By David Costello (2Y 2019, Zell Fellow Alumnus)
If I hadn’t decided to get an MBA, I wouldn’t be the Founder of Kengos. While it certainly isn’t necessary to have an MBA to start a company, for me it was a game changer. Going back to school full-time after seven years post-grad hit the reset button on my career and provided me with the time, mental headspace and resources to reflect on my professional journey thus far and chart a new course going forward.
As far as building a business goes, I was able to tap into the wide plethora of resources that Kellogg (and the greater Northwestern community) had to offer to help me figure out if entrepreneurship was the right way forward. During my time on campus, I learned to first clarify the problem you’re solving before all else and to structure the very early stages of company building. I also got to see what the life of a founder was really like.
Kellogg resources for entrepreneurship
The idea for Kengos — creating a truly sustainable shoe brand that leveraged natural materials to make footwear a force for good in the fight against climate change — first took form in a class called New Venture Discovery, which I took with Professor David Schonthal. Throughout the 10 weeks of this course, my classmates and I were pushed to get out of the building, find who we thought our target customer was, and interview them to learn more about the problem we thought we were solving. These early customer interviews proved to be invaluable because, without spending a dollar on product development or branding, we were able to gain early insights into who our customer was, what type of product they want, and what problem they are ultimately working to solve. Since this experience, my team and I have maintained a consistent focus on our customer throughout the entire brand and product development process.
Building a business is messy. The Zell Fellows Program, an on-campus accelerator program focused on developing early stage founders, provided structure to the messiest part of the process: the very, very early stages. For my entire second year on campus I was fortunate enough to receive constant support and coaching from former founders on how to methodically work through the business building process. I learned how to finance an early stage company, how (and from where) to recruit early team members, how to set up a legal entity, etc. While there are plenty of free resources out there on all of these subjects, having experienced entrepreneurs by your side as you navigate these early stages proved to be an invaluable resource.
Prior to business school, I did not know anyone who had started a venture backed company. The lifestyle of someone who chooses to follow this career path was a mystery to me and, as I started seriously considering taking this avenue for my career post-business school, something I needed to demystify. The Zell Fellows Program provided me with access to founders around the Chicago startup ecosystem. I was able to sit down with founders from a wide variety of startups, across industries and stages, in small, intimate groups and ask them just about anything. Over the course of these meetings, I was able to get a real glimpse inside their day to day life—an insight which ultimately proved critical in helping me decide to take the plunge into entrepreneurship full time.
Building a sustainable business
Since graduating 22 months ago, I have taken these lessons forward with me and built upon them. Most importantly, I built out a fantastic early team that is passionate about building our business and creatively tackling problems every day. Together, we have built our initial supply chain, initial group of investors, and forged a path forward through a global pandemic. We executed a beta test, a pilot test, hundreds of consumer interviews, and incorporated all of these insights into our brand and product development.
Today, we are taking a substantial step forward launching our first shoe style, the Lace-Up, nationwide. We developed a new take on eco-conscious footwear with a shoe made of only five plant-based components that are bound together by hand without the use of glue or chemicals. This construction allows the shoe to be disassembled and recycled at the end of its useful life, eliminating waste and closing the loop of our supply chain. The Lace-Up is unique, comfortable, and truly sustainable, delivering on my original goal. I am proud of what my team’s hard work has resulted in. You can see more of our story at www.kengos.com.