Post-GSB life in a startup

A common question for a recent B-school grad: What are you going to do now?

In true Stanford entrepreneurship style, I’m working on a startup with a couple classmates. In fact, here’s my first public blog post for Hinted.

What’s Hinted? Why feedback?

The one common factor that all the Sloan / MSx students will have – they’re at Stanford GSB for a reason. They are looking to improve themselves, to prepare themselves for a major change. Whether that’s starting a new company, taking over a family business, climbing a corporate ladder or ascending a government empire – the desire is to prepare or learn how to break through to that next level of management. Let’s face it – most managers get stuck in middle management. Business schools focusing on general management teach you how to think like an executive – and hopefully how to break through to the executive ranks.

But, in the process of doing all this, students are not able to gain these new skills and expand their horizons without some serious self-awareness and introspection. To truly excel and reach new heights, you can’t treat graduate school like simply checking a box – it is really about deeply understanding your own strengths and weaknesses – then learning how to leverage your strengths and bolster your weaknesses.

Hinted is all about that journey of self-awareness. Stanford GSB (and probably most graduate schools) is a fantastic place to get feedback – we’re often taught that “feedback is a gift.” But even with this open mentality, feedback is often not timely, a pain-in-the-ass (for the giver), superficial and not actionable. We want to change that by making feedback a continuous process, a very easy thing to give and with a time-dimension to show you actual results of your efforts.

Not everyone out there has the opportunity to spend a year or two in B-school (or any other grad school). That’s why we want to share tools like Hinted – and the open feedback attitude – with everyone.

Startup 101:

Winter and Spring quarters: We took our idea through Prof. Rohan’s STRAMGT 321: Create a New Venture: From Idea to Launch class. Pre-formed teams (can be MBA, MSx or any other Stanford student) with a venture idea apply for this class, usually in groups of 3-5 students. Prof. Rohan uses Stanford’s methods to force you to explore as many avenues of your proposed venture as possible. Often, teams will find that their first idea runs out of steam too quickly – they can either fake it and run through the paces, make minor adjustments to their idea or radically pivot to a new concept. This class was a great opportunity to do some research, try different ideas, talk to potential users and prototype a feedback tool with some guinea pigs (our MSx classmates). He also connects you with investors with experience in your field to give additional suggestions and guidance (except in the rarest instances, they’re not really there to invest in your class project ideas.

After graduation: It was time to decide if we were going to continue and make a genuine effort at a real startup. Before graduation, it is simply too easy to say “yes” and not really mean it – or to simply use the prospects of working on a startup to procrastinate a bonafide job search. That’s why it makes sense that so many fabled startups begin with someone dropping out of school – it forces you to focus and get real very quickly. We were very lucky – our entire class project team decided to move forward and we’re now all working together as Hinted’s founding management team.

Where are we now: In the few weeks since graduation, we signed our first official customer,  acquired an awesome domain name, interviewed 4 law firms (and selected WilmerHale because they have an awesome startup package), incorporated and started our social media campaign (albeit we are still very stealthy). More updates to follow as we accomplish some more cool milestones…

Erik Wittreich building our whiteboard frames

Erik Wittreich building our whiteboard frames

Randy Sternke putting wisdom on the new whiteboards

Randy Sternke putting wisdom on the new whiteboards

Let me know if you find this helpful, interesting or have any questions / feedback for me. I’m personally blogging because I want more candidates to become aware of the awesome mid-career degree program at Stanford GSB – the MSx program doesn’t have nearly the publicity it deserves. Because of my experience, I’m more open to feedback now than ever before – please ask if I can help you make your decision to come to Stanford!



Autumn Quarter – Squeeze in Electives

Can't remember why they evacuated us...

Can’t remember why they evacuated us…

This post is very tardy, but wanted to get this posted before the Class of 2015 MSx’ers make their final decisions for Autumn Quarter class registration.

This was a 22 credit quarter for me (aka Club 22) – many students strongly suggest not loading up so heavily, but while I found it definitely made for a busy schedule, it was quite manageable. In fact, given the two electives that I chose, I would not have changed a thing – was a great selection of “must-have” classes based on why I came to GSB. Keep in mind that not everyone will have the same priorities, so don’t feel like you need to duplicate my choices…

Academics – MSx Core:

Academics – GSB Electives:

MSx CORE CURRICULUM: The core load in Autumn was still quite heavy – lots of pre-requisite skills to get out of the way before diving head-first into self-directed studies. I found that many of my classmates had deep understanding in one or more of these areas, but few had great depth across the board. Before GSB, I was more of an Technology Infrastructure generalist, so I had a fair amount of experience in all these areas – but very little depth, especially in quant-focused subjects such as Accounting and Finance. Was looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of these topics, but pretty much walked away only knowing how to speak the language and what are the right questions to be asking of professionals in the field. So, in short, I now know (only) how to hire good accounting and finance people (and maybe how to keep an eye on them)…

Accounting: Prof. Ed DeHaan was by far the most broadly appreciated professor in our core curriculum. At the end of the academic year, he was voted our MSx most-favorite professor by our cohort. This accounting class specifically covered Financial Accounting (as opposed to Managerial Accounting).

Personally, I didn’t appreciate the difference between Financial and Managerial Accounting until we dove into the subject matter – but now I get it. Financial Accounting focuses on production (or analysis) of financial reports – whether for internal or external (e.g. shareholders, creditors, banks, public markets, regulators, etc.) consumption. You’ll get brief exposure to GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) and how financial reporting contents can be used to determine the behavior and health of a company.

Incidentally, one of my favorite GSB electives was Prof. Lee’s ACCT 340: Alphanomics: Informational Arbitrage in Equity Markets – even though I was probably poorly prepared for this class… This was probably my most quant-focused elective. If you think you will take Alphanomics, make sure you pay particular attention to the core Financial Accounting class – you will definitely see that material again!

Finance: For me, this was by far the most difficult MSx core class. I knew just enough of the subject matter that I went into the class rather cavalier about learning the material, but clearly didn’t know Finance well enough to truly excel in the coursework. This class really focused on valuation of financial assets, how to choose between debt and equity and how financial markets affect the operations of a given firm.

Prof. Strebulaev always started the class with a story, joke or brain teaser exercise – this made the class fairly lighthearted and enjoyable. But I also know that many of my classmates feel like they didn’t learn as much as they wanted. This is truly different from the experience of the Sloan Class of 2013 – in contrast, that class voted Prof. Strebulaev as their most-favorite professor of the year. In particular, this curriculum was useful to me because I will undoubtedly need to use it when raising capital for future startup endeavors (e.g. Hinted).

Organizational Behavior: Prof. Frank Flynn is a favorite lecturer across the GSB. He is probably one of the best and most charismatic speakers we had in class. He clearly achieves this through careful scripting and meticulous crafting of his lectures – both his message and delivery are likely to be 99.5% identical from one section to the next. He also makes the effort to learn every student’s name – he will ask you to remove your name cards so he does not become reliant on them and by the second or third session, he will know everyone by name. Impressive

He should definitely be a presentation role model – but that comes with some obligations on the students’ side… DO NOT BE LATE to his classes. He absolutely hates tardiness and would prefer that you not be there at all. Don’t expect to get an H in this class unless you can nail the final exam. He (or his graders) will expect you to remember and quote the frameworks and other materials studied in class.

This class covered the psychology of how people work with each other in organizations. Learning how organizations communicate and function can help managers understand if their companies are well-functioning or in need of repair. For startups, it is probably more helpful in the growth stages than in the really early formation stages – but this will certainly help us design the right corporate culture as we move forward. A lot of what we covered in class is also the basis of the “Feedback is a Gift” mentality that we embraced for our new startup.

Strategy: Due to the retirement of Prof. Roberts, this class is currently undergoing a curriculum revamp. Prof. Oyer will undoubtedly take this class in a different direction, hopefully updating the examples used in the class to more modern case studies. While it was a great class taught in a very practical method, it would certainly make the class more interesting and engaging to have more current examples.

In this class, we mostly learned using group projects to get a little “hands-on” experience, researching globalization opportunities and how our selected companies would hypothetically enter new markets. My group opted to investigate Square and a hypothetical international expansion into Mexico. This class builds on MSx summer courses Strategy Beyond Markets, Marketing, Accounting, Finance, Microeconomics and introduces a few Macroeconomics issues – which makes this into a pretty good “bring-it-all-together” kind of experience.

GSB Electives: The number of core classes in Autumn Quarter makes it very challenging to insert electives from “across the street” (e.g. non-GSB classes). There just aren’t large enough blocks of contiguous time to easily fit classes with widely varying start times. If you’re trying to add just one across-the-street elective and no GSB electives, you can probably make it happen. But keep in mind that the core classes also have a pretty heavy workload…

Formation of New Ventures: This might have been my single-most favorite class — and teaching team — at GSB. Unlike the core classes, many of the electives are taught by Lecturers (e.g. industry practitioners instead of PhD academics) instead of full-time faculty. My section of this class was taught by Rob Siegel (Stanford MBA ’94) and Scott Brady (Stanford Sloan ’00).

Rob and Scott make a fantastic teaching team – both of them have “been there and done that” with every respect to technology startups. Hearing their perspectives – and finding ways to apply that to my past experiences – was particularly useful to me.

This class is taught in the Stanford case-study + guest speaker format. The case study part is not terribly different from what you would experience in any business school. You read a case study before class and discuss the merits, with respect to the lesson objectives, in class with the professor moderating a mostly student discussion. However, the big departure and the unique Stanford GSB value-add is the guest speaker portion of the class. After an in-depth discussion of the case (in front of the entrepreneur who was featured in the case study), the guest speaker is invited to address the student discussion points, present their own unique POV or address the class in their own style. How often to you get the chance to not only read about how to become a billionaire, but then have the chance to talk directly to the entrepreneur who did it, ask them what they would do differently and tell them all the things they did wrong?

In a nutshell – great class.

Angel & VC: The primary difference between this class and STRAMGT 353 is the POV. While STRAMGT 353 is taught from the perspective of the entrepreneur, FINANACE 385 is taught from the perspective of the investor. Prof. Ilya Strebulaev (yes, same instructor as my core Finance class) co-teaches this class with investor extraordinaire Theresia Gouw (Stanford MBA ’94, Aspect Ventures, previously w/ Accel Venture Partners). This partnership works incredibly well – you get a mixture of approaches from both an academic and a real-life practitioner. I think this class puts the core Finance class in perspective – all the lessons learned about capitalization, valuation, etc. all come into real practice as you analyze real-life term sheets and see the different options preferred by different investor styles.

This class is equally engaging and also taught in the Stanford case-study + guest speaker format – but the guest speakers are angel investors, venture capitalists, startup attorneys and bankers. Again, you get the opportunity to read a case from the investor’s POV, then interact with actual investors to see if they came to the same conclusions.


Re-re-starting blog…

I had no appreciation for how difficult it would be to maintain a regular blog. Clearly this is in itself a full-time job!

So many of the current cohort (MSx 2015) had said it was useful to read what I had wrote, so I’m going to try and complete my original vision of documenting my year at GSB.

But, before I do that, here’s the latest:

June 14-15 was graduation weekend for Stanford Class of 2014. As far as I know, everyone in our Sloan / MSx class graduated. Since then, many of our international classmates have returned to their home countries, with only a few staying here – several have found jobs all over the US and have started their new adventures.

There are at least 4 startups that I am aware of from our class. These startups cover the following industries:

  • Luxury Food
  • Medical Devices
  • Education Technology
  • Social Feedback (the team I am working on)

I’m working on with 2 classmates. We are creating a platform for users to give and receive feedback from their professional and personal social networks. Working through the Stanford Venture Studio, we were able to secure office space and are now working to complete our first public version.

I’m also getting ready to launch my first Kickstarter campaign. During Winter quarter, I spent a huge amount of time in the Mechanical Engineering Product Realization Lab for ME 318 – Computer Aided Manufacturing. While this class was a huge distraction from GSB studies, it was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study with some of the brightest Engineering students. As part of that class, I designed and developed a new type of wallet made from a single piece of milled aluminum. I’m calling it the Decadent Minimalist.

Ironically, Kickstarter just posted this article: Why are there so many wallets on Kickstarter?

Stanford and PRL methods encouraged me to look at this problem from a completely different angle – so I really think I have the first revolutionary wallet design to hit Kickstarter. Most of the front-pocket wallets projects involve two metal plates held together with rubber bands – that was exactly what I was trying to avoid making.

Drop me a line if you find this idea intriguing – or, better yet, support my Kickstarter campaign when it launches. I’ll post a link here to keep you updated.

No longer a student, but always a Sloanie… 


On-stage for Class of 2015

I’m presenting to the incoming MSx Class of 2015!

I remember being here a year ago and soaking up everything they had to say… Today, I’m the alumni sharing my experiences with Herbert Yang (Sloan ’13), Michelle Morris (Sloan ’14) and Mary Jacobsen (Sloan ’14).

I only hope that I said something useful to the incoming students.

In general, my advice to incoming students would be:

Take your obligations to your classmates seriously, but don’t take yourself very seriously

It is important to realize that study groups (summer quarter in particular) are often pre-set groups that you have no control over. Work hard to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone in the group. You need to quickly understand that you are not the center of the universe – so being late or missing group meetings is not acceptable behavior. I happened to be very lucky summer quarter – our group was very easy going but also was very serious about getting our assignments done with high quality results and projects were always completed on time. Not everyone will be this fortunate, but even if your group doesn’t gel quickly, don’t be the guy that makes the group unnecessarily unpleasant.

Front-load your GPA

Let’s be honest – GPA is not terribly important at Stanford GSB and is particularly not important in the Sloan / MSx program, unless you don’t make the minimum GPA to graduate. The entire GSB is graded on a forced curve – so professors must balance grades in the class. Sure, everyone can get a “P” then no one needs to receive an “LP” – but it never works out that way. It is actually quite easy for them to spot the high and low performers in the class – but the middle gets very mushy. And occasionally, grading will feel entirely arbitrary… So, to avoid that becoming an issue in your last quarter (when you might not have the flexibility to add a class you really want to take because your GPA is in the toilet), make sure you get as high a GPA as possible in the summer quarter. Then, you can relax and never worry about it again…

Plan, plan, plan all the classes you want to take for the entire year — but remain flexible

The Stanford GSB registration process is not entirely terrible and has a few interesting twists (like super-round) that works pretty well in helping you get a least a couple of your most wanted classes. However, you need to consider that several “must have” classes are only offered in one quarter per year. Also, if you are incorporating classes from “across the street” in other schools (such as Engineering, Law, Medicine, etc.), class times / days often don’t align neatly with GSB schedules. So, if you have a “must have” Engineering class, be prepared to deal with schedule conflicts that couple wipe out 2 or 3 possible GSB class times.

After planning out your entire year, remain flexible. It is impossible for you to learn the entire course catalog and understand your educational priorities with 100% accuracy in the first few weeks of class. Inevitably, you will learn of a class that you might want to take – don’t be afraid to reexamine (and possible rearrange) your entire schedule when that happens. Take the classes that you will find most useful and enjoyable – don’t take classes just because they fit neatly into your schedule.

Get over FOMO as quickly as possible

The Class of 2013 told this to us, and I will repeat it to future classes. You need to understand that you will NOT be able to do everything. During the summer quarter, the pace is quick – but the MSx’ers are the only students at GSB, so it seems like you’ll be able to join every club, drink at every FOAM, get “H”s across the board and take 3 Engineering classes per quarter. WRONG!

As soon as the MBAs and other students around campus arrive, the pace of events will be unbelievably fast and will inevitably conflict, forcing you to decide which is more important. The first couple times this happens, you will be devastated that you can’t make both events. Or worse, you’ll leave one event early to run to the other event.

AVOID THAT TEMPTATION!! The sooner you get over FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), the sooner you will be able to rationalize and prioritize your schedule and get real value out of these events. And it will be far less stressful too!

Strongly consider getting across-the-street

Some of the best classes I took last year were not even in the GSB. The selection of across-the-street classes will be very individual – so don’t try to convince your GSB classmates to take Engineering classes they have no interest in taking. But DO decide which classes you might be interested in taking as early as possible. Many graduate classes have a long list of pre-requistites – these can often be waived if you just take the time to go speak with the professor.

Enjoy yourself

The one thing that I never forgot – I was here to have the time of my life. It was a short 11 month journey back to topics, classes, discussions and opportunities that I would have no other way to explore. Stanford is an unique place – take advantage of it! But most importantly, make sure you’re having a good time – otherwise you’re probably not doing something right.