Entrepreneurial Advice: Take a Problem, Turn it into a Great Business Solution

What's something annoying or irritating to you? Might it frustrate someone else and be seen as a wider problem in need of a solution to make life a little bit better? If so, that just might be your entry into the world of entrepreneurship.

ULEC 2019

"Find things that are annoying in your life, things that inefficient," says Curtis Chambers. "Solving those inefficiencies, that's essentially all of the businesses I've done."

Chambers, who returned to the University of San Diego after more than a decade as a student and finished a degree in computer science in 2019, shared his thoughts as the keynote speaker for the eighth annual USD Legacy Entrepreneurship Conference (ULEC) on Sept. 26.

Taking questions from current USD students who serve as the USD Entrepreneurship Club's president, Makenzie Murphy, and vice president, Charles Rezac, and then participating in a Q&A panel with fellow Torero entrepreneurs, Chambers shared his venture experiences. He's done everything from work that literally paid him in sushi and beer, to an expense report company whose slogan was "creating expense reports that don't suck," to, ultimately, being one of the first seven employees hired by Uber as its director of engineering.

Chambers and four other panelists, gave the audience in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre access, insight and inspiration for living the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Budding student entrepreneurs, veteran businesspeople and surely a few investors seeking to network and find an idea to get them interested were all there.

Hosted by USD's new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer, which is led by USD School of Business Professor of Management and Catalyzer Founding Director, Dr. Priya Kannan-Narasimhan, Entrepreneurship Manager Regina Bernal, Strategic Initiatives Manager Karolina Rzadkowolska and USD School of Business Professor and Catalyzer Adviser Dr. Amit Kakkad, the ULEC provided a foundation for entrepreneurial inquiry.

Chambers and panelist mates Connor Hountalas '20, Geraldine Ridaura '11, Samantha Pantazopoulos '17 and Hope Mago '09, didn't shy away from answering questions about their biggest challenges, how they view failure, the grind of entrepreneurship and rewarding aspects of this professional risk-taking path.

"I'm still a senior and I've got time to learn, but I've been doing this for two and a half years and I've already had two other companies that failed," said Hountalas, majoring in finance but also the Spring 2019 top prize money winner of USD's Venture Vetting (V2) Pitch Competition for his college athletics recruitment video company, Double Take. “But I follow the KISS method — Keep It Simple, Stupid — when I’m challenged. I bring it down to the basics, strip it down and it’s easier to look at, easier to integrate and actually do it.”

Pantazopoulos, who along with a business partner created Vizer, an exercise mobile app, spoke about the grind that not only tests you, but makes you better. "This week, for instance, I've worked every aspect of our business, doing legal stuff, accounting, technology, marketing and sales. So, learning things while confidently delivering the product is all about balance."

Mago, who earned an international MBA, isn't exactly an entrepreneur. He’s with HCAP Partners to work on the orientation and analysis of new investment opportunities, investment due diligence, deal underwriting and investment monitoring. He's seen a lot and observes what can happen when times are tougher.

"You have to step in as the CEO, keep morale up, know people are polishing their resumes to find other work while you're trying to keep everyone at the table focused on the job at hand and turn a sinking ship around. That's when you are learning the most and building a different skill set. My own experiences have been honed from those kinds of experiences," he says.

Ridaura, owner of Holy Matcha, admitted that starting her own business wasn't something she had initially envisioned for herself. "I was petrified. But being an entrepreneur, for me, started because of my personal problem/need. There was no matcha in San Diego. I had to do this. For me it was 0-100 with zero experience. I had hundreds of reasons why I shouldn't do it, but I did it. You just have to push through your doubts, the noise around you and get past your fear of the unknown. I went for it and gave it everything I had."

Chambers, who said Uber's existence stemmed from initially wanting reliable transportation while living in San Francisco and going out with former CEO Travis Kalanick for a few drinks. “It was impossible to get a taxi in San Francisco," says Chambers, who was with Uber from 2010-17. He and Travis bought a Mercedes and hired a driver to help. "We were just solving our own problem, it wasn't supposed to be a business. But you push a button and the car would come. Eventually, friends asked about getting it, too."

The panelists' range of experiences mirror what the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer want to do to help current USD students with entrepreneurial aspirations. "We build entrepreneurs with the values, knowledge, skills, ability and attitudes to create new ventures and make a positive impact on society," said Dr. Kannan-Narasimhan.

Last week’s ULEC, which provided Kannan-Narasimhan and her team a chance to publicly thank USD School of Business Clinical Professor of Management Michael Lawless, PhD, for founding the ULEC and V2 events at USD as he steps away from involvement, also reminded students about a new opportunity.

Created by a $100,000 gift from San Diego businessman and former USD Board of Trustee Chairman Ron Fowler, the USD School of Business Fowler Business Concept Challenge has launched this fall. It is geared to ignite students' knowledge and passion for entrepreneurship. Through this challenge, participants have the chance to win up to $45,000 in scholarships in the inaugural competition on Nov. 15.

Who knows, the winning idea could emerge and solve something that’s annoying or based on a need to make life a little bit better.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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