Jean-Michel Chalayer has made great strides since launching LeSalon with his co-founder Natasha Pilbrow in 2014. The Masters in Management graduate from London Business School (LBS) helped develop an on-demand beauty booking app for people who want manicures and pedicures whenever and wherever they like.
The app’s success has seen Chalayer, LeSalon’s 29-year-old CEO, named in the retail and ecommerce category of Forbes’s 30 under 30 Europe list for 2016. Much of the venture’s success can be traced back to the LBS Incubator Programme, an initiative providing up to 13 teams of students each year the support needed to turn their business ideas into reality.
Students accepted on the programme benefit from office space at LBS’s London campus, mentoring, support from professional services firms including Deloitte, and access to faculty and alumni with a wealth of business knowledge and expertise.
The recently graduated 2015 incubator cohort will be hoping to emulate Chalayer’s success. We speak to some of them about building their own ventures, their journey throughout their time at the incubator including the lessons learned, the challenges they have faced and how did they overcome them. They explain what support they have received from LBS and why being part of the incubator is the best start to life as an entrepreneur.
The six students talking about their experiences on the programme are:
- Charles Dupont, Co-Founder of Mark-It, which develops software for maths students and their teachers
- Jon Smith, CEO and Co-Founder of Pobble, an online platform for school teachers to inspire students to share their writing and read their peers’ work
- Shefali Modi, Founder of EncycloKidia, an online children’s services information provider, giving parents details of nearby sports, activities, entertainment and healthcare for their kids
- Pat Eskinasy, Founder of Hen.ai, a virtual assistant that makes running a business simpler
- Oliver Pilgerstorfer and Andrea Sommer, Co-Founders of Hiver, an app for remembering and connecting with people after networking with them
What have you found most valuable about the programme?
Dupont: “The programme has put us in direct contact with like-minded LBS alumni, students and faculty, which is invaluable. It has also allowed us to focus on building the business, by putting us in touch with a strong base of advisors for strategic, legal and tech issues.”
Smith: “Undoubtedly the community. LBS offers opportunities and knowledge, and being part of the incubator has really given Pobble access to both. In our latest investment round [the company secured more than £1 million in February 2016], most of the money came from investors we met through LBS and the incubator.”
Pilgerstorfer: “For me, it’s the partnerships LBS struck for all the students on the incubator programme. We had the tools, structure, advice and support of the incubator's partners to do things properly from the outset. That allowed us in the short- and long-term to focus on effectively building our businesses.”
Modi: “The synergies we had with other incubator start-ups were invaluable. We all went through similar challenges at different points in time, so it was great to walk into the office of another venture and ask how their founders had successfully done something we were trying to do.”
What have you learnt about business while developing your venture? Is there anything you’d do differently on the incubator programme?
Pilgerstorfer: “One of the core beliefs at Hiver is that meeting people in person can yield real value, so we've loved building relationships with investors, customers, partners, advisors and other entrepreneurs. Listening to advice is paramount, but everyone has an opinion. A key learning for me is to filter out the noise so that decisions can be made in order to build the business quickly.”
Eskinasy: “I’ve learnt that you can solve a problem in several different ways. If you’re working on a solution for some time but you’re struggling to ‘talk metrics’ [report your business performance metrics], look for another solution. If you can’t ‘talk metrics’, you’re working on a project and not running a company.”
Sommer: “The biggest lesson of many, for me, is that it takes a ‘village’ to build a business. That’s really where the power of the incubator lies – in bringing together entrepreneurs, experts and resources to create a melting pot of opportunity.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced when developing the business and how did you overcome them?
Smith: “Entrepreneurship is all about execution. Yes, you need the desire, the team and the market, but all that is just the bare essentials for building a business. Executing your idea is really tough and requires so many personal, business and team skills. For me, the biggest challenge was finding the right people to join us. We've become very good at interviewing and we're getting better at hiring.”
Sommer: “Building a technology that has never been created before is a fascinating challenge that really requires diverse and creative thinking. It was fantastic to have other entrepreneurs at the incubator who we could draw on, gather feedback from and lean on when we were problem-solving.”
Eskinasy: “We took one product and three prototypes to market, from which we learnt a great deal. We then decided to act on those learnings by going back to the drawing board and building a completely new product. Making such a decision isn't easy, but here’s how I see it: as long as you’re working on a problem you’re obsessed with solving, it doesn’t matter whether you have to make changes or overcome hurdles. You will be re-energised in no time.”
Dupont: “Mark-It struggled to balance its broad mission – to help all students learn complex subjects – with the challenge of getting schools to come on board as paying customers. Our biggest success during the incubator programme was opening up the app to individuals as well as schools, and we saw an incredible rise in usage around exam time.
What plans do you have for your venture?
Smith: “Pobble is about to launch some critical new features, which we're super excited about. We've spent the last year laying the foundations to reach this point, having launched our new platform, secured investment, moved into a new office in Primrose Hill, London, built the team and developed our operational model. This is by far the most excited I've been about a new school term.”
Modi: “Our vision for EncycloKidia was always to develop a marketplace with all children’s services in one place and where parents and providers of these services can connect. Right now, we’re focused on bringing UK parents and service providers to our platform, but we eventually want to roll it out to as many countries as possible.”
Eskinasy: “We want to make managing a small business as easy as chatting. We’re targeting a large and exciting market and we have a truly unique, one-of-a-kind product with the potential to positively impact millions of new entrepreneurs. I’d say we’re doing pretty good.”