Esther Dyson’s Way to Wellville Meets Muskegon: Michigan’s Unhealthiest County

Esther Dyson, created Way to Wellville to contribute to what's known about how communities can generate health.

Esther Dyson, created Way to Wellville to contribute to what’s known about how communities can generate health.

On the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, Muskegon, Michigan, has it all: recreation, festivals, a couple of Miss Americas, an Astronaut, actors, musicians, a U.S. ambassador, an NFL quarterback, a wealthy lumber baron, a TV evangelist and others who have achieved in broadcasting, science, technology, literature, and politics. However, the most densely populated city in Michigan (2010 Census, 38,000) has another side, not featured on the local Chamber of Commerce website: Muskegon fell to last in the state for public health. What happened after they hit bottom is when things got interesting.

I might never have heard of Muskegon had it not won one of only five slots for a ten-year cultivation program called the Way to Wellville, created by Esther Dyson. Together, the county is pulling together over a ten-year period to improve key health markers so it can figure out how this and other communities can support a healthier population.

About 18 years ago, Jeff Fortenbacher, now age 55, CEO, Access Health, returned to a suburb of Muskegon after attending college in Florida and spending time away. He got his masters in psychology, and set up shop not far from his father’s foundry, which manufactures metal castings for many different types of products.

Jeff practiced psychology for 10 years, gravitating towards and landing in management/administrative roles, such as his role at his local Health Department. He understands the importance of addressing the psycho-social determinants of illness or health. Muskegon is fertile ground to explore community instances of: alcoholism, depression, homelessness, hopelessness, mental health needs, smoking/tobacco/substance abuse, obesity. It was found to have the highest instance of smoking and obesity in the state.

Local Rotary Makes Community Health a Priority

When the town’s local Rotary made promoting a healthier community a top priority, “Then things started to happen,” Jeff says. “We, as a community started a program here called Access Health that was to provide a community health coverage program to lower income, working, uninsured people.”

Why so many uninsured —  and under-insured — working citizens? These are the mom and pop businesses and local contractors and freelancers who work hard every day but don’t have sufficient health care coverage to protect their savings in the event of a catastrophic event. Our approach was to leverage the person’s access to our healthcare services to say you have to be an active participant in your health care.

“We gathered and disseminated data in cooperation with local businesses, the health system, and other community leaders, from religious institutions to local, environmentally conscious groups,” says Jeff. It would help when they donated their staff time to assist with local county contracts.

Jeff applied the lessons learned from his home-care company. He thought, in a sense I have a problem because the symptoms are there for a reason, a lot of times those symptoms are there because of behaviors and other things that need to be addressed.

“As part of that we started to initiate a lot of different education classes, business processes that reinforce multiple interactions with that individual on a yearly basis and also starting to gather the data and metrics around their healthcare and healthcare issues and the psycho-social issues that impact that.”

Under the Access Health model, each person has an individual health coach whom they meet with twice per year. There’s some preventive care and they meet with an exercise physiologist or a trainer. They set goals.

Jeff got help putting the pieces in place from local community participation. He says:

“We have offered a full coverage health coverage program for the last 18 years. For the majority of those years, it was $44 for employees. Then, $44 and through the DISH and the hospital support we’ve covered the other 40% of coverage.”

It is better than overcrowding the Emergency Department, today’s correct term for Emergency Room. Maybe they’re hoping people won’t be able to find it? Under the current system, the hospital is still a profit cetner, rewarded a high dollar value for donating community services. A healthy, fun routine for diabetes prevention instead of waiting and having to amputate? Yes, please.

How Jeff Got on Track

As soon as Jeff knew what he wanted to do for the community, he had no trouble getting support from community leaders, from schools to religious leaders, to the people themselves in the first town hall of its kind in the area. He bought a home-care company. He says: “That’s where I really got on track. As part of the home-care company, I would implement the behavioral health part of stuff.”

Jeff thrives in his medical/psychological practice and likes knowing he is significantly impacting the entire community as part of an effort to “put grains of sand in the engine” of this giant boat that’s been heading in the wrong direction. It takes time to turn it and initiatives to make community behavior healthier.”

He based his practice on asking for referrals of the most difficult patients — the ones always calling their doctors for visits, but were non-compliant. They waste time and money without getting a handle on the factors that have a negative impact on their health.

Jeff says: “If someone’s depressed, helpless, hopeless, isolated, all those things going on why are they going to take their medications as prescribed? They aren’t. They aren’t going to go to treatments either. So, I would go in and we work with them on multiple different things, whether it was financial health, social health, or physical health. Jeff’s multidisciplinary approach required that people agree to engage with their health care.

Jeff’s strategy, individual tracking software, and coaching team for each individual’s active engagement in healthcare reduced spending an average of $70,000-$80,000 in home care services down in to the $15,000-$20,000 range. They kept track of people by requiring several visits a year and telephone intervention and/or personal counseling visits to discuss recurring symptoms. The idea, was not to note that health markers were deteriorating, but to do something about it with a health coach.

His Biggest Mistake

Jeff’s engagement/accountability model was a great idea. Less than a great idea was building his entire caseload around cases with the toughest patients, who required hundreds of initial visits to get them on their est chance for a healthier, sustainable path.

Treating significant psycho/social issues to address did not improve when the healthcare rules changed. People needed time, often hundreds of visits, to scope out a plan with which an individual could live a happier, healthier life. The data collected could help Muskegon with better community practices and leadership fueled by requiring individuals to participate in and take responsibility for their health.

Among the local pilots that didn’t make it long past two years:

Stay Active Muskegon (SAM), which established the expectations of more movement and how to get its community’s people more active as a way to increase local health. It had not been tied to engaging people in healthy routines and holding them accountable for more movement.

Things really started taking off when the local Rotary stepped up healthcare as a priority.

We started the #1 in 21 initiative, Jeff explains. The goal was to be the number one healthiest county in Michigan by 2021. “Well you wouldn’t want to aim for #3, that wouldn’t be as interesting.”

The town kicked off the initiative with a series of billboards that put two objects representing health and unhealthy choices per board — a running shoe and a recliner chair; a cigarette upright next to an asparagus stalk. It was part of a campaign that illustrated how small changes add up to a healthy life. Access Health software feeds in data from individual Fitbits and other devices to maintain a patient overview and early warning system. That’s when a coach is alerted to start a discussion with the insured.

“Under the current fee-for-service system, people chase CPT Codes, which prescribe every procedure a doctor or hospital performs. The CMS is starting to say, we can’t continue doing this. We need a value-based system. We came up with a software system and a way to assign a health risk score to each individual in our system. As they move to a capitated system, which provides a set amount e.g., $300 per member per month to manage this population, healthcare campaigns need optimization. Preventive care, education, support, and accountability are helping Muskegon make small changes that could add up to a community with a healthy population.

Esther Dyson and the Way to Wellville team brought questions to the table to help ensure there was a defined structure around the program — goals, processes, expectations, metrics, and review.

It’s a big topic. Over the past year, year and a half, Esther and Welville have helped the 1 in 21 team to clarify its goals and how it hopes to achieve them. “How are we going to keep it focused? What is the existing capacity — such as Access Health, and what specific things will they do? Led by 1 in 21 coordinator, Jamie Helsen, 1 in 21 will be adding some structure to the program, defining specific metrics, and then looking no just at the leadership but also at bringing the community along to support them.

To date, because of some of the things they’ve done Muskegon has been designated as a States Innovation Model Community/grantee. Esther herself has been instrumental in saying ‘You guys need to do things to get more focused. You have ideas but not total understanding of what it takes to drive and make the changes.’ She reminds us we are dealing with years and years of embedded behaviors and changing direction of a huge ship of generations of culture.

The Wellville Five and the Way to Wellville team will be talking about their progress and learning from their mistakes as well as their successes over the next eight years. By the end, they hope that others will be following their lead in cultivating a healthy population.

Posted in entrepreneurial community, Health, Healthcare, Healthcare technology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Community Champions: Brad Feld of Foundry Group & Esther Dyson of HICCup Talk Entrepreneurship & Healthcare


Brad Feld, co-founder Foundry Group, Boulder, CO, and TechStars, a global startup accelerator program.

Esther in suit

Esther Dyson, venture capitalist, philanthropist, and among other things, founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), enjoys the weightlessness of water during cosmonaut training.

Brad Feld and Esther Dyson are two of technology’s greats: Founding software and investment businesses early in the Internet age, they have been learning and building technology ventures since the 1980s, right as the U.S. transitioned to a connected PC in nearly every home.

Brad (born December 1, 1965, Arkansas, air force base) is a serial founder of technology companies, now based in Boulder, CO, bringing his experience into the investing world as founder of the Foundry Group and Techstars.

Esther (born July 14, 1951, Zurich, Switzerland)  is a New York City-based writer, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, focusing on investment in healthcare, government, digital technology, biotechnology, and space. She’s the founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), whose first initiative, The Way to Wellville, is helping communities understand how to help themselves be healthier.

These busy folks were kind enough to answer a few questions recently about how they are using their time and the projects they are currently tackling.

Who Is Brad Feld?

Brad was raised in Dallas, Texas. He’s the first of two sons of well-read, curious parents. Though raised in the Bronx, Brad’s parents are Texans at heart, bringing the family back to Dallas after moving around for the Air Force during the Vietnam war. After his father finished his medical residency in Boston, Dallas became the family’s new home.

Brad went to MIT and quickly learned he could make some real money writing software. By 1993 he sold the development shop he started (self funded) while still in college.  A Silicon Valley-based director of a “Big Eight” firm had first introduced Brad and I by email for a telephone interview for a publication I wrote. Brad had one foot in Boston and the other headed West for Boulder, Colorado. For the next twenty years we would speak or email on different topics for articles I was covering from time to time. He divorced, fell in love, remarried, learned to balance life, and then threw himself into the startup community in Boulder. He helped David Cohen found TechStars , a global startup accelerator and support network.

Brad got an enormous amount of experience as a founder and investor, both from his huge wins and, during the .Com bubble bust, enormous losses. Pushing the limits of social media, he channeled this experience, and the emotional roller coaster it came with, into a public discussion about the nature of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and founder depression. We have never met in person.  

What is your job? What keeps you going?

I’m a partner at Foundry Group, an early stage venture capital firm. I’ve been investing in startups since the mid-1990s, something I started doing shortly after I sold my first company. I’m deeply intrinsically motivated by learning and teaching, so as long as I’m doing one or the other I’m in a happy place.

What do you do during the course of your day that you enjoy most? What has the most impact?

I love to work on things that stretch my mind and make me think hard about new things. I spend a lot of my time in real time interactions so I particularly treasure time alone to work on what I want.

 What would you focus efforts on if you did something other that live/think between the present and future?

I wouldn’t change a thing about how I spend my time and what I work on. It’s endlessly stimulating to me.

What does being at the edge of innovation feel like? What is the closest you have been – a snapshot in time.

I don’t feel like I’m at the edge of innovation, but rather subsumed by an endless maelstrom of things that are constantly changing. The exogenous chaos swirls around and while I’m often caught up in it, I spend plenty of time in the calm in the middle of it – similar to the eye of a hurricane.

Which historical figures inspire you?

Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Warren Buffett.

 Any advice to your younger self?

Travel a lot more – throughout the world.

What’s it going to take to get TechStars to the Washington DC Metro area?   

I’m a fan of 1776 and an investor in the 1776 Venture Fund. I think it’s pretty awesome.

Techstars prioritizes geographic expansion based on a number of different factors. Most of it is “pull” from a particular geography – specific leaders in the startup community and certain companies that want to work with us. Take a look at our programs to get a feel for it.

Any hard-earned guidance for new entrepreneurs?

Spend time on things you care about. Avoid things you don’t.

Thank you for caring enough to spend time answering these questions, Brad.

Who is Esther Dyson?

Esther is a formidable, impact-driven doer. I met Esther last year when she was in DC to give a fireside chat at Healthcare Datapalooza about her Health Initiative Coordinating Council’s (HICCup’s) latest initiative,  The Way to Wellville. We share a passion for health and data and I had invited her to meet at the booth, but missed her. Heading home, I was about to step onto the Metro’s down escalator when to my delight she came up on the other side. In my iPhone I was carrying the PDF I wanted to share of an interview I had conducted with her father, respected physicist, Freeman Dyson, over 20 years ago.


The full interview with respected physicist, Freeman Dyson, appears in College Physics (Third Edition) by Serway and Faughn, Saunders College Publishing.

Like Brad, Esther loves to learn and teach. One of three children of a Swiss mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson and British-born American physicist, Freeman Dyson, Esther graduated from Harvard with a BA in economics. She started out at Forbes as a fact checker, quickly becoming a writer and researcher covering software companies for other employers. Her own company, EDventure Holdings, published a monthly newsletter about the effect of emerging technologies and markets as illustrated in the most interesting tech companies and projects of the time. She sold it to CNET Networks in 2004 and left CNET in 2007. In 2008 she paid Space Adventures to train as backup “spaceflight participant” for Charles Simonyi’s trip to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz TMAK-14 mission.

Esther actively follows space-related innovation and has also branched out to health. She has personally taken on answering the question: “What does it take for a community to be a place that produces health rather than erodes it?” Though not a perfect pilot study, activities around Way to Wellville are a great way to test, measure, and implement routines and best practices for maintaining healthier communities.  The critical need is to establish accountability for delivering the services and creating the environment.

What do you do? Is Way to Wellville top priority? Why?

Way to Wellville  takes 100 percent of my time and attention (and money).  And then I spend the other 50 percent on startup investing/mentoring, especially outside the US (Africa, Russia, Asia and then the usual places in Europe.)

If you weren’t working on The Way to Wellville: A Healthy Challenge to Create the Healthiest Communities, what else would you be doing?

Honestly, right now I can’t imagine doing anything else.  This is a moment in history; people are beginning to understand the value of investing in health, rather than paying the costs of repair through health care.  Our mission with Wellville is to show how to do (and to fund) that – and to demonstrate the positive impact.  

So, to answer your question, I’d do the same thing in a different way.  Perhaps I’d start an advocacy group to subtract the costs of health care from GDP, and to add the costs of health production (good food, mental health support, walkable communities, etc. etc.) to our capital budget instead of to spending (as we should also do for education, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure).

Who is your favorite entrepreneur, living or deceased?

I can’t tell you my favorites – it’s like asking someone to select their favorite child.  As for dead ones….  Steve Jobs, for all his flaws, inspired millions of people with his products (not so much with the man himself, which I think is an important distinction).  To me, people should focus on doing things, not on being a particular kind of person — the ends versus the means.

What makes you happy?

Well, two days ago I was flying in an ICON Aircraft A5, totally stable at 50 MPH, landing in Lake Berryessa and taking off again.  What will *really* make me happy is to be the pilot, not just a passenger.  Coming soon.

Thanks, Esther!

Neither of these folks will answer a question about what they want their legacy to be – and I’ve tried so save it. Virtue is its own reward, and it’s making things that each of them is after, and on a larger scale than most. For this work, I admire them and their efforts in building what is valuable, useful, and meaningful. 

Interestingly, neither one of these folks has ever lived in Silicon Valley.  


A different version of this post appeared in

Posted in accelerator, Community champion, entrepreneurial community, entrepreneurs, Healthcare, startups, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Entrepreneurial ICF Chairman & CEO

sudhakar Kesavan and Tien Wong seated

Sudhakar Kesavan, Chairman & CEO ICF International (L) interviewed by Tien Wong (R) for #Connectpreneur.

If you’re a well-educated entrepreneur who loves a good challenge you’ve got more in common than you might think with the Chairman & CEO of Virginia-based global consulting giant, ICF International, Sudhakar Kesavan. The down-to-earth executive is proud to have spent the past 33 years building a business with $1.13 billion in revenues.

The father of a recent college graduate, Sudhakar reflects on his entrepreneurial journey and the importance of empowering Millennials to initiate ideas that, with sufficient merit, could be adopted company wide. He understands the power of being personally invested and mission-driven work. He shared his own story and insights with a capacity crowd at a quarterly Connectpreneur networking event in Northern Virginia.

Embrace Changes & Challenges

What has kept Sudhakar going over the years has been the changing nature of the business and the confidence and competence to take on new challenges.

“You would get pretty bored if you were doing the same thing for all that time,” he says. “I didn’t have to change my job, the company kept changing. I stayed in the same place and did different things.”

ICF’s expertise and Sudhakar’s ongoing search for opportunity led to his first major entrepreneurial experience in the 1990s. He explains:

“Suddenly we found we were positioned well for some large federal contracts. Six of them were coming out worth over $600 million. No one could do them as well as we could. I thought if we could put together all the responses in a credible way we could win a bulk contract.  The first time we got a team of 10-15 people in a room and said we’ve got to bid on all six people thought it was crazy.”

He managed to convince 10-15 people to work about 90 hours a week for six months and they won six out of nine contracts.  “It was a home run! That was the first time,” he says, smiling. “Entrepreneurship is making something out of nothing.”

Learn How to Learn

There are many ways motivated individuals learn how to learn. Having a great education certainly helps. Sudhakar draws on skills acquired earning an MS from MIT, postgraduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and bachelor of technology degree (chemical engineering with distinction) from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.

Sudhakar joined ICF as a consultant, got into the management of consulting, helped with a leveraged buyout and then an IPO in 2006 with a secondary offering in 2009. He says:

I’m not a finance guy. I’m a trained engineer with some public policy knowledge. I found that you could learn that [finance] stuff very quickly and it wasn’t rocket science. As you get into these things, and you push yourself, you get to learn different things in different ways…I didn’t know anything about leveraged buyouts but it didn’t take six months and you know everything you need to know if you’re in the process.

Sudhakar has also learned a lot about acquisitions since leading ICF through 13 of them in the past ten years. This is not the time for on-the-job training without bringing in the experts. He can’t over-emphasize the importance of running due diligence scenarios of everything that could go wrong in an acquisition. For example, it’s not enough to know who at the target company has major customer relationships.  You’ve also got to know what happens should that person leave abruptly.

“I spend whatever money is required on diligence before an acquisition,” says Sudhakar. “What you learn at that stage is pretty consistent with what you could learn afterwards.”

Consider These Insights

Additional insights and success tips Sudhakar shared include:

  • Develop deep domain expertise. Sudhakar has seen the deep domain expertise of ICF teams and consistently delivering outstanding work in key areas speaks for itself and attracts business in these areas.  ICF International is known for its understanding of and work in government-regulated verticals, such as energy, health, and aviation. “Emphasizing the domain is very important,” he says. “It distinguishes your operation from everybody else’s.”
  •  Balance your portfolio with high-potential commercial work. ICF provides a lot of technology services, such as implementing e-commerce systems and providing digital marketing services through its digital agency business.
  • Keep ahead of opportunities by observing and reading.
  • Push out of your comfort zone. Apply yourself and enjoy the hustle as you push yourself and your team to figure out how to get things done.
  • Listen carefully. He says: “Try to listen and learn from what people are telling you and not telling you.”

That last point alone was worth the price of admission.

Connectpreneur will be taking its show on the road in the coming months to Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC.







Posted in Consulting, entrepreneurs, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Secret Ingredients in Georgetown Cupcake


Katherine and Sophie with Brian Park

The Georgetown Cupcake co-founders, Katherine Kallinis Berman (Left) and Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne (Right) with Brian Park, Director, Startup Grind DC.

Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne knew better than to invest in perishable commodities. After graduating from Princeton, she’d spent four years learning the ropes at global venture capital firm, Highland Capital Partners. She loved her job, but loved her own entrepreneurial passion more. Watching startups scale from the other side of the table solidified her decision to go all in as an entrepreneur.To the dismay of her Greek immigrant parents, she could not abandon the dream of opening the bakery she and her younger sister, Katherine Kallinis Berman, had talked about since they were children.

Since opening its doors on Valentine’s Day in 2008, Georgetown Cupcake has evolved into a multi-location destination “cupcakery” where people bring family and friends and linger to watch and smell the premium cupcakes being made fresh every day. As the U.S. plunged into recession, people embraced this affordable luxury brand. At Georgetown Cupcake, the inseparable co-founders keep finding ways to infuse their brand experience with their childhood connection to baking and playing at their grandmother’s house. They connect with their customers and have learned to adapt and innovate from day one.

Staying in Their Lane

Georgetown Cupcake’s success is a story about focusing on one thing and doing it really, really well. The business continues to grow with seven locations in DC, Bethesda, Boston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta and 400 employees who sell and ship an average of 25,000 cupcakes per day. It is a lesson in ignoring what competitors are doing, being true to your product and authentic self, making smart decisions about innovation, connecting with and listening to your customers, and putting in the hard work it takes for “luck” to find you.

The Sweet Early Years

For the sisters, good food and the experience that surrounds it was grounded in the tradition, love, and care they experienced following their grandmother around the kitchen each day as she cooked and baked from scratch. Their traditional, entrepreneurial Greek immigrant parents and grandparents lived a block apart in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and had dropped the girls off with their grandmother on their way to work. “She was our everything,” says Sophie.

Sophie loved her job, but when she turned 30 in 2007, she declared she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life wondering “what if?” By 2008 as the U.S. recession hit, she convinced her 29-year-old sister to quit a terrific job at Gucci and co-found the bakery they’d talked about for so long.

“The business didn’t go anywhere until Katherine quit her job and we both had skin in the game,” says Sophie. “She found our first location on Potomac Street in Georgetown while she was out jogging.” Though Sophie’s husband and Katherine’s future husband supported their decisions and helped prep and paint their bare bones bakery, the sisters were not surprised to hear the rest of their family’s collective gasp.

“Starting a business was not encouraged in our family,” said Sophie, who says her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology helps her explain the science of baking to her team, particularly the importance of the order of the ingredients and the properties they enhance. “Our parents insisted we go to college, work for large companies, or go into medicine or law. Our father said ‘people in our country are trying to get out of the bakery and go into big business and science. You’re doing the opposite!’”

Sophie knew that if she and her sister let the doubters get to them, they could lose sight of their dream. They agreed the time was right, they had no kids yet, and if they failed they would be ok starting over at new jobs. “I think all entrepreneurs have this spark inside,” she explains. “You know it’s in you, and you want to do it. We kept talking about it. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have it. We had the entrepreneurial bug early on.”

A Complex, Special Relationship

Katherine smiled, nodded, and chimed in patiently as her older sister kicked off their story at Startup Grind DC. She picked up the narrative to describe one of their first businesses when they were ages 3 1/2  and 5. They stood at the end of their driveway trying to sell rocks, holding their kittens to attract attention. “Our mother was our only customer.” By ages 6 and 7, the sisters make believe played everything together — from running their own bakery, restaurant, or clothing store to even their own advertising agency.

Katherine says: “Sophie was the creative director of the agency and I was basically her secretary.  She would ask me to file blank papers. I would pretend to answer the phone and say, ‘Oh, we got a call and this company wants us to do an ad for pizza gum.’ Then, Sophie would draw this big advertisement. It was like Mad Men.”

The complex, special relationship the sisters share has proven to be an asset in their grown-up business. They can fight and ten minutes later go get lunch. “We can speak our minds freely,” says Sophie. “If we don’t like an idea, we say it like it is. There’s no board room politics. That level of frank, honest conversation in business is an edge. We say to each other what we can’t say to anyone else and it helps our business.”

Day One: The Business Plan Goes Out the Window

When the sisters signed their first lease, the clock was ticking and the rent was due. They couldn’t get a bank loan so they bootstrapped with their savings, stretched their dollars, and maxed out their credit cards.The original plan was to take custom cake orders, use their grandmother’s recipes, and sell cupcakes in a variety of flavors to the occasional walk in.

“There’s no way to know how a business is going to go until you actually start,” says Sophie.

Katherine recalls that first day: “We passed our health inspection and were ready to open right before Valentine’s Day. We didn’t even have a sign. I have no idea how Sophie scrounged up the money, but she went out and got an $80 sign from FedEx down the street. That’s all we did. I remember baking in the kitchen at 4:30 in the morning and wondering if anybody was going to show up. That morning we opened and we had a line down the block. We sold around 800 cupcakes in three hours and made more. The point of sale company rep came to see if everything was working and we had him working the front counters, too…The next day, a few people even came out in their pajamas to wait in line because they had heard we sold out that first day and the line has not stopped since.”

“Our business plan went out the window on the first day we opened for business,” says Sophie. We did a year’s worth of growth in the first few months. It was crazy. People came in and wanted their cupcakes then and there and they wanted to leave with them. We weren’t set up to do that. It would have been easy for us to say ‘I’m sorry, that’s not the way we do business,’ but we adapt to change quickly.”    

Up All Night to Get Lucky

Here are a few more things nobody saw coming:

  • A glowing New York Times review. Several blocks away from their cupcakery lived a regular customer whose friend, Frank Bruni, wrote for the New York Times and was her guest when he visited Washington, DC. Six months after they opened, the respected reporter ended up writing a mouthwatering NYT “Dining Out” blogpost about being greeted by his friend with a pink box of a dozen assorted cupcakes and the magic of tasting one after the other. Their reputation spread.
  • The Washington Post selected Georgetown Cupcake’s Chocolate Ganache cupcake as the “Best Cupcake in Washington” as part of their “Cupcake Wars” feature..
  • Mommy joined the team. Their well-meaning and, at times, inadvertently hilarious mom — with whom they spoke two or three times a day while in college — started helping out in the shop. “She’s done so many crazy things you could write a book about it,” says Katherine, recalling the time she had locked herself in the refrigerator for about a half hour because she didn’t know you push a knob for emergency release, or whipped up a Halloween treat that never made the shelves — chocolate garlic.  
  • They were interviewed by bloggers, Georgetown University students, people posting random videos on U-Tube. The sisters said “sure” to anyone who walked in and asked.
  • A producer wandered into their cupcakery and recognized the potential in the behind-the-scenes drama, chaos, and creativity that became a hit series on TLC called “DC Cupcakes.” It opened the doors to more opportunities, such as becoming bestselling authors of The Cupcake Diaries and Sweet Celebrations, and catapulted them into a national brand.

Catapulting to Stardom

Katherine recalls the day the producer had seen the line at their Potomac Street location and thought the shop was giving away free stuff. She says: “This guy got in line and saw me packing the cupcakes, Sophie was covered in flour and sugar, and I think he saw my mother come out and yell at me in front of everyone.” He asked some questions and came back the next week, and asked if he could film there for the weekend. “He came with just a camera guy,” says Katherine. “It was a crazy weekend. We were under pressure making cupcakes and a wedding cake for one of the editors of Style Magazine in New York, plus, I think it was homecoming weekend at Georgetown University so we had a line down the street and it was pure chaos in the store. Sophie and I weren’t from the TV world so we didn’t know what a production company did. He filmed, cut the footage, and submitted it to TLC and before we knew it they picked up the first season of “DC Cupcakes” as part of their reality food show series and started filming in our bakery.” Katherine’s favorite episode shows Sophie making her 10-foot wedding cake. Sophie loved baking with the Pentagon chefs to donate 10,000 cupcakes to the U.S. troops overseas, which they have done for the past five years. They even made a tank of cupcakes that the Joint Chiefs of Staff “fired” in honor of the Military’s anniversary.

It turns out, people like things that are real, not perfect. Viewers tuned in to see the business owners’ creativity, honest relationship, anxieties and mess ups play out. Sophie says “That first summer, we had a lot of people making road trips across the country who came to see us. It made us a national brand. People came in from different countries. We never thought it would connect with so many people. We got a number of letters, especially from young girls who said “I love your show; here’s my business plan.”

Tips and Great Decisions

  • Adapt to change over time, but stay true to your core business philosophy. Georgetown Cupcake bakes fresh every day and creates a very personal experience and customer connection. It helps when you’re creating custom cakes for major life events.
  • Engage your customers. The Georgetown Cupcake locations distribute 100 free secret new flavor cupcakes each day to solicit customer feedback. The sisters connect and share personally with their followers over social media.
  • Learn from your customers. Early on the sisters noticed customers would come in with boxes so they could ship cupcakes to their friends. Organizing a better shipping method to ensure the treats arrived intact helped launch the company’s successful gift shipping component.
  • Collect business data to make decisions. says Sophie. Year round sales data tells the team how much of each flavor cupcake they sold on specific days and times to know what to bake the following year. They used shipping destination data to decide where to build their brick and mortar businesses.

This coming Valentines Day on the 8th anniversary of their opening, the sisters launch a 24/7 live stream on From live cameras placed throughout their flagship bakery in Georgetown, viewers can watch everything live — from the mixer to the oven to the frosting and cooling racks to the packing of the cupcakes in boxes — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Sophie adds: “We’re always looking for ways to connect with customers and share what we do. Now, you can watch everything happening at our bakery live. You never know what’s going to happen!”

Final Thoughts

What advice do the sisters wish they had gotten when they were starting out?

“Don’t give up,” says Katherine. “There are so many times over the course of starting and growing a business you’re going to want to throw in the towel and say it’s too much, I can’t do it.  It’s great to have a support system.”

“Don’t be afraid to take really big swings,” says Sophie. “I think when you’re starting out as an entrepreneur you have that mentality but it gets a little harder when you expand. But, you have to do it because that’s ultimately how you grow your company. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s very scary, it’s hard, and it gets harder. After we got started, I thought when is the day going to come when it gets easy and everything goes smoothly and that day doesn’t exist when you’re an entrepreneur. It doesn’t get easier, it actually gets harder when you grow and that’s a good thing. Learn to embrace and enjoy the uncertainty of it because that’s part of it and you’ve got to learn to live with it and love it because that’s going to be your life.”

And, don’t forget about family. Life has come full circle for the sisters, with their mom now the “granny nanny” for Katherine’s three-year-old daughter. They love to bake together.

Happy to have published this post first on
Posted in DC Metro Area Startup Community, entrepreneurial community, entrepreneurs, Mentoring women, startup grind, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Decision Lens CEO Targets Emerging IT Prioritization Market

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

John Kealey, CEO, Decision Lens, describes to Connectpreneur organizer and serial entrepreneur, Tien Wong, his balanced approach to an emerging business-to-business software market.

John Kealey, CEO, Decision Lens, describes to Connectpreneur organizer and serial entrepreneur, Tien Wong, his balanced approach to an emerging business-to-business software market.

Decision Lens CEO, John Kealey, started his career as an accountant at what was a Big Eight accounting firm. “It taught me to view opportunities through a disciplined model,” he says. That model has come in handy to maintain perspective on old patterns as new markets emerge and mature. John is on a mission to serve an emerging market for software tools that Decision Lens’ IT clients requested and research firms, Forrester and Gartner, published Research on in July 2015.

Decision Lens’ new software – Smart Portfolio – helps enterprises make smarter, top-down portfolio decisions for customized scenario planning, smart portfolio analytics, and dynamic resource balancing. Businesses already use software to measure existing operations and were outgrowing their Excel spreadsheets when studying  future scenarios.

He told the crowd at his featured chat with Tien Wong at Connectpreneur’s winter meeting: “Now, Decision Lens has to remain patient long enough to capitalize on the market it is creating.”

John is confident the market needs the product, but Decision Lens needs the staying power to prove it.  He observes:

“The mistake I have seen companies make in emerging markets is being too aggressive, too early. They invest too far ahead of the market, which can result in financial challenges.  We won’t suffer from that. We will be patient.”

Finding the right balance

The challenge is to balance, not be too aggressive or too conservative when selling business-to-business software.

“The best way I have found to strike the right balance is to clearly understand who is buying your product, an early adopter or a pragmatic buyer.  An early adopter will buy the vision of what is possible and the pragmatic buyer will buy ROI.  You can normally tell them apart by the questions they ask in the buying process.  Don’t let early adopters get you so excited you invest too early, for example, by adding sales people and increasing marketing.  Be patient and wait for the pragmatic buyers; then be aggressive.”

On the plus side, serving a new market is more interesting to John than trying to compete in a market with well-established players.  He says: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just don’t prefer it.” John learned from working in the early digital paging industry (considered the birth of mobile) that he does not want to compete with a commodity.

Timing can be critical

Tech history is littered with the remains of companies that hit the market too early or too late.

“The discipline I got as an accountant will always make sure I pay attention to the first rule in business.  The first rule in business is, of course, — be in business.”

Sometimes, a competitor has too great a lead. In his previous role, John was brought in as CEO of Vivisimo, a struggling startup company that specialized in developing computer search engines.  In 2010 he helped the team agree there was more value in selling its public web metasearch engine with document clustering to Yippy, Inc., than battling alone for position in the marketplace.  In May 2012, IBM acquired Vivisimo and branded it as IBM Watson Explorer, a product of the IBM Watson Group.

“It is better to be bought than to be sold,” John says; then channeling his inner accountant he adds:  “Having your financial and legal house in order is essential before the deal when you’re competing with time.”

JohnKealey hands

Decision Lens CEO, John Kealey, explains it takes patience to create in major new markets.


Decision Lens started as a platform software, which means covering any use case or situation with broadly focused software.  John says: “We are continuously conducting research on a number of different use cases to find our biggest market opportunity to then build a targeted product around.”

Some Decision Lens Smart Portfolio users include:

Mondelez – Making important decisions on the technologies they invest in to make their candy products more appealing and sell more.

Amtrak – Strategically selecting the initiatives and the vendors they’ll use to implement them to make their trains more customer friendly and sell more.

Utah Transit Authority – Reducing their planning time from weeks to days, speeding up their process and getting money to where it’s required faster.

John  concludes: “When Gartner and Forrester cover a space in detail, it’s a good sign to us that the market has great potential.  We think it’s the biggest market out there right now.”



Posted in Software, IT Prioritization, startups, business timing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Second-Generation Geek

Christine Churchwell (top right) is the Marketing Director at Tech 2000, an education technology company her father, George Churchwell (left) incorporated in 1991. Like many, Christine has more than one job at her company. She’s nurturing two-year old training and sales support apps: appnetic and Lumious by fiddling, building, supporting, and improving native and web-based apps at the 32+ person company her dad founded in northern Virginia because her mother, Jeanne Churchwell, is from there.

“My mom comes from an operations background and has always been an entrepreneur. She’s sold jewelry and image consulting and has worked for McDonnell Douglas on the operations side.”

Christine describes her dad

“In the 1980’s, late 70’s, my dad was a techie, geeky guy always fiddling with weird networks and computers. He was one of the people certified to teach CRS3, a super technical piece of Cisco equipment. He became a trainer on how to use Cisco hardware, a documentation writer — he helped write Cisco’s early training books —  then he hired other people to do the training and write documentation.”

“Today, my dad runs the sales side of the business and the lab area. He’s always massaging tiny ideas,” said Christine. “His favorite thing to do is invest in things on Kickstarter.  He’s always seeing connections in things.”

George Churchwell is a training Jedi Master passing along startup secrets to his daughters. This latter-day guild artisan is passing his craft onto the next generation.

Growing Up with the Business

Since age 16, Christine and her younger sister, Jackie, have helped out at Tech 2000 earning allowance doing things like “emptying whitepaper trash,”  (Happily, the position is obsolete in 2015.)

Since graduation in 2009, she has added a favorite part of her experience, mobile app development and tweaking of expertly-designed training apps in the company’s innovation workshop.  Her younger sister, Jackie, does recruiting HR and manages about 8 interns a year in a paid intern program.

New Spinoff Apps

New native and web-based training apps 1. appnetic and 2. Lumious make it easier 1. to manage marketing and sales resources and promotions and 2. add Artificial Intelligence to self-directed on the job training tools.

What Appnetic Does

Appnetic delivers relevant content to your sales team. Its platform enables quick search on web or mobile devices, prompts interaction, and gathers data on content performance for timely updates.

Customized Dashboard

Appnetic can be customized with company colors, logos, and icon.  It is meant to be used in the field with prospects or clients. The platform can be used to manage materials to support the sales and marketing process.  It helps:

  • Prepare sales reps fully with updated collateral materials for calls
  • Direct the proper sales process
  • Get new sales reps and account managers up to speed quickly
  • Leave an audit trail for how marketing collateral and presentation materials are use
  • Provide a feedback mechanism on marketing collateral
  • Efficiently push information into the field.

Christine says: A salesperson stopped by to see me and I demonstrated the app’s search accuracy and a salesperson said: ‘That’s great. Yesterday, I looked on my laptop for about a half hour for that document.'”

It also focuses on gathering feedback and measuring most-referenced material. It facilitates regular updates of the most-valuable marketing materials and provides additional answers. It is still a managed service as opposed to a serve-yourself app.


The Lumious SaaS offering captures data and provides analytics and insights on all learning activities, incorporating those of virtual and mobile learners. Corporate learning and HR departments can use this to identify outperformers and underperformers very early in the training process, provide remediation, and personalized learning.

The Love Train

The way Christine sees it, her parents met at work somewhere, fell in love, and got together to build their own company. “Dad and mom balance each other. Mom’s the perfect Ying to his Yang,” she says.

Tech 2000 has been a Cisco Learning Specialized Partner CLSP since the mid 1990s, producing for Learning@Cisco, online training for customers who use their product. The large number of products to sell by a large number of salespersons made mobile apps to keep current sales material within reach.

This past September, Tech 2000 raised $3 million that it will deploy to complete the apps’ self-serve version.

Tien Portrait

Tien Wong joined Tech 2000 as CEO in May 2013. In addition to his role as Chairman, Lore Systems, and investor with Opus8, Inc. He is Entrepreneur in residence at University of Maryland’s McDonough School of Business.

“We’re super excited about this funding round, which will allow us to aggressively expand our appnetic and Lumious enterprise software as  service businesses,” said Tien Wong, who led an investor group to acquire 90% of Tech 2000 in May 2013, and became Chairman and CEO.

Award-Winning Innovation

Tech 2000 has won the CISCO learning partner Innovator of the Year award for the past six years. Christine laughs when she tells you this past year Cisco changed the name of the award to “Partner of the Year, because  “…they said we just can’t keep giving you the award every year.”

Tech 2000 expanded its training-facilitation services to HP, and other large organizations with an immediate need to streamline its most effective marketing information by creating software to keep it organized, monitor and assess its content and use, and keep updated, sending push notifications to update.

Their feedback helps to refine the app and identify desired features and experiences. Lean startup meets Santa’s workshop.

Posted in Geeks, mentoring and sponsoring milennials, Mentoring women, Training apps, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy 2016 Entrepreneur’s Holiday Card

Dear Entrepreneurial community,

Thanks for another great year.

This 2015-16 Holiday card is for you

Entrepreneurs pursue ideas worth the occasional chaos.

three figures jumping

hooman radfar seated

Hooman Radfar tells the crowd at Startup Grind DC: “The challenge for investors dealing with really smart entrepreneurs is they sound like they know what they’re doing, but they have some areas where the’s not depth.”

Whatever you do this year, enjoy it. Life is shorter than it looks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment