Editor's Note: This story is part of Bloomberg Businessweek's occasional series on the world of startups. The series focuses on MBAs and undergraduate business students who developed their ideas or launched their businesses while still in school and the many ways their schools helped them get their new ventures off the ground. For a look at some business students trying to build their own businesses, check out our slide show.
When Stephane Doutriaux began the MBA program at IMD in 2007, he was looking forward to meeting his classmates, but not keeping track of their business cards. So just after starting school, he came up with the idea for Poken, a tool that makes exchanging contact information a lot easier and a lot more fun. "The Poken is like a fashion accessory," Doutriaux says. "It makes networking entertaining and that's a really big part of being successful at it."
The small device that resembles a typical USB stick comes in two styles: the playful and unconventionally designed pokenSpark and the more understated pokenPulse. When the four-fingered hand logos of two Pokens are held together momentarily, they exchange an encrypted code that contains a person's digital information. Doutriaux calls the action a "High Four." Then, when the Poken is plugged into the USB port of a computer, it connects to the profiles of all the people the device came in contact with. Poken owners sign up for the pokenHub, which is a website that organizes contacts in a time line. Profiles on the time line include links to social networks that users opt to incorporate.
The system allows people to put a name to a face easily and keep up with the social happenings of new contacts without having to hunt for those profiles separately. Poken profiles can be linked to accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, among other sites. "People remember they met someone two weeks ago and maybe where they met them or what they look like," Doutriaux says, "but they can't always connect those things to their name or company. Poken solves that problem."
A profile does not have to be built before using the Poken, so the device has been popular at corporate conferences and trade shows where mass amounts of Pokens are distributed. People at the events can bump the devices and exchange information immediately. Until a user has registered, the profile appears blank, but it's immediately updated when a user logs on and chooses what information they want to automatically appear.
Doutriaux started working on his company in the middle of his one-year MBA program, first applying for patents and then hiring contractors. In most classes he was able to work on the Poken business model as part of his assignments. "Stephane came to class with the seed of an idea and spent the whole year begging for feedback and progressively refining it," says Benoit Leleux, professor of entrepreneurship and finance at IMD.
After Doutriaux graduated, Leleux continued to support him by assigning students from the 2008 IMD class to a project startup team for Poken. The first round of capital that was raised for Poken—$600,000, Doutriaux estimates—included investments from Leleux and other IMD faculty members as well as classmates from IMD.
Developing Ideas at IMD
Doutriaux says he did have some difficulties balancing starting a business and going to school full time, especially at IMD where an entire MBA education is packed into one calendar year. But it also offered him the opportunity to bounce ideas off his peers and gather customer feedback in the classroom. "There was so much freedom to explore different ideas," Doutriaux says, "which is something you can't as easily do in a workplace."
The company was incorporated in December 2007, and in February 2008, just after graduation, Doutriaux hired the first full-time employee. Poken now has 29 employees between its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, an engineering office in Romania, and a small team in the U.S. The pokenSpark, a basic, no-frills version that holds up to 64 contacts, sells for $19.95, while the pokenPulse, which offers a sleek design and 2GB of storage space for both contacts and important files, sells for $34.95.
Expansion plans include branching out into mobile apps and making Poken user profiles more expansive, and Doutriaux is currently reaching out for another round of funding from venture capitalists. In the meantime, his focus remains on making the networking process efficient and exciting. "I wanted to create a tech product that wasn't focused on just the technology but instead the user experience," Doutriaux says. "And that is what makes the Poken special—it has character."
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