Our summer job was to pick up dry cleaning and groceries for other people. Your next question might be: “You went to HBS for that?”. But that’s what it took to launch ‘Personal Doorman’, our business, which brings hotel service to your home. Ending the summer more excited than we began – our ride from concept to customers was as unexpected as it was exhilarating.
It began last March over Spring Break. While our friends were travelling to exotic destinations, we had convinced ourselves that staying on HBS’ snowy campus to run a startup experiment would be just as fun (call us crazy). The experiment, conceived of by Emma Toshack, MBA 2014, was the first [Startup Lockdown] – where a group of 5 friends, launched 5 businesses, in 5 days. After a semester of cases, and hours of class conversation, we had a burning desire to get out of the classroom and actually ‘go do’ it. Go build. We started with 21 ideas, chose 5, and then built one a day, committing to something tangible by the end of each day – a list of customers, a functioning app, a website ready to receive orders. HBS filmed the whole week (HBS youtube channel search for StartupLockdown).
Personal Doorman was the business from day 3 of [StartupLockdown]. Ironically, it was the business we were least confident in. Yet something about it seemed tantalizing, if elusive. Businesses outsource whole functions – why can’t individuals? We became Rock Fellows for the summer and developed our idea of a concierge service that helps busy people outsource their weekly to dos.
Think 1/3 personal assistant, butler, and chore runner. As our customer, you return to find your apartment cleaned every week, your dry-cleaning hanging in the closet, and your groceries in the fridge. It is more than a delivery service though, as we anticipate and curate for you. You don’t have to tell us when to get milk – we know when you are low. Like silk shirts, or great chocolate – we’ll tell you when we see something we think you would like. We are able to provide this high touch service, and still maintain lean ops by going on weekly ‘errand milk-man runs’ for an entire block. We sell through property managers, employers, and directly to consumers.
So what worked and what failed? First, the failures.
One of our team members realized he wasn’t passionate about the idea. We respected his decision but it was still a hard loss. Lesson: when push comes to shove, you have to love your work!
Second, while we have some skills, we lack many more. To grow, we quickly had to recruit people with complimentary abilities. Lesson: we’re all pretty bad at stuff, but figuring this out is great. Just go find people who are better and work together.
Third, we considered shutting down the business three times. It’s hard – a complex marketing, pricing, and logistics problem all in one. But, this is part of the entrepreneurial roller coaster. Lesson: when you want to quit, this is the best time to keep going.
What worked? In 2.5 months we built a business that serves customers in Cambridge and Back Bay, we’ve partnered with a major property manager in Boston, and have revenue. We spent half our time working out of a VC in Boston and the rest at the iLab. Here were some highlights:
Walking Newbury street to do customer research. We got insights, signed up early customers, and even met a VC. Lesson: Leave the computer and go outside – this is where the magic happens.
During our first sales pitch with a property manager we expected to be treated as students. But, within 20 minutes the CEO offered us 5 launch buildings. Lesson: people don’t see the fears in your head unless you share them.
We have been lucky enough to hire a group of talented entrepreneurs and undergrads who are the life of our small company. Lesson: It’s all about the people.
Personal Doorman is rolling out in Boston and will be coming shortly to HBS! We are focusing exclusively on the business this semester and can’t wait to see what happens. We’ve realized, even if it fails, we will have achieved our goal set in March – to learn by doing and to go out and build real things that are meaningful to us.
Personal Doorman is experiment #1 of WHITESPACE, our vertically integrated startup VC (www.whitespace-vc.com), but more about that in a different article!