For Marissa Gibbons, the Harvard Business School experience was akin to the summer camps of her youth. As an early adolescent and then teen, Gibbons left her comfy home and family in Washington, D.C., and traveled to rural New Jersey every summer. At first it was frightening, intimidating and out of her comfort zone. She wanted to go home immediately. Eventually the loneliness was replaced by friendships and the apprehension was swapped with excitement.
Gibbons, 31, left the comfort of a career as a negotiations consultant where she helped mitigate conflict and guided conversations for government organizations and Fortune 500 companies to pursue an MBA at Harvard in 2008. The Cornell University grad had loved her job but was also a “super voracious consumer of popular culture and media.”
So she wanted to find something where she could combine the leadership aspects and big picture problem solving of her previous consulting job with her passion for pop culture. Gibbons initially focused on the entertainment and media industries and believed an MBA would help her transition into a new career.
“I was living in Boston at the time so I only applied to that one school,” Gibbons says. “I felt the MBA was unique enough to get my foot in the door but then it would be on me to prove myself.”
‘I QUICKLY LEARNED THE CASE METHOD IS ABSOLUTELY THE BEST WAY TO START A COMPANY.’
She, of course, was accepted and after her first year, she got that foot in the door. It was working on the digital team for NBC’s Bravo. “The digital team I worked on won an EMMY,” Gibbons says. “It was a strong, forward-working team but I learned I didn’t belong in a large company.”
Enter the idea for a startup.
“I quickly learned that the case method is absolutely the best way to start a company,” says Gibbons. “It’s all about making decisions and being decisive when you don’t have the perfect framework or all of the needed ideas.”
Gibbons had never really thought about starting her own company, but at Harvard she was around so many people doing just that until she caught the “entrepreneurship bug” herself. Her fiancé, Casey Gibbons, also happened to be working for a venture capital firm at the time. She saw first-hand how VCs dish out money, how her entrepreneurial classmates got that money and how they started and built ventures.
Two classes in particular stuck out to Gibbons at Harvard. First, Investor’s Dilemma taught by Clay Christiansen introduced her to a framework of innovating small companies in big markets. Next, Business at the Base of the Pyramid taught her about businesses in developing markets.
“That one sort of really helped me look outside the hype,” Gibbons says. “There are so many different kinds of businesses in the world and these all had social impacts and were serving underserved markets.”
RUNNING A COMPANY OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE
The first idea Gibbons pursued was an ecommerce startup in the social shopping category. She describes it as “very Pinterest-esque” but after two years had to shut it down. Gibbons says her approach was wrong.
“It was just too utility focused,” Gibbons explains. “Pinterest was all about the visual representation which really resonated with people and we were too focused on the utility which was our mistake.”
Nevertheless, the experience was invaluable and her skills were developing.
“I had this consulting background and view point with a lot of formal business experience,” Gibbons says. “But then I also started developing the skills necessary to run a company out of my comfort zone.”
Gibbons recalls her first introduction to the case method in her first semester at Harvard. “We are presented with a big business decision and given the data available to answer the question,” Gibbons explains. “Someone in class asked for more information and very quickly was told that was not an acceptable answer in class because in the real world, you often can’t ask for more information. Usually all of the information available is already at your disposal.”
‘THE MARTHA STEWART THING IS LOVELY BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE AND NOT FOR ME’
The skills were present; Gibbons just needed a market and idea. When Gibbons was planning her wedding in June of 2011, she was frustrated with the lack of websites available to assist in the planning for marriage. She believed there were no platforms that had aesthetically pleasing designs in a way that was easy for guests to navigate.
“Everything was the same in the wedding space,” Gibbons recalls. “The Martha Stewart thing is very lovely but not for everyone and not for me.”
Gibbons didn’t understand why there were all of these new applications and ways of organizing big information and data but it hadn’t been adopted in the wedding space. There are a lot of moving pieces to planning a wedding and so far, there was no online, aesthetically pleasing way of organizing it.
So she suffered through the lack of design diversity and functionality through her wedding, but two years later things changed. She was doing marketing and business development work for her husband’s software development startup, Maki Fund, and realized many people were coming to them to build custom wedding websites.
“This was such a pain I went through two years prior while planning my own wedding and nothing had changed,” Gibbons says. “I thought, this is ridiculous, we have to do something. Doves flying across the page was still one of the only options. That’s a little boring. I wanted to provide an option with many different aesthetics and brands.”