Flight School

By Lane Rettig, Wharton MBA 2014, School of Arts and Sciences 2014; Co-Founder, Seratis

Imagine finding yourself in the cockpit of a Boeing jet. You’re responsible for getting it off the ground. You see before you an array of controls: gauges, dials, buttons, levers. You know a thing or two about aerodynamics, but this is nothing like the textbook, this is the real deal. And this isn’t just about you. You’re responsible for all of the passengers: their lives are in your hands. If you screw up, it’s all over. Worst of all, the jet doesn’t come with an instruction manual. You hear the announcement: “Please fasten your seat belts for takeoff.” You gulp. It’s all up to you now.

Starting your first company feels a little bit like trying to get a Boeing off the ground for the first time. You know the rules: generate more lift than drag (be profitable) and you’ll take off. You know that once airborne, things get a lot easier. You see people, experienced pilots, who make it look effortless. You want to be soaring at 35,000 feet. But you also know that getting there, the first time, is going to be a bumpy ride.

Applying to Wharton was, for me, a process of self-reflection and self-discovery. I dug deep within myself and one of the things I found was that, throughout my life, I had been too prudent, too risk-averse. I had tended to follow the path of least resistance: go to a good school, study engineering, take a stable, well-paying job. The riskiest thing I had done was transfer from my firm’s New York headquarters to the Hong Kong satellite office, a move which, in retrospect, wasn’t all that risky. When I came to Wharton I felt strongly that it was time to do something bigger, and riskier. And I knew that I couldn’t do it alone.

Fortunately, having a copilot makes a big difference. Divya Dhar (WG’14) and I complement each other well: her background is healthcare, mine is technology. She’s the visionary, I’m the builder. She’s 5’1″, I’m 6’2″. This last fact has been surprisingly helpful: every time we start a pitch, the audience immediately laughs at how different we look, which always lightens the mood and makes our job easier! This brings me to my first piece of advice: find a cofounder first. Ultimately the idea (which you can always change) matters a lot less than the founding team (which you can’t, at least not without a lot of pain).

Today we are still assembling our airplane. You don’t realize how much work goes into getting an plane off the ground until you actually try to do it for the first time—which is why you’ll hear so many entrepreneurs say that if you haven’t actually started a company, you just don’t understand what it entails. You need to choose a model of plane (formation). You need colors and a tail insignia (a brand). You need to upholster it and arrange the seats (company culture). You must establish security policies and procedures. Most importantly—and I promise I’ll end the metaphor here—you need a strong team to ride with you. My second piece of advice is, no matter how keen you are to take off, these things take time and it’s important that you get them right from the beginning, rather than discovering that you’re missing something later.

Starting a company as an MBA is risky but it’s a calculated risk. You will never have more people supporting you, or access to a bigger, stronger network to open doors for you. Knowing the rules of business, and reading cases extensively, prepares you and creates confidence, and arguably no trait is more important in an entrepreneur than confidence. Which brings me to my third and final piece of advice: do it now. If you have an idea, even if it’s half-baked, give it a shot. There’s no better time than the present, and no way you’ll know whether it will work until you try. Have confidence, assemble the right team, and the rest will follow.

bio_photo_bwBio: Lane Rettig (WG’14/G’14) is a dual-degree Wharton/Lauder student in the Lauder Chinese track. Prior to Wharton, he worked as a software developer at D. E. Shaw & Co., a New York-based hedge fund, in their New York and Hong Kong offices. Lane was co-chair of the 2012-2013 Wharton Business Plan Competition, and this summer he and a classmate co-founded a healthcare technology startup, Seratis (http://www.seratis.com/), which recently graduated from the DreamIt Health accelerator program in Philadelphia.