This post is available in podcast form on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Overcast.

I could be wrong about everything you read. My theory that you can create your own MBA program and get results from it could be wrong.

The best case for why I’m wrong is demonstrated by James Allworth and Ben Thompson – both of whom have traditional MBAs – on the Exponent podcast. Their discussions about the technology industry is some of the smartest and most educational around. If that’s the kind of thinking a traditional MBA brings, then it’s well worth it.

This example though bolster my point in two ways.

1- I don’t think Allworth and Thomson are traditional. I think they are the exceptions. The normal MBA path is not that good, but the alternative is – the XMBA.

2- Their podcast is a manifestation of educational access. You could listen to them talk about business and read what they write to get a pretty good education.

The XMBA is the eXperiential Masters of Business Administration. It’s the idea that you can take the resources (time and money) required for a traditional MBA (or any graduate degree) and apply them to an XMBA. It’s been happening as a matter of necessity – as we’ll see – but you could do it out of choice as well.


When the experiential becomes the norm.

Michael Schur, the showrunner for Parks and Rec., spoke about a time on the show when Amy Poehler was pregnant. The cast and crew had to bank a few episodes for the next season because she would be unable for filming.

Schur and his team decided to have a mini six episode arc (the harvest festival) that worked so well it led to the more serialised style of the rest of the show. It was an experiment out of necessity that became the norm.

The same thing is happening for elementary and high school education. Top basketball players are being homeschooled. Silicon Valley types are “hacking homeschool.” Out of experiments in learning, a new form of education has arisen – and it  might be better.  

Similarly, our three characters each did an XMBA out of necessity. We can look at how each succeeded to if we can too.


Our characters.

Tim Ferriss, bestselling author, lifestyle entrepreneur du jour.

Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, author, podcaster, instagrammer.

Ezra Klein, blogger, journalist, and co-founder of Vox Media.

In these three stories we’ll see how each of our characters decided to pursue their own XMBA, but first, a 90’s movie clip to put us in the right frame of mind.


‘How do you like them apples’


Tim Ferriss’s XMBA

Ferriss actually wrote two nice blog posts – part 1 and part 2 – about his DIY MBA. I’d only heard snippets of the story via his podcast before reading these posts. They’re what you would expect from Ferriss. Briefly, Ferriss bookmarked $120K to invest in 6-12 companies and “learn as much as possible about start-up finance, deal structuring, rapid product design, initiating acquisition conversations, etc. as possible.” It was a success. He learned a lot and made some money on the side.

The part that doesn’t get enough attention in his writing was how much he wanted an MBA. It had an emotional pull on Ferriss. Each of our three characters were outsiders before they succeeded. They probably felt like outsiders do. Pursuing a degree is as much an emotional tug as an intellectual one. They wanted to belong.


Sophia Amoruso’s XMBA

Amoruso’s entrepreneurial path mirrors that of many others. Find an underserved group, provide them a superior product or service, scale, build a business, cash in. That’s it!

No, that’s not it. It’s not that easy, but it’s not that complicated either. Amoruso writes in#GIRLBOSS how she solved hard, but not impossible problems:

“I didn’t know anybody to turn to for business advice, and because of this, people ask me all the time how I figured it out. Well, I figured it out by doing what I think is one of the best strategies for learning anything anywhere: I Googled it.”

Yep, she googled it. Amoruso was looking for warehouse shelving and after a Google image search she found some. She was looking for a resource for selling on eBay and found the book, eBay for Dummies. Each time she faced an obstacle she searched for a path to the solution.

There were implicit learning moments too.  Amoruso writes about wanting to go to art school, but tuition was $50K. Instead she did her own art project, a photo series called Armed to Bless. That project taught her how to take photos, tell a story, and finish projects. All skills she would use later to build Nasty Gal.

The consistent thread for Amoruso’s XMBA was that at each obstacle she found a solution.


Ezra Klein’s XMBA

Klein’s path is also circuitous. Long before he was one of the “most powerful people in Washington” he was a poly-sci major at UCLA. Blogs had just become a thing and he started blogging. “It was ridiculous,” Klein said, to think that blogging could be a career, but that’s exactly what happened. Blogging grew, Klein blogged more and his work started to get recognized. Things were going well, but he still wasn’t a journalist. Klein considered going back to school. Tuition was only $50K a year.

Just like Ferriss and Amoruso, Klein pursued an XMBA. An opportunity opened up at the Washington Monthly, but it paid a pittance, and that was a blessing. It meant that more experienced colleagues couldn’t apply for it (it would be too steep a pay cut), but Klein could. He did and got the job. He approached that opportunity like it was his advanced degree.

That Washington Monthly experience helped Klein work his way to The Washington Post. He advises young journalists to do exactly this:

“Don’t go to journalism school. You’re better off just interning, or writing a blog, or reading think-tank papers. When I hire, I see j-school experience as neutral — it doesn’t separate one resume from another in the least. And a lot of journalism schools teach bad habits, and make you pay for the privilege of learning them. “


How to roll your own XMBA.

How do you do this?

1- Opportunity cost. This blog post takes about 7 minutes to read, the podcast about 15 minutes to listen to. Consuming this displaced something else. What was it? That thing is the cost to reading this.

A traditional MBA will replace something as well. Amoruso had a business to run, and if she went to graduate school that business would wither and die. Klein’s opportunity cost was that he was giving up a low paying writing job so he could take a lower paying, but more prestigious writing job. Ferriss too would have had to limit his book writing and TV show production if he went back to school. A traditional MBA can have a very high opportunity cost.

2- Financial cost. MBA programs are expensive, but can be worth it. Ben Thompson went to Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management which costs $130K in 2015. That’s a lot of money, but it might be worth it. Like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, you can learn a lot from the public library for a few dollars in late fees, but you can also learn a lot at Northwestern. Somewhere between the two is a cost-benefit-analysis that you need to figure out.

3- Connections. Each of our characters networked as part of their XMBA. Klein needed to do so because he was taking the tangential approach to becoming a journalist. Ferriss says that he met with founders and became an advisor. Amoruso was great at finagling together people. Connections mattered when Nicholas Megalis made online videos, when Austin Kleon did book research, and when Jay Jay French formed Twisted Sister. Venkatesh Rao explains why connections matter in the new economy, and his framework can be nicely laid over the XMBA.

4- You have to be a strong self directed learner. If you fall into a Reddit thread and come out later and having learned less than Alice in Wonderland, you may not be a great candidate for the XMBA. Amoruso writes that she never felt like she was “missing out on anything by being so far removed from my life in the city. I was addicted to my business, and to watching it grow every day.”

5- Experience is more important than signaling. Part of a degree is the “signaling value” to others that you did a thing. Your own XMBA won’t have that. To split the difference you can create something that has some value. If you created a carwash ($3K to start) and ran that for two years rather than MBA night classes, you’ll have something to show.


In summary.

There’s a nice post written by Mark Suster that summarizes the choice nicely. Suster is writing about startups but you can substitute graduate school. Emphasis mine:

“My advice is often, “make sure that what you get out of working at this company is one or several of the following: a great network of talented excutives (sic) and VCs, more responsibility than your last job, specific industry or technical skills that will help you in what you do next, a chance to partner with companies that will increase your industry relationships, etc.””

That sounds like a good summary for us.

If you have ideas about an XMBA or did something similar, let me know. I’m @mikedariano on Twitter or you can text me, 559-464-5393.

9 thoughts on “The X-MBA”

  1. […] People can succeed in school or out. The key isn’t school, the key is to learn. Charlie Munger is described as “a book with legs sticking out.” Tim Ferriss created his own business school by investing. Ezra Klein did it for journalism school. The brothers were early enrollees in the XMBA. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.