Giving Birth to a Startup

Like many mid-level career professionals may have also experienced, I had attended a significant number of networking events throughout my career and struggled with the transactional nature in nearly every conversation. I felt like the new acquaintances right in front of me were constantly sizing me up and I got really tired of being asked what I did for a living, oftentimes before even sharing my name. So, during my time in Cornell SC Johnson’s Metro NY Executive MBA program I was determined to breaking these networking norms. As I began the third term of my academic journey, I conceived an idea that would bring to life a new form of “connect-working.”

For the first trimester, I worked with a lean team of fellow EMBA students at Cornell to experiment on ways we could create better atmospheres for our networking events and reduce the negative stigma around networking in general. You see, every leading university typically has multiple MBA & EMBA programs, grabbing the attention of different types of customers that would benefit from the same core curriculum. For Cornell’s presence in NYC, there is a full time MBA, and three Executive programs known as the Americas, Metro NY and dual MS/MBA with Weill Cornell Medicine. For any given year there are typically 2 cohorts running simultaneously. One graduating this year and the other graduating next year. If you sum up all the NYC based students today, there are 300+ students graduating between 2020 and 2021.

Whilst I loved seeing my colleagues in the Metro NY Class of ’20 cohort on a bi-weekly basis, I wanted to know my fellow Big Red brethren and meet the other 230+ students in NYC. Besides, that’s one of the primary reasons why we were all here, to be part of the larger Cornell family. And since I was having a hard time meeting them on my own, I worked with a team of students across programs to coordinate small group dinner parties and happy hours for connecting all of our cohorts. I’ll never forget these days, working with all stars like Cassie Dai and Daniel Joo, as we coordinated events called “Dinner Paloozas.”

Steps to creating a Dinner Palooza, a simple connect-working framework:

Step 1: Have as many people sign up for the same evening.
Step 2: Create small group dinner parties and send each party to a different restaurant.
Step 3: Coordinate an after-party location for all dinner groups.
Step 4: Have guests introduce people they met at dinner to the friends they re-unite with at the bar/lounge.

Key Rule: Don’t start a conversation at dinner with where you work or what you do!

For our first “Dinner Palooza,” 20 people showed up on a Monday evening and we had all 3 dinner parties meet at a beer garden in midtown after their meals. News spread quickly about the friendly atmosphere and natural settings we created and we doubled our headcount for our second event. We progressively increased attendance to 60, 80, and 80 at our subsequent events. Out of the 300+ students, 150+ attended a Dinner Palooza and the ‘average customer’ attended 3 out of the 5 events. Not bad, but “could we connect more people?” I thought to myself.

The second trimester of this birthing process was a time to test scalability and identify WTP (willingness to pay). I was able to connect with the Executive MBA programs of NYU and Columbia, courtesy of my program’s Executive Director, Joy Dellapina, and my future co-founder, Jake Van Namen, a Columbia EMBA 2020 candidate. With Jake, I coordinated a RSVP list of 150+ people and formed 22 dinner parties with an after-party at Proper West, on one of the busiest nights of the year, December 5, 2020. (Special shout out and thanks to DJ Kevin). Although the night started with a few, not so minor hiccups, many people felt that by the end of the evening the “EMBA Dinner Palooza Mashup” was a huge success. I was overwhelmed by all of the supportive handshakes, e-mails and text messages and encouraged to hear that some people were able to find new connections at companies they were interested in meeting. Furthermore, some dinner parties ended up coordinating a sequel for themselves and went on a second dinner without me! Wow, I thought to myself, we might just have something here, especially since nearly a hundred people asked me when the next one would be. I also received e-mails from people that said they were sad to miss the event, and of course I also got one scathing email from an unhappy customer that said they would never return again. I know I couldn’t make everyone happy and apologized for their bad experience. I also reaffirmed that this endeavor was still a student led initiative, there was no major company sponsorship or significant manpower for support. I took the feedback seriously and my initial reaction was remorse and empathy for their terrible experience. And so, I thought of a better system and worked with Jake and a third co-founder, to boot strap the build of a technical solution that would handle the logistics of an event, instead of just using my brain and Excel. Our goal, which was determined with collaboration from our customers, was to deliver events on a monthly basis and delight every customer through curated dinner groups specific to customers’ goals and objectives.

We had some complications going into the third semester and we almost had to abort. While we made tremendous progress, like forming a C-Corp, running 2 more events, completing the design of our MVP (minimally viable product) and conducting over 300 customer interviews, the product development started to slow down. Things got way worse, really quick, with the advent of COVID-19 and I immediately realized that no one would be going out to restaurants for dinner anytime soon. Just like that, the steam engine running behind the newly formed company, Koinos, stalled out and I had to start weighing my options, especially since I heard from Jake that he could no longer participate as an active co-founder. (Not to worry, he’s still an investor, trusted advisor and close friend!).

Jake (left), Sam (right)

I put on my strategy hat, prayed to God and started thinking about how Koinos could survive this storm and build up some brand equity along the way. For some reason, I started thinking about the stories I heard about EMBA students not being very entrepreneurial. I even remembered someone describing EMBAs as being “risk-averse, old fat farts” that were just trying to climb the corporate ladder. I fundamentally disagreed with this statement because I was surrounded by so many leaders that started their own companies, led major corporate initiatives and were more entrepreneurial than me in so many ways. As I thought about how I could help change this perception, and still build community amongst NYC’s finest EMBAs, I realized that Koinos could be a launchpad for the executives and entrepreneurs within our communities by sharing their stories over a podcast! I looked at what other podcasts were doing and I couldn’t find anyone in the exact same space. I thought I could try my best to carve out the niche so I learned everything that I could about starting a podcast within a month. The total cost of this pivot is still to be determined and I am sure we will eventually validate whether this strategy is successful. But I am so thankful for having come this far and couldn’t have done it without the support of my wife, family, friends, fellow class reps, faculty and staff from Cornell, Columbia and NYU, my current employer, Bloomberg, early stage VCs and angels that helped me explore funding options. Thank you to everyone that has supported me through this endeavor, I am forever grateful for your positive energy.

And so, here we are, coming to the end of a startup idea birthing process only to begin another adventure. Please welcome to this world, the successful birth of “The Koinos Podcast,” a show that connects with inspirational executives and entrepreneurs graduating from the world’s best Executive MBA programs. I wasn’t sure what kind of baby was going to come out, but I’m amazed and feel truly blessed to be given such a responsibility. I will give my everything to take care of the Koinos community and hope you will join us for a series of one-on-one interviews with students and alumni from schools like Cornell, Columbia, Insead, Wharton and more. Together, we will listen to their journeys, support their ventures and see how their stories help us achieve our vision, which is a renewed world where people live in vibrant communities. We believe that our vision is achievable by connecting executives and entrepreneurs across industries to cultivate economic opportunities. Our mission is to create unique experiences that expand personal and professional networks, enrich in-person interactions and empower community formation with long term engagement. Until we can do this again over curated dinner groups, we’ll be executing our mission and working towards achieving our vision, one episode at a time on.

To listen to the show, please visit www.koinos.co

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