Tag: advice

I came to Olin after striking out with a pre-medical curriculum my freshman year. Looking back on that first year at Washington University, it seems like my aspirations to become a doctor were a lifetime ago.

I now spend my time on campus very differently—splitting my day between classes, running the WU Investment Banking Association, and providing strategic consulting services to startups through Bear Studios. The culmination of these experiences at Olin have helped me define value, otherwise understood as what is at the core of a good, durable business. I have been exposed to various business models operating in different business cycles, from startups to sophisticated financial institutions.

During my time at Olin, I’ve developed a dynamic definition of value, and these insights have changed the way I assess and think about businesses.

When I first joined Bear Studios, I anticipated an opportunity to work with founders that had self-sufficient business models with clearly articulated business plans. Instead, I found the opposite. Many of these founders, often working on innovative projects in software, pharmaceuticals, and medical technology, did not have a thorough understanding of how to operate a business. However, what they lacked in business acumen they compensated for with vision, conviction, and a nuanced technical skill set with little replicability.

Our job was less about fleshing out existing businesses; it was taking a founder’s idea and creating a sustainable operating model around it.

As a finance major and aspiring investment banker, my first impulse to assess the performance of a business is to look at its financial health. My challenge working with our clients in Bear Studios was reorienting my brain to ask the right questions when metrics like revenue, profits, or growth rates were not available to me. I found this to be interesting, albeit much more difficult than I initially anticipated. Founders often came in with no business plan or model. It was up to us to offer suggestions on product distribution, strategic partnerships, cash generation, and strategic thinking around scale.

Through this exercise, I gleaned a few essential insights:

1. The value early-stage businesses provide materializes in the future.

For a venture capitalist or seed investor providing capital to early-stage businesses, the potential scale of the idea, conviction of the founders, and feasibility of the business model matter far more than the business’ ability to generate cash or dividends in the short term. Value here is based more on trust, and how much a allocator of capital connects with an idea or founder.

2. Having a concrete plan to scale early is incredibly helpful.

This step is even more valuable for founders with a developed product or who have started beta/clinical testing. Investors feel more secure with their investment if a non-cash generating business has an adaptable, scalable strategy to eventually return money back to the owners of the business.

3. Founders are short-term focused—they want to deliver a product.

This is reasonable, and it should be the sole responsibility of the founder in the beginning. However, this lends substantially more importance to surrounding the founder with a team with complementary skill sets. Many startup founders in high-growth industries such as technology and pharmaceuticals have a specialized skill set. Receiving input from people who have prior experience developing  businesses or products can be crucial for founders’ development as a manager as the business scales through its cycles.

Value in finance, traditionally, can typically be identified along simple financial metrics. Investment professionals typically look for ability to generate cash, prudent supply chain management, and efficient cost structures to identify a valuable business.

Those metrics manifest themselves in the daily operations of the business. Apple is a great example of a traditionally valuable business.

Ability to generate cash

Many gladly pay an “Apple premium” for an iPhone or iPad. Coupling steep prices with high volume, the cash generated by their products trickles down to the investor, and the potential for future growth in cash generation makes it a particularly valuable business.

Prudent supply chain management

Over the years, Apple has vertically integrated, allowing them to not only keep their costs down, but also to have complete freedom over the manufacturing of parts for their products.

Efficient cost structures

Apple has successfully cut inefficiencies. Whether it’s outsourcing assembly, consolidating internal teams, or reducing headcount when necessary, Apple has been able to keep costs efficient, therefore maximizing their ability to return money to investors.

While many investors look for these traditional metrics to assess businesses by, many businesses simply can’t be defined the same way. Startups don’t have sophisticated operations in the beginning, so they must lean on the quality of their idea to create value.

During my investment banking internship this past summer, I had the privilege of working with large corporate clients in the financial institutions sector. Banks, insurance companies, and payment processing companies are typical of businesses found in this sector. These companies often make money differently than businesses providing a singular product or service. Banks profit by lending money, and receive payments from customers in the form of interest. Insurance companies generate income from premiums paid by their customers. Since the considerations here are different, there are more macro-economic facing factors that affect the performance of the business, ultimately nuancing the way value is determined in parallel with these kinds of companies.

My main takeaway from this experience was that while it’s useful to have a standardized tool kit to assess a traditional business (like Apple), a more important soft skill to possess is adaptability.

While a basic, standardized framework is essential to assess any kind of business, being a versatile thinker able to process and synthesize multiple parts of a business makes one an infinitely better banker, consultant, or operator.

While I’ve been lucky to stumble upon many of my professional experiences, I encourage everyone to seek out opportunities that allow them to become adaptable problem solvers. In my circumstance, I could leverage Olin’s liberal arts and business curriculum along with my professional experiences to create a robust framework for defining value. Going forward, I’m excited to work with businesses across business cycles, and hope to continually refine my understanding of what makes a great business.

Guest Blogger: Syed Ahsan, BSBA’18, is majoring in Finance; he is a strategy fellow at Bear Studios LLC.

Washington University faculty experts share their thoughts and advice for the new administration that officially takes office Jan. 20 with the inauguration of President Trump.

Olin’s Lamar Pierce, associate professor of organization and strategy, co-authored a 2015 paper, titled “Losing Hurts: The Happiness Impact of Partisan Electoral Loss.” His work focuses on the psychological and economic motivations for productive and destructive behaviors. He offers advice about the need for watchdogs to new administration leaders switching tracks from the corporate realm:

“As Donald Trump is inaugurated as president, our nation is divided on the considerable policy changes he has proposed. One thing we should all agree on, however, is that we want the newly appointed executive branch leaders to primarily have our nation’s best interest at heart. For a few of his appointees, such as Gen. James Mattis, I am heartened by their dedication to public service and country. But I am severely worried, however, about the considerable financial and personal conflicts of interest visible both in our new president and the majority of his top appointees.

Lamar Pierce

Lamar Pierce

“People are hardwired not to act against their own self-interest. They respond to incentives and are psychologically gifted at justifying self-interest. It is impossible to expect our new president or his appointees from the private sector to consistently pursue national interest before personal profits when they’ve spent their entire lives doing the entire opposite.

“Certainly, conflicts of interest are not new to the executive branch, but we have rarely seen them to the degree present in the new administration. Many voted for Donald Trump because they thought his business skills would translate well to government. But we cannot expect that he or his team, who have spent a lifetime pursuing profits regardless of social cost, will be able to change their mindset now that they are political appointees.

“Congress, the press and the public must acknowledge and highlight these conflicts and demand that they be addressed. The best way to keep conflicts of interest from influencing politics is to avoid or eliminate them. I hope we will all demand the new administration to pursue this course, and I hope I am underestimating the new administration’s will to pursue public interest in the face of personal losses.”

Read more “First 100 Days” messages at Election2016.wustl.edu.

At age 3, Shea Gouldd knew who Emeril Lagasse was. “When I was a toddler, I used to watch cooking shows instead of cartoons,” says the class of 2017 entrepreneurship major. By the time she was in seventh grade, Gouldd was an avid baker.

“Everyday, I would come home from school and I’d start baking,” she says. “I’d bring [what I had baked] to school and just give it away to everyone.” Soon her mother asked her to either stop baking or start making some money from it, so Gouldd could pay for ingredients. Gouldd sold a cheesecake to a family friend in October 2008. By that Thanksgiving, she had 30 orders. Gouldd realized she might have a business on her hands, so she incorporated as an LLC and applied for permits. At 14, she became the owner of Shea’s Bakery.

shea'sbakeryThe bakery would stand out on its own (Urbanspoon and The Knot both recommended it), but Gouldd’s youth also attracted attention.

She won the 2010 Young Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the National Association of Women Business Owners, was named the 2013 Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the National Foundation for Independent Businesses, and was a national finalist in the Guardian Life Insurance Company Girls Going Places Scholarship Program.


Custom-made cookies from Shea’s Bakery made for an Olin event.

Gouldd took a step back from the bakery after high school to come to WashU, where she could learn to improve on her entrepreneurship skills in a supportive environment. A team runs Shea’s Bakery back in her native Florida, leaving Gouldd free to found an entrepreneurship club and, with the help of three other girls in the club, start a second business on campus, Bear-Y Sweet Shoppe.

Here she talks about what it takes to be an entrepreneur and lessons she’s learned along the way.

What advice do you give other young people who want to start a business?
I always think to myself, I’m not a crazy circumstance. The only thing that’s unique is that I just went for it. I think being a younger person is honestly the best time to try out a business because you don’t have to pay rent, you don’t have a mortgage, all that stuff. So there’s less to lose, and [I think] you’re more creative when you’re less inhibited. So just to go for it is the first step.

Bear-y Sweet Shoppe Opening

Bear-y Sweet Shoppe Opening. Instead of a ribbon-cutting, the owners cut a candy necklace.

How was it starting your candy store, Bear-Y Sweet Shoppe, on campus?
It was really tough. No food business has ever been started by students before. And at first, whenever we brought the idea up to advisers, they were like, “No, there’s no way. You’re not going to be able to pull that off.” And we were like, “Mm-hmm.” It pushed us harder and harder I think. And it was an adventure, and we definitely had to build a lot of groundwork that hadn’t been done before. But maybe the best part was that we really got to pave our own way, and now there are other businesses coming in, student run, that are going to be selling different food products. So it’s really awesome to have started that movement.

What impact has being an entrepreneur had on you?
I think being an entrepreneur has made me feel limitless in a way. I think that being able to create something from nothing has made me feel that if you really focus, you really put your head into it, you can pull it off. So I think I’ve had an amazing past. I’m very fortunate to have the experiences that I’ve had, and I think that that pushes me to think there are no boundaries in the way — and to go about life in that way where I think if I really want something, I will fight tooth and nail to accomplish it.

This post was originally published on the WashU Fuse site.

Kathy Button BellKathy Button Bell, Chief Marketing Officer at Emerson is one of the executives who shares advice from mentors in a new e-book from Bizwomen, Mentors Across America. The book is free and available here.

It contains inspiring quotes from successful women nation wide. Kathy Button Bell shared her career experience with Olin’s Women & Leadership course. David Farr, Emerson’s Chairman and CEO, also spoke to the class and is pictured pictured above with Button Bell.

Here’s an excerpt from Mentors Across America with advice from Button Bell who says, “I have had several incredible mentors give me great advice across many businesses.”

1. Rip your ‘to-do’ list in half.

Prioritize tightly to the most important three ‘high-value projects’ you/your business can accomplish.

2. Go big or go home.

None of us has enough budget to do everything. Pick one to two big attention opportunities and throw all we have against those tight choices. Good money after good.

3. Make your boss a hero.

Always keep your station in mind, take their priorities as your own. Knock it out of the park on their behalf. Enjoy the view.”

Link to related blog post, a profile of Kathy Button Bell


They’re back! The MBA Class of 2016 have returned to share valuable lessons learned during their time at graduate school with the Poets & Quants website. Olin MBA Allison Campbell is quoted with others on learning from failure or changes in the scope of a project. Read Allison’s advice below.

Alison-Campbell-Washington-Olin“In truth, failure rarely feels like a normal step in the process.  For Washington University’s Allison Campbell, now an associate marketing manager at Walmart, the high odds for some failure in b-school compelled her to change her outlook and become adaptable enough to “roll with the punches.”

““Projects change and you have to be flexible and willing to evolve with them,” she explains. “Sometimes you have to take a more creative approach. Other times you have to start from square one. I had one project that changed scope three times before it took off in the right direction. It’s important to be able to multitask and focus on other pieces if you have a roadblock in one direction. Then you have to execute. Complete is better than perfect if you have a timeline.””

Link to more lessons from the MBA Class of 2016 on these topics:


Photo by Joe Angeles, WUSTL Photos, Commencement 2016