Looking Back: What Top MBA Founders Would Do Differently

Harvard MBA Shelby Clark, who started RelayRides, learned the hard way that good co-founders can be hard to come by

Harvard MBA Shelby Clark, who started RelayRides, learned the hard way that good co-founders can be hard to come by

Is there any way to spot potentially fickle founders? “It’s tough to sort of figure out who’s genuinely interested in starting a company, and it’s really important to set expectations up front,” Clark cautions. He lists a number of questions he would’ve asked: Are you willing to not take a summer internship and work on this? What will it take you to not look for a full-time job post graduation? “You and your co-founder must be aligned on these key topics,” he says. In that sense, starting a company–even in the confines of school–is a lot like getting married. No one wants to think about the possibility of someone leaving, but a prenuptial agreement might be for the best.

CloudFlare: Pay the $30 for a PO Box

Clark cautions founders to prepare for the worst, but there’s something to be said for preparing for the best: crazy, how-is-this-even-happening-to-me success. Michelle Zatlyn and Matthew Prince met at Harvard Business School in 2007 and neither counted on striking it big with CloudFlare. “It wasn’t obvious that this was going to work,” Prince says. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent the next month if we hadn’t raised funding.” Today, CloudFlare–a website security and performance service–boasts some $22.1 million in funding and powers roughly 4% of the internet.

The thing is, that much success attracts negative attention. “When we started, we did things like using home addresses to register our company with, and that turns out to be a bad idea,” Zatlyn says. Now, Prince’s cell phone number “floats around the internet.”

“One day, if you become successful, you could become the target of a personal attack, and that happened, and that’s not fun,” Zatlyn explains. “No one told us this early on, but if you don’t have an office–pay the $30 for a P.O. Box on the off chance you will be successful so they can’t find you.”

Ginger.io: It has fundamentally been about sales

Ginger.io founder Karan Singh has plenty of specialized knowledge. He has an MBA from MIT Sloan and he’s on leave from the Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology program. But the subject he would have chosen to focus on is one many people dismiss: sales. “A lot of people are turned off by the concept,” Singh says. “They think of Glengarry Glen Ross, the real estate broker.” The movie portrays ruthless competition between fast-talking salesmen: “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize, a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” But Singh emphasizes that that’s not the only kind of sales out there. Entrepreneurs are constantly “selling” to investors, potential employees, and prospective customers–the list goes on. “I have this gripe with a lot of MBA programs in that very few, if any, teach any formal sales classes, and I think it’s one of the most important skills you can have,” he says. “I’ve never been a sales rep, but when I think about my entrepreneurial experience over the past three years, it has fundamentally been about sales.”

Short of telemarketing for a semester, there are many ways MBA students can gain that experience. Singh got it through a club. “The sales club put on a course by Jeff Hoffman, a sales consultant, and he talked about everything from how do you write a good email that’s going to get follow up to how do you actually pick up the phone and convince someone to take a meeting. These are things that have been so helpful for me in so many different ways that I didn’t expect, and if I had to do it over, I’d have taken more opportunities to do that.”

Still, mistakes don’t necessarily mean regrets. When asked to name the thing they’d change, many founders simply say they wished they’d started their companies sooner. Though Clark’s co-founders jumped ship, he talks about his journey without a trace of bitterness. “The biggest thing I always tell the MBAs is that this is probably the best time in your life you’ll ever have to start a company,” counsels Clark. “You have time, you’ve got resources, you’ve got smart people, and your living costs are being paid for–by student loans, but still. You’re able to support yourself.” And anyway, it’s unlikely that someone who dwells on the negative would become an entrepreneur in the first place. “There are a million reasons not to do it, but just do it,” Clark says. “Just move forward.”

DON’T MISS: Poets&Quants’ Top 100 MBA Startups or The Top 20 B-Schools for Entrepreneurship or The Top Investors in MBA Startups


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