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June 19, 2009

From the Start-Up Frontline

Catherine New
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For the MBA grad who is launching his or her own venture this year, the current economy is a mixed blessing.

“Suddenly every investment banker wants to be an entrepreneur,” says Tom Bowen Wright ’09, founder of Neighborhood Hero. “Finding great talent is much easier right now.” The downside? “Raising capital in this market is really tough,” he adds.

Regardless of the economy, there are evergreen challenges for young companies. “All your policies and procedures have to be developed from scratch, and that can be an extremely time-consuming part of the start-up process,” says Jennifer Wright ’09. Costs can add up if you’re not careful. “Running up legal bills is actually very easy,” says Robert Liebesman ’09.

This weekend a group of start-up companies started by Columbia University graduates, including this year’s four Lang Fund Board investment picks and ventures from the School of Engineering, will take part in a Columbia Ventures Showcase. We spoke with this year’s Lang Fund recipients about the most important lesson he or she learned at Columbia.

Tom Bowen Wright ’09, Neighborhood Hero, a digital communication tool to help merchants and local consumers connect

It is critical to encapsulate a powerful vision behind your idea and you need to package it and sell it. I have also learned that you need to do as much research as possible before jumping into the deep end. There is no reason why, before you invest thousands of dollars in R&D, you can’t have already established who the customers are, their specific needs, what they would pay for your product if you were to make it and what it would take to actually close a sale with them. If you haven’t proven to yourself and to others that there is a genuine need, you should not roll the dice.”

Arlyn Davich ’09, PayPerks, a corporate incentive program to convert employees to electronic pay checks

“The power of a win, win, win proposition. The time I have spent honing the value proposition of each layer in the value chain has paid off in dividends.”

Robert Liebesman ’09, Palogix USA, provides reusable and rental storage and shipping solutions

“Listen to people’s criticism and don’t get disheartened. You take five steps forward and then three backwards. Make sure to process information and to not have a selection bias — there are threats to your business; make sure you are aware of them. I have found that stepping back and looking at the big picture can help me get out of treading water. Make sure to have a balance in your life; this stuff can consume your life pretty quickly, so force yourself to have an hour or two a day for other people and hobbies. I get my best thinking done during long runs. Give your head a chance to sort out the clutter.”

Jennifer Wright ’09 (EMBA), Environmentally Conscious Organization Inc. (e.c.o.), a design, licensing, manufacturing and subcontract management firm dedicated to the use of recycled materials

“Professor Cliff Schorer told us ‘Never turn down an opportunity to talk about your product.’ I believe this to be true and I made sure we were present at every entrepreneurial event at Columbia to talk about our product. You never know who could be instrumental in helping your business.”