Balaji Viswanathan: MBAs, Entrepreneurs, and India

“The education system in India has created dreams and ambitions, but by not having the right markets and institutions, it has made people desperate.”

Balaji Viswanathan is an entrepreneur, writer, and engineer. He writes about education, technology, and the changing social landscape of India.

Among his many pursuits, teaching others gives Balaji the most energy. His current platform for educating others is MBA Bootcamp.

“We try to provide a way to provide an aggressive MBA program online, and to find ways to fix the education system. The education system is broken in terms of accessibility.”

Balaji started an online university several years ago that did not work out, and he sees modern MOOCs repeating some of the same mistakes that he made. “The primary mistake is going after the big mass of people. Coursera is going after hundreds of thousands of people, and there is no exclusivity. People don’t take it seriously. If you make the entry barrier low, the exit barrier is low.”

MBA Bootcamp seeks to correct some of those problems.

“People go to school to make networks, and the existing online schools do not focus on making networks.”

“A hybrid approach is needed. Everyone in an MBA class has a similar purpose. The people are all pre-vetted.” When something is pre-vetted, you don’t need to wonder whether the person next to you in class is a jerk.

“Many of the MBA programs are at such a price point that it prices out 99% of the entrepreneurial people. That’s why we want to bridge the gap. The traditional model is so expensive. But there are some benefits. But it is very expensive to pay for to network.”

The key to a successful online education platform is to be selective on the right criteria.

“The vetting could be on entrepreneurial abilities rather than money.”

“There is no perfect standard for vetting. But we want to filter on the entrepreneurial mindset. To do that, you have to show what the previous things you have started are. You could have written a book, created an album, created software.”

Balaji’s first funded company was Zingfin, which used social media data to predict stock market trends. He told me the story behind Zingfin’s creation and its inability to succeed as a product.

“In 2008 Lehman crashed. That day, I was interviewing for a subprime trading desk at Barclay’s.”

“Before that time, I was very active in an investment club at Microsoft. I was doing some day trading in oil and gold. I started writing blog posts about the coming recession. The week Lehman crashed, I shorted the entire financial sector.”

“Within Microsoft, people had worries and fears about the coming crash. But the broader market sentiment did not have access to that insight.” This was the inspiration for Zingfin.

Zingfin was a compelling product with obvious potential for value-add. But it faced immense technical and market challenges.

“I botched one of the sales rounds. In a video we made, I was poking fun at how financial advisors were overpaid. It went against us.” The bank he was trying to sell Zingfin to took it personally and was offended.

“They saw that we were not in the right mindset for them. This is how sales can fall through in the enterprise. If your messaging is even a little problematic, they can kill it.”

“We were caught with a product that needed to be deepened, and no funding.”

I asked Balaji if social media will ever be securitized. Will there ever be a day when I can buy a call option on Justin Bieber’s number of Likes or Retweets?

“A stock is something that creates value. A stock market is not a zero-sum game. But betting on Justin Bieber is a zero-sum game. If one person wins another has to lose.”

“Philosophically I’m against this, but someday there may be markets for it. When there is much more randomness involved, it is pure gambling.”

“If someone could prove it’s not totally random, it could make more sense.”

Balaji describes himself as having had “way too much school.” Despite having two masters degrees, he believes college is unnecessary for 99% of people; universities are institutions that are largely outdated.

“The whole lecture concept came from sermons. University was never meant to be a place to teach career skills.”

“Some of the ancient universities were completely free. People could come and have all these discussions. The only reason people came was to explore knowledge. There was a bunch of things they created in that place.”

“99% of us don’t care that much about philosophical aspects–we need career skills.”

If something like Quora could provide the philosophical knowledge, and another platform could let people network, and something else provided career skills, we wouldn’t need traditional universities so much.

“We spend the best four years of our lives in college. That is a time when we should be building stuff. The model I have been trying to propose the last few years involves building stuff.”

There are exciting projections about how the developing world will change over the next few decades. Billions of people are coming online for the first time. I asked Balaji how these projections would play out in reality.

“For India there are a lot of challenges. How are we going to educate a huge mass of people who are ambitious? When the markets are open, people get much more ambitious, but the education system has not worked. People are poorly trained.”

“When we are saying we will have 1 billion people coming online, how can we make sure these people have a job that gives them wages?”

“oDesk’s model could be built in a way where the developing world could use. It makes everyone into entrepreneurs. As a freelancer, you are taking control of your life. But the quality control is so low.”

“Nobody is going to give you a job. That 1950’s way of thinking is gone. That was a very unique time. In most of history, people have been entrepreneurs. That was how the world worked for thousands of years.”

“That was the industrial revolution. In the post-industrial revolution, people have to start acting like entrepreneurs.”

“The industrial revolution made college into a necessary institution. You go and study something for four years that prepares you for a lifelong career.” Now that is invalid.

“People are going to change careers every five years. People are getting forced into entrepreneurship. A big corporation is not going to train you, it’s not going to give you a pension.”

“Entrepreneurship is going to be the primary form of job creation.”

“The education system in India has created dreams and ambitions, but by not having the right markets and institutions, it has made people desperate.”

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