01 Sep 2017

Case Study: Confidence Builder

How can a young company challenge the status quo?
by April White


Illustration by Suharu Ogawa

Confi began in 2015 as a free online resource for credible and relatable answers to health questions that women weren’t comfortable asking their friends or partners. In its first year, the company, led by cofounder Tess Brooks (MBA 2016), collaborated with doctors and college students to produce information on sexual and mental health topics that was both accurate and interesting to young women.

But as the Confi team talked with students about subjects such as contraception and gender identity, they recognized another, even more urgent need: sexual assault prevention on college campuses. “We didn’t feel that enough was being done or that students were being engaged,” Brooks says. “We really believed that we’re well positioned to do something about that.”

Confi is now piloting a sexual assault prevention program at several universities. Based on a national survey the company undertook on the assumptions college students hold about sex, relationships, and sexual assault, the program is conducted in a group setting to encourage roommates and classmates to discuss these difficult topics. Its student focus and interactivity differentiate the Confi program—most other prevention programs are designed to meet compliance standards, not foster conversation—but the marketplace is dominated by a few big companies. Schools pay about $1 per student each year for such programs; there are about 20 million undergraduate students enrolled in US colleges and universities.

The Question:

Confi’s online health resource is marketed directly to students, but the go-to-market strategy for its sexual assault prevention program is less clear. How can Confi break into the market with this new product—and potential future programs—and where should it start: at the grassroots with the student groups with which they are familiar, but which often have small budgets, or at the top with the university administration, where the company will face more bureaucratic hurdles but potentially find a larger audience?

The Answers:

I would run both go-to-market strategies in parallel: The students represent an audience that is familiar with Confi, so market acceptance and credibility is already there. The universities are able to roll out the program, so Confi will achieve critical mass, but it is a longer sales process. Confi can leverage student acceptance as part of its pitch to the universities.
—Claudine Cohen (GMP 22, 2017)

Unless the program can address the compliance component and do it significantly better than existing programs, there is little chance for traction through the universities. Assuming the program is truly valuable and insightful, it needs to be rolled out through student organizations (clubs, the Greek system, etc.) and funded by nonprofits or grants. Another choice would be a freemium model, but that will be difficult to do without alienating the users, given the service we are talking about.
—Paris Kyriacopoulos (MBA 2010)

Neither proposed target market seems to be the source of a viable business model. I doubt students can or will pay for info they can get from the internet or they already know. And universities will be happy with the conventional wisdom. So assuming this info adds insight and value (which remains to be proven), I would seek capital sources such as foundations and nonprofits that will spend money on a service outreach.
—Susan Stupin (MBA 1979)

Confi has a much-needed and timely product. It should approach the universities in a variety of ways. For instance, it can go through the Greek system: National sororities and fraternities have a vested interest in preventing sexual assault on campuses. Confi should also approach the student affairs offices on college campuses.
—Lisa Bleich (MBA 1992)

The bureaucrats control the budget, which is about $20 million annually, so Confi will have a better chance of trying to partner with them to capture as much of that revenue as possible. However, if Confi can work with students, it may be able to indirectly influence the schools to increase their annual budgets to include its exclusive offer. In this case, Confi will have a protected market share and revenue stream, at least in the beginning.
—Lei Huang (PLDA 22, 2016)

Got a case? To take part in a future “Case Study,” send an outline of your company’s challenge to bulletin@hbs.edu

Case Study Update


In March 2016, Bulletin readers advised Lovepop cofounders Wombi Rose and John Wise (both MBA 2015) on the positioning challenge facing their unique pop-up card company: Lovepop makes a product that looks a bit like a greeting card but acts much more like a gift. “How do we position our product in a market that doesn’t understand what we do?” asked Rose. “How do we create a category?”

How they answered the question: “It’s a question that’s still top of mind,” says Rose. The company has focused on defining its brand as one that provides “wonder, emotion, and meaning,” and communicating those values to consumers, primarily through direct online sales instead of the kiosks the company initially rolled out.

Where they are today: Lovepop, which gained publicity and an investment from an appearance on Shark Tank, has grown significantly in employees, revenue, and card production in the last year and a half. In early 2017, Lovepop sold its millionth card, and the company anticipates this year will bring in double the $6.7 million in revenue it saw in 2016.

New challenges: With rapid growth comes concerns about culture and scalability. “How do we preserve the incredible culture that we have internally as we grow the team?” asks Rose. “We’re in the fortunate position to be vertically integrated,” says Wise, but “how do we make sure we are investing in the right places to prepare for the growth of the next few years?”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2016, Section D

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