Blog: 2013 summer speakers

By Sybil Sam

Howard Fish and Noah Simon of Fish Partners, a New York-based identity design firm that works with both new and more established business ventures, spoke to fellows about what is important in building a brand. They pointed out that while there is no manual for brand building, there are still frameworks that can be used to guide the process.  

noah simon howard fish

One of these frameworks is the object value system advanced by French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard.

Writing about consumerism, Baudrillard deconstructed the value that we assign to objects, asserting that this value comprises four separate components:

  • Functional value: Based on the utility of an object.
  • Trade value: The worth of an object in terms of its value in other goods or in currency.
  • Symbol value: The personal value that an individual ascribes an object.
  • Sign value: The prestige associated with an object, its value within a system of objects.

Until the latter half of the twentieth century, people prioritizes functional value because lots of products didn’t actually work. As a result of this, goods of the period were sold on the basis of function and trade value. But advances in modern manufacturing technology eventually leveled out the production playing field, ensuring that the quality of the majority of products was consistently high.

In this new world of standardized production, digital presence and government regulations, where high quality became the norm, true differentiation for products is derived from the sign and symbol value associated with them. It is important therefore to be able to identify, articulate and incorporate the sign and symbol value of a product into its brand.

Noah and Howard focused on what not to do:

1. Don’t define yourself for the present – define yourself for the future. Noah and Howard advised fellows not to focus solely on the present state of their business or product when crafting a brand identity for it. This is because businesses change, expanding or narrowing focus over time. If one focuses only on the present when defining a business, it will prove difficult and costly to redefine it in the future when things change. 

2. Don’t build your whole identity around the idea of being disruptive. Building a business identity around being disruptive or revolutionary removes the possibility for flexibility and change. It’s important that the brand a company or product builds today is still relevant and suitable tomorrow.

3. Don’t think, “Someone else will figure out how to market it.” It is always helpful to think about identity early; it’s not advisable to wait until later on in the product/business development process to get someone to do the marketing for you. An MIT study showed that student projects that took into consideration the brand and identity as part of the development process more often launched successfully than ones that did not. Making the branding piece of the puzzle a part of the conversation at the very beginning contributes to the ultimate success of a venture.

4. Don’t focus all your thinking on the immediate audience. Once again, it pays to be forward thinking. Even if there are current customers or VC firms committed to one’s product, it is important to think about potential customers and how one would define a brand that also appeals to them.

5. Don’t make a decision about name based on the URL that’s available. Many entrepreneurs build a brand identity around the url that they are able to obtain. This is not the most helpful strategy – rather one should build a brand centered on the product or business and its audience and then develop a digital strategy to suit their brand.

The Takeaway

Brand identity is not separate from one’s product or enterprise, it is a crucial component that provides a sustainable competitive advantage for a product or venture. As such, any investment in brand should be looked at as a capital investment.

Read More
By Sybil Sam

Michael Inwald (YEI ’09) believes there is logic to art. To him, even creative and obtuse ideas have a degree of logic to them. Michael applies logic to everything he does including his entrepreneurial endeavors. In this vein, he advised fellows and the tech bootcamp students to adopt a logic-driven approach to entrepreneurship by asking themselves the following questions.

michael inwald

Am I:


Michael has always liked cheese. He enjoys it so much so that his sisters would give him wheels of Brie cheese for his birthday. He also enjoys making grilled cheese sandwiches. His friends and family were so impressed with his sandwiches that they encouraged him to sell them. Interested in this prospect, he researched and found out that while grilled cheese sandwiches were among the top comfort foods in America, there were no quick-serve grilled cheese restaurants available.

Despite making this key finding, Michael still wondered if the idea of selling grilled cheese was innovative enough. What he eventually realized is that a business idea does not always have to be new to be feasible. He pointed out that some of the most successful companies didn’t invent the wheel – they simply improved it. Innovation does not have to be invention. Michael decided that he would be innovative by being the first grilled cheese chain providing quick-serve simple but tasty grilled cheese sandwiches.


Michael advised fellows to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of their chosen industry. Investors look to make sure that entrepreneurs have a good understanding of the market they are entering. Once one understands the market and the product, one can craft effective strategy. For example, Michael researched his competitors, which for him were burger, pizza and sandwich joints. He also learned all he could about the grilled cheese businesses that had succeeded and failed. Most of them failed as a result of overly expensive real estate and consequently high priced menu items. 


It is important to craft a business strategy that will give one’s product an edge in the market. Michael decided to build smaller shops to serve his sandwiches and charge less, a price akin to the price of a slice of pizza. He also preempted what his big brand competitors might do, such as introducing their own line of grilled cheese sandwiches. Knowing this, he developed a strategy to build dominance in the niche by focusing solely on grilled cheese sandwiches and making them as delicious as possible.


From the very inception of his business, Michael found sources of investment needed to run and grow the business. Michael advised fellows to be open to investment and not to be stingy with their equity for fear of losing control of their enterprises. He explained that if a person is running a company responsibly and ethically, he or she will likely maintain control of it. Nevertheless, he warned fellows to also be careful about the kinds of investors they accept deals from.


The first Cheeseboy store (then called “Grilled Cheese To Go”) opened in the Connecticut Post Mall. They got a lot of initial traction from customers and received press from a number of Connecticut-based news sources. The team knew they were on to something. They then established a store in Boston and expanded to further locations in the Northeast. Throughout the exhausting expansion process, Michael maintained his passion; he was passionate about hospitality, food and cheese, and that really fueled his drive to work harder. 

Team Oriented?

Michael told fellows that it is extremely difficult to start and build a company on one’s own. While this does not necessarily mean that one needs a co-founder, it does mean that one needs help. It’s important to be able to let intelligent and experienced people associated with the business make decisions when necessary. When in doubt, one can make major decisions in collaboration.


Being dedicated is largely connected with being passionate. A successful entrepreneur will be one who is dedicated to keep working and ready adapt when necessary.


An entrepreneur must be able to admit that he or she can be wrong. Humility is an important part of leadership necessary to build, lead and inspire a team.


As an entrepreneur, one is bound to come across many ethical dilemmas. For instance, Michael had planned to franchise the Cheeseboy restaurants early but when the time came to do so, he realized that the Cheeseboy system hadn’t been well established which could be harmful to franchisees. Michael and his team decided to hold off on franchising until they had the training infrastructure and experience with multiple stores necessary to properly guide franchisees. Choices like this are inherently hard to make. Had he franchised early, he could have made a significant amount of money, but had he done that and the Cheeseboy concept had proven to be defective, it would have damaged the whole brand.

The Takeaway

Passion is a key element of success, and is particularly necessary to outlast difficult stretches. It’s also important to find a capable team and trust your team, to lead with humility and be dedicated to your work. Finally, when it comes to hard decisions, an entrepreneur has to be ethical and assess what is right for the business long-term.

Read More
By Sybil Sam

Kevin Ryan (YC ’85), says “there’s nothing more fun in life than building a successful startup.” The founder of several successful companies, including 10gen, Business Insider, ShopWiki, and Gilt Groupe, described some of the crucial focus points for building a successful startup that he has learned from his extensive experience creating businesses.

kevin ryan gilt

Product at the Center

“It’s all about the product,” Kevin explained to fellows. The product is at the core of all business, and, as such, researching and then reacting to the customers’ response to it is imperative. A product or service should be so good that people tell their friends about it. He thus advised fellows to work hard to make excellent products for customers.

Kevin also explained that successful businesses do not have to revolve around new products or ideas. He told fellows to think of Google and Facebook. Google was not the first search engine developed nor was Facebook the first social network. What distinguished these companies from their competitors was that they were able to execute better than their competitors early on and produce better products that consumers preferred.

Powered by the Team

Building a solid, capable team is crucial to the success of a business venture. Kevin advised fellows to think of their venture team as a sports team. He explained that, while strategy is important for all sports teams, one first needs to acquire talented players to win games. The team working on a startup is so important that, in some cases, investors invest in a project simply because of the team attached to it. When the team at DoubleClick, one of the companies Kevin helped build as CEO, wanted to slightly alter their business idea and start creating an ad-serving tool for businesses, the company’s investors agreed, admitting that they hadn’t been completely sold on the first idea of the business but invested because they believed in the team.

fellows at kevin ryan

Don’t Fret Ideas

Many entrepreneurs worry about whether the ideas for their businesses are good or not. There’s a myth, he said, that a successful startup needs to be built around a revolutionary idea or that one needs to be the first to think of an idea in order to build something successful around it. Kevin’s answer to this was simple and striking: “Good ideas only give you a head start.” He explained that Gilt Groupe launched just two months after another fashion flash site. Nevertheless, the Gilt team was prepared to work hard and, currently, the company is five times as large as the other flash sale company.

The Takeaway

Kevin Ryan assured fellows that focusing on the product and building a strong team to execute well on their idea, no matter how old or new it was, would position them to achieve success and, hopefully, to have fun while doing it.

Read More
By Sybil Sam

Often the most impactful advice comes from someone who has walked in your shoes. Such was the case when fellows heard from former YEI fellow, Bob Casey (YC ’11). A dynamic young entrepreneur, Bob shared the unique story of his technology company, YouRenew (YEI ’08), detailing how he overcame several early stage obstacles and persevered through later stage business complications to build a profitable enterprise.

bob casey

Early Beginnings

It was after visiting a green technology and recycling conference with his uncle and father in his sophomore year at Yale that Bob first got the idea for YouRenew.  A speaker at the conference elaborated on the fast-growing electronic recycling industry and Bob quickly realized that reusing old electronics would be even better than recycling electronics for the raw materials in them. He crafted the idea of buying back and then reselling people’s old cellular phones for a profit. Bob and his cofounder then orchestrated a “charity collection,” where they passed out about 6,000 anti-static bags for people to send in their old phones. The strategy backfired, and they received almost no phones back. Undeterred, Bob and his partner decided to try a different approach.

New Approach

Bob and his cofounder decided to build an easy-to-use website to serve as a platform for people to sell back their old phones. In its early months, the site struggled to gain traction. In a bid to accelerate the buyback process, Bob and his team decided to set up camp outside an Apple store before the iPhone 3GS launch.

Donning a full body phone suit and bag full of cash to buy old phones, Bob set off to change the course of the business. The results were stupendous. Not only did they buy a substantial number of phones from people wanting and willing to get rid of their now old, seemingly defunct iPhones, the experience was also extremely valuable from a marketing standpoint since the PR stunt generated significant media exposure. This, in turn, led to a lot of traffic and phone trades on the YouRenew website. This massive increase in site visitors and sales in such a short period meant that Bob and his team needed professional help to grow and sustain the business. They decided to hire a more experienced entrepreneur to serve as the CEO.

bob casey

Harnessing Real Value

After a while, Bob recognized that the business could grow more quickly if it shifted focus to buying electronics from enterprises rather than individuals. When they shifted the target market, business expanded rapidly. Bob soon realized that even with all the success YouRenew had achieved, it was still necessary to figure out how to harness the true value of the business. The distinctiveness of YouRenew lay in its technological innovation and not in its buying and selling of used electronics. The chance to employ this inherent value was met when Clover Wireless acquired YouRenew in 2012. As a large provider of trade-in, repair and buyback services for carriers and retailers world-wide, Clover Technologies needed to further facilitate its operations and YouRenew’s user-friendly and efficient platform fit the bill. The acquisition was a validation of all the hard work and value that Bob and other key players had poured into YouRenew over the years.

The Takeaway

Bob’s experience with YouRenew demonstrates clearly that hard work does eventually pay off, and that this hard work involves persevering through difficult periods and initial setbacks in the lifespan of a venture.


Read More
By Sybil Sam

Tom Weigman, a brand expert with over 35 years of industry experience from companies such as Procter & Gamble, Mars Inc., and the Marketing Corporation of America, shared his “real-life experience of entrepreneurship” working as the Executive Vice President of Gogo, an inflight Internet service. He used the company’s journey to illustrate to fellows the core principles needed to launch a successful enterprise from an initial idea.

tom weigman

First Things First

The first iteration of Gogo Inflight was sketched out on a napkin. After the parent company, Aircell, bought the unused air broadcast spectrum, it set about crafting the first commercial flight Internet service.

Do Your Research

Despite its apparent simplicity, Aircell’s decision to invest in the broadcast spectrum was well researched. The founders of Gogo found that American travelers each spent hours on airplanes and that, on the whole, they considered this travel time to be wasted. They concluded that there was an untapped market for providing people with Internet service on flights so they could be more productive and better entertained.

Despite the apparent need for Internet access on commercial flights, it was important for Gogo’s founders to locate exactly who their target consumers would be. They initially believed it would be people from the business world, hypothesizing that businesspeople would be the ones most in need of an inflight Internet service to keep in contact with their home offices and get work done. Doing more research revealed that that this market, though deep, was too narrow. An informed decision was therefore made to expand to the leisure market, which was much broader.  

Execute on your Hypothesis 

Tom explained that an entrepreneur does not always have all the information he needs to make a decision. Instead, he often has to execute on a mere hypothesis. For example, in developing their inflight service, Gogo executives had to determine what its price would be and to ask themselves several questions to arrive at the answer: Would their price have to be comparable to hospitality service pricing of Internet access? How would they determine a price that people would accept? Settling on a price enabled the company to move forward with its service.

Keep Gathering Data

Tom demonstrated the importance of data gathering by discussing Gogo’s continuous quest for more information on its customers after the service had launched. Even when the service had garnered one million unique users, the company continued to conduct surveys to gain deeper consumer insight. That data enabled the company to further refine its service to win new customers and retain loyal ones.

The Takeaway

Entrepreneurs often do not have the information they need to make important decisions about their products or their ventures. Instead, do as much research as is possible to find basic information about the market, make a reasonable hypothesis, execute on one’s hypothesis, and then continuously gather data from consumers in order to refine one’s product or service.

Read More