In January 2012, Imran Khoja ’12 and Katy Gathright ’12 won the first ever Williams College Business Plan Competition. Following graduation, they took the prize money and started Designed Good – an online marketplace for products that are produced in a socially responsible way. After eight months living in Williamstown at an apartment with no heat and many more months struggling to build the company, Khoja is still at the helm of Designed Good.
Having deferred the start of Stanford Business School until the fall of 2015, Khoja is hard at work designing products, managing the website, and learning about what it takes to run a business.
I recently caught up with Khoja in his Boston-based apartment and learned about the ups and downs of his life as a young entrepreneur.
Over the last two years, you’ve been working on growing your first business, Designed Good – what is Designed Good?
Designed Good started as an online marketplace for social conscious products. The idea was: we buy lots of stuff in our everyday life, but we don’t think about where those goods come from. What if there was a version of a product you use that did “good” in the world and cost the same price? It’d be awesome to know the story of that product and be empowered by it. DG was made to tell that story in an engaging way.
So you came up with the model, won the Williams business plan competition, and launched the site after graduation. What came next?
A lot of learning and failing through that first summer to get things started. Then an exciting fall where we were actually selling things. Then came January and February where I lost a couple partners (who got more traditional jobs) and had to decide whether it made sense to keep going. That was very difficult, but I learned a lot. Now we’ve sort of come full circle. My passion has moved from selling other people’s products to more creation.
I got a full-time job working on product development and am turning Designed Good into an incubator for my inventions. I look at Designed Good as having some successes and a lot of failures. I’ve learned a lot – the business is struggling, if not failing, but it’s ok because it’s gotten me to a place where I’m a whole lot more mature about what it means to be a business owner.
I want DG to be a quirky invention house for products that do good. I’m really passionate about product design. I started selling other people’s things on DG because I didn’t know anything about the production process, but over the past year, I’ve met tons of mentors – product designers, other people who own brands – I’ve learned about supply chains.
Now I’m working on a couple products – our goal is to launch 2 or 3 on kickstarter this year.
Did you always know that creating products was what you were interested in or has that evolved since Williams?
Going through this process has allowed me to see beyond what I knew originally and discover that I have this deep interest for working through what something is made of and owning the creation process one hundred percent.
To me the self-discovery is exciting. It’s like peeling back the layers and figuring out what drives me and motivates me.
Were there some early ideas that you tried before Designed Good?
I try to approach everything through a lens of experimentation. I started a consignment rack at Nature’s Closet on Spring Street. I approached the owner and we worked together to create the business, which was essentially the same type of model as Designed Good. We got items from townspeople and sold them in the store for a cut. Testing that model in an environment with very little risk was really helpful in giving me confidence that I could do something similar on a larger scale.
One thing I really took advantage of was this idea of being a student – people are so receptive to helping you. I also came at it with this sense of curiosity – I wasn’t someone trying to one-up the world, I was just someone trying to learn.
Did you ever feel pressure to go a more traditional route?
What were some of those jobs that you considered or felt like you were pressured towards?
At Williams there is a big consulting contingent and a lot of my friends were going into that. When you tell people, “hey I’m starting this company that has no funding and has done less revenue than your first-year salary” people kind of look at you and wonder what you’re doing. I’ve looked at it as following what I’m interested in and working hard on what excites me. There’s nothing right or wrong about any of these paths. But if you’re that type of person who has the itch for starting things and you’re worried that it’s the wrong time because you don’t have experience – that’s how it always is. The only way to do it is by taking the leap.
Taking a year to work on a project that you’re really passionate about as long as you catalog what you’re learning will only help you down the line. You learn more about what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, what you care about. You’ll have contacts in areas you didn’t know about before and they’ll help open doors for you because they know that you’re capable and smart.
There seems to be a mystique around young entrepreneurs as people who live fast and make it big. What has the reality of running your own business been?
It’s been really tough a lot of the time. For the first 8 months, I lived in a $300 per month apartment in Williamstown that had no heat. I would visit friends who were making a lot in New York and Boston and sometimes ask myself why I was doing this.
There are the hypersuccessful people like Mark Zuckerberg, and you can’t hold yourself up to those standards or you’ll go crazy. I think there’s a disconnect between perception and reality. What you read about in blogs and articles is people trying to build their brand – you can’t take it at face value because the fact is that starting a business is hard. Finding peers who are entrepreneurs like you is huge because you can talk about the challenges and they understand.
What role do you think Williams had in shaping that vision and providing you with skills to actually achieve your goals?
At Williams, I learned an ability to approach any subject and become an expert in it. That’s what being in startups is about. Communication and writing are also very important. Raising money or building a product is all about communication.
Finally, this idea of curiosity and lifelong learning is huge. Being able to approach a difficult topic without getting discouraged is something Williams teaches you.
Do you have any parting advice for current students or recent alums who are thinking about starting their own business?
Starting a business is really tough, but it can also be really fun. There’s no good time for starting a business so if you’re passionate about it, you should just start.
That said, you can be smart about how you start something. Think about it as ‘what’s the smallest experiment I can do to test this idea out?’ You can plan out what’s the appropriate amount of resources – both time and money – that you can devote to your idea and see where it goes. Doing that builds momentum and allows you to learn and grow. That way you get the benefit without the risk and downsides. From there you can decide that running a business is what you want to do with the majority of your time and really dive in.
Critically engaging and continuing to try new things and learn about new processes is what will allow you to get to a point 2 years down the line where you’re like, ‘hey, I really know what I want to do,’ but don’t feel pressured if that doesn’t come right away.
You can learn more about Designed Good at blog.designedgood.com.