2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Conduit, Carnegie Mellon University (Mellon)


Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Industry: HRTech/Future of Work

Founding Student Name(s): Max Holmes and Ani Kapuria

Brief Description of Solution: Conduit is building a workforce management and engagement platform designed for frontline service employees. We are inverting the traditional top down labor management model, giving workers the flexibility to build their own schedules, discover and achieve career development goals, and maximize their earnings. At the same time, our platform automates the frustrating administrative tasks that take up much of management’s time and enables multi-location businesses and communities of independent businesses to pool their labor forces together. This dynamic staffing allows employees to pick up extra shifts and develop new skills while ensuring that businesses always have the labor they need to operate.

Funding Dollars: $25,000

What led you to launch this venture? Ani and I share several core beliefs that drive us to build Conduit. We believe that the next decade holds a tremendous opportunity to reimagine both the way that we do our jobs and our relationship to our work. The accelerating pace of technological change and already-shifting attitudes towards work necessitate creative solutions to how we develop our careers and how we direct the right workers to the right opportunities at the right time, with maximum transparency. It is critical to us that we build solutions that will help bring income security to Americans suffering from poverty and stabilize the labor forces in overlooked industries that are hugely important to our national economy.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Our biggest accomplishment has been getting accepted into Carnegie Mellon’s 2023 VentureBridge accelerator cohort. The experience was fantastic; we forged valuable friendships with founders working on solving incredible challenges and got mentored by some incredible VCs, founders, and industry leaders. It was so inspiring to be able to learn from and celebrate with such an incredible group. Being one of the youngest startups in the cohort, we had a lot to catch up to and doing so put us on our toes and got us into the swing of building and iterating – and in that way, the program was a true acceleration in our progress. Over the summer, we built two prototype solutions on no-code platforms and completed a round of customer pilots to validate our value proposition.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? Ani and I chose the food service industry as our beachhead market out of a mixture of pragmatism and bravado. It was pragmatism because there were ample bars and restaurants around where we live to do customer discovery. It was bravado because we believed that by solving what we saw as the hardest industry first, we could more easily translate our platform to other markets. It was difficult, at first, to communicate what we were trying to do to potential customers as the structure and day-to-day realities of food service are so different from any industry either of us had worked in. After getting rebuffed a number of times, we just had to pull our heads out of our you-know-where’s and completely change how we talked about what we were building. A great reminder that the real world is not business school, and most customers will not care about your future vision if you can’t communicate how it’s solving their very real problem in the first minute of a conversation.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? We benefited tremendously from the structure of Tepper’s Entrepreneurship track. We spent most of our second year in classes where we were learning from ex-founders and where course structure directly applied to the day-to-day operation of our startup. It was really tough to balance the demands of some coursework with working on Conduit, but it made us really ruthless with managing our time. Additionally, the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University was instrumental in getting us the resources and educational support we needed to ideate and get to building our business.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? We take inspiration from Louis Van Ahn of Duolingo. For both Ani and I, both Louis and Duolingo are examples of how a customer-oriented product focus can achieve massive social impact. We see a number of parallels between how Louis approached the problem of linguistic education and how we eventually structured our approach to resource management. At the heart of both, there is a relentless pursuit for customer obsession – something that manifests as a gamified experience and delight in use that somehow “fools” the customer to adopt new behaviors. In fact, Ani and I are both users of the app – and have been practicing French while we work together. With Conduit, our goal is to make the day-to-day interactions with the product so gamified and delightful that it inadvertently trains the users to be more dependable and responsible employees. Additionally, coming from CMU in Pittsburgh, Duolingo is a point of both local pride, and an aspirational target.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? We took a class called Commercialization and Innovation Strategy with Professor Meredith Grelli. Here, we rewound the clock to the early days of companies who launched innovative products or services that ultimately failed; we identified where things went wrong, and proposed different directions the companies could have taken. It was incredibly valuable to get honest looks at the earliest days of startups who all thought they were going to change the world, as each of us in class did. It was a sobering experience to see just how easily things can go wrong, especially when founders think it’s going perfectly right. The course really reinforced how important it was to not lose sight of the problem you’re solving and the customers you’re solving it for, as it’s easy to get so blinded by your product that you lose sight of reality.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Dave Mawhinney is so much more than just a professor to founders in the Tepper MBA program. He is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and connections and seems to rely on an inexhaustible energy. He will be your biggest supporter and your biggest critic, champion, evangelist, and antagonist all in one. He inspired the moments of brutal self-reflection that were critical to building a successful startup.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Pittsburgh’s growing ecosystem has been a real blessing for us. The community builders have gone out of their way to include founders and entrepreneurs from all walks of life and types of ventures. The wealth and breadth of experience available to counsel have helped us avoid drinking our own Kool-Aid too much, as well as opening up unexpected doors to customers and advisors.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Ani and I plan to run Conduit for as long as we can without impeding the success of the company. We believe in our long-term mission, but are very realistic about what will be required to thrive not just locally, but nationally and globally. Over the next few months, our goal is to build up a full product team, iterate on our current product to build up a full-stack deployable solution, and launch publicly.


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