The Value of Inexperience

By Michael Tolkin W’07, founder and CEO of Merchant Exchange

When I was a student at Penn many years ago, a couple of friends and I had an idea to create a customized candy bar business.  We would make unique candy bars and allow people to create their own combinations from a long list of inclusion options.  Our friends loved the concept, but when we talked to “experts” in the industry, we were met with a great deal of skepticism around our ability to take it from idea to actual product.  We had no advanced equipment and we knew next to nothing about the confectionery industry and the candy bar making process.  Even more worrying was that the experts from whom we sought guidance didn’t have the answers we were looking for themselves. Many thought it would be impossible to design a customized bar-making process.

But inexperience can be empowering.  Without preconceived notions, you’re free to learn.  Without artificial (and in many cases self-imposed) constraints, you’re free to think.  Without fear of failure, you’re free to test and be truly creative.

So we put on our thinking caps, bought a whole bunch of ingredients from the local grocer, and tinkered in our kitchen.  At first, we missed.  Our “Junk Bar,” a mix of potato chips, pretzels, and caramel, was sloppy and difficult to eat without a fork and knife.  But as we iterated, the bars got better—more professional-looking, easier to eat, a more palatable balance of ingredients.  We fine-tuned the process to be as efficient as possible, developing tools like the “Splunge” that allowed us to quickly and easily apply gooey inclusions like marshmallow fluff.  Our unique chocolate-enrobing process allowed us to use all sorts of unusual ingredients, from fresh fruit to gummy bears.  Soon we had orders flowing in from college groups and folks around campus, and Foodilly Chocolate Factory was accepted into the Wharton Venture Initiation Program. We were having a blast.

But of course we faced other challenges. Scaling such a logistically-intensive business required a broader understanding of manufacturing/retail operations and a much larger capital investment. Ultimately we decided to shut down the business.

To me, though, this wasn’t a bad experience, or even really a failure. The candy bar startup taught me a lot about starting and running a business, as well as about the value of maintaining an open mind and continually challenging my own assumptions. If we had listened to the received wisdom of industry experts, we never would have dared to try, and we got farther than anyone thought we could.

Inexperience has its drawbacks, of course, and there’s much to be said for the value of experience. But even as I try to learn and grow from the experiences I’ve had, I also want to keep some of that optimism of inexperience: the open mind that wonders if the impossible can be done and the hope that gives me the willingness to try.

michael-tolkin-merchant-exchangeBio: Michael Tolkin W’07 is the founder and CEO of Merchant Exchange, a one-stop shop for perks and promotions from your favorite brands. As a Wharton student, he co-founded Foodilly Chocolate Factory.