By Gabby Luu & Kim Girard
This is part of a series of articles spotlighting students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or social enterprise.
The Vet Set
Co-Founder: Taylor Truitt, DVM, EMBA 14
When Taylor Truitt began the MBA for Executives Program in 2013, she’d already decided to take her life in a new direction. As the owner of a veterinary hospital in Marin, Calif., Dr. Truitt had contemplated acquiring another business, but she had some doubts.
“I started the program not knowing what I was going to do,” she says. “When you leave vet school you are trained to be a clinician, but you have no business background. There were things that I knew how to do but I wanted to learn more.”
The idea for her startup, however, didn’t come until later, when she broke her leg on a ski trip with classmates during the final days of her MBA program. Stuck in her apartment and relying on local delivery services, she contemplated business ideas.
What emerged was a concierge veterinary service for dog and cat owners. Truitt began analyzing the competitive landscape for mobile vets with her co-founder, Marin-based veterinarian Eva Radke.
Today, the Vet Set co-founders, can be found traveling by subway in Manhattan, pushing a strategically packed roller bag to the homes and offices of pet owners. Truitt and Radke offer everything from the treatment of ear infections and stomach troubles to rabies vaccinations and health certificates for dogs and cats, seven days a week.
Truitt credits Berkeley-Haas with providing the foundation for the company. Maura O’Neill’s class on New Venture Finance and Mark Rittenberg’s Leadership Communications course “both opened me up to what I should be doing,” she said. “Everything I learned at Haas has fit in somewhere.”
The co-founders decided to launch in New York City instead of the Bay Area for several reasons: First, New Yorkers are crazy about their pets, and they’re already accustomed to home delivery of many different services, Truitt says. Second, “most people in New York don’t have cars so getting dogs and cats to the vet really can propose a significant stress on the pet and the owner,” she said.
Truitt says her MBA gave her the confidence to sell her business, move to New York, and launch the company this past October.
“Cracking the market here is tough. It’s concentrated and busy,” says Truitt, who is now focusing on marketing Vet Set services and the company’s growth strategy. “But we’re doing it.”
Co-founders: Leonid Popov, MBA 15, Bimohit Bawa, MBA 16
It was also an injured leg that started Leo Popov down a new path, after he spent six hours waiting in the emergency room with his wife and young daughter. Popov, who was used to doctors making house calls in his native Russia, couldn’t understand why he had to go to the ER for a non life-threatening problem. The inconvenience and cost were excessive, too: $1,500 for 15-minute visit with the doctor.
As he thought about the incident in the coming months and shared similar stories with friends, an idea came to him: why not provide patients with easy-to-use telemedicine and house calls? “People just go to the ER because they don’t have any other options available,” says Popov, MBA 15. “I knew that there was a better way.”
Popov ran with that idea and began developing a business plan and a product prototype in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course. While taking the class, he interviewed more than 100 people about the initial idea. One particular interview brought a key insight: that house calls could help decrease hospital re-admissions.
Popov also began building a team, partnering up with Bimohit Bawa, MBA 16, who became his his chief technology officer. By October 2015 he launched TrueCare24, with Bawa and Caesar Djavaherian, a doctor who ran a small practice providing house calls.
TrueCare24 offers one main product: a telemedicine service for $15 a month. Available to all California residents, the service includes 24-hour video chats or phone consultations. A second service, house calls in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco provided by medical team members, is offered for a flat $99 for per month to telemedicine subscribers ($199 for non-subscribers).
The company, which has raised $40,000 in pre-seed funding, has partnered with teams of medical providers for both of its services. Partnerships are key to controlling the cost of customer acquisition and critical to TrueCare24’s growth, Popov says. The company also recently started accepting Medicare.
While other startups have launched telemedicine and house call service apps, Popov says the market is large enough to absorb multiple players.
“We believe we’re bringing something new and valuable to people in the community,” Popov says. “I’m pretty confident in doing this because I have the theory of starting a company down. And if I have any questions, I can easily shout out to my classmates or alums.”
Co-founders: David Firth-Eagland, EMBA 15 and Sharrifah Al-Salem, EMBA 15
David Firth-Eagland was popping a handful of vitamins in his mouth before settling in for a lecture last year. Curious, Sharrifah Al-Salem asked what he had in his hand.
Firth-Eagland explained that he had started taking a combination of antioxidants and vitamins after reading a few scientific studies on hangover causes and cures. Al-Salem was intrigued.
“I said, “Have you ever thought of making that into a company?’ “ says Al-Salem.
That discussion quickly led to the formation of BrightDay, which makes a formula intended to prevent the next-day fatigue and nausea commonly associated with a hangover. The capsules are a mix of amino acids, antioxidants, and a Vitamin B complex taken three at a time with a person’s first and third drinks.
Before he met Al-Salem, Firth-Eagland had considered forming a company to sell his formula, but knew he’d need help launching a startup. Al-Salem, who had a background in finance and tech business operations, quickly got on board.
The two began working on the startup idea in no fewer than five of their MBA for Executive classes. As a project for their Marketing Organization and Management class, they conducted a study of 250 people, and found that 60 percent were willing to try a hangover cure, presenting a big opportunity.
During an independent study with Berkeley-Haas Lecturer John Danner, they worked to better understand their next steps when pitching the company to potential investors or customers. They also looked at long-term budgeting, cash flow estimates, and customer adoption costs.
For now, the pair are bootstrapping the company, which launched in October, and promoting the product to friends, family, and classmates, reporting many repeat customers.
Firth-Eagland says BrightDay, which is sold on the company’s website and on Amazon, works by overstocking the liver with antioxidants and vitamins lost during alcohol metabolization to more efficiently process the toxins created when drinking (a hangover is much easier to prevent than to cure). He and Al-Salem partnered with two PhDs to fine-tune the formula.
“I don’t want people to think this is Dave’s magic snake oil,” Firth-Eagland says. “We worked closely with medical professional to refine it and to make sure that it worked. They really helped us to build it out.”
Social media and guerrilla marketing plans for BrightDay are in the works, but the co-founders are wary to give away specifics to maintain their competitive edge.
Al-Salem, who recently left her job at digital money transfer company Xoom after it was acquired by Paypal, says she will apply herself full time to BrightDay for the next few months to see where she can take it. Both co-founders believe the startup experience has been priceless, regardless of the outcome. “Even if this fails, every penny we’ve invested is worth it compared to what we’ve learned,” Al-Salem says.