Harker’s business and entrepreneurship (B.E.) department this summer introduced the Harker Incubator Program, one of the first high school incubator programs in the country. As a result, not only are two Harker student entrepreneurs well-positioned to take their business dreams to the next level, one has found a backer ready to help him get there. The five other members of the program took on various leadership roles that helped them become familiar with the entrepreneurial process.
The incubator is an intensive, student-led and community-supported program in which student entrepreneurs receive a seed grant, mentorship, academic curriculum and internal support from a student leadership team to help them develop and grow their startup companies while networking with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, startups and investors. Officially, the program ran from July 24 to Aug. 4, but entrepreneurs, teachers and student leaders worked all summer on the businesses.
The program supplies three of the critical ingredients for entrepreneurial success, said Michael Acheatel, who teaches the class: strategic advice and mentorship, a dedicated support team and seed funding.
Funding was provided by Harker via a generous supporter of the incubator program. Strategic advice and mentorship was provided by industry professionals, including seasoned entrepreneurs, serial investors, corporate executives, product marketers and technology developers. Students also visited mentor companies in the Bay Area. Acheatel, who teaches in in the B.E. department during the school year, provided dedicated support along the with the other student leaders in the program.
In the Beginning
In the spring, students submitted business plans and pitched their companies; after carefully considering the applicants, Acheatel and his student leadership team selected two student companies and things started moving.
Rising senior Nirban Bhatia, founder of Xpress Chef, has undertaken significant pivots with his business concept, a common occurrence in the startup world, and has nearly completed the development of an online marketplace that provides on-demand, in-home, private chef dining experiences. Xpress Chef is launching its pilot this summer. The company provides a personalized, less expensive alternative to the personal chef industry through a unique, vertical integration business model.
Bhatia’s strategic advisor has committed to funding his pilot program and linked him up with a local restaurateur who has committed to providing operational support – facilities and chefs – for the pilot program, said Acheatel.
Bhatia found the whole experience eye-opening. “I think my biggest takeaway is that entrepreneurship doesn’t come easy at all,” he said. “We hear about companies that have been bought for millions of dollars, but we never really realize how much blood, sweat and tears are necessary to make the smallest of ideas successful. Once you get your feet wet and actually begin to put together a business, it’s clear that there will always be challenges and surprises that jump out without warning, so you have to be aware and make sure every loose end is taken care of.”
Bhatia said his mentors were game changers. “The mentors I met through the incubator program have truly sprung me forward with their great advice, constructive criticism and support for my vision,” he noted. “The back and forth conversations with some of my mentors have led me to develop the final concept I will be pitching at the event on Friday. After reworking different business models through these last two weeks, I truly have to credit my final investor stage plan to the belief and support my mentors provided.
“Due to strategic partnerships, I have aligned with a Silicon Valley restaurateur and a serial entrepreneur, and a pilot program for the service should be up and running in the South Bay within a few weeks,” he said. “If all goes well, we anticipate growing our chef network and developing a full mobile application for the platform.
“This idea wouldn’t have come to fruition without the incubator,” said Bhatia. “The tremendous opportunity to connect with mentors and have access to a small amount of seed funding is a major incentive and motivator for entrepreneurs who have no other way to begin. I still remember the day I heard about the inaugural incubator program at a school meeting and I thought to myself, ‘This is my chance.'”
Meanwhile, Harker rising sophomore Mahi Kolla founded The Minty Boutique, a producer of artistic stationary supplies specializing in hand-crafted pins and clips. Launched in 2015, The Minty Boutique has sold over 100 units on Etsy with sales coming from the company’s social media marketing efforts.
The nascent company already has been offered partnership opportunities with online retailers and is actively expanding into brick-and-mortar retailers. Kolla is leveraging social media with sites on Etsy shop, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. This summer, Kolla launched an e-commerce site, expanded her product line to include notebooks, became an approved vendor at the Downtown San Jose Farmers Market and ran her first Google, Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns.
Kolla also found her mentors to be exceptionally helpful. “My biggest takeaway from the incubator summer program has been the connection I made with my mentors,” she said. “The mentors that Acheatel and the incubator officers have curated for both of the students’ companies are extremely helpful and committed to benefiting the students in any way possible.
“The mentors have been really helpful in building a brand around my product. They are very dedicated when working with the student. All of my mentors have followed up with me after our meeting to see how they can further assist me in my entrepreneurial journey. All of them have offered unique suggestions based on their area of expertise,” she said.
The incubator program has turbocharged her growth. “My company would not have grown as much as it has through the incubator,” noted Kolla. “The incubator program has provided me a clear plan for the next five years. I know exactly what I should be focusing on and how I should be expanding the company.
“I now know how to build a cohesive brand, how to analyze my customers’ behavior and how to act on this information. I have learned so many things from the incubator and I will forever be grateful for this amazing experience. I am really excited to showcase what I learned and how my company has grown in the last two weeks. My company has always been a passion project until I realized it has the potential to be a major brand in the stationery industry,” Kolla finished.
Over the summer, the two entrepreneurs were busy. Kolla rented a booth at the Downtown San Jose Farmers Market to test that environment. Sales surpassed expectations and The Minty Boutique has become an approved vendor. She also ran test marketing campaigns on social media sites, developed her own website to supplement her Etsy site and built up her inventory.
Bhatia continued to develop and modify his online platform, conducted surveys and did some alpha testing. He has gone through several iterations of his product and business model. This experience not only saved him significant time and money, but provided him with invaluable lessons that most first-time entrepreneurs learn the hard way. During the two-week program, the entrepreneurs brought their pitches up to investor-grade quality by refining their pitch decks and doing mock presentations.
The two entrepreneurs also saw startups in action. Bhatia toured Y Media Labs in Redwood City, a world-class mobile app design and development company, where he learned from the senior product manager about the company’s development philosophy, strategies and methodologies. Bhatia also had a rap session with the CEO to discuss product strategy. Kolla toured Minted in San Francisco, an online marketplace of independent artists and designers, where she met with professionals from marketing, artist relations, partnerships, operations and finance.
It Takes a Village
The five student officers who came at the program from the administrative angle gained many of the same insights as the entrepreneurs, as they helped them prepare for the Startup Showcase, the culminating investor pitch event on Aug. 4. They are rising seniors Rahul Mehta, executive director; Vignesh Panchanatham, operations director; Kaitlin Hsu, marketing director; Shreyas Chandrashekaran, curriculum development director; and rising junior Jessica Pan, public relations director.
These five students made calls to recruit and cultivate mentors, helped plan the Startup Showcase, tirelessly supported the student entrepreneurs and helped plan the curriculum for the full-time class coming in the 2018-19 school year.
“As the director of the incubator,” said Mehta, “I learned a lot about leadership and dedication. As a result of this program, [my] leadership has gone beyond helping others and into also empowering and inspiring individuals to achieve their vision. I am excited for the future of the incubator.”
Mehta and the other class members pitched in where needed to help the two entrepreneurs get ready for their next steps. “I helped the entrepreneurs in various ways,” said Mehta. “For one company, I helped with setting up marketing and ad campaigns, finding retailers and setting up the website. For the other company, I helped with recruiting chefs, designing the pitch deck and setting up his MVP (minimum viable product).”
That work was instructive. “It became clear that startups operate at a lightning-fast pace,” said Mehta. “Often, they pivot solutions in the span of days and have to start all over again. Nevertheless, their struggles are all to create the best product, which is what every startup aims to do.”
Chandrashekaran had a similar experience in finding strength as a leader. “I gained leadership experience and a keen outsider’s view of what it takes to succeed in the startup atmosphere,” he said. “Looking at the process through an unbiased lens really helped me see the important aspects of starting a business and growing it. I worked on websites, created ads, connected entrepreneurs to professionals and helped out however they asked me to. It was like I was an early-stage employee of their company.”
He noted that the administrative team had some critical assignments. “The officer team planned the entire two-week program, while acting as support for Mr. Acheatel, and worked to get mentors and contacts to help with the program,” he said.
Pan, the group’s public relations officer, said she gained knowledge that will be invaluable to her in the future. “The class gave me better insight to how real business works,” she said. “This method is much better than just learning content from a book. We helped others and learned how the student entrepreneurs run their businesses. We also improved our skills in event organizing and leading a team.”
Summer Program to Regular Curriculum
The incubator program aimed to teach the students problem solving, said Acheatel. “Entrepreneurship, boiled down to its simplest form, is all about problem solving,” he said. “Invariably, every startup will hit roadblock after roadblock. All successful entrepreneurs have one trait in common: resiliency, a never-give-up attitude and the ability to see problems as opportunities.”
Student entrepreneurs experienced problem solving firsthand by creating products that meet customer needs; business models that deliver value; work environments that attract and retain high-quality employees; partner and investor agreements that provide the equity and sweat equity needed; and highly targeted marketing campaigns that attract target customers, Acheatel noted.
That problem solving emphatically included the officer team who, along with the above named duties, created websites; set up Google Adwords, Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns; and created pitch decks and financial projections along with providing general support, said Acheatel.
“A cool thing about the student officer leadership program is that they are learning many of the same lessons that our student entrepreneurs have learned through their firsthand experience supporting the entrepreneurs, along with learning how to serve their program constituents to ensure their success,” he said.
Acheatel realized early in the summer that the program required more work than could be done effectively in two weeks, so the incubator will become a regular, semester-long course in 2018-19 school year. Students wishing to continue for another semester may do so with teacher approval. That class will host about five student startups, dependent on student interest and the viability of their proposed companies.
“The semester course starting in fall 2018 will include entrepreneurship basics, ideation and product development, intellectual property, market and competitive research, business model development, funding, team building, marketing, operations and finance, in addition to the one-on-one coaching,” said Acheatel. Given the success achieved by the first pair of entrepreneurs, and the knowledge the student officers gained, the class should take the Harker Incubator Program to a new level.
From Concept to Pitch
The Startup Showcase presented an opportunity for the two student entrepreneurs to pitch investors, hoping for encouragement and advice. Kolla and Bhatia each gave detailed presentations explaining their companies’ products and services, including what differentiated them from other businesses in their respective markets. Each of the presentations also included growth plans and projections.
“I think my pitch went well!” exclaimed Kolla. “I was able to convey my brand to the mentors, show them what my goals are and explain where the company will be going in the future.”
Kolla said that for future pitches, she would like to be more interactive, perhaps inviting someone in attendance to unbox one of her packages. Of the feedback she received from the panelists, Kolla said she most appreciated the comments about expanding her company’s product line. “All of my competitors have many more products than I currently have. This puts me at a disadvantage, since there aren’t many options for a customer to buy more than one type of product in their order,” she said. “For example, right now, customers can only purchase bow paperclips. Though they come in different colors and patterns, a customer would be more likely to spend more if there were matching notebooks or pens to go with their clip.”
Bhatia felt that despite a few “rookie mistakes,” he delivered his pitch well. “At my next pitch, I want to slow down a little bit, so I can emphasize certain points rather than glossing over them,” he said. “I guess once you’re in the heat of the pitch, you don’t realize how fast you’re going till you realize that you’ve skipped a few important points.”
After receiving some pointed questions from the panelists, Bhatia decided that he would like to rework certain parts of his plan. “A couple investor judges commented about some chef logistics and that has led me to revise the overall chef vetting and training process, so Xpress Chefs can provide a perfect experience regardless of circumstance,” he said.
“You had everything from boutique to big, bold and dangerous,” said Harker parent John Keller (Devin, grade 10, Haley, grade 12, and Johnathan ’16), a serial entrepreneur and investor who served as an investor judge. “It’s great to see kids at this age already dealing and grappling with real-world questions that some of the judges are firing at them, so I thought it was very impressive.”
Harker alumna Sonya Huang ’10, a private equity professional and another investor judge, found the presentations very thoughtful, which was impressive for less-experienced entrepreneurs. “Working in the industry, you see ad execs pulling millions of dollars that haven’t put that level of thought into it.”