The first six months of building a startup while at HBS: A reflection

Tess Brooks
Tess Brooks

For the past 6 months, HBS EC student Tess Brooks has been building Confi (confi.co), an online community for young women seeking advice on health topics that can be uncomfortable to talk about (OB/GYN, sexual health, mental health, communication, etc.). Here, Tess reflects on her experience as a first-time founder, working full-time on her startup this summer and into the fall semester:

Getting your Hands Dirty and Building the Teamconfi

“Founder” is not a job description – working in the i-lab, I have seen extremely different day-to-day realities for each start-up. For example, tech companies are coding all day, food products are cooking and working with suppliers and distributors, and education services are running around trying to sign on schools (I have yet to see a founder that spends most of the day strategizing on a whiteboard). It can be difficult to predict what yours will be like, especially if you take the approach of identifying a customer need before determining the specific solution, yet I commonly hear that people aspire to be a “founder” in the future (I was like this, too).

Wanting to create something that’s truly new and can have an impact may matter more than a desire to work in a particular industry. But, it is still important to think critically about what the real day-to-day may entail, and whether you will enjoy it. My daily routine often feels more like my undergrad Anthropology days than Business (and I love it).

For non-technical founders, even once you figure out what the core activities will be, there’s an added challenge of deciding which tasks to do yourself, which to delegate to team members, and which to contract externally. My background is in management consulting, so many of the activities were completely new to me, and I did not initially have the self-awareness of what I could do well/learn and liked.

Confi uses infographics to creatively synthesize information about health topics in a clear, relatable way, so the concept requires content writing, web design, customer focus groups, marketing, and developing close relationships with medical experts. But when I was hiring interns early on, I had no idea what I was looking for, other than candidates who were passionate about women’s health and were excited by the prospect of the chaotic learning opportunity that a start-up provides.

Over the course of the summer, I learned which activities we should focus on at each stage and how to allocate time and resources. First, we recruited an expert network of doctors to validate content. Then we built up our customer survey data and secondary research to feed content. Then we realized that 90% of the team’s time needs to be spent on story lining and designing the actual articles.

We also experimented with what each of us was best at and checked in every two weeks for feedback. Amr was hired to write content, but ended up not liking the design aspect of infographics, and switched over to research and growing our expert network; whereas Kristen was hired for marketing, but found she was amazing at writing and designing content, and that marketing wasn’t a priority for us yet.

Personally, I am glad that I pushed myself to learn about design, because I have really enjoyed the creative side of designing infographic articles and storylines, as well as having full control of web design. In retrospect, I’m also glad that I did not rush into adding co-founders for Confi (it was tempting this summer), because I now have a better idea of which skills and experience would add the most value to the company.

Being Passionate about your Vision

With friends, “How’s Confi going?” now precedes, “How are you?” and I’ve given my Confi elevator pitch at least a thousand times. I used to think that I was so passionate about entrepreneurship that it didn’t really matter what specific product or service my company provided. Now, however, I believe that Confi has made it this far because I’m so determined to empower women with better health information. You live and breathe your start-up, and you have to be obsessed with it and love talking about it in order to survive. My passion for Confi is what gets me into the i-lab every weekend and is what has helped us rally so many awesome people to get involved, from interns, to medical expert advisors, to HBS friend advisors. Having a greater end goal isn’t just a “nice to have.”

Unexpected Personal and Professional Growth

I assumed that in starting a business, I would develop some vague, high-level skills like resourcefulness, presentation skills, and leadership skills, but I didn’t know what that would actually look like. And while I believe I’ve grown in these areas through this process, there are many “tiny-big” skills (traits that sound insignificant in scale but feel like a huge personal impact) that I am much more aware of. For instance, I’ve always been incredibly awkward talking on the phone and avoided it at all costs (e.g. prioritizing food delivery based on those that have online booking). But now that I’m accustomed to having several phone calls a day, I’ve actually overcome that fear and can have an effective phone meeting.

Other tiny-big skills include learning how to network at a conference (the hotel bar after the workshops finish has been a key discovery), how to actively maintain relationships with judges after a business competition, and how to think of creative ways for people to help who want to contribute.

On a personal level, I have always cared more about what people think than I would like. One of my main hesitations in starting Confi was the fact that we are addressing taboo topics. I think the sensitive nature of women’s health and sexual health is one of the reasons more people aren’t currently addressing it. I’m proud that I’m addressing a real issue that impacts most people, and that matters more than what anyone else might think. Starting a business opens yourself up to feedback from every angle, and I’ve toughened up because of it.

confi 1

Looking to Peers for Help

I used to think of mentors as serial entrepreneurs, industry experts, or professors. And while I’ve found these advisors to be incredibly helpful, I’ve also learned that peers can be a great resource and are better suited for many day-to-day questions. Figuring out information quickly is a huge asset when you are crunched for time. Questions like, “How can I best monitor my Google Analytics data,” “How do you protect your website from spam,” and “Where can I find the best free stock photos” may seem trivial, but they all add up into an ever-longer to-do list.

Real Cost of Time and Morale

It is difficult to track and quantify whether you’re investing time in the right things and doing everything the most efficient way. When you’re not earning a salary, it can be easy to forget the real value of your time and potential added stress. This summer, I went to every start-up event that I heard about and sought feedback from over 100 doctors and other founders. Most were more than worth it, but I have become more selective with my time, since every meeting is a long-term investment with a hefty opportunity cost (giving up actual short-term output).

In particular, I have become more careful with time from a recruiting standpoint as I hire more interns. I’ve discovered that each interview I conduct costs the 45 minutes with the candidate plus the added disruption of switching tasks during your day, and it’s well worth it to have a clear job description to help candidates self-select (e.g. I went from saying “flexible schedule” to “minimum 8-10hr/wk time commitment, and writing sample required”). Similarly, even volunteers are not free, as the added coordination time and e-mail exchanges add up quickly.

confi 2On the other hand, I’ve found some surprising things to be more than worth it, like the morale boost of getting business cards for the team. In the really early pre-revenue stages without a large user base yet, spending $20 on experimenting with a Facebook ad that ended up bringing in 700 likes absolutely made our week. I had the mindset that it wasn’t worth it to spend any money on advertising at this point, but breaking the rule this one time was truly worth it. Spending $100 to send Kristen and Amr to a health start-up conference in New York was also great for our team and signaled that their professional development is genuinely a priority of mine. Small wins and demonstrating momentum can sometimes be bought, and I’m trying not to overlook them moving forward.

We often hear great words of wisdom from successful serial entrepreneurs, and I am hoping that this was helpful as a grittier perspective from a first-time founder. Please check out Confi’s online platform, and we would love to hear your feedback at [email protected]. Thank you!