What’s On Deck for Business School

Why the teachers of disruption are squarely in its crosshairs.

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It is an open secret that business school is not really school. Students may spend a dozen hours per week in class and toil to fulfill academic requirements over two years, but that’s not why they attend.

How do I know? Students at many top schools agree to something called Grade Nondisclosure, an honor code pact between students not to disclose their GPAs to anyone. This disincentivizes students from trying too hard at the whole school thing. Students would rather foster a spirit of cooperation than one of competition, and leave space for the real reasons they enrolled: to make friends and to get a job.

Another main reason people attend business school is for the credential that comes with the degree. The signal that ‘I was accepted into and graduated from X’. This credential is important not only to the students but also their employers. Consulting firms like McKinsey even require their young Associates attend business school only to return to the firm, credential in hand. 

This system worked for me. I graduated from NYU Stern in 2015 (my GPA was ⬛.⬛⬛) with an amazing network of close friends and a job at Amazon. 

Yet, even as a student, I found business school puzzling. 

The equation always seemed unbalanced: for ~$200,000, I get to play student for two years, and leave with a network, a job, and a credential. I also get a pass from my friends, family and self, who all view business school as a credible career option. What I did during those two years seems not to matter; the critical component is having been admitted.

Because of these dynamics, business school is often described as a two year vacation. 

Man, that’s an expensive vacation.


Disrupting Business School

Any would-be disruptor of business school would need to nail all three of its Jobs to be Done (JTBD): (1) the network, (2) the career opportunities, and (3) the credential. This challenger would have to do so for a fraction of the cost and with a sustainable business model. Seems like a tall order. 

Disrupting Incentives in Education

Incentives in traditional education are at best misaligned and at worst completely broken. Recent innovation in education has tended to focus on improving incentive structures and it’s easy to see why. A university charges tuition up front and gets to keep it whether or not the student succeeds (no matter that student’s definition of success).

Universities have only a weak interest in their students’ success. Yes, if a school completely stops supporting its students, it will see that reflected in the rankings and will also see a hit to their donations down the road. But those are both indirect and slow, taking years if not decades to materialize.

Attempts to re-align incentives in education have fallen into two main categories: income share agreements (ISAs) and equity investments. 

An ISA is a mechanism where a student attends a school for free (or cheap) and only pays the institution if they receive a job in the relevant field. Lambda School was a pioneer here, and has forced both startups and incumbents to adopt the model.

The other category is equity investments. The canonical example is Y Combinator but there are many others like it. These institutions invest in early stage startups, help them get off the ground, and earn a payback from any company who goes on to a successful exit. 

Neither of these models fully replace business school. In any ISA there’s an adverse selection issue, where only students who can’t afford to pay for school up front are attracted to that model. That may work for Lambda School, which takes people with low paying jobs and turns them into software engineers, but that’s not the target population for business school. On the equity investment side, the glaring issue is that it’s only relevant for people who want to start venture scale businesses. If we think back to our three JTBD, that’s not even on the list for most business school students. 

Disrupting Delivery of Education

I should also mention organizations like Coursera and edX, pioneers of the MOOC. Anyone can now learn anything from world class teachers without needing to enroll in a traditional program. As amazing as these organizations are, they too are not potential disruptors of business school because—as I explained above—education is at best a secondary concern for the MBA student.

Perhaps then, the opportunity to disrupt business school is not to change the incentive structure or delivery mechanism, but rather to simply deliver more value for a better price. 

In other words, good ol’ fashioned disruption. 

There’s one company that is on its way to cracking that code: On Deck

[Full disclosure: I have been attending programs at On Deck since early October. I was not paid for this article nor do I have a stake in the company’s success. I simply became fascinated by the company after joining the program and thought it would make an interesting case study].


What is On Deck?

On Deck is hard to define. Glance at their website and you’ll see programs for Founders, Angels, VCs, Writers, No-Code Creators, etc. 

If you read their recent fundraise announcement, you’ll see they’ve updated their mission statement three times over the past ~18 months. The current version reads “To build a modern education institution — a platform serving the many strands of identity of ambitious people who want to change the world”. 

A bit wordy, a bit lofty, a bit vague. 

On Deck began as an in-person series of events (mostly dinners) that brought tech talent together to plot their next career moves. This original format was wildly successful, with events taking place in over 20 cities around the world. But it quickly reached its scale limit. 

Founder Erik Torenberg and current CEO David Booth evolved On Deck into an online program. They called it the On Deck Founder Fellowship, or ODF, and oriented it towards people starting and building companies. On Deck takes no equity in the companies. Instead it charges an upfront fee (aka tuition) of about $2,000 per fellow. 

Unlike business school, there are no requirements. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure experience. On a typical day there might be 3-4 sessions one could attend. For example, On Deck might bring in a world-class startup lawyer to talk about common legal pitfalls arising during the early stages of business formation.

In between sessions, there’s an emphasis on meeting others in your cohort. Everyone is a potential cofounder, advisor, customer, employee, mentor, and friend. In just 7 weeks, I’ve met multiple potential cofounders for myself, a cofounder for my girlfriend, and dozens of smart, humble people. 

The community is of, by, and for the people. Fellows are encouraged to create Slack channels based on interest groups, organize community sessions where they teach everyone else, and host office hours. On Deck’s staff is there to tend the community garden in support of this organic creation: to quickly respond to feedback and to identify opportunities to better serve fellows.


On Deck’s Flywheels

The On Deck Founder Fellowship (ODF) has established a dynamic community and a flywheel that sustains it. But ODF is not the end of On Deck’s ambitions, it’s merely the beginning. 

The exciting part is the set of flywheels On Deck is building around ODF. In just the past two months they’ve added fellowships for writers, podcasters, VCs, angel investors, no-code builders, and early startup employees. 

Each new fellowship stems from observing behavior in ODF and asking the question ‘what are founders telling us they need?’ As CEO David Booth says, “each new fellowship bootstraps the supply to another fellowship’s demand”. 

On Deck is building a web of flywheels: each fellowship has its own flywheel(s) which connect to those of every other fellowship in one form or another. 

Let’s look at these flywheels in more detail before explaining why this poses a threat to the status quo business education industry.

Individual Fellowship Flywheel

Each fellowship has a flywheel with two components:

  1. The building blocks of a strong community. We can call this the generic flywheel because it’s not unique to any one fellowship. Every fellowship—and in fact every successful community—shares these components.

  2. The components that are unique to each fellowship. We’ll call this the specific flywheel, and every fellowship has its own, unique version of this. The specific flywheel feeds back to the generic flywheel and vice versa. 

The Generic Flywheel

There is no shortage of resources on how to build an effective community—I am not an expert on the topic. Below is a modified version of the community flywheel created by Nick DeWilde (who I met in the On Deck Writer Fellowship). I think it describes On Deck’s fellowships well: 

  1. It starts with FOMO. This is the secret sauce of any community, but it's hard to manufacture. On Deck created FOMO by doing something unscalable (dinner parties) for years.

  2. With FOMO you create a high volume of applications. 

  3. High application volumes allow On Deck to remain selective even as enrollment grows.

  4. Repeated interactions with a high-quality group lead to high alumni satisfaction. 

Since there’s no degree or diploma, there is no real way to coast through On Deck and leave with something valuable on the other side. People feel motivated to get their money’s worth. This results in a level of engagement and generosity that seems rather unusual.

Because On Deck has been transformational for many of its participants, fellows feel a need to refer friends so they can share in the halo effect of On Deck’s work. If I refer a friend, and my friend has a transformational experience, they’ll partially credit that transformation to me. 

The Specific Flywheel – ODF

As mentioned, every fellowship has its own specific flywheel. For the Founder Fellowship (ODF), it looks like this: 

  1. As the generic flywheel spins and creates a highly engaged community, cofounders serendipitously meet and companies form.

  2. As more companies form, On Deck is able to attract more perks and partnerships with important companies. Companies starting in On Deck today have access to perks offered by over 70 companies. These benefits, like AWS and Stripe credits or deferred legal fees, make it easier for companies to get off the ground.

  3. As it becomes easier to get off the ground, it becomes more likely that there will be good outcomes coming from ODF companies.

  4. With more good outcomes, more companies form. Fellows who were on the fence about starting a company might be encouraged by the success and decide to go for it. The overall talent pool only increases, making success even more likely as time goes on.

As the number of successful outcomes increases, prospective fellows will perceive their own likelihood of success to be higher. This increases FOMO, thereby linking the specific flywheel back to the generic flywheel. 

Multi-Fellowship Flywheel

This is the fun part. 

As the Founder Fellowship flywheel spins, new fellowships are spawned. By repeatedly asking the question “what do founders need next,” these ideas materialize into reality. 

What do founder’s need?

And so on and so forth. 

Today the focal point is ODF. New fellowships are spawning in response to what founders need. But in the future, each new fellowship might become the center of its own set of opportunities. The result will be an evolving, multiplying process that cannot be fully predicted ahead of time. 

Today the question is ‘what do founders need?’ but tomorrow it will be ‘what do writers need’ or ‘what do angel investors need’. 

Or, as Jack Butcher tweeted:


On Deck vs MBA

I asserted above that to disrupt business school, a challenger would need to nail the three Jobs to be Done, all at a lower cost and with a better business model. Let’s take a look at why I believe On Deck can pull this off:

Jobs To Be Done

Network

The value of the business school network is high but replaceable. The value stems from putting a good group of people together for a shared experience across two years. Add in a dash of travel and a heaping spoonful of booze, and you’ve got yourself a strong network. 

People will always crave the social and networking opportunities created when a like-minded group is formed, bursting with potential friends, business partners, and love interests. 

Not only can On Deck reproduce this dynamic, they can exceed it. Like business school, On Deck puts people together for a shared experience. Today it’s online and the bonds are not as intense as they are in business school. In the future there will be in-person components aimed at strengthening those bonds. 

What differentiates the On Deck network from business school is that the bonds are formed around shared facets of identity, while business school bonds are built around a shared circumstance. In On Deck, writers are bonding with other writers, founders with founders. These characteristics don’t tend to change much. In contrast, business school bonds tend to be around shared circumstances, like ‘we both recruited for investment banking’, or ‘we both lived in New York at the same time’. These things tend to change much more frequently and the resulting ties to fray. 

Jobs

Many students attend business school to advance their careers. The pipeline of students from MBA programs to companies like Amazon and Google is well traversed. These companies effectively outsource the evaluation process to the business school admissions departments. 

Got into HBS? Good enough for us! 

On Deck’s focus isn’t as strongly on job placement today. But it’s coming. They just announced OD50, a program for people interested in jobs with early stage startups. In the future, I see no reason why they couldn’t launch ODCorporate, a program for folks who want jobs at places like Amazon and Google. 

If I was looking for startup jobs, I would have more faith that On Deck could deliver me those opportunities than a business school because On Deck has a vested interest in producing those companies and helping them find great employees. 

Credential

Last but not least, people attend business school for the credential that comes with the degree. Namely, the signal that ‘I was accepted into and graduated from X’. This is the biggest gap for On Deck in the comparison against business school. But the gap will shrink.

Byrne Hobart wrote a great piece on credentials and why universities deliver them ineffectively. He writes: 

“What Harvard really does is 1) tell 18-year-olds they have the Harvard Stamp of Approval, and then 2) Make them wait in line for four years to collect it.”

Hobart’s argument, then, is that there is a more effective way to deliver credentials. In Hobart’s case, he argues that Y Combinator is the organization that will crack the case, and he may be right. That said, there won’t only be one such organization because the addressable market for education is everyone on earth.

On Deck will find ways to do this. To summarize Erik’s personal blog post about peer-to-peer credentials, On Deck is facilitating thousands of serendipitous encounters between smart people, each of whom will be able to vouch for the best people to meet. On Deck’s ecosystem of fellowships will generate its own type of credential that will become increasingly powerful over time. 

Cost and Business Model

Cost

On Deck is 100% online today. They do not own real estate in a major city. They employ about 30 employees to serve the now thousands of fellows enrolling each year. Simply put, it’s an online business run by internet natives. Compared to this, business schools have a massive cost disadvantage.

This cost and structural advantage also means On Deck can iterate far faster on its offerings than business school can. Business schools are held back by their associations with universities, which impose upon them inefficiencies such as tenure and academic requirements. On Deck, unencumbered by such taxes, can move extremely quickly to add new types of value to its customers. 

Business Model

Business schools charge hefty tuition up front, and attempt to monetize in the future via donations. The problem is that most alumni hate donating money to their alma mater.

Anyone who—like me—screens phone calls from certain area codes for fear of being hit up yet again for a donation knows what I’m talking about. 

The reason is simple: the school provided value in the past, yet they’re asking for money today. 

For On Deck, the proposition looks different.

On Deck is aligned to what people need through different stages of their career. Fellows may attend ODF and then decide they want to try writing. After that, maybe the angel fellowship fits what they’re looking for. The median number of programs someone attends at a place like Harvard is 1. At On Deck it could be far higher. 

If they can achieve that, is there any reason they couldn’t start adding even more value added products on top of it? Maybe that’s continued access to events and lectures, the ability to pitch or be pitched by future On Deck companies, a better version of Lunchclub that ensures you continuously meet amazing, relevant people, or access to a network of On Deck retreats all over the world? The possibilities are endless.

For On Deck, the business model then looks like many more, lower dollar-amount interactions with customers over the course of their career. With value added products layered on top of fellowships, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them add on a subscription component as well. 

Instead of ‘pay up front and pray for donation’, it’s ‘pay a (relatively) small amount forever, or until we stop providing value’. Advantage, On Deck. 


The end of business school?

Is this the end of business school? I don’t think so, though my Twitter following is split.

It will be a long time before industry stops rewarding the credential of the top business schools. But disruption is coming, and not all business schools will survive. Already I have spoken with a handful of people who have decided that On Deck is a better mix of value/price for them than an MBA. As the value of On Deck increases, that will only accelerate.

Theories of disruption have long been the domain of business schools. Innovator’s Dilemma and Porter’s Five Forces, these are frameworks that business schools teach us to use throughout our own careers. It’s time for these schools to glance inward and prepare for an incoming threat of their own.


🚨🚨I sat down with On Deck’s CEO David Booth and Founder/Chairman Erik Torenberg to discuss their strategy and business model. I’ll be publishing excerpts from that conversation on Friday. Subscribe now so you don’t miss it.🚨🚨

That’s it for this edition of The Flywheel. Thanks so much for reading. A huge thanks to TanyaTom, Kushaan, and Alex for helping out with this one.

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