3 Important Lessons for Founders

I recently had the opportunity to speak the founders of CoachUp, an online marketplace where athletes can connect with private coaches across a variety of sports. The site, which launched just three years ago, has started to see some significant growth in its user base and has attracted some big name professional coaches including Julian Edelman, a wide receiver on the New England Patriots and Steph Curry, the 2015 NBA MVP and NBA Champion. But before CoachUp got to where it is today, the founding team had to take an idea and prove it could be a viable company. Below are three lessons that any entrepreneur should know when pursuing his/her own endeavor.

  1. Be scrappy. In speaking with the guys from CoachUp, it was apparent that part of their success was due in part to their scrappiness. When the company was looking to grow its user base, they didn’t spend a ton of money on advertising but instead used many free resources available to them to reach their customers. They were able to identify watering holes where they could find the right people to fill their database; they went on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social sites and joined the relevant groups to get the word out and this free and scrappy method turned out to be extremely successful.
  1. Experiment to see what works and be nimble when you find out what does. For any innovation driven startup (meaning not a family-owned small business), the company is creating something that likely hasn’t existed before and as such, the only way to find out what really works is to experiment. For CoachUp, this lean method was utilized when trying to attract athletes to the site; initially they believed SEO and online methods would work as they had for attracting coaches, but after trying alternatives such as seeking partnerships with summer camps, the team quickly switched to a more effective method.  
  1. Know your customer and build your product for them. In the early days, CoachUp was able to attract an initial user base of coaches who were willing to sign up to the site without any pressure from the company. This genuine interest demonstrated that there was indeed an opportunity for a business, at least on the coaches’ side of the marketplace. As for the athletes, CoachUp did not offer any freemium type discounts because they wanted to see if the business model was viable from day one, and they found out it was. Once they had customers on both sides of the marketplace, they worked closely with them to build out the product and as such, were able to create a product that customers would like and use. To this day, they continue to request and receive feedback from customers and enhance the site to fulfill their requests.

Why I Chose MIT Over Wharton

Around the same time I wrote my first blog post about setting personal goals, I wrote down a goal of attending a top MBA program within the next two years. Having been accepted to both MIT and Wharton, I am proud to say my persistence paid off. Applying to business school was no easy task and required a significant amount of commitment and perseverance. From when I first started studying for the GMAT through writing my essays, completing applications and interviews, the process took me over 7 months. While the application process was difficult, choosing between these schools, while it’s an awesome problem to have, has been quite challenging for me. On the one hand, Wharton the first collegiate school of business and bears a highly prestigious brand name in the financial and business realm. On the other hand, MIT has one of, if not the most, recognizable names in technology and entrepreneurship. After spending a significant amount of time networking with alumni and current students from both schools, it’s apparent that the schools are quite different from each other. I want to start a company during or shortly after school and as the disparities became more evident, my choice to attend MIT became clear. Specifically, I will highlight three aspects of MIT that stand out to me.

  1. Focus on Entrepreneurship and Technology

The first and perhaps most important aspect that draws me to Sloan is the focus on entrepreneurship. While Wharton seems to have a growing presence, using Warby Parker as its poster child, MIT is leader in the space.

“A recent study suggests that living MIT alumni have created more than 25,800 currently active companies that employ about 3.3 million people and generate annual revenues of $2 trillion — producing the equivalent of the eleventh-largest economy in the world.”

MIT’s motto “Mens et Manus,” or “Mind and Hand,” plays an integral part in forming an ecosystem that promotes innovative thinking. Sloan offers an Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) track, which has extensive course offerings that allow students to gain hands on learning (more to come on this) with projects and companies of all sizes and stages. The entrepreneurial culture extends far beyond startups, encouraging all students to think of innovative approaches of tackling real world problems. Entrepreneurship is really a mindset at MIT and one that the school instills in all of its students.

Both schools offer entrepreneurship centers and while I was not able to check out Wharton’s, I can say the MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship comes straight out of The Social Network. The building is filled with breakout rooms with white boards full of newly brainstormed ideas, teams working on exciting projects and professors mentoring students. Walking through the first floor, I could feel the pulse of the collaborative thinking and ideas being generated. MIT also hosts the renowned MIT 100K Competition, which contrary its name, touts over $350K in cash and prizes. Beyond the extensive entrepreneurship resources, as the unabbreviated name would imply, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers the most highly regarded engineering and technology programs in the world. The bottom line is MIT is the place to be for anyone interested in entrepreneurship and technology.

  1. Collaborative Culture

The second key component that MIT uniquely offers is its collaborative culture, which I was able to witness first hand. Wharton is Wharton – not UPenn Wharton, while Sloan is MIT Sloan and often times just MIT business school. While this may seem menial, its demonstrative of the culture each school possesses and I believe there is a lot to be said about MIT’s cross campus integration. MIT has made a significant effort to create an environment where students can learn from each other both within and across all of the programs MIT has to offer. I spoke with David Birnbach, a lecturer at MIT who was enthusiastic about the direction in which Sloan is heading as the schools are making a concerted effort to connect MBA students with students from other programs, creating an opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas and resources. The ideas coming out of the undergrad and engineering schools are vast, but many of the individuals behind these ideas lack business acumen, which is where David believes the integration of Sloan and the other schools has and will create opportunities to translate innovative technologies into successful companies. Additionally, with a class size of approximately 400 versus over 900 at Wharton, MIT offers a smaller community where its likely you’ll cross paths with the majority of your peers, which students and alumni argue is a major driver for the collaborative nature within Sloan.

  1. Experiential Learning

The last major factor I put significant value on is the concept of Action Learning. MIT was a pioneer in the field of experiential learning, which promotes learning by doing, offering opportunities for students to apply classroom lessons directly in the field. E-Lab (Entrepreneurship Lab), for example, is a project-based action learning course, in which teams of students from MIT and Harvard are matched with founding teams of high-tech startups on projects of strategic importance to the venture. Wharton has slightly similar offerings through the Global Molecular Courses, however, MITs are more focused on the integration of learning through classroom theory and real-world practice. Many of the entrepreneurship classes such as New Enterprises, Product Design and Development, and Innovation Teams offer a unique learning environment where students work through each class designing and implementing various aspects of starting a company. Rather than solely focusing on case studies, Sloan offers opportunities for students to get direct hands on experience, which for me, is important as I look to attain a basket of resources to better prepare me to launch my own endeavor (if I don’t do so during one of these classes!).

Wharton is obviously one of the most prestigious and well-known MBA programs in the world, which is why my decision was not an easy one. However, after researching the programs, beyond just rankings, it’s clear that MIT Sloan is the best program for what I want to do – start an innovative company. In addition to the more substantial reasons above, Boston is by far a better city to live in than Philly. Sure Philly is accessible to NYC, but so is Boston and more importantly, Boston has the type of macro resources to support this sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem including a large and growing technology and venture capital presence.

The Common Core – Childhood Education

I serve on the Advisory Board of Our Lady Queen of Angels Elementary school (K-8), a member school of The Partnership of Inner-City Education. The school has spent a significant amount of time and money transitioning its curriculum as the Common Core State Standards Initiative comes into effect. If you’re unfamiliar, the Common Core is an educational initiative in the United States to establish educational standards across the country and to better prepare students for both college and the workforce. There is a significant amount of literature including this Business Insider article that supports the fact the United States’ education system is rapidly falling behind. The Common Core is one step that will hopefully curb this decline and help improve the quality of education and outcomes for children across the country.

The Common Core seeks to establish standards across math and English that will prepare students to become contributing citizens of the world. There are no specific reading requirements but students are expected to read a range of materials and subjects in order to acquire new insights and consider varying perspectives. General writing standards are given to support the development of logical claims and sound reasoning based on relevant evidence. In addition, students are required to write opinion pieces and focused research projects, aimed at developing research and written analytical skills. There is an emphasis on discussion-based learning, utilizing group projects and class presentations followed by collaborative discussions. Basically, what this says is that rather than being focused on reading and having teachers present facts, the education will be focused on understanding and reasoning; a shift that I am confident will promote the notion of knowledge but more importantly, intelligence and cognition. Another interesting change that I believe makes sense, is a shift away from teaching cursive handwriting and instead, focusing on modern forms of media including basic typing. In math, the focus has moved away from regurgitation of formulas and towards strategic thinking and reasonable problem solving. I recall much of my early mathematical education being focused on repetition and numerical problems. The Common Core is focused on application so, in a basic example, rather than teaching students that 2×2=4, teachers will utilize real life examples – if you have two apples and you double that amount, you will have four apples. This is not to say the multiplication tables will be eliminated but there is a stronger focus on application and comprehension. The Common Core provides high-level parameters that determine the specific level of knowledge students should attain in each grade. It allows schools and teachers to be creative in designing unique or shared curriculums that will lead to this now standard level of knowledge base.

I believe the adoption of the Common Core will help improve the quality of the education offered in this country and it will help produce valued individuals that will contribute to society. I recently listened to a podcast on Freakonomics Radio,Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem,” which raises another important question about the quality of our teachers. While the Common Core attempts to create standards of the level of education students should attain throughout his or her schooling, it does not effectively address the way in which we teach our youth. These teachers go through a Master’s program, studying theorems and principles of teaching with minimal application. Perhaps there should be a more immersive environment for teachers to receive his or her necessary post-secondary education – an environment that promotes more direct involvement with students. As the Common Core attempts to better prepare students for the “real world,” maybe there should be a system to better prepare teachers. This obviously does not apply to everyone, but I can say from experience, that there are many unqualified teachers in our public education system. Childhood education is a global investment, and one that will have major implications for our future. We should be doing everything in our power to prepare students and teachers alike with the best resources available.

Baking Apple Pie Apples

Its the holiday season and considering two of my favorite activities are eating and spending time with my family, my girlfriend and I decided to bake apple pie for everyone to enjoy. Christina found a cool recipe for personal apple pies, each served in the actual apple so we ventured off to the grocery store to purchase the ingredients (we actually ended up going to three different stores but thats mostly because we are cheap and didn’t want to spend $10 on pie crust at Whole Foods when we could get it for $1.50 at Trader Joes). Here is the list of ingredients, which you can probably get all in one store (note one recipe makes 4 apples):

1 – pie crust
6 – granny smith apples
1/4 cup – sugar
1 Tbsp – brown sugar
1/4 tsp – cinnamon (more or less make adjustment as desired)
Melon baller
Instructions to follow:
1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Cut off the top of 4 apples and use a melon baller to remove the inside, leaving around 1/4-1/2 inch thick shell (we dug ours too thin, causing the apples to become too soft – so make the edge slightly thicker than whats pictured). Keep 1-2 cups of the removed apple to use for the filling.

photo 1 (1)

3. Peel the skin of the remaining 2 apples and cut them into small cubes to be used as the bulk of the filling.

4. In a sauce pan, mix the cubed apples and 1-2 cups of the discarded filling from the apple shells with the sugar and cinnamon. Let sit over low heat for a 10 minutes, stirring every minute or two.

photo 2a

5. Scoop the mixed filling evenly into the apples and place on an aluminum-foil lined baking sheet or pan.

photo 3a

6. Lay out the pie crust and cut into strips approximately 1/3 inch thick.

7. Lay the strips over the filled apples creating a latticework pattern and sprinkle the tops with cinnamon

photo 3 (1)

8. Cover the apples with a layer of aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes.

9. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 15-20 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

10. Place on a plate with a scoop of ice cream and enjoy 🙂

photo 5

A few takeaways – as I mentioned above, we dug our apples to deep, which caused the walls to be to soft. Additionally, we didn’t have enough filling to fill each apple to the top, causing some of the crusts to sink into the apples slightly, so saving the removed apple and adding it to the cubed apples should help with that problem. Obviously ours did not look as great as the original recipe but they sure tasted great and Christina and I had a lot of fun making them.

Good luck and happy baking!

Technically, I Got a Nose Job

During my junior year of college I broke my nose in a friendly scuffle, which caused a nasal septum deviation, otherwise known as a deviated septum. I was able to partially realign the peripheral for aesthetic purposes; however, the internal configuration was out of sync, impairing my ability to breathe through my right nostril. Without knowing the extent of the internal damage, I let the wound heal itself and once the bruising subsided effectively forgot the injury ever occurred. While not evident at the time, the restricted breathing became more apparent as it led to unforeseen complications that would affect my daily life. The frequency with which I was catching colds was increasing and the severity of the symptoms was worsening; persistent sinus congestion would lead to post-nasal drip which, in turn, would cause a sore throat.

It was roughly three years after the injury when I noticed a particular cold-induced sinus blockage was lasting longer than had been typical. My girlfriend suggested that I make an appointment to meet with Madeleine Schaberg, an ear, nose and throat specialist, to address these issues. I had not realized at the time, but after speaking with Dr. Schaberg, I was informed that my deviation was likely affecting not only my immune health but also my sleep cycle; the deviated septum was likely triggering sleep apnea, a disorder caused by interruptions in normal breathing patterns, thus negatively affecting sleep habits. After I presented my pertinent medical history, she proceeded with a nasal endoscopy and examined my left nostril with relative ease, but before she could get the endoscope past the hairs of my right nostril she began to chuckle – “I think we’ve found the culprit…the deviation in your septum is causing a 95% blockage on your right side, making it nearly impossible to breathe through.”  Since the cost of that appointment covered half of my annual deductible and rates were expected to increase with the ACA legislation, my decision to elect for surgery became that much easier. Dr. Schaberg referred me to a different specialist who focuses on rhinoplasties, which are often associated with plastic surgery procedures, so technically I got a nose job. I had heard a lot of bad things about this procedure and began to do some research of my own. Despite the dissuading testimonials, I was ready to go under the knife.

The procedure itself was nothing to worry about; however, the recovery was far less than enjoyable. I was told 2-3 days would be adequate time to recover to the point at which I could return to work, yet this was far from reality. It was not the pain that created cause for concern but rather the vast amounts of blood-saturated gauze that was taped to my face that made it extremely difficult to breathe with my head upright. Both nostrils were ‘packed’ with gauze while my septum was kept stationary with plastic stents, each nearly the size of a credit card. Frankly, I was unaware these were even in there until I went for a follow-up a week or so later and the doctor told me to look away while he used pliers to yank them out. Throughout the recovery, I was concerned even the slightest of contact to my nose would again dislodge the septum. It was necessary to sleep elevated on my back and I recall attempting to roll over one night and tapping my nose to the pillow, thinking to myself that I would need to go back and redo the procedure, but according to my doctor, this turned out to have been extreme cautiousness. I took a generic form of sleep aid (without a decongestant per my doctor’s orders), which offered some nighttime relief, and I indulged in terrible daytime television throughout the day, intermittently napping, drinking lots of fluids and eating soft foods. After the third day, the recovery started to become easier as I could tackle more solid foods and sit upright for longer periods of time without too much blood rushing to my head, and after a week, once the stents were removed, other than the residual bruising, all that was left of the recovery process was occasional sensitivity and daily sinus rinsing.

It’s been almost a year now since I had the procedure and the benefits are definitely noticeable. Part of the reason I decided to move forward with the procedure was that much of the research I had found suggested that the results were life-changing and while that term is rather strong, the surgery resulted in remarkable improvements in my daily life: the quality of my sleep is noticeably better, I do not become tired as frequently during the day, and I’m now capable of breathing through both nostrils and am no longer classified as a ‘mouth-breather’. If you are contemplating getting a septoplasty to improve your nasal passages, I would highly recommend it.

Bargain Shopping – Thrifting

Since I was a kid, my mother has instilled in me a habit of bargain shopping. I have countless memories walking with her down the aisles of TJ Maxx and other discount stores or sifting through clearance sections as she refused to pay full price for what she “knew” she could find for less. Even when she found a bargain, she would haggle for a few extra percent because a button was loose or the color looked faded. At the time, this insistent need to find the best deal was quite bothersome to me (probably because she wouldn’t buy anything for me) but I now find myself on the other side of the table, stacking coupons and habitually thrifting. Its to the point where I will walk by a store I like and even though I may have stopped in just yesterday, I will think to myself, “there must be something new in the clearance section.” Rarely do I pay full price for anything, from electronics to clothing to furniture, using sites such as RetailMeNot or my outdated student ID to receive some form of discount.

I’ve recently established a personal rule to help curb my impulsive buying habits – while I’m permitted to browse, I’m limited to making an actual purchase until the following day. This is meant to prevent any rash decisions and allows me to contemplate the potential purchase, however, the rule seems to break down at thrift stores; I convince myself that if I leave the store, the customer that’s walks in behind me is going to scoop up that antique shelving unit or even worse, I’ll show up the next day and someone will be in line to buy it. Thrifting has become a hobby for me, particularly because NYC is saturated with quality thrift sores.

I typically will check out a few stores over the course of a month but lately, since moving apartments, Ive been in search for new furniture. Often times people will suggest stores like ikea to find reasonably priced furniture, however, a major concern with places like these is that while their furniture may appear nice, the quality breaks down extremely easily. A roommate of mine had a night stand from ikea (~$50) and after only a few months of ‘gentle use’ the door had fallen off and the top became waterlogged and warped. Another friend purchased a new couch from Bob’s Discount Furniture ($500) and not surprisingly, the springs broke rendering the couch more uncomfortable than the hardwood flooring. During my thrifting, I’ve come across dozens of quality couches, nightstands and all sorts of other furniture which are typically higher quality for much less. Oftentimes, the furniture found in thrift stores is made of solid wood using quality carpentry methods such as the dove tail joint (picture 1) while the cheaper options found at low-cost retailers are made of fiberboard wood (picture 2) which depreciates relatively quickly.

 dovetailfiberboard

The one caveat to thrifting is the commitment required to achieve a successful outcome. If you’re looking for a specific item whether it be by size or color, you’re unlikely to stumble upon it, but if you’re open to what you find or are committed to the search process, you’re bound to come across something of interest. I’ve had great success buying quality furniture in a variety of thrift stores and perhaps on a more limited basis, I have found some great second-hand clothing as well including a recent $60 purchase for a blazer which I found online for $900. Below is a list of a few of thrift shops I frequent.

Cure Thrift Shop

Housing Works

Angel Street

Vintage Thrift

East Village

NYC Apartment Hunt

Searching for an apartment in New York could not be more of a pain in the ass. After deciding I was not going to renew my current lease in the middle of July, I first notified my management and immediately began to look for a new apartment for a 9/1 move-in. Turns out the September inventory does not get released until partway through August. This makes sense for listings where the tenant is unsure if they will renew until the last minute (30 days) but why are there not listings any sooner? My current apartment, for example, has now technically been “on the market” for almost a month and its not posted online and has not been shown once. In most cities, management companies pay brokers as an incentive to fill vacancies but in NYC broker fees are most often paid for by the tenant and in some cases they are even paid to brokers who have done NOTHING at all. My building uses an exclusive broker, which means that even if I told my friend there was an opening for a 3-bedroom, showed him the building and he were to then apply, my friend would still have to pay a broker.

I had spent a few months working on an idea with a buddy of mine which I can most easily compare to new site Renthackr which allows users to post listings of their soon to be available apartments. While Renthackr does not solve the problem of brokers in NYC, it is a step in the right direction. Another idea we had come across during our research was JumpPost, which would pay tenants $500 to post their upcoming vacancy. While the founders of JumpPost ended up taking the company in a different direction, they claimed to have early success and decent traction. Sites like these are pioneers for a necessary change and in the meantime there are plenty of apartment listings which dont require paying a broker fee. What Ive discovered however, is that the rent essentially factors in a broker fee. For example, an apartment that would go for $3,500/month using a 15% broker fee would cost $4,025 pro rata; the same apartment listed without a broker would likely rent for around $4K as well. The whole process is a crap shoot but if you’re like me and are morally opposed to paying unnecessary broker fees, here are a few management companies and articles to check out.

Icon Realty

Landmark Resources

Stone Street Properties

Jakobson Properties

Sky Management

Brodsky 

8 No-fee Websites