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When Daniel Callaghan and Adam Riccoboni met as 11-year-olds at a school in Kent, UK, neither anticipated that they would not only become close friends but that their friendship would also lay the foundations for a successful business partnership.
Twenty years later, the pair are joint managing directors of MBA & Company, a start-up they founded three years ago, which is going from strength to strength.
The business is an online service that provides MBA-level expertise to anyone who needs it. One of the differences between MBA & Co and the big, established management consultancies is that no job is too small, meaning that even small businesses can access advice. The fact that their “marketplace” is virtual also means there are none of the overheads associated with bricks-and-mortar models.
“Our clients include Virgin Media and General Motors, but there’s also lots and lots of small clients,” says Mr Callaghan.
“That was one of the key missions behind MBA & Co. In this time of austerity, it’s going to be the smaller companies that are going to help get us out of this recession and if we can help them access this talent that is usually the reserve of Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, then we give them a greater chance of success,” he says.
The smaller projects, says Mr Riccoboni, usually range in price from about £500 to £2,500 – with daily rates for an MBA as low as £250, which is within reach of even the most embryonic start-up.
MBA&Co’s strategy is simple: companies post details of the work they need, be it writing a business plan, undertaking some market research or advice on raising capital. The MBA consultants then bid for the job, explaining how they would proceed and their relevant experience and fees. The consultants – of which there are more than 10,000 – must have either an MBA, a PhD or a relevant MSc from one of the top 100 business schools ranked by the FT, as well as five years’ experience to bid for projects and undertake work. There is also a ratings system to allow companies to give feedback; any MBA that does not achieve 3.5 out of 5 stars is disqualified from any future projects.
During our interview, a “very small” project is posted on the site: a Canadian construction company wants a marketing expert to take a look at some questionnaires it sends out and make them more effective. This, say the partners, is typical of the smaller jobs MBA&Co takes on.
“This guy’s in Canada, but the person doing the work may be in Australia,” says Mr Callaghan.
“On this one they’ll probably just talk once at the beginning and once at the end, when the work has been done.” However, with some projects, the process is longer and involves regular meetings, either in person or on Skype. It is important that the client is closely involved, adds Mr Callaghan, as this helps to maximise the chances of satisfaction at the end.
Mr Callaghan first gained a glimpse into the business school world when he worked at the London campus of ESCP Europe, where he says the “kernel” of his business idea came to him.
“My role was to build a student consultancy division, because they wanted to sell the [undergraduate] students’ projects for the first time,” he says. “But the quality of the output was very variable,” he adds.
However, it was not until he was at Iese Business School in Barcelona, studying for his own MBA, that the idea really solidified. He wrote his MBA&Co business plan, which won awards at Iese and attracted the acclaim of his peers and teachers.
While Mr Callaghan was studying at Iese, Mr Riccoboni assumed his friend’s role at ESCP, working there for four years and becoming head of research – useful experience for the pair’s subsequent venture.
Although it had not been Mr Callaghan’s intention to launch his business straight after graduation, he decided that the timing was right and he should seize the opportunity while the idea seemed so popular.
“When we were writing the business plan, it was the height of the economic recession,” says Mr Callaghan. “Companies were working with heavily reduced headcounts, there was a lack of funds and on the other side, there was this vast amount of talent of a very high calibre from top schools that were looking for a way to advance their profile, to take them into their next jobs, or to find an opportunity to keep their cash flow going while they continued with their search.”
For all their shared history Mr Callaghan and Mr Riccoboni come to the business with different perspectives – while Mr Callaghan has formal business education, Mr Riccoboni had been an entrepreneur – he had run a publishing group and magazine after university. However, both men emphasise the value of good business training.
Being an entrepreneur, says Mr Callaghan, is “at least 75 per cent nurture. But there is an element of personality, of risk-taking, of the ability to see the bigger picture. That is nature,” he says.
Although he did not do an MBA himself, Mr Riccoboni witnessed some of the advantages of an immersion into the business school world. “It teaches you how to raise venture capital or angel investing and introduces you to the people who might invest in your business,” he says.
MBA&Co raised their first round of funding from within the business school community. “Iese has a venture capital arm attached to it, which invested in the business,” says Mr Callaghan.
“The managing director of the centre for entrepreneurship liked the idea so much he got four of his friends together and invested in it as well – so all that first round of money, hundreds of thousands of euros, was directly related to [business school].”
Mr Callaghan is adamant: “If I hadn’t gone to business school, the business wouldn’t exist.”