By Peter Lane Taylor, Forbes
A politely ferocious debate is being waged in America right now about the best place to launch a start-up. This isn’t surprising post Great Recession—especially with millions of mobile Millennials graduating into the workforce willing to cart their STEM and MBA degrees anywhere, some of them with the next Uber in their heads. There are major bragging rights in play. Billions in tax revenue, investment returns, and political capital are also at stake.
By sheer exit volume, Silicon Valley still rules. East coast cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami dominate specific sectors like biotech and healthcare. In midwest and southeast boomtowns like Columbus, Cleveland, and Nashville, red-hot robotics and fashtech ecosystems are starting to froth. What this ongoing geographical debate obscures, however, is the bigger question of when to launch a start-up—not where.
Innovation and entrepreneurship in America’s higher education system is nothing new … The major difference now is that the most transformative and lucrative innovations are coming from students, not professors.
Stephen Kuhl and Kabeer Chopra, the co-founders of flat-pack, furniture start-up Burrow, are part of an emerging generation of young entrepreneurs and digitally-native vertical brands (DNVB) who are transforming their graduate and business school educations into real-life start-up incubators by taking advantage of new university-funded entrepreneurship centers, accelerator programs, and graduating at “escape velocity” by putting business plans and capital in place before their caps and gowns.
“Kabeer and I met 10 years ago when I was visiting my best friend from high school at McGill University in Canada,” Kuhl recalls. “We ended up in the same Wharton entrepreneurship class two years ago and over drinks one night we were talking about a class project and complaining about furniture. Couches in particular were the biggest pain point we kept coming back to. So we decided to work on a direct-to-consumer (D2C) sofa for the class, which eventually turned into Burrow. We didn’t know it at the time. But the best time to start a company is when you’re in business school. You have everything you need at your fingertips. And nothing to lose.”
Kuhl and Chopra just graduated from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business this past May. When they walked the commencement aisle, they already had $2.1 million in early-stage seed capital. Both are now 29, living and running Burrow from New York City with nine full-time employees. Neither of them had any experience in the furniture industry, textiles, ergonomics, or production supply chain management when they teamed up to launch Burrow last year in their spare time.
What they knew was their market. Kuhl herniated two discs in college while rowing. Chopra is always perfectly styled even in a T-shirt and sneakers. So when the duo launched Burrow’s first ergonomically-designed, flat-pack sofa this past spring, fashion and function drove the ship. Burrow had to look and feel like it could cost three times the price. But it had to ship direct to consumer and compete toe-to-toe with IKEA on Craigslist.
“The furniture industry hasn’t evolved in a hundred years,” Chopra tells me. “So we didn’t approach it with preconceived notions about how it should work. We just looked at how things could work better to make sense both from an affordability and accessibility perspective. What’s ironic is that the first few people in the industry who we talked to thought we were crazy. But everyone at Wharton supported our vision every step of the way.”
That business schools and university STEM programs are providing deeper resources and a more supportive culture for students looking to launch a start-up before graduating makes sense. Most MBA candidates and post-grads these days aren’t just checking the box on the way to a cushy desk at Goldman. They’re in it to make connections, build networks, surround themselves with mentors, learn through experience, and become better self-sufficient, self-motivated entrepreneurs. So why wouldn’t America’s leading universities and MBA programs provide the incubating resources to nurture a real-life start-up ecosystem rather than just teach isolated classes from theory? Read more …