When Elaine Chen clicked the button to publish her Kickstarter campaign, the future of her business became dependent upon the reactions of faceless judges throughout the world.
Chen hoped the Kickstarter campaign would raise $10,000, so she and her co-founders could create RompHim—a business selling rompers for men. Just like business owners during an Initial Public Offering (IPO), the new entrepreneurs were nervous that they’d miss their funding goal and be forced back to square one.
Fortunately, when the voting public weighed in, the team quickly blasted through their goal of $10,000, continuing on like a rocket ship until reaching a total pledged amount of more than $350,000—a difference of over 3400%.
Chen and her co-founders may have become business owners overnight, but could they deliver on high demands and expectations that emerged so unexpectedly?
In short, yes. RompHim is now a thriving business with Chen sitting at the helm as the CEO. There are many reasons for RompHim’s success, but Chen will be the first to credit her experience at business school for laying a solid foundation.
No Business School, No RompHim
The public first heard of RompHim through the Kickstarter campaign. But by then, Chen and her team had already put in plenty of work behind the scenes at business school.
RompHim began as a casual conversation over drinks among Chen and three friends and classmates at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The four colleagues were discussing the limited options for fun, fashionable, and comfortable menswear when they came up with the idea for a men’s romper. Chen’s three colleagues were all men, and they loved the idea. A few weeks later, Chen sketched the first product design.
After the initial brainstorming and planning stages, the team submitted the product for an independent study and sought the sponsorship of a professor. A subsequent entrepreneurship class led to the launch of the Kickstarter campaign.
Would we have RompHim if Chen and her co-founders hadn’t gone to business school? “Absolutely not,” Chen says. “Business school is very good about opening your mind to new ways of thinking, which I didn’t necessarily have as much time to do in my previous job. You’re so focused on the day to day and what’s next in your career path that you don’t take the time to step back and reflect.”
“Business school helps you embrace the risk of starting a business. It encourages you to take on challenges you may not have had the opportunity to take on otherwise.” And take a risk she did.
Chen also credits business school with teaching her an important lesson about success and failure. “Business school taught me that failure is not the worst outcome. Often, it is an incredible opportunity for learning in disguise. Growing up we want to be perfect, and as a result we are scared to fail. But failure is the best way to learn, and in fact can accelerate the learning process.”
While learning to embrace risk was her most invaluable “b-school” lesson, Chen also notes that she was “surrounded by an extraordinary community of smart individuals who were very willing to help and be supportive.” Her support system guided her through the launch and beyond.
Without these resources, RompHim may never have made it to market.
What It’s Like to Be the Boss
Since her company’s launch, Chen has reflected on the demands and joys of running a business. She is brimming with stories about her experience. Some of the hurdles she expected; others came as more of a surprise.
First, there was the never-ending to-do list; Chen knew that was coming.
The real surprise has been the emotional involvement of starting and running a business. “People talk about the emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship: one day you’re up, the next you’re down. I feel it’s more like one hour I’m up and the next hour I’m down.”
Dealing with this close emotional attachment to the business has been a major learning experience, and Chen recommends that anyone considering running their own business prepare for this reality.
Chen has developed coping and self-management skills. “I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself because if I’m not taking care of myself, I’m not taking care of the business.” This commitment means integrating personal time and time with friends and loved ones into her busy schedule. Otherwise, her schedule could easily become one of all work, all the time.
Though emotionally draining at times, Chen wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Her favorite part of being the boss? “I am learning something new every single day. I probably learn five new things every day!”
How to Make the Most of Business School
Chen’s time at business school may be impossible to replicate, but prospective and new b-school students can learn some invaluable lessons from her success story.
First, before you set foot on campus, take some time to map out your academic goals and your career goals post-graduation. You cannot do it all, so place your focus on what you want to accomplish. Avoid the trap of spreading yourself too thin.
The success of RompHim is very much a product of this focused vision. “When you enter business school, you are presented with an endless amount of opportunities; there is no shortage of things you can do from an academic perspective, a social perspective, a club perspective, and a career perspective. You have opportunities coming at you from all angles. It’s easy to get overwhelmed because you want to do it all.”
If starting your own business is your goal at business school, then place that goal at the top of your list of priorities.
Next, build time into your schedule to brainstorm and map out potential business plans. Unlikely as it may seem, not every student at business school is there to build their own business. Set yourself apart by seeking out opportunities such as courses, extracurricular groups, and relationships that will aid you in reaching your specific goal.
Third, build out the steps necessary to reach your goals. Remember to also leave space for the unexpected.
Chen couldn’t have predicted before arriving on campus that she would graduate from business school with an explosive Kickstarter campaign for a piece of cheeky menswear.
There’s a lesson for all prospective business school students and entrepreneurs to be found in Chen’s unexpected success.
She embraced risk and allowed herself the creative freedom to run with an idea that others may have brushed right over. Chen landed in her current position by defining goals, accepting uncertainty, and putting in a whole lot of hard work.