In New Course, Everyone Finds an Idea2Launch
For months, Anders Bill and Theo Chapman had been tossing the idea for Darkroom, a web-based platform from which photographers could sell professional-quality prints. But the idea didn’t coalesce until it became Bill’s semester-long project in Idea2Launch, a new marketing class in the Carroll School.
This past fall, Bill, Morrissey College ’17, and three classmates were able to spend 12 weeks scoping out the size of the potential market and writing a go-to-market plan. Darkroom, which Bill and Chapman, Carroll School ’17, continue to pursue, aims to use a so-called campaign business model. Photographers post their shots on the site and announce how much they’d like to charge for prints and how many they want to sell. Darkroom makes the prints only if it receives sufficient orders and then shares the revenue with the photographer.
Idea2Launch is taught by Bridget Akinc, a senior lecturer in marketing, and Brian Harrington, entrepreneur in residence at the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship. The Center sponsors a coconcentration in entrepreneurship that includes this course.
“Bridget and Brian are both experienced entrepreneurs,” Bill said. “They’re more like mentors than professors—they give you a lot of room to be creative.”
The class is built upon the idea of learning by doing and structured around a semester-long project like the one Bill and his group did. Over the course of the class, teams of students conceive of an idea for a new product or service and shepherd it all the way through to a formal presentation to a group of executives.
“Often, marketing is taught by combining theory and tools—‘Here are the techniques you employ as a marketer, and here’s how you implement them,’” Akinc said. “We wanted this to be very hands-on.”
Forty-two students enrolled this fall. Several of them used their projects as entries into the Shea Center’s Elevator Pitch competition. At that annual event held in late October, student teams take 60 seconds to pitch their business ideas to a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The Darkroom duo of Bill and Chapman (the latter is a marketing and entrepreneurship student) won for best overall pitch in the competition, which awards cash prizes.
Idea2Launch germinated in conversations between Akinc and Harrington, both veteran marketers. Akinc previously worked for several Silicon Valley-based software companies. Harrington, Carroll School ’89, was chief marketing officer for Zipcar, a Boston-based car-sharing network. They met when Harrington visited campus in 2014 as part of the Carroll School’s Distinguished Marketer Lecture series. Friendship and collaboration ensued.
When the Carroll School created its entrepreneurship coconcentration last year, the two instructors saw an opening for a new kind of class. “Our aim was to give students a taste of what it’s like to be a real entrepreneur,” Akinc said.
Adds Harrington: “We wanted them to be able to analyze a market opportunity—to assess whether an idea could be successful in the market.”
To teach that kind of thinking, the professors begin by asking everyone in the class to generate at least three business ideas. They then group the students into teams, and each team must winnow its members’ ideas down to one they’re willing to pursue as a project.
Bill’s group had actually started with another idea—an app that translated sign language via a smartphone’s camera. When that idea faltered, Bill suggested they jump to Darkroom. He says working with the group taught him that anybody can be an entrepreneur; he’d had a hand in a prior BC startup, EchoMe, but none of his other Idea2Launch teammates had started a company before. He worked with Natalie Carbonell, Sheryn Saab, and Austin Wang, all Carroll School ’17.
“The team caught on really quickly,” he said. “It made me realize that entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and that anyone can participate in a startup.”
Over the course of the semester, as the groups refine their ideas, they must submit two milestone papers. In the first, they define their market, answering the question, Who’s the customer? In the second, they present their go-to-market plan. It must be based on primary research, such as surveys or interviews with potential customers.
The students also did a field study, visiting HubSpot, a sales-and-marketing software company in Cambridge. There, they met with CEO Brian Halligan. Other marketing executives came to campus to speak with the group, including Lesley Mottla of M.Gemi, Denis Scott of OpenTable, and Peter Bell of Highland Capital.
The class culminates with the students’ presentations of go-to-market plans to the judges and their classmates. This past fall’s judges, in addition to Akinc and Harrington, were Nick Rellas, Carroll School ’13, cofounder and CEO of Drizly, and Stephanie Shore, chief marketing officer of Moo.com.
“A big part of the final presentations is learning how to handle questions,” Akinc said. “Ideally, we want them to be so prepared that they’ll have what Brian calls ‘back-pocket slides’—not ones that are part of their presentations but extras that anticipate likely questions.”
Idea2Launch is open to any upper-level Boston College student and requires no application (though that might change in the future).
Caroline Grindrod, Carroll School ’17, said she hadn’t considered working for a startup until she took the class last fall. “I thought startups were for tech people,” she said. She’d enrolled because she’s a marketing concentrator who’d enjoyed a prior class taught by Akinc. She and her team ran with the idea of a rooftop greenhouse that would provide year-round fresh local vegetables to people in the city.
Idea2Launch changed her outlook about her career, and she’s now looking for opportunities with startups for when she graduates this spring. Part of the reason is the startup ethos she learned about in the class, she said.
“I loved the do-or-die mentality—that you learn by going after something. I’d heard the saying, ‘Every problem is an opportunity.’ But I never really believed that before this class. The class made me listen to and think about people’s problems in a different way.”
Parts of this article originally appeared in the Shea Center’s newsletter.