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

FIELD 3 focuses on integrative intelligence, basically taking the things we learned in the classroom and actually applying them. HBS split its 900 first-year students into 150 six-person teams.  Each team received $3,000 to launch a micro business. The program goes through all the different steps that a business would, but it’s under a much more accelerated time frame because you have just three months. That was a challenge.

By the end your goal is to have revenue.  It could be small revenue because essentially the philosophy is to develop a lean startup. You’re focused primarily on learning.  You’re setting up little experiments along the way and getting feedback. At one point, each team presents to another group of students, who act as investors in a stock market simulation. The investors sell or buy teams’ stock, and that feedback helps you determine whether or not you’re on the right track.  We ended up having one of the highest stock prices across the first-year class.  At the end we presented before a panel of judges, who narrowed the field to 10 finalists. From these, the entire class votes on the top idea– TrivPals won second place.

The idea for TrivPals came when we were in the Harvard Innovation Lab, which is the new building on HBS’ campus that has become a hub for innovation and new ideas. It feels like a Silicon Valley mixed in with a brick-and-ivy campus. The building is industrial chic—whiteboards everywhere, lots of glass, bean bag chairs, an open floor plan, which is in contrast to, say, the Harvard Bell Tower.

We were ideating—so we just sat in a room with a pizza and a big whiteboard brainstorming things we thought could be cool business ideas, particularly ones that could be accomplished within the three-month time frame and leveraged our skills and abilities. We’re all trivia fans, and we were complaining that there really wasn’t a way to play pub trivia once all of your friends move away after college.  So that’s where the idea for TrivPals was born.

We haven’t ever really done TrivPals while not doing something else. We’ve only worked on it while also being students or interns.  The drawback is that it’s hard to put all your time and energy into it when your attention is split. On the other hand, it has really allowed us to prioritize and home in on what’s most important—to build the game, to market it, to focus again on the learning. A lot of lessons we learned in FIELD, about that process of being lean and bootstrapping, have applied really well when we launched the product in the real world.

We’re very much living week to week and month to month in terms of our learning. We’ve got a roadmap of where we think things could potentially go.  We’re taking the point-to-point navigation approach where we design a series of experiments, test some assumptions and see the results. Based on that, we decide where we want to go next. So far it has been largely successful.  There may be some hard decisions down the road, but we’ll grapple with those once we get there. Right now we’re just continuing to channel our enthusiasm toward building the game, building a user base, learning and making the most of an opportunity to do this within the confines of being an HBS student.

We’ve accepted no outside funding and are financing TrivPals ourselves. Different accelerators and venture capital firms have made inquiries, but we’ve decided to remain independent for now.

How did Harvard prepare us to be successful? It’s a hard question in that I could say everything.  FIELD 3 prepared us well because in some ways we are going through the same process, except with the real world instead of students. It’s not a school project anymore. It’s actually turned into a business, which is both scary and exhilarating.

I think the curriculum itself, the case method and thinking about challenging business problems from a multidisciplinary perspective, is something that prepares all startup entrepreneurs. As students who are entering a hyper-competitive environment and doing things with limited resources and time, it becomes all the more important to look at things holistically and really decide on what’s important and which decisions are going to have the biggest impact.

One thing I’ve learned as someone starting a new venture is to ask for help when you’re struggling with something. Sometimes you need fresh ideas, and the Harvard community has been great about being effusive with advice when we’ve asked for it. That goes from professors to classmates to the Harvard Innovation Lab staff, who have a vested interest in our success. We’re Harvard Innovation Lab residents, meaning we’re part of a program that helps student teams get the resources and support they need to start a business.

The generosity and assistance have been fantastic.  You need that support because there are days when you really don’t know what to do, and there are other days when things didn’t go as well as you thought they would.  But there are also days when you’re inspired by the community of users and really want to celebrate the thing you helped bring to life.

The other lesson I’ve taken away from this experience is just the importance of the team, both in TrivPals and the larger Harvard community. We love working together. We’re energized whenever we spend time talking about TrivPals and what we’ve been able to accomplish while being students.  That’s a learning process in itself.  At the end of the day whatever happens with TrivPals, whether we continue on, shut it down or sell it, I think we’re going to be able to look back and take a lot of lessons away for our future careers and also our personal lives.  The people I’m working with are a team I can rely on many years from now.

I think HBS sometimes gets a knock for teamwork, but there is a real collaborative environment around learning, and that spirit has carried over well to TrivPals.  We do usability tests all over the cafeteria, and people are excited to share their thoughts and give us feedback or to pitch the game and send press releases to their friends at other schools.

I would tell aspiring MBA entrepreneurs to just do it. I don’t think any of us could have imagined when we were sitting around eating pizza, throwing ideas at a whiteboard for a school project that this would actually turn into a game that’s live on the App Store, which thousands of people are playing every day.

I say just do it because in some ways there might not be a better time to start a business than while you’re in business school.  There is a direct application to all the things you’re learning. Plus, you’re doing it in a safe environment so if you fail, it’s still okay.  Failure is instructive on its own. You’re also surrounded by a community of people who care about your success.

So just do it. Why not? I can’t think of a lot of reasons not to try bringing to life an idea you’re excited about while you’re in school.



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