Theory, Meet Practice
Last year, I launched BikeLord, an online marketplace for buying and selling used bicycles, as a mobile app. However, after launch, it just sat there on the app store. A handful of people downloaded it every week, but no one was buying bikes. I realized that the majority of users were actually interacting with our website, which at the time was significantly less developed than the mobile app. With this in mind, my team refocused our efforts to build a better web experience. BikeLord started to see users really trust the company, and our conversion rates increased. We have since changed our focus to web first; we’re still working on the app, but this time as a secondary channel. There is often a gap between how you intend people to use your product and how they actually use it. You have to pay attention to customer behavior and adapt accordingly. —Jake Maude, MBA’19, founder, BikeLord
Catching the Wave
From 2003 to 2015, I built a company called BiddingForGood in the charity auction space; it was a kind of “eBay for charities.” Although the mission was laudable (the company is closing in on half a billion dollars raised for worthy causes), the company never really took off from an investor perspective. It was creating value; it’s just that most of it went to the customers. But I was so enamored of the mission that I stayed with it far longer than I should have.
After we sold, I went on sabbatical. At a conference I attended, a speaker said, “For me, startups are all about catching the wave.” In that moment, I knew I had my North Star. I looked for projects where strong market signals suggested a wave. Months later, I met three Harvard students doing $100K monthly out of their dorm room with a virtual college-guidance service. Clearly, they were onto something. Now, three years later, I am CEO of CollegeVine, mentoring a superb founder team and building the largest college advisory company in the U.S. No matter how much you believe in your startup and its mission, it’s still all about catching the wave. —Jon Carson ’79, CEO, CollegeVine
In 2016, I launched a Kickstarter to build an app for my startup, Official Black Wall Street, a guide to black-owned businesses. Four stressful and sleepless weeks followed. Not only was I crowdfunding for the first time, I also had to keep up with being a CEO, CMO, CFO, customer rep, and every other position imaginable; at the same time, my full-time job became more demanding. I was a one-woman show, learning and implementing simultaneously. I exceeded my Kickstarter goal, but things began moving even faster. I had a hard time keeping up, and this delayed development of my app by months.
Realizing that I couldn’t do it all, I reached out to my network and was fortunate enough to find people who were passionate about my mission and willing to help out. Those grueling first months taught me how crucial it is to have a team. So many businesses fail when the owner spends more time working in their business than on their business. —Mandy Bowman ’12, founder, Official Black Wall Street
This past year was all about failing fast. I re-entered the world of startups and emerging businesses, becoming CEO of Jackson Galaxy Enterprises; Jackson Galaxy is a cat behaviorist and host of Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell (and also my brother). I realized quickly that my experiences and time working for a large global business, though in many ways helpful, did not apply to this structure. I did not have the same support system, meaning I had to plan and execute at the same time. I had to learn about pay-per-click, social media marketing, and film production—areas in which my knowledge was very cursory. It took some time to get my bearings, and it did not come without mistakes and missteps along the way, but I learned from them and changed things fast. Now, our trajectory is up and to the right. It turns out you can teach an old dog (or, for my business, cat) new tricks. —Marc Kurschner ’92, CEO, Jackson Galaxy Enterprises
Hiring and Firing
My biggest learning experience at CarBuckets revolved around my reluctance to let people go when they’re not the right fit. It’s never easy to fire someone, but I sometimes let people stay too long. On a small team, this can completely upset the dynamics. CarBuckets took six years to launch because I brought on people who were not wholeheartedly committed to the product. That lack of commitment manifested itself in many ways, negatively impacting our launch. You need a certain dedication, passion, and pride when working for a startup.
I’m happy to say that I now have a team that feels like family. We are in a good groove with one common goal. My advice to entrepreneurs? When it’s not working, don’t force it. Although it’s hard to fire someone, as CEO you have to worry about the well-being of your entire team and your company. —Alexandra Esteve ’07, founder and CEO, CarBuckets
Lay the Groundwork
I was seeking approval from the credit risk department for a specialized lending program, critical for the growth of my business. This lending program deviated from our usual debt underwriting standards and thus was riskier. I thought I had properly familiarized all the key constituents with the proposal. However, the results said otherwise: We not only failed to get the program approved, the head risk officer raised the bar on requirements for further consideration.
We went back to the drawing board, investing a lot more time understanding the concerns of all parties, redesigning the program, and vetting the proposal, in detail, with each constituent. By the time the proposal was reconsidered, there were no surprises, and it was approved. I learned a valuable lesson: To negotiate successfully you must be deeply knowledgeable and empathetic about all parties’ motivations and present a proposal that addresses their goals as much as yours. —Carolina Jannicelli ’96, managing director, J.P. Morgan
A Proper Teacher
It felt like a sock in the gut. I walked up to the restaurant I was running, and there was a sign on the door that said “Out of Business”—the owners had boarded up the windows and changed the locks overnight. I was stunned. All the hard work, the long hours, the grinding—I had given my life to these restaurants, having opened all four locations, and I took it personally, wondering what I did wrong. After the initial sting faded, I took inventory of all of the things that led to this failure—actions both right and wrong—and vowed to learn as much from it as I could. Today, I operate JJ’s Red Hots, a mini-chain of “hot dog joints,” with the mindset that though things may be going well now, it all could come crashing down at any moment. That’s failure whispering in my ear. It’s powerful and palpable, and it’s always there. But you just keep going. Failure is a proper teacher. —Jonathan Luther ’90, founder, JJ’s Red Hots
I have a keepsake in my office from some 45 years ago: a hockey puck given to me by my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Bubalo. Mr. Bubalo was a dedicated teacher who also kept up with our lives outside the classroom, so he knew I was trying out for the sixth-grade basketball team. Unfortunately, my athletic career to that point had been marked by failures, and my objective was simply to earn a spot on a team. While my hustle and passion were undeniable, my performance was anemic at best. Mr. Bubalo learned that I’d been cut from the team even before I told him, and early one morning he approached my desk, patted my shoulder, and set a hockey puck down before me. “You’ve got options,” he told me.
I wish I could say that I went on to excel at a new sport, but that’s not how the story goes. Instead, what I took away, and what I still try to bear in mind as a teacher, is that all of our students will suffer setbacks. Any kindnesses we show them can resonate, sometimes even for decades. —Stephen Bauer, senior lecturer of English, Babson
In January 1966, I graduated from Wisconsin State University Oshkosh with a degree in economics—a proud moment. However, I also lost my student deferment for the draft. It didn’t take long. I was inducted into the Army on April 4, 1966. Although being drafted during the Vietnam era might have been considered a low point, in retrospect it was a wonderful opportunity. Born and raised in Oshkosh, I had never been farther from home than Detroit. While stationed in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to travel throughout Asia. During my long military career, I traveled all over the world. And the U.S. Army arranged for my attendance at Babson, where I obtained my MBA. Being drafted into the United States Army was not a failure; it proved to be a wonderful opportunity. —Gary Laabs, MBA’75, registered nurse