business

Solving the Mystery

A Kenan-Flagler grad puts the pieces together on a post-MBA startup

I am not a fan of mysteries of any sort. I don't read Sherlock Holmes novels. and I slept through the film Murder on the Orient Express last month. Why then was my post-MBA career a mystery right up to my graduation date? Now that is a long story…

I thought the final chapter of my MBA career search was written in April. I found myself the interim CEO of the about-to-be-formed Nolia sportswear company. This venture was an outgrowth of a school business-plan project. The concept had some really innovative clothing designs that eliminated chafing and was in the process of acquiring a cutting-edge all-natural technology that eliminated odor.

The Nolia team placed eighth at one of the world's biggest business-plan competitions, but several judges had their doubts about some elements of our plan. It became obvious that we had some work to do on the business plan so we pushed back our launch date, and Sara Sparks and I re-enrolled in UNC's "Launching the Venture" program. The final six weeks of school we reviewed our financials and the market competition. After discovering some technological and product overlaps in our offering, we placed the project on hiatus while our teammates went off on their summer internships. As time went on, several team members moved on from the project. Barring a breakthrough, it is now indefinitely suspended.

A New Twist in the Career Plot

Amid the ebb and flow of Nolia's potential launch, a new career plot twist unfolded. A hiring manager at Humana (HUM) had read my résumé and was interested in discussing a position in sustainable human capital systems within its strategic HR team. I had a Sunday morning phone interview and then was on a plane to Louisville, Ky., shortly thereafter.

From the moment I walked into the building things just felt right. Humana had an entire floor dedicated to innovation. The group of incoming MBAs that I'd be joining was incredibly accomplished. Most important, I developed a special connection with my potential future boss. I really liked Louisville, which was an unexpected positive. I flew home, not quite with an offer in hand, ready to pitch my wife on the opportunity of a lifetime.

On an "upset response" scale of 1 to 10, I've seen worse reactions. Crashing the family car as a teenager and communicating this to my mom by bringing a piece of the fender into the living room resulted in an eight. After college I topped this with a nine by breaking up with a girl, by e-mail no less, only to run into her later that night while I was out on a date. Uttering the phrase "move to Kentucky" to my seven-months pregnant wife probably registered a 7.5 on the distraught scale. Try as I might, I couldn't get her to visit Louisville. Having previously passed on an amazing internship opportunity at General Electric (GE) in Connecticut for a less prestigious local internship, we had already made a strong commitment to the UNC area.

Closing the Door on Humana

It took several days to find the fortitude to end discussions with a very special group of people at Humana who were the embodiment of the Kenan-Flagler traditions of teamwork, creativity, and entrepreneurial thinking. The final chapter of my post-MBA career quest was destined to occur in my home office in North Carolina. One afternoon I was sitting there pondering career options, when the answer to my career search struck me like a bolt of lightning as I glanced up at my shelf. There were $30,000 in certificates and big foam prize checks won by four of the teams I'd captained over the last two years. These were the missing clues I'd been searching for:

$20,000—2007 Innovation Challenge.

$7,500—2006 Innovation Challenge.

$3,250—2007 Rice Business Plan Competition.

$2,000—2007 Lenovo Product Launch Competition.

At first glance each experience was unique, involving different team members, challenges, and even industries. However, upon further investigation a common thread emerged. The process of building a team and melding strategy and innovation to create new offerings had been my passion throughout all of these undertakings. Despite the differences, my time at each competition involved creating an entrepreneurial venture through a process that relied heavily on innovation, strategy, and sustainability-driven systems thinking. I decided to build a business that helps other people build businesses.

The Eureka! Moment

All of the pieces suddenly came together and the mystery was solved. My new company, Converdant, the Business Builders, was born. I was then able to dedicate several weeks to designing the framework for an organization that was built around the art of the start. This meant designing offerings that could help established firms systematically discover their inner entrepreneur while helping fledgling organizations get organized and profitable and at the same time creatively flanking better-funded, more entrenched competitors. From there I focused on further developing the sustainable human capital model I'd been so interested in for so long.

The real challenge became framing ongoing support and maintenance of launched ventures in such a way as to avoid becoming yet another boutique consulting shop. Friends and former colleagues helped with brainstorms and advice. We were able to build out an incentive system that could shake up the conventional consulting model by focusing on partnerships over traditional client relationships.

But there was still a lot of work to do. The crucial lesson I learned, from eight years of entrepreneurial successes and failures, is that the likelihood of a venture succeeding is directly related to the quality of its partners. For Converdant, I spent much time and effort applying that lesson. To that end I selected local startup attorney Neil Bagchi, WiFi Internet provider Clearwire, customer relationship management program Salesforce.com, project management software Basecamp, and top-flight Web site design from Musicsitemakers.com. These vendors all provide exceptional value and scalability and always put their customers first. Having great partners was a wonderful start but without revenue this wasn't going to be much of a success. Utilizing the contacts I'd made from business competitions I began speaking with various green and Web 2.0 organizations and was able to sign four new clients. Finally I procured office space just miles away from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and began recruiting talent to join the team.

Farewell, Kenan-Flagler

While my career search was full of surprises, there was never a mystery as to the value and significance of my time at Kenan-Flagler: It was the best two years of my adult life. On reflection, I keep coming back to the extraordinary classmates and educators. I think back to meeting my friend Kane Nakamura during the summer of 2006 and being one of many students who tried to contribute to his growth as an English-language speaker. He was honored at graduation with an award for bringing together our community through communication that was deeply deserved. His compassion and dedication united us all.

A leadership award was given to class Vice-President Kerri Kopp, who passed on more prestigious programs to come to the school that fit her best. That choice paid handsome dividends as she landed a great position at Coca-Cola (KO). One of the humblest guys I know, Carlos Gonzalez, stood up to be recognized as being in the top 5% of our class after having never once boasted of his academic accomplishments in two years. My buddy Tyler Mills celebrated his diploma with the love of his life and wife-to-be—our classmate Lexie Rich, whom he met at Kenan-Flagler. There was a lot to celebrate at graduation, but it was also quite sad knowing that my four closest friends from the program would be moving to Charlotte, Austin, DC, and NYC, in short order.

There aren't words to describe my gratitude to Kenan-Flagler MBA as a program and the loyalty I will carry with me throughout my career for everything that the institution represents. The outstanding people who run the daytime MBA program are too numerous to mention, but several were particularly instrumental in my time there. Dean Dave Hoffman's friendship, Entrepreneurship chair Ted Zoller's mentorship, Kenan-Center green guru Katie Kross' insights, and National VCIC Chair Patrick Vernon's candid guidance were all highlights of my last two years.

Hello, Son

There were many wonderful moments during my time at Kenan-Flagler but the most exciting one occurred on Aug. 1 with the birth of my son. August Jebens Fleury has joined me for this next chapter of my life. With luck, 18 years from now, August will be blogging about his time at UNC in Chapel Hill. If you'd like to talk about Kenan-Flagler's commitment to innovation, sustainability, or entrepreneurship, please drop me a line at Danvers@Converdant.com. Peace.

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