Business Education for Accidental CEOs and Entrepreneurs

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Loads of people go to business school. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2015–16 academic year, U.S. universities and colleges awarded over 186,000 graduate business degrees, making it the most popular field of study that year. In fact, following the NCES chart, business consistently ranks among the largest fields of study every year for the last four decades.


Despite that, many business owners and CEOs lack business degrees. CNBC reports that many small business owners operate without college degrees altogether. This suggests that if you are truly skilled and knowledgeable in one subject, your business will thrive, regardless of your lack of business education. Of course, there are extreme examples of this, such as Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates, but you don’t need to look far. Plenty of people start small businesses all the time, founded on little more than passion and skill in a particular field. This is the inspiration behind countless ice cream parlors, custom machining shops, computer repair services, and auto repair garages.

However, plenty of small businesses built on passion and skill also fail quickly. Forbes reports (drawing from a Bloomberg study) that eight out of 10 small businesses tank within their first 18 months, and one of the major reasons for this is faulty leadership.

So maybe you have a passion. Maybe it is ice cream, graphic design, landscaping, car repair, or welding. If you own a small business or are thinking of starting one, but you lack a background in business, you may want to fill in your knowledge gaps. Or perhaps you started with a good idea and now you’ve accidentally became the CEO of your own company, a company that is getting too big to simply run “off the cuff.” You’re not alone. The small business world is filled with accidental CEOs. Set yourself apart with a purposeful education.

Plenty of flexible and affordable business education options are available. While everyone has different needs and interests, we cover all the bases with a general overview of educational options for all entrepreneurs and accidental CEOs, from the seasoned restaurateur to the budding brewmaster.

If you already know what you’re looking for, jump to our ranking of The 100 Best Business & Economics Programs in the World Today and find the best school for you. Otherwise, read on to learn more!

Books, blogs & podcasts

One of the most direct (and inexpensive) ways to improve your business acumen is through your own independent reading and research. Look for quality books and blogs about business and management, and listen to relevant podcasts. It’s not the same as taking a course or earning a degree, but if you’re really, really busy with your business, you may not have much free time. These options can fit into any schedule with minimal effort. Whichever medium you pick, just the act of consuming and analyzing information about running a successful business can be helpful. Pick a source that speaks to you and that generally matches your business philosophy; it should feel comfortable and familiar. Be sure to avoid any source that proposes a “get rich quick” scheme, and remember: if it seems sketchy, it is sketchy (advice that applies to all aspects of life).

Book suggestions:

Blog & podcast suggestions:

MOOCs & online professional certificate programs

If you are more of a hands-on learner, or crave instruction from an expert, you can choose from a wide variety of online non-academic courses and programs. If you do not have much free time, or lack major funding, try a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from a website such as Coursera or Udacity. These sites offer (mostly) free courses in a wide range of subjects that won’t make you an expert but can give you a solid grounding in various aspects of business and entrepreneurship.

If you have a little more time on your hands and money to spend on education, you might instead consider a professional certificate “pre-MBA” program such as Harvard HBX, which provides advanced education in plenty of general and niche areas of business administration. Though not as in-depth as a complete degree program, Harvard HBX and other programs like it (including some certificate programs offered by Coursera) provide students with a viable alternative to traditional business education. Just keep in mind that they do not provide college credit, and completing a Harvard HBX course is not the same as attending Harvard’s business school.

Online college certificate programs

Interested in earning a college education in business, but not ready to take the plunge on an MBA? An online college certificate program can be a good solution. Available in undergraduate and graduate formats, online certificate programs provide an abbreviated academic study in various fields of business, allowing you to learn what you need quickly, flexibly, and at a reduced cost. As a bonus, many academic certificate programs provide students with transferable college credits, which can be applied to some four-year degree programs. Moreover, some universities offer funding options for minority business owners, which can allow you to earn a certificate at a minimal cost, or even for free.

Potentially valuable certifications may include the American Marketing Association Professional Certified Marketer (PCM) program, the American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management (AAHAM) Certification, or the National Association of Sales Professionals' Certified Professional Sales Person (CPSP) designation.

Online undergraduate degree programs

If you don’t have a college degree, earning an undergraduate degree in business administration could be a good choice for you. Many working adults (especially business owners) lack the time to pursue a traditional degree program. Online degree programs provide students of all backgrounds the option to earn a degree on a schedule that meets their needs. Whether you want to earn an associate in business administration or a bachelor’s in business administration, many schools offer online programs that can let you earn your degree with minimal hassle or interruption of your professional life. To learn more, take a look at our articles ranking The 20 Best Online Associate of Business Administration Degree Programs, and The 25 Best Online Bachelor in Business Administration Degree Programs. If you already have an undergraduate degree (in any field), you may want to jump ahead to earning an MBA.

Online MBA

Many universities and colleges offer MBAs — the coup de grâce of business education — in a convenient online format. Though a Master of Business Administration degree is not the highest possible degree a student can earn in the field, it is the highest many choose to earn, and widely accepted as a kind of crowning educational achievement in a business career. Even if you already own and operate a business, an MBA provides ample useful knowledge, experience, and connections to help ensure your business success for years to come.

Most MBA programs come with specialization options, such as finance, nonprofit management, global business management, or entrepreneurship. Combined with the flexibility of completing your degree entirely online, earning an MBA can be a totally personalized experience, custom-designed to meet your needs and the needs of your growing business. If you are interested in pursuing an MBA, check out our article ranking The 50 Best Online MBA Programs. We should note, however, that most MBA programs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for admission, so if you do not have a bachelor’s degree, refer back to the previous entry.

Executive MBA (EMBA)

Finally, we come to Executive MBA programs, also known as EMBAs. These are reserved for students with numerous years of professional experience under their belt. In fact, many EMBA programs require applicants to have a minimum of five years of professional management experience. EMBAs are streamlined for students who already have a thorough understanding of business and management but are looking to enhance their credentials or improve the depth of their knowledge. Because of this focus, EMBAs often utilize an accelerated format, and blend online coursework with monthly or semi-annual in-person residencies. Some even conduct their residencies in interesting locations, such as New York, London, or Tokyo.

If you already know plenty about business but need a dollop more education or beefier qualifications to top off your résumé, and you have an adequate amount of funding available, an EMBA may be the way to go. To learn more, check out our list of The Best Executive MBA Programs.

Whether you are a seasoned entrepreneur, a burgeoning small business owner, or a dreamer hoping to start your first business, it pays (literally!) to know what you are doing. While expertise in your field is certainly valuable, you should also be familiar with the core principles of running a successful business. Fortunately, in the age of online education, there are more options now than ever, with something to meet the needs of every type of entrepreneur, business owner, and student. Looking for an online bachelor’s, an online MBA, or just a good book to read? We encourage you to explore the options above.

And, to learn how to pursue each of these options, check out What Can I Do With a Business Degree?


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