Andrea Wenner '05
Executive Director, Out2Play
What’s the organization’s mission?
Dedicated to building and refurbishing playgrounds in New York City public schools.
Who are the customers ? Children and New York City public elementary schools.
Who are the donors? Individuals, corporations, foundations and city government officials.
How many employees? Two, and two volunteers.
Biggest achievement? Completion of 40 playgrounds at schools throughout the city on time and under budget.
Next major goal? Form a partnership with the city to get a permanent funding match. We have a list of 120 schools that need playgrounds. Our goal is to build a playground at every one of those schools by 2011.
During her sophomore year of college, Andrea Wenner launched her own video rental store. “The business lasted for about a year before Blockbuster and others moved in and we were overrun,” she says, “but it was a great experience.”
Still, Wenner didn’t enter Columbia Business School planning to be an entrepreneur. “It was the Launching New Ventures class and my playground-construction idea that got me going,” Wenner says. She considered several other ventures—including universal gym memberships for traveling businesspeople and a beach towel with a built-in pillow and backpack—before developing Out2Play , a nonprofit that builds and refurbishes playgrounds at New York Public Schools.
Wenner grew up in a suburban town with lots of playing fields and playgrounds. But when she moved to New York, she lived next to an elementary school that didn’t have a playground. “During recess, the kids would just stand in the street,” she says. “I thought there wasn’t enough space for playgrounds, so my initial idea was to build them on school roofs. Then I learned that schools didn’t have the money.”
Out2Playactively engages students in the design of their new playgrounds. “When we ask kids what kind of playgrounds they want, they’ll ask for slides or basketball hoops,” she says. “They have some funny requests, too, like a pool or a convenience store. But then the architect will explain what an architect does. It gets the kids thinking about the whole process, which is great.”
The School’s network has served as a resource for Wenner. “At Columbia, I appreciated being with people who were in the same boat,” she says. “I could turn to the person next to me and find out what his or her business problems were that day, and I knew that everyone was pushing forward regardless.”
Wenner finds being an entrepreneur both challenging and rewarding. “Before you begin, you have this big vision and grand idea, but when you actually start your business, there are lots of tedious tasks, and if you’re the only one behind the venture, you’re the one doing the work,” she says. “Working alone has been more lonely than I anticipated. But I also have the power to do what I want.”
Julie Flakstad '99
What’s the business?
America’s first blow-dry bar.
Who are the customers? All girls and women who want to look their best.
Who are the investors? The founders, a few friendly believers and our first round of outside investors, all of whom are clients and include Linda Sawyer, CEO of Deutsch Advertising, who is now chair of Blow’s board of directors.
How many employees? 50.
Biggest achievement? Our loyal clients.
Next major goal? Launching on QVC in early 2009 and expanding the product line further. Identifying additional investors for the next major round of financing.
Julie Flakstad started her business career early. When she was 11, she had her own paper route, and in college, she designed beer mugs decorated with logos and sold them at football games. After college, when Flakstad was living in Norway, she met a man who wanted to start Norway’s first professional golf tournament. He needed one lead sponsor for a million dollars. “I remember sitting in my apartment with five cents to my name,” Flakstad says. “I had never even played golf. But in the course of a month, I found the sponsor.”
Flakstad also found an entrepreneurial role model in her father, who built a “flotel” business — floating oil rigs that house offshore workers. “Back then, nobody worked from home,” she says. “But my father believed that all you needed was a phone and a fax to do business, so he moved to a Caribbean island. He would walk around the house barefoot in shorts, selling Swiss bankers on the idea of investing in rigs in Mexico or in an African market. He taught that if you believe in something, you can make it happen.”
Not long after she graduated from Columbia Business School, Flakstad cofounded Blow , New York’s first “blow-dry bar,” where women can get their hair professionally washed and styled. Instead of visiting a salon every six to eight weeks to get their hair cut or colored, Flakstad says, women can go to Blow up to twice a week for a blow-dry. “We’re transforming the salon model by increasing the frequency that women visit a salon,” she says.
Blow’s first location in New York’s meatpacking district has more than 10,000 clients, and the second salon on the Upper East Side opened in March 2008. Blow has also launched a line of hair-care products that is being extended from 5 to 15 products by the end of 2008.
“You have these dreams and illusions about how grand life will be if you start your own business — master of your own domain, come and go as you please, et cetera,” Flakstad says. “That’s all true, but the flip side is that I’m always on call. Our business is open seven days a week, so my phone is always on. I have 50 employees that count on us, not to mention rely on our making payroll every Thursday.
“You have to have an iron gut. I pay someone to take care of my son so that I can go to work and earn no money. I guess that’s why they call it sweat equity, but I know one day this is all going to be worth it.”
Ntiedo Etuk '02
CEO, Tabula Digita
What’s the business?
Educational video games.
Who are the customers? School districts and learning centers, and in the future, parents. The users, of course, are always students.
Who are the investors? Venture capitalists (Ascend Venture Group) and select angel investors.
How many employees? Eleven full-time and up to 19 outsourced programmers.
Biggest achievement? Overachieved sales goals by approximately 60 percent.
Next major goal? Successful launch of the company’s consumer division, supplementing the school sales division.
Ntiedo “N T” Etuk was drawn to Columbia Business School partly because of its location. “There’s an energy you pick up in New York that makes you fearless,” Etuk says. “The variety of people you meet — advertisers, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers — is incomparable.”
After graduation, Etuk spent two years working at Citigroup. He launched Tabula Digita in 2002 and continued its development while employed full-time until April 2004, when he left Citigroup to devote his full attention to the company.
Tabula Digita creates educational video games that look and feel like 3-D PlayStation games but teach various subjects. “Education has always been a focus,” Etuk says. “My father was the West African hurdles champion, but he skipped the Olympics to attend McGill University.” Etuk founded Tabula Digita to address an unmet need for entertaining and engaging ways for young people to learn.
He remembers tutoring a 14-year-old in math: “I tried to get him to hit the books. We did this for two months before his mother said he had asked to stop seeing me. I asked him why and he said, ‘I like you, but we never have any fun.’ It wasn’t that he had a problem learning. He could play games all day and figure out how to use a cell phone in a heartbeat — that was interesting. But textbooks, blackboards, traditional teaching methods — these were of no interest to him or his generation.”
Etuk learned early in his life that commitment and perseverance are critical for success. “When I was young, I was under the impression that people achieved great things because they had special gifts and things came easily to them,” he says. “I later learned that intelligence is not the key factor. Anything is achievable if you are willing to sweat it out.”
Looking back on the launch of his company, Etuk believes that the School helped him be ready to take on the challenges faced by all entrepreneurs. “Columbia gave me the confidence to think of myself as a CEO, and I appreciated that the program emphasized financials,” he says. “Numbers don’t lie. At the very least, they force you to think things through and strategize about your business a little better.”
Entrepreneur in Residence, Columbia Business School
“I always knew that I didn’t want to work for anybody,” says Cliff Schorer. “You get one shot in life, so why not paddle your own canoe?”
Schorer launched his entrepreneurial career by following in his father’s footsteps. “My father had a small office-machine business and, unfortunately, took ill just as I graduated from college, so I stepped in to help,” Schorer explains. Four years later, in 1969, he became Sharp’s first distributor of its electronic calculator in the United States. After selling that company, Schorer started a microfilm business and then built luxury homes and health clubs with a partner before launching another business with Lucent Technologies that distributed video over fiber-optic networks.
Schorer’s involvement with Columbia Business School began in 1993 when he visited campus as a guest speaker. “I really connected with the students, and I liked hearing their ideas,” he says. “One of the MBA Program’s strengths is that it gathers together highly educated people with diverse backgrounds. This gives students insight into how things are done elsewhere in the world — a critical element since business has moved to the global stage.” In addition to teaching Columbia MBA and Executive Education students, Schorer remains active in entrepreneurial ventures as a board member and seed investor.
“Columbia truly provides a strong foundation from which students can launch companies,” Schorer says. The School’s Greenhouse Program offers a range of support to student start-ups, from business and legal expertise to funding. The Lang Fund invests in businesses identified as having real potential, and a faculty sounding board and a mentor program, which brings together students with alumni who have real-world experience, are available to any student with an idea. “It’s a hands-on experience instead of just theory,” Schorer says, “and a relationship that goes well beyond graduation.”
Schorer encourages students to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams early. “You’ll learn more in the early years than you will in any large corporation,” he says, noting that some of the most successful entrepreneurs — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson — dove right in and built vast business empires. “When you start a company, you recognize the traps and pitfalls only after making mistakes,” Schorer says. “We try to help students learn from our experiences. The people who become the most successful are the ones who remember that nothing great ever happens without enthusiasm. You also have to recognize the weaknesses in your plan. Hiring the right expertise is not difficult. The trick is to understand where the gaps are.”
CEO and Cofounder, Edit.com
Board Member and Cofounder, Nylon Technology
What’s the business?
Edit.com: Web-site-maintenance services. Nylon Technology: Customized Web-development services.
Who are the customers? Edit.com: Small businesses. Nylon Technology: Businesses of all sizes.
Who are the investors? Edit.com: Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund, 10 angel investors and management. Nylon: Self-funded.
How many employees? Edit.com: 11. Nylon Technology: 15.
Biggest achievement? Edit.com: Transitioning from a one-product business to a full-range service provider. Nylon Technology: Being profitable from inception and growing by means of cash flow.
Next major goal? Edit.com: Closing deals with major players in the Web-site-services industry to market Edit.com services to their customers. Nylon Technology: Marketing and selling Web applications developed for the legal, financial and real estate industries.
Steve Grushcow was already trading stocks when he was 13. “I realized that the stock market was working while I was in school, so I didn’t have to be there to make an impact,” he says. In the early 1980s, his father gave him some money and introduced Grushcow to a stockbroker at Drexel Burnham Lambert in Los Angeles. “I’d ride my bike over before school twice a month and talk about stocks with my broker,” Grushcow says.
It’s not surprising, then, that Grushcow launched his first business, Edit.com , before he enrolled at Columbia, and his second company a few years after graduation. The former provides Web-site-maintenance services to small businesses, and Nylon Technology , which Grushcow launched in 2007, provides custom Web-development services to businesses of all sizes.
Grushcow cites persistence as a key to successful entrepreneurship. “If you’re starting a business, you have to commit to three years at a minimum,” he says. “Entrepreneurs know how important money and the right people are, but sometimes they forget that it also takes time for people in your industry to get comfortable with you and to return your calls, and for you to network to achieve your goals.
“If you can stay in business long enough, something’s going to go your way at some point. My father started his own computer company in 1984. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was, ‘It’s not rocket science. You put one foot in front of the other, and it takes a while, so you should start early.’”
Grushcow believes that the School gave him the tools and the confidence to accomplish his goals. “Columbia enabled me to operate at a higher level,” he says. “I process information faster and think more quickly on my feet in many business situations because I was exposed to them at Columbia. The experience has already paid for itself multiple times.”
Ron Gonen '04 (EMBA)
What’s the business?
Paying households to recycle.
Who are the customers? Municipalities, recycling haulers and households.
Who are the investors? Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Fund, Ron Gonen, Casella Waste Systems, Patrick Fitzgerald, RecycleHoldings, RRE Ventures and Sigma Partners.
How many employees? 25.
Biggest achievement? Taking a company from an idea to something that people think can change an industry.
Next major goal? Profitability.
Ron Gonen was drawn to social entrepreneurship as a teenager, when he was a founding member of the National Conference for High School Students Against Hunger and Homelessness. Years later, when Gonen was a senior consultant at Deloitte Consulting, he was honored with the firm’s 2002 National Impact Award for developing a consulting unit that connected pro bono services to nonprofit and charitable organizations.
Gonen came up with the idea for RecycleBank , a start-up that pays households for recycling, when he was a student at Columbia. “The best thing about Columbia is that its New York location means that students have access to a variety of people and opportunities,” he says. “My professors were actual businesspeople who were applying the theories that they discussed in class to the real world.”
RecycleBank provides large containers to households for recycling. Its technology then identifies the amount families have recycled and translates this into a dollar amount — RecycleBank Dollars — that can be used at more than 300 different stores. The results have been dramatic. In two neighborhoods in Philadelphia, for example, 20 percent of the households were recycling before RecycleBank started; now 90 percent of them recycle.
Gonen believes that building a network is critical. “As an entrepreneur, your success depends on the people you meet,” he says. “When seeking investors, worry less about valuation and more about the individual. Take the time to be a good judge of character. Your dream is your dream; you are the only one who had it. Collaboration and the advice of good people will feed your dream, but don’t ever let anyone force you to give it up or take it from you.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Gonen maintains a demanding schedule. “People don’t always understand why I work so many hours,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s unique. I think that anyone who has ever built anything of value has had to work the type of hours I work. Consider it a prerequisite. It definitely teaches you to cherish that free hour when you get it. Don’t turn on the TV — spend time with your significant other, friends and family.”
Noha Waibsnaider '02
CEO, Peeled Snacks
What’s the business?
Gourmet dried-fruit-and-nut snacks, with a unique stay-fresh pack and no added sugar.
Who are the customers? People on the go who value fresh, natural and high-quality food.
Who are the investors? Friends, family, the bank and credit cards.
How many employees? Three full-time.
Biggest achievement? Getting on Oprah .
Next major goal? Profitability.
When Noha Waibsnaider and her family were living in Argentina, they became macrobiotic vegetarians. “I’ve always been conscientious about food,” Waibsnaider says. “When I went back to Argentina for a semester in college, I decided I needed to appreciate the meat down there, which is a million times better than American beef because the animals are grass-fed and live on big, wide-open pastures.”
Waibsnaider applied to Columbia in response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. “I empathized with the protesters’ beliefs, but I also felt that our world couldn’t function without businesses and corporations making large-scale decisions,” Waibsnaider says. “I figured that the only way I could make a positive impact was by getting an MBA and going to work for a large corporation.”
During and after business school, Waibsnaider worked in the health and wellness division at Unilever. She left the firm with a vision: to make great-tasting and healthy snack food. Her company, Peeled Snacks , which she launched in 2005, produces a mix of dried fruit and nuts in snack-size bags. “We don’t add sugar or oils to preserve freshness; we actually pack the nuts in their own little bag inside the larger bag containing the fruit,” says Waibsnaider.
Finding the right method to preserve freshness was challenging. Waibsnaider sent the original mixes to a food scientist, who told her that the moisture from the fruit would spoil the nuts. “He said I’d have to use preservatives or separate them,” Waibsnaider says. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll just have to explain to people why we separate them.’ As it turned out, this really differentiates us and helps people understand why our product is fresher.”
Waibsnaider relishes the challenges of entrepreneurship. “Running your own business is always a roller coaster. Sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down, but it’s always twisting and turning, ascending and descending,” she says. “I’m still working on patience, and negotiation skills are so important. So much of being an entrepreneur is just getting the meeting, understanding what the customer needs and making it easy for them.”
Waibsnaider doesn’t rule out launching another business. “There are lots of other enterprises I’d like to start, like water-saving products,” she says. “Water — that’s going to be one of the biggest issues of the next few decades.”
Zohar Yardeni '01
Founder, CallStreet (with Eric Fischkin '01, Jason Jobe '01, John Londono '01, Fred Wasch '01 and Vance Wells '01)
Founder, radiusIM (with John Londono '01)
What’s the business?
RadiusIM.com, a location-aware Web IM network.
Who are the customers? Sixteen- to 28-year-olds.
Who are the investors? A venture capital firm and angels.
How many employees? Six.
Biggest achievement? Just crossed the 2.5 million users mark!
Next major goal? Traffic and revenue milestones.
Zohar Yardeni wasn’t passionate about business when he graduated from college. “I wasn’t the dude carrying the Wall Street Journal in college,” Yardeni says. “I had long hair and no job.”
However, it didn’t take Yardeni long to discover the appeal of business. “What I always liked about business was that there’s a score at the end of the day,’’ he says. After college, Yardeni worked in mergers and acquisitions and private equity. His untraditional path resumed when he worked as a ski lift operator before starting business school.
“You’re working with kids who are 19 or 20, who are not going to college and who are thinking no further than the next couple of weeks,” he says. “If you’re coming from Manhattan and an investment banking job, seeing that lifestyle broadens your perspective.”
Yardeni credits his experience and network from Columbia Business School as an asset to his entrepreneurial efforts. “The greatest thing about Columbia was my classmates,” he says. “We were able to start CallStreet, an earnings-conference-call-transcription service, at Columbia because we had just spent two years with 500 other people who are bright and had time to contribute.”
Yardeni’s first company, CallStreet LLC, was sold to FactSet Research Systems. His next venture, radiusIM, integrates location into the online experience. “Our initial offering is a social instant-messaging Web site ,” he explains. “It shows people where their friends are hanging out and lets them surf for people based on location.”
“Being an entrepreneur is very humbling. Everyone thinks you walk away with $2 billion in your 20s, like what happened with YouTube. I hang out with a lot of folks who started companies, and some did well, but others got doors slammed in their faces. It keeps you honest and humble.”
He finds that it does get easier. “From financing to mundane stuff like office space, starting radiusIM was simpler than CallStreet because we had experience and credibility,” he says. “But one thing that doesn’t change is the commitment required. We’re still living, eating and breathing this business.”
Despite the challenges, Yardeni seeks to encourage people to try to start a business. “There’s a tendency to ascribe a lot of traits to entrepreneurs after success or failure, but the reality is that luck plays a big role,” he says. “It’s great just to be in the game, just to get a chance to try to build something real.”
Andrea Miller '02
CEO and Founder, Tango Media
What’s the business?
A multimedia company focused on love and relationships for women ages 25–45. Think
Sex and the City
Who are the customers? The audience — professional women for whom building a relationship is a top priority —and advertisers.
Who are the investors? A group of angels, Gabelli Group Capital Partners and Octagon Asset Management.
How many employees? Ten full-time, about 15 part-timers and consultants and dozens of editorial contributors.
Biggest achievement? Building Tango to the point where it has attracted the attention of major strategic media partners and investors.
Next major goal? Creating a successful new non-advertising source of revenue.
Andrea Miller always knew that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. “It’s in my blood,” she says. “We’ve had lots of entrepreneurs in the family — my grandfather, several uncles, Mom, Dad and lots of cousins.”
During her second year at the School, Miller read Thomas Moore’s Soul Mates. “I was inspired by the transcendental power of love and the idea that relationships intersect with nearly everything we do — career, communication, sex, travel and leisure, even the home,” says Miller, who discovered her passion for media as the managing editor of the School’s student newspaper, the Bottom Line.
After graduation, Miller took the Columbia Publishing Course through the School of Journalism and began raising seed money, developing strategic partnerships, hiring a staff and working on circulation strategies for her own growing media company. She launched Tango , a multimedia company focused on love and relationships, in February 2005.
“Most women’s magazines pay little attention to substantive issues,” says Miller. “ Tango is a thinking woman’s magazine in disguise.” Miller finds that being an entrepreneur impacts her own relationships. “I remember speaking at a conference when the question of work-life balance came up”, she says, “I said ‘I don’t have any.’ It’s never going to be a 10-hour-a-day kind of job — at least not for quite a while.”
Miller is constantly thinking about the next developments for Tango. “We’ve had positive feedback from male readers, and while the magazine is female-focused, we are able to cater more to male readers on the Web site, which is becoming the heart of our business,” she says. “I’m extremely excited about Tango 2.0.”
Miller credits her experiences at the School for equipping her with the inspiration to pursue her entrepreneurial vision. “Offering frequent access to business and political leaders is one of Columbia’s greatest strengths,” she says. “Whether it was hearing these individuals or accessing the alumni database, the Columbia network was especially important to me because I entered a field I knew very little about. I reached out to people through the Columbia community for everything from raising capital to finding an editor.”