(Poets&Quants) — On a grey and blustery Boston evening, four second-year MBAs are deep in conversation in Harvard’s i-Lab, with eyes glued to a flat-screen TV displaying a PowerPoint pitch deck. Should they tweak the wording, drop a slide, rearrange the graphics?
The pressure is on. The next day, April 29, they’ll present their business idea at the finals of Harvard Business School’s annual New Venture Competition, the school’s capstone entrepreneurial event where students go head-to-head for $150,000 in cash and in-kind prizes.
The stakes are high. Unlike some of the other 135 teams competing in the event, this particular group of Harvard MBAs already has a bona fide business. The $50,000 first place prize in the New Business Track (the contest also includes Social Enterprise and Alumni categories) would propel their startup forward. All they need to do is sell the judges on their idea.
But there’s one major hurdle: Will the judges take them seriously? After all, when your business offers personal profiles for arranged marriages in India, you have some explaining to do — and they only have 15 minutes to make their case.
The four students are among thousands of MBAs entering a growing number of business plan competitions around the world. Entrepreneurship is hot, and MBAs are forming and joining teams to out-pitch each other everywhere from Texas to Thailand. In the process, they’re gaining valuable feedback, exposure, and sometimes — if they’re lucky — thousands of dollars.
The four hatched the idea in the winter of 2013 during HBS’s required FIELD course, where they were asked to create a business from scratch. They were an unlikely fit — better suited for a portrait in a diversity-extolling college magazine than startup success. Yu Kakitsubo, a Japanese finance professional studied math in college, a major he shared with the sole American in the group — Allyson Pritchett. The similarities ended there. Pritchett, a former McKinsey consultant, had started her own music label and co-founded an online apparel and accessories platform. Slovakian Peter Luptak also cut his teeth in consulting at McKinsey and came to HBS with the intention of starting a business by graduation — something he’d already ticked off with a cyber security service. Pratik Agarwal, an electrical engineer from India, had two startups under his belt and an internship with Airbnb. Their original FIELD team also included students from Kenya and Haiti.
During a late-night brainstorming session over pad thai, the conversation turned to Pratik Agarwal’s search for a spouse. As the only Indian in the group, his arranged marriage had attracted the interest of his co-founders. “So have you found a wife yet?” teased Pritchett. On the defensive, Agarwal pulled up a schlocky personal profile, or biodata, his father had assembled. These documents are forwarded, mostly via email, among Indian families looking to arrange a match. Once an Indian reaches marriage age, his or her family can expect an inbox filled with biodata emails. Many are poorly constructed, a serious handicap for an otherwise suitable candidate.
The team agreed that Agarwal’s profile put him at a disadvantage. He showed them one he’d crafted for himself: a slick Photoshop’ed portfolio. “Nice, now you’ve got a competitive edge,” Pritchett said.
A quick Google search revealed that roughly 90% of Indians still participate in arranged marriages. With more than 10 million weddings every year, India’s wedding industry is estimated to be worth more than $25 billion and is growing at 30% annually, according to the BBC. A business idea began to form: a simple service to create professional-quality biodata profiles. The team named it, appropriately easyBiodata and hired a developer in Slovakia to build a website.
EasyBiodata rode a wave of validation after nabbing fourth place out of 150 teams in the FIELD competition. The team was running a business and going to B-school on the side. “On a busy week, it’s really a full-time job — preparing for the New Venture Competition, I was up until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. every night,” Kakitsubo says.
Class work may have taken a backseat, but the team says HBS has been critical to their business. They make use of the i-Lab every day, taking advantage of the writeable-wall workspaces, free legal counsel, venture capitalist feedback, and a snack supply that would make nutritionists cringe. “This is how they keep us from switching to investment banking,” quips Luptak, gesturing toward a stash of granola bars, Kraft Easy Mac, and Hershey’s miniatures.
To test market demand for the matchmaking option, Kakitsubo manually screens several hundred profiles and sends 50 to 100 match emails daily. A math and finance geek, he’s taken a quant approach and scoured MIT research papers for correlations between successfully married couples — so far, roughly 10% of his matches have responded positively. “It’s Indian matchmaking with Japanese precision,” Luptak says.
By competition day, the site boasted more than 16,000 users and 33,000 unique visitors. Last semester, the team introduced a payment model that charges customers $12 to build and share biodata profiles. Users can access the service for free by sharing their profile five times or posting a link to Facebook. EasyBiodata is profitable and growing 15% week-over-week, despite investing $0 in marketing.
One year after forming their idea, the founders of easyBiodata had a promising business. Now, on the same stage where they first introduced easyBiodata, they had a chance to show the school that they deserved the grand prize.
On competition day, April 29, the easyBiodata team emerges from Comnock Hall visibly relieved. They’ve just finished presenting their pitch before 14 judges. But the relief is temporary. They still have to prepare a 90-second pitch for the New Venture Competition finale for the Audience Choice Award.
With only a half hour to go, they opt to take the audience through their business — from inspiration to idea to (hopefully) investment. Pritchett will do the honors, but Agarwal’s experience will be the vehicle. By explaining arranged marriage through an HBS student, they hope to dispel the stigma around the tradition.
The finale resembles a nerdy pep rally — Kanye West blares from the speakers, while a local dance troupe performs a frenzied routine in front of a movie screen. Meredith McPherron, director of Harvard Business School’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, opens the event with an ode to entrepreneurs, “You are passionate, stubborn, full of conviction about just about everything, absolutely energizing and at times exhausting, and almost always, always quite irrational and unreasonable. And for that we are entirely grateful because unlike reasonable and rational people, it’s unreasonable and irrational ones that change the world.”
One after another, students take the stage, each touting an idea they promise will change the world, whether it’s keeping busy professionals fit on the road with workout videos or employing Nigerian farmers to make tomato paste. They’ve got 90 seconds to convince the audience.
Pritchett approaches the stage, and delivers a confident and compelling pitch, finishing just as the giant digital clock on the screen behind her switches to zero. But the competition is stiff. The SplitNGo team pitches their mobile payment app with an awkward date sketch — complete with a table, chairs, and an uncomfortable couple. The dating duo enthusiastically part ways after SplitNGo separates the bill in seconds. “What you just witnessed is the future of restaurants,” the team’s spokesman announces.
Finally, the big moment arrives. EasyBiodata has high hopes. With bated breath, they wait for the winner, and the award goes to … Alfred, a virtual butler service. Booya Fitness, the workout video platform, claims runner up, while SplitNGo steals the Audience Favorite Award.
The easyBiodata team maintains their smiles and climbs on stage to join the finalists for a photo. The disappointment is evident, but it’s clear this won’t mark the end of their business. The team would forge ahead with or without the $50,000. “We have a history of coming in fourth and we’ve been able to get it up to here, so this gives us motivation to keep working on it,” Kakitsubo says.
Their eyes are on the future — not failure. That’s the essence of an entrepreneur — a little delusion, a lot of dedication, and a dream.