Constantly evolving and learning is a big part of successful entrepreneurship. Another is knowing when to scale back or pivot. That’s exactly what Harvard Business School is doing with its New York City-based Startup Studio, which launched in January 2016. The school announced last week they’d be closing the space at the end of September. “We always said that this would be a pilot,” Jodi Gernon, the director of the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, tells Poets&Quants on a phone call.
According to Gernon and Tom Eisenmann, faculty co-chair at the Rock Center, the decision to shut down the center was based on their own experiential findings and a recent survey of program attendees and resident entrepreneurs using the subsidized WeWork space.
“The survey confirmed that NYC’s community of HBS founders is indeed strong, but revealed limited need or desire for programming,” Eisenmann and Gernon wrote in an email to the school community. “One-on-one mentorship meetings and industry networking events organized by the Studio were popular, but case discussions and skill-building workshops were poorly attended — due in part to a proliferation of excellent programming available elsewhere in New York City, especially for early-stage entrepreneurs. We also learned that subsidized space, which can be accessed through a variety of local organizations, was more highly valued than the unique opportunity to work among other HBS founders.”
Harvard was able to front about half the cost of the WeWork space from donors, but without that donor support, resident founders indicated, they would settle for cheaper space.
‘A SPACE IN A VERY EXPENSIVE CITY DIDN’T HAVE TO BE A PART OF WHAT WE OFFERED OUR ALUMNI’
The studio was launched as a three-pronged experiment, Gernon said on the phone call. First, Gernon and her team wanted to learn if there was a strong value in bringing together HBS founders. Next, they wanted to know if the programming they offered added value to the New York startup ecosystem. And lastly, was there a need for a convening physical space in New York.
“A space in a very expensive city didn’t have to be a part of what we offered our alumni,” Gernon concludes.
Gernon says the programming was based on the already established Rock 100 and RISE (Rock Initiative for Scaling Entrepreneurs) programs. Specifically, the space focused on peer-to-peer learning through case studies, workshops, and other social events as well as establishing mentoring networks and acceleration workshops and events. “We took that concept of the Rock 100 and applied it,” Gernon says. While the founders really liked the one-to-one mentoring, the case studies, social events, and industry topic events were not as well-received, Gernon says. “We found the space we had wasn’t conducive to hosting a nice social,” she adds.
The main reason, Gernon says, is the stage of the founders using the space. To even apply for residency in the studio, startups must have already earned at least $500,000 in funding and have less than seven employees. Late stage founders usually have tactical and specific questions that just weren’t being addressed in large group workshops and settings, Gernon explains. “We found we could offer those things in a much more thoughtful manner and without the need for the studio,” she adds.
GROWING DIFFERENT PROGRAMS
Moving forward, Gernon says the school will continue the Rock 100 and RISE programs on Harvard’s campus in Boston. The school is also continuing to develop courses using HBX Live, which is Harvard’s online distance learning platform. The Scaling New Ventures course, in particular, has been well-attended through HBX Live. “This year was a year of positing a variety of programming,” Gernon says. “We are always looking for more opportunities for our alumni founders.”
Gernon says the school has also seen a major uptick in participation among the alumni track at the school’s New Venture Competition, hosted at the university each April. The school now has 14 regions around the world that have competitions and send one or two startups to the finals in Boston.
Regardless, Gernon says, the school has carved out ways to support their alums.
“There is a lot of information, a lot of programs, a lot of resources out there for anyone, whether they are from HBS or not, starting a company,” she says. “Many free resources and some of them paid. But to even just learn how to get started and test their ideas, what we found is HBS can make an impact around scaling ventures.”