Charisse Conanan had the seed of an idea for a startup when she got to business school, but it was at Chicago Booth that she was able to grow it into a real business. She busied herself finding a partner, building a business plan, testing out the idea, participating in competitions, and getting the school community to support her idea for Smarteys, an online platform that helps people in their 20’s and 30’s manage their money better.
She talks to MBAsocial about why she went from big-bank financial services to helping people manage their money and debt, and why she thinks business school is great for entrepreneurs.
Smarteys is revolutionizing the way 20- and 30-year-olds manage their money. The site provides personal and automated advice through web-based solutions on what to do with cash you do have, and how to create cash that you want to have. Basically it provides tools for cash management to help a specific demographic.
We launched first version of site in late February. The product is in private beta, with a full launch planned for late August.
How did you come up with the idea?
I was working JP Morgan Asset Management for six years, and in my fourth year, I approached the head of the business and said, “We spend a lot of time, and get paid a lot of money to manage portfolios of large institutions, but meanwhile my colleagues and I are having trouble managing our own money.”
So I started a series called “MyFi” and invited employees once every other month to attend a seminar on a specific topic – for example, estate planning, insurance, how to invest in a 401k. It had me thinking that it’s great that we’ve gotten all this interest, but I knew people were attending seminars, and then going back to their desks to go to work. It was difficult for them to translate what they had heard into action and change.
At same time, had just completed my CFA designation – and many of my friends asked me what they should do with their money; they figured since I worked for a bank, I’d know! All of this made me realize that there was a need for a solution for young people my age, who were college-educated who want to do smart things with their money. I wanted to find a solution to that broader issue.
Did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur when you started business school?
When I was thinking about this business, I didn’t have the courage or tools to launch a business from my corporate gig. I thought to myself, ‘I am going to go to business school to fill in the gaps to be an entrepreneur.’ My whole background was in the financial services sector, and I didn’t have any experience in marketing, operations, general management, or leadership skills.
So when I got to bschool I thought I’d go into venture capital for a few years, and then launch my own business from there. But when I arrived, I met a ton of entrepreneurs and decided to go for it.
What are the resources you used while at school?
Entrepreneurship events, formal and informal: I met my partner Adrissha the first few days in orientation. But we didn’t connect as potential partners until after I got plugged in with the entrepreneurship/venture capital club and she and I started showing up same events. In fact, we both heard a talk from a Booth grad who had been on Wall Street for 25 years after b-school; he really dismantled the traditional post-business school path and encouraged people to be entrepreneurs. That inspired Adrissha to remove herself from sales & trading recruiting cycle, and afterward we had a heart-to-heart about what we wanted, and where we saw our lives going. We signed agreements in beginning to use business school as a testing ground for our partnership.
Entrepreneur Internship program: This is a program that encourages working on a startup during your summer between 1st and 2nd year of business school; it places Booth students in a startup, or, you get to work on your own startup. The school pays a stipend for you to do this over the summer, to cover living and eating expenses.
I spent this summer figuring out exactly what service or product we would provide. We started a small consultancy to get clients and do market research – and got people to give up their personal financial info. This seeded the Smarteys money methodology to help people with their finances.
Entrepreneurship/VC club: That subsequent year, I was co-chair of the entrepreneurship and VC club, and I began thinking more seriously about how you start a business immediately post-school – what to be doing while at school, and what you need to be doing financially to prepare you for that.
What do you think about Chicago as a place to startup a company?
It wasn’t until this past early spring that I made the commitment to stay in Chicago due to a couple of things:
1, The Booth network is extremely strong in Chicago – while they may not all be entrepreneurs, they’re definitely angel investors, some with pretty powerful positions in corporations;
2, the entrepreneurial climate is really changing. We have major companies such as Groupon, Grubhub, and Sittercity bringing traction to the city. We have seen changes to the schools – Booth, Kellogg, IIT, and we have seen the rise of organizations such as the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center, and the Excelerate Labs incubator program.
I made decision to stay because I wanted to ride wave of change, to be cadre of companies that were here when things started to change.
What’s the best advice you received?
Business school is the best risk-free testing ground you’ll get. You will have access to a whole bunch of people to help you flesh out an idea and to help you execute it; it’s a chance to enter business plan competitions, etc. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs pursuing or thinking about pursuing their MBAs now?
Get your money in your order, be a Smartey. As you know, one of the main reasons buisnesses fail is a lack of startup capital. You just need a little bit of capital to cover legal expenses, or put up a website. If you’re currently working at a corporate gig, try to get at least $10,000 together; have a pot of money to get your business going. If starting a business is your passion, have liquidity to pursue or test out that passion.
I am a huge proponent of partnership, and b-school provides a lot of people. Cast a wide net. Partnership is hard to find but if you can find complementary skill set to yourself, and also someone who shares same values that you do, and possesses a shared vision of how the company should operate. Two is always better than one. There’s a lot to do in a business, and it is great if you can find others who are committed to the cause.
(Featured photo courtesy of Tony Crider [Flickr].)
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