Poets&Quants’ Top MBA Startups Of 2019

Nate Mazonson, founded Plenty with a team from Stanford GSB. Photo by Drew Kelly

When Branch Metric’s founding MBAs arrived on Stanford’s Northern California in the fall of 2012, they did so with the intention of finding potential co-founders for a future unknown venture. Soon after meeting Austin and Molinet, Seghete knew she wanted to work with them. “Alex (Austin) was working every weekend. Mike (Molinet) was building things. And I thought, these are the best people in the entire class, and I want to work with them,” Seghete says. “And I’m going to try to convince them to work with me.”

The convincing happened, but the immediate successful idea did not. After deciding they wanted to be a team together, the trio took Stanford’s infamous Launchpad course in the Design School with the intention and hope to leave the class with the budding of a hot startup. At the end of the course and their first year in the full-time MBA program, all three rejected internship offers to pursue their idea — Kindred Prints, an app that took photos from smartphone camera rolls and printed photos into books. They spent all summer preparing to launch the app in October. Kindred Prints had early success, zooming to 10,000 photo books created on their app, largely riding the holiday season. But as 2013 turned to 2014 and the holidays passed, sales slowed and eventually the team decided to abandon Kindred Prints.

With two weeks till graduation, the team still did not have the startup they intended on founding while at the GSB. Seghete was contemplating a full-time offer at Apple when the idea to create deep linking software between mobile apps came to the team. In June of 2014, the foursome started building their platform with the help of a $300K angel investment from Palo Alto-based Pear Ventures. By September of 2014, the team not only developed a product, but had 30 app developers using its “deep linking” software and a $2.75 million seed round that included investments from long-time seed investor and entrepreneur Ben Narasin and New Enterprise Associates in addition to Pear Ventures. They also had 30 more developers at the helm. After a year, they had 500 more developers using their software for such apps as iHeartRadio, Coffee Meets Bagel, and Instacart. Not to mention, another funding round, this time a $15 million Series A round that included nine investors. And in 2016, the team jumped from 40 employees to 90 and gained a $35 million series B round. They’ve also added some heavy hitting partners that include Starbucks, Pinterest, Airbnb, and Target, among thousands more.

For the first two and a half years of the company, everything they built was being used for free. It wasn’t until Q4 in 2016 that the team started building premium products to sell. “Revenue was still relatively new to us,” Molinet says. But two years later, and revenue has started soaring. The company has also grown from about 90 employees at that time to 270. It also led to the company’s first acquisition of a similar company called Tune in October 2018.

Away was founded by Steph Korey (right) and Jen Rubio, who earned MBAs from Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

DIVERSITY IN DISRUPTERS 

Like previous years, this year’s list features startups disrupting all sorts of markets. Plenty, also founded by a team from Stanford, is developing technology and sciences for crops to grow and flourish without pesticides and in GMO-free environments. While based in South San Francisco, Plenty, which has investments from Jeff Bezos has factories in Laramie, Wyoming and Kent, Washington. Rivigo is changing the way tech, logistics, and the trucking industry work in India. Away, which is the highest-placed team founded by only women is creating new and modern luggage for travel. Guild Education — also founded by a team of only women founders — is creating new educational and career opportunities for working adults.

“The last ten years have showcased many enormously successful startups creating world-changing companies across such a broad range of industries that the excitement of starting a new venture now feels more tangible, and also more accessible,” says Jeremy Kagan, the managing director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. “While some are more traditional technology or mobile based, many are things as fundamental as transportation or retail, with many new startups gaining prominence in areas more differentiated by business strategies — areas where MBAs can more directly start a venture and thrive.”

One thing is for sure. Entrepreneurship continues to be a popular option among MBA students at elite B-schools. Stanford has more than 60 courses that have an entrepreneurship and innovation component. According to Shikhar Ghosh, the faculty co-chair at the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, about 25% of elective courses offered in the full-time MBA program have an entrepreneurial focus. “In the last five years, we’ve seen the interest from students and level of programming from the school go up dramatically,” Ghosh says.

A factor driving the change? The blurring lines of entrepreneurial thinking and general management skills, Ghosh says. From technological developments to influential upstarts compiling massive amounts of venture capital backing, no company or industry is safe — no matter the size or how established they are.

Dia&Co has been moving up the Top 100 MBA Startup rankings over the past few years. The founders are Lydia Gilbert (left) and Nadia Boujarwah (right) of Harvard Business School. Courtesy photo

“There is this broadening in both interests and offerings in entrepreneurship,” Ghosh explains. “Some of it is because the distinction between entrepreneurship and general management is getting blurred. Much of the vocabulary, the conceptual structure of how you deal with uncertainty, how you deal with new technologies coming in, the disruptions caused by new things, are relevant for well-established companies in different ways, but with the same heightened importance as startups.”

Kagan says the influx in interest in entrepreneurship at the MBA level also has to do with the “aftermath” of the Great Recession a decade ago. “The economic crisis of 2009 and its aftermath created a new appetite among even more traditional companies for employees with entrepreneurial experiences and skillsets,” he says.

At the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Rhonda Schrader, the executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program agrees entrepreneurship among full-time MBAs has increased in recent years. “There is definitely more interest in entrepreneurship and increasingly, we’re seeing ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ who become so passionate about solving a specific problem that they give it a go in a low risk/resource-dense campus environment,” she says. “Technologies like blockchain and edge computing have changed the way students think about solving problems. They’re applying these tools in novel ways to extend both impact and equity.”