Slava Menn on The Bold Sell, Renewable Energy, and Moments Everlasting

Cambridge, MA -

While the Notes crew was in Boston last May, we met and interviewed a variety of compelling characters in medicine, engineering and creative business - from rising stars to Nobel Prize laureates - the faces behind innovations who help to shape our human ideals, and who embody our collective hopes for the future.

Slava Menn is a dynamic young entrepreneur, the founder of two start-ups, BarFrog.com and LaunchPad Real Estate Investments, and an MBA Candidate at the prestigious MIT Sloan School of Management, in the specialized Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program.

A natural leader, Menn is one of the forefathers of IdeaStorm at MIT Sloan - a high-energy brainstorming session that has rapidly gained popularity with the Sloan student body - and captured 3rd Place at "The Bold Sell" Competition 2010, where hopefuls from MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School are challenged to place their elocutionary chops out on display before a live audience. It's a head-to-head battle of salesmanship wits that requires contestants to present improvised pitches on-the-fly, on half a dozen PowerPoint slides they have never seen before, on products that don't even exist - yet.

Seated across a conference room table at the MIT Entrepreneurship Lab, Menn proved himself a mixture of self-motivated intensity and slightly tongue-in-cheek, boyish charm, as he shared with us his personal passions, idealisms and practical viewpoints on his career path in moving from Engineering to Business, the nature of start-ups, trends in Renewable Energy, and inspiring CEOs whom he has encountered on his own entrepreneurial journey.

Tell us about The Bold Sell Competition. You look like you're having a blast.

[Laughs.] Well, when I was a kid, I thought for a while that I wanted to go into acting. To me, public speaking has always been something very important, being able to get in front of an audience and address them, inspire them - share a vision with them. From a very young age, I've always tried to take every opportunity I could to do public-speaking. In college, I used to give tours of the campuses - you know, where you walk backwards. At that point, I figured it was really great training to walk backwards and talk to thirty disinterested moms and kids. It was fun and I got a lot out of that experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So The Bold Sell Competition - to me, it was a bit like an athletic event. You're put in front of an audience and you're presented with six slides on the overhead you have never seen before, and you're given some kind of nonsensical information - and you have to spin it into something sensible. You need to be very quick on your feet and charismatic and throw some humor in there as well, and you need to be a good speaker. For me, there were a set of challenges associated with doing it. I said to myself: "if I can do this, it will be very good for me."

And I just love a challenge. [Smiles.]

What initially drew you to pursue Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Electrical Engineering before continuing on to Sloan?

As a kid, I was mechanically inclined . . . I was also a little schemer [laughs] always looking for ways to make money. I was interested in both the creation and monetization of something. My favorite subscriptions were Popular Science Magazine and Ink Magazine. It was a split.

My studies in Engineering were perhaps the result more of the type of mentality that you "need to graduate college" and have something you can support yourself with, and engineering was a sure-fire way of doing that.

Actually, I almost dropped out several times to pursue business a long time ago, so my heart was never really in engineering completely. I did a masters in Engineering in good part because I was still immature and 22 and not ready to finish college yet. I think I wanted a little more time to myself . . .

Looking back on it, when I compare the things I did then to what I'm doing now, I view Engineering as providing me with a very good, rigorous foundation, and at times it could definitely be stimulating, but not in the same way or to the same level as the things I'm doing now. Analog circuit design and fabricate semiconductors? I may never use my knowledge of those, but it's more that it was training that helped me learn to take a difficult subject and take it down and comprehend it on a deeper level.

In my work now, when we encounter an in-depth scientific topic, I know how to break it down, and have an intelligent discussion with someone about it-even when they know much more about it than I do, I can still ask the right, relevant questions.

What do you feel your engineering background gave you to aid and supplement your work now?

As an engineer, we were taught to look at things a certain way-Look at a problem a million different ways, break it down to its parts, and solve those parts. OK, great.

In business, you're talking about strategy, different stakeholders, profitability-there's that too. One thing that might be lacking in these different trainings is the opportunity to have open-ended free-thinking. There isn't really just a forum to do that.

That is something I really enjoy doing. I have certain friends that I can just sit down with and we'll just kick around ideas. Some friends I try to do that with and they shoot down ideas. Sometimes with friends I pose an idea and they counter with an idea, and then I try and build on that-and it turns into something great.

What are some of the highlights of your time at Sloan thus far?

Bouncing around and developing ideas with friends is something that I specifically wanted to get into while at Sloan, right from the start. During the summer last year before I started school, I called up some friends - and we got a bunch of 40 oz beers, and we sat down by the Charles [River]. I had just come back from traveling, so I had all these ideas for hostels in the United States - and also real estate ideas; those were heavily on my mind then.

In September, I started talking to Adam and Morgan Blake-brothers but not twins, first-year students at Sloan. I've had two successful companies and Adam has as well, and we said: "Why don't we just go to a bar and get some beers and kick around some business ideas?"

This later became known as IdeaStorm, and initially it began with eight of us at this really gross dive bar-we had a great time. At the next meeting there were fifteen of us, then thirty. Then the group grew to be so large that it had to be held at the Entrepreneurship Center at Sloan, and eventually we grew out of that because there were fifty of us, so now we're at the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is this huge sixteen-story building where there are a lot of conference rooms. Once a month, we hold IdeaStorm there.

Can you discuss the creative process that fuels IdeaStorm?

It's basically a high-energy structured brainstorming session. We start off with a challenge question. For example: "What does the future of banking look like?" - and then we break off into groups of 10-15 people, and kick around ideas for the future of banking, using mobile phones or RFID-that kind of gets the creative juices going.

And then, we have the next session which is called "Fresh Ideas" - where we present unrehearsed elevator pitches. Some idea that someone had that same morning-you know, maybe an electronic coat rack that locks up your coats, or using Wii Fit for physical therapy-these kinds of cool ideas that people carry around in their heads but there is never a creative forum to express them.

Then we have Founder's Dilemmas where we bring in a successful entrepreneur who has a start-up and who are facing set challenges. They present some of the issues they are dealing with, and we have brainstorms on that - towards finding solutions. And you know, these sessions are very fast-paced, but people love it and they are fanatical about IdeaStorm, because it brings them away from the things they are doing and allows them to embrace more free-form thinking. That's always been really important to me.

How do business ideas crystallize in your mind? When did you realize you wanted to shift into business?

I actually have a little book of all the business ideas I've come up with. I've always come up with business ideas and product ideas. My dad is an engineer, and so when I was eight years old, I decided I wanted to invent a rocket-powered skateboard [laughs], maybe not the safest idea . . .

Since that time, I've always been an idea guy. And then, when I was in grad school and I started my first company, I had like twenty ideas and I said to myself, "OK it's time to buckle down and do one of them. OK, I'm an idea guy, but there's not much use in that. I don't only want to be an idea guy, I want to be an execution guy."

You've described one of your passions as Renewable Energy. Can you describe your position concerning the future of that sector?

slava_menn_notes_on_the_road_zenith_solar_system

Photo: Slava Menn standing in front of a Zenith Solar Z20 concentrated solar system,
which produces electricity and hot water for a kibbutz in Israel.

 

The thing about Renewable Energy is that right now, I think people are realizing you can't just do it because it's a good thing to do-it has to be financially viable. There is a lot of talk right now about creating renewable energy, but what people don't seem to be talking as much about is conserving.

I think the first time that really struck me was in Switzerland, a top country on the Green List. I was waiting for the bus, and there was a cop on a little 300CC BMW motorcycle, and he was waiting to pull onto the main road. There were a bunch of cars passing by, and I realized that there was about a 45-second wait before he pulled onto the main road. Now he isn't paying for the gas in that tiny little engine, it's not coming directly out of his pocket, and anyway, that engine was barely using any gas. But he killed the engine!

He killed the engine because he had the perspective of why would you want to have it idle for 45 seconds when it doesn't need to. Then, he restarted the engine and took off. By contrast, in the United States, we have cops here who - by law - are required to keep their engines idling all the time, with the AC blasting, the windows down. It just kills me that the U.S. doesn't conserve in small ways like that. If we were to cut down our usage of energy by 5% or 10%, it would have an enormous impact on so many levels. Nobody really talks about that.

What's more interesting to me right now is the prospect of coming up with unique business models which will motivate or encourage people to change their consumption habits. That is very difficult. There are many companies which are involved with that initiative, such as ENERNOC and others which compare your energy consumption against your neighbor's to single out the most energy-efficient homes. It would be very interesting for me to get into that side of the business-developing clever business models or innovations that will get people to alter their habits.

The fact is, when it comes to very simple personal decisions like whether to set your thermostat on 68 or 70 in the summer, people don't really care, so it needs to hit their wallets as well. When gas prices went up to $4.00 a gallon, suddenly people were riding bikes and taking public transportation-in a way, I'm probably one of the few people who are happy when energy starts to get expensive.

If you could carve out your dream job right now, no-holds-barred, what would it be?

I came in here telling myself I wanted to start a company . . . and then I watched a lot of my classmates say the same thing, and then they went into banking or consulting and so on. I really forced myself to keep an open mind, and then I became uncertain for a little while, but now I'm positive that I would like to start a company as soon as I'm out of school.

Being at MIT, we're truly truly spoiled because of the amazing things we are exposed to...we had lunch today with Bill Porter who started eTrade...he spoke at lunch, and we had Bill Gates here two weeks ago. When Barack Obama gave a talk on energy, he came here.

And then of course we have so much talent here at Sloan, I've never been around so much talent in my life! Then of course on the other side of campus, we have the science and engineering students-the really smart people are there [laughs]-and there are unlimited ideas flying around.

So it's not so much about having great ideas but it's about grabbing one of those, running with it and making it happen. I'm kind of in a place where I'm ready to do that.

What is one of the biggest personal challenges you face in your work?

One thing I really struggle with is I can't really get behind an idea if it's not mine, which is really self-centered [laughs], but if I don't come up with it, I can't get behind it 100%. So we're working on a health-care idea which is a great idea-mine wasn't nearly as great-but I'm still somehow more excited about my own idea simply because I thought of it.

I find that when I do my best work...the best work I've been doing in my life has been my own start-ups. Bar Frog and LaunchPad Real Estate Investments. I'm doing really great there . . .

Who are some of your major influences? Role models?

As a kid, I thought Dean Kamen--Segway inventor, dropped out of Tufts as a junior in college to start his own company, and he also started FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - which is dedicated to getting young people into science and technology, making it cool. It's a robotic competition, and it's become really big. When I went to college, I thoroughly planned to drop out and start a company, and when senior year rolled around and I hadn't dropped out yet and I had no intention of dropping out, I felt like a disappointment. I also hadn't started a company yet by then, even though I was trying different things. He was an early inspiration to me because he was inventive and he was able to come up with really cool tech ideas-he was able to commercialize them as well. And that I was really drawn to.

I go through "crushes"-I get "entrepreneurial crushes" on start-up founders usually once every three months or so, and I take turns having different "entrepreneurial crushes" on different founders [laughs], so the most recent one was Shlomo Dovrat, who is an Israeli entrepreneur and he is a titan and a pioneer in entrepreneurship and in the start-up world in Israel.

When he was in his twenties, he started a very successful company that did manufacturing software for the automotive industry, and he started others afterward and then started a venture capital firm. There are many people who are as successful as he is, but the reason I was drawn to him is because on Spring Break, we went to Israel and visited his office just north of Tel Aviv. It's this really gorgeous building overlooking the water; it reminded me of Silicon Valley but on Miami Beach. He's an incredibly charismatic speaker and one thing he said was "If you're an entrepreneur, you can't be a realist. If you're a realist, you're going to realize that you can't pull off the things you want to pull off. There's no way you're going to succeed." He said: "You have to have a bit of unrealism to do the things you do..." and that made a lot of sense to me because if you take a look at founders who start companies against all odds . . . any rational person wouldn't do that, so I think it takes somewhat of a dreamer. I thought that was really cool.

Before that, I had a "crush" on Andrew Birch who started Sungevity-they do residential solar installations, and that guy-I mean, he is just amazing. We visited him on the Silicon Valley trek-which was a one-week trek where we visit two companies per day and have two Venture Capitalists come and talk to us. We were totally burnt out that day when we went to visit Birch, and it was the very last visit. It was at Berkeley, an hour away from where we were, I was tired as hell, and I didn't want to go . . .

And I went there . . . and he was talking - I was just awestruck, I thought to myself: "This guy is a fucking genius!"

He came up with the most brilliant business model that uses Google imagery to look at a roof in 3D, measure the angles of the roof and design the solar system for that rooftop for your home without ever having stepped foot there. Meanwhile, the competition is sending overpaid sales guys there who spend half the day climbing on your roof and measuring, and so on . . . so right there, based on Birch's model, your costs are lower, they can charge their customers less than the competition-just brilliant!

Plus, the way he set up his business was he invests huge effort in doing in-bound marketing, web-based marketing, so he gets tons of phone calls, and he has an in-house sales team answering the phone. So rather than paying $150K salary to an outside sales guy to go out and climb on peoples' roofs and spend half a day out there, he can pay a $50K salary and have people close 10 customers a day.

When he was telling me about this, I thought, "OK, this is it for me! I want to have a business as brilliant as that." He inspired me tremendously.

And finally, I would name Aaron Patzer as a great influence, from Mint.com. He looked at Quicken, said "this sucks, this is the way financial software has been done for 15 years, it's painful, it's hard to use, it doesn't talk to my banks" --so he started Mint.com - and I looked at him and said: "When it comes to business, I want to be you." He always comes up with these creative, innovative solutions to problems. He's not in a lab doing research for ten years and then coming out with a new product. It's just all in his head.

What do you do outside of business to keep you creatively inspired?

Well, photography is something I picked up in high school. I'm terrible at drawing, and I guess it's my little way of being artistic, especially when traveling. Photography really forces you to look at things differently, and that's something I try to do in general in my work. Looking at things from different vantage points is very important to me.

I think that when we are kids, we start off being very creative, we aren't taught to think in a certain way, but then as we go through different schools of thought, we become more educated, and our thinking processes become more streamlined.

What I personally love about photography is that it's artistic and simultaneously concrete. It may sound a bit strange, but to me, paintings are not as real as photography is. It's more tangible, perhaps. When I go to museums or galleries, I don't feel as deep a connection as I will at a photo exhibit. I just dive into those; I spend hours poring over photography books at the stores-black and white photography really strikes me because it's so clean and elegant.

I like doing photography of people because you can capture the subtlety of expressions, mood, a fleeting moment-all with the flick of a button-and then you have it, forever.