Sloan Career Stories: In Conversation with Mihai Ciobanu (Sloan2013)

Sloan Career Coach Annette Minihan spoke to Mihai Ciobanu, Sloan2013, about his book of ‘little lessons’, his journey to entrepreneurship via LBS and his agribusiness venture.

You can watch the interview or read the transcript below.

How did you make the decision to apply for the Sloan Masters at LBS?

Well, I think like many of the Sloans that I’ve spoken to, it’s just the simple urge to change the world. I’m just trying to do something different. I really enjoy the corporate life. I was very fortunate. I worked in some amazing companies and with some fantastic people. But I felt I could do something more, I felt I could do something bigger. So that inspired me to to come to LBS. I commuted between Bucharest and London for two years because she was already here. So I thought I’d move over here and start a business – my wife is wise and she said, ‘ yes, but I’m just doing this executive MBA at London Business School and they have a program there for people like you and you should do that.’

So I thought being out of work for a year and not making salary for it and plus paying some fees is tough. Why? I’ll just start doing something. If you start doing something by yourself, you’ll do something small. Just go get perspective. Get to talk to people who are completely different from you. [My wife] was right, of course. So I got into the Sloan program in 2013, and it was phenomenal. We were just over 50 people from 26 countries, I think. Of course investment bankers, but also submarine commanders and helicopter pilots and a 60 year old heart surgeon behind me in class. It is just phenomenal. A phenomenal wealth of experience and I enjoyed that tremendously. So that that made a huge difference to my perspective. I moved to London with the very explicit written intention to start a global business. And I came to LBS to seek help.


Tell us about the business.

The business is called Fresh Forecast and we’ve created a niche. We’ve created a market because all the good ones were taken! So we created the market of forecast as a service in fruit and veg. Which sounds extremely niche and that’s on purpose, again it’s just perspective. If you look at start-ups in general, they tend to broadly fall into two buckets. One is high market risk, so these are things that sound strange for anyone in the world today. So someone comes up with an idea about a service that you cannot conceive of – that’s high market risk because you need to generate that. You tend to have very young people in that sort of bucket, because they tend to take the risk and it doesn’t really matter how much you’ve done before because no one has experienced that.

Then you have the other one, which are start-ups with high execution risk, so proven markets but where you really need to deliver and prove yourself. Most experienced people tend to go in that area because then you can really use that experience that you’ve accumulated over the years to try to build something better than other people, because you know the market is there, the market is proven. I went for the first bucket. I went for the junior division, so to speak! That’s because I thought by the time I figure out how to do this, it will take me quite a long time and I need that market to be patient with me, I need to have that time to build it up. So far it’s worked well! We’re still a small company, we are a start-up. We’re growing quite fast but there’s only a handful of people there working together. We think we’re making a difference in the sector where we work with some of the largest producers in the UK and in other countries. If you’re not in this sector, it just sounds like such a niche proposition in such a niche market. But agriculture is the largest industry in the world, and fruit and veg is a huge sector in that market.


I know you’ve had some interesting challenges. Can you talk to me about perhaps the biggest challenge you’ve had in setting up the business?

Yeah, we’ve had quite a few. Probably, one of the things I heard in Sloan at one point, one of the talks said, ‘you never know when you’ve had a good day.’ [The speaker] started talking about how he got fired and he took us through that story. It was a brilliant lesson. It made its way into my ‘little lesson book’. At the end of my Sloan here I had a list of lessons, and that was one of them. So I thought about that on this day that I’m about to talk about.

This was early 2016 and we had raised a little bit of seed money and had built a business to a very small beginning. We had a few customers, we were invoicing a bit of money and we had a technology platform. I had a brilliant CTO, and it was about six weeks before we were about to kick off a new investment round, and [she said] she was leaving. At that point, I had just hired a direct marketing manager to help us bring customers in, and I was counting on the CTO to build the technology. That was it, the three of us. I was focused on raising money to fund that operation and to fund the growth. That was a huge shock. So getting that email one morning was a shocker. But then I remember that one line. It took a while, but it turned out to be probably the best day I’ve had in this company because that forced me to take complete control over the technology part. That forced me to take what used to be a hobby, in terms of software development, for me to just learn that and have complete control over it. I then rebuilt the entire technology [00:07:30] stack after her departure and found someone else to work with, found another CTO, a brilliant guy who helped me take it further.


If you have any advice to give to the current students or those that are coming in to join us next year, what would it be about how to get the best of your time at LBS?

I think, the people around you. Whether they teach, whether they’re classmates or you just meet them at the Windsor or library. I think one of the lessons I had in my little notes on my phone was really to be interested, rather than try to be interesting. I think that was a very valuable lesson. I got a lot from just listening to people and trying to understand them, trying to listen to their story rather than waiting for them to shut up so I can say something funny. I thought that was really interesting and a big part of LBS. Of course we do that anywhere in the world but for me that happened here.



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