From the Classroom to the Real World: Tips from a first-time entrepreneur


By Sarah McKinney and John Lehnert, PGS Alumni

Published 9.11.12

This is the first in a 3-part series by Sarah McKinney and John Lehnert.

The MBA program at Presidio Graduate School is designed to integrate sustainability with innovation and entrepreneurship. Students first partner with established companies as consultants, tied to coursework in operations, marketing, strategy and finance. Then, the final semester is dominated by Capstone, which requires the students to create their own business proposal with a clear social or environmental benefit. Many of these proposals will—with hard work and determination—become real ventures. This is the story of one of them.

Part 1 -Moving beyond the classroom

Taking our Capstone project forward wasn’t something I planned to do, but my desire to solve the problem it addresses was too strong to put to rest. As students, we faced the same struggle that professionals in sustainability do: wading through the vast expanses of the internet to find relevant resources and information to solve real-world problems. Our solution, which evolved from our Capstone project, is called AMP. And with a venture plan in hand, we are now launching a crowd-funding campaign to bring it to life.

We’ve likely faced similar challenges and opportunities to the Presidio ventures that came before us. What follows are some key tips, based on what I’ve learned so far.

Stay focused on the problem but remain flexible on the solution.

My Capstone team focused on the challenge of accelerating progress on social and environmental initiatives from within organizations. We wanted to empower sustainability champions with the information they needed to amplify their impact. The original concept was a market research company to track consumer awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, providing a means to foster brand loyalty, and selling that research to generate revenue. It was my idea, and I was pumped.

At our first meeting, however, my other team members requested we consider other solutions. After brainstorming, we shifted to creating a hub for sustainability professionals to exchange best practices. But after extensive research and interviews with our target audience, we learned there were already several membership-based sustainability hubs out there. Yet here we were, at one of the top MBA programs devoted to sustainable business, and even we weren’t aware of these offerings. So we “pivoted” to create a platform where sustainability champions can easily share resources they know about and/or have found helpful, using ratings and reviews to cut through the clutter and minimize redundancies. AMP will become that starting point—and we’ll continue to refine the solution.

Define the solution clearlyso your Mom understands what you’re talking about.

Until people know what you’re trying to do, they really can’t help you. AMP is a collaborative bookmarking site and file exchange for sustainability champions. Think Delicious + Yelp + DocStoc for sustainability. Our mission is to increase engagement and amplify social impact for sustainability professionals. (Make sense? If not, please write us in the comments section.)

Communicating the idea's essence to a broad audience is a challenge, and the best way to do this is through practice. Have each team member articulate the positioning statement and mission. Test it out on people. Revise, tweak…look for analogies but don’t depend on them. The same thing goes for the executive summary, pitch deck, and pitch video. I was fairly liberal sharing these materials and asking for feedback. I even had a storytelling expert provide feedback on our draft video script.

As you work through the language, having passion about the problem you’re trying to solve is helpful. It took me about four months post-Capstone before I was able to attract top-notch talent in John Lehnert, and before hearing consistently supportive feedback from advisors. People will only believe in you if you believe in yourself.

Cast a wide net for help, but use those resources selectively.

Talk non-stop about your business and who you’re looking to meet, so organic introductions occur. If you don’t already love networking, learn to. But stay focused on speaking only with the people you believe will add value. Do some research to make that assessment.

Prepare questions before you speak to advisors, and be respectful of their time in both conversations and emails – don’t ask for more than 30 minutes and keep your emails succinct. Be humble in acknowledging what you don’t know, and be receptive to their input. These people know more than you do, otherwise, you wouldn’t be reaching out. Make sure they talk more than you do, take notes, and use your intuition to apply what to take forward.

Send a thank you within two days, acknowledging what was helpful, and ending with a request for a new introduction (often these people came up in the conversation). Don’t burn any bridges, even with less-likable people. Some of the most helpful advice I’ve received came from people that gave me a really hard time. Keep track of all contacts and dates of connection, and stay in touch with updates (don’t let more than six months pass).

Get comfortable with ambiguity—and persevere.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to being an entrepreneur. It’s a creative process and you need to chart your own path. I’ve found it helpful, however, to look for themes in what I’m reading, hearing and seeing—as these build on each other, I move forward with increased confidence. I attended a talk by Steve Blank at CCA last year, and I remember him saying that successful entrepreneurs are skilled at pattern recognition: they can absorb an extensive amount of external information while not losing touch with their vision.

Lean into the discomfort of not knowing if you’re the next Steve Jobs or totally insane, and have fun learning. The effort itself is admirable, and speaking with commitment and passion about your vision will open doors—regardless of the outcome for this particular venture. As one of my advisors recently stated in an email sign off, in caps, “YOU WILL SUCCEED IF YOU STAY FOCUSED ON THE JOURNEY AND BE OPEN TO WHERE IT TAKES YOU."

Sarah McKinney and John Lehnert, PGS Alumni

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