What Does a Vassar Entrepreneur Look Like?
On September 29th, 2012, 43 Vassar alums (35) and students (8) gathered to talk entrepreneurship. The Multipurpose Room above the Retreat was a little chilly, but there were two special guests to keep people entertained: Jake and Doodles, dogs whose owners were sitting on the panel sharing their personal entrepreneurship stories. The panel consisted of Alison Anthoine (’75), CEO of Paperlex, Colleen Burke (’68), currently Executive in Residence up the river at Skidmore, and me (John Moore III, ’07), CEO of RxApps. Anthony Baldor (’03) led the discussion, asking questions about what motivated us, how we identified the opportunity, and what were the greatest hurdles we faced.
Motivation (and opportunity identification) came from all different angles. For Colleen, her first entrepreneurial venture was the Children’s Design Center, a mail order catalog that brought together products from many different vendors. Essentially a paper version of Etsy for children’s products. Her motivation came from a desire to sell better, more interesting children’s goods. We also learned that she was the inventor of the magazine-in-your-shopping-bag sales tactic. For Alison, Paperlex grew out of her frustration with the way legal services are delivered and her wish to empower her clients to take greater control over their routine contracts. My story, which was detailed on the Vassar Venturer’s website, also came from frustrations with the industry in which I was working, although it was more about a need to make a more immediate and broad impact than solving a personal problem I faced while doing lab work.
Hurdles for each of the panelists were about team, team, TEAM. We drove this home for everyone in the audience, and will do so again when we host our Team-focused event on December 8th. For Colleen, being married to her business partner turned out to be a mistake. As anyone in business with a loved one will tell you, this can be a very difficult proposition. For Alison, it was relying on a co-founder who lacked the skills to do his part. For me, it was bringing of a technical co-founder that was just adequate when I was starting the business, instead of spending more time finding someone excellent (this has been worked out at this point, as we recruited someone more experienced to take the lead technical role). Team is particularly hard for any first time entrepreneur, as talent is difficult to recruit without a past history of success, but passion and intelligence, traits of any true VC entrepreneur, combined with patience and persistence can help surmount that hurdle.
After the panel, we introduced the Business Model Canvas, a tool we will be using for much of the program. The audience was tasked with taking their first stab at it by applying it to their own ideas. Following this intro, we heard pitches from the audience, looking to garner feedback on their ideas. Publicly proposing an idea for the first time can be a very nerve-wracking experience. As many of you already know, public speaking is one of the most common human fears, and for many in our audience, they were exposing their brainchild to critique for the first time. It took a little while to get everyone to start exposing themselves in this way, but once the ideas starting flowing they kept coming and by the end we heard from about a third of the audience. We heard great ideas, but in order to maintain the confidential setting and intimacy of our group, we will abstain from disclosing any in this forum. Please go to our Facebook page if you want to share your ideas or view them as they get posted. Pretty sure everyone had a great time hearing feedback in such a supportive environment.
Now, a call to action for the next session, which will be October 27th. We will be teaching about Lean Validation, and how you make sure you know that what you are doing will actually have paying customers at the other end. For now, continue working on your idea, thinking through the specifics of what it might take to get off the ground. Use the Business Model Canvas to keep track of your assumptions. Finally, make a few recordings of yourself delivering your pitch. Try to flesh out your 1-minute elevator pitch, which should give just enough information to get someone interested in learning more. At the very least it should answer these two questions: what is the broadly comprehensible problem (explained in a way anyone could understand), and how you are going to solve that problem. You can see my 90 second pitch here. If you are comfortable with sharing, please post the link to the Facebook page for us to review.
Finally, please mark your calendars for the following VCSquared dates:
October 27th: Lean validation and customer validation
November 17th: Personal brand (make people confident you are the right person)
December 8th: Team!
And don’t forget about the VC Business Club (VCBC) event in NYC on November 14th from 6-8PM. Details will be shared shortly.
-John Moore (’07)