Where Einstein Meets Edison

Student to Founder Series: Paths To Building A Technology Startup While In B-School

Student to Founder Series: Paths To Building A Technology Startup While In B-School

Aug 4, 2010

How do you incubate a technology startup while in school?  How do you search for ideas, validate them, and pick your best one and go after it?  And of course, what are some of the startups created nowadays by MIT graduates?  These are some of the interesting questions that we explore in this interview with Nir Hasson, a 2010 graduate of MIT Sloan and founder of C2M, a startup in the rapidly growing market of mobile conversion.

Nir hails from Israel, studied computer science at Technion – the MIT of Israel, wrote code at Intel, led product development projects at Check Point Software Technologies, one of Israel’s leading software companies, and interned at Aspen Technology while in business school in the U.S.  Nir came to MIT to pursue entrepreneurship, centered his student life around that, and now after two years he is a founder of a promising startup.  Let’s hear his story.

MITER: Tell us about your startup C2M and how you got it started.

Nir Hasson: C2M (or, Click 2 Mobile) provides a simple solution for website owners and publishers who wish to enhance and optimize their presence on mobile web. We enable websites to simplify their mobile marketing strategy in order to increase their revenues and promote their brand.

My partner, Chen Levkovich, and I both caught the entrepreneurial bug early on, for we come from families with entrepreneurial backgrounds.  My father, who was my role model of a successful entrepreneurial businessman throughout my childhood, never worked a single day of his life for someone else. For as far back as I can remember, he has always been creating new businesses, taking them to their primes, and eventually selling many of them.  While working together at Check Point Software Technologies (NASDAQ: CHKP), Chen and I talked about starting a company and looked at several ideas. However, we both advanced rapidly within Check Point, so our startup interests didn’t immediately materialize.

MITER: So what brought you back to the entrepreneurial path?

Nir Hasson: Entrepreneurship was my main motivation to leave everything behind in Israel and go to MIT.  Shortly after my arrival, I started to exploring, looking for a potential team and idea. Eventually, during one of my trips to Israel, last December, I met Chen in a bar in Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood and after three hours there we decided to realize our old dream.

MITER: So you got the team first, someone you were happy and confident about working with, and only then an idea…

Nir Hasson:Exactly.  We shortlisted a few ideas.  Owing to our domain experience in internet security, we considered an idea of a light weighted firewall solution for VPS (virtual private servers). Multiple security issues arise when multiple virtual servers run in parallel on the same machine – a common practice – and we considered offering a simple solution for virtual server owners.  However, we dropped the idea because we weren’t convinced that the market was large enough and also because of the general difficulty of selling customers on potential security “pains”.

MITER: And what made C2M different?

Nir Hasson: We settled on the C2M idea because it solved a real problem that every mobile user suffers from.  Furthermore, C2M was also a solution that seemed very hard to implement, which excited us, of course, because it was a good challenge and potential competitive advantage if we solved this problem right. Let’s look at the market trends, too.  By end of 2011, more people in the U.S. will have smart-phones than regular phones. So very soon most of the visitors to any website will be coming from mobile devices.  This suggests that websites without strong mobile presence would lose popularity and consequently, revenues. This is a very compelling story for us.

MITER: And what did you hear when you started talking to prospective customers? 

Nir Hasson: Talking to customers was the most critical part of establishing C2M. We did all the dry, theoretical analysis – certainly an important step – but leaving the desk and talking to people provided us with the best input for understanding the real potential of a service like C2M as well as what our offering should look like. We interviewed potential customers (online publishers), partners (interactive agencies), competitors, and other players in our space. We got interesting feedback from content publishers that had smartphone applications (e.g. iPhone apps).  It turned out that many of them weren’t satisfied at all with available solutions.  Apps require additional maintenance and management.  Furthermore, it’s not easy to have and support in apps features such as retweeting or sharing on Facebook.  But such features are very important to content publishers.  On top of that, content publishers incur the costs of developing and maintaining for all popular smart-phones out there.  When you add all of this together it turns into a big headache.

So the feedback we got was very encouraging and gave us confidence that the market needed (and was wide open for) a simple, affordable and comprehensive service like C2M’s.

MITER: Interestingly, you started developing C2M while still in school.  What advice would you give to students starting a company while in school? 

Nir Hasson: Going to business school provides an excellent opportunity to broaden your skill set and explore opportunities for new businesses. In my career I’ve always been passionate about the mobile space, so at MIT I focused on meeting students and faculty members who were active in mobile. I encourage students to go and meet researchers who have interesting technologies and see if you can work with them to take the technologies to market.

Center around your focus, go out to relevant events and meet people from the industry of your interest. At MIT, I’ve met key people in the mobile area through the MediaTech and MoMIT clubs at MIT Sloan  and through the Mobile Monday event series, just to name a few. Today, I’m still leveraging the connections I’ve developed as early as the first semester.   Equally important,  meet other entrepreneurs in your space or closer to it.  They will educate you about the industry and give you on overview on the main challenges that lie ahead.  Now, if you want to be even more resourceful, create events that are relevant to your space.  You’ll meet the right people (potential partners, competitors, future employees) this way.

As a word of caution, you’ll meet many VCs while in school (through classes and events), and it’s easy to get sucked into the money-raising process or be attracted to its apparent glamour.  However, this is not the best ROI of your time – most of the investors will say no anyway (even Mark Zuckerberg got nays from most investors he approached). You are better off giving priority to developing your product and testing the market.

MITER: Are there some “hidden” resources that you feel students should know about? 

Nir Hasson: Funnily enough, the library is the hidden resource. Not many students are aware that there is free access to research by Forrester, eMarketer, Gartner, and so forth.  If you’re not in school, such research is often prohibitively expensive.  But it saves you a lot of time and gives you valuable detail about your target market.

MITER: On the flip side, what are the challenges of building a company while in school?

Nir Hasson: Looking back, the main challenge is “going against the current”. The professional recruiting machine at MIT, and especially at Sloan, is very robust and the temptation to pursue a lucrative, stable career in an established company is very strong. The exclusive invitations and perks you get from different companies can easily draw you into that path.  In addition, there is pressure from your classmates, most of whom pursue a more stable path. I shied away from that and laser-focused on C2M.  Luckily, my girlfriend, Gali, has been very supportive of me and that’s invaluable when you try to swim against the current and go after your entrepreneurial dream.

Some people will suggest pursuing your venture “half way” – that is, finding a good job in an established company and working on your startup during afterhours. Personally, I believe that you should be 100% devoted to your dream or otherwise, once the first crisis hits, you’ll put your venture on eternal hold.