Small business owners may not have a budget to hire consultants, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get some help for their businesses. Hourly Nerd, a new service started by Rob Biederman, Patrick Petitti, Peter Maglathlin – three Harvard Business School students – matches MBA students from top business schools with business owners looking for some advice. Both businesses and students can sign up for service on the Hourly Nerd website. In an email interview, the three founders told BusinessNewsDaily how they came up with the idea, how the service can benefit both businesses and students and how companies can learn from their mistakes in starting a business.
BusinessNewsDaily: Can you talk a little about your businesses and how you got your start?
Rob Biederman: The business began in our field course at Harvard Business School. We realized that many of our peers who’d worked at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and top-tier private equity firms felt restless to put many of their skills to work in their spare time. They were also paying upwards of $50,000 annually for business school and desperate for spending money. On the other hand, we believed that many small businesses were leaving key strategic and competitive questions unaddressed. We saw an obvious match.
To test demand for our service, we (literally) went door-to-door to small businesses in Boston, New York, Colorado and Miami. We found owners and managers who desperately needed our help, and loved our competitive pricing. Pitching a McKinsey alum for $35 an hour when they were being billed at more than ten times that before business school is a pretty easy sell! We helped these businesses codify their tasks and get them up on our website. We were shocked at how quickly MBAs joined our site and began bidding on tasks.
BND: What was your main motivation in starting this business?
Rob Biederman: We had three main causes. One, we wanted to help our friends and ourselves generate some spending money with our spare time in business school. We learn a ton at school and really wanted to put it to work in the real world. Two, we wanted to help small businesses. We believe that most of them can compete quite well against the myriad of threats they currently face (big box and online retail probably being the most salient). And, three, we wanted the experience of starting a company together. None of us had any experience in entrepreneurship and the learning as well as the bonding experience has been incredible!
BND: What's the biggest mistake you've made as an entrepreneur?
Patrick Petitti: I’d say the biggest mistake we’ve made is trying to grow our business before ensuring that the requisite infrastructure was in place to ensure the extremely high level of quality that we demand. It was certainly hard because we had businesses emailing us to post projects for MBAs to bid on. We wanted to meet the customer need, so we posted them on a shell of a website, with just enough functionality to let MBAs place bids. But this left us in a place where we needed to manually manage the entire process, and that became extremely time consuming. We knew we couldn’t compromise on quality, so we simply had to double down and work harder. Now that we have the right infrastructure in place things are great, but those days of manual running the process were tough.
BND: What previous experiences helped you in that journey?
Rob Biederman: I had done some work applying the lessons I learned at Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital to help out my dad’s company, an urban redevelopment consulting firm. I love that we can help businesses like his make strategic plans for the future, test the waters for new concepts without the risk of a full-time hire, and leverage the collective experiences of more than 400 MBAs at the top schools. My professional experiences have almost impressed upon me the importance of delivering perfect quality work, which is our goal on every engagement at HourlyNerd.
Peter Maglathlin: Having worked in Business Development at Highbridge Capital for nearly three years I did a lot of selling to sophisticated investors, many of whom were twice my age. What that experience taught me was how important it is to fully understand a customer’s need when offering them something. No two customers are the same; therefore allowing the customer to voice their specific need is crucial. I found my selling experience to be invaluable when we initially hit the streets to speak with small businesses about our service. We tailored our pitch to the concerns of each business, enabling them to understand how HourlyNerd could help them solve their problems.
Patrick Petitti: I spent four years in consulting, two of which were at a negotiation consulting firm. That was a great experience for a couple of reasons. First, the negotiation skills have proven quite useful as we’ve thought about how to develop a convincing value proposition for our customers and when we’ve actually approached businesses to use out site. Second, the company was about the size of the businesses that we’re working with, so I had an incredible chance to understand what types of challenges and opportunities small and medium sized businesses have and how HourlyNerd can help.
BND: How has the response been so far?
Peter Maglathlin: Honestly the response we have gotten from both the MBA and small business community has been overwhelmingly positive. Through conversations with MBA students from the premier business schools both in the US and internationally, we were able to confirm three things: MBA students are strapped for cash, have some spare time they would like to capitalize on, and are constantly looking for ways to bolster their resumes. Joining the HourlyNerd network allows these students to address all three of these issues by helping to solve real-life business problems for real-life companies. In speaking with small businesses across the country as well as across the world, it was clear that they are often faced with problems they either don’t have the time, staffing, or skill set to address. Since hiring an expensive consulting firm simply isn’t an option for these firms, most of them were very receptive to the possibility of hiring someone with the consultant pedigree but at a much lower rate and on a shorter-term basis.
BND: What was the biggest challenge you encountered and how did you overcome it?
Patrick Petitti: The single biggest challenge was getting a well-functioning, professional looking website up and running. The functionality of our website is critical to our business – it’s all our customers see, so it is in effect a representation of us. We were balancing that with a need to get to market quickly, and so we rushed to hire a developer who was not as qualified as we would have liked. This certainly was a challenge, and we were only able to overcome it by giving him constant instruction and excruciatingly detailed feedback. The developer and I exchanged over 700 messages in just over two weeks. He was in Bangladesh, so for a period of about 5 days I actually changed my sleep schedule to fit his. While we plan on constantly updating our website to meet the needs of our customers, we ended up with a product that had the level of functionality we needed at the time, and our users seem to enjoy it.
BND: What is the best bit of advice you have for other entrepreneurs?
Rob Biederman: Managing your time is nearly impossible. Every time a fire comes up, all three of us run to it and scrap the other plans for the day. Fighting that impulse is difficult, but if you have partners, designate one person as the official timekeeper and moderator so you don’t allow tasks to expand. Also: shut the computer and cell phone off and take breaks. It’s so tempting to allow your business to become a 24/7 activity but if you do that, you will become ineffective, begin to resent your company and burn out.
Patrick Petitti: We’re rookies at this, so we’re hardly in a place to give advice, but I guess the one thing I’ve learned for myself is to stop thinking and start doing. I always had this notion that you need to have the perfect business idea and it has to be some unique solution that addresses a problem in a totally new and creative way. That simply isn’t the case. And even if you do think your idea is the bees knees, I can assure you that it will change – likely dramatically – over time. So stop thinking about what you want to do, take a chance, and go make it happen.