Interview with Andie Kaplan, Wharton MBA student and founder of ConnectEd [Show summary]
Andie Kaplan had an undergraduate degree in business, but knew she needed more formal training to successfully launch her own business, and one year into her MBA at Wharton, she has done just that! Andie shares her story of honing her business idea and working with Wharton professors and students to get it off the ground. Best part of her story: She saves international students money on their cell-phone bills!
Andie Kaplan discusses how and why she launched her business, ConnectEd, while at Wharton [Show notes]
Our guest today is Andie Kaplan, who graduated from UVA with a bachelors in Commerce and Math and minors in IT and Business Analytics. I guess she’s a numbers geek. Upon graduation she went to work for Bain for three years. In 2017 she joined Squarespace as a Data Scientist and later was promoted to Senior Data Scientist and Product Analytics Team Lead. She left Squarespace in 2018 to join Wharton’s class of 2020. And at Wharton she founded ConnectEd, which we’ll learn more about during the podcast, along with her story.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you grew up? [2:11]
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I went to a large public high school and knew I wanted to study business in college which is what led me to look at undergrad business programs, and ultimately to UVA.
What was hardest part of the MBA app process for you? How did you handle that element? [2:59]
I wasn’t sure when I was first applying whether I wanted to go to school. People go to b-school for a host of different reasons. I had already studied business and wanted to make sure I was applying for the right reasons. A lot of the process you go through with applying is soul searching why you want to be at school, so for me the difficult part was checking the reasons why.
Your undergrad degree is in business and analytics. You worked at Bain for 3 years and then at Squarespace. What did you hope to learn at Wharton, given your extensive foundation in business? [4:01]
I was very fortunate to start at Bain where I was able to apply my skills in a variety of industries and fields, and at Squarespace applying my business analytics skills. For me I knew I wanted to start a company, and when I was in undergrad I was thinking more about leading an established company. Over the last few years I decided I wanted to start my own. A lot of entrepreneurs think if you have an idea, just go do it, but I wanted to put myself in an environment where I could flesh out an idea to take it from an idea to execution. I wanted to further my entrepreneurial skill set and be part of a community and network to make it a reality.
Has Wharton provided what you were looking for? [5:57]
I’m very excited to say we have launched ConnectEd. One of the reasons I chose Wharton is its very flexible curriculum and the ability to start right away. I was able to waive a lot of the core requirements which allowed me to flesh out the idea early on, and it’s been great to work with students and faculty on the idea.
What do you like best and what could be improved at Wharton? [6:50]
The best part is the people I’m surrounded by. I have so many talented and diverse classmates. The friendships, the network has been great. With my interest in entrepreneurship, it has been the ability to start right away.
In terms of improvements, Wharton’s flexibility is somewhat of a double-edged sword. There are lots of people doing lots of different things at any given time. You have to pursue it a lot more on your own, whereas if I were to change the experience at all, it would be great to be working with people at the same stage at the same time.
Did you arrive at Wharton knowing you wanted to start ConnectEd? What is it? [9:07]
We are a new telecom service which offers family plan cellphone service direct to students, specifically to international students. Typically, they don’t have domestic families or social security numbers for plans, so previously that would have to spend approximately 2.5 times the typical plan. We are reaching a market not able to be served by existing operators.
I was pretty sure I wanted to start a business in school but not sure what. I kept a running list, and this started as a different idea, essentially to share recurring expenses with people, and centralizing the share of a payment. I was looking for what had the most pain and frustration associated with it, and it was cellphone plans.
When you get into Wharton you join an incoming student group and seeing the chatter from international students I saw they were inquiring if people had spots in their family plan. They didn’t have access to this service. From this I had a good idea who I wanted to reach, but working with classmates and faculty at the marketplace, how to create the software, and what the landscape looks like moved it from idea to execution.
Starting business school there was a lot going on, but I had an idea and wanted to work on it. I asked students upfront for help. People with this pain point were happy to share their experience, and I was able to do informal research. I also took courses, like Intro to Entrepreneurship, to figure out the right way to approach things. If there is a marketplace, you don’t have control over the experience. We landed on where we are today – we work as a reseller to provide access to the customer segment — unlocking an opportunity for the network and providing better experience for the customers.
It is convenient as well as easy when someone is getting started. Prices start at $22.99/month, with a 2-gig plan. It is $33.99/month for more bells and whistles, whereas it would be $70-80/month from other networks. We essentially created an enormous family plan for consumers of ConnectEd. We run one large unlimited family plan, and no one is liable for anyone else on the plan.
The difficulties of a traditional family plan is there is one admin with a SS#, all members have to purchase at the same time. One person pays, collecting payment every month. It can be quite a headache to be the admin, with different usage, so giving someone a seat on the plan where their contract is just for themselves is a real lifesaver. Each customer has their own schedule, their own plan, operating at a scale that can offer everyone what they want.
How has the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship VIP Xcelerate program helped you and ConnectEd? Getting funding? [17:41]
We are bootstrapping right now, which is our plan for the future. There have been lots of opportunities to earn non-diluted funding. We are in VIP Xcelerate, which has a non-diluted grant. For us in particular, there was Professor Borghesi, an operating attorney in Philadelphia, who helped us answer the questions of, “What is the way we want to operate?” “How do we work with a network provider?” It was so valuable working with him as we got started. His encouragement made a huge difference.
How do you manage the demands of bschool and running a business? [19:06]
School is demanding, but the advice I would give to anyone is to think through what their priorities are. For me, one is creating a business, and one is friendships, investing in people. Notice I didn’t say academics. I wasn’t recruiting for a consulting or investment banking job, which would have taken a lot of time. I was interested in a lot of the courses directly applicable to starting my business. Know how you are prioritizing and why.
Did you have experience in telecommunications before starting ConnectEd? If not, has that been a problem? [20:32]
No, I didn’t. It has been a really great experience, coming in without preconceived notions and bringing new ideas in. I had worked across industries in consulting, and it is a great experience getting up to speed in a new industry and taking what you’ve seen in different industries and applying it. What I have really focused on is, “If I am a new customer, what do I want the experience to be?” Let’s build backwards from there.
What are your plans for the future? [22:14]
I spent the entire first year developing the relationship with the network provider. This summer was spent bringing on our first set of customers. The best part has been the reaction and feedback from customers. 50% are sending emails thanking us for the service. We are reaching people moving to the U.S. for the first time, which is an overwhelming experience. We are providing something that is historically overwhelming, and access without a SS# or credit history, so making one aspect of the move much easier. We are working on automating the platform and building out capabilities and new programs for next year. Over 70% of our growth is through word of mouth.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [25:52]
I would love to help listeners understand that we are democratizing cellphone service and breaking down barriers for people to access it. A lot of our customers today are people who have been in the U.S. for years. It is very easy to move your cellphone number over – only five minutes. We can bring you onboard!
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