SBC Scoop: The Entrepreneur’s Recommender Dilemma

Through the years I have worked with a number of entrepreneurs.  Those applications are always a lot of fun, because the professional stories are so personal and unique.  I am always amazed by the creativity and energy that these entrepreneurs possess.  There is, however, one element of working on an entrepreneur’s application that is almost always daunting: the recommendations.

As many applicants know, the ideal recommender for an MBA application is the manager to whom you report directly.  In most cases, an entrepreneur does not have this manager, and so this option does not work.  This issue becomes a double edged sword because in some ways it can be doubly important to have high quality recs as an entrepreneur.  Your company may be unknown and it’s difficult to verify any information that you provide.  Since it all can be “manufactured” by an applicant, admissions committees really want some outside evidence that all is what it seems.

This case study is about Frank, who launched and managed an extremely successful hair care products company.   Frank grew up in Illinois, and went to a local school to earn his undergraduate degree.  He majored in economics and graduated with a 3.0.  His GMAT was a 720.  Immediately out of college, Frank worked in an accounting firm for less than a year, and then left to launch his company.  He used savings and maxed out credit cards, and was able to get his company off the ground without any outside investment.  Over the next five years, he built a legitimately successful and impressive company; one that experienced terrific growth within the United States.   At the five year mark, Frank sold his company to a more established brand.  At the time of his application, he was consulting with his company, to help ease his transition out, and developing a new business idea.

Frank did have a bit of help breaking into the industry.  His uncle had been in the beauty industry for years and acted as a mentor to Frank.  More than anyone else, he had great insight into Frank’s accomplishments, prior development and his developmental needs.  He was truly the best equipped to write a recommendation on Frank’s behalf and had all but pushed “submit” when Frank and I started discussing this issue.  Because letters from family members are generally discounted, I strongly pushed back on the uncle idea and together we brainstormed other options:
- employee who had an MBA from one of his target schools
- most senior employee who worked closely with Frank on a daily basis
- major customers
- representative from acquiring company
- angel investor who provided financial injection at year three
- industry mentors (other than uncle)
- business partners
- strategic relationships
- community affiliations
- peers

All of these ideas had potential.  However, the people that were internal to his company could appear biased, as they reported to Frank.  The people outside of his company may not have as much insight into his working style, strengths, weaknesses and growth.

Ultimately, Frank landed on three admittedly “imperfect” recommenders.  However, the three of them together provided a very strong and complete picture of Frank as a business person and community member.

1)  Frank’s main contact at the acquiring company.  Through extensive due diligence, this person gathered a great deal of knowledge on the company that Frank had created.  He had interviewed employees, scrutinized systems, and could comment on how we operated as a leader.  He also negotiated with him so saw him doing business under fairly stressful and intense circumstances.  Finally, he observed Frank as he transitioned the reigns of the company, and interacted with Frank as he consulted early on.

2)  Frank’s biggest customer had been a steady customer since his second year in business.  His main contact there had remained consistent, and that contact had observed Frank grow his company and product line for several years.

3)  Frank served on the board of a local organization.  His final recommender was a full time employee of the organization.  She had known Frank since he started volunteering in college and was able to submit a slight different as well as a long term perspective of Frank.

Frank used these recommenders in various combination, depending on what the various schools required.  He ultimately ended up at the University of Chicago with a hefty merit scholarship.

To read more SBC Case Studies, click HERE.

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