Before going to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Jack Mara knew he wanted to use the MBA to make a transition out of finance. He had been a strategy analyst for State Street Bank in Boston and imagined himself pursuing one of two options: consulting or a startup.
Mara did his internship last summer with Deloitte Consulting, but ultimately was drawn to an unusual idea. As an MBA student it occurred to him that the internet is so vast that finding great content can be overwhelming and exhausting. “There’s so much clickbait that it is difficult to know if an article that seems interesting is actually worth your time,” he says.
A short cut to the best stuff, Mara thought, would be to ask MBAs to recommend the best content they’ve read in any given week. He would then organize their suggestions into 10 recommended articles for current MBA students and alumni. Mara started working on the idea last September as a class project during his second year, using his classmates to test it out. He leveraged two Darden courses–Starting New Ventures and Developing New Products and Services–to develop the company.
CLAIMS HIS READERS INCLUDE 35% OF THE INCOMING CLASS OF MBAS AT THE TOP 20 SCHOOLS
A website was launched in March, along with a weekly newsletter and an beta app, and traffic has been doubling every four weeks since then. When it came time to graduate, Mara, 27, went straight into the university’s incubator to refine his concept and give birth to 10Thoughts.com. His 21-year-old brother, Jeffrey, worked on software development.
Just over 5,000 MBA readers from the top 20 business schools are now on the website and Mara claims to have 35% of all the incoming students in the Class of 2017 at the top 20 schools. “We found people at the schools who really loved our product,” he says. “We reached out to those people to help spread the word to the incoming students and they did that through Facebook groups and Google Docs.”
In a typical week, he’ll get 150 to 200 recommended articles. They are sent to a team of curators who vote on which ones should go forward. “That bubbles up to the top 20 or 30 and then a couple of people will go through and read those top stories and pick the best of them,” he says.
AT FIRST, SKEPTICAL AND NERVOUS, HIS PARENTS ARE NOW SUPPORTIVE
Mara tries to avoid newsy recommendations, preferring to focus on stories that deliver some sort of value to MBA students and alums. His most recent newsletter brings attention to a wide variety of well-written feature articles, ranging from Bon Appetit’s “The Most Interesting Part of The Delivery Is the Story of the Pizza Box” to Harvard Business Review’s “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies.”
A solid business model has been a tougher nut to crack. “When it came time to monetize, I had this grand plan that if I had a huge MBA audience, companies like McKinsey, Goldman and Amazon would love to gain access to it. But when we went out to sell that model, there was nothing. Nada. There wasn’t any company out there interested in paying for that. We had to quickly to pivot to find a viable business model.”
So now Mara is trying to sell the service to individual companies for use by their employees. “So far, we sold one to Boom Boom Prints in Minneapolis, and we have a bunch of companies we are doing demos for,” he says. “But it’s a long sales cycle. It is so much harder than I thought it would be. The stress level of doing a startup is so much different than it is in consulting. When it’s your company, it always feels like every thing is on your shoulders.”
What does his parents think? “They were skeptical and nervous at first,” he concedes, “but then I think they saw how much we grew, how much work we are both putting into it and now they are at the point where they are really excited about its potential and how much we are learning. They both are a little more on the risk adverse side, but they do see the attraction of it.”
TOP TEN ALL-TIME FAVORITES (SO FAR) OF MBA STUDENTS
So what are MBA students reading and recommending these days? We asked Mara to provide a Top Ten list of favorites since he has been in business: