What do getting a master’s degree and starting a business have in common? Each can transform your professional life. When you combine the two, you’ll be putting the cutting-edge ideas you’re learning in your master’s program into immediate practice and gaining on-the-job training as the business’s boss and mastermind.
It’s no secret most businesses fail. The U.S. Small Business Administration reports that only half of all businesses survive the first five years. Luckily, you can increase your chances of being in that 50%. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, getting a master’s degree is one of the ways to improve your odds. That’s because a master’s degree connects you with the right resources and people to propel your business forward.
If you’re ready to boost your chances of entrepreneurial success, you’re in the right place. This guide provides the insight, resources, and advice to choose the right master’s degree and make the most of your graduate education. Whether you’re coming up with a brand-new, million-dollar business idea or you want to take an existing business to the next level, keep reading for the skinny on how to add the titles “CEO” and “Founder” to your resume.
Types of Entrepreneurships
At first glance, Kim Kardashian and Warren Buffet might seem like polar opposites, however they share an important trait: They’re both entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is tricky to define because it encompasses so many types of professionals. Anyone owning a business, whether it’s a makeup brand or a financial investment company, is an entrepreneur.
While it’s a far-reaching field, most entrepreneurs fall into one of six categories. Check out the pros and cons of each to determine which is the best match for you, especially if you’re working on a master’s degree and starting your business concurrently:
Questions to Decide if Entrepreneurship is Right for You
While entrepreneurship can be rewarding, it also requires long hours, financial risks, and coping with uncertainty and stress. Plus, an entrepreneur has to perform all aspects of business. If you’re a graphic designer who works as an employee, you spend all your time on your craft. A freelance graphic designer has to divide their time between designing and being the CEO, CFO, HR representative, legal team, account manager, and sales team, to name just a few roles. Before you decide to become an entrepreneur, make sure you’re prepared for the commitment and equipped to continue your graduate school coursework on top of starting your business.
What are my personal and professional goals, and how does entrepreneurship fit into them?
Usually, entrepreneurship requires late nights, working on the weekends, and financial risk. Before committing, consider if entrepreneurship will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. An easy way to do this is to write out a list of personal and professional goals you want to achieve over the next year. If your list includes tasks such as perfecting your banana bread recipe, starting your novel, and trying a new workout class, a 9-5 might provide more work/life balance to achieve those goals. On the other hand, if your goal is to open a bakery to sell your banana bread or market a line of self-published books, entrepreneurship can be the vehicle to turn your passion into profit.
Have I identified a problem or opportunity in the market I am interested in, and does my idea provide a viable solution?
At its core, a business’s purpose is to solve a problem for consumers and be cheaper, more effective, or quicker than their competitors. Before you start your business, make sure to identify the problem you solve and your unique approach to solve it. Your business or entrepreneurship classes in grad school will help you hone these ideas.
For some businesses, this will be easy. If you’ve developed an AI chatbot that’s better than ChatGPT, it’s easy to identify the problem and your unique solution. For other businesses, it’s trickier. Let’s say you’re a fashion influencer who partners with brands on sponsored content. While you might not be able to answer these questions right away, you realize after a bit of digging that your content provides users with new fashion trends to try and your uniqueness is the humor you add to your content.
Do I have the necessary time and energy it takes to start a business?
As we discussed, choosing entrepreneurship means also subscribing to sacrifice, late nights, and stress. Coincidentally, pursuing an advanced degree also means subscribing to sacrifice, late nights, and stress. Before starting your business and master’s program, make sure you have the time and energy it takes—or more accurately, the time- and energy-management skills. When you’re a master of your energy and time, you can fit business- and school-related tasks into even the busiest of schedules.
If you find yourself lacking in either area, consider reading a book on time management or personal development. You can also develop an easy everyday routine, such as using the Pomodoro technique for time management and cultivating a meditation practice for energy management.
What risks am I willing and not willing to take?
Before you get started, assess your risk tolerance and list the risks you are and aren’t willing to take. Your risk tolerance levels should be customized to your lifestyle and goals.
Henrik and Lily are both starting businesses and each can tolerate different risks. Lily has a lot of free time, thanks to working a part-time job, but she also has student loan debt. She determines she’s more tolerant to risk “wasting time” on new business ideas than taking on financial risks. Henrik, on the other hand, has a large savings account thanks to his previous role as a bank vice president, but he has little time since he’s a stay-at-home parent with three young children. He’s willing to take on financial risks but is less willing to try new business ideas as he has no time to spare.
Do I have access to the necessary funding, networks, and resources to launch and sustain my business?
To thrive, businesses need funding, a community built around them, and industry-specific resources. Even if you’re a solopreneur running a service-based business, you most likely need some money to buy a website domain or software, a network of people who are referring clients to you, and access to educational and operational resources to keep the business afloat. The exact money, resources, and network depend on your business, so make a list of each and score how close you are to acquiring the items on your list.
If your score is low in any of the categories, have no fear. There are ways you can beef up all three while also pursuing your master’s degree:
- Funding: Consider small business grants or taking on a part-time job, such as a graduate assistantship.
- Network: Attend in-person networking events and connect with professionals in your industry on LinkedIn.
- Resources: Write a list of resources you need to get started—and three potential ways to get each one. For example, three ways to get an amazing logo might include hiring a graphic designer friend who is in one of your master’s classes, utilizing Canva to create your own, or finding a logo designer on a platform like Fiverr.
Am I prepared to manage the operational, legal, and financial aspects of starting a business?
Once you’re a business owner, you take on almost every role in your business. This includes the operational, legal, and financial aspects, which can vary based on your business structure. To understand what’s required and invest in the skills or employees to handle each area, make a list of what your business will need in each of these three categories. For legal, this could include writing up a contract for web development clients. Operational tasks could include doing administrative work, such as answering emails, or looking at the bigger picture and where your business is going. Financial aspects range from invoicing clients to paying quarterly taxes. As you choose classes in your master’s program, you’ll how the opportunity to gain expertise in areas where you’re a novice right now.
Why do I believe my business will be successful?
When you first start a business, your never-ending to-do list can be overwhelming. That list usually includes items you “should do” and tasks that remind you you’re not that successful business owner yet. Instead of focusing on the overwhelming work ahead of you, concentrate on why you believe your business will be successful. Write two lists, one of your talents and strengths and the other of why your business matters, and keep them close while you work.
Top Degrees for Aspiring Business Owners
A master’s degree is a pivotal moment in your professional life—if you choose the right program. A master’s in English literature, for example, might not boost your business as much as a master’s in entrepreneurship. To get started on your search, check out three of the most popular master’s degrees for business owners.
Master of Business Administration
A master of business administration (MBA) is the obvious choice. An MBA is a robust degree which provides expertise and networking opportunities for business professionals. While many MBA programs might be a good fit, you’ll want to seek out those aimed at entrepreneurs. The corporate MBA from the University of Illinois Chicago might not work since it focuses on corporate opportunities, however the MBA with an entrepreneurship concentration from The University of Chicago could be the perfect fit since it’s designed for business owners.
Master of Science in Entrepreneurship
Along with an MBA, you might also consider a master of science in entrepreneurship. These degrees provide academic and networking opportunities specifically aimed at developing a student’s entrepreneurial career. Unlike an MBA, a master of science doesn’t have the same general education courses, such as corporate marketing, which might not be useful to your business. Some entrepreneurship graduate programs even hone in on one type of business, such as the master’s in biotechnology enterprise and entrepreneurship from Johns Hopkins University.
Master of Science in Project Management
As an entrepreneur, much of your time is focused on project management. You have to manage client expectations, make sure deadlines are met, and motivate teams to finish work in a timely manner. A master of science in project management, such as the online program from Boston University, can boost your skills.
Top Tip: Match Your Degree to Your Business Dream
While the listed degrees are a great match for most business owners, they aren’t the only options. Instead, choose the degree that makes sense for your goals. If you have successfully run a pharmaceutical marketing company over the past five years, a master’s in public health or pharmacy might make more sense. If you started giving personal finance advice on TikTok and now have a money mindset coaching company, a master’s in finance could boost your business. Getting a degree that specifically matches your professional goals, not the degree you think you should get, is the best choice.
Essential Steps to Launching Your Business
If you were building a house, you’d invest time into getting the foundation right so the house would last for decades to come. A business’s foundation is just as important. If you get it wrong, you could face lawsuits, tax penalties, and bankruptcy—while entrepreneurs with a good foundation experience less stress and more success. Your master’s program will provide a constant stream of new ideas and opportunities to consult professors and other experts, all of which will be invaluable as you tweak and adjust your business plan.
Although everyone’s business looks different, almost all entrepreneurs should follow these seven steps to build a solid foundation:
Step One: Brainstorm and Finalize a Business Idea
Before starting your business, it’s important to note what your main product or service is, who you serve, and what problem you solve. Once you’ve established the who, what, and why, you can also brainstorm any other ideas to start your business.
In this phase, don’t be afraid to dream big or write down “bad ideas.” Do a brain dump of anything that comes to mind, such as marketing strategies, how to acquire funding, and the administrative work your business needs to get up and running.
Step Two: Conduct Market Research
Once you have your offering and ideal customer or client, it’s time to do some market research. Market research gives you an overview of your competition and insight into what your customers want. To conduct market research on your own, dig into the following five areas:
- What your competitors do well
- Where your competitors are lacking
- All demographic information about your ideal customer or client
- Marketing channels or strategies your ideal customer or client responds well to
- Where there are gaps in the market or in your ideal customer or client’s life and any ideas to fill those gaps
Step Three: Write a Business Plan
Now it’s time to write it all down in a business plan. If you’re going to investors or to a bank to ask for a business loan, you’ll want to write a formal business proposal. Check out this guide from the Small Business Administration for more information on how to write and format a business plan.
If your business doesn’t require external investment you technically don’t need a business plan, but it never hurts to have one. When creating your business plan informally, consider:
- Your three-month, one-year, and five-year business goals
- A clearly written brief about who you serve, what problem you solve, and how you solve it
- The day-to-day procedures in every area of your business. Usually these consist of operations, customer service/client management, product development, marketing, human relations, finance, and business development.
- The long-term marketing or sales plan and the strategies you will employ
- Financial projections for the company
- Any other useful information to note
Step Four: Secure Funding
After you have your business plan, the next step is to secure funding. While venture capital is the main funding source that comes to mind, there are many ways to fund a business. You can get a small business loan, partner with individual investors, fund the business through your savings, or pick up a part-time job.
Write down where your funding will come from and any action steps you need to take to secure funding. Action steps could include applying for part-time jobs or asking the local chamber of commerce for a grant.
Step Five: Register Your Business
Your business isn’t official until it’s registered. In the United States, this means setting up an LLC, S-corp, or other business structure in one of the 50 states. Many entrepreneurs decide to incorporate their business in the state they reside in currently, but you don’t have to. Check out these business-friendly states and how to register your business in each.
Step Six: Set Up Operations
It’s time to set up shop! Whether this involves opening a physical store or clicking publish on your website, take the necessary steps to start your operations. When launching your business, consider what steps you need to take in terms of finances, administrative work, marketing, networking, and product development.
You also don’t want to miss out on a golden opportunity to get the word out about your business: a business launch celebration. This might be an in-person or virtual party with friends and professional contacts to celebrate, but it can also be more low key. For example, you could announce the business’s launch on social media or write an article about your industry for a local business journal.
Step Seven: Ready, Set, Take Off!
Whew! You’ve just set up your business and launched it. After taking a day or two to celebrate, it’s time to get to work. Write a list of all the daily and weekly tasks you need to do to be successful. These could include marketing and sales efforts such as cold-calling clients, improving the SEO of your website so more potential customers find your product, or creating content on social media. They most likely also include administrative tasks, such as responding to emails and logging your business expenses.
Once you have a list of tasks to complete, block time in your calendar for each. Some business owners also find it useful to block out one hour a day for general business admin, since unforeseen work can pop up at any time.
Resources, Tools, and Apps for Entrepreneurs
As you start and sustain your business, aim to work smarter, not harder. Luckily, plenty of tools and resources are available to help. Many of these tools are highly beneficial in your master’s studies as well. Listed below are ten of our favorite free or low-cost productivity tools for entrepreneurs.
Calendly – Scheduling meetings can become a time-consuming back and forth. Eliminate the email chain by sending clients, vendors, study partners, and others a link to your schedule. When someone views your availability on Calendly, they can select when they want to meet and the app will send both of you the Zoom link and details for the meeting. Calendly has a free and paid option.
Canva – Need to design a logo, create graphics for social media, or develop an eye-catching presentation for a class? Canva is a low-cost Adobe alternative that makes graphic design easy. Choose between free or premium offerings.
Google Analytics – As you set up your website, it’s important to know who is visiting and what they’re looking for. By installing Google analytics on your website, you can get all this information free.
Google Drive – As a business owner and master’s student, you most likely need an online space to organize documents, spreadsheets, and calendar events. Google Drive offers a free, cloud-based solution. Access important business documents from Google Drive or check your daily schedule with Google calendar.
Hemingway Editor – Even if you’re not in the business of writing, you might still find yourself drafting funding proposals, sales emails, research summaries, and class assignments. Run all these through Hemingway Editor, a free editing tool, to make sure your writing is clear and concise.
Intuit TurboTax – Time to do your taxes? Intuit was designed by TurboTax to help entrepreneurs. It offers a range of services to suit every business’s needs and budget. Small business owners can choose to have the software do their taxes for them, aid them while they manually do their taxes, or connect with an accountant in real time to answer questions.
LinkedIn – Looking to make new connections or keep up-to-date with your current industry contacts? Try LinkedIn. This free social media platform was designed to help employees and business owners maintain and grow their professional network.
Lunchclub – This AI service connects industry professionals for 1:1 conversations on mutual professional interests. Once you sign up for this free tool, you’ll fill out a profile with information about yourself and tell the program how many networking calls you want each week. The app does the rest, pairing you with professionals and helping you grow your network.
Notion – Notion is a great place to manage your work- and school-related tasks. Its free-flowing design allows you to customize the task-management options to your preferences. Plus, you can share Notion boards with team members and classmates, making it easier to collaborate.
QuickBooks – Almost every business owner needs a way to track invoices, expenses, and other financial information. QuickBooks is one of the most affordable and easy-to-use accounting software options for small businesses and first-time entrepreneurs.
Hear From a Master’s Student Entrepreneur
Lilian Chen is the co-founder and COO of Bar None Games, a premier virtual team-building platform that has worked with 1,500+ companies to help their hybrid and remote teams feel connected. At Bar None Games, Lilian runs operations, marketing, finance, and customer success. She received her master’s in business administration and entrepreneurship from New York University and previously launched startups at an early-stage venture capital firm.
What inspired you to pursue a master's degree to start your own business?
When I was deciding whether to apply to business school, wanting a career switch was a key part of it. I previously had a background in finance, and while I enjoyed it, I always had a hunch that I would love being an entrepreneur. However, knowing nothing about entrepreneurship, I had no idea where to start, and I didn’t have a network of entrepreneurs to reach out to for advice. Pursuing a master’s degree helped me immensely in figuring out the ropes and meeting others with similar ambitions.
How did your specific degree program help prepare you for entrepreneurship?
I have a master’s degree in business administration and entrepreneurship from New York University, which has been instrumental in helping me start and run Bar None Games. My degree program gave me the tools and resources to develop my business idea and plan, and I learned many valuable lessons and skills that have been essential to my success. I was inspired to pursue my master’s degree to start my own business because I wanted to gain the knowledge and skills to become an effective entrepreneur.
Can you share some examples of courses or projects during your master's that directly contributed to your business idea or plan?
The courses and projects during my master’s program directly contributed to my business idea and plan by teaching me the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship. Through networking and collaborating with classmates and professors, I was able to develop a strong network and gain valuable insights from experienced professionals.
What were the most valuable lessons or skills you learned during your master's program that have helped you in starting and running your business?
I feel that my degree sets me apart from others in many ways. First, I had the ability to design my second-year course load to focus on classes specifically geared toward entrepreneurs. I really enjoyed these classes and learned a ton from them. I learned how to think creatively, how to make decisions in times when you don’t have all of the information, and how to manage and inspire a team. Most importantly, some of my courses focused on the difficulties of being an entrepreneur, and the highs and lows that come with the journey. Being fully prepared from many different angles certainly helped give me an advantage in the industry. Additionally, the Harvard Business School program introduced me to a vast network of people who were helpful in my entrepreneurship journey, whether as an advisor, a friend, or a potential customer.
How did networking and collaborating with classmates or professors influence your entrepreneurial journey?
I was fortunate to have several mentors and role models during my master’s program, who provided guidance and support throughout my entrepreneurial journey. My master’s degree has set me apart from other entrepreneurs in my industry by giving me the necessary skills and knowledge to start and effectively run a business—and by providing opportunities to grow my network.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in transitioning from student to entrepreneur?
In general, being a student feels like a luxury where you have a lot of time to explore and build knowledge in the areas of your choice. Once you’re an entrepreneur, the focus shifts to figuring out what the business needs, and it can take a lot of experimentation and hard work to make it succeed.
What advice would you give to someone considering pursuing a master's degree to start their own business?
I would encourage them to figure out what areas of expertise they feel like they’re lacking and focus their time during the programming on building their skill sets. This can be either hard skills or soft skills. Additionally, use the opportunity to meet others who have similar interests to your own. The journey of entrepreneurship can be very lonely, and building a community of others who understand what you’re going through can be immensely helpful.