MBA Program: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Founding Student Name(s): Andie Kaplan WG ‘20
Brief Description of Solution: In a market defined by family plans, individuals and international students (in particular) lack access to affordable cell phone service options. Connected Mobile solves this problem by working with T-Mobile as a digitally-based official reseller. By private labeling T-Mobile’s core plans, we’re able to offer deeply discounted plans to individuals, no group signup or US credit required. We offer easy signup online, free global shipping, and unique features to support the needs of the international student community – like pausing your line when out of the country and free data abroad. We own our own brand, sales, marketing, pricing, billing, and administration on top of T-Mobile’s network, plans and infrastructure.
Funding Dollars: Bootstrapped
What led you to launch this venture? I quickly became aware how inaccessible US cell phone service was for internationals when preparing for Wharton. In the weeks leading up to preterm, there were dozens of messages each day from incoming international classmates seeking spots on classmates’ family plans. Because of the prohibitively expensive individual prices, students were going to great lengths to locate a plan to join, which contained a host of later issues: awkward conversations about how to split a bill, forgotten venmos and delinquent payments amounting to hundreds of lost dollars, and lack of flexibility for when schedules and needs changed.
Following preterm, I dove in – interviewing not only my MBA classmates, but also international students across Penn and other universities. There was a resounding answer: it was a major problem that needed solving.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Earning the initial contract with our major network provider was huge. I sought out key employees and spent the following six months, meticulously pitching my way through the $130B + organization. Ultimately, I received a rare reseller contract. Launching one month later, our pilot quickly spread to hundreds of paying customers at over 30+ universities all through word-of-mouth. Most recently, I’ve been proud of not only how we’ve continued to grow but also how we’ve been able to quickly move to action to support our international customers and community in light of COVID-19 with new offerings like “Freeze Your Line”.
How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I started working on Connected Mobile in Wharton’s intro entrepreneurship class. It was helpful to work alongside classmates and wrestle with the right business model to solve the identified problem. Over my time at Wharton, the classes often mirrored what I was focusing on as a founder, from the initial problem identification, to the reseller model, to building for scale. There can’t be enough said though about the impact of the people around you. I’m deeply indebted not only to my professors who provided advice at critical junctures, but also to my classmates who have doubled as colleagues, sounding boards, and guinea pigs over the past two years and played no small role in helping us reach where we are today.
What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I’m most inspired by stories of resilience. In middle school (2004), I dressed up as Steve Jobs for a presentation. At the time, I was drawn to his ability to found NeXT after being booted from Apple as a lesson of humility and grit. It has always reminded me of the poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling (If you can … lose, and start again at your beginnings). I also took a lot of joy and inspiration in listening to Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, founders of Soul Cycle, last summer on “How I Built this,” particularly in the early tactics they used to gain awareness.
Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? My two favorite classes at Wharton were The Legal & Transactional Aspects of Entrepreneurship by Professor and Attorney Bob Borghese and Scaling Operations by Professor Gad Allon. I’ve relied on learnings from ‘Legal Aspects’ for everything from deciding on our incorporation structure to assessing different forms of equity grants. Professor Borghese does an incredible job walking the class through the various legal considerations an early company makes as it grows to maturity with memorable examples from his casework. In Scaling Operations, we learned how to assess fitness for funded growth and tradeoffs in preparing for scale. I was taking this class as I was making many of the same decisions in for Connected. It’s been helpful to relate decisions we’re making back to the concept of scaling in niche markets.
What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Professor Borghese of Legal Aspects. In the early days, I brought printed copies of the terms and conditions from major network carriers to office hours. We walked through together what I would need in order to bring Connected Mobile to a reality. Connected’s business model is far from a rinse-and-repeat of standard DTC Companies. It was helpful to have Professor Borghese as a sounding board and advisor throughout the process as we moved from idea to execution.
How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? In March, international students found themselves abruptly displaced, either forced to return to their home country or separated indefinitely from their families. We quickly acted to support students with the heightened need for flexibility. Within a week, we launched the ability for students to suspend their phone numbers to avoid paying for standard US service during their extended time abroad and offered free international calling to Level 3 countries from the US. Soon after, we opened “Freeze your line” to wireless customers on any competitive service to support all international students in the wake of COVID-19, as other carriers don’t allow for this.
In terms of future plans, we’re adapting our marketing strategy to the realities of social distancing and reduced crowds on campus. We have an incredible team of marketing interns across 15 universities that have been digitally promoting our services to organizations on campus. We know that school timelines will continue to be uncertain until COVID-19 can be contained and have since launched “Ultimate Flexibility”, allowing customers to upgrade, downgrade, pause their line, or cancel early at any time as part of our permanent offering. We plan to continue growing by serving more customers who deserve better options than what they receive today from major carriers.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? I’m excited to pursue Connected Mobile full-time. We’ve been fortunate to find product-market fit early on and have been humbled by the response. We plan to continue our upward trajectory with no end in sight.
DON’T MISS: MEET THE MOST DISRUPTIVE MBA STARTUPS OF 2020