Ina Foalea leads a brainstorming session in Morris Hall during this year’s Startup Lockdown.
It is 6:30 p.m. on the Wednesday of Spring Break. But Ina Foalea (MBA 2018) is in work mode as she stretches out on the couch in the first-floor lounge of Morris Hall, biting her lower lip. She needs a business idea. Now.
Propped up on her elbows and staring at her laptop as ideas furiously dance in her head, she considers all possibilities.
What about a monthly subscription box sent to a woman just before her period? Tampons. Chocolate. Stickers. One of those cheesy “Hang in There, Baby” posters with a kitten dangling from a tree limb. One visit to Google kills that idea; there are already dozens of companies catering to premenstrual women.
What about a service that can make a visit to an urgent care clinic more efficient and draw people there rather than to an emergency room? Maybe a way to preregister patients?
Or maybe something fashion-related? How long does it take people to get dressed in the morning? Is choosing what to wear stressful? Is an interactive app the answer?
That fashion app idea has been rattling around in Foalea’s head for a while, but she’s not sure how to execute it. She decides to sleep on it. Come morning, Foalea is charged with leading a team of peers to turn one of these kernels of an idea into a business—in one day.
This is Startup Lockdown, a small student-created, student-driven program that turns Spring Break into an entrepreneurship boot camp: five students, five days, five different business ideas.
This innovative alternative to Spring Break was born during a brainstorming session among HBS classmates four years ago.
It started with Emma Toshack (MBA 2014) wondering what the ultimate TEDx talk about entrepreneurship would look like. She discussed the question with Marcela Sapone (MBA 2015), who had just launched Whitespace, a venture lab and startup incubator. The women then recruited fellow first-year MBAs Mike Chang (MBA 2014), Jessica Beck (MBA 2015), and Okalo Ikhena (MBA 2014) and began to shape a program that was as much about building leadership skills and working relationships as it was about building businesses.
Planning the program for Spring Break would give students time to dedicate solely to fleshing out their business ideas from concept to product without the outside distraction of coursework. “It was meant to be very intense and very structured: take a concept idea and get to a real prototype for customers to interact with by the end of the day,” Sapone says.
On Wednesday of that first Startup Lockdown, the group worked on a concept then called Doorman, a service providing customers with their own on-call butler to handle daily chores like picking up dry cleaning, watering plants, grocery shopping, and making their beds. Doorman morphed into Hello Alfred, which went on to win the School’s New Venture Competition in 2014 and then, later that year, San Francisco’s TechCrunch Disrupt, raising $12.5 million in funding. Guided by cofounders Sapone and Beck, the service currently operates in Boston, New York, and San Francisco.
It wasn’t the only great idea to come out of the initial Lockdown. “At the end of the week we were very sure this [program] was actually very cool,” Sapone says. Caitlin Strandberg (MBA 2016) picked up the mantle in 2015; Sapone and Beck made end-of-day calls to the team. The program has since been handed down each year, an organic part of the growing HBS entrepreneurial ecosystem, which now also includes Startup Bootcamp for would-be founders during the January Wintersession.
Foalea, Filippos Lymperopoulos, Alison Shin, and Nik Iubel discuss customer feedback.
Alison Shin and Adam Behrens (both MBA 2018), who organized this year’s Lockdown, were inspired by Andrea Coravos (MBA 2017), a member of the 2016 team and another success story. Her Lockdown idea for Phosify, a marketplace for neurotechnology digital health products, was accepted into the Harvard i-lab Venture Incubation Program and the Rock Accelerator; she is now working on it full-time with cofounders Brian Smith (MBA 2017) and Sofia Warner (MBA/MD 2017).
That lineage is a selling point for the team. “The alumni commitment is really cool,” says Shin, adding that the Lockdown experience creates a tightly knit networking community of alumni interested in the startup sector. To create the 2017 team, “Adam and I started reaching out to people we were excited to work with,” she says. “We also tried to get people who had different backgrounds and interests than us to make a diverse group.”
Shin, a Korean-born mechanical engineer who has worked in high-tech finance, and Behrens, a software engineer from Illinois with finance experience, recruited Foalea, a Romanian-born accountant with a background in health care, and Nik Iubel (MBA 2018), a Brazilian with a background in and passion for journalism. The fifth member of the team, Filippos Lymperopoulos, a Greek national, is an undergrad at Olin College of Engineering, Shin’s alma mater, who has applied to the School’s 2+2 Program.
Despite their different backgrounds, the students are here for similar reasons. Startup Lockdown is a good trial run for a budding entrepreneur, says Behrens. He’s hoping the week will help him answer two important questions: “Am I really the person who is going to start a company? Am I really the person who leads a team?”
By 8:30 Thursday morning, Foalea is ready. Today, she will shepherd the Startup Lockdown team through 12 to 14 intense hours of brainstorming, market research, and prototype building to test the business idea she settled on just a few hours ago.
A little less nervous than she was the night before, Foalea joins her teammates for breakfast and some reflection on the first three days of the Lockdown. It has been a “roller coaster,” Lymperopoulos says. “And all roller coasters are fun.”
“I’m afraid of roller coasters,” Foalea admits.
Upstairs in Morris Hall, they set up camp for the day, plugging in laptops at a table in front of a wall-mounted white board. Another table provides more sustenance for an epic brainstorming session: chocolate-covered pretzels, sesame-flavored pita chips, a tub of almond butter, skinny pretzel sticks, and an electric kettle so that Lymperopoulos can maintain a steady stream of pour-over coffee.
The team takes a moment to digest the one-sheet Foalea has emailed them introducing TAMO, her fashion app, an acronym for Then a Miracle Occurs. It’s a favorite saying of HBS professor Shikhar Ghosh, Folea says.
Over the course of a day, sketches are transformed into a prototype that the team can show potential customers. (prototype images Courtesy Filippos Lymperopoulos)
Foalea takes the floor, dry erase marker in her hand. She explains to the team that TAMO is an app that contains all the contents of a user’s closet and removes the stress of figuring out what to wear in the morning by making the decision for him or her.
Her initial presentation is tentative; she is not sure where to go with the idea. Then the brainstorming starts. The suggestions whip around as Foalea organizes them on the white board. Shin says the app should sync to your calendar and the weather. Lymperopoulos wants it to tell you what your date is wearing so you don’t clash. Iubel thinks it should connect with your friends’ accounts, so that you don’t wear the same outfit to a party.
No idea is dismissed. The brainstorm becomes a tornado: It should allow feedback from friends on your outfit. It should remind you to bring your gym clothes. It should suggest clothes to purchase based on your style—or maybe on what your favorite celebrities are wearing. And it should definitely remind you not to wear the same outfit on the second date that you did on the first.
“Let’s make fashion smart,” Shin quips, a phrase Foalea later borrows as the perfect tagline.
Foalea looks at her watch: 11:45 a.m. “Let’s get started on creating the app mock-ups before lunch,” she says. Behrens breaks out the art supplies: paper, scissors, colored pencils.
Soon the white board is covered in the designs constructed by each member of the team, five pieces of white paper covered in Post-it notes in every color of the rainbow, and flow charts exhibiting varying degrees of artistic ability and detail. For nearly an hour, the students discuss the merits of each mock-up, dissecting and extracting the top ideas as they continue to build TAMO.
By 12:43 p.m. the pace of the morning is catching up to them. The team is 43 minutes behind schedule; energy and blood sugar levels are crashing.
Foalea is hungry—four times in 30 minutes she has suggested breaking for lunch—but she is motivated by the team’s sustained stamina today and throughout the week. “I feel pretty energized to come in and contribute,” she says. “If you were thinking this much at work you wouldn’t be as energized or want to keep doing it.”
After lunch, it is time to hit Harvard Square for some preliminary market research. But first—coffee. “Nothing happens without coffee,” Foalea says. They break into two teams: Foalea, Behrens, and Lymperopoulos go in one direction, Shin and Iubel in the other direction toward Tatte Bakery & Café. After they caffeinate, Shin and Iubel circle around the cafe like nervous sharks, looking for potential customers.
Kate, a musician from New York in Boston for a gig, at first says she doesn’t need an app to tell her what to wear because she doesn’t care about fashion. As the conversation continues, she starts to realize that the app may just be perfect for her because she doesn’t care about fashion—one more decision to take off her plate. “If I could just get a text that would tell me what to wear that would be crazy,” she says. Two more women they speak to in the cafe are intrigued by an app that could tell them what to pack for a trip.
Returning to campus, the team shares the feedback they received from about a dozen people. “People’s faces lit up,” Behrens says.
From the research, Foalea determines her key demographic: women, ages 24–35, who are happy with their style but would like assistance. “A young professional who jazzes things up and spends an average amount on clothes,” she says.
It is now 4:30 p.m. Back in Morris Hall, the team huddles around their laptops designing the look and functionality of an app that, just hours earlier, was a shadow of an idea. Lymperopoulos shows the others how to create a mock app in Sketch, a digital design program. “Oh my God, this looks so good,” Foalea says, bouncing. “I love everything about this. Everything!” All of the trepidation she exhibited earlier in the day has melted, but the group is racing against the clock now, hoping to hit the streets again before dinner to test their prototype.
Behrens’s glasses have slid down his nose as he designs. His tongue sticks out as he stares, unblinking at his laptop screen, not making a sound. He asks Shin if he can change the music to put on some Azealia Banks, his “spirit artist.”
At 5:05 p.m. a dance party breaks out. Iubel glides across the floor snapping his fingers in the air as Foalea and Shin sway together to the beat.
Lymperopoulos hard at work on the day’s business concept.
Finally, at 5:45 p.m. the team starts the trek back to Harvard Square, this time with the visual examples they need—a mock app loaded onto their phones, giving a tester a real feel for how TAMO will operate.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” says Foalea. “We are really going to test this!”
Foalea approaches a young woman at Peet’s Coffee and opens the TAMO app on her phone to show her a text message that reads, “Hello Jessica, dress classy today for your meeting at 11:00 a.m. with the Mayor. You should wear: Black blazer (Banana Republic).” Different screens in the prototype show a photo of the suggested outfit for the day; shopping suggestions with prices and store information; a photo inventory of all of the user’s clothing and accessories; and a trip planner. “This is really useful, this is really cool,” the tester says.
The reaction is the same when Foalea hits up a man working at a cosmetics store, a customer at a used bookshop, and a clerk at the T-Mobile store. “I am the most disorganized person and getting ready can be super strenuous,” says Courtney, the customer service representative at T-Mobile. “I love this.”
“It’s actually really cool,” she can be heard saying to a coworker as the team leaves the store. “Did you hear that?” Foalea asks Behrens. They high five.
Bolstered by the positive feedback—the majority of testers said they would pay $5 for the app—Foalea says she is committed to following through with TAMO to see where she can take it. She knows it will be a lot of work and lists just a few of the necessary steps: She will need to find retail partners; the only way she sees to make money is through the suggested purchases. She will need to build a working app, and once the app is ready to launch, she will need fashion bloggers and influencers to be early evangelists and create buzz.
“I’m going to work on it, and any of you who want to join me are welcomed,” she tells the team, which has gathered at Beat Brasserie in the Square for dinner just 12 hours after first hearing about TAMO. “I can’t promise money, but I can promise equity.”
Lifting glasses of red wine, they toast to surviving today’s entrepreneurial sprint. Tomorrow, they will do it all again. For the fifth and final day of Lockdown, the team will take Shin’s business idea, ThinKloud, a mental health tool that provides anonymous peer-to-peer support group services, from concept to customer in one day, fueled, as most startups are, by coffee, sugar, and adrenaline.