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Singing the Praises of Entrepreneurship

Published: March 3, 2011

"A lot of musicians turn into entrepreneurs. After you've been an opera singer, everything else is easy – it's a really tough world to be in," said Genevieve Thiers, founder and CEO of Sittercity.com, to a rapt group of students from ACM's Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society (BES) program. "You learn to get in front of an audience and sell yourself. You have, literally, seconds to either win them or lose them."

Genevieve Thiers of Sittercity.com answering questions from students on the ACM Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society program.

Thiers certainly won this audience, squeezed into a small meeting room at the company's offices in Chicago, and there wasn't a bit of dead airtime during the 90 minutes of fast-paced dialogue that followed.

The students soaked it up. It's why they had come to Chicago for the semester – to learn firsthand about starting and running a business from the leaders of companies such as Groupon, Threadless, Coupon Cabin, Morningstar, Sendaball, and Sleepyhead, as well as Sittercity.

As a music major and opera singer fresh out of college in 2001, Thiers came up with the idea for a website to match babysitters and nannies with the parents who need their services. Combining an evangelist's zeal and incredible amounts of hard work, she built Sittercity from scratch. Now it's a multi-million dollar company that serves customers across the country.

With anecdotes and straightforward, practical advice, Thiers doled out both inspiration and caution to the students as she covered the entrepreneurial waterfront – the importance of data analysis, the steps in launching a new product or company, finding a market niche, warding off copycat competitors, and dealing with venture capital firms. The students probed with questions about Sittercity's pricing models, revenue flows, the governance structure of the company, and the pitfalls and rewards of working with investors.

Creativity as the foundation of entrepreneurship

Going to meet entrepreneurs where they live, so to speak, is central to BES Director Robyne Hart's "real world" philosophy that shapes the program's curriculum. The visits to emerging and established businesses, such as the trip to Sittercity, are part of the BES seminar, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, which focuses on creativity as the foundation of any entrepreneurial endeavor.

BES students with Michele Kapustka (back row, third from right), the founder of Sendaball.com, and Program Director Robyne Hart (front row, right).

Students also participate in an internship with a business or non-profit organization, complete a practicum that includes an independent study project, develop a concept for a start-up company, and study urban issues in the Chicago Programs core course. Throughout the semester, theory and practice are intertwined, as students tap their own creativity to solve problems in a variety of settings.

Hart has developed the value-added approach that she uses for the seminar's case studies. Students gather information about a business, get an insider's look by going to the company and talking with the owner, and then analyze the company's development and the decisions made by its leaders.

To understand the challenges and successes of Sittercity.com, for example, the students began by studying the Harvard Business Review's case study of the company, titled "Playing with Fire at Sittercity." A case study typically outlines an entrepreneur's individual journey in creating the company, said Hart, and lays out some of the complexities he or she has faced in the marketplace. The students also conduct their own research, using publicly available reports and growth projections to bring their information about the company up to date.

That's just a starting point, though. "We supplement the flat, static case study with dynamic field visits, so the students can question whether or not what they read in the case connects with what they observed in the field," Hart explained.

Sittercity grows and faces new challenges

As she took the students on a tour of the Sittercity offices, Thiers paused at the row of plaques and trophies hanging on the company's awards wall.

During the BES visit to Sittercity.com, Genevieve Thiers talked with the students, gave a tour of the offices, and showed off the company’s awards wall.

"A lot of them are for innovation," she noted, pointing out the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award she received from the Small Business Administration. The awards ceremony took place in the White House.

"That was a big deal," said Thiers. "It's kind of cool that you create this babysitting website and everyone says 'It's just a babysitting website,' but it's not – it's super powerful. We got an award in the White House. We've done the Today show. It's getting so much attention because it's like a shot out of the blue. No one thought there was anything here, and then it was huge."

Over the years, Sittercity has steadily grown and added employees, but it started as a one-woman show. Back in those days, Thiers pounded the pavement and worked the phones to line up the babysitters and parents who would meet and match themselves up on the website.

"For four years there was nothing else. I was literally flyering college campuses with, like, 20,000 flyers [advertising for babysitters], that kind of effort," said Thiers. "It's hard, because when you are successful you bring on competitors."

Competition meant that Thiers had to constantly innovate to stay ahead, and had to become a master at executing business strategies. "Welcome to free market. You not only have to be an inventor, you have to be an amazing executor," she told the BES students. "You have to do it all."

Putting students in the role of practitioner

Doing it all, Hart noted, means dealing with the complexity and ambiguity, the roadblocks and unintended consequences, that entrepreneurs inevitably encounter. "They have to grapple with the not knowing, how to figure out the best alternative, even if it's not obvious," she said.

"Groupon is a fantastic upcoming business that has been launched in 2008 and has increased IMMENSELY during the two years since starting up. We were able to have a meeting with the president of Groupon, Rob Soloman, who was previously a vice president of Yahoo, and it was an amazing experience to talk with him."
- From BES participant Jordan Ball's blog

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BES student blogs

Through assignments and a series of questions posed by Hart, the students take what they've learned about the company and try to address the challenges it faces. "We try to put the students in the role of practitioner so they can start thinking like they would have to think if they were in that decision-making role, rather than just a passive observer," said Hart. "They immerse themselves in the company, with all of the weight of these issues, and then they have to make a decision, they have to take a position."

Sittercity, for example, has moved into new territory as an organization as it has grown. Thiers and Dan Ratner, her business partner and husband, are now members of the company's board of directors and have stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the company. They've also launched a new enterprise, ContactKarma.com, where they spend most of their time.

The issues involved in making the transition – bringing in a CEO and investors, and Thiers and Ratner decreasing their roles in the company's operation – occurred after the Harvard Business Review case study was written. During the site visit, the students asked Theirs questions to gain an understanding of the implications of the changes for Sittercity's operations and future direction. The shift in the company's structure made the case much more dynamic, said Hart, and was grist for the students' discussion following their visit.

"Part of the case is not just responding to the questions I pose, but also whether there were other things that you, as a student, thought were really essential," Hart said. "So there is a back and forth debate – What sort of things did you take into consideration? How did you approach the problem? What were some of the factors you thought about that maybe somebody else didn't?"

"What's so cool, I think, about a lot of what happens in that exchange is that it's not just about Sittercity," said Hart. "It's also about the other companies we've visited throughout the semester, and about identifying connections. It's a shared experience that the students have, which has shaped how they think about entrepreneurship and business."

Students have said that meeting entrepreneurs is one of the highlights of the program, for the breadth of what they learn, the insights they gain of what it takes to start and run a business, and for the entrepreneurs as role models.

"I've learned a lot about the different ways that one can go about starting a business, the different timelines, sources of funding, ways to write a business plan, and who you're proposing your business plan to,” said Ripon College senior Brendan O'Brien. "It's been nice to see that entrepreneurs aren't just one specific type of person – it’s a wide variety of people."

"It's empowering to see someone who's actually gone out and done it, to see it firsthand, to hear their story, and be able to ask questions," added Molly Moon, a junior at St. Olaf College. "Chicago is a huge hub for entrepreneurial businesses. There are a lot of start-ups here. It's a great environment to immerse yourself in if you’re interested in business."

 

Stay tuned for more about Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society: 
The program is packed with opportunities to get hands-on experience, as students participate in internships, engage in independent study projects, and develop concepts for start-up companies. In a future article, Molly Moon and Brendan O'Brien talk about their internship experiences in Chicago and how their BES semester ties in with their work back on campus.


Links:

Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society
Chicago Arts
Urban Studies

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