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February 04, 2010

Curt Schilling Earns (an Expensive) Harvard Business School MBA

Curt and Jen talking to Section 1

In his storied baseball career, Curt Schilling has rarely found himself at a loss for words.  So it was great fun to watch him sit speechless for an hour as Harvard Business School students dissected his entrepreneurial venture and some of the choices he was making as a manager, leader and strategist. The setting was akin to sitting around the living room analyzing last night's World Series pitching performance.  Judging from the rigor of their analysis, the students would have put a bevy of ESPN and newspaper sportscasters to shame.

The two classes I taught this week at HBS, based on a case that I co-authored with Professor Noam Wasserman called "Curt Schilling's Next Pitch" (which you can order here from HBS Press), were energized to have Schilling in the classroom alongside his CEO Jen Maclean. Although none of the students can relate to his triumphs and tribulations as a professional athlete (save one student who was a professional soccer player before turning to a business career!), they could all relate to his struggles to launch his gaming start-up, 38 Studios, and his efforts to chart a course for success for the growing company, which now has over 130 employees.

My favorite line for the day was when, during the Q&A session at the end, Schilling started off by confessing, "After one year at a junior college and a 23 year career in professional baseball, it cost me nearly $30 million to get to Harvard." The comment was in reference to the fact that Schilling has been funding 38 Studios almost entirely out of his own pocket.  Many VCs turned him down when he first launched the company in 2006 and 2007 (including me, which is the subject of a funny story, where a VC buddy of mine and I ended up having dinner with Schilling alongside our then 7 year old sons in Fort Meyers, FL in 2007 while he was in the midst of Spring Training, but that's another story for another day). 

Putting aside celebrity and baseball, the case has two pedagogical lessons:

  1. Entrepreneurs who have been successful in one field and have developed a "blueprint" for what it takes to be successful, can sometimes struggle to translate that blueprint into a new field.  Therefore, they should be thoughtful about what skills and habits they should adapt to develop a new blueprint that suits the new field.  I have been through this myself personally when, after being an enterprise software entrepreneur at early e-commerce leader Open Market in the 1990s, I embarked on becoming a consumer Internet entrepreneur at Upromise and had to learn a whole new blueprint (never mind learn the VC blueprint I find myself still adapting to since I made that conversion seven years ago!).
  2. Harnessing and containing strong, visionary founders is a tricky endeavor, but there are some useful techniques that can be applied to improve the chances of success.  Some of the students had worked with Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and other larger-than-life founders, and shared their related challenges and lessons learned in those environments.  In many situations, the founder is a creative force of nature rather than an experienced operating manager, and skillfully managing the tension between those two essential ingredients can make or break a start-up.

Schilling was a great sport and everyone had good fun.  As he observed when we first sat down to interview him for the case, "Jeff, I don't mind being put in the lion's den.  They can't be any worse than the Boston sports media."  All joking aside, the 140 HBS students ended the class with tremendous respect for his entrepreneurial skills.  In a poll taken after reading the case, approximately two thirds of them thought he had what it takes to become an All Star entrepreneur.  One third was more skeptical.  Stay tuned.

Curt, Jen, Jeff, and Noam in class pictured (L to R):  Professor Noam Wasserman, Curt Schilling, me, 38 Studios CEO Jen Maclean.
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I also appreciated MacLean's reminder to us that "Life is too short to do something you don't care about."

This was a fantastic case. Thanks for leading the discussion.

As a former athlete turned entrepreneur, I can relate to this article. While the skills of any successful athlete such as grit, determination and tenacity can be great assets when running a business, there have been times when I have been hampered by my desire to keep fighting without taking a look at the bigger picture.

Thanks for the great insight.

@AndyBlechman's point is well taken. Having been in the game business and knowing how much money it takes to make the type of game that Curt is working on, I just hope he's put some of his money into a trust fund for his children. His game could easily suck up all the money he's ever earned.

For his sake, I am glad to see that Curt put a woman in charge. Per this report, we should all be looking to invest in women-run businesses. http://www.illuminate.com/whitepaper/

A couple of take away lines I like are: "Companies that women build are more capital-efficient than the norm." And, "Women-owned businesses are more likely to survive the transiton from raw start-up to established company."

I continue to find your posts useful and entertaining.

Thanks, Des. I'll tweet out that report. I hadn't seen it.

Life is too short indeed and we have to make each second count. Cheers!


Wow nice photos!! Hmmm i agree with Lance.. Yeah its right...

I hope that was a great experience for all of you guys Curt Schilling is such a nice person and I am sure you get many things from him.....

Mr.Curt Schilling looks fat in that...

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