Behind the scenes with San Francisco startups

Over Thanksgiving break, I helped lead a group of 15 Kellogg MBA students to visit eight startup companies in San Francisco: Zenefits, NerdWallet, StitchFix, Dropbox, HotelTonight, DoubleDutch, ToutApp and Instacart. The trip was a way for us to learn about the well-known Silicon Valley startup culture, network with employers and squeeze in sightseeing of a city many students had never visited.

Raised in the Bay Area and having worked in San Francisco for the previous six years, I thought I knew what to expect from the meetings we set up. I expected — and did hear — terms like: 10x thinking, challenge conventional wisdom, no competition, industry disruption and Ride Together Die Together (seriously). But there were also themes that surprised me. Here are a few:

Value of an MBA

Before going to business school, I read countless articles about whether to get an MBA before joining a startup. Many said the best route is to dive right into a startup and “learn by doing.” Thus, I was surprised to hear that almost all the startups we visited were actively hiring MBAs. In fact, many of the executives we met with also came from the consulting industry. We were told the demand for MBA talent stems from the need for “consumer IQ,” as well as an operational mindset, and the ability to think strategically, analyze data and motivate team members.

Relentless focus on the customer

Every company we met with was aggressively focused on the customer, which reminds me of the first thing I learned in my core marketing class: If you don’t know the answer, ask the customer. DoubleDutch co-founder and CEO Lawrence Coburn discussed his difficult, yet keen decision early on to do one thing really well and focus on that. It would be impossible and expensive to serve multiple markets well. Likewise, he advised that future founders document values early. This was refreshing to hear at a time when the tech industry has received bad PR regarding privacy, data collection and gender discrimination. The focus on values resonates with today’s consumers who are more concerned than ever with corporate social responsibility. For example, HotelTonight doesn’t collect any data it doesn’t need. And NerdWallet CEO Tim Chen recalled sacrificing short-term profits from Google Ads for long-term growth and brand equity.

Big company experience is good

I thought startups would value other startup experience, but it turns out they value big company experience just as much. At StitchFix, a personalized styling platform for women, the executives previously worked at companies like Gap, Old Navy, Macy’s and Sephora. ToutApp recently hired Frank Swain, the former VP of Sales at AppDynamics and Splunk, as Chief Revenue Officer to take the company to the next level. The rationale was that you get formal training at big companies, while at startups you get on the job training with the need for resourcefulness and a sense of urgency.

Here is some other advice we received:

On company fit:

  • The founder dictates the culture
  • Choose your boss carefully
  • Be less worried about role, and more about the company because you will likely move around internally

On interviewing:

  • Know three things to describe yourself, including your values
  • Use the company’s product before you interview
  • Be hungry

On founding:

  • Choose a problem you have yourself, then start a company
  • Winners need to find monopolies, so don’t look for a market with competitors
  • You don’t have a business until you have paying customers
  • If no traction, cut it out quickly

The alumni we met with reinforced the value of Kellogg’s experiential learning opportunities to build our resume while at business school. Private Equity Lab provides hands-on experience with private equity firms, while Venture Lab offers exposure to venture capital firms and their portfolio companies. In “NUvention” courses, students can explore entrepreneurial business concepts in areas such as social impact, medical innovations, energy, web, analytics and nanotechnology. Kellogg even has designated co-working space at 1871 in downtown Chicago where you can work alongside other founders. 

Learn more about experiential learning opportunities at Kellogg.

ToutApp wrote a blog piece about our visit. Read their post.

Luke Murphy is a first-year MBA candidate at Kellogg. He previously was Director of Business Development at Nasdaq in San Francisco, helping private companies set processes to grow efficiently and transition to the public markets. Luke received his B.A. in history from the University of Southern California.

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