Startup Lessons Learned at Haas

by Aaron Schwartz, Founder and CEO of Modify Watches

Vijesh Unnikrishnan and I had dinner during the fall of our first year at Haas. Over an inexpensive and delicious meal at Biryani House in Downtown Berkeley, he suggested a better way to sell and distribute bottled water. The meal turned into one of the more passionate, inspiring discussions I’d ever had. Two months later, four of Haas MBA 2010’ers– Vijesh, myself,  Nicole Ballin and Ari Beliak – decided to create Refill Revolution during Jerry Engel and John Danner’s Introductory Entrepreneurship class, 295.

All four of us have found success since graduating (i.e. we’re not chumps!). Vijesh is a successful consultant at PWC, Nicole is the COO at UpEnergy, Ari is at Bank of America working in affordable housing and economic development and I’ve been working on Modify Watches for three years. We’re all still good friends too, and the two of us who stuck with Refill eventually sold it for a bit of equity in an ongoing business, True2O.com. So it wasn’t all bad.

But from day-one, the mistakes had already started

Mistake #1: 4 MBAs. None of us had a technical background. Nicole and Ari had success in finance, Vijesh had been at Boston Scientific and had a patent to his name, and I was a super generalist (history major and management consultant). We debated frequently, and everyone brought a unique perspective – but maybe not unique enough. We needed someone who could build our product, instead we got four smart people who could think about it.

Mistake #2: We waited for permission. Our business eventually pivoted from hardware to software (note: we still didn’t have engineers). We then narrowed our focus to gamifying sustainability, and strove to have people declare their sustainable actions through social networks. The big idea was that we could reward good behavior, friends would see that reward, and then they would be green too. Awesome idea. But we waited 3 months to even launch a live version on campus, because we thought it would be against the school policy to set up a program. Then our professor (and one of my best ongoing advisers) Dave Charron  said, “No one is going to fine you. No one cares. I don’t understand why you haven’t started.” So we started, and learned really quickly.

Mistake #3: No business model.  This one should be pretty self-explanatory, but it’s not obvious. We planned to grow a huge fanbase. There was a feel-good element, social sharing and a passionate team. But we didn’t have a revenue model. Without funding – which we couldn’t get – we were dead-on-arrival.

Mistake #4: We didn’t declare, nor test, our hypotheses. We didn’t quite get this until we took Steve Blank and Eric Ries’ class at the end of our second year –when it was too late. As an entrepreneur, you need to test and iterate. Your initial ideas, without fail, are wrong. The onus is on you to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can, to build a successful company. If you haven’t yet, click on the links above and read everything those two write.

Mistake #5: We never celebrated our successes. I learned so many invaluable lessons through Refill. I became a better teammate, worked with a development shop for the first time, realized that the only way to get success in a startup was to focus 100% of your attention on it and built great friendships. It is only now, a few years after the business ended, that we reminisce about our great experiences. Starting a company is really difficult, make time to enjoy it.

There are plenty more mistakes that I could highlight. The best advice that I can give to an aspiring entrepreneur is to just start. While you might not encounter the same issues we did, you will certainly run into some obstacles. The key is to work hard and be humble, knowing that you’re going to screw up. Just start, and you’ll be able to speed up your entrepreneurial learning curve immensely.

Aaron Schwartz, Haas FTMBA 2010, is the founder and CEO at Modify Industries, Inc., which designs interchangeable custom watches known as Modify Watches. Modify has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Instyle.com, Men’s Health and more; and they have customized watches for Google, Microsoft, Shutterfly, Haas and other brands and non-profits.