Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything. Focus on problems. Keep it simple. And whatever you do, don’t strive for perfection or ask for permission.
Those startup lessons are taught in every MBA program. Here’s Rule #1: Know your customer. That lesson was taken to heart by Nikhil Agarwal and Chris Abkarians. Three years ago, they were accepted into Harvard Business School. Like their peers, they felt a mix of euphoria and sticker shock. After all, HBS comes with a $221,480 price tag – minimum – over two years. As the saying goes, pain presents opportunity. Over group chat, Agarwal and Abkarians pitched an idea to future HBS classmates. They would pursue bulk student loans with lenders and pass the discounts onto their classmates.
TWO HBS STUDENT STARTUPS HAVE ALREADY RECEIVED $6.25 MILLION IN FUNDING
The result: LeverEdge was founded – and the concept quickly spread to 700 students across 10 business schools. In the first year alone, the duo accessed $26 million dollars in loans, with peers saving $13,000 in interest and fees on average. Since then, LeverEdge has gone national, boasting 20,000 members –and $2.5 million dollars in investment.
LeverEdge is just one of the many MBA ventures honored in P&Q’s Most Disruptive Startups of 2020. Now in its second year, ‘Disruptive Startups’ honors the MBA-founded companies with the potential to beat the 90% failure startup rate. This year, P&Q reached out to 34 top full-time MBA programs for entries, with 27 schools ultimately furnishing representatives with an MBA founder from the 2020 or 2021 classes. This year’s startups hail from programs ranging from Wharton, Stanford GSB, and INSEAD to Babson College, Washington Olin, and ESADE. Some startups are bootstrapped, while others are being capitalized in the millions. They operate in spaces as diverse as medicine, beverage, retail, telecommunications, real estate, and entertainment. Despite their differences, these startups share one common trait: they’re designed to disrupt vulnerable industries and models.
Disruption in the student loan market isn’t new. CommonBond, created out of Wharton, and SoFi, launched out of Stanford, have become behemoths in the space. And this year LeverEdge isn’t the lone entry in student loans. Tess Michaels, a 2020 HBS alum, also entered the student loan fray with a blue ocean twist. Rather than compete for MBAs, she targeted STEM and healthcare students with income share agreements. Here, students set aside a fixed percentage of future earning to receive a loan. Michaels’ firm, Stride Funding, takes a student-friendly approach that differentiates it from other firms, however. For one, these payments last only five years instead of the usual ten. Her firm also doesn’t collect anything if clients earn less than $40,000. Such terms have enabled Stride Funding to carve out a niche among women and minorities, who account for 85% and 75% of its customer base. The concept has also caught the attention of VCs, who’ve funded Michaels to the tune of $3.75 million dollars.
Stick to what’s near and dear – and never forget who pays the bill. LeverEdge and Stride Funding followed this advice to the letter. That said, they also enjoyed a support network and safety net in business school. Abkarians notes that he spent much of his time at the Harvard Innovation Labs, adjacent to HBS, learning from classmates, mentors, and investors. In true startup form, he even hired away an HBS staffer. Michaels devoted her time to learning from faculty members like Jeff Bussgang. Not only did he hone Michaels’ soft skills, but also opened his network to her and invested in her startup.
Along with tapping into thought leaders and industry influencers, Michaels took advantage of HBS’ intensive entrepreneurial programming. “I vetted and launched Stride during HBS ‘Start-Up Bootcamp’. I gained office space and helpful mentors via the Venture Incubation Program and I was able to ideate with peers and advisors who kept us accountable on our timelines and milestones during the HBS Rock Accelerator. We had weekly meetings with Entrepreneurs-In-Residence and a set of peers going through parallel journeys…[Also], it was special to be on campus surrounded by students who experience the pain point we’re trying to solve daily.”
STARTUPS POISED TO SET NEW STANDARDS AND EXPECTATIONS
MBAs are finding many industries ripe for disruption. Take medicine – a slow, bloated, and inefficient space. Here, you’ll find avoMD, which was co-founded by Laurence Comen – 2020 Columbia Business School MBA. Developed in tandem with medical doctors, the avoMD app simplifies complex clinical protocols while enabling users to create, customize, and update ones of their own. MyOwn brings a similarly robust platform to medical practitioners. Founded at North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, the platform supplies an open-source universal provider directory, not to mention a HIPAA-compliant communications portal to share patient records to expedite actions. At Yale SOM, Daisy Rosales launched Brio, which provides mental health care tools, training, and support to local organizations in Latin America and India.
Telemedicine has also grown increasingly popular amid COVID fears. Not surprisingly, MBAs are well-positioned to capitalize on such transformations. For example, MIT Sloan’s Ocular Technologies applies telemedicine to eye care, enabling consumers to safely reach a network of doctors across the globe. Perhaps the most ambitious and promising telemedicine startup – Aureum – was developed at the Wharton School. To understand this solution, it helps to understand medical care in China.
BRINGING PRIMARY CARE TO CHINA
“I vividly remember the scenes where I was stuck in a crowd in the hospital waiting room for more than 5 hours for less than 3 minutes of doctor consultation, explains co-founder Yunhan Gao. “More recently, I ran into several occasions when families and friends did not receive adequate diagnosis and treatment for significant illnesses because they did not find the right care team.”
Gao traced the issue back to primary care. Less than 5% of Chinese patients enjoyed the services of a primary care doctor who could coordinate their care. Deviating from similar online services – which brought together patients and doctors on an on-demand basis – Aureum connected clients with a dedicated doctor to manage their entire care. The concept enabled the startup to claim first prize at the Wharton Summer Venture Awards in 2019. More than that, the concept’s execution has already proven itself in the worst of conditions.
“Since launching its Beta Testing in early 2020, Aureum has now over 300 paid users on its subscription plan, with a 3-month renewal rate of 70%,” Gao adds. “During the Coronavirus outbreak in in Wuhan, Aureum provide free and continuous remote care to 100+ patients in the lock-downed city, helping them with early symptoms diagnosis, mental wellness and recovery and eventually seeing all the patients recover.”
TURBOTAX FOR FARMERS
Aureum isn’t alone in putting this “one-stop” concept to work for consumers. At Northwestern Kellogg, Olivia Cameron partnered with two Dartmouth Tuck MBAs to start UnifiHealth. A third party administrator, UnifiHealth targets firms with fewer than 100 employees, providing them with access to healthcare benefits and costs normally reserved for larger companies. By the same token, Stanford GSB’s FarmRaise offers funding and support to farmers and ranchers – simplifying processes while promoting sustainability.
“After interviewing hundreds of farmers and ranchers, we heard producers lament a lack of accessible and affordable farm finance,” explains co-founder Jayce Hafner. “Farmers are exhausted by daily management decisions and physical labor and don’t have the bandwidth to navigate financial admin. In response, we decided to build a solution that recommends a farmer’s best funding options and helps the farmer unlock capital. You can think of us as a TurboTax for farm funding. We view finance as the key lever for incentivizing regenerative practices in the ag supply chain.”
At Wharton, Andie Kaplan embraced the traditional reseller model full-on. Arriving at Huntsman Hall, she quickly discovered that international students struggled to find flexible and affordable phone service. As a result, many would use the same account, which often resulted in split bills and forgotten payments. In response, Kaplan networked across T-Mobile for six months, eventually becoming an official reseller under the Connected Mobile brand. The concept was so strong, Kaplan adds, that her client base had spread to 30+ colleges by word of mouth within a month of launch.
“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.”
SHARING ECONOMY GROWS IN POPULARITY
With the success of Airbnb and Rent the Runway, the sharing economy was destined to be popular among creative MBAs. At ESADE, that comes in the form of Kleta, an urban bicycle subscription service that includes maintenance and insurance. With the advent of COVID-19, says founder Diego Casabe, bicycles could become a preferred transportation method in cities.
“People no longer feel safe using public transport such as the bus or the subway because they tend to be crowded, making it easier for the virus to spread. We believe that bicycles will position themselves as THE key means of transport in crowded cities.”
Another promising rental was started at the University of Chicago’s Booth School. Here, three women bonded over the feeling that South Asian culture was “siloed” in the United States, This inspired LUKH, an online store for Indian fashion targeted to the American consumer. The goal, says co-founder Rajul Parekh, is to become the “go-to source” for South Asian weddings and fashion.
“As first-generation Indian-Americans, our South Asian roots are essential to our identities. However, we know first-hand how frustrating shopping for Indian fashion in the U.S. can be. The clothes you find in stores are outdated and e-commerce brands are exorbitantly priced and rarely represent our dual identities. Moreover, with a diverse mix of family and friends around us, we want everyone to feel included in our rich heritage. There are 30 million South Asians that live outside of India that similarly feel these frustrations and desires.”
The Best MBA Programs For Entrepreneurship & Innovation
To read 34 in-depth profiles of MBA-founded startups, go to Page 3.