The 5 hour start-up: BrownBagBrain

by Humberto Ayres Pereira (republished from his personal blog)

This is the first of (I hope) many contradictions in my opinions in regard to entrepreneurial matters.

A few posts back I talked with some disdain about the Lean Start-Up movement. Essentially my argument was that while it may be easier than ever to build a service/company nowadays, and people can and are starting such companies, the result is a massive and hard to navigate world of start-ups and apps, many of which reach success status because of the extensive guidance and care of VCs and their networks. There is, I argue, a false perception of the start-up world as being easy. But while people see it as a gold rush, I'd warn that it is a very creative but also numbers-driven environment. It may seem as if this or that company is having a grace period where the founders can just be creative and eat pizza and blow thousands of VC-backed dollars while not delivering numbers, both bottom-line and in terms of user growth. But when this happens, and it is not common that any type of financiers allow such graces, most likely you will find that the team has a track-record of reaching those numbers. It may seem that VCs play a hunch driven game, but in fact it is always more analytical then you imagine.

Despite all this live and opinionated criticism, this is the story of how I and a Fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University took the plunge and built a start-up in less than 5 hours.

Background: besides my obsession with building stuff I am a 2nd-year MBA student. At Harvard Business School we're taught a variety of subjects, and in the second year they're elective: the only one I have that's not related to entrepreneurship or the online world is Managing Change. In Managing Change we are exposed to mainly huge companies dilemmas and how they cope with alliances, mergers and acquisitions from the point of view of culture and integration. You get the picture. One of the most awesome things at HBS is that many of the classes  (we call them cases) have a protagonist that actually sits in the class and tells the story of what really happened and how it felt to be there, and sometimes other people attend too. So in a case about integration in 2 Brazilian banks we had a visitor called Gilberto Dimenstein. Gilberto is an award-winning journalist from São Paulo who is also extremely active in the social enterprise world. In fact, he was invited by Harvard to come to Boston to expand his project's ambitions and resources.

On the aftermath of that case I talked with him for a bit and found some of his projects fascinating. One of his projects, Catraca Livre (Portuguese for "Open Turnstyle") is an aggregator of immense social value: with it, people across neighborhoods (starting in very impoverished ones) can aggregate, distribute and use skills, services and arts that a very distributed audience is willing to provide. Imagine a favela with hundred of thousands of people living in it: how can you find if there are any vicinity' college students willing to help kids with their studies? Well, Catraca Livre partners with the universities to access such students, and then distributes the information in cleverly engineered TV-ads in Buses. You can learn more here. Now he is working to expand such a service to more cities in Brazil, and eventually worldwide - for now the project is called OpenCity Labs. The assumption, which Gilberto proved right in São Paulo, is that there is a lot of inexpensive human, social and economical potential inside communities of any size and class, but that such assets are dispersed. He wants to make more accessible.

To explore the idea at Harvard (in Boston) itself could prove it works on the other end of the spectrum too. We talked about ways to do it. What did we put together in about 2 hours?

  • Pain 1: people need to eat; students are people, so students need to eat. Cities like Boston are very expensive, and students are not the richest people on earth (hence the term starving students)
  • Pain 2: students want to learn (duh)
  • Pain 3: professors, lecturers and companies want good audiences for their knowledge, ideas and products; students are one of the most desired audiences
  • Solution: pair students and content providers through brown-bag lunches (and breakfasts and dinners)
  • Solution available: currently brown-bag's are organized by a multitude of schools and departments, and information about university events is a mess
  • Test: luckily we had two other students with us who were pretty convinced. Quick polling!
  • Features needed: portal with aggregate information about brown-bag events
  • Technological side: there are plenty of calendar mashing tools, and even better, there's needlebase (acquired by Google), a tool that you teach how to get specific types of information on the web which then is made available in a self-updating format
  • Business model: most of the info is free, tools are free or almost there, so this is essentially a 1-hour-per-week cost operation. There are plenty of ways to monetize this. If you have 10 events per day, and 20 people attending from your website, that's 4.000 eyeballs/ converts per month (this is for one university, now multiply). Students. Worth money to a lot any deal-oriented business or platform. For the type of costs this venture has (more on that below), we could turn this cash-flow positive in less than a week
Afer we quickly discussed this, I came home at 7pm and started working on a rough prototype. By 10pm it was live and kicking. I presented it in class the next day. In the first day I got 1,500 views and 800 people actually searching on the map for the location of a brown-bag event (let's hope they all didn't crash the same conference). You can and should check the website at BrownBagBrain

Warning: This is very alpha and sometimes the calendar is down (I think Harvard is blocking some of my requests), but you can get the idea (A screenshot of an event below). We don't know where to go from here, and in all fairness it's Gilberto who should be commanding that ship. 

But, anyway the wind blows, it feels great to have played a small part in the Lean Start-Up World.