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.

Four Industries that will Benefit from Virtual Reality 

Virtual Reality: Year 0    

The origins of Virtual reality trace back to the 1950s, but VR technology has experienced significant advancements, drawing the attention the leaders in technology including Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC and even Apple has started to test the waters. Historically, when you said ‘Virtual Reality’ many people thought of science fiction, but so much has changed since Facebook’s $2 billion dollar acquisition of Oculus Rift – perhaps the most well-known VR headset, which at the time of the acquisition didn’t seem like much more than a successful Kickstarter campaign for a pair of glasses and a plastic box held together with masking tape. According to Neville Spiteri, CEO of WEVR, the number of head mounted displays (HMD) could triple by the end of the year as hardware companies release consumer versions such as Oculus Rift, Samsung GearVR and others.

Currently, much of the focus of VR is on entertainment and gaming; Facebook struck a deal with Lionsgate and 21st Century Fox to offer movies in what will be there attempt at a VR iTunes, the Oculus Store. Neftlix, Hulu, Twitch and others are all planning to offer streaming video services. Similarly, and perhaps the most advanced developments have been in the gaming world. Driven in part by the Unity Game Engine, companies like Kongregrate have been able to develop lifelike video games. While most of the current applications are consumer-focused, there is a significant market opportunity to address the commercial markets. Below are four industries beyond entertainment that will benefit substantially from the use of virtual reality in the years to come.

1. Real Estate

Virtual reality has many practical applications in real estate and will help provide technological advancements to an industry that has not benefited too much from innovation in recent years. Floored allows real estate developers to create simulations of properties to show potential clients before the development is constructed. This allows firms to increase occupancy rates earlier, having tenants bare some of the upfront development costs. Matterport, which recently closed a $30M round led by Qualcomm, has developed a relatively affordable ($4,500) 360-view camera that allows brokers and developers to film real estate property that they can then show potential clients using a virtual simulation. IrisVR has created software that allows architects to easily transform their 3D models into a virtual simulation that they can then show to prospective clients. Companies using VR will have a competitive advantage as they look to differentiate themselves through the eyes of their clients (that was a VR pun).

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2. Healthcare

With the size and attractiveness of the market coupled with the desire for companies to apply innovation wherever possible, the healthcare industry should experience significant advancements driven by increased utilization of VR. For the past few decades, there’s been a growing interest in utilizing VR in clinical settings such as therapeutic treatments for PTSD, phobias and even severe pain in burn victims. Imagine instead of having a patient lying on a couch as a therapist verbally walks them through a scenario, the patient can put on a VR headset and operate within a predetermined and relevant simulation. Companies like Virtually Better are creating content that allows therapists to provide a safe and controlled environment to more interactively treat their patients. Using VR for medical education and training is another application that could greatly reduce costs and increase outcomes. For example, according to an article in Fortune, 65,000 elderly care facilities in America spend on average $3,000 per employee to learn tracheal insertion procedures. Next Galaxy is developing a VR simulation that would eliminate the need to travel to specialized training facilities, reducing the cost to only $40 per employee.

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3. Travel and Leisure

Companies such as Marriott are using VR to create virtual simulations for guests, allowing users to step into Marriott locations around the world from one of their VR phone booths. Marriott has been testing many new and innovative concepts to keep up with the ‘modern travelers’ needs.’ Similarly, companies like YouVisit are producing virtual travel experiences, working with large travel agencies to promote what they call “try it before you buy it,” allowing travelers to experience a service or destination before the purchase a vacation package. Landmark Entertainment is in the process of creating VR Theme Parks across China as well as a virtual world’s fair. While the applications related to travel are still early, the opportunity seems to exist and perhaps in the future, virtual travel will be a popular alternative to jetsetting.

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4. Education       

Growing up, I didn’t have iPads or technologies beyond a VCR and the original Mac in the classroom, but future generations will benefit substantially from new technologies including VR. The use of technology in schools has become quite mainstream and we can expect this trend to continue as new offerings become available – enter VR educational simulations. Imagine you get to experience the signing of the declaration of independence instead of simply reading about it in your textbook. Or imagine you can travel to ancient Egypt and experience the culture and political ecosystems instead of watching a PBS special. SunriseVR has begun developing educational content for the classroom including a field trip to space and a simulation to help students understand the human body on a cellular level. SpaceVR is planning to launch a camera rig into space aboard a resupply mission in December, offering paying subscribers a chance to view space through a VR headset. I was at a hackathon where a team was working on taking video footage of a class and converting it to a VR simulation. With the recent interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as edX and Coursera, which create accessibility to education that was never before possible, these sites will now be able to offer interactive content in VR. The applications in education are seemingly endless.

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Many of these commercial applications exist but the necessary hardware and relevant content have not been made readily available. With the technology evolving so rapidly and becoming more immersive everyday, expect to see more and more companies establish internal VR strategies and many new companies begin to offer VR products with commercial applications.

If you’re interested in VR, shoot me an email (dennis.lally@sloan.mit.edu) and follow me on twitter (@denchenzo)!

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.