When Matt Littell was nearing the end of business school, he could have done what many MBAs do: look for work at an established marketing or finance company, or start his own business.
He instead chose a unusual path for entrepreneurship. Littell convinced other people to give him money while he searched for a business to take over, also known as building a search fund.
He started the search fund process during the second year of his MBA program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Before business school, his view of entrepreneurship was more narrow.
"I knew that I wanted to buy and fix small businesses," says Littell. "I didn't know that search funds were an option."
Through his MBA program, he learned of other people who used search funds to find employment and the basics of how the search fund process works. Students typically look for small- to medium-sized businesses. Experts suggest they choose a company in an area of business that they are familiar with.
Littell's search fund allowed him to buy Progressive Bronze, which makes and restores hardware used in the Catholic church, such as crosses and candlesticks. Littell, who also has a master's in engineering, instantly became president and CEO -- the kinds of roles MBAs usually go into once their search fund process is complete.
"It's a terrific way to jump-start their career and get into a leadership position much much faster," says William Sutter Jr., a senior lecturer in finance at Kellogg.
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While anyone can use a search fund to become an entrepreneur, business school experts say getting an MBA can make pursuing this career track easier. Business school teaches students how to be managers and move into the C-suite, which is usually the goal for people who do search funds.
"Business school teaches you the things you need to know to run a company," says Steve Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago. It also provides a network, he says. This network can help students find investors or mentors to help them build a search fund. This school year, Booth launched Booth Search to help graduating students find investors, mentors and other resources for a search fund.
Like Littell, most MBAs start the search fund process while in business school. They look for investors to give them enough money that will last them up to two years while they search for a business to acquire.
MBAs that find a company return to their investors and ask if they'll agree to buy the business. Some say yes, while others may say no. If some decline, MBAs go on another search to find more investors who will say yes.
Once the investors are ready to go, the student and investors buy the business. The investors own stake in the company and sometimes join the board of directors. The student usually becomes the CEO and runs the company.
It's the elements of running a business that can make a business school background most critical for those interested in search funds. While in school, there are a number of classes students can take to prepare them to be managers.
Courses that cover negotiations, acquisitions, marketing and private equity are especially helpful, experts say. Some business schools offer classes that specifically discuss search funds.
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At Kellogg, Sutter teaches a course called "Private Equity: The Human Element" where students learn about the interpersonal skills needed to be successful at private equity, among other topics. He also has students, such as Littell, who have successfully carried out a search fund come in to share their experience.
Sutter believes strong interpersonal skills are important in this line of work.
"They have to convince a seller that they're a credible buyer," he says. This can be especially hard to do if you're a student. "You're a little short of experience to be running an organization," he says.
Students can also take courses that give them a clear idea of the day-to-day challenges that managers experience at work, says H. Irving Grousbeck, a consulting professor of management at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
"I think it's also useful to take some hands-on courses that might give you some role playing exercises," he says. In his class "Managing Growing Enterprises" students figure out how to handle difficult issues that a manager might encounter, such as reprimanding an employee who dresses inappropriately or who lacks tact, through role-playing exercises.
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No matter how many classes students take though, none may fully prepare them for the hardships that come with creating a search fund.
"They should be aware of the risk," says Grousbeck. Like any avenue of entrepreneurship, there's uncertainty and a high potential for failure. "It is relatively high stress," Grousbeck says.
It can also be a lonely process, says Littell. Typically students pursue search funds as a solo mission or with one other person. And once the company is bought, it may not have lots of other MBAs, Littell says.
Students should think hard about what kind of work environment will please them before pursuing a search fund, experts say.
"Be honest about what is a good fit for you as an individual," Littell says. "It's not a good fit for everyone."
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