Inside Harvard Business School’s Startup Machine

New Venture Competition

Three of the Rock Center’s big initiatives are the New Venture Competition, the Rock Accelerator, and the Rock 100. Could you tell us a little bit about each and how they help students and alumni gain entrepreneurial experience and increase their chances for startup success?

Gernon: The New Venture Competition – We call it an entrepreneurial journey and we have more than 100 student teams participate each year. It’s an opportunity for them to take an idea and put it out there to judges and get feedback. And they get this is in multiple stages, as well as learn about the more practical components of starting a company. [It includes] everything from how to use a lawyer most effectively to how do you incorporate to intellectual property to learning to do research to figure out how to bring your product to the market.

That really comes to a head at what we call Super Saturday, where we have over 140 judges who come to campus from all different industries who are subject matter experts and investors. The students actually have the opportunity to pitch to these judges. And they don’t just walk away with a score. They actually come away with detailed feedback on how they can make their idea work more effectively. And then it comes to our finale. It tends to be those who are further along who have demonstrated significant success. We select winners in three different tracks. One is in the business track (which is for students), the social entrepreneurship track (again for students), and the alumni track – where we get teams from 14 different regions from around the world who come back and compete.

Then there’s the Rock Accelerator. I like to call it our Y Combinator-like program because it’s very geared towards students who are extremely focused on starting a company when they leave business school. They are pretty serious. We do a lot of customized programming [here], including mentor matching. Students get a lot more exposure to investors who can really give them this detailed feedback. And we give them funding to actually go off and explore. It’s not a ton of funding but it’s enough to get a marketing business plan off the ground, to do testing, get feedback, and make changes.

We also do a Rock Summer Fellows program. This is an opportunity where students can come to campus never having done anything entrepreneurial and take the summer between their first and second years and go explore either founding a company or joining a startup. You’ll see a lot of investment bankers and consultants who take advantage of this opportunity to explore something very different from what they were doing before and it gives them a chance to say, ‘Do I really want to pursue path or pursue entrepreneurship?’ We have some who go back to their original plan and others who decide, ‘Hey, I really like this and I want to continue.’

Participants in a Rock 100 Summit taking a break

Participants in a Rock 100 Summit taking a break

The Rock 100 Summit is a new initiative – it’s two years old – and this has been one of the more successful programs in regards to engaging alumni around topics that are very useful to them. As anyone will tell you, being a founder is one of the loneliest jobs. And our entrepreneurs really found that coming back to campus and learning from other entrepreneurs in a setting that was safe and private and where they could discuss the challenges of founding companies was immensely helpful to them as they were building their businesses.

The feedback from entrepreneurs is that they are amazed how beneficial this is to their companies with how they are able to connect with other founders in their cities. And they’re able to reconnect with faculty in the school [as well]. So it has been a learning experience for us and a learning experience for them.

Eisenmann: The secret sauce [with the Rock 100 Summit] is that we did focus groups at the start to find out what they were interested in. They said, ‘Please, not another conference where you have panels with three people in the front and a moderator asking questions.’ We interviewed everyone in advance of the summit to find out what their most pressing issues were as entrepreneurs and [then] put them in small groups based on having a shared interest and put a more seasoned entrepreneur and a case method faculty member in charge of leading the discussion with each of those groups. As Jodi said, we made it safe, private, but very, very personal. So you’d have entrepreneurs talking about, ‘I hate my co-founder and I think we’re on the verge of a professional divorce. What do I do?’ So they’re surrounded by some other founders who’ve worked through the ups and downs and so forth. We’ve never seen an alumni event that was as well-received across everything the school does. This was a huge hit. We’ve got a formula for engaging certainly our entrepreneurial alumni. And peers across the school are copying this format because it works in healthcare and marketing just as well as entrepreneurship.

This year, Harvard Business School dominates our list of the Top 100 MBA Startups, with the number of top-funded startups launched by HBS graduates nearly doubling those from Stanford. At the same time, why have so many HBS ventures been able to attract so much venture capital?

Gernon: We look at leveraging our network in a way that leads to connecting people to investors. [Take] our New Venture Competition with over 140 judges. These investors get to see the students so they get exposed to some of the cream of the crop in the venture capital community. While they’re not investing in the students right then-and-there, they’ve established a relationship that students can take beyond school. But it really comes down to the students, their ideas, and their ability to execute. We just provide a very rigorous, supportive environment to really help them be successful in that way.

Eisenmann: I think that’s very well put. We have a strong network – and that allows someone to read your email and maybe have the first meeting…A large, large fraction of venture capitalists are HBS alums. So that gets them the courtesy of perhaps a first meeting. It takes strong teams beyond that to get the next meeting and then the funding. And our teams are strong.

Rent the Runway's Jennifer Fleiss (Left) and Jennifer Hyman (Right)

Rent the Runway’s Jennifer Fleiss (Left) and Jennifer Hyman (Right)

If you look across the startups that our students and alums have launched over the last five to ten years, you’ll find that a lot of them are disruptors. Rent the Runway is taking a $1000 party dress and figuring out a way for you to rent it for $150. Blue Apron is figuring out how to prepare a meal, chop the components in a shipping container that will keep it fresh and ship it across the country. Birch box is providing makeup, beauty and wellness samples on a subscription basis in a box. CloudFlare is a low end disruption of the content delivery network business, roviding for free the service that incumbents would charge tens or hundreds of thousands for. There is a cleverness and a vision to these businesses. They see an opportunity, they understand an industry, and they do something new and different and powerful with the business model.

We’re not the only school that does this. I’d actually point to Wharton as a great example. If you look at Warby Parker for reinventing the eyeglass – It’s fantastic!  Or ZocDoc, scheduling meetings with doctors. We’ve puzzled over why our teams are so good at this. I think a couple of things are going on. First is the case method really does train students to think through an industry holistically and understand business models and to take them apart and put them back together. Second, they really cover the geography. Among this year’s 41 teams, 12 were in San Francisco, 12 were in New York City, seven were in Boston, five were in other U.S. cities and five were international. So you’ll see a dispersion of those teams across the country and across the world that’s not true of other top business schools. [That’s particularly true with] entrepreneurs who launch businesses on the east coast. If you launch a business in New York City, you’re embedded with incumbents. So if you’re doing a fashion tech business, you’re surrounded by the elite retailers and big fashion houses. If you’re launching an ad tech business, there’s Madison Avenue right next to you. If you’re launching fintech, you’re surrounded by hedge funds and giant brokerage firms. You can hire people who understand those businesses. You can do partnerships with the incumbents. And there’s something in particular about east coast entrepreneurship that has this flavor that leads to some of our most interesting disruptors.

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