Curt Schilling Earns (an Expensive) Harvard Business School MBA

Posted by: Nick Leiber on February 4, 2010

This is a post by guest blogger Jeff Bussgang.

jeff_bussgang.jpgIn his storied baseball career, Curt Schilling has rarely found himself at a loss for words. So it was great fun to watch him sit speechless for an hour as Harvard Business School students dissected his entrepreneurial venture and some of the choices he was making as a manager, leader and strategist. The setting was akin to sitting around the living room analyzing last night’s World Series pitching performance. Judging from the rigor of their analysis, the students would have put a bevy of ESPN and newspaper sportscasters to shame.

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The two classes I taught this week at HBS, based on a case that I co-authored with Professor Noam Wasserman called “Curt Schilling’s Next Pitch” (which you can order here from HBS Press), were energized to have Schilling in the classroom alongside his CEO Jen Maclean. Although none of the students can relate to his triumphs and tribulations as a professional athlete (save one student who was a professional soccer player before turning to a business career!), they could all relate to his struggles to launch his gaming start-up, 38 Studios, and his efforts to chart a course for success for the growing company, which now has over 130 employees.

My favorite line for the day was when, during the Q&A session at the end, Schilling started off by confessing, “After one year at a junior college and a 23 year in professional baseball, it cost me nearly $30 million to get to Harvard.” The comment was in reference to the fact that Schilling has been funding 38 Studios almost entirely out of his own pocket. Many VCs turned him down when he first launched the company in 2006 and 2007 (including me, which is the subject of a funny story, where a VC buddy of mine and I ended up having dinner with Schilling alongside our then 7 year old sons in Fort Meyers, FL in 2007 while he was in the midst of Spring Training, but that’s another story for another day).

Putting aside celebrity and baseball, the case has two pedagogical lessons:

Entrepreneurs who have been successful in one field and have developed a “blueprint” for what it takes to be successful, can sometimes struggle to translate that blueprint into a new field. Therefore, they should be thoughtful about what skills and habits they should adapt to develop a new blueprint that suits the new field. I have been through this myself personally when, after being an enterprise software entrepreneur at early e-commerce leader Open Market in the 1990s, I embarked on becoming a consumer Internet entrepreneur at Upromise and had to learn a whole new blueprint (never mind learn the VC blueprint I find myself still adapting to since I made that conversion seven years ago!).

Harnessing and containing strong, visionary founders is a tricky endeavor, but there are some useful techniques that can be applied to improve the chances of success. Some of the students had worked with Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and other larger-than-life founders, and shared their related challenges and lessons learned in those environments. In many situations, the founder is a creative force of nature rather than an experienced operating manager, and skillfully managing the tension between those two essential ingredients can make or break a start-up.

Schilling was a great sport and everyone had good fun. As he observed when we first sat down to interview him for the case, “Jeff, I don’t mind being put in the lion’s den. They can’t be any worse than the Boston sports media.” All joking aside, the 140 HBS students ended the class with tremendous respect for his entrepreneurial skills. In a poll taken after reading the case, approximately two thirds of them thought he had what it takes to become an All Star entrepreneur. One third was more skeptical. Stay tuned.

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pictured (L to R): Professor Noam Wasserman, Curt Schilling, me, 38 Studios CEO Jen Maclean.

Serial entrepreneur Jeff Bussgang is a partner at venture capital firm Flybridge Capital in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @bussgang.

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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