2016 Startup Internship Award Winner supported by The Rosalind (WG’76) and Roy (WG’76) Neff Entrepreneurial Internship Fund
I worked in CALLMR Wireless over the whole summer – from May.12th to Aug.29th. I joined the team as a system optimization intern, working on the development of a new product model. But as time went on, I got the chance to be involved in more aspects of the business. I joined the marketing department and was in charge of some marketing campaigns. I also helped the core team with their fundraising in July, during which I learned much about business structures and fundraising processes.
Some background knowledge about CALLMR – the company was founded in 2012, and its mission is to bring down the unreasonably high mobile phone plan costs in the US. It works with Verizon and T-Mobile network to offer the most affordable phone plans and the best customer service especially designed for young people under 30.
Here are the three highlights of my summer internship experience at CALLMR:
1. Get your hands dirty.
You don’t get to know about what the market thinks unless you get your hands dirty – this is the most important lesson I’ve learned during my summer at this startup. As entrepreneurs we had talked about this all the time, but I wouldn’t know how powerful it is if I hadn’t actually worked in a startup.
We were working on a new product model that could further bring down phone plan costs on Verizon network for students, and during my first week at CALLMR, we had over 10 meetings and huge amounts of research to design different models that we could use to achieve that goal. The proposals looked good – we talked on and on about the different companies we could reach out to, the strategies and the projected profits. But after we conducted two rounds of market research online, we figured that the market wasn’t exactly what we had expected. And when we got out of the office and talked to students around us about our thoughts, their responses really helped us figure out the problems with our hypotheses and showed us the direction to go.
And such practical experience gave me another perspective into the many ideas that I learned about through my first year of entrepreneurship experience at Penn. I remember there was a classmate telling me that “I don’t really need that additional function, but I do care about the price.” And that helped us to cut off a lot of the features originally included in our plans and enabled us to largely cut down our cost in developing this new model. This reminded me of the concept of “prototyping”, which I kept hearing from many entrepreneurs in the past. It’s amazing how those seemingly empty concepts actually bumped up during actual practice: yes, we should develop the simplest model ever in order to prove the concept, and, what’s more, listening to customers’ thoughts is the only way to turn it to the right direction.
2. Fix it, because nothing is ideal in the real world.
When I learned about startups in my freshman year, I learned from countless inspiring stories. Everything looked so promising, and every startup team showed endless confidence. Every day I read articles analyzing why the companies succeeded. And even when I worked on my startup project in the second semester, I got so much advice from alumni, entrepreneurs and investors that I kept being optimistic.
But it’s a completely different story when you actually work in an early-stage startup that is actively interacting with the unknown market. Start-ups are hard, but we seldom heard about that. Startups can’t survive by just talking about big, fancy ideas. We got to figure out the problems and solve them well, all on our own.
I started to involve myself with the marketing and sales campaigns in July. With all my experience of working in a student club before, I thought it’s easy to reach out to students. But after we sponsored 3 events with the student organizations at different schools, we found the conversion rate to be brutally low. In a startup, we have to keep in mind the acquisition cost all the time, and in an early-stage startup, we need to bring down the marketing cost as low as possible. We kept thinking of different ways to reach out to students more effectively. We also learned from our experiences at different schools, analyzed possible problems, and tried different improvements. It could be really disappointing sometimes, when we had put in all the efforts possible, but the results still didn’t look good. There were also times when we found that what we learned in marketing classes didn’t work, and tried to get more insights from related articles online or from people that had worked on similar problems before. At times, we would need to figure out the webpages and social media posts on our own, so I also picked up those small skills along the way. It was really great learning – we managed to double the sales over the summer, and such experience completely changed my mindset about marketing and sales. I used to think that marketing is just the fancy methods of raising awareness, but now it means working with different budgets to convert as many customers as possible.
3. Business structure is no more complicated than being efficient.
While carrying out marketing campaigns in China, I also joined the core team members to reach out to investors to raise funding for our new product model development. I started to learn more about the structure of the business – for example, the legal and financial documents, how the company was registered and set up, etc. Combining those with what I had learned about startups during my freshman year, I helped them with drafting business plans and pitching. I learned a lot about how corporate finance works, and I also got to know about the financing procedure of investment institutes.
But after months of hanging around in the entrepreneurship circle in China, we found that the most important aspect of a company, something also most emphasized by investors, is the company’s profits and how well the team works. So we gradually went away from those fancy businessman life, and went back to the office to work on the product itself. In order to make our communication more efficient, we gradually cut down all unnecessary documents, and only left those important for tracking the progress. We became much clearer on how to divide the job, which greatly raised our efficiency…
Almost all the startup-related books told me about the different big pictures of startup finance and operations, but my startup experience showed me how we should think in the simplest way – when running the business, just focus on the nature of the company. Be more efficient in solving customers’ problems. This lesson also rings true to me in a lot of other fields. I guess that’s why I love startups – I can see the tangible efforts and impacts, and that’s what drives us forward.
When I read the book “The Hard Ways about Hard Things” at the end of this summer, a lot of the lessons in the book reminded me of many of my experiences over the summer. I really appreciate this summer startup experience for showing me the actual excitement (and also disappointments sometimes) of entrepreneur life. I’m sure it will encourage me to go further along this path.
1. How did you find the position?
I met the founder of CALLMR on an entrepreneurship event. I was actually working on my startup project at that time, so after his speech I sent him an email to ask for some advice. Later we had an interview. Interestingly, the interview lasted for over 3 hours. We talked a lot about my project, my startup experiences, and then CALLMR. We found that we share a lot of insights about startups, and at last he invited me to join the core team of CALLMR.
2. What was your motivation for working at a startup this summer?
I worked on a startup in my freshman year, but I felt my limitations. I wanted to learn more about how a company works by working in an actual business setting. Since the initial target market of CALLMR would be Chinese students, I also wanted to learn more about the Chinese entrepreneurship scene while carrying out marketing campaigns and raising funding in China. Also, I wanted to get first-hand experience on the product interaction with the customers and the market, because I know I can’t be a good entrepreneur without directly engaging with the market.
3. What advice would you give to students interested in working at a startup this summer?
The job in a startup can be more than what you expected. You might get the great opportunity to involve yourself in every single process of product development and business management. And the more you involve yourself in that, the more you would learn. I would suggest don’t constrain yourself in your own tasks. Go beyond your job position and get a bigger picture of the company, and you will pick up many things unexpectedly.