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From Safe to Startup: An Unconventional Journey in Entrepreneurship

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Edited by Emma Hodgdon


Like every company, every founder's story is unique. However, a common similarity among them all, is that a founder's journey takes hard work and commitment to transform a creative spark into a full-blown venture. Hear from Kelsey Niehoff, SOM '24, who participated in the Tsai CITY Climate Innovation Intensive, was a ClimateCAP Fellow, and worked at Eastman Chemical Company and Nike. She shares her unconventional innovation journey and offers advice for those considering a career in entrepreneurship.


Kelsey Niehoff (SOM ’24), ClimateCAP Fellow

I came to the Yale School of Management in pursuit of my MBA because my chemical engineering career that once felt safe and certain, had become unsatisfactory. My career was no longer a good fit for my work and life preferences, so I turned to graduate school in search of a better one—or what David Epstein termed my ‘optimum match quality.’ I wanted to find a career that would not only use my skills to drive change, but love what I did as well. 

As a STEM professional, I know the power of experimentation. So, throughout my MBA, I conducted many small experiments to understand my professional preferences better. One of my recent experiments was testing whether I wanted to be a startup founder. Below is a summary of that process and the steps I took to decide whether entrepreneurship was the right path for me:


Ideating Solutions

To determine if I wanted to be a startup founder, I first needed an idea for a startup. A problem serves as the foundation of a company, so I needed to identify a problem—a big one—that I was not only passionate about but also uniquely positioned to solve. With previous experience in fiber development and a growing awareness of the negative environmental impacts of the fashion industry, I researched the environmental problems that the fashion industry was facing and settled on the problem of overproduction. Overproduction is one of the largest issues behind modern fashion production, with roughly twenty percent of the estimated 100 to 150 billion items of clothing produced each year falling into this category, according to founder Karla Magruder.

To overcome this problem, my brainstorming led me to the process of make-to-order fashion, a bespoke mode of production where an article of clothing is not produced until a consumer has placed an order for it. This means that supply perfectly matches demand—no overproduction. Yet relative to mass market giants, typical make-to-order fashion models are small and expensive. My solution was to create a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that would allow customers to pre-order from mass-market brands. Such an application would help large retailers better match supply and demand, eliminating overproduction while reducing cost and waste.


Finding Your Key Customer

Once I had a solution in mind, I next had to dedicate time and resources towards transforming my idea into a venture. I was accepted for the ClimateCAP MBA fellowship and, along with eleven other MBA students, given the necessary funding and resources to conduct an independent climate-action project. Under the ClimateCAP fellowship, I underwent the discovery phase of venture creation centered around developing a customer persona. The goal of discovery is to reduce uncertainty about who your customers are, understand what your customers need, and ensure you are building the right product. The job during discovery is to talk to a lot of people, ask good questions, and listen. 

I took the job of talking to a lot of people very seriously. I distributed a survey to the Yale community and talked with several mass-market brands. I identified two groups of customer personas that would interact with my proposed platform—shoppers and retailers. Shoppers would pre-order items from retailers, and retailers would integrate the SaaS tool into their existing e-commerce channels. These customer personas informed me what I needed to learn about my customers. My discovery outreach revealed that typical shoppers purchased items on a whim or to address an immediate need, and they viewed sustainability as a “nice to have” second to price, aesthetic, and durability. Most adult consumers would need a financial incentive, such as a discount, to adopt pre-ordering; however, I found that advanced purchasing was more common for the children’s clothing market based on a pre-existing culture of planning for a baby’s birth. So I refined the scope of my idea to a pre-order SaaS solution for children’s clothing brands in order to increase the likelihood of consumer adoption. 


Asking the Big Questions

Lastly, I needed to develop a minimally viable product (MVP) to help pitch the core benefits of my idea to investors. The most important element of my product was whether customers would be willing to pre-order clothing. If this were not true, there would be no end market demand driving the need for retailers to use my SaaS application. The cheapest and simplest way that I could test this behavior was with a digital pre-order form, so I created an order form similar to a Girl Scouts cookie order form. My approach may have been scrappy, but I was inspired by the unconventional Zappos MVP, which helped the company reach $975 million in revenue in 2022.

It was time to put it all together via a pitch deck, which included a hook, an overview of the problem (and opportunity), the competitive advantage and value proposition of my proposed solution, and a strategy for customer acquisition. After building my pitch deck, I had a 360-degree view of my startup, but the path ahead would be challenging. Was I ready to devote the next chapter of my life to solving the problem of fashion overproduction via my startup? No, I was not. And that’s OK. 

Someone once told me that if you are going to be a startup founder, you shouldn’t want to do anything else. At the end of my experiment, I didn’t feel this way—it was clear I did not want to be a startup founder. I felt better match quality in other career paths. Despite not wanting to be a founder, I learned that I like the creativity, adaptability, and novel technology of the entrepreneurial space. And realizing that was enough for me. 

This project was completed as part of the ClimateCAP Fellowship, a program of the ClimateCAP Initiative led by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and supported by the Hearst Foundations.

Thank you to Yale School of Management Professor Tristan L. Botelho for being a part of this process via the first-year MBA required course MGT 421 Innovator. As well as my classroom team members Samantha Cao, Hiroki Kawamura, Jonah Kelly, Marc Mazzucco, and Kiana Mendes.