BOSTON— Participants in this afternoon's 13th annual Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest don't have to look back very far for inspiration. Last year's winner in the Social Enterprise track, Diagnostic-For-All (DFA), won kudos for a revolutionary, inexpensive product designed to diagnose certain common diseases in developing countries. Patients simply put their fingertip on a specially treated piece of paper. DFA scored another coup when it went on to capture first place in MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition as well.
Taking home the honors in the 2008 HBS Traditional track was EyeView, a startup that focused initially on creating explanatory videos to help customers understand how to use a company's online offerings, particularly where the transactions are relatively complex, such as on eBay or on gaming and financial Websites. But according to Israel-born Tal Riesenfeld (MBA 2008), much has happened at EyeView since he won the judges' approval with his presentation at the HBS Contest's final round a year ago, including a substantial influx of venture capital funding.
The startup has since come up with a tagline ("moving people to action") that epitomizes a key value that's been added to its services - causing customers to do more than just visit a Website. "Our main goal these days," says Riesenfeld, "is to make people come to a site and complete a transaction by downloading or buying something" - a cycle of activity called a "conversion." There's lots of room for improvement in that category, he explains, since the average conversion rate on Websites today is a meager 3 percent.
Besides supplying the technology that provides a site with a "rich media" experience, including audio, video, and interactive capabilities, EyeView now offers tools that not only answer questions about the appropriate length of a video or the most effective kind of voiceover but also analyze the impact of the video on the customer's visit to the Website.
Based on a concept developed by one of his childhood friends in Israel, EyeView was founded in 2007, when Riesenfeld was in his second year at HBS. Along with several other friends and founders, he invested $5,000 in the new venture and began working for it out of his dorm room during his free time - without a salary. He found participating in the Business Plan Contest a helpful experience. "Besides requiring the team build a real plan," he says, "it made us start thinking hard about the financials and other important steps in creating a business. What are the gross margins? What's our positioning? We wouldn't do that if we were just sitting around."
Riesenfeld also benefited from the HBS alumni network. "It's hard for entrepreneurs who are just starting out to get money," he says, "but I was at least able to get through the door for an initial meeting because so many HBS graduates hold prominent positions in venture capital firms. Many alums are among our clients as well" - a group that now numbers more than 30 companies, half U.S. and half international.
Although he now works out of EyeView's office in Tel Aviv (the enterprise also has workers in Boston and Sydney), Riesenfeld was happy to return to the HBS campus last fall to talk to some current students at the invitation of Senior Lecturer Mike Roberts, who heads the School's Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and helps run the Business Plan Contest. "A year ago, I was sitting where they are today," Riesenfeld says. "I wanted to explain to them how we took an idea and turned it into a reality."
Tal Riesenfeld's Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- When you don't have a proven brand, business is "only personal."
- Getting the first customer is one of the biggest hurdles. (HBS is a powerful brand; that helps.)
- Over-promise; over-deliver.
- Raising money is a painful and humbling process.
- Be prepared to do everything in the company. (Your first hire should be a great office manager.)
- It's all about the people. (Even if you don't have a good idea, a good team will do well.)
- The risk isn't as big as it seems.
- Once you go down the entrepreneur path, it is hard to go back.