From MBA to Entrepreneur Part 6: Martin Aguinis, Clipjoy
Martin Aguinis was born an entrepreneur. Raised with an innate curiosity for culture and language from when he immigrated to the US at age 5, Martin was constantly focused on building and creating value for those around him.
Because of these traits, he managed to found two companies before he had even graduated college at Indiana University, learning valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, time management, and relationships. Whether working on Perfect Toys as an 8 year old kid, or building GreekRide, where he pioneered a ride-sharing app for fellow students, he was truly embodying the entrepreneurial spirit. These accomplishments, plus his work scaling Flutter, a new UI toolkit at Google, led to a prime spot on the Forbes 30 under 30 list and a 2019 Rising Star in Product Marketing award.
But Martin wasn’t satisfied with stopping there. Currently at Stanford GSB for his MBA, Martin has found and sold another business, AccessBell, to the Tata Group in India and recently co-founded a new company called Clipjoy: a platform for creating personalized video messages with every gift.
“After AccessBell, I wanted to jump right into something else. I was excited, had renewed energy, and was thinking about side hustle concepts. Startups are a pure emotional rollercoaster. [You] have to love the journey, both the highs and the lows,” said Martin.
Despite all his success, Martin is focused on enjoying the process and the small wins. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘I lived an amazing life, I just wish I had realized it sooner,’” said Martin. “It’s always important to celebrate small wins and appreciate every moment because your mentality is critical. I’m grateful to be in a country where I can build a business from nothing and succeed if I work hard enough.”
I sat down with Martin to hear about his path to entrepreneurship, his decision to start and sell a business during his MBA, the impact of Stanford GSB on his professional growth, and more.
To get us started, I’d love to hear about your background and history with entrepreneurship — starting from the toy company you started as a kid all the way through GreekRide and AccessBell to your current venture, Clipjoy.
My story starts in Argentina. I was born in Buenos Aires and immigrated to the United States at a young age because my dad was getting his MBA at the time. The goal was to come to America for two years then go back to Argentina after his studies. It was me and my twin sister in Denver at the time, while he was at Boulder commuting back and forth.
After those two years, for a number of reasons, we decided to stay in the US. Because I was exposed to such a new culture and language at five years old, I’ve always had this deep sense of curiosity. That feeling shifted to an urge to create and make things. After realizing how many people in my neighborhood enjoyed playing with toys, at eight years old, I put together a basic HTML website and launched “Perfect Toys.” While we made $38 before going bankrupt, this journey of identifying a need and solving it, seeing the smiles on peoples faces when given the toys, got me hooked. Perfect Toys made me realize my passion for marketing.
The experience also shaped me to see the world with opportunity. That almost everything around us that we take for granted was once thought up and built by someone or by some team. Ever since, I’ve had this intense curiosity to build and create value for those around me. Especially since in the US one can build a business from nothing and succeed if they work hard enough.
Early in high school, I got involved in DECA, the business organization that solidified my understanding of the business world. I ended up going to Indiana University because of the Kelley School of Business and that was where I got introduced to tech startups. In 2013, I was a fraternity pledge and I had to drive people around and it sucked. I met one of my best friends, Liam Bolling, who I’m actually working with on something now and we built GreekRide, which at the time was a brand-new concept to hail a driver through an app. I learned so much through that process — we spent three to six months building unnecessary things and I wish I could have read The Mom Test or Lean Startup earlier. We eventually gained thousands of users and before Uber came around were the leading ride-sharing app around. This got me excited about scaling technology.
I find it super interesting that you were able to take a personal pain point and turn it into a scalable business that quickly solved the problem. What major lessons did you learn from those experiences that allowed you to hit the ground running in future startups?
The first one is to be obsessed with the problem, not the solution. As a driver, I knew the exact pain point and with my other start-ups I also had a sense of the issues firsthand. I got a very good understanding of the space which limits how many assumptions are needed. So, I would recommend spending extra time making sure you understand the problem and validate that it is felt by several others. Also that there’s a large TAM and high degree of pain. Think about creating a pain-killer not a band-aid.
The other major lesson is the importance of who you work with. I’ve gotten really lucky that people like Liam, Ben, and Sam are friends who I’ve known since college. There’s a lot of trust and we’ve worked on several projects together. That makes all the difference when it comes to building something and being able to run with it. GSB is wonderful because you have all these incredibly smart people who come from different backgrounds and can bring a ton to the table. It’s always important to have a pre-existing relationship or good references to whoever you’re working with because it’s like a marriage and you end up spending just as much, if not more, time with co-founders than your family.
After your time at Indiana, you decided to join YouTube and Google. What was the thought process behind going into big tech as opposed to starting your own thing? What skills were you hoping to develop in that environment?
When I was in college, I wanted to be a management consultant. That was for two reasons — 1) everyone else wanted to be one and 2) my twin sister had gotten a job at BCG. I saw it was an amazing opportunity to work with different industries and build up my foundation, so I spent 8 months doing case interview prep and reading the infamous Case in Point. I ended up making final rounds with a couple of firms but was eventually rejected from all of them. Of course, I then had to scramble for an internship, and I considered doing more of the startup thing, but I felt like building a foundation first was necessary. I still had so much to learn and wanted experience at one big company or brand.
I started applying to different programs and with a bit of luck, ended up in Google’s BOLD internship program and got matched to the YouTube team working on VR. After the internship, it ended up converting to a full-time job at Google.
I had a really good experience working on start-ups in college and I encourage any student, whether undergrad or graduate school, to try because at the end of the day, you’re extremely de-risked. Everything’s in your favor — your professors want to help you, you have a collection of people around your age willing to test anything you build, and you have the student .edu email address to reach out to industry experts. It was amazing to make mistakes in college, but having industry experience ended up being really important to all the learnings I have now and how I run my latest startup.
You touched on some of the skills you’ve developed but I’m curious if you can touch on your experience as the first PMM at Flutter (a Google product) and how you helped the app scale from 0 to 2 million users. What was that experience like and how important was it to help you grow as an entrepreneur?
To build a beautiful skyscraper you have to start with the base and ensure that the foundation is rock solid. My time at Google was that foundation which enabled me to build upwards without constant fear of everything crashing down. Let me explain.
Once I was at Google full-time, I learned that the YouTube team didn’t have headcount for me and I was matched to this team called Flutter. I looked it up and found it was a developer tool. I’m not a great programmer so I was a little overwhelmed. One of my mentors, Mike Cassidy, who is a serial entrepreneur, told me recently that if what you’re doing doesn’t scare the s**t out of you, then it’s probably not worth doing.
I remember heading to the Flutter team as the first marketing hire amongst more experienced developers. The average age of the team was ~40 years old and there were roughly 30 others on the project. I’m sure many were thinking, “who is this guy fresh out of college doing ‘marketing’ for us — why do we even need Marketing?”. I remember this pressure in my mind to have to prove myself and earn the respect of the team… a seat at the table.
Looking back, I think that being placed on the Flutter team is the best thing that could have happened because it forced me to roll up my sleeves and realize that my superpower was the ability to see technical products differently. I made a video introducing Flutter that ended up getting more views than the Google I/O Developer Keynote that year, launched case studies with Hamilton / Alibaba / Abbey Road Studios among others, and spoke at conferences including Mobile World Congress in Spain, WeAreDevelopers in Germany, PMM World Summit in USA, and Google Developer Days in China. Eventually I had the autonomy to run global marketing and with the help of mentors, I was able to succeed in growing Flutter globally. The skills and experiences from this three year journey set up the foundations to how I run my start-ups today.
At this point, your journey was fairly corporate from a professional standpoint. What made you decide to go back and get an MBA, especially after starting AccessBell?
Initially, an MBA was never a consideration for me because I had done business undergrad. In fact, I only started considering it once my twin sister, Michelle, matriculated at Stanford GSB. I was seeing her experience this program, met some of her classmates, and realized what a rocketship this program was. The quality of people she’s surrounded by and the amount she was learning and growing was amazing.
I always told myself that if I get too comfortable in a job then it’s time to move on so after three years at Google it made sense to apply to Stanford. I would say I’m a very risky person, but I’m also thoughtful about hedging risks. I do think fear and scarcity leads to innovation but I value education a lot and know how helpful the support and network of an MBA is.
I got the acceptance call in December 2019 and then three months later, the COVID pandemic broke out. There are two schools of thought on this: one is, this sucks and I want to wait to go to business school so I could travel and meet more people. My thought process was on the other side: what an opportunity to go and still meet a lot of people and learn in a time in which otherwise I would have to sit and do the same job I was doing but in my house. So, I saw it as the best time to possibly do an MBA because the opportunity cost was so low for me.
The original plan was for me to stay at Google until the summer and then travel before my MBA. Because of COVID, I was in a house in Florida not able to go anywhere so I decided to quit Google early and start a company. I was getting constant messages on LinkedIn from people randomly asking for 15 minutes to talk about Google, Stanford, or just general advice. It pained me to go back and forth with messages to just get a time to meet so honestly, I was not thinking about building a company. I thought there was a clear problem that a lot of people need mentorship right now with COVID breaking out so let’s build an instant networking tool. We wanted people to be able to look people up, find who they wanted to meet with, and book a slot to meet with them for free mentorship (think Zoom, LinkedIn, and Calendly have a baby). Within a few weeks, we had two thousand users and a bunch of mentors from our personal network. The tool evolved with our company, and it was an amazing way for people to network.
As COVID continued, we realized that we can’t sustain this marketplace and looked for other ways to pivot the business. We had built a video component to this tool because of the frictionless aspect that ended up becoming incredibly valuable for instant video conferencing, no matter the bandwidth. When we saw how prevalent COVID was becoming and how important telemedicine was, we ended up realizing there was a critical use case. Through Stanford alumni, we were connected to Tata in India who was shopping around for a video tool for their newly formed health division and we quickly made a big pivot from networking into telemedicine. We were all passionate about making sure people can see their doctors and seek help at such a desperate time. I got very little sleep but to be honest it was a blessing to be able to go to bed with my brain hurting when nothing really else was going on. We ended up working on the company through our first year of the MBA before we sold it.
It’s amazing to hear how big of a factor serendipity plays in your journey. You had the time to build something like this, you had experienced the problem, and you had the skills needed to take this on. What was the thought process behind selling the company as opposed to continuing to build it as a standalone business?
Like Woody Allen said, “80% of success is just showing up,” so when you’re doing your MBA, I highly recommend going to the events, the club meetings, and the dinners even if you’re not interested in the speaker or the organization. You never know who’s going to be next to you and the conversations that happen in communities often occur just by showing up. I also love the saying that the harder you work the luckier you get.
Once we started the MBA, the classes and other commitments began to take a toll. The amount of studying we had to do each quarter was a lot. Of course, everyone said they don’t care about grades and we’re all Type A so of course we do. It was really hard to balance the company and the school throughout the first year. We were raising capital, going through demo days, and I had accounting tests the next day, so I was getting very little sleep. I had gone through a breakup and there was just so much going on at that time in my life.
I remember the hardest part was because our massive client was from India, I’d finally be about to decompress and go to bed and I’d get a WhatsApp message saying something’s broken. The time difference is brutal and of course if something is broken, it’s urgent because someone might not be able to see their doctor tomorrow. It became very obvious to us that this pace was not sustainable. I had to make a decision between dropping out of Stanford or selling the business.
I was hesitant to drop out because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a telemedicine expert, and I’m not from India. Given how big this client was and the expansion plans, we needed to focus on this use case. Secondly, my co-founders were also MBAs, so we were all struggling with the very hard scheduling and to grow the team in the US at the time didn’t make much sense. Finally, my immigrant family gave up so much for me to even get the opportunity to apply to the GSB let alone enroll, so I wanted to finish what I started. The Tata engineers were already so involved in our product that the sale and handoff process was quite smooth. We found that giving AccessBell a home there made a lot of sense and it was a good outcome for all of us.
You mentioned that your co-founders were also MBA students at GSB. How did you guys get together on an idea like this? What was the experience of working through this together during COVID and the MBA experience?
This is representative of the power of an MBA. While we were in the same GSB class, I was very marketing focused and Kamil had a CS background.
Then, we presented this to the COVID innovation lab for Stanford which was an incubator run by Josh Payne for COVID projects. He got so excited that he asked if he could hop on as a co-founder and that’s how the founding team was formed. Shortly after we got accepted into the Pear VC accelerator. We were almost on 24/7 as I’d wake up at 6 or 7 in the morning and they’d go to bed at 4 or 5 AM so it was almost a 24-hour cycle. It was an incredible working relationship and when we got back to campus, we were able to quickly move into a rhythm and make the most of the time we had between classes. I’m still very close with both of them and of course we have the GSB as a shared commonality that really bonded us.
In your latest endeavor, Clipjoy, you have decided to take the plunge with friends again as your co-founders. Tell me about this latest project.
After AccessBell, I wanted to jump right into something else. I was excited, I had renewed energy, and approached Liam who was thinking about a concept around memory preservation. I personally have a lot of passion in the idea of capturing more from loved ones as my great grandparents escaped the Holocaust. We were jamming on this idea to create a platform to easily capture people’s stories in a video tool that can then store videos and/or transcribe the conversation into a book. So, we started working on a project called Engram at the time, and we built a really quick prototype to test with people. We partnered with 25Madison, a venture studio in New York, which helped take care of a lot of other elements of the business that Liam and I, as full-time students and professionals, did not have time for. They helped with financial analysis, consumer research, and other key items. As we continue to develop the platform, we realized it would be hard for us to build direct-to-consumer because everyone has a million ideas on how they want to preserve someone’s legacy. We ended up pivoting to our current idea.
I think pivoting is crucial to my journey. Usually, companies have to pivot at some point to grow their company, so I’d advise people to just get started and you’ll figure it out. I always talk about the book, The Mom Test, which is great for just getting early insights.
Anyway, we ended up deciding on Clipjoy which is a way to add personalized videos to physical items. We realized that when you’re expressing these stories on gifts, it’s usually around 200 characters of typed text or a quick written note that gets thrown in a box. So, we realized we wanted to make this process more personal and partner with different brands. You know, when you get a bottle of wine or card from your mom, you could see her wishing you a happy birthday instead of having something written down.
That’s an interesting idea. How has the traction been so far? Will you pursue this full-time after graduation?
We’ve had several brands use our Shopify app where you can check that you want a video message and then create a video that gets added to the box as a QR code as well as just signed a partnership with a huge global brand. We’ll probably open up our seed round soon to expand our team, expand our resources, and strengthen our partnerships.
Startups can be emotional rollercoasters. The initial idea almost always shifts and then all of sudden you have these winds behind you to stick to it. It’s really interesting because you have to love the journey and it’s not for everyone. I have classmates who take a start-up class and decide it’s not for them — that’s totally fine. If you don’t want to dedicate 10+ years to build a start-up, it makes much more sense to go work at a more established company. For me personally, I just really enjoy the journey, the highs and the lows.
This may change in the future, if I have a wife and kids, but for now it’s something that I just thrive on. Maybe it’s the fact that I feel like I’ve already won by being in this country so everything else on top of this is a bonus. Some people try to force entrepreneurship on themselves, but unless you really are passionate about the problem and the people you work with, it won’t be fun.
You mentioned that the founding process is like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. One of the biggest challenges I’ve heard from founders is that it’s a lonely journey. How have you found outlets to support yourself throughout this journey? In a similar vein, what role did your sister play in this journey and how has she inspired you?
It’s so important to have a support system. Probably the best decision I made was to get a CEO and life coach last year which luckily was covered through Stanford. Entrepreneurship can be very lonely and challenging especially in a world where you’re not with colleagues or classmates in person.
With regard to my sister, I have a very special relationship. Being twins, we’ve literally been with each other before we were born. We’ve had such a great bond and we’ve gone through all these life transitions together. We went to the same undergrad, and she did GSB as well, so we’ve had a very close relationship.
I also think finding mentors that have nothing to do with your career are helpful. I would encourage entrepreneurs to find a mentor who’s doing something completely different. One of my best friends Ian is a musician in New York and we couldn’t be more different professionally, but we always are around to talk to each other about things and I think that’s really helpful to have a fresh perspective.
One last thing I’ll say is that when I was in middle school, my teacher told us to bring a wallet sized picture of our younger selves. He said that whenever you’re facing challenges and trying to decide what to do with your life, look at the photo and ask yourself, “am I making this little kid proud”. I’ve religiously used this question as a compass for the last 15 years. It’s really easy in life to get caught up in the day-to-day and get stressed out but having this picture is grounding and makes me feel grateful that I’m able to build a company.
You’ve touched on this before, but how do you feel like your time at GSB has helped you in your entrepreneurial journey — both personally and professionally?
My biggest priorities were to make a lot of amazing friends and meet great people, because people are there for the rest of your lives. My closest friends now at GSB will continue to be some of my best friends for the rest of my life.
The other thing is the classes themselves. I’ve found ways to maximize credits to work on my start-ups, so I’ve taken a number of entrepreneurship classes and recruited a lot of my classmates to work on Clipjoy with me. We have a first year Stanford MBA, Hayley Jones, working with us right now and she’s been fantastic and helped us lock in one of our key partnerships. The professors and alumni have also been incredibly helpful with connecting me and providing guidance and I’ll continue these relationships for the rest of my life.
Is there anything else you wish you had known before starting the entrepreneurial journey? Any advice you would give to MBAs who are aspiring entrepreneurs and thinking of starting their own venture?
The first thing is that there is never going to be enough. I’d tell myself that when I get into a good undergrad business school, I will have made it. That shifted to when I get into a big tech company, I will have made it. Then when I get a big award like Forbes 30 Under 30, I will have made it. There’s always a place in the human mind that adjusts baselines and makes you think that there’s something better. It’s important to celebrate the small wins and enjoy the journey because your mentality is key to building a company. Going from “I would be happy if” to “I am happy because” is a mindset shift that pays dividends. One of my favorite quotes is, “I lived an amazing life, I just wish I had realized it sooner.”
It’s important to realize that you’re never going to be this age again so worrying about what’s next or stressing about failing is not worth it. You have to enjoy the moment and celebrate all the small wins.
I advise MBAs to go to parties, meet new people and soak it all in because the moments you’ll remember are the ones with others. My first year was very stressful, but I mostly remember micro moments like when I played piano at a concert with my classmates or signed up for our MBA beer pong league.
Another quote that I love is “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person.” I feel like a lot of people complain about not having enough time or being too busy, but at the end of the day you can be really efficient if you’re passionate about something. Don’t let that kind of concern stop you from starting a company just because you’re busy with other things. I would say just get started — the more you wait, the harder it becomes. There is never a perfect time.
To wrap us up, what does success look like for you moving forward as a person?
From a personal perspective, I’m excited to move back to the East Coast, which is closer to my family. It’s so important to me to spend as much time as possible with them and having that flexibility is incredibly exciting. I’m thrilled about getting a chance to continue working on a company with the people on my team and from a professional perspective, I think I am more equipped than ever to build a successful company — continue working on Clipjoy, expanding the team, and seeing where this journey takes us. Hopefully, looking back in a couple years, I’ll be very happy with how much I learned and grew. If anything — I want to continue to make that little kid proud.