NVC@20: Advice from Chicago Booth entrepreneurs

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has helped transform hundreds of student ideas into thriving businesses.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), the annual business competition at the university’s top-ranked business accelerator program, Chicago Booth gathered alumni over the course of the three-week celebration to talk to Inc. magazine editors about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Since its founding in 1996, the NVC has inspired and fostered more than 800 startups. Today, more than 140 of those companies remain in operation generating about $434 million in funding and $3.7 billion in exit value.

The NVC alumni talked about their successes, their failures, and the most valuable lessons they learned at Booth. Here are a few highlights:

Bryan Johnson, MBA ’07, founder of Braintree, an online mobile payments provider that was acquired by eBay in 2013 for $800 million in cash. Johnson most recently founded the OS Fund. He spoke with Jon Fine, Inc. magazine executive editor, in an onstage interview to a standing-room-only crowd at the Harper Center Winter Garden.

  • How to choose your business partners: “The people in your life are the most important decisions in your life. You can never be thoughtful enough about who you journey with.”
  • Where to find business opportunities: “I took a little notebook around with me everywhere I went. Every time I experienced something that I wanted or that I perceived to be broken, I wrote it down.”
  • How to build a great culture: At Braintree, I figured the most important thing was to get people to feel good about life and themselves, and that they were understood, and that we can solve problems. We had, for example, frequent town hall meetings where it was like group therapy where I would say, ‘What’s on your mind?’ Tell me everything that’s going on.’ I knew the gossip. I knew what was on people’s minds, and I encouraged people to criticize me directly. Tell me what I’m doing wrong. By doing this kind of thing, we were able to maintain this spectacular culture where people knew that I cared about addressing their needs and making sure it’s a fantastic place to work. When you’re going fast, if everyone is on the same page and feels really good about what they’re doing, everything else kind of falls into place. If you don’t fix that core thing, it just falls apart.”
  • What you got out of the NVC. They forced precision, a focus and articulation. It was a fantastic process. I already had Braintree up and running when I ran Braintree through the challenge. The entire Polsky team forces you through this gauntlet that will refine what you do and how you do it.

Read more about Bryan Johnson’s interview with Inc.