Jessica Bisher WG’16 at SmartyPal, Philadelphia, PA

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2015 Neff Entrepreneurial Intern Fellow

How I found the position: I found a Wharton alumnus working on something I was interested in, and sent a very specific email with the objective of setting up a follow-up phone call.

Motivation for working for start-up: Wanted to gain some tactical experience and insight into the early stages of a startup.

Advice for students looking to work for a start-up: I recommend selecting a company by making a decision in the following three categories: B2B or B2C, size/stage of the startup, and industry.  Then find out what the company needs help with and pitch yourself along those lines.

My Internship:

SmartyPal is a Philadelphia based edtech startup.  The cofounders include a Wharton MBA alumnus and a Wharton tenured-professor.  At the time of my internship, SmartyPal operated out of a home office with five employees. As expected with a small startup, I wore a number of hats, but worked mainly on business development and marketing.

Coming off of my summer internship, I have the following reflections:

  • It is important to find a job that fits your needs. Since I was getting married this summer, I wanted an internship that was near Philadelphia and had some flexibility (i.e. I could take off time for wedding & honeymoon). By clearly communicating my needs, I found the perfect position.  The timing worked out great since the CEO was on maternity leave for the beginning of summer!
  • Set goals early and revisit them regularly. After getting a feel for the company, I put together a summer plan with goals.  Although, I wish I had been more realistic when setting the goals, it helped keep me on track with what I wanted to accomplish during my short time of working with the company.
  • Achieving a work-life balance can be challenging for early-stage startups. The SmartyPal founders, successfully established a culture that embraced work-life balance and supported family.  Instead of becoming another tech startup that worked around the clock, SmartyPal encouraged reasonable work hours and the ability to work from home occasionally. The team experienced some growing pains by allowing employees to work from home, but it was interesting to see them work through solutions.
  • As a startup, you sometimes need to move before you are ready. While I have a tendency to take a calculated and sometimes cautious approach, the CEO pushed the company forward.  Instead of focusing on where the company currently was, she focused on where she knew the company would be.  That’s the company that she sold.
  • It’s important to have a plan and to test it. SmartyPal is an innovative technology platform that has been recognized with a highly prestigious Round 1 SBIR NSF grant.  During the beginning of my internship, they were working on the application for Round 2 (a much larger grant).  It was inspiring to watch the detail with which they analyzed every sentence.  Putting together a business plan with such clarity provided a solid framework off of which to work.  My involvement in reviewing the submittal greatly helped me as I discussed strategic decisions, promoted the company to schools and external partners, and compiled marketing material.  Having a well-thought out plan is crucial.

Please refer to my previous bullet, however.  The plan needs to be tested quickly and revised often. In fact, prior to my arrival, SmartyPal had already launched and abandoned a separate app before pivoting to SmartyPal.  They treated it as a journey and were open and accepting of change; but they still had a plan.

  • On a more personal note, I enjoyed seeing the CEO (and founder) juggle her family and work life. Every now and then her son would stop into the office.  Luckily, the product is aimed at his age, and he served as a valuable tester!  Additionally, she would frequently step out to breastfeed her 2month old baby.  Yet, she was no less committed to the business and to pushing it forward.  She worked quickly, but still reviewed each person’s work with a critical eye.  She helped show that it was possible to start a blossoming company while having young children.  But it was also evident that one needs a solid support system to do so.