Entrepreneur Profiles–Bill Fox

What is the name of your company?
Ivy Motivation, LLC

What industry/ sector would you classify it in?
Education services

How long has it been running? How many people are involved?
One of the Co-Founders has been operating a tutoring business with a similar format since 2001, but Ivy Motivation was founded in January of 2009. There are currently three Co-Founders involved.

What is the business idea? How will this have an impact on the world?
The business idea is to provide tutoring services from undergraduate and graduate students at elite universities to high school students worldwide through a unique online tutoring platform. College tutors from schools such as Harvard and MIT provide unique advantages to high school students including advanced knowledge of course subjects, the ability to act as a mentor, creating a more enjoyable forum for the tutored students, and motivation for students to prepare themselves for top universities.

For years, Harvard and MIT students have tutored in and around the Boston area. Ivy Motivation allows these experienced tutors to offer their services to high school students worldwide. This provides domestic and international students with access to elite tutors who can aid them in preparing for the rigorous application process and curriculum of these schools. Ivy Motivation can also assist countries that are attempting to build up their education systems to match those of the developed world. By providing top notch online tutoring from the best universities in the world, these countries have instant access to advanced Western education.

How did you arrive at this idea/ insight?
My Co-Founder recognized the advantages of college student tutors through her previous business. She believed that online tutoring, which has grown very rapidly recently, could be applied to student tutors effectively. Collectively, we decided to focus on the high-end market by using tutors who are top students from top universities.

What challenges did you face balancing your HBS course load and starting/ running your business? How did you manage this?
It is extremely difficult to balance the commitment of starting a business while at HBS. It is one thing to spend your spare time working on developing an idea or business plan, but a business has customers and employees who demand fast action. This can create problems if business issues coincide with tough weeks at school or if your business issues grow so quickly that they absorb all of your time. I believe the best way to manage this is to be realistic about your available time commitment and be sure to not get in over your head with the business. My Co-Founders and I recognize that we are all currently part-time in this venture and need to limit our scope and reach accordingly. If we are able to grow quickly enough to warrant extra help, we recognize that we will need to initially forego profits in order to hire full time employees and thus disperse the workload. Starting a business is a great opportunity, but you do not want to miss out on other great experiences at HBS while trying to do so.

How did you leverage the resources available to you in HBS for your business?
We joined the Venture Creation Program through the Rock Center as soon as we decided to move forward with launching the business. This provided us with some free legal advice from a lawyer in Boston, but the best advantage of this program was meeting with other students who are also starting businesses. This allowed us to share our experiences, discuss common problems we are facing, and help each other whenever possible. In addition to the VCP, I have found HBS professors to be available to talk about your business and provide advice around their specific focus.

What HBS class/case/protagonist/professor was most helpful in starting/running your business? How?
I am only in the RC year, so I do not have many classes to draw on, but so far Marketing and LEAD have been the most beneficial. As a consumer services business, our understanding of marketing will be critical to our ability to brand our Company and fully develop our service. Aspects of LEAD have come up quite often as well. Building a team is a very challenging process with a lot of perspectives to balance and there is certainly trial and error involved in forming a team. Ultimately you need to put a team together of very diverse people and get everyone on the same page; it is not an easy process. I also imagine that after the first six to twelve months of operating our business, the lessons from Strategy will be critical as we attempt to grow and expand our business.

What’s the best/worst part of being an entrepreneur? Worst part?
The best part of being an entrepreneur is the excitement of starting and running a business and the feeling that all of your actions and efforts are contributing to the success of the business. It is also helpful to be committed to a venture during school, as it causes you to relate many of your classes back to a real world example. This can really help you stay engaged and excited about school while still dedicating a lot of time to a new venture.

On the other hand, new ventures often do not go as planned. At times, it can be hard to separate yourself from the business. For example, if things with the business do not go well for a day, it can affect my mood for a few days. I find that I am more emotional about Ivy Motivation than I was about my last job. However, I think if you can recognize this risk, you can see when it is affecting you and mitigate the effects.

What is the most important piece of advice you’ve been given regarding starting a business?
The best advice I have received was from my marketing professor, Ray Weaver, and the article Discovery-Driven Planning by McGrath and MacMillan. The basic advice was to get to action as early as possible in the planning process. A business plan for a new venture relies largely on unfounded assumptions. By limiting the planning process and getting to action you are able to prove or disprove the key assumptions earlier, reducing the risk that you waste time and resources on a flawed business model. However, this does not mean that we scrapped the entire planning process or neglected developing a business plan. A good example of “Discovery-Driven Planning” is our assumption of the cost of tutors. We found that it was unnecessary to perform substantial research to develop an assumption on how much we would need to pay tutors when we could easily start trying to hire tutors for our actual business and use an accurate number for further planning. I think the one exception to the principle of quick action is in product quality, where we need to be sure that our product is up to our customers’ high standards. As such, much of our time in the planning process was spent developing and testing our online tutoring service.