Five Non-Tech Roles MBAs Are Playing at Top Tech Startups

April 10, 2013

When valuing a startup, add $500k for every engineer, and subtract $250k for every MBA.”  -- founder, Aaron Patzer

“Never ever hire an MBA; they will ruin your company.” -- Investor and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel


Most tech startups are hostile territory for MBAs. Startup people take pride in building things -- and MBAs aren’t known in the startup world as builders.

But that dogma is increasingly out-of-date. As venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, a don of the Silicon Valley engineering culture, pointed out last year, today’s MBAs are less arrogant, and the good ones actually … well, help build stuff.

To see what he’s talking about, look around at the LinkedIn job postings on the career pages of the world’s hottest tech startups. Sprinkled between the dozens of engineering roles, you’ll find jobs perfect for humble, talented non-technical MBAs looking to help build remarkable companies.

What types of roles are we talking about? Yes, there are product management and business development openings (roles which are both in short supply and have variable meaning). But if you’re an MBA ready to roll-up your sleeves, today there are a lot of other interesting options where your training will be an asset. Here are five examples:

1. Customer Service - Smart startups are pouring resources into customer service. They no longer look at customers as cost centers. Instead customers -- happy customers, to be specific -- are a means of generating new revenue. They refer new business, and in today’s subscription economy, they upgrade to higher-value services. The analytical, business and communication skills that graduate business programs teach are all critical to providing the services that make customers happy.

  • Skills You Must Have: You must love working with customers.
  • Where You’ll Add Value: Synthesizing quantitative and qualitative customer data to build a better service operation.
  • Where You’ll Start: Customer service manager.
  • Valuable Experience You’ll Pick Up: You’ll understand the very core of the business you join.
  • Examples: Box, SquareSpace, HubSpot

2. Business Operations - Today’s startups have tons of data. With great, data comes great opportunity -- to make better business decisions, to improve the efficiency of the operation, to close more deals, to generate more leads and to understand the customer better. But startups need people to make all this happen. A strong business education can prepare people to do that.

  • Skills You Must Have: You must love data and systems.
  • Where You’ll Add Value: Asking the right questions -- and finding the answers.
  • Where You’ll Start: Operations analyst.
  • Valuable Experience You’ll Pick Up: Managing complex projects; shaping the path of a company through analysis.
  • Examples: HubSpot, Square, LinkedIn, Twitter

3. Product Marketing - Product marketers are responsible for bringing products to market. They tell the story of the product, both internally to the company’s sales and services team, and externally to prospects and customers. If you can communicate well, create great content, manage complex projects and think strategically about a business, you will excel.

  • Skills You Must Have: You must be curious about the product you’re selling, and you must be an expert story-teller.
  • Where You’ll Add Value: Telling the world about the value of your product.
  • Where You'll Start: Managing or helping to manage the marketing for a product.
  • Valuable Experience You’ll Pick Up: Managing complex projects
  • Examples: HubSpot, LinkedIn, Box

 4. Paid Marketing - In case you missed the memo, paid advertising is in the midst of a big shift -- a shift from a world where online marketers focused on buying generic impressions that were useless to the buyer, to one where they run highly personalized advertising that’s actually useful to the buyer. Startups need smart marketers who have the business instincts and analytical skills to manage paid campaigns, but also the creativity and curiosity to capitalize on new tools.

  • Skills You Must Have: You should be highly analytical.
  • Where You’ll Add Value: With a thoughtful approach to advertising experiments.
  • Where You’ll Start: Managing paid campaigns.
  • Valuable Experience You’ll Pick Up: Managing a sales funnel.
  • Examples: Zendesk, Trulia, Kenshoo

5. Sales - Today’s sales process is becoming far more consultative. It’s increasingly important for reps to understand their prospects’ businesses and begin to offer guidance and value before the sale. Smart MBAs can use their training to offer this kind of guidance in the sales process.

  • Skills You Must Have: Willingness to live on a quota.
  • Where You’ll Add Value: A strategic, business approach to sales.
  • Where You’ll Start: With a sales quota.
  • Valuable Experience You’ll Pick Up: You’ll know how to sell.
  • Examples: HubSpot, Box, Yelp, Zillow

Where do these roles lead? All could lead to senior, executive-level positions at large, growth-stage companies, if that’s your goal. They could also prepare you to start your own company. The key, as it is in any startup role, is to be focused on building something your customers love. If that doesn’t excite you, start scheduling the banking interviews.

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by our partners at HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company.