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MBA Startups: Harvard Trio Takes Pub Trivia to the Apple Store

Trivpal Founders Jonathan Evans, Karen Tang and Abhishek Agrawal

Trivpal Founders Jonathan Evans, Karen Tang and Abhishek Agrawal

What do you get when you put a farm manager, a social entrepreneur and a former game developer in Harvard Business School’s Innovation Lab?  If you guessed a Farmville spinoff, you got the Facebook and social interaction elements right. But instead of annoying your connections with requests for virtual water and sheep, you can challenge them to a battle of the wits in a mobile version of the pub quiz. Meet TrivPals.

Think of a hybrid between Words With Friends and Jeopardy.

The unlikely trio of Harvard MBAs developed the idea as part of a six-person team under the school’s new Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) curriculum, a three-part, group-oriented syllabus rooted in hands-on experience. The program culminates in the third stage, FIELD 3, where teams create their own startups in three months with a school funded $3,000 budget.

Some of these micro-businesses, such as TrivPals, make it into the real world. The competition is stiff–TrivPals emerged as the runner-up from a field of 150 six-person teams during “IPO Day,” where students vote on the strongest ideas. Many of the startups never go beyond the classroom. After all, FIELD is a first-year program and juggling a new business with a summer internship and another year of classes isn’t for everyone.

But Jonathan Evans, Karen Tang and Abhishek Agrawal, who will all graduate in May of 2013, knew they had a solid idea. They agreed to run with it. Two other team members bowed out, and one acts as an external adviser. After nearly a year of bootstrapping, moonlighting and Skyping from all over the globe, the team perfected a free mobile app that allows users to challenge their Facebook friends to three one-minute rounds of trivia. TrivPals went live on Apple’s App Store in February 2013. To date, users have answered more than 200,000 questions in 15,000 rounds. The team hopes it’s just the beginning.

Jonathan Evans, 31, the social entrepreneur of the group, didn’t come to Harvard Business School planning to start a business in his first year. But Harvard is just the sort of “fertile ground” that gives people “a little nudge to explore their latent entrepreneurial streaks,” he says. “When we started the final phase of the FIELD program, we didn’t plan to continue with TrivPals. But we ended up getting such an enthusiastic reception that we thought it was worthwhile to explore it a little bit more seriously. So over the summer we had a crazy time trying to build it out.”

Evans tells their story: 

We were the guinea pigs for the FIELD program. Or as the administration liked to call it, we were partners in honing the next great evolution in management education. I absolutely think the FIELD program was successful. I think it’s always a challenge for an institution like HBS to embark on a new innovative venture, which is essentially what they were doing. They were kind of launching a startup within their curriculum.

They were really smart in setting expectations—they knew they weren’t going to get everything right, but the students were going to be their partners in learning how to build out this new area of the curriculum. I think they did a really good job. They have a lot of staff and resources to throw at it. They just needed time to figure out how it would play out.

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