2021 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Gearflow, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Gearflow, Inc.

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Industry: Construction Tech

Founding Student Name(s): Ben Preston ’21

Brief Description of Solution: Online parts marketplace built for construction so equipment owners can get the parts they need from suppliers they can trust so they can get back to work.

Funding Dollars: Total of $4.6M, $3M in latest seed round

What led you to launch this venture? I have had the itch to be a part of a founding team since my undergrad and was on the lookout for opportunities. In February 2018, my partner Luke Powers was working for his family’s construction equipment rental business. He approached me with an idea he had for the very first iteration of Gearflow. After Luke explained to me the number of vendors that a contractor relies on to get their job done, it became clear there was a need for a marketplace in the construction industry. With my background in ad tech, we brought very complementary skills to the business, so I decided to take the leap and go full-time on Gearflow at the end of 2018.

The pains that specifically surround parts procurement didn’t become obvious to us until after we launched the business. We talked to countless customers and kept hearing the same pattern — their equipment was down and they desperately needed a part in order to get that machine back up and running. To put the cost of downtime in perspective, one contractor told us it cost him $90,000 a day on average for every down piece of equipment.

We realized that the opportunity wasn’t simply in the aggregation of all things equipment onto a marketplace. Instead, the most significant and urgent pain stemmed from the downtime of equipment. That is when we decided to go all in on solving this massive productivity problem by streamlining parts procurement through the first parts marketplace built for construction.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? As part of our seed round, we were able to form a strategic partnership with CNH Industrial (Case New Holland), a ~$30B manufacturer of construction and agriculture equipment. CNH invested in Gearflow as part of their efforts to bring ecommerce to their parts distribution in a way that drives revenue and customers through their North American dealers.

This partnership is a major milestone for Gearflow, because it allows us to work with a world-class equipment OEM in making the marketplace channel work for the OEM channel in a way that incumbent marketplaces like Amazon and eBay have not been able to do.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I had the benefit of working full-time on Gearflow throughout the entirety of my time in the Evening and Weekend program at Kellogg. This proved to be massively important for both myself and the business because I was able to apply everything I learned in real time.

My MBA at Kellogg helped Gearflow in more ways than I can count. First, the classes filled a lot of holes in my business education which allowed me to confidently run the finance, marketing, and product sides of the business.

Second, the resources at Kellogg added much needed support. We were fortunate enough to win      VentureCat 2020, which came with a $161K grant and a lot of publicity. This publicity ultimately is what began our relationship with CNH. I was also chosen to participate in the Zell Fellows Program, which played a vital role in our seed round as well as added additional financial support.

Third, the network proved to be more valuable than I could have ever anticipated. A large majority of our seed funding came from Kellogg alumni or by way of a connection made through the Kellogg network. More importantly, the key advisors we were able to gain along the way have been invaluable. We have been able to put together a world-class advisory board of well-known entrepreneurs, professors, and venture capitalists that would have been very challenging to do without Kellogg’s help.

Lastly, I had an army of support behind me while at school. My classmates, professors, and Kellogg faculty could not have been more supportive throughout my time. Starting a company during the day while taking classes at night was taxing, so to be able to surround myself with incredibly smart and supportive people to help me along the journey was critical. For example, I’ve had classmates work directly on Gearflow, marketing professors help run our paid marketing, and entrepreneurship professors help build our pitch deck.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you?

Rather than a person, my experience at Northeastern University in Boston, inspired me to pursue an entrepreneurial path.

1. During a co-op (6-month long internship) I completed during my time at Northeastern University, I found myself at a fintech startup in Cambridge, where I was the first co-op participant ever hired. My manager, Greg, became my first mentor. He pushed me to do things outside of my school curriculum that I would have not done on my own. He had me read books on business and iconoclasts, as well as get heavily involved with a new program at Northeastern called IDEA. As a college student, I learned how to be independently motivated beyond what was being asked of me at school or at work. Greg awoke a sense of curiosity in me and instilled a drive and fervor to learn that has shaped my entire life since.

2. IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator, was a life-altering experience. The program, which at the time was in its third year, provided entrepreneurs affiliated with Northeastern the resources, coaching, and funding to jumpstart their businesses. I became the “head coach” at IDEA, which meant I grew and managed a team of 40 coaches who worked individually with the ventures that were part of the program. This was my first exposure to entrepreneurship, and I fell in love with it. The people I met through that program, both entrepreneurs as well as mentors, made entrepreneurship feel attainable. It no longer felt like a high-risk path that had to start with me dropping out of college and learning to code in my garage. Instead, entrepreneurship represented the ultimate challenge. It was an opportunity to learn at a hyper-accelerated pace and provided access to a self-selecting group of incredibly driven individuals who had an infectious energy about them.  I learned more in that program than I could in any classroom and caught the entrepreneurial itch.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? This is a hard one to answer, because it is difficult to narrow it down to just one class. However if I had to choose, Professor Scott Levy’s class on Digital Marketing Implementation was most impactful. Scott is an expert on growth marketing and has worked with some of the top marketplace, ecommerce, and SaaS businesses in the country.

I had no formal training on running paid ads, which was a blocker for the business. Scott taught the science behind running effective paid ads and had us set up and run campaigns for a startup of our choosing.

These test campaigns made me realize how big of an opportunity Gearflow had via these paid channels. After I graduated, we were fortunate enough to bring Scott on as an investor, and we now partner with Scott to set up and run our paid marketing channels at Gearflow.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? We have been lucky enough to earn the support of many professors throughout my tenure at school. The person that stands out the most is Professor Jeffery Eschbach. I met Jeff the month leading up to my first class at Kellogg, so he has been with us since the very beginning. Jeff played a critical role in getting us from idea stage to seed-funded, which is a journey he has lived himself as an entrepreneur. He worked with us hand-in-hand on all of the early formation steps from landing a startup lawyer to raising an angel round of funding. We also became one of the first portfolio companies of Chicago Early Growth Ventures, an angel fund that Jeff founded.

We are forever grateful for the many late night emails we received from Jeff as he was balancing being a CEO and a professor. His advocacy from the very start set us down the path that we are on today.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We have big visions for Gearflow.

We were more productive per labor hour worked 30 years ago than we are today in construction.      This is a massive problem felt by one of the world’s largest industries in the world, which presents a fun and complex challenge to solve.

Streamlining parts procurement opens up a world of opportunity for us to eliminate all of the productivity pains stemming from fleet maintenance and management.

Our long-term goal for Gearflow is to add productivity back to job sites around the world. In doing so, we have an opportunity to preserve industrial entrepreneurship on both the supply and demand sides of the parts market by building a marketplace that works for them.


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