Soon after I got accepted to HBS, I left a job at Goldman Sachs with the intention to travel, write, and bask in idea-generation for a few months prior to moving to Boston. Instead, I became obsessed with one idea in particular and inadvertently started a business prior to starting business school. The two years that followed were a roller-coaster of challenges in building a start-up team, developing, launching, and marketing a series of products.and showing up to class on time.
“Behance” was founded after about 100 interviews I conducted with creative teams and individuals – people in large agencies/companies, small design firms, and talented freelancers. I was fascinated by the inefficiencies in the marketplace, notably how Creatives build professional networks and how companies find and hire creative talent. I realized that the creative community was extremely disorganized and inefficient. The problems existed both on a micro-level (low personal productivity and brainstorms were often a waste of time), and a macro-level (people relied on old rolodexes or MySpace pages, and there was no “professional” online platform for Creatives).
The summer before HBS was spent developing an outline of a company that would boost productivity and help organize the creative community. The first few hundred dollars were spent on the trademark “Make Ideas Happen,” and then it started: I was scheduling meetings, and telling enough people about the concept that I suddenly felt accountable! With a small round of funding from friends and family, I hired a Chief of Design to focus full-time on developing the business, just three weeks before I packed my bags for Boston.
During the RC year, I spent almost every weekend and certainly hell-week and vacation time in what had become the “Behance Office” in New York. Our team grew to three full-time employees by March of 2007. Our first site was a blog that summarized the research and tips on how creative teams can boost productivity. We also designed a product, the “Action Pad,” that would help people manage creative projects. The product was quickly picked up by the San Francisco MOMA stores among others around the country, and we started selling an expanded selection online. Our content also led to interviews on MSNBC and ABC News. But we had no intention of being a paper products company.and I know my section-mates were confused by a business-model that appeared to rely on paper sales. However, the product sales helped fund our main focus, developing the “Behance Network.”
The Behance Network was designed to be the most powerful online platform for creative professionals around the world to present and disseminate their work to peers and potential clients (think a content-centric LinkedIn, but open for all to explore). Our goal was to help the creative community organize itself. Launched in September 2007, the site has quickly grown to nearly a million visitors per month and over 10,000 active members (and has received recognition from the Webby Awards and the SXSW Festival).
Of course, as I reflected upon the launch and marketing of the Behance Network (so conveniently timed just a couple weeks before EC classes began), I remembered dozens of frenetic conference calls, all-night testing marathons, and the looming demands of my second year at HBS. However, the second year proved remarkably doable, largely due to three realizations:
Despite what they say about needing a balance of X/Y classes, you can maneuver an X (or Y)-only schedule through the use of evening seminars and the sacred “field studies.”
“Field Studies” are not only great for their flexibility, but also for the “discounted consulting” you can garner for your start-up business from the world’s leading experts on the HBS faculty. Yes, I did the math, and tuition is still cheaper than the amount Behance would have to pay for the guidance I received.
The relevant work I did with Professors and fellow students helped me justify my time in Boston to my team at Behance. It was always difficult to be away from the team, but they recognized the value-add from my time at HBS.
I spent about two days per week in Boston, and the remainder of my time in New York with my team (now eight people). My classes during EC year were all highly relevant, and I believe that my days in Boston provided the big-picture “consider your business differently” time that every entrepreneur needs but seldom takes. I was able to secure a Rock Fellowship grant. I also met with many of my classmates that were interested in the digital media space, and they have taught me much and I’ve been able to leverage some of the lessons I learned the hard way.
My “starting salary” coming out of HBS will be a negative number. But Behance is growing quickly, and we now have a number of opportunities to get funding and/or partnerships with some established companies that can provide some security going forward. I also love the team we’ve built and the substance of the daily grind.
Was it worth it? I certainly asked this question a lot. Amidst the back-and-forth and the pressure of being “full-time” in two places at once, I wondered if HBS (or the business) came at the wrong time. The most difficult part was making a conscious compromise on both the HBS experience and the traditional approach to launching a business. I missed out on many social events and treks, and I was also absent during many of the late nights my team spent in the office. However, I depart HBS with new, great friendships. I have also been able to utilize the “inventory of knowledge” we were all promised at registration: I often find myself citing examples from our countless cases when my team and I are preparing for a negotiation with a vendor or tweaking the marketing plan. And I think the lessons on compartmentalization and balance were difficult at times but invaluable. Alas, the “HBS experience” was transformational, but certainly not as expected.