Ishan Sharma and Krystal Lam met as teammates at Quarter Zero’s Catapult Incubator, where they worked on HS Mixers. Krystal, a longtime entrepreneur, applied as a Free Agent, hoping to put her passion to work growing a venture. Ishan, co-founder of HS Mixers, applied to the Catapult Incubator because he wanted to expand HS Mixers beyond its hometown. Three years later, Krystal and Ishan are still growing HS Mixers, along with other QØ alumni.
We asked them a few questions about how they’ve grown since going through the Incubator, their thoughts on entrepreneurship, and their advice to other high school students who want to launch a startup.
What is HS Mixers?
Ishan: HS Mixers is a high school dance hosting service. We throw mixers for students across the California Bay Area. I co-founded it with my partner Raaghav Minocha from Lynbrook High.
Krystal: HS Mixers creates a balance between safety and fun. Our events are securely held, but still have all the elements that high schoolers are looking for: no adults, networking, and dancing. To date, we’ve sold out every event we’ve hosted and continue to scale across the West Coast. We’re expanding to other cities soon, so look out for updates!
How do you know that HS Mixers is going to continue to be successful in the future?
Ishan: During our time at Quarter Zero’s Catapult Incubator, we got our dance-hosting model down to a science. We know how to acquire customers, how to tell if our events will be well attended, and more. We put together a playbook that shows all the steps needed to host a successful mixer. And we have the funds to help jumpstart it in an area – maybe your area!
Krystal: Our profit margin is 40%. Our reach is incredibly wide – this isn’t a case of just one school bringing in a ton of people. So far, over 40 different high schools have been represented at our mixers.
What were the challenges you faced at the beginning?
Ishan: We were really good at holding dances in our area, but didn’t know how to replicate our mixers elsewhere. A few questions posed roadblocks: How would we find a trustworthy host for these mixers? Would our model even work in different places?
How did you overcome those challenges?
Ishan: With the help of QØ, I was given perhaps the greatest gift for this venture: a team.
When we faced replication issues, my team and I decided to log every single task that we performed during our “Heartbeats” mixer in March, and Krystal compiled a playbook. Our teammate Yonatan created the vision for our events. Lawrence digitized the ticket sales. And our teammate Linh ended up using our playbook to host a profitable mixer of her own, using our money and business model in Olympia, Washington, a new market.
What would you differently if you could do it over again?
Krystal: If I could go back in time, I would build up a strong brand before we started expanding to other domains. I think that a stronger brand would better establish the HS Mixers operations. But I also realize it’s hard to build a brand before you actually throw events. It’s sort of a chicken-or-the egg thing.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Krystal: TED Talks and GrowthHackers.com, reading about the successes and challenges of different companies.
Ishan: For leadership guidance, author John C. Maxwell. Author Liz Wiseman for more leadership guidance. The Lean Startup is a must-read for any aspiring entrepreneur. TED Talks: There are new, innovative ideas are going up there all the time. And my friends, who are constantly spouting problems (opportunities!).
What’s your biggest piece of advice for other high school students starting a business?
Krystal: Always take chances and keep exploring different ideas and hypotheses, even if they’re a little unconventional. There are many challenges and struggles as an entrepreneur, but learning and growing from them is half the fun!
Ishan: Don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, you should fail – that’s how you improve. As Thomas Edison said while trying to find the right filament for a lightbulb: “I have not failed, I have simply found 1000 ways that don’t work.”
You’re both in college now. Any advice for students trying to balance college life and running a business at the same time?
Ishan: Some might say that you’re too busy learning in college to focus on entrepreneurship, but think about about it. College is a safe space, isolated from the world. In a sense, it’s the perfect “incubator” for you to explore in. You can use entrepreneurship wherever you go. Protoype your dinner ingredients to see how you can make the best meal. Ask folks what they think about the event you’re putting up (feedback loops!). Build a network.
Krystal: Personally, I chose a college that invests heavily in entrepreneurship, and has the resources to support student ideas. That basically speaks for itself. You will find the time if your college can find the time.
Can entrepreneurship be taught? Or is it in your blood?
Krystal: Entrepreneurship can definitely be learned. The path for an entrepreneur is hard. A successful entrepreneur spends countless hours with a wall covered in 20 million Post-It’s with 15 million different ideas and hypotheses. Then you have to build a product, gather resources, create an MVP, or Minimum Viable Product. And then you have to test those ideas and hypotheses to see if they’re actually viable. If not, you pivot, and go back to the wall and your Post-It’s to do it all over again until you’ve successfully created something you’re proud to sell.
Ishan: I think it sprouts from the kind of passion that drives you to grab the reins of a problem and to explore until you find a solution. I think that passion is in your blood.
How did you get interested in entrepreneurship?
Ishan: For me, it was the intersection of helping people and making money. In 6th grade, my friend and I made “I Heart Samosa” bracelets right as the “I Heart Boobies” bracelets were surging in popularity. We had a big Indian population in our school. We sold them by the dozens! I love the satisfaction of being able to make my own money and be independent.
Krystal: I caught the hustle bug in the 4th grade. My teacher had implemented a fake money system for our classroom. The more money you earned from the teacher, the more prizes you could buy. We earned money from turning in homework, participating in class, etc. But I decided I wanted to earn money another way, so I started selling snacks from my desk during breaks. At the end of the year, I was the richest person in the classroom. Ever since then, I knew I had a knack for business.