Venture Forth: Mike Wilner ’13
“It’s hands-on all the time, which is exactly the kind of experience I was looking for.”
Mike Wilner ’13 is the son of small business owners, so you could say the urge to follow in their footsteps was bred in the bone. Owning a business, however, wasn’t what he initially imagined himself doing. As a math and business administration double major, he found himself interning at a prestigious NYC bank the summer after his junior year. “I was headed down the path to investment banking, but a few weeks in, I remember asking myself, ‘What am I actually doing?’ When the answer was, ‘underwriting municipal bonds,’ I knew something had gone wrong. I realized that I desperately wanted to build something, to be more than grease in the wheels.”
After putting the brakes on a Wall Street career, he wondered, “Now what?” Wilner knew he liked solving problems, and he’d had a lot of practice doing that in his math classes. Plus he was interested in the whole concept of entrepreneurship, having been involved with W&L’s Student Consulting Group–he led the Dwolla project, a cash-based payment startup, and worked on two other entrepreneurial projects, WeareverYouGo and Teradact.
Onto his radar screen popped Venture For America, a fellowship advertised as “for young, talented grads to spend two years in the trenches of a startup with the goal that these graduates will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward.” It sounded like a good fit. “When I did my research on VFA, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do,” said Wilner, who was the first W&L student to be accepted into the program. “The path to entrepreneurship can be tricky to navigate. VFA provides people like me the opportunity to work at a startup company while growing alongside other aspiring entrepreneurs, creating a clearer path.”
During his senior year, Wilner took two classes that have been useful to him as he enters the world of startups. Intro to Marketing with Amanda Bower, the Charles C. Holbrook Jr. ’72 Professor of Business Administration, helped provide a framework to some of the fundamental business principles he already knew about. He also took a class on Entrepreneurship, with Jeff Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership, and wrote his first business plan.
After graduation, Wilner spent five weeks at VFA’s training camp and then joined BoostUp, a start-up company in Detroit, that helps consumers save for big life purchases, such as cars and homes. “I was their first full-time hire,” he said. “For awhile, it was just a team of two–myself and the CEO–so I’ve been involved in every part of keeping the business running: fund-raising, customer service, product roadmapping, brainstorming. It’s hands-on all the time, which is exactly the kind of experience I was looking for.”
A few months ago, Wilner unveiled his own start-up, Compass, offering website-building services to small businesses. “My parents have often asked me for computer and web advice related to their businesses, and on one trip home, they had me sit down with them to answer some questions. When my dad said how valuable this kind of service this was to them because it saved them money, it all kind of clicked.”
Wilner noted that about 45 percent of small businesses don’t have a website and that there are few resources available for everyday tech help. “The services are very fragmented,” he explained. “Agencies charge more than a small business can afford, and many owners just don’t have the tech know-how to build their own site. About 90 percent of consumers look at a business’ website to inform their purchasing decision; if you don’t have an up-to-date presence on the web, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter, you’re missing out on sales.”
Wilner hopes Compass will fill that void. His start-up connects small business owners with Compass freelancers who use already well-established tools, such as Squarespace. “We’re not doing any coding,” stressed Wilner. “Our freelancers are vetted, tech-savy designers who can turn around a website pretty quickly. We’re charging $899, which is much more affordable for a majority of small business.”
At the moment, Compass is a work in progress. Wilner crowdsourced $6,000 to take care of legal paperwork and some marketing expenses, and he and his business partner, Taylor Sundali (also a VFA fellow), are constantly refining how they articulate their services. “We’re becoming more legitimate everyday,” he noted. “We’ve got a few clients we’re working with, and, through them we’re learning more about what kinds of services they need. Some just need to have a website built, and others need that, plus some handholding when it comes to site maintenance. But what it ultimately comes down to is having a clear message about what we do and doing it well. That’s how you build a successful business.” In other words, Business 101.