A Business School For Entrepreneurs? — With Robin Bruce of Acton

Today on Startup Slingshot radio I have Robin Bruce, CEO of Action Business School, an accredited business school built by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. We cover everything from how they train people to become entrepreneurs to what they think it takes to be an entrepreneur. Enjoy!

Have comments, questions, ideas, or feedback? I want to hear it. Tweet me at william_griggs.


Topics Covered In This Episode

  • For those unfamiliar with Acton, what’s the elevator pitch?
    • What’s the origin story?
      • Why do you all think there is a need for an entrepreneur-specific business school in the marketplace? Most business schools already try to appeal to entrepreneurs, no?
      • When was it founded?
        • What have they accomplished?
      • Who founded it?
    • How long is the program?
      • How much does it cost?
        • Doesn’t that amount of money hurt the chances of a graduate starting a business?
  • What do you all believe entrepreneurs need to know to be successful at starting a business?
    • Why?
    • Where do other B-schools fall short?
      • How would a traditional b-school teach these skills?
      • How does that play into the curriculum?
        • How, specifically, do you teach these skills?
          • How is it structured?
            • Can you give us an example?
            • What does a semester look like?
          • What can prospective students expect?
        • How has the curriculum changed over time?
  • What do you all look for in applicants?
    • Why?
    • Can you give an example?
    • Who is not a good fit for your program?
  • If people want to connect with you or learn more about Acton, how can people do so?



William: Today on Startup Slingshot Radio I have Robin Bruce, CEO of Acton Business School, an accredited business school built by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. We cover everything from how they train people to become entrepreneurs to what they think it takes to be an entrepreneur. Enjoy. All right, Robin, thanks for joining us today.Robin: Absolutely. Excited to get to talk.

William: Definitely appreciate your time and thanks for coming on the show.

Robin: Sure thing. I’m really excited to get to be here and get to talk about Acton with you for a little while.

William: Yeah, that’s the topic of the day. In our time together I wanna give the audience of early stage entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs a rundown of the business school that you are helping to build, the business school that’s specifically focused on entrepreneurs. We wanna dig into what it’s like there, what it teaches and a bunch of other good stuff as we go forward. For those in the audience unfamiliar with Acton, what’s the elevator pitch?

Robin: Great. Yeah, so essentially Acton exists to prepare principled entrepreneurs to lead extraordinary lives while they pursue that calling… pursue their calling. And what that basically means is that we really exist as a business school and as a program to equip entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs with the fundamental skills, tools and judgement that they need to kind of go forward and build the business of their dreams. But not just the business of their dreams, to really cultivate and intentionally kind of craft a life of meaning that they’ll look back at age 60 and really feel proud of the companies they’ve built and the value they’ve created.

William: That’s a great overview. How does it differentiate from other business schools, you know how they say they have maybe an entrepreneurship-specific track, or specific subset inside of their business school. How do you all think about how it differentiates from them?

Robin: Yeah. Yeah, so I often tell prospective candidates that Acton is really pretty different from the ground up, just in terms of the DNA of the school and how we operate. And then also just functionally the way the curriculum and the class setting works. So from a functional perspective, Acton is really designed to keep the opportunity cost for entrepreneurial students going through the program as low as possible. And what that means is that we operate on a very tight and incredibly intensive curriculum that is 100% focused on providing you with the practical skills to go out and do this on your own. And so tangibly you’ve essentially got a two semester program that is based in blended learning. So the first semester is done online and it’s essentially a part-time enrollment. So students are going through coursework for about 25 hours a week. And most of them remain in their job or running their current company while they do that. The second semester, they’re here on campus doing very, very intensive 100 hour weeks of Socratic learning and training alongside a small cohort of classmates. We only admit anywhere between 20 and 30 students per class.

And then from more of a macroed perspective, there’s a couple of things that really set Acton apart. I think one of the most important when you’re kind of looking at business school and looking at business school from an entrepreneurial perspective, we do not have any faculty on staff and we do not operate from a traditional academic model. So that means that all of our teachers are practicing entrepreneurs. We think that’s really important because entrepreneurship is so much about what it’s like when you’re out on the field, kind of battling the everyday obstacles that come your way. And while there’s a lot of incredible theory and academic learning around the topic of entrepreneurship, we really believe that there’s no better guide you can have in preparing for that experience than someone who is out there doing it and has likely done it many times before. So we only have practicing entrepreneurs teach our courses.

The other important aspect from a curriculum perspective is that we teach socratically. And what that means is that you’re going through a case study-based curriculum that more so than a lot of war stories would give you is really muscle memory and you can go out and do this on your own. So we think that’s incredibly important as well. We make students three promises when they come into the program. That they will learn how to learn, and we really think that the Socratic model helps deliver on that. That they’ll learn how to make money. We think that the practical and fundamental focus of our curriculum helps deliver on that. And that they’ll learn how to live a life of meaning.

And this is kind of the third major differentiating fact. We really believe that entrepreneurship, while yes it’s a lot about building a business, it also has a ton to do with building the leader, who is gonna run that business. And so we spend at least 30% of our curriculum really digging into that piece of the equation as well.

William: Gotcha. That’s a great overview. You can definitely see how it differentiates your… how you all are differentiating yourself from more traditional business school, which is sometimes seen as a two-year vacation. Lots of opportunity costs, like you talked about, whether it’s foregone salary or revenue from a business that you’re starting or other different types of stuff in addition to, you know, two years of your life. As well as, you know, a very big chunk of change, depending on which school you go. Bigger, bigger . . . Some places than others.

Robin: Exactly.

William: And it definitely focused on that opportunity cost which I know strikes the heart or strikes the chord of a lot of the people listening when they’re thinking about business school and thinking of it as something they’d like to do, but often thinking of it as something of a waste of time to a certain extent.

Robin: Right. Right.

William: That’s a really good overview to talk about. You talked a little bit about kind of those three pillars: learn how to learn, learn how to make money and learn how to live a life of meaning. Let’s go in reverse order and kind of talk a little bit more about them.

As far as learning how to live a life of meaning, what do you all think about, how do you all think about… Why do you all think this is important?

Robin: Yeah. Yeah, so we really think it’s important because entrepreneurship I think uniquely among, call it a career lifestyle, sort of complete life choice really has so much to do, not just with the business practices being put into place, but actually with who the leader building this business is. And it gets incredibly personal very quickly. And what I mean by that is when you were starting a company you were pouring your heart, soul, time, money, passion, everything into it. And you’re really bringing your personal value set and your personal work style, all of that, into the company that you’re building. So being not only aware of, but intentional about the values and the way that you wanna structure that company as a result of what you’ve identified as your thanks, weaknesses, blind spots and really your kind of long-term calling in life, what you’re meant and built to do. It has a massive impact on the kind of company you build. And the way that you build, run and kind of manage your team moving forward. So we think it’s incredibly important and you know, frankly we would really see ourselves as a failure if we had created a lot of entrepreneurs running successful businesses with failing families, failing health and a lack of joy in what they’re doing.

William: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It’s definitely something that most people have experience with. Whether they’ve seen a super successful person that has a crummy personal life or vice versa.

Robin: Exactly.

William: And then so what all do you help, or how do you help your students and the cohort think through these things to help kind of guide them forward?

Robin: Yep, so the main sort of premise behind how we do this, and again it’s done Socratically, so we’re not giving them any answers or kind of secret recipes for how you create a meaningful life. What we’re doing is asking a series of really intentional questions up front that encourage you to do a lot of that self-reflection and work before it becomes an issue when you’re in the thick of that 100 hour week and making difficult and potentially life-changing decisions.

The idea is to really encourage students and participants in our program to go out and talk to others who they respect and admire and ask them tough questions. Ask them about how their view of success has changed over time. Dig in with them about how they figured out how much was enough in terms of financial success. How they made decisions about where to balance their time between young kids at home and a pressing deadline at the office. How do you practically make that decision when you’re in the thick of running a business? So it’s really about asking the right questions more so than us giving them a secret set of answers that are going to instantly put them on a path to a meaningful life.

William: Got it. So we covered a little bit, like you said, so that way you could talk to other people, some of the other questions there. What are some questions, if you have them off the top of your head that you put in front of your students to help them kind of uncover this for themselves?

Robin: Yeah, yeah, so we spend a lot of time digging into and starting with activities at the beginning of the year to really get them reflecting on where their strengths and maybe areas for growth are. And so that can be as simple as having a discussion about where they really find flow in the work place. So what are the times during the day that you completely disappeared, joyfully, into the work that you’re doing? And then really taking those observations, as simple as they might be, and starting to thread those into bigger recognitions about what that means about the way you operate as a leader and the kind of business you want to build. So it’s not rocket science in terms of the actual questions, but it’s really what you take and learn from them and how you apply them moving forward.

William: Got it. Yeah, a lot of value just comes from actually doing it, right?

Robin: Exactly.

William: So people in our audience start thinking about these things as well as they’re going about their day. The next piece, let’s dig into a little bit about the second component that you mentioned which is learn how to make money. How do you kind of structure the curriculum around those core concepts.

Robin: So we have essentially two sets of courses that really dig in to the fundamental tools and skills that you need to run a profitable, cash-flowing business. And I say profitable and cash-flowing separately because we spend a lot of time talking through the differences between the vocabulary and the sort of cultural impulse around what it looks like to build a “successful business”. And what that really means when you get down into the practical realities of your balance sheet and your cash flow statement. So some of those courses that we go through to really build out those fundamental skills that deliver on the learn how to make money piece are having a course on cash evaluation. Having a course on customers. Having a course on people and having a course on operations. And all of those are dealing with, again, kind of the fundamental components of building a thriving business and are obviously very interrelated in delivering on the how to make money piece.

All of those tools courses are really brought to bear in the third set of courses which are the integrative courses, which essentially track along the life cycle of a business. So that’s launch, growth, raising money and harvest.

William: Gotcha, that’s a great overview as far as the, correct me if I’m wrong, the “learn how to make money” falls into those four areas. Which, like you said, falls into those categories: cash evaluation, customers, people, operations and then you kind of bounce over to the learn how to learn section to kind of equip the individuals to really think through the life cycle of a business. Is that correct, or do I have that backwards?

Robin: Exactly. Nope, you’ve got it down.

William: Very cool. And you said the three sections . . . could you talk a little bit more about the different stages that you all talk about?

Robin: Yeah, so the life cycle classes, those integrative courses that we go through, you really have at the beginning sort of the opportunity recognition. How do I know if this is a good opportunity or not? From there you move into launch. From there you really move into either raising money or growth, depending on where you are in building the business. And then finally, hopefully, you move into the harvest phase, really getting to harvest the fruit of what you’ve built in terms of your company and the value that it created.

William: Very interesting. And as far as opportunity recognition, can you talk a little bit about that piece of the puzzle?

Robin: Yeah, so we actually, opportunity recognition, you know, if you were to think about those courses in kind of a linear flow, opportunity recognition would come first. We actually intentionally don’t teach that part until the end of the year. And the reason for that is we think you really need to have some of these fundamental skills and tools in place before you can even assess if it’s a great opportunity. And when we get into opportunity recognition, what you’re also bringing to the table there is the question of not just “Is this a good opportunity in and of itself?” but “Is this a good opportunity for me personally?” And that’s when you start to see the life of meaning piece really become important in what could otherwise just be an intellectual exercise.

William: Gotcha. So you’re going through the process of thinking through all the different components of the life cycle as well as, like you talked about, learning how to live a life of meaning so that you can create those filters for when you’re actually doing the opportunity recognition to know, “Hey, I want to spend more time with my family; therefore, I know I might not go for this moon shot which would put that at odds.”

Robin: Exactly.

William: As far as opportunity recognition goes, we talked about creating the filters from which they can view their opportunities. What else do you all kind of equip them with for looking through opportunities to try to figure out if they’re the right one or not for them?

Robin: Yeah, so we think that the idea of having filters and sort of frame works for decision-making when it comes to opportunities is incredibly important. Another filter that we strongly encourage is really the filter of experience and understanding within either a function, so the actual skill and role that you’re bringing to the table or an industry. And that it is much easier to recognize powerful opportunities from the inside of that knowledge looking out, versus from the outside looking in. And we realize this runs fairly countercultural to the idea of the inventors sitting alone in a room coming up with a brilliant moon shot but we found that over time and looking at many successful entrepreneurs those ah-ha moments didn’t necessarily come from a sit-down creative brainstorm, but instead came from deep experience and time spent within a specific industry or field to where you can recognize opportunities that others aren’t seeing.

William: So we’ve covered a lot about the founding of a company, all of the teachers and entrepreneurs, there’s no full-time academics who maybe were entrepreneurs 30 years ago before the Internet was really big, teaching these classes, right? Which happens a lot in traditional business schools since . . . Not that they get often. We talked about curriculum and learning how to learn, learning how to make money, learning how to make or lead a life of meaning. What else do we need to talk about?

Could you talk a little bit about who actually founded the organization, the college?

Robin: Yes, so it was founded by a group of entrepreneurs who were essentially moonlighting at a couple great business schools and teaching the entrepreneurship track there and continued to hear from students that they really felt ill equipped by the traditional business education. And so these teachers who were active entrepreneurs themselves, got together and essentially asked the question, “If we were to go back and design the business school we wish we would have had when we were starting, what would that have looked like? And what would it have included?” And that’s why you see some of the really specific cultural elements and curriculum elements that you see come to life at Acton.

William: Gotcha, that’s a great overview for us to make sure that we have that foundational understanding of where the founders were coming from. As far as the duration of the program, sounds like two semesters. Correct me if I’m wrong. The first semester you said, online. The second semester’s kind of an intensive classroom experience.

Robin: Exactly. It is. So it is a 10 month program in total. So you’ve got 20 weeks online, blended learning at the beginning. And that’s really a part-time program in terms of . . . We strongly encourage people to continue working during that semester. And then the second semester, you’ve got a second 20 weeks that are here on our Austin campus. Incredibly intensive, sort of Navy Seal style immersion in this learning.

William: And as far as from the beginning when Acton was first founded to now, how has the curriculum and the program structured and how has the structure changed, rather? How have you all thought about that?

Robin: It’s a great question. So we are very much committed to sort of the mantra of forever improving here. What that means for us is that every single week we rate our students on every note, every article, every case, every class, every teacher, every staff interaction to get their input on what worked well and what didn’t. We rate those on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent. And every year during the summer what we do is we take anything that was rated below a 4.5 and we rework it for the next year. So that means that over ten years of doing this we’ve really continued to enhance the bulk of the curriculum. So we’re really grateful to have our students help us to continue to get better for them and to serve them better. So that’s been a huge thread of kind of continual improvement and continual edits and feedback that we’re doing throughout the year. And then the big shift, and this is what happened three years ago, was moving to this blended learning curriculum. It used to be a full 10 months of the in-person, incredibly intensive 100 hour weeks. And because of technology and building a learning management system that allowed us to create this new blended learning curriculum on the front end we’re able again to kind of cut the opportunity cost in half and create an experience that was even more tenable for entrepreneurial leaders.

William: And as far as people coming into the program, these applicants, what are you actually looking for inside the program to bring in?

Robin: Great. So we are looking for a set of markers that are traditionally somewhat different than what a lot of business schools are looking at. So I often tell our applicants we will never make a decision in and of itself based on your test scores. We don’t even require the GMAT, coming to Acton. And part of that is is we’re really looking for an entrepreneurial profile which generally manifests itself in a set of characteristics versus a set of clear academic markers that let us know that you’re gonna be a powerful leader. So the four characteristics that we talk about a lot are intelligence, integrity and drive, and then paired with what we refer to as evidence of leadership.

So intelligence, we’re not talking about book smarts there. What we’re really thinking about is a thoughtfulness and a curiosity to the way this individual approaches the world. We’re really looking for lifelong learners and people with a growth mindset.

Integrity. We’re definitely looking for people with strong character. We want people who are coming in with a strong moral ethic, even if there’s a wide variety on what that actually is. And we want people who see their role in the world as something beyond just creating profits for themselves.

Drive. We definitely want people who take life by the horns. We’re looking for folks who likely have some elements on their resume and in their background that show them thinking and working outside of the box and carving their own path.

And then that last one, if you think about those three characteristics really paired with evidence of leadership. We want to see people who are already stepping into leadership roles, even if that’s in a nontraditional or nonlinear sense. So that might mean working with an Olympic Gold medalist or a Navy Seal who are not coming from business backgrounds that have really demonstrated incredible leadership when it comes to their craft.

William: That’s very interesting. Those four attributes that you’re talking about, those things that you’re looking for, things that definitely seem to have a correlation with, you know, a successful entrepreneur, successful professional in general. And something that people in the audience can take home and think about. How are they developing themselves in these ways? How are they proving out they have these things? Because it’s not a box to check but it’s something that will help them be successful in the long run.

Robin: Exactly. Exactly. That’s our hope. And you know, it’s an imperfect science and art for sure. And I think the most important thing you can do in the application process and thinking about admissions to Acton is really just give us sense to get to know who you are. We’re not necessarily looking for the perfectly shiny version of a candidate who’s going to be competitive at every single Ivy League they’ve applied to. What we’d rather know is what your aspirations are, what the struggles and obstacles you’re facing are and if we can help you to get there. Because for us admissions is mostly about asking the question, “Can we serve this person well? Do we think we can help them along in their entrepreneurial journey?” And if yes, and if they meet those characteristics, they generally end up being a great fit.

William: Okay. Gotcha. We’ve definitely covered a lot in this interview. Given the audience a deep dive into Acton and to what you’re all about and to the curriculum and to the thought process and to the founding team, etc. Is there anything that we missed that we want to drive home for the listeners?

Robin: One thing I would just mention, and we don’t need to talk about it a ton, is we have in the last year really started to develop some additional tools and programs to serve individuals who are not able to commit to and engage with the full-time MBA. So we have what’s called Acton OnDemand, which is a series of online OnDemand coursework that you can take to really help you start to build those fundamental skill sets. Those courses range from $195 to $350 and take anywhere from 8 to 16 weeks total and are available to the public. OnDemand, on their time frame, wherever they are in the world. The other program that we’ve started in the past year, which is called Acton Edge, which is really an executive leadership program. We’re continuing to grow and expand both of those program sets as well so that we can continue to equip more and more aspiring and active entrepreneurs.

William: And if people want to connect with you and learn more about Acton and these courses, how can they do that?

Robin: Best spot to go is www.ActonMBA.org.

William: Very cool. I’ll put that link in the show notes below the audio player. Robin, thanks for joining us today.

Robin: Thank you so much, William. It’s been a real delight.


Robin Bruce’s Bio

robin_bruce_potraitRobin Bruce is the CEO of the Acton School of Business, an award-winning entrepreneurial MBA in Austin, Texas. In her role, Robin is honored to come alongside extraordinary individuals in their journey to become principled entrepreneurs. Prior to her return to Texas, Robin was part of the Edelman team in New York City, where she helped develop the firms global Business + Social Purpose offering while working alongside Fortune 500 companies on triple bottom line business strategies. Robin holds an MBA from The Acton School of Business and a B.A. from Vanderbilt University. She received Texas Business Hall of Fame’s 2010 Award for entrepreneurial achievement. Robin and her husband Taylor live in Austin, Texas with their giant goldendoodle, Cooper.


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About William Griggs

William Griggs

William Griggs is a product and customer acquisition strategist who has helped numerous startups including companies backed by Andreessen Horowitz, FLOODGATE, & 500 Startups. In addition to his consulting work, he has written for Mashable, VentureBeat, & ReadWrite. You can check out his podcast on iTunes (The Startup Slingshot TV) or follow him on Twitter @william_griggs for Tweets chock-full of delicious knowledge nuggets.

In addition to everything tech startups, William loves breakfast tacos, dogs, short emails, and Amazon Prime. He currently resides in Austin, Texas with his beautiful wife Elizabeth.

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