03 Dec 2020

Q+A With OnRamp Co-Founder Ross Lerner


Ross Lerner (MBA 2020) and his friend and former colleague, Paul Holder, noticed many companies were still using fairly primitive, ad-hoc digital tools during their new customer onboarding experience. To fix the problem, they created OnRamp—software that helps teams “infuse world-class customer onboarding into their DNA, resulting in healthier customers, improved productivity, and higher net retention.” We chatted with Ross about how he utilized Harvard Business School’s (HBS) resources during his entrepreneurial journey, how the company has been navigating COVID-19, and how he continues to stay connected to the HBS community in his first year out of school.

What HBS classes did you find helpful when thinking about starting a company?

Where do I start? Aside from the relevance of classes like Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) and The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) in my first year Required Curriculum (RC), I took Founder’s Journey, Product Management 101 and 102, Entrepreneurial Sales Management, Scaling Tech Ventures, and Field. As you can see, I was pretty focused on one thing: growing my entrepreneurial skills!

For me, the greatest advantage of getting my MBA while simultaneously launching a company were the innumerable moments where connections between the two were clear. I’d be in class and the discussion would turn to a topic directly relevant to a question we were considering with OnRamp, or conversely, something would come up on a customer discovery call that would remind me exactly of a case I had read. I got the best of both worlds, between real-world application and in-classroom learning.

How did the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship help your entrepreneurial journey?

The Rock’s programming helped us get off the ground. It provided grants during the year that allowed us to test our hypotheses and build some rough minimum viable products (MVPs), and the Rock Summer Fellowship meant I could work on OnRamp full-time during the MBA summer. Its programs provided structure and resources at every turn.

Why did you decide to join the Rock Accelerator program?

The Rock Accelerator gave us access to many additional resources, but far and away the biggest reasons for joining are the community and mentorship. Every two weeks I sat down with the same small group of entrepreneurial classmates and shared updates, suggestions, and feedback on the progress of our ventures. These sessions were led by a successful entrepreneur who acted as our coach and was invested in our success. It was a tight-knit community within the broader HBS ecosystem.

OnRamp was a runner-up at the New Venture Competition (NVC)—how did NVC prepare you to launch your company?

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching! Taking part in the NVC was a lot of fun and we felt really fortunate in taking second place when we were going up against so many other great teams. The competition forced us to constantly hone our story and focus as a company.

What was it like working with an Entrepreneur-in-Residence? Who did you work with and what was their best advice?

I worked with world-class entrepreneurs and VCs from around Boston, NYC, and the West Coast. The best piece of advice we received was to stay entirely focused on providing value to early customers—you have to learn, iterate, build, and repeat until you do. None of the other stuff matters until you provide a real need for someone.

Since graduating this past spring, what HBS resources have you continued to use?

The biggest resource has been my continued connection with professors, classmates, and alumni. I frequently seek their advice on all fronts and many have gone out of their way to be helpful to us.

The Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab) is a University-wide resource for entrepreneurs—how did it factor into your HBS experience?

I was there all the time. It was fun getting to work in such an energetic environment where so many others were working on their businesses as well. We also took part in their venture incubation program.

Has COVID-19 impacted OnRamp?

It was certainly scary back in the spring as all it was starting to unfold, but as time has passed we’ve recognized that we are really fortunate to be in an industry (software) that hasn’t been as affected by COVID-19 as many others. Paul and I were actually already working remotely from one another prior to COVID-19, so in practical terms not too much has changed. We’ve still been able to connect with prospects and advisors—the pandemic has simply underscored the necessity of flexibility for any way of working. Overall, going to school while building a company full-time kept me pretty busy but was worth it. And I learned so much more as a result.

Do you have any advice for first year HBS students?

Before coming to HBS, someone told me to have a goal of what I wanted to accomplish over my two years here. For me, it was to start OnRamp. For someone else it might be to determine their next career move, become a Baker Scholar, or to leave their mark running a certain club. The point is to have an objective in mind from the start. It goes by quickly and there are so many paths you can take—don’t just let it fly by.

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