During visits to companies such as MyFitnessPal, co-founded by Haas 2004 MBA Albert Lee, students heard first-hand about the struggles and lessons in starting up a company. The company makes an app for tracking diet and exercise, and was bought by sport-clothing titan Under Armour in February 2015 for “an incredible amount of money,” Lee said.
That success was a long way from the early stages following the company’s launch seven years ago. Lee and his team knew they had to go mobile-friendly, and they knew just the person to do the job for them. “We couldn’t even hire the guy because we didn’t have enough money,” Lee recalled. “We ended up, we paid him two days a week. As we got more revenue we’re like, ‘Hey, we can pay you for one more day.’ We eventually transitioned him to full time.”
Raising money brought the standard dilemma: grow and give up full control of the company, or keep the reins and possibly stagnate. And for Lee, running his own company had meant flexible work hours. “You could be gone for three hours in the afternoon and work from midnight to 4 a.m. if you wanted to. I could go home and be with my wife in the middle of the day,” Lee says.
“Giving up that flexibility to a degree was something that was very, very hard to get your head around. We had to do a lot of soul searching about what we believed was best for our company, what we believed was best for ourselves. Once you take venture financing, you’re sort of on the clock.”
In its second round of seed financing, MyFitnessPal raised $18 million from Silicon Valley VC firms Accel Partners and Kleiner Perkins, according to CrunchBase. Representatives from each company were added to the board, and the firms helped Lee and his team find formal advisors; the Haas network was instrumental in finding other advisors, Lee said.
In Silicon Valley, Lee found an entrepreneurial community full of the kind of resources that networking confers. “People are incredibly generous with their time,” Lee says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask.”
In the discussions between businesspeople and students during company visits, the availability of mentorship and advice in Silicon Valley, and the need to take advantage of that resource, was a common theme. “I rely on my network, and people I didn’t even know were in there,” Joe Inkenbrandt, founder and CEO of Identify3D, a San Francisco startup in the field of intellectual property protection, data security, and quality assurance. Inkenbrandt, a 2014 Haas EMBA, said he’d contacted a lawyer who had once told him, “Call me if you ever start a company,” and the lawyer ended up waiving more than $50,000 in fees. “That was just one network call,” Inkenbrandt said. Before launching, Inkenbrandt had sought feedback from Haas entrepreneurship professor Toby Stuart. “He said, ‘This is the best idea I’ve heard in six months,'” Inkenbrandt said. “That was a huge validation.”