Where Are They Now? Podcast

How did Grubhub grow from a startup to a $7 billion food delivery giant? How did Braintree get a jump on the mobile payment market? The founders of those and other successful companies delve into their entrepreneurial journeys in a podcast series to mark the 25th anniversary of the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge, a top-ranked startup accelerator at the University of Chicago. The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation each week will present an interview with an alum of the program, conducted by professors and mentors.

Upcoming schedule of episodes:

  • NVC Overview: Why the NVC Works?
  • ExplORer Surgical
  • Benchprep
  • Simple Mills
  • Foxtrot
  • Power2Switch
  • Braintree
  • PrettyQuick
  • Grubhub
  • Andes STR, winner of the 2021 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge
Sebastian Rivas // Andes STR
Episode 10

Sebastian Rivas // Andes STR

June 17, 2021

Growing up in Chile in a family of entrepreneurs, Sebastian Rivas since childhood has been on the lookout for problems that need solving.

He launched his first business at age 9, selling avocados door to door, and his second at 11, selling knives to those same customers. His side businesses put him through college and business school.

And yet Rivas was shocked – genuinely stunned – when his latest company, Andes STR, was announced as the first-place winner of the 2021 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge. His team received more than $681,000 in investment – by far the largest award in the 25-year history of the competition, in what NVC professors say was the most competitive cohort they have ever seen.

Andes STR is a proptech company that helps people buy and manage short-term rental properties. Since winning the NVC in early June — a week before Rivas’ graduation from Chicago Booth — it has received interest from 20 additional investors, including institutional investors, he said.

In this episode, Rivas, MBA ’21, shares his journey with Mark Tebbe, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Booth and an NVC professor. He discusses how he came up with the idea for Andes STR and made it profitable from the start, how he navigated the plunge in the vacation rental market during the pandemic, and how he went from giving what he thought was the worst business plan presentation in his NVC class to the best.

Read more. >>

Matt Maloney // Grubhub
Episode 9

Matt Maloney // Grubhub

June 10, 2021

Matt Maloney admits he had a bit of an ego when he entered the New Venture Challenge. He had already launched Grubhub, had a few customers, and had landed at a top business school.

But during his first presentation to the NVC judges, he fell on his face.

“You could tell mid-way through, the blank stares, people were expecting unit model economics,” Maloney, MBA ’10, recalls. “They’re expecting financial plan. What do you need to invest? What’s the runway? What’s the outcome? What’s the next round? What’s your marketing plan? What’s your hiring plan? We weren’t even doing a good job of explaining the technology and the product itself.”

Maloney followed the advice to speak to all of the Booth advisors he could in order to gain insights on everything from marketing to quantifying the opportunity. Grubhub ended up tying for first-place in the 2006 NVC and the following year secured a $1.1 million Series A.

“We didn’t change the product. The opportunity didn’t change. The solution didn’t change. It was completely about how did I go about communicating to potential investors the opportunity, the solution, and the potential payout,” Maloney said.

Chicago-based Grubhub, which went public in 2014, has since become a mammoth food delivery company. A deal to be acquired by Amsterdam-based Just Eat Takeaway for $7.3 billion is set to close June 15.

In this episode, Maloney, who continues as Grubhub’s CEO, speaks with Mark Tebbe, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Booth who calls Maloney the “poster child” for the NVC.

They discuss the leadership challenges at a fast-growing company, why some markets were not successful for Grubhub, and the difficulty of learning how to sell.

Read more. >>

Coco Meers // PrettyQuick
Episode 8

Coco Meers // PrettyQuick

June 3, 2021

Coco Meers’ career has centered on helping women look and feel their best. When she caught the entrepreneurship bug and looked for a pain point to solve in that space, she kept remembering a long flight delay she had when traveling between Paris and New York and how she wished she could spend the time getting an eyebrow wax in town – if only she knew what salons were good, nearby, and available.

Her idea for PrettyQuick was to offer a marketplace for booking beauty services much like OpenTable does for restaurant reservations. She chose to attend Chicago Booth so she could take the idea through the New Venture Challenge, where in 2011 she tied for third place and received $10,000.

She recalls presenting to the panel of judges, which at the time was overwhelmingly male, and feeling that they couldn’t quite identify with the problem.

“With the emergency of eyebrow and bikini wax booking, I didn’t get a lot of confirmatory nods at the time,” Meers, MBA ’14, laughed.

Read more. >>

Bryan Johnson // Braintree
Episode 7

Bryan Johnson // Braintree

May 27, 2021

Growing up in a small, religious town in Utah, Bryan Johnson felt he existed in a video game where the rules were all mapped out. His favorite part of the day as a kid were the early mornings he spent wandering the fields with his dog, shooting at targets with his BB gun, which gave him a feeling of “endless possibility.”

Now he’s playing in a video game of his own making, as he puts it, that allows him to explore the “infinite expanse” of the brain and how it might be measured and shaped to help humanity thrive.

But before he could found Kernel, a neurotech company building scalable brain-recording devices, Johnson had to sell Braintree – a pioneering mobile payment platform that he took through the New Venture Challenge.

In this podcast episode, Johnson, MBA ’07, speaks with Starr Marcello, deputy dean of MBA programs at Chicago Booth and formerly executive director of the Polsky Center.

Read more. >>

Seyi Fabode // Power2Switch
Episode 6

Seyi Fabode // Power2Switch

May 20, 2021

As a Black founder, Seyi Fabode has experienced the challenge of investors taking him seriously.

Fabode, an immigrant from Nigeria, recalls an investor calling him and his African-American partner in his first venture, Power2Switch, “boys.” It happened again 10 years later, after Fabode had founded the clean water company Varuna Tech.

“I have two kids, I’m a grown man,” Fabode said. “And you can tell there’s this, I’ll say, discount and disregard and disrespect that is just embedded in some of these conversations that I can’t imagine some of my White counterparts experience.”

In this podcast episode, Fabode speaks about his entrepreneurship journey with Ellen Rudnick, a senior advisor on entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth and the first executive director of the Polsky Center.

Read more. >>

Mike LaVitola // Foxtrot
Episode 5

Mike LaVitola // Foxtrot

May 13, 2021

Foxtrot cofounder and CEO Mike LaVitola has become expert at hearing “no.” He was not initially accepted into the New Venture Challenge, and after he talked his way in, his team did not make the finals. Despite steady revenue, it took years to put together a seed round.

But LaVitola remained committed to his idea of a reimagined convenience store, with curated locally-made products that could be ordered online for delivery on demand.

The ecommerce model soon evolved to include physical stores after Foxtrot’s first distribution warehouse, in the West Loop, became a community gathering place and organic marketing for the brand.

“People were in and having an espresso in the morning and taking meetings there and grabbing wine after work, and it just became this total embodiment for the brand,” LaVitola said.

Chicago-based Foxtrot in February announced a $45 million Series B round. It has eight stores in Chicago, two in Dallas and two in Washington, DC, with plans to double its store count this year. It is also recently launched nationwide shipping.

Read more. >>

Katlin Smith // Simple Mills
Episode 4

Katlin Smith // Simple Mills

May 6, 2021

Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills, wowed her first buyer with a muffin recipe using almond flour. Now the Chicago-based natural baking brand is the category leader in baking mixes and crackers. Its products are in more than 27,000 stores, from Whole Foods to Walmart.

Smith, who had her products in just four stores when she started at Chicago Booth, was a co-winner of the 2014 Edward L. New Venture Challenge. The NVC helped her understand the importance of spending on marketing for her brand and how to make a case to investors, she said.

Still, the first funding round was tough. Her parents mortgaged their house to give her $200,000 to get her company to a point where it could raise money.

“It’s hard to sleep at night when you know your parents’ retirement hinges on your business doing well,” Smith said.

Read more. >>

Ashish Rangnekar // BenchPrep
Episode 3

Ashish Rangnekar // BenchPrep

April 30, 2021

Ashish Rangnekar grew up in a sleepy town in India where success looked like a white-collar job, not entrepreneurship.

But early on he encountered a problem: he had few resources to prepare for college entrance exams. A decade later, when he was living in New York and planning for the GMAT, he realized test prep options were still lacking outside of lugging a big book around or attending expensive in-person classes.

It was the dawn of the Apple app store, so Rangnekar and a friend launched a mobile GMAT test prep app, priced it at $9.99 per download, and hoped some friends might sign up. In the first month, it was downloaded by more than 1,000 people in 20 different countries. Read more. >>

Jennifer Fried // ExplORer Surgical
Episode 2

Jennifer Fried // ExplORer Surgical

April 22, 2021

Jennifer Fried started her MBA at Chicago Booth with dreams of a career in venture capital. By the time she graduated, she had launched a healthcare tech company that helps ensure surgical procedures go smoothly — and today her product is becoming a must-have in operating rooms. Read more. >>

The Story of NVC
Episode 1

The Story of NVC

April 15, 2021

When it launched 25 years ago, the University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge (NVC) was a pioneer in helping business school students get their startups off the ground.

Now the program is consistently ranked as the nation’s top university accelerator, with its alumni companies having raised nearly $2 billion in capital and achieved more than $8.5 billion in mergers and exits. It has expanded to include five separate tracks.

What are the secrets to its success? Read more. >>

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