Booth Startup Trek: Stories from the Trenches of Entrepreneurship
By Diana Zink '14 | january, 2013, Issue 1
Diana Zink And Joanne Chen chat about entrepreneurship over lunch while in the Bay Area for Booth's annual winter Startup Trek.
Are you the type of person who can jump off a cliff and assemble an airplane on the way down? We heard LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman's signature question quoted more than once during this winter's Startup Trek as two dozen Chicago Booth students met Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and listened to their stories. Of the 35 companies we visited in the Bay Area, a handful had Harper Center roots, many had University of Chicago alumni at their helms and some had even used New Venture Challenge insights to proceed through YCombinator and raise millions in funding. Yet the connection we felt with our hosts was not only an academic affiliation but a shared spark: the desire to grow a business and make a difference. We were all entrepreneurs at heart, either staring ahead at the cliff or scrambling mid-flight.
Entrepreneurship is contagious and humbling, and its spirit tangibly permeates the Valley. The message "Start something when you are young" echoed from our meetings daily during the week-long trek. For some of our hosts, success came after years of trying, others made cereal boxes to keep the company alive during rough times and still others witnessed entrepreneurs abandoning their own ideas to form new teams in the middle of YCombinator. For those who worked toward their MBAs while founding their own companies, this decision meant leaving recruiting behind and committing to their startups even when their bank accounts could cover only two months' worth of living expenses upon graduation. Some MBA grads chose to learn how to code from scratch to bootstrap their products. Yet, everyone we met was full of energy, fulfillment and passion. The excitement was palpable.
Through my own experience so far, I can say that choosing to start a business during my MBA education reduces some of the usual entrepreneurship anxieties -- but causes others. Classes seem more relevant because you can apply the insights immediately. Everyone -- from professors to strangers -- is willing to give you their time and support. You bask in satisfaction with every little accomplishment. Time is always short. You fear that you are putting your education, friends, wallet or business in danger in single or paired permutations, depending on the hour of the day. Everything ordinary becomes extraordinary. If FOMO is an inevitable part of MBA life, the risk of it doubles for MBA entrepreneurs. You are not recruiting while most of your classmates spend a good deal of their time doing that. You guilt-trip yourself every time you are not progressing in your business, and that comes on top of a number of friends and family members already thinking you might be crazy for trading-off a six-figure salary for guaranteed poverty lasting between two years and a decade, if you are lucky. We have a choice. MBAs know their alternatives and can always go back and make a lot more money with a paycheck. How long would you stick around for an idea instead of cold-hard cash in hard times?
Indeed, from what we learned on the Startup Trek, our choice all comes down to commitment. A successful entrepreneur is one who persists and does whatever it takes (within the limits of the law) to pull through: Someone who can attract the best talent and inspire them for years, while he/she is serving as chief janitor, coffee gopher or self-taught developer, depending on the hour of the day. Which is why when I pass the "Why are you here and not somewhere else?" art installation daily at the Harper Center, I am grateful for Chicago Booth. The school and the people I have met here continue to amaze me daily and provide me with every tool in the book I could ask for as I build my startup ( http://Giv.ee ) until 3 or 4 a.m. every night. The people who are here are here for a reason. We have a spark and a mission, and we are getting an education that will help us put together an "airplane," a "flight crew" or whatever transport mechanism it takes us to get our teams and companies there in one piece, one or 10 years from now. Chicago Booth's discipline-based approach and passion-driven people are made for that.