When a group of undergraduate Haas students wanted more hands-on experience in the startup world, they did what any enterprising entrepreneur would do: created their own startup to provide consulting services to new and growth-phase companies.
Venture Strategy Solutions (VSS), as their consulting club is called, was founded last spring semester by Jamie Core, Francisco Grisolia, and Andrew Lim, all BS 12; and Paulina Ramos and Carolyn Kao, both BS 14. Other organizations such as The Berkeley Group and Net Impact offer students consulting opportunities with large companies and nonprofits, the VSS founders observed, but there was nothing similar for students seeking experience with startups.
"Many of our students are interested in not just consulting but also entrepreneurship," says Lim, the first VSS president. "They want to understand how successful startups are run, and—other than working at a startup—there's no better way to get that than to go inside as a consultant."
The club is working with four or five clients per semester, who students find through networking and cold emailing and calling. Sixty students applied this fall for 17 open slots; the club has a total of 27 student members.
One of the first VSS clients this spring was Zaarly, a local marketplace for services such as holiday decorating and cooking whose funders include Ashton Kutcher and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.
Zaarly sought advice on gaining share in the college market. But after numerous focus groups and surveys, VSS students advised the San Francisco company that college students were not ideal customers because of their limited disposable income.
Indeed, Zaarly eventually exited the college market and now focuses on enabling consumers with disposable income but little time to hire others in their local community.
"The VSS students did a lot of user testing and provided some great insight into how students are feeling about the peer-to-peer marketplaces that seem to be popping up all over San Francisco," says Angela Meyer, who headed Zaarly's college program and now works on quality assurance and product. "It was an amazing experience. I love working with students, getting to hear their fresh ideas and voices."
Lim worked on the Zaarly project and served as the project manager for another team of students who advised another client, BrightRoll, the world's largest video advertising network. After graduating this month, he will build on his VSS experiences when he begins a new job in March as a business analyst at Accenture, where he hopes to work with Silicon Valley clients.
"VSS gave me a more realistic perspective of both consulting and startups," says Lim. "When people watch movies like The Social Network they have this glorified view of how things happen. But a lot of it is blood and sweat, and people are working very hard and there's a lot of ambiguity. Being comfortable working with the ambiguity is something I learned from VSS and something we expect a lot of our consultants to learn."