The Skill Set: 7 Ways to Think Like a Business School Grad

Mia Saini, co-founder of Oars + Alps, gives us the download.

“If the wind will will not serve, take to the oars.” This Latin proverb is the mantra of Oars + Alps, a men’s skincare line for the active guy. Its co-founder, Mia Saini, former NASA engineer, Harvard Business School grad and financial correspondent for Bloomberg TV, channeled the ancient adage when she saw a white space in the market for natural, affordable, travel-friendly, direct-to-consumer products for the guy-on-the-go. Seven years ago, her husband would constantly dip his fingers into the elite skincare products she received from her on-air appearances. 

This caused a host of problems: the products would run out, she noticed that the formulations meant for women were ill-suited for men’s thicker, coarser skin and—he smelled like a girl. After meeting Facebook marketing professional Laura Lisowski on a “junk" party boat in Hong Kong, the pair decided to leave their high-profile jobs to build a brand from the ground-up. Naming it Oars + Alps (Mia’s husband is a competitive rower; both husbands are avid skiers and snowboarders), their toxin-free ingredients are sourced from the Arctic Circle in northern Finland—protecting men’s skin from the harsh elements while hydrating it at the same time. 

“We are really focusing on the everyday guys,” says Mia. “They may not be football players, but they play football on the weekends. They’re part of intramural sports. They’re tying up their laces for a 5 a.m. run. These are guys who find ways to weave activity into their lives.” 

The Skill Set: 7 Ways to Think Like a Business School Grad With their revolutionary solid face wash, the only version on the market, guys don’t have to worry about spilling or throwing it in a flimsy Ziploc bag when flying. Its alpine caribou moss promotes skin elasticity and its charcoal exfoliate removes deep-down dirt. Mia’s engineering education (she dreamed of being an astronaut growing up) has helped astronomically in developing the company. So has her unconventional training. After watching reporters have a hard time explaining the financial market to the average viewer—which only added to the paranoia that contributed to the financial collapse of 2008—she decided to apply to HBS so that she could be a part of the financial conversation. Her path paid off. See Mia's top takeaways from business school and follow her tips for launching a successful start-up below.

1. When it comes to conversation, preparation is everything

Do your homework and understand the professional and personal interests of the people you're speaking to. Have a couple of questions to ask in case there is silence—they can be about broad, topical things happening in the industry. Don’t over-concern yourself with coming off as smart, as most people are thinking about their own answers and thoughts. Find a way to follow-up. If the person you met with mentioned she liked eating tapas food, send her an article reviewing the latest tapas restaurant. If a certain investor says they are really into a specific economist, read a few of the latest reports from that economist and email your thoughts to the investor. Always remember, the people who you think rule the world aren't innately smarter or more successful than you. They are generally normal people who, through a series of hard work and luck, got to where they are today.

2. Make a decision like a CEO

When you think about it, CEOs don’t have all the data at their fingertips. In fact, at any given point, they probably have about 25% of the information, yet they’re expected to make a decision as if they have 100% of it. Understand what you know and what you don’t. What would need to be true to change your decision? Get comfortable knowing that you will never have all the information you need (or the time and money to get it). Once you have a good sense of the info you have and what’s at stake, make a decision and stick to it. Often, it's not the decision itself that defines success, it's your follow-through.

3. Name with foresight

Oars and Alps are two things that represent us and our husbands. They also visually have a great emotional connection. Oars are reminiscent of the ocean, lake or river, which provide a place of serenity for so many people. The Alps are the tallest mountain peaks in the world. I wanted something rooted in meaning; not a made-up word. I encourage anyone who's naming a company to not be too short-sighted and allow it the potential to grow. We’re not Oars + Alps Skincare, because maybe down the road we’ll add Dopp kits or gym bags to our repertoire. We could also go into female products. Never come up with a name that’s too limiting; give yourself flexibility.

4. Realize price before product

If you come up with all the bells and whistles you want first, you will never be able to get that into a reasonable price. Our customer didn’t want to spend money on Kiehl’s and was just shopping Neutrogena drugstore products out of convenience. We knew that our products, from the get-go, were going to be between that $10-$18 range. We felt comfortable operating there. We put that stick in the ground first and every other decision—from sourcing ingredients to the packaging—came after that. The companies that come up with their product first always struggle.

5. Utilize your network—and build one if you don’t have it

Quickly tap into your network to see who has expertise in different verticals. Laura’s best friend did all of our design work. Oftentimes, you get preferential prices or a few more favors happening that way—you're also supporting your friends. Our investors had a personal relationship with us before a professional one. If you don’t have a network; build it. There are regional Harvard alumni groups that allow anyone to join. You have access to events that draw outstanding professors, world-class CEOs and industry titans. Work on your LinkedIn profile so that you’re selling yourself online. Email a professor. You have to have a fire underneath your ass to do some digging and investigating.

6. Be okay with change

As a CEO of a start-up, you have to allow room for your brand to grow. Just like a baby grows—from zero to 12 months, they look so different. Our brand colors were originally orange and grey; not two shades of blue. You have to allow yourself to say, “This doesn’t fit anymore; we elevated our brand to another level.” You have to be open-minded to make those decisions even though you put so much effort and money in it, initially.

7. Survey your audience

We focus group everything. We first took a look at the top products men were using. From that, we needed to make a decision on fragrance. We wanted a no-fragrance-fragrance. We then had hundreds of guys volunteer to try our products. We asked them about latherability if it was a soap, the texture if it was a moisturizer or the consistency if it was a scrub. We also listen to our customers via email and Instagram. After that, we go straight to the manufacturer and can make changes to our product on a faster timeline than our competitors who are ordering zillions of their SKUs.


Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump.
Illustration by Cybèle Illustration