5 More Admissions Tips  

Posted by Dino in , ,

Getting admitted to a top business school can be like trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat. In this post I continue my rant on what the trick to it might be... ©

It looks like the applicants applying in Fall '09 are already sniffing around, doing research. Following my previous rant, here are 5 more things that I think prospective applicants should think about.

(1) The schools will say that you should apply when you are ready. In reality, some points in time are better than others. The schools want to fill the class with a certain number of students from each age group. I would suggest thinking about how to optimize your profile. HBS published a distribution for graduation years for the class of 2010 here (search for the "Class of 2010 Graduation Years" post here).

(2) Think about your profile.The schools make money on every application they get. It is in their interests to let you think that you'll be admitted. The profiles on the schools website do not really reflect the makeup of the students admitted. On the website they are more diverse than they really are. Get advice from someone who has lots of experiences in seeing applicants admitted and rejected by each of the schools, e.g. an admissions consultant with lots of experience or an ex-student who reviewed applications for the school. They should be able to give a good view of your chances.

(3) Your background. As well as filling the class with a certain number of people from each age group, certain numbers from each career background and various other characteristics will also be sought. If you have an opportunity to work in an area from where there are lots of people going into MBA (e.g. your company's strategy department), I suggest they are being recruited from that department for a reason and that it would be worth doing a stint there. It might even be better to work at a company from where there are many people going into MBAs, e.g. McKinsey.

(4) What do you eat, breathe and shit? I know a guy who was admitted to all the top US schools. He described himself as someone who "eats, breathes and shits biotech". If he made as distinct an impression in his essays, I'm sure he would have come across as someone who is both convincing and could also become a world class biotech person of the future. Once the school has read your application, will you leave as such a distinct impression? Montauk refers to this as positioning (in the marketing sense), but I doubt many people market themselves well. (I don't think I did). Your positioning should be so blatant and distinct that your recommenders will shout about it in unison: e.g. "this guy is one of our foremost biotech evangelists".

(5) Do something amazing in the year leading to you applying. Make it real, easy for a layman to understand and something that the school can shout about. Remember, as soon as you are admitted, the schools do shout extracts back at the class describing the impressive feats of their admits. I mentioned some in my DAK debrief and Tieny mentioned some his Columbia open house debrief. Some of the things I've heard shouted about are "x person won x athletic award", "y person won the national stand up comedy awards" and "z person started a charity". I suspect the trick is to not come across as bragging.

These are just my opinions. Please complement them with the views of others who have gone through the experience or who help applicants through the process.


Eco-Seekas In Costa Ricas (Kellogg KWEST Trips)  

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The answer is "no one is brave enough for roMANIA". None of the KWEST trips are headed there in 2009. (c).

I've been spending far too much time flicking through the catalog of KWEST trips. KWEST is the week long world wide service trip that Kellogg students attend before pre-term. The trips for 2009 don't seem to be up on the website yet, but we were given a booklet of the 2009 trips at DAK1.

Many Kellogg students talk about KWEST as though it is a relavatory experience, "you will meet your best friends for life there!"... The only thing that I'm convinced about is that it has to be worth doing, given all the hype. There must be 38 or so different trips, each led by 5 students who by then will be in their second year, with 25 matriculating first years joining them.

Every country in North, Central and South America must be represented between the various KWEST trips, along with every Caribbean island. There are also a dozen European destinations and four trips to elsewhere in the world. Each trip has a page in the booklet and you'd be forgiven for thinking that each trip was competing to win the prize for cheesiest advert. The headings include "Eco-Seekas In Costa Ricas", "Scandinavia: Do Blondes Have More Fun?", "No Spain No Gain" and "We don't keep score in Ecuador". They are quickly followed by a few brisk paragraphs of Kellogg's best copywrite, such as:

How could you not want to spend a week with this motley crew? We shred on the slopes, rock out night and day and look awesome in 80s gear. Oh yeah, and we're taking you on the BEST KWEST TRIP EVER!

Descriptions of various activities the group will participate in follows. The activities range from snorkeling to hiking, skiing, "general debauchery" or whatever it is the environment facilitates. To cap off the cheesiness, the trip leaders include photos of themselves in their craziest outfits and give themselves nick names such as, "Freeze Tag" Fry, "McDreamy" and "These hips don't" Lai.

As for which trip I'm going to sign up for, I'm veering towards the central or south Americas. I still have plenty of time to decide on which one specifically...


Get everyone excited.  

Posted by Dino in

boo.com's prototype website created a "wow" experience. You could even model the clothes on a mannequin fitting your body measurements and twirl it in 3D. © & ©

Get everyone excited. Is this the key skill of an entrepreneur? One of my main takeaways from Boo Hoo, a book I recently posted about, is that it's important to get everyone excited, and then for this excitement to infect other people - at least enough for them to part with large sums of their money.

Although there are a lot of setbacks that Ernst Malmsten, the lead entrepreneur and author of the book, as well as the other founders experienced - I could not help but notice the excitement that they generated. While at first most investors and suppliers were interested, once a few became excited, other soon followed. So what helped create this excitement?

Experience. Ernst Malmsten and one of the other founders, Kajsa Leander, had a previously started a successful online book retailer called bokus.com and then sold it. This was crucial to persuading JP Morgan that they could make boo.com a success. The success of their earlier venture meant that (at the time) they were one of the few entrepreneurs with Internet experience. Who better to make boo.com a reality?

Timing. JP Morgan, feeling a little late to the dot com investment party, could not help but be enthralled by the opportunity of boo.com when it was presented to them. Large IPOs were becoming common place for dot coms. For JP Morgan, and some of the suppliers that came on board, the opportunity came at the right time: they were already a bit hungry.

Buzz. The first press article publicizing boo.com appeared in Womans Wear Daily, a trade magazine read by fashion suppliers. After the article was published, suppliers such as Benetton got excited and became ready to come on board. This first article also got them into more exclusive fashion magazines, such as Vogue. Interestingly, Womans Wear Daily did not write the article to publicize boo.com. They were interested in the story from the angle of LVMH investing in boo.com, rather than the boo.com venture itself. Still, this was enough expose boo.com to the world to get others excited it.

A "WOW" experience. The key reason that boo.com got further in making online e-tailing a reality, comparative to other similar clothes retailing startups at the time, is because they got the suppliers on board. Suppliers were wary of the Internet and in some senses wanted to protect the effect it would have on the bricks and mortar retailers they sold to. However, once one of the suppliers began to let boo.com sell their goods, other followed. Some investors and some suppliers were easier to persuade to come on board once other investors and suppliers were already on board. They simply did not want to take the lead. A key persuaders was a fantastic prototype site that made everyone that looked at it go "wow" and call over others to share the experience.

Belief. The founders were also persistent in trying again and again to get the support of investors and suppliers. They all had unwavering belief in the concept and were determined to go incredible lengths to get the support they needed to make it happen. Patrik Hedelin, the third founder, for example continued to woo Benetton as an investor long after many had given up hope.


When Google Is Not Enough  

Posted by Dino in ,

This picture describes the Invisible Web, the deep layers of the web that search engines such as Google can not reach. ©

Flickr produces much better image search results than Google. YouTube produces much better video search results than Google. Twitter produces much better search on real time conversation than Google. There are numerous special cases where Google just does not produce the best results possible. Why is this?

Historically the Internet has been random web pages scattered across the world. Search engines, such as Google, have always excelled at organizing such random and unstructured information and making it meaningful for people doing searches. However, the unstructured nature of information across different web sites has meant there is always a boundary to how much the quality can be improved. How does Google determine the meaning of a picture on one site compared to the next? Should it use the words surrounding the picture? Should it give meaning to the filename of the picture? The Semantic Web is an initiative to provide structure to the information on the Internet. Though promising, after many years it still has yet to gain any traction.

Flickr, YouTube and Twitter - within their local spaces - have delivered on the promise of what a Semantic Web could be. They have made it easy to search through difficult to find photos, videos and conversational threads. They have done this by owning all the data they search through. In a radical departure from searching through random and unstructured web pages, because each of these three services owns the data they store - they can collect and structure the information exactly as they need to. For photos, Flickr enables users to tag parts of pictures with labels. YouTube requests people uploading videos to add details such as artist, title and other information. Twitter has immediate access to all twitter messages within its own databases - making real time search of Internet conversations possible - it does not need to crawl the Internet to update it's search results. By owning all the data, each of Flickr, YouTube and Twitter have explicitly structured the data to produce better results for users searching for photos, videos and through conversations.

With the emphasis of the Internet becoming "store everything on The Cloud", I expect the trend of mega-sites owning vast specialized and structured information to continue. You don't use Google to search for a house you want to buy - you use something like propertyfinder.com, which stores all the data on houses available on the housing market. If you want to purchase a book or toy you go to Amazon or eBay and search there. If you want to find out what your friends are doing, you don't ask Google - you ask Facebook instead. Are there other pillars of the Internet where a simple Google search just does not produce good enough results? What is the next opportunity whereby just owning all the data yourself will produce the best results for the user?

This post was inspired by an article by Battelle and a Twitter by Fred Wilson.


What I wish I'd known about MBA admissions.  

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Hopefully, I've not spoken too soon in saying that I won't be going through the admissions process again. ©

My experience of applying for business school was one hell of a long haul. I think I first started thinking about doing an MBA in the Fall of 2006. It took me a long time to get myself moving; it took me until early 2008 to get my GMAT done. Then it was a whirlwind season of essays, interviews and everything else. Orlando has posted some excellent advice on shaping up an MBA application. Apart from what he has written, if I were to go through it again, there are some specific things that would have been useful for me to have known upfront. This advice may not be for everyone. What a relief that I don't have to take heed of it.

(1) The GMAT: Do the GMAT Prep software practice tests over and over again, reinstalling and installing the software to squeeze out as many new questions as possible. Particularly in the math section of the GMAT, the questions on the real exam are the same as those in the Prep software except with different numbers substituted in. You will eventually start to recognize the question types, from which you can start developing methods to tackle each type. The Manhattan GMAT forums were great for learning the theory behind the questions. I started copying the questions from the forums and grouping them into similar types. The Manhattan GMAT books are great for understanding the concepts.

(2) Get an "inside" contact. Can you find a recommender who is an alum of the school, yet who is still appropriate to do your recommendation? I know a girl who was denied by all 8 schools she applied to, except the one for which a recommender was an alumnus. I'm sure there are other factors to her applications, but I'm also sure the alumnus appeal is a strong influencer on some schools' adcoms. I know a guy who has gone a step further - he has started developing friendships with current and former student MBA application readers. Will they put in a good word for him when he applies? Perhaps most ambitious would be to impress faculty from the school. If you impressed them, would they make a note? ... Some people might ask "Am I gaining an unfair advantage"? I'm sure the adcoms are already wise to these antics. Among several thousand applicants, you might just be gaining a "fair shot".

(3) Take care of the little things. If you are applying to several schools, your applications will start to look similar - even when you try to make sure they are not. The subtle instructions in the applications are what matter. For example, the Kellogg asks about your "career plan". Harvard asks about your "career vision". Stanford asks about your "career aspiration". Wharton asks about your "career goal". I would suggest mixing up these terms will send alarm bells to the reader.

(4) The hunt for financial scholarships starts now. Applying in R1, I thought I would have plenty of time to look at scholarships and grants after I was admitted. I was wrong. Deadlines for some opportunities are before even the R1 deadlines, such as those for the Rotary Club. If there is one thing harder than getting into B School, it is finding someone that will give you free money to go.


The story of a catastrophe.  

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The founders of boo.com. Top to bottom: Kajsa Leander, Patrik Hedelin and Ernst Malmsten. ©

In my social circle, one of my friends - Ivan - has earned himself the reputation of making bankrupt boo.com, a fashion retailer of the dot com era that grew to 400 staff and burnt through $135million of investment money. Of course he is not really responsible for the bankruptcy, but this local urban myth encouraged me enough to read Boo Hoo, the story of boo.com.

What Ivan did to earn that reputation.
In April 2000, Ivan started raving about boo.com, a new online clothes retailer. He said they were offering £20 money-off gift vouchers on the first purchase every new customer made. boo.com identified a new customer by whether the email address of the customer was already on their system. If you strolled around Ivan's apartment, you would have seen wall-to-wall boo.com delivery boxes. This guy had registered dozens of web email addresses and ordered dozens of goods as a "first customer" on the site. All these goods were priced just a little over £20, perhaps £23 or £22. When boo.com went bankrupt in May of that year, everyone joked that Ivan had sent them bankrupt. So given the nascent stages of my own start-up adventure and this previous encounter with boo.com, when I saw that one of the founders had written a book about the experience, I felt compelled to have a read.

It's about who you know.
Reading the book, I realised that a lot of who the success the founders of boo.com had was through people they knew. Patrik Hedelin, an investment banker and the third founder, introduced them to JP Morgan, a world renowned bank that would seek out investment money for them. Patrick also got Sacks Arms, a world renowned law firm, to work with them. Ernst Malmsten, the lead entrepreneur and CEO, also always seemed to have people who he could call on for advice. These included Salty, an ex-JP Morgan adviser who moved on to a VC firm. Salty advised them on matters such as handling Arab investors. Another adviser was a contact at PWC who has experience in firing senior executives. The experts that Malmsten had to help in him in many scenarios seemed plentiful.

People management.
Malmsten spent a significant amount of time worrying about Patrik Hedelin, the CFO. Hedelin's lack of ability in shaping up the finance department and building a solid financial model for the company kept Malmsten occupied through large parts of the adventure. Later, the CTO, Steve Bennett would give Malmsten further grief. Once that was resolved, even the replacement CFO and even then later the Head of HR would give Malmsten personnel issues to deal with. These seemed to be a constant need to performance manage and replace someone or other.

Managing the technology.
The founders drastically underestimated the complexity of getting the technology working. The approach, as was common at the time, was a big bang release. The release date was delayed further and further. This meant the business was burning through investment money and lacking revenues for longer and longer. The viability of the business model and entire operation itself relied on the technology working.

The bottom line.
There was also no bootstrapping at the company. The boo.com were based in London and made frequent expensive visits to New York, where they stay at the Soho Grand. They hired ex-BCG consultants to open offices around the world. The company expanded very, very fast - burning money. When boo.com realized that the revenue from sales would not sustain them, they had to cull staff - but their overheads were far too much still.

In conclusion...
Boo Hoo is a great book. It would be rare to see that kind of catastrophe happen again. There are a lot of lessons in how to get quite far in building a significant company, although there are systematic failures - such as the lack of attention to the bottom line. On a personal note, I now realize that my friend Ivan had all those clothes subsidized by investors ranging from Arabs to Benetton. How strange it is how money flows.


Musings on Kellogg's differentiators  

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The M7 business schools are often said to meet to share best practice. ©

The business schools try very hard to differentiate themselves. Yet, just reading Tieny's Columbia admit weekend debrief reminds me of how similar the top schools are... right down to bragging about the achievements of the admits at the admit weekend. The business schools are more similar than different. As soon as one innovates something, the others quickly copy. Several years ago MIT started the business plan competition. Now every top business school in the world has a business plan competition. Among the Kellogg class of 2011, I'm sure there is even a Miss Evanston to rival the Miss New York in Tieny's Columbia class.

However, there are some things for which a school just has so much more shear enthusiasm, it is not copied - or at least copied very well - by other schools. These are those things for Kellogg. If you know anything about Kellogg, you know them already. However, this is my take on them:

  • The adcom will sometimes play down the strength of the school in Marketing, to ensure Kellogg is seen as a well rounded school. However, from having professors blogging on super bowl adverts to having an extra day during the Marketing conference for Kellogg professors to update industry executives on the latest marketing thinking, the enthusiasm for marketing just seeps out. It is hard not to notice that there is a lot going on at this school when it comes to marketing. I sometimes wonder whether Kellogg has admitted so many of us bloggers deliberately, given the free marketing that we have and some us will continue to provide the school.
  • At some business schools, students are viewed as the product of the school. They have little influence on how the school is run. Kellogg is on the absolute opposite end of the scale - student participation is a massive part of Kellogg experience. There seems to be almost no aspect to the running of the school that the students play some role in. For example, I was shocked to learn that even the Honor code, that thing that everyone signs to certify that they will not cheat, will respect class mates etc - even the Honor code is policed by students at Kellogg. After you graduate, your involvement continues. In the first few years after graduation, you will be called on to conduct admissions interviews. As time progresses, and as your career success unfolds, you may be asked back to talk at events or classes. Some MBAs even come back to the school to serve as faculty. The relationship between students, alumni and the school is carefully engineered to be tight.
  • Team work and developing soft skills plays a central role at Kellogg. I understand that even one page essays are given as team assignments. As is often the case with team orientated work, how long it takes depends entirely on how well the team get along. As a corollary of all this team work, the students also seem to spend a lot of time socializing. One alum once said to me, "9pm to 2am was blocked out four days a week on my Outlook calendar as drinking time". Some people will frown at this, but I think this is great. So much socializing can only lead to perfecting skills such as of small-talk, which is a key part of Western - and particularly US - culture. The BusinessWeek specialty rankings, based on data from MBA recruiters, bears this out: Kellogg grads top both the soft skills metrics of Teamwork and Communication.
All of the above is nothing new; it is the kind of information that is already in the guide books. Yet, I have to say that I have really only started appreciating these differentiating aspects of Kellogg now that I'm on the way there...