14 Oct 2020

A Q+A with Sunnies Founder Vaibhav Agarwala (MBA 2020)

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Vaibhav Agarwala

The spring of 2020 was an uncertain time for the entire world, but founder Vaibhav Agarwala (MBA 2020) was certain of one thing—the world was spending more time in front of screens than ever. Unsure of his plans after graduation, he pivoted from his work in consulting and private equity and used resources from the Arthur Rock Center For Entrepreneurship to launch Sunnies, a brand of self-heating eye masks. We chatted with Vaibhav about starting a company during the pandemic, entrepreneurship at HBS, and advice for aspiring founders.

What inspired you to create Sunnies?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I started becoming extremely aware of how much time I was spending on screens. Not just for virtual class at HBS, but I was increasingly spending mindless time on my phone and on social media. Sunnies was a way to help people focus on themselves—instead of spending the 15-20 minutes before bed scrolling on their phone, they can spend that time resting your eyes, relaxing, and letting your mind wander a bit.

Where did you get the idea for Sunnies?

I discovered a similar product while touring shopping malls in Shanghai for Field Global Immersion (FGI) in 2019. I picked up a box on one of our research tours and was blown away by how simple and effective it was.

Right after FGI, I participated in the annual HBS Japan Trek and was surprised to see that the same products were ubiquitous across all of the 7-Eleven stores in Japan. I started researching and realized it was a pretty big market in Asia but relatively unheard of in the US. I filed it away in my brain as a potential entrepreneurship idea.

How has COVID-19 influenced you in starting a company?

In a bit of a silver lining, COVID-19 led me here. Candidly, around February of this year I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Suddenly, COVID hit and I was back in my childhood home in Plano, Texas. The job market wasn’t great, and I didn’t want to compromise on a new role. When the Rock Center announced they would fund first year students (ECs), I took it as an opportunity to finally commit to the idea of working on Sunnies.

On a more personal note, COVID-19 marked the end of four years of a long-distance romance with my fiancée. Being in the same place finally allowed us to work on fun things like this together. She designed the branding and was my first model!

What does starting a company during COVID-19 look like?

I think moments of disruption and uncertainty are simultaneously the worst and best times for startups. For Sunnies, the pandemic was the perfect time to launch. Issues about screen time, technology use, and anxiety have become mainstream and commonly accepted. At the same time, e-commerce is seeing an unprecedented acceleration in adoption, making consumers more willing to try and buy products online.

How did HBS help prepare you for your entrepreneurial journey?

Like many people, I came into HBS wanting to start something on my own but was not really sure what that meant. I joined the Entrepreneurship Club, I worked at a startup over the summer, and I took a lot of entrepreneurship classes during EC year.

Coming from places like consulting and private equity, it can be hard to convince yourself to go the entrepreneurial route. The “risk-adjusted returns” don’t always make sense compared to your alternatives. But I found that spending two years surrounded by entrepreneurial peers, reading about amazing case protagonists, and being in this environment really helped me bridge that gap.

The Rock Summer Fellowship was incredibly helpful in giving me the momentum to get started and for helping me fund my initial inventory. I used Baker Library resources for research, a Japanese classmate helped me translate Japanese market reports, and I even used HBS’s student plan of Adobe Creative Cloud to design the product!

How did the Rock Summer Fellows program help you to start Sunnies?

Aside from financial backing, it provided a lot of motivation and support. Once I applied and had the funding, there were no excuses not to push forward. It was great talking with other classmates who were working on their own ideas, comparing notes, and motivating each other. It was nice to stay connected, especially after our time together was cut short by COVID.

What motivated you to go the e-commerce route for your company?

Strategically I think it makes the most sense. Selling online allows you to completely own the brand story and describe the product the way you want. The fact that they are lightweight and single-use mitigates shipping and return expenses, and the repeat-purchase behavior allows you to amortize your customer acquisition costs over the expected lifetime value of a consumer.

Beyond that, e-commerce is booming under COVID-19, which allows me to mitigate risks—I can be disciplined with inventory and am fulfilling product myself out of my in-laws’ garage!

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring entrepreneur, what would it be?

Throughout HBS I lived with two roommates in Soldiers Field Park. We had one wall in our hallway that was covered in sticky notes with business ideas. One day in mid-March as we were all abruptly moving out, I finally took down all those sticky notes. I decided then that I would regret it if, after all those months of sharing ideas with friends, I didn’t at least try to do something.

My advice is to just do it. There is no better playground for entrepreneurship than HBS. There are so many resources and like-minded people—you’re bound to learn something extremely valuable, even if you fail.

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