I&E 352 covered the various skills and strategies of entrepreneurship. Throughout the course, we study and analyze firms that have both succeeded and failed for various reasons and at different times. In studying the Harvard Course Pack, we learned about a variety of different companies and how best to create slide-decks and case presentations on these companies. We worked in groups and individually throughout the course to help us analyze these cases. The course focused on problem identification, lean methodology, business strategy, how ventures are funded, marketing strategy, leadership, and effective communication. The course also taught excel fundamentals and how to value companies in the short and long-term.
In learning to solve problems and work effectively on teams, I&E 352 has changed my perspective on how to successfully start an entrepreneurial venture. Emphasizing and prioritizing an understanding of a problem carries entrepreneurs substantially further than a focus on innovation alone. Several of our case studies have stressed the importance of creating a customer and validating a product to satisfy their needs. Support from a successful and productive team is essential in creating a viable solution and product. In working with multiple groups throughout the semester and through reading about successful and unsuccessful teams, I have learned to appreciate the significance of psychological safety for team effectiveness and venture progression. By working in an ethical environment throughout the semester, I&E 352 has provided me with a positive experience and foundation for creating a venture and progressing my career aspirations.
Through finding an unmet need, a venture must discern what value they bring to a customer and how the customer will benefit from their products. If there are enough customers who desire a solution to the need (knowingly or unknowingly), there is potential for that venture to scale and excel. Customers must see a venture’s product as a solution to a “Job to Be Done.” Ensuring that a product will meet customer needs demands thorough validation; said validation should serve to answer or reject falsifiable hypotheses through decisive experimentation. Garnering validation and feedback provide the opportunity for potential iteration to a business model. As continual improvement comes through progression and development, a need to pivot is discoverable through testing.
Throughout the semester, we read and analyzed the importance of validating hypotheses to ensure a product meets the desired customer value. On paper, Envirofit provided a solution that would ensure a safer and healthier cooking method for low-income Indian households. Their energy efficient stove would reduce emissions by 80% and even came in a diverse portfolio of colors. The founders attempted to validate their product through nine pilot projects that collected data and insight. What Envirofit failed to validate was the unmet need they were fulfilling and whether or not their stove was a solution to their customers’ problem. While a prettier and safer stove seemed like a formidable product for health-affected Indian women, Envirofit never questioned: would men (who earned the household income) see a need to purchase another stove when they already maintained a free stove that worked perfectly fine? Unfortunately, the answer was no. Men did not see the need to switch to an Envirofit cookstove, and even those who bought stoves often never used them. Envirofit failed to validate the need for their product and discovered that there was an insignificant benefit provided to the men with purchasing power. Verifying that an innovative product meets customer needs demands a human-centered design approach where which a venture tests and prototypes their product in the field. A venture must discover what the target customer truly values and what benefits their product will bring.
Through working in several groups this semester and in studying examples of successful and unsuccessful teams, I have discovered the characteristics and essentiality of a cooperative team. How team members interact with one another is more vital to a team’s productivity and success than the quality of individual team members acting independently. To assess a successful team requires more than taking an aggregate measure of individual capabilities. Successful teams create working environments with psychological safety. In psychologically safe working environments, team members feel more comfortable expressing themselves and conveying their ideas. In such an environment, team members feel comfortable taking risks and contributing positively to the conversation. I experienced two very different groups this semester which helped emphasize the importance of psychological safety. In one group our team contained highly academically successful individuals. Our team also included an array of different skill sets that might have come together to garner success. Unfortunately, our team meetings were riddled with conflict and tension. It was difficult to collaborate, and everyone worked mostly independently until we glued our separate work together before submission. Such a dynamic did not allow for psychological safety or subsequent creativity and contribution. Our team struggled with inequality in conversation and did not perform well. Another case group I worked in was fabulous. While overall, we may have held a lower aggregate GPA, we had incredible chemistry. Not only was the experience of working with that team more enjoyable, but our group was also productive, efficient, and effective. While our team maintained a psychologically safe environment, we also worked with each other’s’ strengths and were heterogeneous in skillsets. Each team member brought their own unique experiences and perspectives to the table helping us garner success. Heterogenous teams are critical to success in real world ventures as well. As having learned through numerous cases as well as mentor discussions with serial entrepreneur, Brandon Warner, different people come together to create powerful things. Brandon was a marketing genius who was both socially adept and profound at customer acquisition. Brandon’s partner was a computer science wizard who created the blueprint and foundation for their various websites. Without these two different skillsets, their ventures would have collapsed. While individual talent is valuable, a variety of expertise and cooperation reigns most significant when judging the potential of a team.
I&E 352 created a positive ethical culture that emphasized responsibility and accountability. Our class demanded responsibility to one another, accountability to Professor Amato, a responsibility to our team, and a responsibility to Duke. The expectation to attend class and team meetings on time minimized distraction and created an environment of focus. Showing up late would have served to limit team and class efficiency. Completing readings before class and team meetings ensured that individuals would participate and in turn contribute to the learning environment. Without unanimous completion of prior reading, case slides were substantially more challenging to complete effectively. The ethical culture of our class demanded accountability. Student’s in I&E 352 are accountable to one another and to the Duke Community Standard. Without continual positivity and accountability, our class would not have allowed for engagement and authentic contribution. Professor Amato made a conscious effort to engage with our opinions and comments no matter how obscene or abstract. Such an environment created psychological safety that fostered group learning.
The I&E Keystone has amounted to the most applicable and interesting course I have yet taken at Duke. After completing, I&E 352 I feel I have grasped the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and have developed an in-depth understanding of evaluating and understanding a business. As I begin my hunt for a full-time consulting position, I am sure to use a multitude of lessons that I have learned from I&E 352. After reviewing the case study practice packets for several firms, I have delightfully discovered the relevance and applicability of working through the Harvard Course Pack. As someone who strongly desires to start a socially impactful venture, I am grateful to have learned how to: effectively discover and validate customer value, market and brand a product, assess the financials of a company and its estimated value, use excel, along with countless other skills practiced in and outside of class. I have developed and fine-tuned an ability to lead and work in a productive and cordial team. I am now confident in my ability to present a pitch (more effectively the next time) and create an income statement. Creating case slides has allowed me to fine-tune an ability to articulate concisely and professionally. Finally, after the culmination of fifteen years of formal education, I finally believe I can maintain a respectable conversation with my family, friends, and acquittances regarding business. I am incredibly excited to dive through the door that I&E 352 has kicked open for me and to use what I have learned to create real world impact.
Mentorship Form 1
Brandon Warner is a driven and passionate serial entrepreneur who has co-founded Traveler’s Joy and SimpleRegistry and is the CEO of an acquired company, Wanderable. After taking a bike trip in New Zealand where he met his co-founder Tony, Brandon discovered the potential value of a honeymoon registry tailored toward millennials. Brandon discovered that as millennials were starting to marry, they demanded unique honeymoon and wedding experiences that differed from the beaten path. The idea stemmed from his co-founders recognition of the problem when he had to attend a wedding.
Starting Traveler’s Joy was a difficult decision for Brandon. Brandon had just graduated from Duke and received high paying job offers. Brandon decided to risk turning down said offers in order to fully invest himself in the venture that he knew would demand him and his partners undivided attention. The co-founder’s partnership was ideal for initiating their online startup; Brandon excelled in marketing and Tony excelled in computer science. Tony was able to run the technical side of the website and act as a liaison between essential developers and non-development individuals. Brandon attributes much of their success to mutual trust between him and Tony that helped foster their Yin and Yang relationship. In starting SimpleRegistry, Brandon and Tony had to pivot several times before finding success. They started the company off as a universal baby, wedding, and birthday registry before narrowing down their business model to a wedding registry service which they believed was the greatest problem that they wanted to tackle.
In starting both of these ventures, Brandon and Tony received no outside investments. Their decision for not seeking investments or funding was due to the fact that they would have the ability to not be restricted with their decisions or actions. Despite this high-risk decision, they kept economically lean by advertising cheaply through Google Adwords. As they incrementally grew, they loosely validated their value proposition by talking to friends and testing their product in the marketplace. In developing their customer base, Traveler’s Joy slowly garnered more customer attention through Adwords before it developed an organic search ranking on google (about 6-9 months later), after which customer acquisition grew substantially. Although web-based companies are relatively easier to scale, between 2007-2012 Brandon significantly scaled the companies.
Brandon and Tony faced challenges along the way with regard to competition and revenue. Traveler’s Joy and Simple Registry were ahead of competition before a dramatic increase in alternative honeymoon registry websites. With difficulty staying ahead of competition, Brandon and Tony failed to make the site valuable enough for an acquirer (their initial goal being acquisition). Their revenue level was too low for a worthwhile sale so they decided to maintain current operations and embrace their income.
We discovered how vital positive team dynamic is for success in the startup field. Trustworthy partnerships and symbiotic team relationships are essential in both launching a venture and in maintaining value. Tony and Brandon were successful early on due to their mutual trust and skillset differentiation. We also discovered how important overcoming competition is in maintaining success and achieving goals. Without differentiating from competition by offering unique value, there is little that can ensure long term success or acquisition.
Mentorship Form 2
My follow-up call with Brandon was extraordinarily insightful and allowed us to delve deeper into a more intimate conversation regarding his three ventures and my entrepreneurial aspirations. In our follow-up discussion, Brandon answered a few lingering questions that I had regarding Wanderable, SimpleRegistry and Traveler’s Joy. In the remainder of our conversation, we discussed my career aspirations and advice.
After learning about economic value-in-use pricing, I was curious as to how Brandon decided to set his products’ prices. Brandon and his team utilized a value-based approach to discern what they thought would be fair given what they offered customers. They also wanted to ensure that their pricing covered their costs. Given there was not much competition during the early stages of their ventures, they did not utilize a competition-driven approach and instead used research and surveys to discover a willingness to pay. After competition entered the market, their prices were driven down because they had little intellectual property or clear advantages over competitors. Brandon has learned that the demand for wedding registry is extremely price-sensitive.
Brandon has re-approached marketing after only using Google AdWords for several years. Wanderable’s partnership with The Knot, a wedding portal registry partner, has helped them market and increased their customer acquisition. Brandon attributes most of his customer acquisition success to organic growth through natural referrals of happy customers. Online rating of his sites has also provided network marketing for Brandon.
Now that Brandon has moved from having a “hand in everything” to managing his businesses, he looks toward developing new partnerships and toward the future. One of Brandon’s big next steps is the development of a new website. The new site will utilize data collected from the other three sites to review honeymoon properties around the world. Brandon referred to this new site as, “a trip advisor specific to honeymoons.” While Brandon thought about developing an app, he believes his user retention rate is too low to warrant the cost. Although an app is not the answer, Brandon is currently at a point where he thinks they need a social media contractor. Brandon hopes to continue progress until he increases revenue to a point where he can sell his ventures.
In discussing personal goals and career aspirations, Brandon advised me on how to become a successful entrepreneur. Brandon recommended working several jobs before developing aspirations of my own. He believes that expertise gained at work is vital to success as an entrepreneur. One of Brandon’s main points of advice was to “figure out what you love doing and to learn how to make whatever you love doing better.” After discovering what sparks, one’s interest, Brandon believes one must find and learn everything available about that thing until reaching near mastery. Brandon believes the discovery of a need generally leaves one with a decision to either report the need to an employer or company in the hopes that they adopt it or to leave the company and pursue that need independently. There are positives and negatives to either choice, but the risk of leaving a job is often the more difficult one to take.
In further discussing Brandon’s development of his ventures and his recommendations for success, I believe I have a better understanding of my trajectory. Given my current interest in consulting, I find my logical next step would be to work a consulting job. I hope that while I am a consultant, I will discover something that I am passionate about or an unmet need. At this juncture, I believe my decision to start a new venture will come with mastery, intensive learning, and years of hard work and difficult decisions. While Brandon has not yet reaped the financial success from his ventures that he initially desired, he finds that his freedom and ability to work on his own time under his terms is more valuable than any paycheck that would have come with a more standard profession.