In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business school provided as they launched their career.
Sarah Rumbaugh is the CEO and founder of RelishMBA, the marketplace for MBA hiring, which connects MBA candidates and the companies that hire them through the recruiting process. Sarah founded RelishMBA while completing her MBA at the Darden School of Business and continued to work full-time on the venture after graduation. In Part 2 of this three-part series, Sarah discusses how Darden helped her prepare to launch her venture while in school.
Once I had identified the problem I wanted my venture to solve, the next step was figuring out how to use this information to help me get into the i.Lab at UVA Incubator. I had about two months in which to figure this out. Continuing to seek guidance from Darden’s entrepreneurship faculty and staff, I decided the answer was to gather data to support my claim that this problem existed for MBA students and recruiters and to talk to people who had started businesses in similar areas. For the first part, I conducted a few focus groups and surveys with MBA students and recruiters (both of which were easily accessible; I just had to get them to say yes). I later learned in a marketing course that focus groups and surveys can be pretty difficult to do and could result in unreliable data if not done correctly. In any case, I collected the data that I believed supported the notion that the problem I had identified was worth solving.
For the second task, I took a look at the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at the i.Lab (experienced entrepreneurs volunteering to mentor i.Lab members pursuing start-ups). [Editor’s note: These individuals are now known simply as Mentors.] I found a few who had experience with B2B [business-to-business] software or marketplace businesses and met with them to learn what obstacles I may face in solving the problem I had set out to fix. These mentors have continued to be instrumental to my venture’s success; they truly provide invaluable insight on the day-to-day operations of start-up life.
At this point, I had one month until the i.Lab application drop, so I started writing my business plan. It felt pretty funny that when I was writing my plan, I still didn’t really know what my exact solution/idea would be. For me, this is one of the reasons the lean start-up concept has gained so much traction. If you Google “lean start-up,” you’ll learn what I’m talking about. It just doesn’t make sense to write a lengthy business plan about an idea before actually starting the business, because chances are, you’re not going to know the best idea until you’re many months into solving the problem. So I put forth the best idea I had at the time to solve the problem and supported all the work I had done to prove that the problem was worth solving and that I could solve it. You should know that the latter part of that sentence is what gets you into the i.Lab—showing that you’re already doing the work to start the business.
Then it was time to wait and see if I got in. But rather than doing nothing while I waited, I continued to work on the venture, because at that point, I had decided to pursue the opportunity regardless. If I got in, I would be in a yearlong cohort of start-ups, starting at the end of May, with a ten-week accelerator program between my first and second year at Darden. By the end of the following April, the plan was to be in a position to pursue RelishMBA full-time after graduation.
I got in! As you can probably guess, it was a big deal for me—in retrospect, a bigger deal than I thought at the time. It still feels like the biggest milestone I’ve hit with the business. It actually felt more rewarding than landing our first customer or first investor. It was that initial acceptance of “we like your business, and we’re going to help you launch it” that was so rewarding.
Now it was time to get an MVP, a minimum viable product—a product/service that would prove whether the business had legs. At its core, MVP is the bare-bones product/service that enables you to collect significant customer data with minimal effort/cost to validate that your product/service is worthwhile. I decided to do what I wouldn’t recommend that most people do at this stage: I invested financially. I invested my own cash to create pretty cheap software (but with great Web developers) to create an MVP. The plan was to launch that MVP in the i.Lab’s ten-week accelerator program and at the end of those ten weeks decide, based on the data the MVP brought in, if I should continue to pursue the business.
Fortunately, going into the i.Lab, I was able to bring on an intern, a Darden classmate who later became my cofounder and COO. Bringing on Zach (Zach Mayo, a Darden alumnus) was the best decision I’ve ever made for the company. Starting a business is hard. Starting a business alone is harder. That said, starting a business with someone with whom you don’t work well is probably harder than starting a business alone. This makes picking the right cofounder(s) one of the first of many really hard decisions you must make when building a company.