John MacDonald

John MacDonald
Class of 2017
Program Details: 
EMBA Americas
Previous Education: 
MA, Management & Art History, University of St. Andrews
Current Work: 
Co-founder, MusicianU
Post-CBS Goals: 
Strategy Consulting & Angel Investing
Favorite NYC Activities: 
Jogging in Central Park, squash, theater, architecture tours of Manhattan
Areas of Interest: 

Your professional background is somewhat unconventional for an MBA.

I was an actor for a couple of years after college while simultaneously working in finance to support myself. Fortunately, in NYC you can do both. It’s one reason why this city is second-to-none. You can work until five or six then run over a couple blocks to act in a play, changing out of your suit and tie ‘Clark Kent/Superman’ style! I was able to effectively manage with two resumes: finance and acting.

How did this experience affect your professional development as an entrepreneur?

The path for anyone pursuing a creative field is never simple, and it was through this struggle that I came up with the app MusicianU. I was cast in a play where I needed to play a Beethoven piece on the piano. I had one week to rehearse, and I hadn’t touched a piano in 10 years. I needed to find someone to literally teach me how to play that piece that day. I was at a loss as to what to do, so out of desperation I went on Craigslist, but quickly realized there must be a better way.

There are musicians everywhere, but there wasn’t any simple way to find a musician on short notice; no one was connecting the supply with the demand. I was living downtown and I was sitting on my stoop watching people walk by with guitar backpacks and I realized that these musicians could be my next door neighbors and I would never know it. One of my friends is a music producer and we realized that there was a need for a decentralized forum where musicians can connect with each other. We researched the market and we didn’t find a satisfactory solution. So we said, ‘Let’s just build it ourselves and see where it goes.’ What we created was one of the first social networks for musicians.

How did that lead you to Columbia?

After MusicianU launched, I helped start a real estate insurance company — a guarantor service for renters — and I realized that when you are starting something, it’s so tempting to approach business establishment with scattered objectives, and it can result in a cluttered mind. That’s when I thought that a program like Columbia Business School could really help me refine and create a framework to help me distinguish between the signal and the noise.

What were your first impressions when you started the program?

I was humbled by the accomplishments of all of my classmates. They were so impressive on paper, as soon as you meet them, you realize that they are genuinely good people. That’s a testament to the admissions process. Columbia does a tremendous job of accepting diverse and exceptionally talented people who are ethical and supportive; they are there to help and learn, and there is a lot of altruism. It’s about the entire community that was incredibly encouraging each and every day. You become excited to be a part of it.

There were 36 students in my Americas program, and I now have made 35 life-long friends who live all over the world. Our class became extremely close very early in the program, and it continues today. Our professors were a big part of this for me as well — they were genuinely interested in what I was doing and wanted to get to know me. I know that my fellow classmates felt the same way and we all enjoyed bonding with professors during our classes. To have the opportunity to spend time with and learn from these incredibly accomplished people was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can't even measure how much that means to an entrepreneur looking for answers and having such a supportive and nurturing community of classmates and professors.

Are there any particular professors or courses that stand out in your mind?

The Lean Launchpad course taught by Steve Blank was very helpful, especially his approach to validating a business model through customer discovery. You essentially conduct a lot of interviews and can validate or disprove certain assumptions that surround your business model. This was valuable because it’s a quick, effective — and free — method to figure out whether or not you are on the right track. It is essentially applying a scientific methodology to entrepreneurship. The process of customer discovery provided a structured framework, and that structure is crucial when you’re starting a business.

Was there any part of the program that you found particularly challenging?

Accounting has always been challenging for me, and I had the accounting exam circled on my calendar months in advance. I was incredibly fortunate for Professor Amir Ziv who told us to forget everything we thought we knew about accounting. This was difficult to imagine at first, but it worked and it opened my eyes to approaching a tough subject in a completely unexpected way. He encouraged us to approach financial statements as informational documents rather than just a bunch of numbers. The moment I put on those glasses I suddenly had a new perspective where I had the confidence and ability to look at balance sheets and income statements and see them telling a story. It clicked, and I was able to get through the exam.

How has the program influenced your future career plans?

Columbia helped me further delve into MusicianU and how it can become a practical application for what musicians need to pursue their passion and find success and sustainability. We have now made a pivot toward the payment platform space, and we are trying to help musicians make money rather than just connecting them with each another. That’s an insight that Columbia helped me realize. It may seem obvious, but through technology we can help them make money. MusicianU is the platform to help bring fans closer to musicians.

Columbia was also ‘in your blood’ already. What was your family connection to the school?

I was born and raised in Manhattan and I am a third generation Columbia graduate. My grandmother graduated from Barnard and my mother graduated from Columbia Business School in 1978. Columbia has always had a role in my family as long as I can remember and I was able to observe how much the network and friendships benefitted my family over the years. My mother pursued a career in finance and became a managing director at a time when women were underrepresented at senior management levels in the big investment banks. I am certain that Columbia prepared her for many of the challenges she faced in her career. I wanted to continue to build MusicianU and stay in New York, so I brought my music app to Columbia. There are a handful of electives where you can test your ideas or (in our case) an app that’s already up and running, against some of the most brilliant minds in the world: Columbia Business School professors and fellow classmates.

What advice would you give new students in the program?

The best advice I have would be to keep a journal from day one outlining what you learned and what surprised you. Maybe it’s just a bullet point or two every day, but it is important because, for me at least, a major part of the CBS experience is to know yourself better by zooming in on your strengths and weaknesses. I think that this internal compass is crucial and a journal helps you track your progress. You will be surprised what you have learned when you look back at your journal.



Fall 2015 Cross-Registration Dates

  • A-term, B-term, and Full-term electives: 10:00 am on Thursday August 20th until 4:00 pm Tuesday September 8th.
  • B-Term electives: 10:00 am Wednesday October 21st until 4:00pm Wednesday October 28th.