YEI Fellow Advice: Just Do It

Posted on Thursday, January 5, 2012

In the weeks leading up to the deadline for YEI's Summer Fellowship application (January 18th), we've asked past Fellows to share their advice for starting a company - and applying for the fellowship.

“Just do it” – Nike Slogan

BY BOB CASEY

Bob CaseyIn 2008, I was convinced that I could build the next Vitamin Water.  With no beverage industry experience behind me - or any experience, really - I applied for the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Summer Fellowship with the idea of building a company that would develop, manufacture and distribute a healthy beverage product (think coconut water).  

Jim Boyle, YEI’s Director, and the other folks on the YEI selection board must have thought that my co-founder and I were nuts. They even told us that they didn’t particularly like our idea. However, we plowed ahead with conviction.

We finagled a meeting with purchasers at local grocery stores and managed to score a call with the CEO of Honest Tea. We spent days traveling up and down I-95 meeting with beverage distributors and retailers, and we even hired a beverage chemist to develop our first flavors. Each week we set goals – new people to meet, product development milestones, potential partners to pitch – and between classes and practices (we were both on the crew team), we would work hard to complete these tasks. We consistently updated YEI on our progress. Rather than writing a business plan and meticulously revising it, we just tried to execute our vision – taking little steps each week to make our dream drink a reality.

Despite some concerns about our business model, the board offered me a YEI Fellowship for the summer of 2008.

Three months later (and a week before the summer program began) we finally came to the same conclusion that the committee had drawn months before: our idea was terrible. Beverage businesses require significant capital, margins are terrible, and worst of all we were not passionate about the idea.

An intense week of brainstorming followed, resulting in a new idea – repurposing and reselling used electronics. We had plenty of friends with old iPods, cell phones, and laptops that had been cast aside and were gathering dust and losing value, but were still worth a significant amount of money. At the same time, the market for used gadgets was massive – in 2006, the domestic used cell phone market had been $3 billion. We figured that we could certainly find a way to unlock the massive value collecting dust in closets and drawers.

After some challenging questions as the fellowship started, YEI offered its blessing to remain in the program to pursue the new idea. Before sending us on our way, Jim shared the reasoning behind offering me a fellowship in the first place: more than just submitting the detailed business plans all applicants submit, we had proved our ability to execute.  

Today, YouRenew is growing by leaps and bounds.  We process thousands of electronic devices a week, with annual revenues of a few million dollars. Execution is all that matters. Pretty pictures and polished pitches are great, but launching a product and signing up a customer is much better.

This sentiment is one that I have heard echoed time and again from investors, partners, and other entrepreneurs. Victor Wong (YEI '08), the CEO of PaperG, relayed a conversation with their first angel investor, in which Victor asked why the investor had written the first check. The response was perfect: "Most people talk about doing stuff but never do. You did and then you asked for money. Just do and the rest will follow."

So just do it. Applications for the 2012 YEI Summer Fellowship are due January 18th. I encourage any Yale student working on a startup to apply.

But don’t just apply. Start executing. Build a prototype. Find a customer. The rest will follow.

Bob Casey (YC '11) is the founder and Chief Operating Officer of YouRenew, a New Haven based company that provides lifecycle solutions for used electronics to consumers and enterprise customers. Bob was a YEI Summer Fellow in 2008 and recently joined the YEI Operating Board.

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