Despite the gorgeous weather and the fact that the Holidazzle ball had been the prior night, over 300 people came to campus early last Saturday morning to attend HBS’s 18th annual Entrepreneurship Conference, “Build to Lead,” organized by the Entrepreneurship Club. The audience was composed not only of Harvard students, but students from other business schools around the country, as well as venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and industry experts.
The day started off with an address from one of the conference’s keynote speakers, David Neeleman, Founder and CEO of JetBlue Airlines. Neeleman told of how he began his entrepreneurial career. Although his first venture failed-like most entrepreneurs-Neeleman proved to be extremely persistent and went on to start several wildly successful companies. Neeleman’s passion is aviation, and in 1984 he founded Morris Air, a Salt Lake City based airline he sold to Southwest Airlines in 1993. More recently, he has been CEO of Open Skies, which created electronic reservations and check-in systems. This company was recently sold to Hewlett Packard. Now Neeleman dedicates his time to JetBlue.
JetBlue is an upmarket but reasonably priced airline based at New York’s Kennedy Airport. It features leather seats and personal TVs on its new fleet of Airbus planes, which fly mostly coast-to-coast routes. The company has rapidly expanded and was on its way to profitability, at least before September 11.
The rest of the morning was filled with nearly 20 panel discussions that continued through until the end of the day. These panels covered a wide range of topics. Some were industry focused, covering areas such as Biotech, real estate and high-tech. Others focused on particular phases of a business’s life cycle-from finding a start-up idea, to recruiting a team, to choosing what type of funding, to evaluating different exit strategies. The distinguished panelists were able to share their insights and experiences on these diverse topics.
Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline.com who was recognized by Business Week as “one of the 50 most influential business leaders in the digital age,” made a keynote address following the set of morning panels. Although many associate him with Priceline, his contributions go well beyond that.
Walker is also chairman of Walker Digital Corporation, which is a business solutions invention and development company. The Priceline.com e-commerce system is only one of Walker’s over 300 proprietary business methods addressing dozens of problems in various industries.
The main point of Walker’s discussion was to highlight the need for entrepreneurs to focus on problems and to create solutions for those problems. “Good ideas are easy-it is good solutions that are hard to come by,” he said. The other ingredient for a successful entrepreneur is passion. “Entrepreneurs without passion are in trouble,” he said. Judging by Walker’s track record, he possesses both the ability to find solutions and the passion to turn his idea into reality.
The final keynote of the day was Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who founded Stelmar Tankers and easyGroup. Haji-Ionnou’s story began when he was just 25 years old and went to his father with an idea for a business. His father funded the venture, and Stelmar Tankers was a huge success. Only two years later, he decided to get into aviation and launched a low-cost, “no frills” point-to-point airline in Europe called EasyJet. Inspired by Richard Branson of Virgin, he went on to extend this brand to everything from Internet caf‚s to car rentals to financial services. In all cases the “easy” name has communicated to customers a consistent theme: great service, demand-based pricing, and “no frills” products.
In addition to being informational, the conference also provided many networking opportunities. Attendees attended small-group lunches with the speakers and featured guests. And for those who had a business idea already, there were venture capital feedback sessions where students pitched their plans to VCs in a low-risk environment. This was an excellent opportunity for students thinking about starting their own business to present a high-level 10-minute overview of their ideas and get some feedback after a Q&A session. The ideas were anywhere from concept stage to pre-funding stage.
The event closed with a cocktail reception that allowed students to mingle with the speakers, panelists and other conference attendees. Alok Agrawal (OI), Kim Scott (OK) and Jeremy Andrus (OE), the conference chairs, were extremely pleased with the event and the positive response from the attendees.
Other major events sponsored by the Entrepreneurship Club will be the Young Presidents’ Organization Conference, the Turnaround Symposium and the Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.