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Pung Speaker Series: What it takes to build a start-up from the ground up

By Vivian Tran, student writer
Thursday, March 9, 2023

On Feb. 9, the spring 2023 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series welcomed Michael Vichich (B.A. Finance ’06), founder and previous CEO of Wisely. The company offers best-in-class restaurant software to enhance the customer experience and drive profit.

Acquired by Olo in November 2021, Wisely grew to just under $10 million in annual recurring revenue between 2016 and 2021. Prior to co-founding Wisely, Vichich was senior manager at Accenture within its strategy practice, where he specialized in improving profitability, operations and customer acquisitions and retention for Fortune 500 companies such as American Express.

During his discussion with Broad students, Vichich provided a behind-the-scenes look into the early stage of Wisely, the journey he took to eventually make a successful product and some of the most valuable lessons he learned along the way.

“I learned in spades that my ideas are wrong often,” he said. “You have to have a team of people around you that are willing to challenge you and who do have good ideas; otherwise, it’s really hard.”

He shared that the first five years were not an easy feat. To understand the target customer and build an innovative product, Vichich recalled walking the streets of Ann Arbor, looking to talk to his customers — restaurant owners — and take note of their feedback and needs.

“A bad day with customers is better than the best day in the office,” he said, referencing The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank.

Among the many restaurant owners, he met the owner of a local pizza shop who expressed how he wanted to be more in touch with loyal customers. That encounter provided inspiration for Wisely. The start-up company was founded to help restaurants and businesses provide better, more personable guest experiences, which is reflected in Wisely’s slogan: “Goodbye transactions. Hello customers.” At that time, Vichich successfully signed up about 25 restaurants and about 10,000 users in Ann Arbor. He also made the flight to New York City to walk the streets of Manhattan, hoping to reach more restaurants.

Other valuable topics Vichich covered were team building and four big lessons he learned as a founder: approach finding a co-founder like getting married, choose a customer you love, think about 10–20 years down the road instead of just one year at a time, and know that you will make mistakes for the first few years — and that’s okay.

He reflected on the best people he’s ever worked with to share with students eight qualities in a great team member at Wisely: being caring, curious, a critical thinker, secure, forthright, an owner, autonomous and relentless.

“Getting that imbedded into an organization where every single human is thinking critically about the stuff that they’re doing, why they should be doing it, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it … that is really important,” Vichich explained.

“If you have the inkling, go for it. I think start-ups can change the world for the better.”

On the flip side, he also thought about the people who didn’t work out at Wisely and what the common threads were among those individuals.

“Being able to distill all the complexity into what matters now is critical,” he said. “I found people that wouldn’t break issues down into their component parts or that they would try to boil the ocean, try to do too many things or make things too complex.”

Collaboration and healthy disagreement were crucial to the success of Wisely. Vichich shared how he has candidly told his team that he is wrong every day and welcomed them to be thoughtful and to disagree when necessary. He leveraged the “How to Disagree” philosophy designed by Paul Graham to discuss effective practices to approach disagreement.

“It’s an empowering thing to have a culture where a brand-new salesperson can disagree with the head of engineering and a new engineer can disagree with a head of sales,” he said. “Two people in different departments with different skills objecting to one another and asking good questions, I think, is critical.”

In addition to scattering thought-provoking quotes throughout the presentation, Vichich recommended reads that he has found transformative throughout his career thus far to pass down to the newest generation of Spartan leaders: Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters, Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden, High Output Management by Andrew Grove, a guide to Mental Models on the Farnam Street blog, the Top 50 Resources on Product/Market Fit by Sachin Rekhi and every blog post by David Sacks and Paul Graham.

Vichich ended the event with words of encouragement for entrepreneurial students in the audience: “If you have the inkling, go for it. I think start-ups can change the world for the better.”

More information on upcoming events in the 2022–23 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.

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