Doug Villhard is a serial entrepreneur, investor, Olin’s academic director for entrepreneurship, a philanthropist—and now an author.
Company of Women, his first book, published November 15 and is live on Amazon. The 364-page historical novel is based on the real-life E.G. Lewis. At the time of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Lewis was an early advocate for a woman’s right to vote and owned the largest women’s magazine in the world—until he ran afoul of a government conspiracy reaching up to President Teddy Roosevelt.
“As an entrepreneurship professor and as an entrepreneur, I fell in love with this story,” Villhard said in an interview.
Like Villhard, Lewis is an entrepreneur whose mind is always spinning with ideas. His Woman’s Magazine employed a multitude of women and reached nearly every household in the country. It was based in an octagonal, domed building Lewis had built that is now University City’s City Hall.
Lewis came to St. Louis in the late 1890s selling dubious products to kill insects. As his wealth and influence grew, temptations challenged his family, coworkers and his marriage. Luckily, he had strong, smart women in his circle.
“I think he had one of the most entrepreneurial minds and creative minds that I that I’ve ever encountered,” said Villhard, who last year sold a company he cofounded. “The more I researched him, the more I couldn’t believe no one had ever written a book about him. I felt like this was a story that needed to be told. It also lets me weave in the major themes that I teach in class, too.”
“Feedback is a gift” is one theme, and Villhard takes it to heart. At his request, 20 people read his manuscript. He asked them to tell them everything they liked and everything they didn’t like. “And that led to a wonderful revision,” he said.
Fall in love with the customers’ problems
Another theme is to fall in love with the customers’ problems.
“We teach at Olin if you try to chase money, you’ll never get it,” Villhard said. “You have to fall in love with the customers’ problems. You also have to fall in love with your own team and make sure you create an awesome environment in which they want to work. And then the rest works itself out. And Lewis was a guy who was obsessed with his customers.”
In the early 1900’s, nearly two-thirds of Americans lived on farms. The postal system had just been expanded, allowing Woman’s Magazine to connect with those rural households.
“Women on these farms had money, by the way. They wanted to participate in the economy. And Lewis saw this as an opportunity,” Villhard said. Based on Lewis’ earlier experience selling door-to-door, he realized that they wanted goods and services for themselves, their kids and their households just as much as city folks did. “He wanted to bridge that gap.”
Ninety percent of startups fail because “they literally make something that nobody wants because they don’t go out and talk to customers,” Villhard said. “And Lewis’ whole philosophy, and my whole philosophy and really the modern way of teaching entrepreneurship, is no other opinion matters than the customer’s.
“E.G. Lewis was somebody who figured that out early.”
Olin is offering a new, instantly popular class and business accelerator: “The League (of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs).”
More than 100 students hoped to sign up, but only 50 made the cut. Eight of those students have businesses in development, and they’ll lead teams dedicated to those businesses throughout the semester.
The League “is on its way to becoming a really big deal at WashU,” said Doug Villhard, professor of practice in entrepreneurship and Olin’s academic director for entrepreneurship. While Olin’s long-standing and popular Hatchery course is about planning a business, “the League is about actually launching and scaling a startup.”
“There continues to be a tremendous demand for entrepreneurial learning at WashU,” Villhard said. “The total students enrolled in our entrepreneurial classes has doubled in the last three years.”
The League runs for two hours on Monday afternoons and includes several student team meetings throughout the week. Most classes start with a guest lecture by a successful WashU alum who founded and leads a company.
These are the student teams:
Benchmark: Benchmark Learning is a high-quality, low-cost online tutoring provider for K-12 students currently specializing in math, English, science and coding tutoring. Team lead: Paarvv Goel, MBA ’22
Lyfe Health: Lyfe Health is a cloud-based, A.I.-powered, universal-health-record platform where users can keep track of their health by aggregating all their health info into one, easy-to-use central location. Team lead: Tony Sims II, BS ’22
Momint: Momint is a play-to-earn fantasy esports game; think NBA Topshot meets Fantasy Football, but for esports players. Team lead: Will Hunter, MBA ’22
SecondHome: SecondHome is a service that makes the business of operating a home daycare simpler while also increasing access to quality and affordable childcare. Team lead: Jacob Wise, MBA ’22
Speak IT: Speak IT is like Siri for doctors: Our software increases efficiency of clinical workflow by enabling one’s voice to automate clicks in the electronic medical record. Team lead: Kai Skallerud, MBA ’22
StockSwap: StockSwap is a social finance and gaming platform that combines the ability to share trades and thoughts about the market with daily fantasy for the stock market. Team lead: Blake Berg, BBA ’23
Tylmen Tech: Tylmen, the size-verification platform, is on a mission to help customers shop for clothes online with confidence by utilizing sizing technology to show users exactly what clothes and brands fit them best. Team lead: Lloyd Yates, MBA ’22
Utter: Utter is a Twitter trivia guessing game that is bring the viral moments online into the real world. #gamenightjustgotpersonal Team lead: Justin Matthews, MBA ’23
“All of these student companies are capable of launching of scaling within the class timeframe,” Villhard said. “One is already generating over $65,000 in revenue. And another has already raised $200,000 in seed capital. WashU students never cease to amaze me.”
A constraint on the first version of this class is that student ideas need to be in the tech/digital space—as they are generally easier to launch and scale. In the future, Villhard hopes to offer versions of the class focused on healthcare, fashion, consumer goods, services, and other industry-specific constraints besides just tech/digital.
Villhard is also aware in this first version that no women are leading tech/digital teams this semester—however, there is great diversity among the student founders and there are many women in the class.
“We recruited an outstanding female student on campus with a tech/digital idea to lead a team,” he said, “but she is studying abroad instead and will take it next semester. This is a challenge in the real tech/digital industry as well. But we’re going to do better and fix it ASAP in future semesters of this course.”
The guest lecturers will visit the class in this order:
Andrew Rubin, BSBA ’98, CEO of Illumio, will talk about leadership.
David Eckstein, BSBA ’09, chief financial officer of Menlo Security Inc., will discuss the art of pitching.
JD Ross, BSBA ’12, cofounder of Opendoor and president of royal.io, will discuss product development.
Lori Coulter, MBA ’99, CEO of Summersalt, will talk about strategies for outsized growth.
Jesse Pujji, founder and CEO, Gateway X, on using digital marketing to amp up a business.
Jim McKelvey, BASc ’87, founder of Square and Invisibility (and many other companies), will talk about ideas from his book “The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time”
Marc Bernstein, BSBA ’15, CEO of Balto, will discuss teambuilding.
Deborah Barta, BSBA ’99, former senior vice president of innovation at Mastercard and now chief operating officer of BlockFi, will discuss targeting ideas at significant scale.
Lee Fixel, BSBA ’02, an extremely successful investor, former partner at Tiger Global Management and now partner at Addition will talk about the mind of the investor.
Dedric Carter, vice chancellor for innovation and chief commercialization officer at Washington University in St. Louis, will discuss what St. Louis and WashU have to offer entrepreneurs.
Pictured at top: Blake Berg, Paarvv Goel, Will Hunter, Justin Matthews, Tony Sims II, Kai Skallerud, Jacob Wise and Lloyd Yates.
Megan Berry, MBA ’15, is the founder and CEO of by REVEAL, a turnkey pop-up retail platform. More about her company in a bit.
Olin tapped Berry to speak at our Leadership Perspectives event last week, “Start Me Up: Venture Capital and Transforming Traditional Industries.” She and Doug Villhard, professor and Olin’s academic director for entrepreneurship, talked about the entrepreneurship process, the ins and outs of venture capital investing, and digital transformation’s place for many sectors of business.
As a student, Berry came to WashU to earn her master’s degree in architecture. She did that—and more. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so it was super exciting,” Berry said.
Often, she would read bios of people she admired, and she realized everyone she aspired to be like had an MBA. “So, in my first semester, I kind of marched up to Olin” from WashU’s Sam Fox School to learn more. She met with Evan Bouffides, director of MBA admissions, and he steered her to the entrepreneurship program. She enrolled the next semester.
What attracted her to architecture? “For me, it was really about creating something that was physical in the real world. How can I create something that’ll last, and how can I create something I can touch and feel?”
What attracted her to business? “I quickly realized that there was a lot more than actual physical, tactile—you know—materials that went into it. If you really wanted to make an impact and actually build something, you really needed to understand the business side of it.”
She also learned she wanted to work in a fast-paced environment. “And I wanted to be in an environment where I had resources at my fingertips.” At Olin, she had resources. She was surrounded by people and a support system that gave her the opportunity to test an idea that would evolve into her business today.
“I could launch and then iterate and fail, and I had that safety net that was able to say: ‘Just go try. Go learn. What’s the worst that could happen?’”
Paid in pizza
Berry and a band of friends (whom she promised to pay in pizza) beta-tested her idea for a business. She had found a small piece of land by a fountain in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, and she tracked down the owner. He agreed to let her borrow it for her experiment. There, she set up a pop-up shop to sell headbands, purses, belts and other things women in the Midwest made.
“Within an hour, we had paying customers,” she said. “You can’t get lucky if you don’t try.”
Berry’s company, based in Brooklyn, New York, was built to give emerging designers and established brands access to consumers in-person. The company’s trained concierges operate “reveals” in unusual locations for limited times. The aim is to make it easier for consumers to find products they love and easier for designers to be in retail. Overall, by REVEAL provides brands, developers and technology companies a full-service solution to test markets, build awareness, generate sales and capture consumer data with live retail experiences.
Berry has worked for dozens of brands in 15 US cities on custom pop-ups in spaces ranging from 36 square feet to 10,000, including sidewalks, hotel lobbies, corporate lobbies, festivals, universities, malls, parks and public plazas.
Villhard: “So you got this business going. It’s wonderful. Brands are learning a ton. I’m sure you’re having fun, too, hiring people, growing people. The pandemic hits. What happens?”
Berry: “It was brutal. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much my entire life.”
The pandemic threatened to unwind everything she’d built. Customers were canceling contracts. She had to let employees go.
“It was horrible,” Berry said. “But one of the most important things of being an entrepreneur is that you constantly need to balance what you want to do versus what’s best for the livelihood of the company. And it was extremely, extremely difficult.”
Berry has friends who kept on many of their employees for as long as possible thinking the worst would be over in two weeks, or maybe two months. But Berry? She said she was “ruthless.” She buckled down and asked herself what she needed to do if she didn’t have revenue for the next 12 months.
“People thought it was crazy.” They told her to go home and watch some Netflix for a couple of weeks then come back.
“I cut every single line item I could. And now, you know, 18 months later I’m grateful that I did that, but it was not fun. … You need to manage your budget like crazy. Money does not count unless it’s in the bank. When you’re a tiny company, a contract is very wonderful.
But if your client is bigger than you and has more expensive lawyers than you, then it doesn’t mean anything unless the money is in the bank.”
After she had “used up all of the Kleenexes in the entire island of Manhatten,” Berry started her company’s daunting shift to e-commerce. “People didn’t want to do anything that was focused on the physical world.”
But Berry didn’t know anything about e-commerce. “I’m not a developer. I’m not an engineer.”
Friends told her she had better learn.
By REVEAL now partners with a firm in the Bay Area and offers e-commerce services as well as physical retail services. “It was a very, very scary pivot,” Berry said. “Delegating is something I’ve always struggled with, but with e-commerce I was forced to delegate because I do not know how to code.” To get dollars coming in, she had to focus on a digital strategy.
The company now adapts to the same patterns that retailers and brands are going through as the pandemic continues.
“It’s like a lever,” Berry said. “We are physical, or we are digital, or we are in the middle.”
Meanwhile, consumers want products when and where they want them. “From a consumer standpoint, there is no difference between the physical and the digital. It’s about convenience.”
Berry said the shift was “a great reset where brands basically had to drop and become as lean as possible. And now brands are scaling up with a tremendously enhanced skill set that covers both the physical and the digital.”
The physical retail environment, however, never will be fully replaced, she said, “because we’re human beings. We like engaging with people. We like engaging all of our senses. We like to touch things and smell things and be in new environments.”
The coronavirus pandemic has shattered and shuttered businesses. Here, three Olin experts offer insights into potential opportunities as businesses struggle to emerge from the economic storm.
“The biggest question businesses are learning to ask themselves is, ‘Are we essential?’” said Doug Villhard, professor of practice in entrepreneurship and academic director for entrepreneurship. “If that answer was recently proven to be ‘no,’ then now is the time to form strategies to make your organization ‘essential’ in the future.”
How will businesses change because of the pandemic?
Minyuan Zhao, associate professor of strategy: “Businesses may have to rethink their value propositions. Before the pandemic, a nail salon was there just because women were ‘supposed’ to have their nails done, a florist was in business because flowers were ‘supposed’ to be at various events, and retailers invested in second-day delivery because consumers were ‘supposed’ to like fast delivery. The crisis will change all this. Collectively, we will redefine what is truly essential to our lives, and what we can do without.”
Peter Boumgarden, professor of practice in strategy and organization: “It’s important for businesses to think hard about the ways in which their short-term demand is impacted both by general consumer confidence, which is likely to be down in the short-run, and the social proximity people need to receive your products or services, which is potentially impacted due to changing social norms around public gathering.
“Think of a concert venue or a restaurant. They might want to creatively plan for some kind of viable model of reduced operations.”
What opportunities could exist as we emerge from the crisis?
Villhard: “Look for ways to solve the biggest problems you
and your customers are now facing. It will be one of two things: supply or
demand. Work quickly to become essential in one of these areas.”
Boumgarden: “Organizations should think hard about how to
develop the flexibility to ramp up or down operations more quickly and seamlessly
if a second wave of the virus forces a similar social distancing. Think of a
hospital system that is opening up for elective services but also wants to be
ready to move back to a COVID-19 response set-up. I can see new opportunities
for those who can help organizations do this transition planning more
Zhao: “The most obvious opportunity is the online businesses:
virtual meetings, virtual classes, virtual concerts, virtual tourism, etc. But
I think the opposite is also true: street corner coffee shops where you can say
hi to the neighbors and connect with the offline world.
“The new business models
also create demand for robust infrastructure, especially the digital
infrastructure in data storage, transfer and security.”
What can businesses do to position themselves for opportunity?
Zhao: “It’s probably too early to make costly strategic moves, but
businesses can start to reassess their business models and all the assumptions
that support their business models. It’s shocking how many assumptions are now
Villhard: “Re-read your website and marketing
materials. You’ll immediately be able to tell if those concepts are
suddenly ‘dated’ in light of the crisis. Revise them to speak to the new
challenges your customers now face. The world changed overnight. Your
organization needs to adapt as well, and you need to show you are a
thought-leader in the new world.”
Boumgarden: “I would encourage business
leaders to find ways to run mini-experiments during this time. Use these as an
opportunity to tease out creative hypotheses with your customers that you might
not have done previously. If you can do this in inexpensive ways now, this is a
great opportunity to learn.”
Villhard: “In entrepreneurship we teach to ‘start with empathy.’ Put
yourself in the mindset of the problems your customers are now facing. If you
do so, an unprecedented number of new ideas will immediately emerge for you.”
Do some businesses currently have an advantage over others?
Villhard: “If your solutions are both domestic and/or virtual/digital you are extremely well-suited. And if they are not, work quickly to get them there.”
Boumgarden: “I see leaders having to wrestle with new types of problems. Imagine trying to figure out the Paycheck Protection Program as you consider whether or not your loan will be forgiven. Or trying to predict the likelihood of viral reoccurrence and its impact on your supply chain. Many organizations do not have this expertise internally and have to look outside for support. Organizations and individuals with strong social networks can tap into new forms of expertise outside their own walls.”
Anything you recommend for business owners/managers to read?
Villhard: “Refresh on the classic book Innovators Dilemma. If you are an established company, you are about to be attacked by dozens of startups. And many of them will now be run by recently laid-off workers who have been sitting on an innovative idea in your industry for years and now find themselves in a perfect opportunity to strike against the establishment.”
Boumgarden: “I’m really enjoying a new rhythm of a weekly reading of The Economist. This is for two reasons. First, I find that a daily newspaper (like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal) makes me too attuned to the ups and downs of the news. A weekly is more emotionally digestible. Second, I find that in offering stories from around the globe, The Economist expands my understanding of the interconnectedness of our global economy.”
Zhao: “I’ve found it very helpful to look back into history and
reflect on the big picture—how we came to where we are. More to that point, I
find it helpful to write in addition to read. Write about how we see the world,
and sometimes you’ll be surprised by what’s on your mind.”
She recommends the following: The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, by Adam Tooze; The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell; The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John M. Barry; and The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.