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Behind Harvard’s ‘Fastest Growing Startup’

Pete Rispoli, a second-year Harvard Business School MBA, founded Campus Doorman during his first year at HBS. Courtesy photo

Pete Rispoli had his startup idea before classes even started at Harvard Business School. As he pulled up to student housing on the Cambridge campus in September of 2015, he couldn’t believe the sight. “You’d think everyone would have everything planned out,” the 28-year-old Naples, Florida native says. “But it was like I was back to freshman year of college.” Cars were jammed up on roadways. Lines were forming by the elevators. Rispoli says one woman even strapped one end of a rope around her stomach and attached the other end to her unassembled dining room set in attempt to drag it up multiple flights of stairs. “That’s when it hit me that there just had to be a better way than this,” Rispoli says.

So he began asking his classmates and section-mates about their moves. After speaking with more than 100 fellow incoming Harvard MBAs, Rispoli uncovered a trend. “Everyone pretty much got the same things from the same stores at the same times,” he points out. “Because everyone starts school at the same time.” According to Rispoli, 63% of Boston leases begin on September 1 — not surprising for a town with more than 212,000 college students.

What if, he asked, one person could combine all of this purchasing information with logistical moving data and streamline the process? “That’s how Campus Doorman started,” Rispoli says.

FROM UNFINISHED TO MOVE-IN READY

Campus Doorman was launched at the beginning of 2016 by Rispoli, dubbed the “chief doorman,”  Brandon Oliver, who holds an MBA from Bentley University, and Adit Chandra, a Harvard undergrad. In April of 2016, the company began taking orders for its most popular product, the Apartment in a Box, which is essentially what it sounds like: furniture for everything you’d need in an apartment.

“Essentially, we can design, purchase, deliver, assemble, and stage all of your furniture and home goods before you arrive,” Rispoli says. “So, we can turn an unfurnished apartment into a completely move-in ready apartment.”

And from day one, Rispoli says the company was profitable. “If we weren’t profitable from day one, it just wouldn’t work for us,” says Rispoli, noting the only funding they had was “small investments” from close friends and family. Within the first month of taking orders, the venture had generated more than $85,000 in revenue, Rispoli says. With those numbers, Rispoli claims the company is the fastest growing startup at Harvard Business School in 2016.

FROM TENNIS TO ECONOMICS TO JAPAN

While entrepreneurship and business have been guiding threads for Rispoli, his path to Harvard Business School and Campus Doorman was not straight or typical. An adept tennis player from a young age, Rispoli was shipped off to attend high school in Austin, Texas and focus on tennis. It earned him a full-tuition athletic scholarship at Northwestern University, where he studied economics and Mandarin. Besides playing tennis, Rispoli used his knowledge of the sport to launch a business. He and a fellow Northwestern undergrad created a company called String Quick, which sold DVDs instructing viewers how to quickly string or re-string a tennis racket. Rispoli sold about 250 DVDs in 14 different countries and profited $5,000 before shutting down the company.

After a coveted internship at Citibank’s Chicago office the summer before his senior year, it appeared Rispoli was on a typical path for an economics major. Until graduation in 2011, that is, when he decided he wanted to enlist in the armed forces. “My parents thought I was crazy,” Rispoli admits now. No one in Rispoli’s immediate family had any military background. “My dad is in finance,” Rispoli laughs. “The expectation for a lot of parents is, right after college you go out and get a high-paying job in the private sector. Though his parents were not supportive of the move at first, Rispoli explained the “nuances of being enlisted and being an officer,” and they eventually came around. While his econ classmates were going into banking positions or traveling, Rispoli went into Marine Corps boot camp.

Once boot camp concluded, Rispoli was deployed to Okinawa, Japan, where he served as a command and control officer, Mandarin linguist, and cyber-network operations officer. Essentially, he says, he spent the majority of his time setting up communications networks both for the United States Marine Corps and other countries, which involved figuring out the logistics of moving thousands of pounds of equipment across country borders. “It was an operational nightmare moving hundreds of thousands of pounds from Okinawa to Australia or Indonesia or Korea,” Rispoli says.

GMAT PREPPING UNDER A TARP, WITH A FLASHLIGHT, IN 10 DEGREE TEMPS

And so the moving logistics seed was planted — even if Rispoli didn’t realize it yet. After more than three years, he decided it was time to transition back to civilian life. And the MBA would be Rispoli’s path. But, ironically, there is a logistical challenge to studying for and taking the GMAT while deployed overseas. “You don’t really know where you’ll be or if you’ll be 100% when you schedule the GMAT,” explains Rispoli. For example, he spent two weeks studying for the GMAT in the hills outside the coastal town of Pohang, Korea, in the middle of winter. “That was a pretty tough experience,” Rispoli recalls, noting they were living under tarps, the temperatures were around 10 degrees, and he his main light at night was a flashlight. “The military schedule doesn’t bode well for test preparation,” he continues.

Rispoli took his first swing at the GMAT while temporarily back on a military base in Meridian, Mississippi. He notched a 610. He improved his score when he took the GMAT back in Okinawa, which was “unlike any testing environment” Rispoli had ever seen. But he wanted a higher score, to be more competitive for elite schools. So he scrambled to take a test in Phoenix “right before Round 1 deadlines,” where he elevated his score to 710. Focusing on schools that were actively helping veterans, Rispoli says he aimed for Harvard, Duke’s Fuqua, UCLA Anderson, and “a few others.”

“It was really apparent how well the MBA admissions staff are helping veterans transition in,” Rispoli says. When he received the nod from HBS, Rispoli accepted the offer and enrolled.