Dennis is an ex- Altman Vilandrie (now Altman Solon) consultant who made a jump from consulting into the tech start-up scene. He co-founded MobileSuites, an app that puts travel concierge services and hotel information at your fingertips, and which you can (and should) find and sign-up for here.
Jenny Rae interviewed him to hear about his journey from Yale, how he knew he wanted to be in management consulting, his recruitment process (and why he chose Altman Vilandrie over Oliver Wyman), his decision to leave management consulting and the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship.
Dennis, I’m excited to have a chance to talk to you today about your background in consulting, and also your future venture, so thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Absolutely, I’m happy to chat.
Great. So our first focus is just going to be on understanding a little bit of your background, and you can speak for yourself, as well as your founding team – share whatever makes the most sense. Our first focus is just to have you tell us a little bit about your education, and why you decided to go into consulting in the first place.
Yeah, definitely. I can’t speak for my team, but I can give you some background on myself. I started at Yale in 2008. I majored in Economics and Computer Science, and graduated in 2012. I was exposed to a lot of different opportunities in college, everything from coding at Google, going to work at a startup, or on the business side going to work at a management consulting firm.
What was really appealing to me about the management consulting side was the exposure to a lot of different projects, and a lot of different facets of a business, all within a short period of time. From conversations that I had, a lot of times when you go to a larger business like a Google, you might be working on the same project for six months to a year at a time and not get as much exposure to different business units, different projects and different parts of the company.
And just to dive into that really quickly, when at Yale did you decide that consulting was interesting to you?
I think around the end of sophomore year, beginning of junior year as internship companies were recruiting on campus, consulting really sort of popped up as a career opportunity and something I wanted to explore.
Did you have any idea of what you might have wanted to do later, that you wanted to get training for, in all these broad areas, or was part of the process just exposing you to things because you didn’t know whether you would like them or not?
I had a vague sense – I think that’s the best way to put it. I knew I was really interested and passionate about technology, which was part of the reason I studied computer science. I really love the tech space, and ultimately that’s what drew me to Altman Vilandrie as well, because of their strong focus on the tech sector.
Absolutely – and great segue. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about why you decided on Altman Vilandrie in particular, what your process was like going through the recruitment cycle there, and ultimately why you decided to go.
So when I was going through recruitment, I was considering the big three consulting firms, Bain, McKinsey, BCG, and a few others, but Altman Vilandrie was one that really stuck out to me.
Altman Vilandrie is a boutique management consulting firm that focuses pretty exclusively on telecom, media and tech (TMT), so it does a lot of work with internet service providers, wireless providers, mobile manufacturers, and also a lot of work in the online advertising and media side of things as well. All of these are spaces that are seeing a lot of change year over year. That was exciting to me, and that focus really drew me toward Altman Vilandrie more so than some of the other larger, more general firms.
Great. What else did you consider in the recruitment process, and why ultimately did you pick Altman Vilandrie? I’m specifically wondering what your other options were, and how they stacked up.
I also considered Oliver Wyman, both their financial services and general management consulting practice, and then I had gone through a few rounds of interviews with the big three consulting firms as well.
When it came down to it, I was weighing offers between Oliver Wyman and Altman Vilandrie, and chose Altman Vilandrie because I was really attracted to their focus on TMT, and I thought that it would be an exciting experience. Altman Vilandrie is a smaller firm, and so I was also able to meet a lot of the people that work there and got a great vibe from the directors and the other analysts.
Tell me a little bit about your experience at Altman Vilandrie – how many projects did you work on, what were the team structures like, and anything that you think would be helpful to share.
I guess it’s been a little over a year since I’ve thought about it, but I was probably on five or six projects over the course of close to a year-and-a-half, and so I’m not sure what that breaks down to, roughly a quarter of a year – a couple months – per project. The teams really varied based on the size and scope of the project.
One project we were doing was helping plan a major fiber roll-out for an internet service provider. That was a larger team because there were a lot of different pieces to the project. Other times, we would be doing due diligence on a data center, and that would be a much more slimmed down team, probably one or two analysts and a manager. Does that answer that question?
Yes, absolutely. And maybe one of the key questions that everybody doesn’t think about asking, but I think a lot of people are interested in, is how did it match up with your expectations? How did the work that you actually did match up with what you thought you would be doing?
I think it matched up pretty well. One thing is that Altman Vilandrie prides itself on its analytic approach to the projects that we do, and so there was a spectrum of projects that we worked on. Some were more high level advisory to CEOs, but there was also some really in-depth data analytics that we did as well, with pretty massive SQL data bases from some of companies that we worked with.
They would give us these major data sets and we would crunch through that to come to a recommendation. That was something that had always interested me, so I was happy to balance the analytics with the advice.
Can you tell me more specifically, what was your favorite project that you did while you were there, and what specifically was your workstream on that project?
We did a project for a company that was looking to expand their product offerings – they were a data provider company and they wanted to provide more robust products in the online advertising space. Before I started the project, I really knew nothing about the online advertising space. That project was really interesting to me because one of my first tasks was to lay out the space for the client and explain what types of trends they should be watching as they develop their product roadmap.
Okay, great. At some point in the life of a consultant, you stop for a moment and begin to think about what you’re going to do next. When did that moment happen for you?
I would say it happened a bit by accident. I think I had some notion that I wanted to do more in tech, or maybe go to a large tech company. I wasn’t really sure. I ended up traveling on a few projects with my friend Basel, an analyst who started the same day that I did.
As we were talking, we started thinking that we could really improve the hotel experience,. That sort of hit us on the head and we just couldn’t stop thinking about it. The more we thought about it, the more we thought we could build something that could really change how people travel. So that’s what led us to start MobileSuites.
The travel ecosphere is one that consultants are very familiar with. But in particular, tell me a little bit about your value proposition and which part of the travel ecosystem you guys are specifically addressing.
Absolutely. The general premise back when we first started was the simple idea that we really didn’t like calling the front desk or having to find hotel staff when we needed something at the hotel. We thought, “If I can press a button and have food delivered to my door from a Seamless or a Grubhub, if I can press a button and have Uber pick me up, why can’t I press a button and have someone take care of the things I need while I’m at a hotel?” That was the starting point of the pain that we saw as travelers.
So, we did a little bit of digging. We talked to hotel managers and front office staff. We did a lot of research to see what their take on this space was and how to address that customer pain point that we saw. We found that there were a lot of inefficiencies from the hotel side that could really be cleaned up as well. So, that’s really when the picture really started coming together: how to build a solution that allowed hotels to communicate with guests and respond to any requests coming in through a mobile app to allow travelers to enjoy a more seamless hotel experience.
I see. How long was it from the moment that you had the idea until you guys decided to actually leave and make a go for it?
Let’s see. I guess we probably had the idea around early summer, so May, June or July, and I ended up leaving the firm at the end of September. It was a few months.
And as those months went by, I found myself thinking about it more and more, so I felt that the end of September was really the right time to leave.
What steps did you take in order to decide that there was really a value proposition there, and it was worth leaving consulting for?
We really tried to figure out if there was a market there. We used a lot of the same tactics that we learned at Altman Vilandrie applied to this problem.
Tell me which ones specifically.
We conducted interviews with people all up and down the decision making process – we talked to a handful of owners of hotel management groups, we talked to the general managers at hotel, director of operations, and front desk managers to hear their take on how they engage with travelers. We also talked to travelers and asked , “If we could do this, what would you think?” So that was one.
The second part was doing a lot of online research to see what the market looked like for travel, whether there were any products out there like this in the market, and to see if anybody had written about the topic. That was our second major point of focus when we first started.
Fantastic. Tell me what it’s been like – you’ve been now at it for a number of months. Tell me what you guys are up to and what kind of progress you’re making.
When we first started, our focus was building a B2B solution, so we built a mobile app and SaaS platform to help guests conveniently communicate with hotel staff. The hotel could then market the app to their guests to improve guest satisfaction and increases ancillary revenue. And that was a pitch that resonated with hoteliers.
In the past year, one thing that’s inherent to the whole start-up process is the number of adjustments that you end up going through, and how much learning happens on the fly. I think that’s one thing that I didn’t realize when I first started.
As we talked to more travelers, and had people start using the product to give us feedback, we learned that travelers really want a solution that works anywhere, so it becomes something that they don’t need to think about. They can have it on their phone and have the confidence that the app will be available at any hotel that they visit. After learning that, we evolved from focusing on a B2B system that we would sell directly to hotels to have a more of an online platform that houses a network of hotels that can cover the entirety of the United States.
Can you tell me about some of the partners that you currently have enlisted?
We have a few partnerships with boutique hotels around the Northeast. We’re also getting very close to launching a pilot with a flagship hotel in the Boston area. Part of our model is that we have hotels that we partner with, but we also have a system allowing travelers to make requests at any of the other hotels on our app.
So, while we are not yet partnered with the vast majority of the hotels in our app, we act as an independent facilitator – making it easier for guests to communicate requests to their hotel. We have 700 hotels in the app today, and we’re looking to grow our database of hotels, so that travelers can use the MobileSuites app anywhere by the end of 2015.
Tell me what you would say your top three strategic priorities are right now as a business.
The first two are pretty straightforward, the first one being the one that I was mentioning earlier. Travelers want to know that this is going to work no matter where they go. So one of our big focuses is getting hotels onto the platform- going from 700 hotels where we are today to about 15-20,000, which would be full coverage of the full-service hotels across the United States.
The second piece is getting the word out to business travelers that we have a solution that really can make their experience much easier and much more convenient.
The third piece is really a focus that every start-up has. Right now we’re in the process of funding it, and we’re raising sort of a small seed round so we can start scaling more quickly.
Where are you guys based, and how many people do you have on board right now?
Right now there are three of us on the team. Basel Fakhoury and I, as mentioned, both worked at Altman Vilandrie together, and we brought on a third cofounder, Bob Saris, who was a full-time software engineer and joined our team as a CTO. We are based in Boston, which is where we all worked before launching the company, so just decided to stay put.
What would you say has been your favorite thing about moving from the corporate consulting culture to an entrepreneurial culture? A lot of people are attracted to the coolness of entrepreneurship, so my follow-up question to this is going to be – what’s the least glamorous thing about moving from a corporate consulting culture to entrepreneurship? On one side, everybody has a great story about something sexy or awesome or fun that they’ve been able to do as an entrepreneur, but everybody also has the “I’m eating beans and rice every day” story.
I can answer the follow-up question probably a little bit more easily while I’m still thinking about the first one. There’s definitely a lot of hype around start-up culture and the sexiness of a start-up. I think that one thing that’s not represented a lot in media is the level of grind and grunt work that is involved with getting a start-up off the ground. It’s not just coding and launch parties.
There are a lot of operational aspects, including cold calling, meeting people face-to-face to get people to start using your product, and getting that early validation. There’s a lot of grunt work involved that happens behind the scenes of a start-up. The main takeaway is that it’s not always as awesome as it’s portrayed from the media.
On the flip side, one of the coolest things about trying a start-up is that this is something that we as a team are really passionate about. We think that this is really going to be the future of how people travel. Getting a crack at being the company that starts a major trend, or makes a major change in behavior, that’s really cool to us. That’s something that I think gets me through the crazier times of launching a start-up.
Two final questions. First, tell me a little bit about what you are glad you learned in consulting that you use on a frequent basis now as an entrepreneur.
This one is an easy question for me. One thing that was immensely valuable coming out of working at Altman Vilandrie was the ability to take something that is fairly unstructured and build a framework around it so you can think about it more critically.
While at first you can say, “I don’t know how to answer that,” you start building a framework, so you can ask more insightful questions. That’s a skill that I think really both Basel and I really picked up by working at Altman Vilandrie before launching MobileSuites.
Well, then, my final question would be, what would be something that you would tell someone who was thinking about going into consulting, or thinking about leaving consulting to go into entrepreneurship, that you wish you would have known earlier on in the process.
Someone that’s joining consulting, or leaving consulting?
Either way. But in both situations they are interested ultimately in entrepreneurship.
If you know you are interested in entrepreneurship, you should just do it and not go through consulting. A lot of things about launching a start-up can’t really be taught elsewhere.
On the flip side, if you’re not totally sure about entrepreneurship, I think consulting does teach you a lot of those other skills that can be learned outside of the start-up environment. I think that these become valuable for anything else that you want to do after consulting. So the takeaway is, if you know you want to do a start-up, do it right away. If you are like me and didn’t have as clear direction about what you want to do, I think consulting is never a wrong option.
What would you like our readers to do in terms of action at the end of this interview? Do you want to include a link for how they could sign up for the service, do you want them to just go to your website to read more about it? What would you like their next step to be?
They can go right to our website at www.mobilesuitesapp.com. On the site, there is some more information about the app, and right on the homepage you can sign up to be notified about our public launch in late February / early March. Space is limited, so if you’re a frequent traveler and would like to try out the app, please sign up – we’d love to hear your feedback.
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