Old Street interchange, known as Silicon Roundabout, centre of London's tech hub
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When Mark Butter’s wife Eva Kosanovic, a sales director, enrolled to do an executive MBA at Southampton University Business School, he wanted to follow suit. There was only one problem: fitting his studies around his role as the owner of a recruitment business.

The answer presented itself when he attended an open day for the EMBA programme at Cranfield School of Management. Stephanie Hussels, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and director of the full-time MBA course, recommended he apply instead to the Business Growth & Development Programme (BGP), a part-time course aimed specifically at owner managers.

“I ended up there [on the BGP] a bit by luck, but I am now absolutely convinced that an MBA would have been a wrong move,” admits Mr Butter, who was part of this January’s BGP intake.

The question of whether to spend money on a business education while trying to grow a company creates a dilemma for the growing band of entrepreneurs, no more so than in London, where start-ups are flourishing. Almost 500,000 companies in the UK capital are less than five years old, up from 104,000 in 2005, according to data compiled by software company Trampoline Systems for the London mayor’s office.

London and the southeast of England boast several of Europe’s top business schools, many of which are wrestling with how to create programmes aimed at those who are building a company in the region. The challenge they face is how to create an MBA-quality education that fits around the daily demands put upon these creative individuals.

London’s boom in entrepreneurial ventures has not been lost on business schools outside the UK. The latest arrival in the city is Ignite, a part-time 10-week programme created by Stanford Graduate School of Business, which aims to teach leadership and strategic thinking skills to ambitious founders.

Ignite, which has been taught from Stanford’s campus in Silicon Valley for several years, was launched in Paris and Bangalore in 2013. This year, it will be run from offices owned by Infosys in Canary Wharf, the docks community reinvented as a self-contained business district for multinational financial services and media companies. The programme is also being taught in New York, São Paulo, Santiago and Beijing.

The target audience is those with a strong scientific and technical background, who want to learn how to commercialise their business ideas.

Using video conferencing facilities to overcome physical boundaries and time constraints, the course explains management fundamentals and the practical aspects of moving a venture forward.

Ignite competes with programmes run by London Business School, Cambridge, Cass and Imperial.

Using a summer school format, LBS invites aspiring entrepreneurs to come to its Regent’s Park campus to develop the skills needed to research their target market and make their ideas viable.

Judge Business School in Cambridge, which along with London and Oxford forms the corners of what has been nicknamed the “golden triangle” cluster of technology start-ups in southeast England, teaches a postgraduate diploma in entrepreneurship.

Imperial offers a hands-on boot camp, focusing on the hardships of being an entrepreneur.

Cass, based at City University in London’s financial district, runs programmes for owner managers in conjunction with Your Business Your Future (YBYF), itself a start-up founded by Gerard Burke.

“MBA programmes and most executive development programmes provide useful ‘tool kits’, ideas and approaches which managers and leaders can then take away and apply to their real world challenges,” says Mr Burke.

“By contrast, our approach is to start with the owner manager, their ambitions, their opportunities and their challenges and then to provide them with the tools and approaches they need in order to achieve their ambitions. It’s all immediately relevant and useful.”

Bethany Coates, an assistant dean at Stanford, plays down the idea that Stanford is using online delivery mechanisms to park its tanks on the lawn of these rival institutions in London.

“It is not competitive in the sense that we are going to win at the expense of someone else,” she says. “In all of the markets [where Ignite operates] the higher education system is excellent and we look for that. We want people [who come on Ignite] to be in a really good academic environment.”

Cranfield, about 50 miles north of London, has been tackling the need for alternative courses for more than a quarter of a century. Its BGP is the UK’s longest running business school course specifically aimed at teaching practical skills to owner managers, having taught more than 1,500 since its launch in 1988.

It is a purely “analogue” course, requiring students to drive to a rural Bedfordshire campus for four residential weekends. Yet it has innovated in other ways, challenging students to recoup the cost of the course as a result of what they put into practice from their lessons and group meetings. Many achieve this by launching their service in a new market or finding a more efficient way of operating, according to course directors.

Mr Butter’s goal in joining BGP was to take his business Blueprint Recruitment Solutions to the next level. Last year the Hampshire-based company turned over £20m with a headcount of around 25 people. He particularly valued the time spent with other owner managers in his study group, discussing in confidence the challenges he faces. “You get quite close to those guys.”

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