An Interview With HBS Entrepreneur-In-Residence, Janet Kraus

This article is the fourth in a series of interviews with this year’s Harvard Business School Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. Sponsored by the HBS Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program invites accomplished entrepreneurs to commit to either a semester or full academic year working with faculty and students on campus.

Growing up in Connecticut, Janet Kraus’ entrepreneurial streak took blossom early on. At six, she found herself circling the neighborhood selling homegrown tomatoes.

“One trait of entrepreneurs is a strong desire to make or create or be in control of your own destiny. I was selling vegetables around my neighborhood at around six years old in a red wagon. My dad grew this beautiful garden I learned extremely early on about pricing because I would sell all the beautiful tomatoes and end up coming back with the little, not-so-good tomatoes, so I started selling the tomatoes 3 for 25 cents – instead of 10 cents apiece. And, no, you could not buy them separately!”

Immediately after graduating from Yale University, Janet found herself drawn to entrepreneurship, and she decided to pursue a job off the beaten path.

“My first job out of college was selling knives door to door, which I did for about six months – at which point my mom was appalled that I had gone to Yale and was selling knives!”

Janet’s mother convinced her it was time to hang up her knives and consider working in the corporate world, so Janet tried her hand at consulting – where she stayed for three and a half years – before matriculating at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

In 1997, with her MBA in hand, Janet decided to quit her job as Director of Values and Vision for The Body Shop, and commit to founding a business with Stanford GSB classmate Kathy Sherbrooke. A half a dozen business plans later, the idea that emerged was Circles, a concierge business intended to alleviate the “to-do” demands falling on busy, time-starved professionals.

Janet grew Circles into a $50 million company with over 1,000 employees. After selling Circles to Sodexho Alliance in 2007, Janet left Circles to lead Spire, which she spun-off off from Circles. Spire was a new type of media company, focused on catering to the needs of busy, discerning consumers.

Janet was a finalist for the 2003 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and was recognized as one of Boston Business Journal’s Top 40 Under 40. Circles also received the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award. Janet and the companies she has led have been profiled in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and The New York Times.

Kay Fukunaga was born and raised on three islands in Hawaii: Oahu, Molokai, and Maui. She attended Dartmouth College and worked as an economist in New York prior to HBS.

INTERVIEW replica breitling Aeromarine

Since you are a serial entrepreneur, I wanted to start with a fun, philosophical question. Do you think that there is something about the entrepreneurial spirit that is innate? Or could one go to a place like Stanford or HBS and learn to be a good entrepreneur?
I don’t know if I have a philosophy, but I was most definitely born an entrepreneur. I would have to say that if not most, at least many of the entrepreneurs I know have known for a very long time that they have entrepreneurial ambitions. I think that some people come to life a little later in getting that clarity. But I do think there is this desire to make or create or be in control of your own destiny. Just chart a path that you see that comes from inside and early on.

I found Girl Scout cookies the most thrilling experience of the year, just to see if I could win New England. So I think for a large percentage of entrepreneurs, it is something you are born with. You see the world a slightly different way.

What would you say are the key early indicators of an entrepreneur replica breitling bentley 6.75?
Customer-oriented. Internal desire to sell stuff. Creativity is an early indicator of entrepreneurs – people who are always thinking of a better or different way to do things. Leadership.

You made reference to the earlier part of your career. Could you describe your career after graduating from Yale?
Right out of college, I was a little resistant to the standard career track. My first job out of college was selling knives door to door, which I did for about six months – at which point my mom was appalled that I had gone to Yale and was selling knives. She got me another interview with a consulting firm, and I ended up going into consulting. She just felt that I did not have an idea to be an entrepreneur at that moment, but that knife-selling was probably not the track to my future, so she insisted I get a real job. I did that for about three and a half years. It was great learning, and I learned I was pretty much a sales person even in that junior role. After that I moved to Brazil and helped homeless kids for a year. I had lived a very fortunate life, grown up in Connecticut, and gone to school in Connecticut. I thought it would be great to give something back.

Then I went to Stanford. I specifically picked Stanford because it felt more entrepreneurial. I had a great experience, after which, I went to work at The Body Shop, which I perceived to be a very socially responsible company and very entrepreneurial at the same time. I was head of their social marketing group, so I did fair trade sourcing and their social marketing. And after that I started Circles. When I was at The Body Shop, now that I have had this consulting and real-life company experience, I was thinking what did I want to do next? The woman I started Circles with was a colleague of mine at business school, so we quit our jobs and committed to starting a company.

What sparked the idea for Circles?
It was six months of research of writing 6 or 7 or 8 business plans before writing the Circles business plan. We decided to focus on a specific type of customer – the time-starved, busy consumer – to decide what they wanted to have, what they would be willing to pay for. We knew we were going to grow up to be that consumer. What we heard in our interviews – we probably did a thousand interviews both one-on-one and in focus groups – was people really wanted a resource to take care of their to-do list. All the myriad of things on their to-do list. A concierge to take care of their needs.

We began that business as direct-to-consumer for about six months. After six months of learning the business, we then decided to focus on the corporation, selling into large companies to deliver a solution to either their employees or their customers. The customer-loyalty market ended up being the much larger market.

Did you find in the early stages it was difficult to gain credibility, to convince people or companies to meet with you?
As two 28-year-old, never-have-done-anything-like-this-before entrepreneurs? Yes! Another characteristic that is really important to being an entrepreneur is perseverance. I am the kind of person that no does not really mean no. No means not now. No in a sales cycle is one closer to yes.

We started with our friends. I would ask, “Who should I talk to at your company?” As soon as you have a handful of customers, you are in business. You can sell your way into legitimacy. If you are really listening carefully, you understand no might not mean no, but no to the price, or the timing, etc. You learn to shift your offering to customer preferences. If you are easily deterred, you are probably not an entrepreneur.

You mentioned Kathy, your partner at Circles. We have heard about both great business partnerships and nightmare partnerships that fall apart. What is it that you look for in a partner or on a team? Would you say your skill-sets are very similar or more complementary?
Kathy and I were colleagues drawn to working together in two non-academic projects in business school – co-directing the first-year show and raising money from our classmates for a class gift. We found very quickly in the projects we did together that we had great simpatico in our thinking and in our visioning, and in our values, what we wanted out of building a company. While we could each do each other’s jobs, we both had individual strengths that made us different enough to both be valuable. If there was a question, Kathy’s first instinct was to analyze it or build a spreadsheet around it, or plan around it. If I have a question or am doubt, my instinct is to call out, to think that someone knows that answer to this question. I can network to it. I tend to collect external data and Kathy has a way of organizing it. We started out as 50-50 founders and remained 50-50 partners through the whole thing but took on different titles – which a lot of people recommended we do as we went out to raise venture funding. We realized that it was okay to have different titles, because the activities I enjoy are more CEO-like and the activities she prefers are more Presidential or COO-like on a day-to-day basis. The titles wouldn’t stop us from being equal partners.

You are both a successful serial entrepreneur, and have a family and twin daughters. Do you have any advice on finding balance in your career?
I’ve only been an entrepreneur, so I don’t have much advice on how to do it as a consultant or on Wall Street. Kathy was married and had kids through most of Circles. I did not. I basically built Circles, then found a husband, then had children. So we did it entirely differently. There is no question that it is extremely hard to find balance, but the beauty of being an entrepreneur is that there is substantially more accountability and stress. But if you can handle accountability and stress, you do have control. I can control when meetings are scheduled or changed. If you are thoughtful in how you plan out your week it is certainly handy.

The other side of it is that you spend your life being responsible for a whole lot of people – this is true as a woman, too – and that is a lot of pressure. But that just comes with the territory of leading in general. I don’t think that is unique to entrepreneurs. But this is an area I am really interested in talking to students about, in particular the women students on campus, how do you do entrepreneurship and find balance?

I wanted to move on to funding, which is top and center for a lot of people considering launching a venture. We talk about the tradeoff between growth, and control and ownership. How do you approach those funding decisions?
The first question you should be asking is should the business you are starting really be venture-funded? You shouldn’t be venture funding a business unless it is a really big concept. People sometimes get ahead of themselves in getting venture funding. You should ask, could they get angel funding or customer funding? Or friends, family, and angel funding to get to cash flow positive to fund that way?

If you figure out how big your business can be and what the likely true exit for your business is, and you have enough traction in your business to understand how much money you really need and do you really need money, then those questions related to control dissipate a little, because you are in control and you understand how much funding you need to grow your business and to successfully lead it (credit ashley). If you try to get money too early on and are not really sure what you are trying to do, you might give away too much of your business – you don’t have enough velocity yet.

Do you feel the MBA is valuable in pursuing entrepreneurship? Did you feel like you applied what you learned in the classroom or through your MBA to your ventures or are the two pretty distinct and with little overlap?
The most important part of the MBA is the network. When you are starting a business, there is no question that some of the tools and techniques of business school are valuable. The inspirational lessons and insights learned in entrepreneurial classes are valuable. But at the end of the day, when you are an entrepreneur, 80 percent of your issues are people issues – EQ, human emotion, management, leadership, hiring and firing, team dynamics. You have to learn people issues from doing.