Life After Business School

I wrote my last blog post four months ago, and a lot has happened since then. This post will be a reflection on the last four months and an update on where life has taken me after business school.

Business School
In June, I graduated from Chicago Booth. My time in b-school brought with it many firsts. I lived in a new city. I traveled to six different countries I’d never been to. I started a company. I made new lifelong friends. I learned new skills that will make me a better worker and manager. And I eventually landed my dream job building drones in Silicon Valley.

Looking back on the whole experience, I feel like it went by way too fast. People often jokingly refer to business school as a two-year vacation. But for me, it was much more than that. It was my time of reflection and self-discovery. A time of figuring out what made me most happy, and what I really wanted to do with my life. I had a great finance job before school, but it didn’t fulfill me in the way I had hoped it would. I felt driven to create something useful that didn’t exist in the world, and I needed time to figure out what that something was.

Business school gave me that time. Given my passion for videography, it’s no coincidence that I started a company to help people create amazing videos. It’s also no coincidence that after school, I joined a company that builds flying robots designed to help people capture amazing videos. My two years at Booth gave me the time, network, and skills I needed to weave my passion into my career. For that, I am very thankful.

Activid
Some of you are probably asking, “What about Activid? Are you still working on it, or shutting it down?” It’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer it as best I can.

I launched Activid 18 months ago with the idea of connecting talented freelance editors with people who wanted their video edited. For most of my time at business school, I dedicated myself to creating this marketplace, hoping to one day help thousands of people create amazing highlight videos of their vacation, wedding, or other life event. Within the first three months, I recruited dozens of talented freelance editors, led a team of ten web developers from initial design to product launch, and started accepting paying customers. It became clear early on that finding talented editors (the supply) would be easy, while building a large user base (the demand) would prove much more difficult.

Activid grew quickly in the beginning, but did not experience the sustained, accelerated growth that every founder hopes for. The company was unable to find a solid product-market fit, and Activid’s growth rate did not support the personal and financial investment going into it. So when I received an offer at the end of school to join one of my favorite companies, 3D Robotics, I knew I couldn’t say no. The opportunity cost was just too high.

It’s for these reasons that I chose to shut down Activid and pursue new challenges. Even though Activid did not become the huge success I had imagined, I’m certain that a business like Activid will exist in the very near future. It could be another startup, or it could be a big company like GoPro, which has a vested interest in getting people to share their videos online. Either way, I hope someone builds this marketplace soon, because I will be their first customer!

3D Robotics
One of my biggest interests since college has been videography. I’ve said this many times before on my blog – I believe that video has the power to tell a story in a way that pictures simply can’t. Video taking and video editing is my form of art. And I almost always take video with a GoPro.

When the first DJI Phantom drone came out a few years ago, it became my ultimate GoPro accessory. Discovering totally new ways of capturing video led to my avid interest in drones. So when I thought about what companies I wanted to work for, 3D Robotics (the largest U.S. drone maker) was at the top of my list.

I joined the Operations team at 3DR three months ago and have loved every second of it. I’m building products that I love, growing and managing a global supply chain, and learning from some seriously talented people. So far, I’ve spent roughly half my time in Asia helping to develop the company’s supply chain from scratch. People in China do business very differently than they do in the U.S., and understanding how to work in this new environment has been a challenging but fun learning process for me.

Conor Jabil
(At our factory in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.)

Like I said, a lot has happened to me in the last few months. A new job, a new city, and many new challenges. I’m extremely happy with where I ended up, and I’m excited to see where this next stage of my life will take me.

Guinness, Drones, and Bono: Three Days at the Dublin Web Summit

(This post was featured in Chicago Business, the Chicago Booth newspaper.)

I recently traveled to Dublin to attend Web Summit, a three day international tech and marketing event. The Web Summit attracted over 100 CEOs, 500 speakers, 8,500 students, 900 exhibitors, 1,000 journalists and 22,000 attendees from over 100 countries. At the end of the week, I left Dublin with several new insights, an increased penchant for Guinness, and even a few new friends.

I first heard about Web Summit through a Facebook ad that read “Do you want to hang out with Drew Houston and Bono?” I sat there for a moment, then said to myself “Why, yes, I do want to hang out with those people.” So I clicked on the ad, submitted my resume, and interviewed with a coordinator. Two weeks later, I was accepted as one of 75 MBA students into the Web Summit MBA Scholars program.

Off to Dublin! The Monday I arrived, our event coordinators had scheduled us a private dinner at the Guinness Storehouse, followed by a pub crawl with Drew Houston (Dropbox CEO). Not bad for the first night. The following three days were equally as star-studded and action-packed, with talks from people like Peter Thiel, Tony Fadell (Nest CEO), Brendan Iribe (Oculus CEO), and Bono. I spent most of my time at Machine Summit, a section of Web Summit focused on Connected Devices and Internet of Things companies. As I walked through the convention floor, hundreds of startups demoed their latest products and pitched me on why they were destined to be the next billion dollar company.

Web Summit Web Summit 1Web SummitNeedless to say, the whole thing was a bit exhausting, but ultimately it was well worth the trip. After reflecting on what I learned, here are my four key takeaways from Web Summit:

1. Commercial drones need a software platform.

Drones have boundless potential, and will soon be used for a wide range of applications that include precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection, and search and rescue. However, operating commercial drones is an extremely complex task. Therefore, companies will need a software platform that simplifies drone operation through increased automation. Jonathan Downey and the team at Airware are working to solve this exact problem.

2. The music industry needs greater revenue transparency.

The music industry’s move from digital downloads (iTunes) to streaming (Spotify) has drawn criticism that the streaming model does not pay artists appropriately for their work. However, Bono argues that streaming is not the enemy, but rather the opacity of record labels. As an example, Spotify gives up of 70% of its revenues to rights owners. The problem is that people don’t know where that money goes because the record labels aren’t transparent. If that money is not making it to the artists, then that’s a big problem. If artists could see how many times their song has been played and get paid direct debt for each play, it would be a big step in the right direction.

3. Internet of Things devices need to work together.

The Internet of Things (IoT) market is projected to reach $7.1 trillion by 2020, but many fear that lack of interoperability between devices will limit industry growth. Some manufacturers are producing closed system IoT devices that only work with other approved devices, as opposed to creating an open system that’s manufacturer agnostic. If the IoT revolution is to live up to its potential, manufacturers must embrace an open source system in which all devices can work together.

4. Wearable tech needs the tech to disappear.

Wearable technology has been hyped for several years now, but mass adoption has yet to be realized. A big reason for that is wearables are still somewhat of a pain to use. They need frequent recharging, break easily, and don’t provide enough relevant insights to be useful. In order for wearables to really take off, they should be smart, unobtrusive, and effortless. Not only that, they need to collect continuous data, and turn that data into insights that meaningfully improve our quality of life.

My Summer Starting Activid – Part II (Business Development)

When I started Activid, I had to develop a business plan.  I asked myself, what is my value proposition?  Who is my target customer?  What is my go-to-market strategy?  I made a number of initial assumptions based on gut instinct, and over time, most of them proved to be wrong.

I started Activid because of a personal problem – it took way too long to edit my own GoPro videos.  I figured there were countless other people like me who film lots of GoPro video on their ski or surf trips, but never get around to editing and sharing them.  With that assumption in mind, establishing partnerships with sports equipment rental shops and adventure travel outfitters seemed like a perfect strategy.  (Just picture a group of friends who filmed a weekend ski trip and return their equipment to the local rental shop.  Or a family who took video during their Backroads trip to Hawaii).  In return for promoting Activid, these businesses would gain free marketing (their logo would appear in customers videos) and also receive a portion of each sale.  Not to mention, they’d be adding a service offering that many of their customers would find value in.

Over a three week period, I cold called hundreds of rental shops and dozens of adventure travel companies.  Some expressed interest, but most did not.  I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see value in offering a video editing service to their customers – it seemed like such a logical pairing.  Perhaps the free marketing and commission weren’t big enough pulls, or maybe they worried about the quality of our videos.  Both are valid concerns, and maybe they need to see more traction before committing to a partnership.  Either way, I think this could be an effective go-to-market strategy in the future, but not one that’s available to me right now.

After failing to establish any large partnerships, I refocused my efforts toward direct marketing.  But first, I needed to validate my belief that the GoPro and action sports market was indeed the right market.  To test this, I flew to Colorado for the GoPro Mountain Games, with the goaActivid Handout - Frontl of promoting Activid to thousands of attending GoPro users.  Approaching complete strangers to pitch them my service was a big challenge for me.  I felt like a sleazy sales guy that I myself would try to avoid.  But as each day passed, I gained confidence and got better at making my pitch more efficient, informative, and friendly.  That weekend, I talked to over 400 people and handed out more than 600 promo cards.

Upon returning to Chicago, I eagerly waited for new orders to pour in from all the people I talked to who expressed excitement about Activid.  But to my disappointment, only a handful of people that I spoke with actually submitted video.  I asked myself, “Why did so many people vow to use my service, but so few actually convert?”  A conversation with a fellow GoPro user shed light on this question.  He remarked:

“Most GoPro users record video with a specific goal in mind, such as creating a highlight compilation of their ski trip.  They’ve watched other GoPro videos on YouTube and believe they can edit their video themselves, even though most won’t.  The simple belief that they are capable of such editing reduces their willingness to pay for an outsourced editing service.  In contrast, a mother who films her four-year-old’s birthday party harbors no illusions of editing her own video.  Therefore, her willingness to pay is not reduced by the thought that she can do it herself.”

I had discovered that my primary target market believed they could and would take time to edit a great video themselves, and didn’t want to spend money on someone else do it for them.   This realization forced me to reevaluate who I should target, so I reviewed what types of projects had been submitted to Activid over the past month.  Many came from parents who recorded video during a family trip or event.  Several others came from small business owners (like an African safari company) who wanted a promo video for their website.  Activid solved a real need for these two customer groups, and it was clear that I should redirect my focus towards them.

Launching an early version of Activid allowed me to study which customers used the service, and how they used it.  If I had waited to launch a more robust version, I would likely still be focusing on the GoPro market.  Similarly, reaching out to rental shops and travel outfitters taught me that I first need to focus on direct marketing.  I’m sure that I’ll continue to learn more as new customers come in, but for now, I think I’m on the right track.

My Summer Starting Activid – Part I

This summer, I have been working full time on my video editing startup Activid.  It has been an unusual summer for me – for the first time, I’ve needed to set my own hours, make my own deadlines, and define my own objectives.  None of it has come easy, but each challenge has helped teach me something new.  I’ve learned just as much about myself and how I work as I have about starting a business.

It wasn’t the easiest decision to work full time on Activid this summer.  At business school, there is a very structured process in which students recruit for internships, work at a large company over the summer, and either accept a full-time offer or re-recruit the following year.  I watched all my friends go through traditional MBA recruiting while I sat on the sidelines, knowing I wanted to follow a different path.  At times, I even felt irresponsible not taking advantage of Booth’s Career Services, effectively foregoing the one resource students value most.  But then I would remind myself, that’s not why I came back to school.  My goal upon entering Booth was to learn some new skills, meet smart and interesting people, take advantage of Booth’s entrepreneurial resources, and use the summer to try my hand at starting a business.  Thus far, I’ve accomplished all four, so I feel like I’m off to a good start.

More than anything, this summer has taught me that it’s hard to work by yourself for 10 hours a day.  When you have no one else to share the burden of starting a company with, or even to bounce ideas off of, it can get lonely.  In the future, I’d like to find at least one other person to work with who shares my excitement in living through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Of course, I learned a whole lot about starting a company, too.  My college friend Dru subletted one of our bedrooms this summer, and every night for the first two weeks, he asked me “What did you do today?”  He meant it as a half-joke, but he really did want to know.  In the next few posts, I’ll try to answer Dru’s question and describe my summer experience.  My plan is to break it into separate functions, including business strategy, product development, sales and marketing, employee management, and customer service.  Most importantly, I’ll show how all this work led to one of the greatest days of my life – the day Activid got its first real customer.

Chicago Startup Weekend

I recently participated in my first Startup Weekend here in Chicago.  The goal of the weekend was to pitch an idea, form a team, and launch a startup in 48 hours.  That last part is obviously a bit of a stretch, but its still a lot of fun to see how much progress a team can make in two days.

Of the ~150 people that participated, 60 pitched ideas.  Everyone voted on the best ideas, and the top 18 were chosen to move forward for the weekend.  Luckily, one of those ideas was mine.  I pitched my video editing company, which a lot of people seemed to like.  The rest of the participants then formed teams around each of the 18 idea people, depending on which idea interested them most.

As a group leader, I found that Startup Weekend was just as much an exercise in people management as it was a platform to launch a startup.  Eight people joined my team, and while most of them were a pleasure to work with, a couple were not.  Managing eight personalities who have never met or worked together before was a challenge, especially since lots of skill sets overlapped.  In this situation, my team members outnumbered the required job responsibilities, so while some people felt redundant, others seemed left out.  I tried my best to assign everybody a role so they felt valuable, but eventually I had to focus on my own work and hope that others would proactively find something to do.

By the second day, our team started to gel.  People became more familiar with each other’s work style and communication improved dramatically.  For me, it was definitely a good feeling.

The competition ended with a five minute presentation given by each team to a panel of judges and a 150 person audience.  Our team didn’t place in the top three, but we did receive a $1,000 award in the form of QA and testing consulting advice from Outpost.  Not bad for 48 hours of work.

Startup Weekend was full of ups and downs, but overall I had a great experience and met some really cool people.  I learned a little about managing others, and a lot about managing myself.  Both are equally important, I think.

Here is a recap video of the weekend:

A New Online Bank

I am obsessive about tracking my finances.  When I graduated from college and started working, I created a spreadsheet to record my monthly income, pre-tax deductions, tax withholdings, 401-K contributions, and expenses by category.  Every month or so, I’d review my online credit card statements and input each transaction into Excel, which would then flow into a monthly summary tab.  I continue to track my expenses like this today.

I set up an account with Mint.com but rarely use it.  In my opinion, the Mint platform has several shortcomings that render it unusable for me – namely their inability to accurately categorize a significant portion of my transactions.  Mint also has trouble distinguishing cash transfers between accounts from actual spending, so when I transfer $1,000 from Schwab to Ally, Mint thinks I’ve spent $1,000 somewhere.  Their advertisements for various financial products don’t do much for me, either.

The one Mint feature I do like is the ability to see a real-time snapshot of all my accounts in one place.  If an online bank offered all the services I use (which aren’t very many), then I’d just keep all my money with them and avoid Mint as an intermediary.  I keep most of my money in Schwab checking and brokerage accounts, but since they don’t offer a very good rate on their savings account, I use Ally instead.  I recently opened an account with Betterment.com to easily invest money in a diversified market portfolio without having to choose the various ETF funds myself.  And I’ve also been using LendingClub.com to invest in consumer debt the same way a traditional bank would.

Which led me to thinking – why not create an online bank that offers all of these products?  Even if you ignore Lending Club, an online bank that combines the same automated stock/bond investment tool as Betterment with a traditional high yield checking and savings account would be very appealing.  I believe that a service like this would be sufficient for most people who want to keep their spending money with an online bank and also invest in a diverse portfolio without having to choose individual stocks, bonds, or ETFs themselves.

If an online bank offered me a checking account, savings account, automated investing account, credit and debit card, and reasonably powerful expense tracking tools, I would keep 100% of my money with them.  So why doesn’t a bank like this exist?

Maybe I should create one.

Instacart Grocery Delivery

The nearest grocery store to my apartment in Chicago is about a 12 minute walk away.  Since I don’t own a car, walking is my only option.  It’s not terrible getting there, but since I only go once every two weeks, I tend to stock up.  $100 worth of groceries is quite heavy, so I end up having to stop 2-3 times on the way back to give my arms a rest.  Knowing myself, I won’t even consider this an option come January when Chicago feels more like northern Russia.  (During winters in college, my girlfriend made fun of me for driving 400 yards from my fraternity to the cafeteria).  Odds are I’ll end up ordering off Seamless four nights a week, questioning my unhealthy lifestyle as I devour a box of Chinese take-out.

Enter Instacart.  Instacart is an on-demand grocery delivery service that connects customers with personal shoppers who will pick up and deliver groceries to you.  In exchange for this convenience, Instacart charges a $4 delivery fee on any order above $35 and adds a small markup to each item you purchase.  The total service charge on a $100 order is probably in the neighborhood of 6-7%, which I’m perfectly happy to pay in exchange for avoiding a trip to the supermarket.

This is not the first time a company has attempted to establish a grocery delivery service.  During the dot-com bubble, Webvan built out a sizable warehouse and distribution network to deliver groceries in a number of cities.  Its infrastructure expansion far exceeded its sales growth, and when the company ran out of money, it ultimately had to file for bankruptcy.  Webvan is now considered the largest dot-com flop in history.

Instacart hopes to differentiate itself from Webvan (and current competitors like Peapod, FreshDirect, and AmazonFresh) in several ways.  Instacart holds no inventory, owns no warehouses, and does not operate its own distribution network.  Rather, it crowdsources shoppers who pick up food from the supermarket and use their own cars for delivery.  This allows Instacart to be very flexible and launch quickly in new cities.

This evening, I had the chance to hear the Instacart City Launcher speak at Booth’s Food & Agriculture Forum.  He spoke about why they chose Chicago as the next city to launch in outside of San Francisco – one of their reasons was that it rains or snows one out of every three days in Chicago, and orders skyrocket when the weather is bad.  After having lived here for about three months, I can confirm that this estimate is about right.

I’m excited to see how Instacart grows and expands into new cities during 2014.  There is clearly a lot of demand for their service, and if they continue to please customers, there’s really no telling how big the company could get.