Meet The Most Disruptive MBA Startups Of 2019


MBA Program: Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University

Industry: Enterprise Software for Upstream Oil & Gas

Founding Student Names: Vinay R. Acharya

Brief Description of Solution: WellWorth is a software-as-a-service financial modeling and valuation platform for finance professionals in the upstream oil and gas space. WellWorth would help investment banks, private equity firms, and E&P operators evaluate, and potentially win more upstream oil and gas deals.

Funding Dollars: We are bootstrapping this venture.

What led you to launch this venture? As with most things in my life, this one’s connected to my wife as well. Back in 2016, she was working as an oil and gas investment banker in Houston. She loves Excel modeling, but faced with its limitations we pondered developing a bespoke solution for the industry, instead of building another VBA patch as a solution. I jumped at the opportunity to impress her. I like writing code for fun, so I put together a couple of web pages to replicate Excel modeling functions. We reached the conclusion that technology can certainly be used to a higher extent in the oil and gas investment banking. Also, the prospect of being able to work together just seemed awesome!

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with your venture?

In March 2019, within a few days of each other, we had two great results. We demoed our product at one of the biggest PE firms in this space in Houston. They were visibly excited by what the product can do. The very next day, they agreed to be pilot customers for us. Two days later, we pitched at the Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge and won the Top Graduate prize. The $12.5k check helped extend our runway by a few months.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? Once we began considering this venture, we realized that entrepreneurship is not what pop culture makes it out to be. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as building a great product, making a big exit, and living happily ever after. We realized there’s a process to it. Back in 2016, both of us had MBAs, but at b-school both of us had stayed away from all things entrepreneurship. So, I decided to get an(other) MBA from Rice to help us with our journey.

The Rice MBA has been immensely helpful on three fronts. First, it helped me learn the “entrepreneurial process” that I mentioned earlier. I’m a big fan of the 24-step Disciplined Entrepreneurship methodology.  Second, it helped me inculcate a customer-oriented approach to entrepreneurship, rather than my earlier product-driven approach. Lastly, being at Rice has helped me build a strong network of advisors, SMEs, fellow entrepreneurs, and also potential customers.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Before I came to Rice, I was working as a data sciences manager with Gramener, a data analytics and visualization startup based in India. I got a lot of opportunities to work with their head of delivery, their chief sales officer, and their CEO. All three of them were great mentors. S Anand, the CEO, was inspiring in particular. He had a fantastic ability to mix his business knowledge and technology skills. Fourteen years after getting his MBA from a top B-school in India, he was still writing code on a daily basis.

Gramener played a big role in me having the courage to start a business. Gramener’s cool “origin” story and the startup work culture rubbed off on me. It was such an employee-friendly culture that I was comfortable discussing my plan to leave for an MBA nine months before I eventually left. All three of my mentors agreed to write recommendations for my MBA applications.

This job made me fall in love with technology again. Even though my job didn’t require any coding, I began writing code for fun. And this came in handy when we began considering WellWorth.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? It’s difficult to zero in on a single class. Among my favorite classes have been Professor Panahi’s New Enterprise, which was my first entrepreneurship course, Professor Hochberg’s Entrepreneurial Strategy, Financing Your Startup Venture taught by a couple of partners from the Mercury Fund, and Professor Danto’s New Enterprise E-Lab.

However, the most influential part of my MBA has been, without a doubt, OwlSpark, Rice University’s startup accelerator. OwlSpark was one of the biggest reasons I chose to come to Rice. OwlSpark is a great mix of classroom sessions, guest speakers, networking events, and the biggest part – getting out of the building and talking to your customers. It is quite an experience to be working around fellow student entrepreneurs who are going through similar journeys, have similar questions, and face similar fears. And it all culminates in a five-minute pitch before 300 people from the Houston startup and industry community. Kerri Smith and Jessica Fleenor, who are part of the OwlSpark leadership, are great mentors and friends.

Over the 12 weeks, if there’s one thing you learn it is that the answers to most questions facing your startup begin with “talk to your customers.” Turns out, the reason why a lot of startups fail is they build something that no one wants. The build-and-they-will-come approach is a surefire way of failing. OwlSpark taught me to think from the customers’ perspective and (better still) get the customers’ perspective directly from them! During the program, I spoke to over 50 potential customers, understanding their jobs, their motivations, their priorities, and (of course) their problems. That is (and I believe, should be) the starting point.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We are completely sold on the idea that technology adoption in the oil and gas industry, especially on the finance side, is not where it should be. Luckily for us, the industry is seeing an upward trend in this respect. Right now, we’re tackling just one of the opportunities by focusing on finance professionals in the upstream energy space. Going forward, we are looking to expand into adjacent areas to develop a fully-integrated, seamless offering for the entire value chain. Also, we’re barely scratching the surface when it comes to data analytics. That looks like an interesting thrust area. We are also exploring opportunities for a platform like this outside the oil and gas industry.

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