This past summer, Michael Khizgilov ’20 received a stipend to work at a startup through our Kathryn Stewart Fellowship Program. The Dingman Center asked him about his experience to give other students a preview of the benefits a startup internship has to offer.
Tell us about Sandboxx. What is the company’s mission and core competencies?
SANDBOXX simplifies the military lifestyle. Its mission is to keep the military community connected—and it does that in a number of ways. It helps people send letters to their loved ones who are off the grid at boot camp. It also helps parents find great travel deals and helps active duty members stay connected with their community. This all centers around the free SANDBOXX app. SANDBOXX was founded by vets and is leveraging tech to improve the military community—to serve those who serve us.
Tell us about your responsibilities over the summer at Sandboxx?
My responsibilities were focused on operations as well as marketing. I helped ensure that the operations process was running smoothly, with a focus on quality and efficiency. In addition, I was responsible for analyzing various stages of the operations process and finding ways to improve the quality and efficiency of the system, with great success. This type of thinking and focus on constant innovation is ingrained into the company culture, and I often find myself analyzing ways to improve my own daily workflow since completing the internship. On the marketing side, I was also responsible for writing blog posts and creating social media content. This process required me to truly understand Sandboxx’s mission and the expectations of its users. I feel that my marketing experience had a strong connection to the process of launching a startup as I had to emphasize with the end-user and understand their needs and pain-points. For example, in the case of Sandboxx’s Letters platform, I needed to fully understand the challenge that loving family and friends face in staying connected to their future service member during boot camp. As someone with limited prior exposure to the military, I had to truly immerse myself in the culture and history to effectively fulfill my role.
Why did you want an internship with Sandboxx?
Before anything else, I have to believe in what I am working on and know that my actions have an impact. During my entire summer at Sandboxx, I never once felt bored or that I was simply being given unimportant work to do as “the intern”. Everything I did had real importance for the success and growth of the company. Before I started my summer internship, I held a part-time role with Sandboxx, which started in January of 2017. At the time, Sandboxx was a fraction of the size it is now. However, even then, it was clear that Sandboxx would continue to grow into a blossoming startup. The company culture and processes needed for large-scale success were already in place. In my limited part-time experience, I learned more about starting a business than I did in perhaps all of my business coursework (this was exponentially multiplied during the summer). As someone who wants to start my own business in the future, I knew that this type of experience would prove invaluable in the future.
What did you hope to gain from a summer spent at Sandboxx?
I hoped to learn as much as I can about the challenges a rapidly growing startup faces on a day-to-day basis. As I previously mentioned, Sandboxx grew tremendously in the time I was there, and this type of growth meant that every day presented a new unique challenge. Going into the summer, I did not realize just how many moving parts there are in a seemingly small business. Over the course of my internship, I gained an inside perspective on how these different pieces work together to form a smoothly-operating business. Through my experience with the Dingman Center, I learned about the Lean Startup methodology and how to get a business off the ground. At Sandboxx, I learned about the next, equally as difficult, stage- scaling a startup while maintaining quality and efficiency.
What were your favorite aspects of your role?
In a startup such as Sandboxx, ideas can go from initial design to implementation in a day, and I learned about what it takes to properly plan and successfully execute a new idea. I loved having this opportunity to not only present new ideas, but work to make them a reality. Another aspect I enjoyed was the small team I worked with and tight-knit culture that spawned as a result. Each member of the team knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and felt comfortable asking for guidance or suggestions. This type of collaborative culture allowed for fast-paced innovation and quick flexibility to address any problems that arose. As part of the team, I worked right alongside company leaders, allowing me to exchange ideas and learn from their expertise. These company leaders carried a wealth of not only entrepreneurial experience, but lessons learned from their time in the military that are extremely relevant in the business world. In particular, the veterans I worked with were experts in performing and adapting under pressure, a crucial skill to survive the constantly evolving challenges of a startup.
Did you have any cool startup/networking experiences at Sandboxx?
The office I worked in is located inside of 1776, which is a co-working space that features a vast variety of different startups together in one space. Simply being in that type of environment is a very unique experience. The office was completely open with the entire team working in the same area. Other startups were all around us and it was a very collaborative environment that allowed for maximum creativity and teamwork unlike any other work experience I have had. Even when doing more analytical or technical work, a fun and open space as opposed to a closed, cubicle-filled office makes a positive impact on quality and productivity. This theme was present throughout the entire company culture. Although the operations center is a separate closed-off and secured room (to ensure user’s privacy and confidentiality), it still maintained the creative and collaborative atmosphere. Around the office, even those working on other startups had a genuine kindness and everyone felt united under a common goal and passion to make their goals and missions a reality.
What was the biggest adjustment?
This seems obvious, but learning how to work in a startup environment was definitely the biggest adjustment. I worked on small teams where every member cared deeply about the product and was given a large degree of autonomy. In a startup, there is no red tape to go through or corporate bureaucracy to navigate. A growing startup has no time to waste jumping through hoops. This was a huge upside for me, and allowed me to grow and take initiative on projects I cared about. However, it took some time to adjust to this level of responsibility. It was inspiring to see the impact I had on Sandboxx on a daily basis, but also daunting at times. When I came into the office every morning, no one was handing me an already planned to-do list. I had to make sure I was always on top of things, paying attention to every detail, particularly when it came to operations, as a mistake there would prove very time-consuming and expensive to fix. Once I adjusted to the unique environment, I was able to shine and execute projects I previously thought to be impossible. Overall, I had a truly powerful experience at Sandboxx, one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.