In the summer of 2016, Conrad Caplin (EXP-21, ’16) and Michael Longe (EXP-21, ’16) traveled to Chicago to further develop the skillset needed for their recent shift from the corporate world to entrepreneurship. They, like 88 other Executive MBA alumni, were taking advantage of their lifelong opportunity to join current students from the Chicago, London, and Hong Kong campuses for elective courses at Chicago Booth. They had gone into the electives weeks with the expectation of gaining key academic learnings that would help accelerate their progress with their new venture. Not only did they take-away valuable classroom lessons, but the return to Chicago created other opportunities that had a monumental impact on their new business, Pronto CX.
Caplin and Longe met while attending the Executive MBA Program in London. Caplin worked for KPMG at the time, specializing in financial consulting and product management in the Netherlands, London, and Washington DC. Longe had spent his career in the sports industry, having worked or contracted with over 80 stadiums worldwide for organizations such as FIFA and UEFA. During his time in London for the EXP program, Caplin developed an appreciation for NFC – aka “contactless” – technology. He introduced this burgeoning “contactless” technology, which the city of London has been at the forefront of, to Longe, who immediately recognized its huge potential in the sports and entertainment industry. Toward the end of program, at a speakeasy in Washington DC, the idea of Pronto was born. From there, Caplin and Longe got to work analyzing pain points, demand, and competition and validated their idea by interviewing executives, staff, and fans at 25+ venues across Europe and North America.
By June 2016, Pronto was incorporated – with the objective of transforming the fan experience and optimizing venue performance. Pronto is a smart event platform, coupling an app and an NFC wearable or smartcard to integrate ticketing, payments, and other key components of live events to create a seamless experience for fans while increasing revenue, optimizing efficiencies and providing smart fan data for the venues. Analogs include Disney’s MyMagic+ platform and the Starbucks mobile app.
During their time at electives weeks in Chicago, Caplin and Longe gained several insights from courses focused on technology and entrepreneurship, namely Marc Knez’s New Venture Strategy and Technology Strategy courses as well as Commercializing Innovation by Scott Meadow. But this isn’t where the value ended for the two new entrepreneurs. Knez, Meadow, and their TAs each spent personal time guiding the two entrepreneurs outside of class. One of their previous professors, Mike Gibbs, agreed to discuss the business idea and then offered to connect them to other Booth alumni he knew of in similar spaces.
Through Gibbs’ connections, and the deeply supportive Booth alumni community, the Pronto team was introduced to alums in several key areas of expertise including venture capitalists, suppliers, and potential customers. Both Caplin and Longe were impressed by the power of the network, and taken aback by how willing their fellow Booth alumni have been to help. “The Booth network is everywhere. It has been an amazing sounding board and advisor network for us every step of the way,” says Longe. Caplin agrees, citing a powerful commitment from a Booth alum VC who pledged to be “more active and on the streets to help at least 200 founders/entrepreneurs in their journey in however ways I can. Even if it's a 10 minute phone or skype call, I am here for you.”
During electives weeks, Caplin and Longe also approached Professor Waverly Deutsch to gauge whether Pronto’s business idea may be viable for the Global New Venture Challenge [GNVC] competition. They learned that by teaming with current students who shared their vision, they would be able to apply. “I wished I would have had the opportunity to experience the new venture learning process the first time around. One year later, I’m happy to partake in it and share this experience with current students,” comments Longe.
Through conversations held in and out of the classroom, Caplin and Longe got to know Chicago-based students Pradeep Tekkey, Ravi Mahendrakar, and Manisha Singh. They rounded out the team with backgrounds in technology, product management, and financial services respectively, and the current students were keen to team with Pronto to participate in the GNVC competition. After confirming their shared vision and agreeing on roles and responsibilities, they set out to work.
The GNVC experience has been a “real eye-opener” says Caplin. During the course, students form teams to pursue ideas for businesses and receive coaching from Chicago Booth faculty and industry experts. Teams then get the opportunity to present their business models in live pitch sessions in front of investors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.
According to Caplin, “it may seem obvious, but a real value for us was bringing structure to our general activities.” To this day, aside from Professor Deutsch’s “don’t fall in love with your idea” mantra, one of the best pieces of advice Caplin and Longe think they’ve gotten is from Professor Linda Ginzel who taught us that, “if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.”
As only current students are allowed to pitch during GNVC, Caplin and Longe were held to the sidelines until the Q&A portion. But the current students –Tekkey, Singh, and Mahendrakar – successfully pitched to a room of investors at the semi-finals on January 27th. In only twelve minutes of pitching, followed by twelve more of Q&A, they were able to convince judges not only of the prospective market, but also that Pronto’s business model had real potential and that the launch team was uniquely qualified to break through the sport industry’s gatekeepers. The success of the team was a true testament to the possibilities and strength of the program – especially when teamwork between alumni and current students is done right.
True to Chicago Booth form, Caplin and Longe have been constantly pushed by their GNVC launch team to think differently. “Our student team has kept us on our toes by questioning our assumptions, and helping us refine our strategy. They have added a significant amount of insight by applying their respective areas of expertise to the business concept, which is what the executive program is all about,” says Longe.
With Pronto making it to the GNVC Finals, they get to compete against the winners from the Hong Kong and London campuses. Regardless of the outcome, it’s an achievement the whole team is proud of.