Startup Bootcamp: A Trek to StartupLand and Back

Issei Suzuki, Contributor

“Come on, entrepreneurs!” cheered Allison Mnookin (MBA ’98), Senior Lecturer at HBS, as she energized the class full of RCs – some with jet lag, some having just finished company interviews – on their first morning back to Aldrich from winter break. As we flipped through the course agenda and the All-Star list of facilitating entrepreneurs and investors, we warmed up to take on not only our business ideas but also to ponder the big question: “Is founding a business for me?”

Together with my teammates Haider Zali (’20), Hanh Nguyen (’20), Nishi Anand (’20), and 181 other aspiring entrepreneurs, I immersed myself in the Startup Bootcamp for subsequent eight days. I want to share with you four key questions I’ve learned to ask deeply:

1. Is there really a market for our idea?

We had begun working on the bootcamp in October last fall. Through a one-day workshop, we learned how to avoid the #1 reason why startups fail (“no market need”) by actively involving our customers through a four-step process: customer interviews, persona identification, ideation & prototyping, and user testing. Working on a problem as simple as “figuring out career options as a college student is hard,” I learned to discover customers’ problems rather than lead them to certain conclusions. I also learned that user testing can be as easy as showing a product mock-up on paper and asking the question, “how bummed would you be if we didn’t build this product?” (answer: in most cases, they won’t be bummed). By iterating this process, we were able to identify tangible problems with potential for solutions.

2. What’s our minimum viable product (MVP)?

Our team, Style Ave, tackled the problem of dressing well effortlessly by bringing a fully personalized one-stop mobile app for all styling needs. Through direct feedback from experts such as PM of Drift and founding member of Bain Capital, we realized that we could test our idea of wardrobe management in a simple way: visit friends’ wardrobes, talk to them about how they manage it, and give personalized styling recommendation to see if they would buy any. Known as the “concierge test,” the method can be deployed in many B2C businesses to test the most basic product ideas without spending a penny on building the software.

Jeff Bussgang (MBA ’95), General Partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and Senior Lecturer at HBS, further opened our minds to view startups as series of experiments. “You want to run as many experiments as you can and get as much data as possible, while spending as little as possible,” he said. Fundraising, at the end of the day, is only a means to fund the next set of experiments necessary to prove one’s hypotheses.

3. Why should we be the ones solving this problem?

By listening to presentations of many entrepreneurs, I also learned the importance of “founder-market fit.” Entrepreneurs who conveyed vision based on personal experiences (e.g. an artist who wants to build an online art curation platform for millennials) evoked credibility instantly, which is especially important for first-time founders to earn trust from potential investors.

In addition, founder-market fit is important for fueling our own motivations. “Why should I spend the next five years of my life working on this problem?” is a question that demands an answer, because we’ll inevitably have to weather countless challenges along the way, given we have alternatives to pursue more defined career paths.

4. What does success mean to me?

In our last module of “Founding Teams”, we discussed a case on Skyhook Wireless. We walked through the life of protagonist Ted Morgan, who creates a novel mobile location service, secures a deal with Apple as he negotiates directly with Steve Jobs, and then finds himself in a predicament to launch a lawsuit against Google, only to come away with a modest financial outcome for a decade of his work. We are then left to ask, “Was Ted Morgan a success?”

Professor Shikhar Ghosh (MBA ’80), Professor of Management Practice at HBS, pushed us to think hard about what success and happiness means to each of us. On one hand, if we HBS students, one of the most privileged future leaders of our generation, don’t take on chances to found companies, who will? On the other hand, how do we balance time and resources for family and personal relationships with our ventures? If we only have ~2,400 weeks left in our lives, how should we spend it?

As with many others, I will continue to ask these questions as I go through RC TEM and many other facets in HBS life. I hope to continue my exploration in founding a business, instead in the field of education in Japan, going forward. But I feel that I am making headway in figuring out my life and career, and I am truly grateful to all Startup Bootcamp organizers, contributors, participants, and my teammates for making this a phenomenal experience.

Issei Suzuki (MBA ’20) is originally from Japan and graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 2011. Prior to HBS, he worked as an investment and portfolio operations associate at a private equity fund in Japan. Ever since discovering his love for oceans and scuba diving while living in Southern California, he takes any chance he gets to get away to a beach, occasionally using triathlons as excuses to take days off from his life in Corporate Japan.