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INSEAD | Mr. Product Manager
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How A Harvard MBA Started A Company to Pay for His Degree

Pierce Schiller

Pierce Schiller is a builder. When he was 21 years old, he built something bigger than himself. His aunt had just died from cancer and he wanted to do something that really mattered. Schiller had access to a car from the ’80s and wanted to road trip with it. It was 2006. The Binghamton University bioengineering major partnered with the American Cancer Society to build a website seeking donors. The deal was, anyone could donate a penny for each mile driven, for as long as the car would run.

“We framed this transforming college road trip into something much greater than the sum of its parts,” says Schiller, 29. “It became a statement of, ‘If this car could keep going and running, so could people.’”

Eventually the summer came to an end, but the entrepreneurial spirit Schiller  found that summer didn’t. Two years later, Schiller graduated with a degree in bioengineering and one goal: to never have a “real job.” So he started Trophos Energy with a couple others, a company that harvested energy from soil, sediment, and wastewater – pulling power from dirt and bacteria.

THE NECESSARY MEANS TO ANOTHER BEGINNING

Less than a year later the company was sold. Next, Schiller created BlackBoxBio, a bioelectrical platform that removed hydrogen sulfide from sour natural gas. All the while he was also working as a researcher at Harvard in bioelectrics, waiting for the next big technology he could fall in love with, hook onto and ride to his next startup.

He decided he had the science background but could use some business guidance. An MBA seemed the ticket. Schiller applied to Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan. After being admitted to HBS, Schiller began classes in the fall of 2013. A positive move, but it came with a problem. Schiller hadn’t spent the previous five years working as a highly paid consultant. He would have to take loans, but didn’t want to work for years paying them off, especially in a traditional job. So he decided he would make as much money as quickly as possible. He did what he always did and knew well: he built something.

THE PRODUCT THAT PAID FOR A HARVARD MBA

The idea came from a frustration. Schiller had just purchased a MacBook Air and within months had maxed out the space available. “Apple has done a great job of convincing a generation of associating the price of a computer with the amount of space it has as the only value point,” Schiller says. “I’d say 80 per cent of people who purchase a MacBook or iPhone or whatever get the base level. And the base level runs out of space quickly.”

Schiller built a micro SD memory card that could hold an additional 32 gigabytes and fit into a MacBook’s SD slot. He used it and then forgot about it. Then he noticed there was a similar product on the market. Except it could hold 64 gigs. “I didn’t have the cash to buy it, so I took my original and sold it on eBay to see what it would make,” Schiller says.

He did some digging and found out he could outsource the manufacturing process to China and make a similar card for $2. He did just that and tried to start selling the new product for $6. No one bought it. “My girlfriend said it was too cheap,” Schiller says. “She said these are people buying Apple products. They’re not going to spend $6 on anything. So I decided to charge $20.”

HandHoldingLifeFROM A TOP-1,500 PRODUCT TO A COMPANY ‘IN THE SHIT’

Schiller’s card became a top-1,500 product on Amazon. And then Schiller raised the price to $30.“The idea was really just to make money fast and pay for my degree,” Schiller says. Mission accomplished. By June before he even started classes, revenue from card sales, combined with financial aid from Harvard, took care of his education and then some. Before starting coursework in fall 2013, Schiller hired a CEO to help with the business while he was slammed with classes. Schiller pitched in about 10 hours a week.

At the beginning of the spring semester during his first year, Schiller left the country for his Field 2 course, Harvard’s international requirement. Before starting his work in Ghana and Namibia, he traveled to Nicaragua with his girlfriend and had his computer and favorite pair of jeans stolen. You can run a company from abroad without your favorite pair of jeans. You can’t without your laptop. When Schiller returned to the country about a month after the theft, the company was “in the shit.”