Brennan Klein ’14 won this year’s SwatTank — a competition designed to support entrepreneurship — for his business plan, Wall.it, a social consumer network.
“Wall.it is an app/website, and it’s a way to give people free stuff, based on what they like,” said Klein. “What Wall.it offers merchants is a better, more targeted way to engage with their customers. It’s a sort of match.com for gift cards, where users log on and see a stream of free gift cards that they can choose from. If you see one that you want, you ‘wall it’ (put it up on your wall, aka share it with your followers), and that sends the gift card to your phone, where it’s stored in your mobile ‘wallet’ until you decide to spend it. Now if your followers want that gift card, they too can ‘wall it’ and the deals spread through the system in a geodesic, efficient way. Slowly, this builds up into a very distinct type of social network, where users aren’t connected by friendship necessarily, but instead by shared consumer habits.”
The goal of SwatTank is to teach students skills such as team-building, financing, pitching and how to manage a business in order to turn a thought into a business.
“We have (or at least I had) this idea about ‘entrepreneurship’ where it was a bogus concept for people who just wanted to make a lot of money in life,” Klein said. “While that might be true sometimes, SwatTank really opened my eyes to the fact that so many Swatties are already ‘entrepreneurs’—we find creative solutions to problems, whether that is in writing a paper for a class, finding a clever solution to a problem set, or making a creative experiment to solve a scientific problem. And while there’s a lot of hand-wavey descriptions about how liberal arts fosters X, Y or Z skill, the truth of the matter is that we’re being trained here to solve problems.”
The final round of SwatTank took place on April 5, when four groups presented their business ideas in front of a student audience and a panel of alumni judges. Each group presented their business pitch for four minutes and then answered questions.
The four final ideas presented at SwatTank were BackPack, On the Spot, Lectern.co and Wall.it.
“BackPack is aimed at teaching languages using the principles of comprehensible input,” said Andy Lee ’16, creator of BackPack. “The gist of the idea is that language is inherent to the human brain, and as such, focus on explicitly teaching and drilling grammar and vocabulary is unnecessary. What is necessary is large amounts of comprehensible input that the learner can understand. This input must also contain input that the learner does not understand. With exposure and use of context clues, the learner acquires this unfamiliar input, all without ever having to learn it explicitly. The hard part of this is selecting input at exactly the right level. BackPack’s algorithms take care of this.”
On the Spot, created by Dakota Pekerti ’16, Thomas Kim ’16, Patrick Han ’16 and Haseeb Bajwa ’16, is a phone application that would serve as a travel assistant. The app would help users to make travel plans and rate the places they stayed after visiting them.
Lectern.co, created by Jason Heo ’15, is an RSS reader that allows users to view news and make comments on information from multiple sources while also allowing users to share information with friends.
The judges of the competition were alumni presenting at the conference, including Eric Adler ’86, a co-founder and managing director at the SEED Foundation, Joe Turner ’73, an Independent Director in the Biotechnology industry, and Jenny Hourihan Bailin ’80, CEO and President of ORBIS International.
“The judges shared their helpful skepticism with the participants and forced us to answer some tough questions on the spot,” said Klein. “A lot of them stressed that the SwatTank projects were, at this point, good ‘ideas’ but that there was a lot of work to be done to turn them into good ‘businesses.’ After the competition, they were willing to give advice and encouragement.”
Judge Eric Adler said that he was impressed with the quality of ideas that the groups had, and offered his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Spend as much time, even more, thinking about the business as about the product,” said Adler. “In the end you don’t get to market your great idea unless you build a great business under it. Do the research to know what things cost and what people are willing to pay for substitute and competing products. Estimate revenues and costs then talk to lots of people and invite them to debunk all your assumptions. If your friends don’t point out your mistakes, the marketplace will!”
With the money he won at SwatTank, Klein will use the skills he has developed during the competition and continue to work on developing Wall.it.
“I’m stoked that this went well, but I’m trying to not get ahead of myself. 95% of startups fail, and there’s a lot of work to be done to get out of that probability,” said Klein. “What we’re assembling now is a really strong team of people who can really turn this from an idea into something that we can actually start to use. Aldo Frosinini and Morgan Williams have recently come on board, we just got done with a Y-Combinator application, as well as being offered a spot in a few different tech incubators for the summer in Palo Alto.”