How McKinsey made me a better entrepreneur

When I graduated from college, everyone advised me not to work at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company if I wanted to be an entrepreneur later. They warned me that McKinsey doesn’t build any of the skills necessary to start a company.

I went to McKinsey anyway because I wasn’t all that sure I wanted to be a startup founder. Ironically, though, as I doubled down on my career at McKinsey by going to business school, I found myself starting a travel company for a school project.

Almost two years later, I can definitely see that many of the skills I developed at McKinsey aren’t applicable to founding a company. Small companies just don’t face the same problems that Fortune 500 clients brought to the Firm, and the network is more conducive to becoming CEO of Disney than to raising money.

Nevertheless, I turned to lessons learned at McKinsey many times as the startup struggled through the early days. Though no one should go to McKinsey for the explicit purpose of becoming a better entrepreneur, my time at McKinsey did teach some valuable core competencies. I’ve synthesized three takeaways below and offer a deep-dive into each.

1. McKinsey taught me the importance of preparation. I never entered a meeting with a client not feeling ready. We thought through timing, discussion dynamics, appendix pages, meeting goals and follow-up questions.

When starting cleverlayover, I brought the same diligence to team meetings and presentations. This was especially important in a setting with high ambiguity. Conventional wisdom suggests that meetings waste time, and startups especially should avoid over-engineering meetings. I found that preparation for meetings helped decrease the number of meetings because they were more likely to accomplish their purpose, and the time I dedicated to over-engineering the meetings would save time for my colleagues.

2. McKinsey taught me the importance of presentation. Every presentation at McKinsey focused on the storyline. I learned to communicate a story succinctly and to keep track of the message throughout pages of data and research. I became effective at influencing others to see my viewpoint by telling my story.

Every startup founder needs this core competency. Businesses must present their story to customers, to investors, to partners and to influencers. At cleverlayover, we need to tell our story to our users, to the partners that make our service possible and to the key opinion leaders who love discovering something new and sharing it with their audience.

3a. McKinsey taught me to methodically approach ambiguous problems. I learned to structure business problems into approachable chunks and to simplify problems into concretely stated questions. Regardless of the industry or function, every engagement involved problem solving in an ambiguous situation.

While building cleverlayover, I found this skill to be invaluable in a post-traction world. Coming up with the idea required creativity and inspiration. Developing the product was an exercise in engineering and design. Launching and creating traction tested our tenacity and resourcefulness. However, when pursuing growth, we faced ambiguity. Some problems, like choosing growth channels, were distilled to a science, while others, such as balancing brand value against short-term survival, could be less precise. Applying the mindset I developed at McKinsey helped provide a structured path forward.

3b. McKinsey gave me the confidence to compete in a crowded market. The Firm works with client companies that are often leaders in their industry, but competitors abound. I saw companies grow successfully despite competing enterprises, and I paid attention to the benefits of superior implementation.

Travel search is a crowded space. Many flight search engines exist, but I pursued cleverlayover anyway because I knew we could provide additional value. Startups can’t be afraid to compete. Companies aren’t grown in a vacuum.