO to $260,000,000 market cap) and a founding executive of Tivoli (sold to IBM for $750,000,000).

Our conversations usually bounced between a few topics, including physical performance, marketing campaigns (I’d just launched The 4-Hour Workweek), and his latest focus: angel investing.

“Angel investing” involves putting relatively small amounts of money — often from $15,000 to $100,000 — into early-stage start-ups. In Mike’s world, “early-stage” could mean two engineers with a prototype for a website, or it could mean a successful serial entrepreneur with a new idea. The angels usually have relevant business experience and are considered “smart money” — their advice and introductions are just as valuable as the money they put in.

After several lunches with Mike, I’d found my business school.

I decided to make (in my mind) a two-year “Tim Ferriss Fund” that would replace Stanford business school.

Stanford GSB isn’t cheap. I rounded it down to $60,000 a year, for a total of $120,000 over two years (these days, it’s $80,000+ per year).

For the “Tim Ferriss Fund,” I would aim to intelligently spend $120,000 over two years on angel investing in $10-20,000 chunks, so 6-12 companies in total. The goal of this “business school” would be to learn as much as possible about start-up finance, deal structuring, rapid product design, initiating acquisition conversations, etc. as possible.

The curriculum could be thought of as “The Start-up Lifecycle from Birth to Acquisition/IPO or Death.” But curriculum was just part of business school; the other part was getting to know the “students,” preferably the most astute movers and shakers in the start-up investing world. Business school = curriculum + network.

The most important characteristic of my personal MBA: I planned on “losing” $120,000.

I went into the “Tim Ferriss Fund” viewing the $120,000 as sunk tuition costs, but also expecting that the lessons learned, and people met, would be worth that $120,000 investment. The two-year plan was to methodically spend $120,000 for the learning experience, not for the ROI.

I would not suggest mimicking this approach:

1) Unless you have a clear informational advantage — insider access — that gives you a competitive advantage. I live in the nexus of Silicon Valley and know many top CEOs and investors, so I have better sources of information than the vast majority of the world. I don’t invest in public companies precisely because I know that professionals have better access to information than I do.

2) Unless you are 100% comfortable losing your “MBA” funds. You should only gamble with what you’re very comfortable losing. If financial loss drives you to even mild desperation or depression, you shouldn’t do it.

3) Unless you have started and/or managed successful businesses in the past.

4) Unless you limit angel investment funds to 10% or less of your liquid assets. I subscribe to the Nassim Taleb school of investment, with 90% in conservative asset classes like AAA bonds and the remaining 10% in speculative investments that can capitalize on positive “black swans”.

The problem is often that, even if the above criteria are met, people overestimate their risk tolerance. From my previous post, ‘Rethinking Investing: Common-Sense Rules for Uncommon Times’:

I’ve come to realize that the questions most investment advisers (and investors) ask are the wrong questions, or incomplete. Even if you have only $100 to invest, this is important to explore.

Most advice and decisions center on one question: what is your risk tolerance?

I had one wealth manager ask me this, and I answered honestly: “I have no idea.” It threw him off.

I then asked him for the average of his clients’ responses. The answer:
“Most answer that they would not panic, up to 20% down in one quarter.”

My follow-up question was: when do most panic and start selling low? His answer:
“When they’re down 5% in one quarter.”

Unless you’ve lost 20% in a quarter, it’s hard—neigh, impossible—to predict your response.

It’s not dissimilar from a common boxing maxim: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

To would-be angel investors, I suggest the following: go to a casino or racetrack and don’t leave until you’ve spent 1/5 of a typical investment and watched it disappear.

Let’s say you’re planning on making $25,000 investments.

I’d ask you to then purposefully lose $5,000 over the course of at least three hours, and certainly not all at once. It’s important that you slowly bleed losses as you attempt to learn the game, to exert some control over something you can’t control. If you can remain unaffected after slowly losing your $5,000 (or 1/5 of your planned typical investment), consider making your first angel investment.

But proceed with caution.

Even among brilliant people in the start-up world, there is an expression: “If you want to make a small fortune, start with a large fortune and angel invest.”

The First Deal and First Lesson

So what did I do? I immediately went out and broke my own rules.

There was a very promising start-up which, based on comparables using Alexa ranking correlations to valuations, was more than 5x undervalued! If it hit even a “base hit” like a $25,000,000 exit, I could easily recoup my planned $120,000!

I got very excited — it’s the next Google! — and cut a check for $50,000. “That’s a bit aggressive for a first deal, don’t you think?” asked one of my mentors over coffee. Not a chance. My intuition was loud and clear. I was convinced, based on other investors and all of the excitement surrounding the deal, that this company was on the cusp of exploding.

Two years later, it still hasn’t popped.

[TIM UPDATE, 2013: This start-up is now dead, so I lost that $50K.]

Following the Rules

Lesson #1: If you’ve formulated intelligent rules, follow your own f*cking rules.

I learned many more important lessons over the following two years, most of which I’ll share in the next post. Thus far, following the rules, the stats look something like this:

15 total investments (some of which are listed here)
0 deaths
1 successful exit

The one successful exit thus far, DailyBurn, guarantees that I will not lose money on my two-year fund. But, as they say, “Once you’re lucky. Twice you’re good.” I’m still not convinced I know what I’m doing.

My hope, and that of most angels, is that each start-up will “exit”, or be bought within 3-5 years. I’ll therefore have a more complete view of the “Tim Ferriss Fund” two-year portfolio by 2013 or 2014. There will be fatalities, no doubt.

[TIM UPDATE, SEPT. 2013: Now, I'm in 20+ investments, and I've made (cash in bank account) about 3-5x back what I invested. I have several million dollars on paper with investments like Twitter, Uber, Evernote, and others. If half of them pan out, I will make more in angel investing than all of my books combined. Only time will tell. Still plenty that could go wrong. Oh, and there have been more startups "deaths," too. It's a full-contact sport.]

But recall that the learning was my main reason for doing all of this.

I had one other exit: my own company. Using what I learned about acquisition deal structures through angel investing, I became less intimidated by the idea of “selling” a company. It need not be complicated, as I learned, and BrainQUICKEN was sold in late 2009. This means the ROI on my personal MBA is, so far, well over 2x and could end up more than 10x.

Creating Your Own MBA

How might you create your own MBA or graduate program? Here are three examples with hypothetical costs, which obviously depend on the program:

Master of Arts in Creative Writing – $12,000/year

How could you spend (or sacrifice) $12,000 a year to become a world-class creative writer? If you make $50,000 per year, this could mean that you join a writers’ group and negotiate Mondays off work (to focus on drafting a novel or screenplay) in exchange for a $10-15,000 salary cut.

Masters in Political Science – (same cost)

Use the same approach to dedicate one day per week to volunteering or working on a political campaign. Decide to read one book per week from the Georgetown PoliSci department’s required first-year curriculum.

MBA – $30,000 per year

Commit to spending $2,500 per month on testing different “muses” intended to be sources of automated income. For an example of such, see “How I Did It: From $7 an Hour to Coaching Major League Baseball MVPs.”

If you’re interested in experimenting with angel investing, whether as an angel or as a start-up, here are a few of my favorite resources:

AngelList (I’m now an advisor; here is my profile)

Commit–within financial reason–to action instead of theory. Learn to confront the realities and rewards of the real world, rather than resort to the protective womb of academia.

Question of the day (QOD): what would you like to learn specifically about start-ups, angel investing, or start-up financing? Please let me know in the comments with “QOD”.

Continued in Part II…

Posted on: June 28, 2010.

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311 comments on “How to Create Your Own Real-World MBA

  1. btw, love the way google ads show you mba courses, on the right, when you look at this topic in the blog listing

    mba = a course that someone will sell you, which has value, but is over priced so just do not bother :)


  2. Tim,

    First of all, great post! I recently decided not to attend business school for a formal degree. Instead, I’ve chosen to start my own company and take business courses at a local collage on a part time basis (two or three courses a year). Your article has is brilliant, and confirms what I already know but only recently have come to fully understand: You dont need a formal MBA to succeed in a business venture. Most of the people I know who live fullfilled and successful (financialy and personaly) lives don’t have MBA’s or any other business degree. They developed business acumen by, well, doing business.

    I am in the middle of reading “The 4-Hour Work Week” for the first time and your insight and advice on both business and lifestyle are inspirational.

    I’m a step closer to personal liberation

    Thank you


  3. Hi Tim, I would love for you to have you come out to Navajo Nation in the next six months! While I live in South Dakota, I still have strong ties to the Navajo Nation (family still lives there). Your philosophy (now mine) needs to be heard among my Navajo relatives who have been “oppressed” for many centuries. Contact me so we can chat!!


  4. Hi Tim

    Interesting post. Love the idea of investing small amounts of money into start up companies.

    Could you provide some advice on how someone who’s network doesn’t extend to the level of yours would go about;
    (a)finding start up companies to invest in and,
    (b)What factor above all makes you pull the trigger and invest in a company



  5. Tim,

    The more I read and hear from you the more your view of learning and life is pulling me in. About a month prior to this I started thinking why we are so willing to spend money on an education but are not willing to spend the same amount of money or less trying a business idea which you could learn from.

    Josh Bulloc
    Kansas City


  6. importequoi Moi Je me suis Lancé sans savoir OU j allais esseyais n ‘ . Intérimaire des Nations Recueil des Jours J « Vous pouvez tisser des Lins UNE
    Entre des blogs sans trop savoir . time à ensenble autrement coup un intérimaire UE Un Pis j ‘oeil d Autre voyis Je l ‘ . Comme toile UNE d areignée l’ ONU web.Ouvers pis ordi Tout CI changeur de remplacer verser facilr.Mais ca c est sur la ligne UNE tu rentres jeu Autre Les Yeux Certaine Fermés Pas Aimé n . C’Est la que tu tu time à Québec dérange OU TU deviens plus visibles au Québec ..


  7. This is very dangerous and renegade idea. If this education system Tim Ferriss is suggesting is followed to the letter, corporate America is not going to find employees to work for them. We are all going to become creators and a world where everyone is his/her own employer is a bad idea. We send kids to school from grade 1 -12 and then four year colleges not to be creative but to be duplicators. We want the majority 99% of them to be workers who produce widgets designed by the creative 1%. To ensure this process mature took long time to achieve and undoing it is tantamount to coup d’état. Why do you think we have high school diplomas, multitude of degrees, SAT, GMAT and all the things in between? To make sure people go through this pre-built tunnel that leads to production of uniform widgets. People like Tim Ferriss and John Taylor Gatto should stop disturbing the peace, before we end up with bunch of Bill Gates or worse Steve Jobs.


  8. Enjoy workin for the man buddy…. I’d be Steve Jobs over Employee 1568 every day of the week.
    BTW, I’m sure he explained in the beginning this isn’t for everyone.

    A good point none the less… but lay off Bill and Steve.


  9. I sent a copy of the book to a friend in New York, he fired half his staff, doubled his profits, he loves the outsourcing idea !!!!

    India is the future, americans are lazy.

    rock on the 4 hour work week :)


  10. Hi Tim,

    Right before you posted this I signed up for the GMAT b/c I feel like an MBA program will help me develop the skills I need to learn how to help businesses and social change organizations do their work better and in a more sustainable fashion. I’m very interested in the Presidio Graduate School of Mgmt in SF as they seem to have a great, forward thinking and innovative biz program aside from Berkeley and Stanford.

    A few questions for you:

    Have you heard of the Presidio school, if so, what do you think?
    While I’m sure I can learn many things on my own, is the value that comes from the contacts that you make in these programs (that lead to jobs, project opportunities, new companies) worth the investment in an MBA?

    Thanks for your great posts and the hard thinking they encourage me to do.


  11. Thanks for the kick start, Tim.

    This really got me off my feet to start my own business, and I’ve learned more in a week going through the startup process than…well, I’ve learned a lot more than theory.

    I guess the best case study is your own.

    Look forward to future posts.


  12. I’ve been meaning to post on this article as soon as I read it, but better late than never.

    Personally, I agree with the fact that academia can be very non real-life, with little or no tangible applicable. The same things you were thinking about the MBA program caused me to take the shortcut route to my MD. I was in my undergrad and kept thinking- how many tests do I have to write before I do anything useful with my life, anything real? How many 100%s would I have to grind out before the madness would stop?

    So, I went against the crowd. I wrote the MCAT out of first year, and learned most of the background material myself. Nearly all medical schools in Canada require 4 years or at least a bachelors degree to apply. One university still lets you apply after 2 years of undergrad, and even better, it is a three year instead of a four year program. I applied, and was accepted. Even better, it is one of the most hands on programs out there.

    Like you’ve said many times before, “cut the fat”. I streamlined my way to getting into the MD program, in a way by harnessing the “superstar effect”, discussed in another one of your blog posts. I was competing against PhDs, law degrees, physiotherapists and other older, more qualified people. I will be 22 when I graduate- likely the youngest graduating canadian MD.

    Your book was a big eye opener for me. Thank you for writing it. Here’s my

    What strategies would you give to a student in a hectic 3- year compressed med school program, to cut the fat and lessify, to 80/20, so as to have time to enjoy life with friends and family, pursue a few muses? Feel free to send me an email.

    Thanks for your reply,



  13. Hi,

    Help me! I can do things that doctors(MDs, DOs, Orthopedic Surgeons) cannot imagine. I could save a Major League Baseball team hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars every year by keeping their players off the DL with energy healing. No, I’m not a mystic, I’m not a psychic, I’m an energy healer; and I specialize in sports-related injuries.

    How can I get the attention of an MLB team’s(preferably the Yankees) front office when what I do is viewed as extremely unorthodox in western society? And without having to go through the Personal Resources Department?

    Any ideas or advice is greatly appreciated.




  14. Yeah – I don’t get why anybody with as much gold as you have would buy an MBA. To me, the MBA gives you the paper cred necessary to get your foot in the door of prestigious places — whose salary you then invest in furtherance of your own ideas.

    But if you’ve already got the plata — then you just pursue your ideas, period.


  15. Two disadvantages of schooling yourself:

    1. No fancy letters after your name, hence it’s harder to get a job with your skills.

    2. Your family and friends won’t take your self-study seriously. Get ready for a lot of, “Are you in school or something?”


  16. Tim,

    I hope this reaches you, as I have recently stumbled across your blog and may have read this one to late to generate a response. I must first say, I am very intrigued with your blogs and quickly becoming a huge fan.

    I would like to know, from the stand point of seeking angel investors as opposed to investing in start-ups, What do you look for when deciding if and when and how much to invest in any given start-up? I am an entrepreneur at heart and always developing new business ideas, none of which have gotten anywhere due to the lack of funds to launch idea/business. So my question for you is, how would someone go about seeking out angel investors to launch a start-up and what type of things should I be prepared for, in terms of offering a business idea/plan that would draw attention from potential investors?

    Any advice would help and thank you very much in advance!!



  17. Tim and all,

    I encourage you to check out an MBA program that is a startup in itself called Acton. It was founded in 2003 by several successful entrepreneurs who felt the world was missing a realistic MBA for entrepreneur-minded people. It’s a completely radical curriculum that meshes classes with names like “People,” “Life of Meaning,” and “Launch,” with real world simulations. Teachers are required to be full-time entrepreneurs and only teach part-time! It’s completely using the Socratic case-study method.

    It’s only a year long to get us in and out of there in a year (because our time is a huge opportunity cost). We do about 300 mainly Harvard cases over the period of nine months compared to HBS doing 400 over two years. The downside is that means we have 90+ hour workweeks for the nine months.

    As an entrepreneur who has started (and mainly learned through failure except for some recent success which I attribute to the 4-Hour Workweek) I can honestly say I wish I had this program before losing my own $50k and $50k from family on my first startup.

    But don’t listen to me, listen to the Princeton Review which ranked Acton as the #3 most competitive students, #3 best professors, and #2 classroom environment.

    I met your friend Stephen Key a few years ago and convinced him to come speak in March. If you would ever be interested we’d love to have you come speak – I know we have several 4-Hour Workweek fans in the class.


    Bryan Daigle

    4-Hour Workweek Success Story
    President, Acton Class of 2011


  18. Tim,

    I’m newer to your world than many, and lately I’ve been catching up on some of your older posts, like this one re: creating your own MBA. I like very much these ideas! I am an engineer by training, but have developed interests in public policy issues, so . . . perhaps I’ll use your ideas to dive deeper. A question in response to your post – Do you believe your “create your own” strategy applies to undergraduate studies?! This question is expanded below, as I’m trying to convince my brother to attend college (he’s only graduated high school) but am waring out my own “wisdom.” Might I tap yours?

    Thanks so much,
    Caleb, in Virginia

    P.S. – Sorry about the volume; it’s more of an e.mail than a blog comment. I guess I’m getting desparate for my brother – I’m risking really irritating the snot out of you! Perhaps it’ll help to know that I promote your books to all I know; even my very 9-5ish dad is going to borrow my audio copy of 4HWW!


    When my brother graduated from high school in 2007, he said he’d not attend college; he was the only of his close circle of friends NOT to. At the time, he rebuffed multiple attempts by multiple relatives and friends to convince him otherwise. We live in a city with a major American university and he’s been part of a youth outreach group since 2007 that has kept him close (in both proximity and friendship) with several guys attending this top-tier school. Through all of these college-attending friends, my brother has clear pictures of what college has and has not been for them. He has continued to live with my parents (smart, given the circumstances) and has earned money from a combination of 1) a lawn care business he started as a teenager and 2) selling insurance with my father’s business. He has become increasingly interested over the last 18 months in big-dream sorts of entrepreneurial pursuits. He loves reading SUCCESS magazine and being motivated by people like John Maxwell. His original objection to attending college was that it “just was not his thing.” However, his friends’ experiences (classes, internships, and job prospects) have forged a belief that much of college is irrelevant to actual jobs and life. All of the traditional reasons to attend college I and my wife could think of when he was 18 remain ineffective. We also have a good local community college, so he took a macroeconomics course in the fall of 2010 (unfortunately, it sounded like he got a HORRIBLE teacher; nice . . . !), but his response was that it bored him and he thought it irrelevant to his job preferences. I tried to get him to attend college years ago, but I relented in order to prevent from ruining our relationship over it. Then, I started encouraging him in the entrepreneurial path he was trying to forge so as to not just keep raining on him with condemnation – whether explicit or implicit. I figured, “Hey, just b/c I’m not doing that doesn’t mean I should keep forcing this on him.” In the last year, I’ve started having my own regrets about risks or challenges I avoided by opting for a traditional 9-5 office job path. So, I’ve arrived at the point where I want to not only strongly encourage his creativity, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial pursuits but also strongly encourage him to attend college to ensure he has that base. I’ve seen recent articles about majoring in entrepreneurship in college, which I was previously unaware of, so I wonder if this would be a good idea. But more generally, I request that you share your belief about college in the modern era as it relates to both the job market at large and successful entrepreneurship. Are there litmus tests you recommend to help folks make a decision about attending college?

    Thank you SO much for your consideration and time; if you recommend resources other than your own/staff’s answer, those would be most appreciated, as well,


  19. Great Post Tim!

    The application of calculus to business dynamics sounds pretty fascinating to me. The whole point of such courses, as I see it, is not to prove that you you will lose money on a crappy product, but to look at this idea in higher resolution. Naturally, this has the corollary that you could also see the dynamics of success in an equally high detail. Which would be useful.


  20. Hi Tim,
    I read your book the 4 Hour Workweek and really enjoyed it! I have a money/investing question. Your statement, “contact someone important and do something uncomfortable each day,” is ringing in my ears. I have found that I really enjoy day/short term trading. I have also found that I hate losing money. My question to you is do you know any short term/daytraders out there? I have read countless books on daytrading but have not been able to put it together with my own trading. I just read in this blog that you don’t invest in public companies because the pro’s have more information that we do. Who are the pro’s? Can you lead me to a daytrading mentor please? Thankyou.


  21. A Real-World MBA sounds enticing. Unfortunately, unless you plan on becoming a serial entrepreneur or full-time private investor, how do you translate a “Real World” degree to something that is marketable on your resume for those who seek to advance their professional careers?

    It seems like MBA programs are virtually worthless if you have an undergraduate business degree or so I have heard from alot of people. An MBA is really useful only for the connections that you make.



  22. Hey, Tim.

    Was reorganizing some shit in Evernote and came across this old post.

    I think it’d be interesting to revisit this (either now or some time later this year) since you estimated you’d have “a more complete view of the ‘Tim Ferriss Fund’ two-year portfolio by 2013.”

    Take it or leave it.



  23. Hi Tim,

    I have learnt a lot from you. Im from Mexico and I bought your first book out from what I think was merely coincidence at the “Last BookStore in LA” ( Used books ) and since then I have followed your published content, including your next books…

    So I really havent been able to create muse but I had already my own company thugh , so Im stil trying to spend less time on it; I lost 25 pounds by reding your second book and now I just started to read you 3rd book… and guess what ? Im applying it to study for the GMAT =O !

    At the end, the point that I want to put into the table, is the following: What if I would apply the 4-hww concepts to detach from my business but instead of going to argentina and learn to dance , I would rather to go to Stanford to learn a bit, relax ( yes , relax!, kind of vacation ) plus trying to get and live the silicon valley experience ( connections!

    some facts:

    * Im far from being wealthy. My business gets me to live well but not enough to accumulate wealth at least at the moment. Trying to switch to product business model , since Im on the services side of IT.

    *I will have to get into debt in order to go.

    *Why not investing that money into a muse?, Because I dont have it, and its way easier to lend money for education ( some could be granted) than for anything else, at least here in Mexico.

    The way I see it is this: My ultimate goal is to be a high impact entrepreneur in the enterprise software space and I feel a MBA in the valley could help me to achieve that, but if that fails or just takes longer than expected, well I could have a good salary which actually is going to be more ( at least 2x ) than what i get from my business know.

    what do you think ?

    I would really appreciate your comments here. Im not trying to convince you at all to recommend me to go for it.. Im just trying to explain my circumstances to you and see what would you do ??



  24. So, Tim? How’d you make out on the Twitter IPO. Let’s assume you owned <1% of outstanding shares totalling around $250M. Not too shabby.


  25. Tim, thanks for the lessons learned. I am interested on how you made out on early investing in FB and Twitter. FB stock was trading at around $28 after it came out and is now above $70. An investor could have almost tripled their money through normal trading had they timed it right. So was early investing in FB worth it for you or would you just play the market if you did it again? Also, about how much is an angel investor expecting to get in ROI when they hand money over to a startup (if the company does well)?

    Thanks again for all of wisdom on this website. I’ve been very inspired over the last few years.