Applying to B-school is a rigorous process. But Roger Huffstetler had a few added challenges thrown in. He applied to Harvard’s dual degree master’s program in business and public policy while stationed with the Marine Corps in Iraq. A sergeant major and executive officer wrote his recommendation letters.
Harvard accepted the Georgia native, and in 2007 Huffstetler arrived in Boston. At the time, he was interested in studying defense policy–starting a company simply wasn’t on his radar. “I’m the first in my family to go to college, so it’s not like I grew up with the idea that people I knew started businesses, it was just sort of a really foreign idea,” he says.
After graduating in 2010, Huffstetler was determined to break into the technology scene. But the job offers didn’t come, and his bank account dwindled. Discouraged, Huffstetler accepted a job with a consulting firm. “I was really hating it, and I watched [Steve] Jobs’ speech where he says your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” Huffstetler says. “I called my girlfriend, and I said, ‘I love you, I want to be with you, but I have to quit this job today.'” She supported him, and Huffstetler turned in his resignation. After spending a few months “on the couch trying to sort everything out” he landed a gig as a strategic sales manager with Twilio, a cloud communications company.
But a fortuitous encounter with ex-Google engineer Jake Quist would change the trajectory of his career. The two met in July 2011 at the Renaissance Weekend, an ideas festival for innovative leaders. They kept in touch, and by July 2012 Quist had invited Huffstetler to help him build out Zillabyte, a business information platform that allows companies to model their perfect customer. (It’s been described as the Pandora of sales leads.) Huffstetler jumped on the opportunity and hasn’t looked back.
While the Harvard MBA didn’t focus on entrepreneurship during B-school, he says the degree set him up for success at Zillabyte. The connections and business skills proved critical, he says. When starting the company, he emailed legendary entrepreneurship professor Noam Wasserman for advice. “I didn’t even take Noam’s class, I just emailed him and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of starting a company, can I come visit you?’ And he gave me 45 minutes. I remember asking at the end, ‘Why did you visit with me?’ … He said, ‘Well you’re an HBS student with a dilemma.’ I thought that was a great answer.”