Ruchi Talati, '11, and Jennifer Parkes, '11
Booth classmates turned business partners, Ruchi Talati, '11, and Jennifer Parkes, '11, founded Catch22Dating, the online dating service targeting successful graduates and young professionals across the U.S. Determined to pursue their shared goal of entrepreneurship, they utilized the Booth network and education, especially the benefits of rigorous quantitative analysis, to launch the company. Ruchi and Jen cite passion and discipline as key factors for success. Here Ruchi and Jen answer a few questions for CWIBAN.
Q: Tell us about your business. What is your service? What is the target market?
Ruchi: Catch22Dating is an online dating site for young professionals and graduate students from the nation's top undergraduate and graduate programs. We're a community that values education and are different because we verify all of our members' educational backgrounds and put members in control with customized privacy settings. I came up with the concept for Catch22 after my first quarter at Booth. I was having trouble meeting nice, educated men despite living in a big city like Chicago. Being really busy with school was a part of the challenge! Countless conversations with friends and family assured me that I was not the only one finding dating difficult when simultaneously trying to get my career going. One night over winter break, I ventured onto some online dating sites. None of them seemed like the right fit and did not have much luck with the ones I tried out. I thought, if I could, I'd do this differently. Two years later, we welcomed our first members to Catch22.
Q: How did you decide to team up?
Jen: I met Ruchi on our first day of business school and was immediately drawn to her warmth, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm. We eventually became good friends and when she told me about her plans for Catch22Dating I knew I wanted to help and be a part of it. I had always known I wanted to be a part of building and growing something special but, until Catch22 was not sure where to direct my energy. One of the best things that came out of my business school experience was meeting Ruchi and having the opportunity to build something I feel truly passionate about with her. Our complementary styles make our partnership work particularly well. The positive feedback and support we have had about the site from the Booth community and our members has given us the energy to keep striving and pushing to make Catch22 the go-to site for highly educated young professionals and graduate students.
Q: What was your background before school, and why did you decide to attend Booth?
Ruchi: I have wanted to build businesses since high school. I went to the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business for my undergraduate degree (BBA '05) and approached my post-graduation training much like a medical student does his/her rotations. Eager to get a well-rounded business experience, I worked in strategy consulting, mergers and acquisitions and went on to launch my first website. Getting an MBA was always a part of my plan. I wanted to get an MBA to answer questions and explore topics that naturally arose once I got my feet wet. I especially wanted to use my time at Booth to do a deeper dive in marketing and entrepreneurship, areas I knew I would pursue following graduation.
Jen: I have always been drawn to the excitement and challenge of working in business. I went to the University of Richmond's business school for my undergraduate degree and worked in economic consulting in Boston after school. I learned a ton about different businesses, finance, valuation, and how to approach problems during my time in Boston but, I realized that I wanted to be directly responsible for building and growing a business. I saw attending University of Chicago's Booth School of Business as an ideal place to better learn how, especially when it came to strategy and marketing. I knew that getting my MBA would give me exposure to new people and ideas while also giving me the confidence to follow my dreams. I saw it as a long-term investment and an opportunity to gain broader perspective while developing myself both professionally and personally.
Q: How have your experiences at Booth helped you to launch a business?
Ruchi: My Booth MBA provided me with a great network of fellow entrepreneurs, provided me theory as well as practice in wide array of disciplines, and taught me to be structured and data-driven in my approach. Importantly, through my Booth experience, I also gained a terrific business partner and lifelong friend in Jennifer Parkes. In launching Catch22, Jen and I were lucky to have had exposure to Booth's cutting edge coursework and resources. For example, the Polsky Center and Booth's Entrepreneurial Internship Program were tremendously supportive and provided me with a grant to work on Catch22 for my summer internship. We also benefited from our network of friends and classmates. Jen and I love to apply lessons from our MBA to Catch22, especially allowing the data and rigorous research to help drive decision-making. We're constantly drawing from our education and work experiences because the demands of a start-up are so diverse: solidifying our marketing strategy and messaging, designing and testing a new feature of our website, analyzing the results of our online ad campaigns, managing our team of developers, evaluating partnership opportunities. Booth taught us to challenge the status quo, to never settle. We love Booth's influence on Catch22: we're constantly seeking to improve the site and constantly learning in the process.
Jen: Both Ruchi and I really value the experiences we had inside and outside the classroom at Booth. Our classes provided a very solid grounding for how to run a data-driven business while the diverse friendships and connections we made outside the classroom gave us even more perspective on how Catch22Dating could meet the needs of highly educated graduate students and young professionals. We strongly believe in listening to the voice of our customers and target market by being disciplined in gathering and analyzing data and also by just getting on the phone or sitting down to talk to people using the site. Our Booth experiences also taught us the importance of careful positioning - we knew that how we defined our position in the marketplace would be the ultimate foundation on which we would build the business. In fact, we relied heavily on the Booth community to help us nail down our positioning using surveys, focus groups and lots of one-on-one conversations with our Booth friends. We owe a lot to the Booth community for supporting us and for helping us launch the site and we will always be grateful for that.
Q: Where do you see the business in five years? Ten years?
Jen: We see Catch22 as the go-to site for educated young professionals and graduate students across the United States. Ruchi and I have both experienced how difficult it can be to meet the right people as a young professional. From our own experiences and from the experiences of our close friends, we believe there is a clear need and desire for a trusted community that brings educated young professionals and graduate students that may have never otherwise met. We whole-heartedly believe Catch22 can do a lot of good by meeting this need and believe we are well on our way to making our vision a reality.
Q: What advice would you give to students or alumnae interested in starting their own businesses?
Ruchi: Define what success means for you and find your passion project. The thing you believe in, that you find important and fulfilling. Then, build a team and strategy around that vision. That has influenced how I do things and is what Catch22 is all about. Starting your own business is hard work, even when you love what you do. But, if you believe in what you do and if your team believes in what you do, then that fuel will keep you and the business going even if things get tough. At Catch22, we believe in community and helping each other out. We care that the site actually works for our members and are passionate about helping make great connections that may have never otherwise happened. That's what keeps us going and keeps us constantly working on ways to improve Catch22. Dating can be tricky but it doesn't have to be.
Jen: Be disciplined and data-driven but also know when to trust your gut and intuition. One of the biggest things that Ruchi and I have had to balance is when to be patient and when to push the envelope. It has been essential for us to identify what to prioritize and what to put on the backburner because building a business with a solid foundation takes time. For example, our team and our members have lots of ideas for how we can continually improve the site and our services but we have to balance the energy we spend updating the site with the energy we spend on our marketing efforts and on working to streamline our business processes. This is the part of running a business that is harder to learn in a classroom. It takes a combination of knowing your target market very well, being true to your word and positioning, good intuition and some common sense. In this area, an MBA can give you confidence but in my experience cannot give you a clear guide. Instead, in these cases, we've tried to hone our instincts, run ideas by our closest friends and also test ideas in the market.