Towering above Berkeley, California in the penthouse suite of the city’s tallest building, desks, computers, and young entrepreneurs are strewn about a rectangular workspace maintaining a delicate balance between order and chaos. Walking across the open workspace — and past empty growlers from a local brewery, a foosball table, and food-delivering robots — one finds impressive views of the entire San Francisco Bay, including the namesake city’s growing skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. The entire penthouse space is home to the six-year-old Berkeley SkyDeck, which also overlooks the University of California-Berkeley campus in all of its towering redwood-and-eucalyptus glory.
“Pretty special views for a workspace,” says Suzanne Levi, the program director of the Berkeley SkyDeck who has been involved full-time with SkyDeck for more than three years.
The space and idea was originally created as a joint operation between UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the College of Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. The original idea was to marry a team of UC-Berkeley bred industry advisors to the Northern California research university and all its intellectual resources to support startups. Many schools around the world have accelerator spaces and programs for their student and alumni communities, but what UC-Berkeley is incubating is turning out to be quite unique.
First, since the creation of the space, the advisory board that offers mentoring, coaching, and legal assistance has grown from around 30 members to about 115 now, Levi tells Poets&Quants while on a visit to the space. Those advisors have increased the amount of mentorship and office hours available to the fledgling ventures. Plus, Levi says, a science fellows program, a design team initiative, and global founder program have all cropped up over the past three years. And as of late last year, a new fund that comprised entirely of private venture capital money invests in all startups selected for the space. Most recently, though, is the Startup Squad, a matching service for startup-curious MBAs and ventures in need of some business acumen.
TECH- AND SCIENCE-FOCUSED VENTURES IN NEED OF A SIDE OF BUSINESS
While established in partnership with the Haas School of Business and run by a Caroline Winnett — a former Haas MBA — the ventures that currently and have traditionally held space in SkyDeck have been skewed towards the tech and science worlds. The 16 current startups in the space are making products like a “personal DNA cloud” to health devices like MRI coils to numerous artificial intelligence-focused products and services. Naturally, the type of founding teams making these sorts of ventures don’t always have the business chops to bring the complicated and advanced products and services to market. It’s a problem and opportunity Winnett says she’s been thinking of for a while now.
Last fall, Winnett went to an orientation meeting for new students in the Haas full-time MBA program. After being introduced to the crowd, Winnett was approached by Ludwig Schoenack, a native of Kiel, Germany, who came to Haas specifically to get involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Schoenack told Winnett he wanted to be involved in SkyDeck and she told him to stop by sometime. When Schoenack dropped by soon after, the two began chatting about the potential of matching Haas MBAs with the startup teams that needed a little extra business help. “Ludwig, being extremely outgoing, taking a lot of initiative, and being very creative said, why don’t I do that for you,” Winnett recalls. She also asked for Schoenack to flesh out some plans for implementing a program.
“About five minutes later, I had an entire plan for it,” she says.
FROM A FAMILY OF GERMAN ENTREPRENEURS AND CREATIVES
After graduating with an undergraduate business degree, Schoenack went to work for KPMG in Berlin and then McKinsey’s Munich office. While Schoenack’s professional path has been a traditional one, his upbringing was in a family of starters — something Schoenack must have in his DNA.
“My family, they are all entrepreneurs and artists. So all of them have more creative jobs,” he says, noting that they are architects, interior designers, painters. “And the others, I’m not even sure the word for it, they make something look old that isn’t actually old,” he continues, laughing.
Entrepreneurship seems to have been inevitable for the 27-year-old. When he found the SkyDeck, he found a bit of a home. Besides the work with Winnett, Schoenack started working with one of the companies in the space doing “whatever was helpful,” he says. Then a second company needed some minor help with their pitch deck and Schoenack was there to assist. Things grew organically, Schoenack says, and more and more companies using the space continued to ask for business advice. Soon, Schoenack ran out of capacity.
Around the same time, some of Schoenack’s classmates began showing interest in also getting involved with SkyDeck.
“I started to over-promise because so many of the startups were interesting,” Schoenack admits. “Then my inbox started to fill up from people on both sides.”
STARTUP SQUAD IS CURRENTLY AT MORE THAN 20 MATCHES
The plan Schoenack and Winnett eventually thought up would be called Startup Squad, and would match Haas MBAs with SkyDeck startups. Both sides would have to apply and they decided to keep it exclusive at first to see how it would go. First, they would hire just four of the “most motivated, best, scrappiest, and smartest,” MBA students that would apply, Schoenack says. One of the early to get involved was Matt Morrison, another first-year Haas MBA.
After graduating with undergraduate degrees in engineering and commerce from a university in his native Australia, Morrison also went down a traditional pre-MBA path, working at the Boston Consulting Group as an associate and consultant. Akin to Schoenack, he also came to Berkeley specifically for a taste of entrepreneurship. Morrison joined two other Haas first-year MBAs — Lucie Bardet and Ryan Crestani — as the original Startup Squad.
But they certainly weren’t alone. Late last year, when the calls were put out for applications, Schoenack says they received more than 30 applications from both sides, which they whittled down to 16 matches. Now they have more than 20 matches. The need is what Winnett originally saw among many SkyDeck Startups. “They can build a product, but they don’t know how to make a business out of a product,” Schoenack says. Everything from finding a market to going to market to building traction and product-market fit were needs for early stage startups using the space, Schoenack explains. For the later stage startups still involved with SkyDeck, Schoenack says, they might need help with something as simple as choosing a board of directors or establishing an efficient internal communication flow to something much more complex like an entire marketing plan.
“And some of them, honestly, just need help from someone with five years or so of work experience — someone just to call for random stuff,” says Schoenack. “But that makes it so fun, because you never know what’s coming each day.”
FROM ‘GET THEIR FEET WET’ TO ‘ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE’
And it doesn’t seem to be slowing in interest from either side.
“We’d like to do more. There’s quite a bit of demand,” Winnett says. “We have a lot of science founders here who are looking for help with business models, market strategy, and the business-oriented needs for a young startup.”
Besides the potential needs of science founders, the initiative is a safe and low-consequence way for MBAs of all sorts to cut their entrepreneurial teeth. “There’s a mix between people who just want to try it out and test the waters to people who are dead-set on working at a startup post-MBA,” says Morrison, who is also 27.
Schoenack says the spectrum of interest and commitment for MBAs ranges from working with a startup a few hours a week to others planning paid full-time internships for the summer and moving into “co-founder-like” roles. “It goes from the very low-risk, get their feet wet to anything’s possible,” Schoenack says.
FIGURING OUT A WAY FOR THE STARTUP SQUAD TO CONTINUE
The only potential hitch in the Startup Squad’s growth seems to be enlisting new leaders to keep it organized and progressing next year and beyond. “It’s very much a concern,” Winnett says of the program continuing after the current leadership team graduates in 2019. “These programs are built by human initiative.”
That’s the biggest problem and challenge for many student-led organizations on campus, Schoenack says. “They just wash out,” he continues. “Today, if we would leave, it would be over for sure.”
First, Schoenack says, the leadership team is thinking about how to “codefy” the process. “It sounds like a big corporation to encode this and write processes, but if that’s not in place, then it’s not going to stay around,” he says. Then, they plan to “hire or appoint” replacements for themselves by next October to onboard and train a new crop of MBAs with plenty of time before they graduate in the spring.
“We’re trying to set it on rails so it will run as autonomously as it can,” Schoenack says, “so that next year we have even less involvement, so in the future we can hand it over to people and it can stick around.”