MBA Startups: A Darden MBA Returned To School To Start A Company

Co-Founder Adam Healey

As to the downside of founding a company? I believe that most startups face similar challenges; the biggest of which is navigating uncertainty while minimizing risk. When we built Hotelicopter, one big challenge that my partners and I faced was that we were so distant from our customers.  Due to the nature of that business (a search engine), we were not able to engage our customer base in as much discussion as we would have liked.

With Borrowed and Blue, however, my wife and I spoke with literally hundreds of different wedding vendors. Since Borrowed and Blue sells ad space, those vendors are our customers.  The brides and grooms to be that make up our subscription network are the products that we deliver to those customers (the vendors).

To gain a deep understanding of what our customers valued so that we could do a good job at delivering that, we held multiple focus groups—mostly in the Charlottesville area.  We also held them in similar markets such as Charleston, SC, and Napa, CA. What these markets have in common are large, influential populations of high net worth individuals.

Our customer base now numbers in the hundreds and our revenue has increased each month since our launch. We feel that this growth has been a direct reflection of our practice of getting very close to our customers; of not being afraid to “get out there” and uncover what people really think about the market and how your business fits into that market.

One thing that aspiring MBA entrepreneurs should understand at least about how federal loans are structured is that the monthly payments are a lot smaller in the beginning ($200 – $300/month). Those low payments were easy to make after leaving Darden and then transitioning into founding Hotelicopter upon leaving my management consulting job. Once I sold Hotelicopter, I was able to pay off my MBA loans in full with much to spare.

I must say, however, that I doubt my actions would have been very different had I not been in the position to grow a successful company (Hotelicopter) and then sell it. I would have chosen this path even if every business that I had built up to that point had failed.

Entrepreneurs simply think differently about risk than other people.  When you go work for someone else, you are relying on them. You’re putting your hopes in their hands. Layoffs are frequent in this economy and have been intermittent since the beginning of the millennium. I don’t see working for someone else as less risky than starting something on my own. In the latter scenario, I have complete control over the cash flow of the business and how I get paid from that.

If you are thinking about taking a job that you don’t really love, you really need to consider the risk of doing something that you are not passionate about. You won’t give your best effort; so you won’t advance as quickly or as high as you would otherwise. Finally, even if you are rewarded with money and advancement and you aren’t happy, your unhappiness is likely to negatively affect other parts of your life, from your relationships to your health. There is a huge risk in not pursuing your passion. It is greater than any financial risk that one might take when pursuing an entrepreneurial path.

Frankly, I’m just not a good employee. It’s how I’m naturally wired. In fact, it’s how most of us (entrepreneurs) are wired. That doesn’t mean that there is no value in working a job. My two degrees from the University of Virginia afforded me the opportunity to gain some great experience at well-respected companies and I learned a lot from those experiences. I was just clear that working for those organizations was not a part of my longer term plan.

Entrepreneurship is not a career path, it’s a mindset. School does not—and cannot—turn you into an entrepreneur. At the same time, elite institutions and schools like UVA’s Darden School of Business are attracting entrepreneurs at higher rates and making them better.  Such schools are becoming more and more relevant to students like me due to their focus on supporting venture-minded individuals.

On the first day that I walked into Darden, I knew that I was there to acquire the tools and education and be in an environment that would make me a better entrepreneur. One of my favorite professors at Darden was Prof. Saras Sarasvathy. She is world renown for being one of the best in the world for teaching entrepreneurship. She had an immense impact on me.