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.

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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.”



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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.

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The Pitch Man: Lessons from 10,000 Pitches from Dan Gordon of Valhalla Partners

dan and book

Dan Gordon, Tech Partner, Valhalla Partners in Vienna, VA, shares his epic adventures in Silicon Valley with the startup community in the Washington, DC, Metro area.  

When it comes to startup pitches, Dan Gordon might just have heard them all. In over a decade as technology partner at medium-size venture capital fund, Valhalla Partners, Dan estimates he’s heard at least 10,000 pitches. That’s about three to four 30-minute pitches every working day for ten years. What’s cool about Dan is that, despite his vision, he remains approachable and has the patience to share the insights gained as a VC, and as a long-time Silicon Valley tech guy, with aspiring entrepreneurs in the Washington, DC, area.

If you can’t wait to find out how to perfect your pitch, you can scroll down and click on his slideshare “Intelligent Pitching for Techies.” Not sure you’ll want to miss the rest of this post though.

You can learn a lot about people by asking about their heroes. Dan admires Greek legend, Odysseus, best known as the modern/complicated protagonist of Homer’s epic ten-year journey depicted in The Odyssey. Perhaps the perilous-but-rewarding adventure reminds him of his own 30-year journey through Silicon Valley’s tech world that led him back to DC.  

In November 2015, Dan explained to the crowd at Startup Grind DC:

“Odysseus was wily. Athena said to Odysseus with admiration, ‘You’re almost as wily as I am,’ and that was high praise. Against impossible odds he longed to get home — as I do tonight — and he had to weave through Sirens, Cyclops, Circe, and all kinds of stuff.  And, he did!  He did it with a combination of guile, wit, and compassion.  He was a mensch.  He did a good job.”

Critical to success is learning to persuade others to support your idea. Before his journey, Odysseus convinced 50 Greek warriors to hide inside the legendary Trojan Horse to penetrate an enemy’s fortress. As a kid, Dan had a bit less success convincing neighbors to buy the 400 seed packets it would take to earn the chemistry set advertised in a comic book “so that I could make things that stunk and blew up…” but the experience taught him to respect the tough jobs of sales people. Eventually, he says, with a brand of self-deprecating bluster, at times reminiscent of comedian Lewis Black minus the anger, he “learned you either sell or you work for someone who sells. A star was born!”  

The Tech Pioneer Days

Dan was raised in Washington, DC, from the age of three when his father, a doctor, moved the family here from San Francisco for a temporary fellowship that turned into a 50-year sojourn. Before and after earning a B.A. in Mathematics and Biochemistry from Harvard in 1972 and nine years later earning a Master’s in Computer Science from New York University, Dan followed his love of building things in Silicon Valley, first in hardware; and then writing software until the late 1990s.

He explains: “Ordinary people just didn’t write software ‘til Steve and Steve came along.”  

He described the earliest culture of programming mainframes as a priesthood housed in over-air-conditioned spaces with raised floors and punch cards.

Of all of the software he wrote, Dan says he’s proudest of being part of the team that built Quickbooks, Intuit Inc.’s software for individual financial management. What was great about Quickbooks was his friend Ridge Evers’ concept that you could actually make billing simple.  Every other person in the market did the opposite, made billing as complicated as possible.

He jokes: “It’s probably going to go on my tombstone: ‘He made billing a snap.’”

By 1998, Dan had been part of several successful tech companies, but felt it was time to launch his own business so his future didn’t require competing on price with programmers in the global tech market. He learned that being employee #1 or #2 was much harder than being #50 or #100.  He acknowledges there were times he was blindsided in trying to launch several endeavors by failing to recognize associated risks.

After trying to launch a startup that didn’t start up he admits: “I washed up on the shore like Tom Hanks in Castaway.”

He changed course and spent the next five years analyzing tech markets for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).  He also worked on his pitching skills:

“We used to go out and pitch our services to venture capitalists, we’d try to get tech diligence gigs, which, believe me, is a waste of time…We had much better luck with private equity firms, who are writing much bigger checks and are much more humble about what they know.”  

The Outer Game: The Akido Approach to Fear and Greed

During the years pitching to investors, Dan, a psychologically minded guy whose father and wife are both shrinks, deepened his insight into understanding investors’ hidden motivations and fears. He says:

“Investors are bipolar — it’s fear or greed and there’s nothing in between. The sad thing is that you can oscillate back and forth between fear and greed really easily.”  

The challenge is to inspire investor greed by draining away the investor’s causes for fear.

Aspiring entrepreneurs can begin doing this right from the start:

First, Get Introduced

Always get an introduction to investors from respected professionals who understand the market and know the individual firms and what they look for. Valhalla gets referrals from other respected professionals, such as accountants and lawyers like Cooley’s Mike Lincoln, DLA’s Jeff Lehrer and others.

Next, Get to Know Investors Before You Need Them

Get to know investors when you don’t need the money. Let them know what position you’re going to be in X number of months and why it will require their help for things like expanding into new markets. Return as predicted with milestones met or, preferably, exceeded.

Dan warns that the very thing you say to make investors feel greedy, can make them fearful.  For example:  

What you might tell an investor to stimulate greed:  “This market could get to be as big as Google’s.”  

What the investor might hear: “Google can be your competition.”   

Last, Connect by Being Yourself

Dan’s journey changed course towards the money side when pitching PwC services to Valhalla Partners. When asked what he thought about the security business, Dan gave what he says turned out to be an inspired answer:

“I said: ‘People don’t give a damn about security, they give a damn about appearing to be secure.  They’ll pay almost anything to seem to be secure, but they won’t actually do much to really be secure.’ They loved that. They thought it was edgy and right on and showed that I wasn’t afraid to take a stand.”

When Valhalla raised their first fund they said they had a role on the team for somebody who understands technology and markets, then offered Dan the job. Dan observes that his path into the VC world is the exception rather than the rule. He explains, all kinds of people sneak in through investment banking, but the gold standard is still to have been an executive at a successful startup.

The Inner Game: The Secrets of Intelligent Pitching

Over the past decade, Dan has noticed the patterns he sees time and again in pitches and has developed strong opinions about what constitutes an intelligent one. It’s among the entrepreneurship classes he teaches around town and he’s writing a book on it.

Intelligent Pitching Highlights include:

Know your audience

Reduce investor fears by showing you understand them. Be careful! Sometimes attempting to address an investor’s hierarchy of wishes or woes can stir up a greater, more personal, issue. Try to address the most important things at the top of an investor’s list that  tend to be personal.

“Entrepreneurs trip up most on the investor’s fear of looking like a fool,” Dan says.

Promising someone you can save thousands of dollars in costs could backfire when it excites a higher woe such as looking like a fool. One thing that investors care deeply about is managing risk. How do you show you understand that? Acknowledging their need for control through board governance and an interest in reducing risk by giving out money in dribs and drabs at various milestones.

Cast Your Spell

Know where the audience is at the beginning of the presentation.  What are they thinking? Craft a plan to move them to the next place you want them to be. Repeat.

Assess Your Impact

What do you do when an investor interrupts you?  Welcome it!  When investors are sitting there looking completely inert, they’re bored. That’s a very bad sign. When they’re fidgeting with their toys, that’s worse. Be flexible. Structure your whole presentation for interruptions. Get good at jumping around to answer questions when they are asked.

See Dan’s complete slideshare presentation “Intelligent Pitching for Techies” here .

Well, that’s nothing like Shark Tank, and that’s the point.  Dan says:

“People get their impression of pitches from Shark Tank, and Shark Tank is complete theater.  There are a few VCs that are jerks, but for the most part, the most successful VCs are really, really nice.  You leave every discussion with them feeling like you’re their special friend.  And, why not?  It’s like a bouncer in a bar.  You don’t want the person to cause trouble, you want them to leave the bar quietly. Regardless of whether you think [an aspiring entrepreneur] is good or not who knows what they’re going to come back as next year?  It behooves you to be friends with everyone. So, a real VC will be as kind as can be.”

Why so greedy?

It helps to understand the economics that drives investors. For every 100 startups that a VC backs, 70 will fail. If you are going to return the money to the backers, the 30 startups that make it are going to have to make 3.33 times the money invested in them just for the VC to break even. Dan explains:

“The people who back VCs don’t mind breaking even if they get a chance at the big hits, but they’d much rather do better. If you want to do better, you have to have companies that sell for three or more times what you put into them and in a small number of years.  People who put their money in VC funds don’t want to put their money in there forever.”

A greed-evoking investment is a company that could potentially double its revenue every year for about 4-6 years.  So, do you have to show this in your pitch?  Not exactly. Revenue is relative to how you can do vis a vis your industry competition. Dan says:

“It’s a two-edged sword. If you tell me that, I won’t believe it and it’s going to put me into fear. No one could ever achieve such hockey stick growth with a market like that.  But, if you don’t put such a slide up there I’d say, well, that’s not good enough growth. I can’t show that to my backers.  What you have to do is make an argument that the growth could be like that.”  

The secret to intelligent pitching is to communicate effectively. Give investors what they want upfront in a framing slide:

First, frame the situation:

  • Who you are,
  • What you do “and not in a cutesy way,” says Dan, “nice and quick, e.g., we’re trying to make a new app to make cigarette smoking unpleasant,”
  • Where you’re at e.g.,“We have a working prototype and we’re looking for funds to scale it to a couple of cities.”
  • What you’re asking: “We’re asking for $1 million to fund that.”  

Next, state the market need and value proposition:

The purpose isn’t to inflame the investor’s greed, it should be used to reduce their fear by showing them you understand your market.  

  • The top problem for customers is x and it’s a big market. Be brief and to the point.

In 30 seconds anyone who is listening will either agree with you, disagree, or have no opinion but be willing to listen.

“The purpose of the market slide is to lower your investor’s fear,” says Dan, who emphasizes there’s no room for lazy thinking here like a claim you think you can get 5% of the market. Nobody gets 5% of the market, at least not at first.

“The way you lower their fear is you show that you understand the dynamics of the market. The way you show you understand the dynamics of the market is by having a bottom-up theory: Customers in this market spend this much on this kind of thing and we think we can get them to spend some of it on ours. Here’s how many of them there are in the market and if we multiply them by how much they’d spend on our thing we get to an addressable market.”    

Finally, offer a respectful look at the competition and your differentiation.

Start with large incumbents and cover what’s good about startup competition and how you prevail. “That kind of thoughtful treatment is persuasive and rare,” says Dan.

Ever the realist, Dan notes being funded by VCs is an exception rather than the rule. It’s a fading business model with giants like Google jumping in to buy hot products while they’re cheap. What about Steve Blank’s Lean Startup concept of building a minimum viable product with the least amount of money to get somebody to buy it?  Dan concludes:

“Lean Startup is a complete fad, but pure gold, it’s absolutely true. Failing fast, doing a lean startup, talking to lots of customers before you build a product, building the smallest product you can, those are recipes for success.”

Dan and Brian Park

Dan Gordon and Brian Park met through DC’s regional Innovation Corps (, the educational organization founded and funded by the National Science Foundation where they both volunteer. ICorps promotes understanding of lean startup technology by pairing people producing great research with budding entrepreneurs and mentors with business experience willing to harangue them during a boot camp in which they have seven weeks to speak with 100 customers and refine their minimum viable product. Dan also teaches entrepreneurism classes at several DC-area universities.  

This post was first published on Startup Grind.

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Enrich Our Zeitgeist: Identify & Incorporate Any of These 17 #GlobalGoals into Your Days

Amina J. Mohammad @AminaJMohammed, @UN Secretary-General's Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning aka 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development #SDGs #GlobalGoals

Amina J. Mohammad @AminaJMohammed, @UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning aka 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development #SDGs #GlobalGoals

It’s Okay. Amina J. Mohammad, UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on post-2015 Development Planning knows you don’t care.

The United Nations #GlobalGoals for sustainable development team understands this, too. It learned that using the Millennium (Year 2000) to kick-off a campaign to fight unconscionable conditions in distant, unfamiliar nations needed better tools to spread messages that inspire participation. And, 15 years after its Millennium goals campaign, cell phones and social media are the tools to boost the power of a U.N. campaign.  Technology is bringing developing nations into the growing global conversation.

Your Action Menu

The U.N. has provided guidance on how anyone can take meaningful actions that contribute to solving the root causes of our three greatest challenges:

  1. End extreme poverty
  2. Fight inequality & injustice
  3. Fix climate change.

They know they’re asking a lot.  That’s why they’re breaking it down into manageable bits.  Ways that we can chip away at the three enormous goals by taking action.  

The UN has identified 17 #GlobalGoals that contribute to sustainable development:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-Being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace and justice strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals.

Find creative ways to relate them to your day to day world.  Implement action and talk about it wherever, whenever you can fit it in.  Aim to not only inspire, but enable others to act. Use social media in all its forms to listen, learn, and engage. Share how you are contributing to sustainable development at #GlobalGoals.  Go there to offer suggestions and assistance with parts you can spare that others might need.

Spread the Word

Advance the conversation and share information by tagging influencers and organizers. Help leverage our global power by bringing the root causes of extreme poverty, inequality & injustice and climate change to light.  Help make such forms of public service and innovation part of our Zeitgeist.

Need a reason to enrich our Zeitgeist?

Do you know what the trending searches on Google were in 2014?  

1. Robin Williams

2. World Cup

3. Ebola

4. Malaysia Airlines

5. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and…

6. Flappy Bird.

We’re a caring bunch, but we can use some direction to have greater collective impact. 

Digital Diplomacy Can Help

The Global Goals in the Digital Age panelists pictured here from L to R: @AminaJMohammed, Elise Labott, @e_Cousens, CNN Global Affairs Correspondent, Elizabeth Cousens Deputy CEO @UNFoundation, Tara Sonenshine @Tsonenshine, Former undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and currently at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

The Global Goals in the Digital Age panelists pictured here from L to R:
Elise Labott, @e_Cousens, CNN Global Affairs Correspondent, Elizabeth Cousens Deputy CEO @UNFoundation, Tara Sonenshine @Tsonenshine, Former undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and currently at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

How I met Amina Mohammad is a testament to the power of digital diplomacy to bring people together. I had been invited to attend the panel “Global Goals in the Digital Age” sponsored by the Embassy of Italy on October 5th as part of its popular digital diplomacy series. It was moderated by CNN Global Affairs Correspondent, Elise Labott @eliselabottcnn and featured in addition to Ms. Mohammad: Elizabeth Cousens, @e_cousens, Deputy CEO @ UNFoundation (former @USUN ambassador and @UN staffer) and Tara Sonenshine, @TSonenshine, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and currently at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Afterwards, we spoke with a wide swath of the DC community over wine and appetizers with a backdrop of famous Italian designer dresses. 

Italian designed gowns on display at the Embassy of Italy provided a beautiful backdrop to speak about the U.N.'s 17 #GlobalGoals

Italian designed gowns on display at the Embassy of Italy provided a beautiful backdrop to speak about the U.N.’s 17 #GlobalGoals

Andreas Sandre, is the Embassy of Italy’s Press & Public Affairs Officer and author of Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and Twitter for Diplomats (2013) a free e-book.

Andreas Sandre, is the Embassy of Italy’s Press & Public Affairs Officer and author of Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and Twitter for Diplomats (2013) a free e-book.

A primary force behind the event, Andreas Sandre, is the Embassy of Italy’s Press & Public Affairs Officer and author of Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and Twitter for Diplomats (2013) a free e-book.  Andre wrote:

“Thanks to technology and digital tools, diplomacy has been partially democratized so as to include more voices. That also opened the way to different personifications of power and influence. This transformation is happening very fast and seems to affect the very DNA of traditional diplomacy.”

He said recently: “Our digital diplomacy series has been our most successful outreach.  We are using digital media to get people face to face.”

As to other ways the Embassy of Italy  incorporates social media in its outreach, Andreas says:  

“We’re using things Americans already know about Italy, such as art and culture, to get to know the pipelines, manufacturers, and engineers behind those, suits, cars, and scientific endeavors. The embassy’s popular Facebook page brings people together to nurture conversations, and its portal ‘Italy for Kids,’ shows how Italy is around us in every city of the world and teaches them more about our country.”

Besides speaking with his most admired individual and institutional public policy influencers for his book, Andreas uses social media to listen. He points out it is making it easier for world leaders to hear the public. He said:

“The starting point of knowing what the sentiment is and how we move forward is to listen to everything out there. Not just broadcasting messages, but gauging situations, what people are saying, leading voices, understanding the analytics behind the tools we’re using.”

On the subject of listening, Andreas quotes John Marshall, former secretary of state and longest-serving Supreme Court chief justice in his book:

“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”  

Changing the status quo all comes down to the power of ideas, Andre concludes. It comes down to all of us — diplomats, politicians, civil society, and citizens — becoming champions for ideas, even when they seem too disruptive, or even too simple to achieve our goals.

Pick a goal. Go big!  Invent events.  Host contests. Call attention to the needs and the solutions.  Tell stories and listen.  Adjust your program and keep trying. We’re worth it.

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Is the Newly Merged AOL On-Track to Be a Top-Three Internet Player?

AOL CTO, William Pence, (Right) and Startup Grind DC director, Brian Park have more in common than AOL.

AOL CTO, William Pence, (Right) and Startup Grind DC director, Brian Park have more in common than AOL.

William “Bill” Pence has always been a tinkerer who loves a good challenge, starting with his first piece of software for the Commodore 64. Looking back, he’s amazed he survived doing physics experiments on his parent’s old television set. He came down from his home in New York City to tell the crowd at Startup Grind DC about his latest challenge: In April 2014, Bill signed on as AOL’s Global Chief Technical Officer.

AOL who? Yes, they get that a lot. “Just wait,” Bill says. Since the AOL/Verizon merger, AOL’s reputation hasn’t caught up with its new status. The $4.4 billion deal in May to combine the largest mobile network provider with one of the world’s top five internet properties has the potential to dominate.

Timing Matters

Bill had watched AOL spin out of its failed Time-Warner merger and make moves under CEO Tim Armstrong to acquire “disruptive, innovative contemplators” such as Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Engadget. In addition to news and other content, AOL’s platform currently delivers online video services and ads.

“You’ve got to remember that the AOL-Time Warner merger happened [in 2000] when 40% of the world was still on dial up. There is merit in watching where the world is going. We’re in a different era now. The world is mobile.”

AOL is on it, developing video shows for millions of smartphone and tablet users.

After 25 years in the technology business, Bill understands the importance of timing. He recognizes the Verizon/AOL merger as a strategic fit for a mobile world. It is the telecom giant’s opportunity to use a proven platform to keep its sales pipeline filled and stream new products and services as the mobile market matures.

The Spotlight’s on Mobile Video

Right now, everybody is looking to the future of mobile video services. That means opportunities for those with technology to address how to distribute and monetize mobile video. Bill explains:

“It sounds generic but think about what kind of ad formats are created, what kind of subscription models, how does it work cross screen?  Is it pure OTT cable box replacement or is it a utility model around video, or social network wrapped around video?  Is it another experience?  The area is exploding.”  

The Power of Perspective

Bill has an affinity for disruptive startups. He has a B.S. in physics from UVA and a PhD in electrical engineering from Cornell. He was raised in northern Virginia, where the Pence family has lived for a couple of hundred years. After a  decade in IBM’s research arm, he joined the world with online music pioneer Napster (2003-2007).  He recalls Napster’s push to get beyond the difficult U.S. music industry.  

“We were so aggressive we built a back end to a service in Japan for feature phones,” he laughs. While Napster does business as Rhapsody in the U.S., it still does business as Napster overseas.  He notes: “Spotify is obviously the one who has taken the idea and run with it now.”

Bill spent the next nine years as CTO, then as COO, for content publisher WebMD.  He’s particularly proud of “Naked Man,” a symptom checker feature that hypochondriacs find irresistible.  

As the world went mobile, the possibilities for delivering content and services expanded.

“When we started tracking mobile use at WebMD it was 5%; we thought it would maybe level out at 30-40%. It kept shooting up and we’re looking at ending at 90/10,” he says. Bill learns from the past, but doesn’t get stuck looking back. Adaptation is key to survival. IBM invented DOS but lost the PC operating system to Microsoft and survived. “AIM is a great product, it’s got a place in the world, but there are a hundred other things to do. You’ve got to keep moving,” Bill says.  He explains:

“This Internet thing, no way it’s game over. I’ve been in it a long time. I met the founders of Friendster who thought they had it locked up. Then MySpace came along.  When I saw Facebook, I thought, who needs another social network?  Behavior changes. Mobile changes delivery and distribution. In the search space, Google search is under threat now because of the shift from desktop to mobile. There has been transformation around mobile and video as phones are increasingly used at home for video consumption and social networking. Apple and Amazon are trying to reinvent themselves.”

Where We’re Headed

The world is moving towards an integrated delivery system. Unlike Facebook, which is a closed ecosystem of user-provided information and Facebook reporting, AOL has an open approach to working with others. For example, ONE by AOL allows advertisers to bring in their own data.

“We built ONE by AOL to take the online advertising world to the next level. We’ve assembled platforms for delivering ads; we’ve also delivered platforms for measuring impact events, targeting them on a personal basis through data that we have and also looking at attributions. We’ve bought some companies to help marketers understand the end-to-end ad journey.”

AOL is one of the top five Internet properties on the planet, so there’s scale, but day to day Bill says they have to break down barriers. Since he arrived, Bill has helped move the company to gmail and Google apps, and rolled out Slack to its enterprises. As to the big picture, AOL joins industry giants, like GE, in transitioning 100% to the cloud. It’s going to take years to do it responsibly.

Bill embraces the challenge. The opportunity to explore the mobile Internet’s future is irresistible. He says: “I saw AOL as a turn around. I came to work for Tim. I like to work for people who are innovative, aggressive, and kind of a little bit of a maniac. I love working for Tim.”

Something in the Water at Loring AFB?

Most Startup Grind interviews go through the requisite guest bio.  Where are you from, what did your parents do?  One coincidence surprised and delighted Startup Grind DC director, Brian Park. Not only had both worked at some point in their lives at AOL, each had been born/raised awhile at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, the closest military base in the continental U.S. to the Soviet Union.  

Bill likes to say: “When the sites go down I’m never worried because I was born when nuclear war was about to break out.”

His father was a strategic air command tanker pilot flying tankers over the North Pole to refuel B-52s and his mother, pregnant with Bill, stayed on the base and was issued a pistol should the Russian paratroopers drop in.

There must be something in the water at Loring AFB that breeds tech-savvy, risk-taking entrepreneurs.  Standing Bill Pence and BrianThis article was first published at

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EverFi CEO, Tom Davidson, a Quiet, Relentless Competitor

Tien Wong (R) gets ready to interview EverFi co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, at Big Idea Connectpreneur 2015 Fall edition. As one point as questions flew, Tom quipped:

Tien Wong (R) gets ready to interview EverFi co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, at Big Idea Connectpreneur 2015 Fall edition. As one point as questions flew, Tom quipped: “This is like a board meeting.”

Tom Davidson, Co-founder and CEO of EverFi, grew up near Tulsa Oklahoma and graduated in 1994 from Bowdoin College in the coastal town of Brunswick, Maine. After seven years in venture capital, the three-term Maine state legislator moved to the DC area on a remarkable journey with EverFi. The software as a service platform licenses contemporary educational programs that can have a huge impact on whether kids go to college, get a great job, create wealth for themselves, or even survive.

Tom says:

We build and implement sophisticated learning platforms that bring social gaming and really interesting animation, video, simulations that bring issues to life.  We build and implement in schools across the country, but it’s all paid for by the private sector, and that’s the big idea.

He elaborates:

I tell people it’s really a simple model.  I take issues that are devastatingly difficult issue for families with kids, about bankruptcy, mortgages, paying loans, protecting students from rape and violence at school, and more. I put that in front of schools and then I have corporations wrap their brand all over the classes…

Right model + right time = superstar funding

EverFi has come along at an interesting time.  People are impatient with filling educational gaps at all levels.  EverFi’s number and type of courses are expanding.  For example, EverFi is partnering with the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association to launch Future Goals, to help promote STEM education in North American schools.

Over the past five years, EverFi has grown from serving 11 students in one rural Alabama school to millions of students across the U.S.  Private sector supporters contribute to license the education software service.  About 1,200 customers have signed 3-4 year licenses for about $1 million per year.

To date, EverFi  has gained support of a collection of coveted investors, which the company maintains have no say in the content of its online lessons.  EverFi has raised about $21 million Series A and B from industry rock stars, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Rethink Education, Allen & Company, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium; and Jeff Bezos.

“We brought them in for a reason,” Tom deadpans, “we are incessant name droppers.” He notes that why these successful entrepreneurs don’t meet with him every day, he is impressed with the degree of granularity they know about EverFi. He admires Ev Williams’ calm, yet relentless, style.

Did he mention that Pharrell Williams came out to perform at an under-served community he supports?  Students had to meet certain EverFi course certification or badge requirements to attend.

Keep  smiling, be realistic

Tom says he tries to keep an even keel.  He feels among his responsibilities is to maintain a sense of humor and optimism because these are contagious. He seems most comfortable when he is gently making fun of himself.

After recognizing that around $8,600 a year public servant salary doesn’t go far enough, even in a small town in Maine, Tom tried his hand as a venture capitalist for the next seven years.  He said he wasn’t very good at it. It also might have been a good basis for managing EverFi as it continues to grow.

His Basic Instinct

Speaking in the featured chat with Tien Wong, a host of the quarterly Connectpreneur networking and pitch event, Tom said the presidential debate the night before had made him reflect on his own political experience as a Maine state legislator. He has come to understand that the three terms he spent reviewing some 4,200 bills exposed him to the inequity of school funding.

The fact that your life is determined by your zip code is just so “freakin’ unfair,” he said.

The deep dive into politics

I was 22 and had never run for anything in life, largely because I would never have won student council office…but I got interested locally during the 1992 presidential election and had the harebrained idea to run for state legislature when a seat opened up.  I jumped into the race and a wonderful guy who represented the district forever, my worst nightmare, a wonderful person, Vietnam vet, decided to run against me in the primary.

Tom learned that he can be relentless when inspired by work he believes in.

  • He successfully knocked on over 35,000 doors to ask for support in the election.
  • He spent two years traveling the country in an RV with co-founders, fellow Bowdoin alum, gathering data points about problems schools in different districts need to solve and how they are solving them now.

He credits his mother for putting a human face on the general topic of serving, not just feeling empathy for, hardworking people.

He says:

My mom taught me to appreciate people working their butts off at their jobs…I remember her pulling over to the curb to have us observe and appreciate someone who was sweeping carefully or thanking the woman who cleaned the rest room stalls for her thorough mopping.

It makes sense that New Enterprise Associates (NEA) is involved.  The largest venture funding in the world needs to chase unlimited opportunities.  The good news and the bad news is that as Tom puts it: “It’s not like I’m proposing a solution to global warming.  The problem of inequitable school funding is never going to get solved — ever.”

The Next Milestone

No doubt about it, EverFi foresees another major capital infusion to “catalyze the next 5-10 years of what we do.” In the last year, Tom says he has spent time with Reid Hoffman [Linkedin] and some folks that build really big stuff.  I learned that an IPO is just capitalization to those folks, not an exit.”

We don’t need to raise capital but we would like to buy some interesting technology so we can ingest core technology — imbed it into our programs and push it out to our schools.  I’d be surprised in the next 18 months to two years if you didn’t see us do something pretty interesting.

Tom concludes:

At the end of the day, everything we do results in a really amazing student on the end of the line learning something super important for their life.  They will make certain decisions that will put them in a better place.  It gives me chills.  I can’t think of a better thing to do.

Venerable organizations like Junior Achievement and big, corporate competitors, such as Discovery and Pearson take note:  You’ve got to watch out for the quiet ones.  EverFi is proving to be a relentless competitor.

After his featured chat at Connectpreneur, EverFi Co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, continues the conversation.

After his featured chat at Connectpreneur, EverFi Co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, continues the conversation.

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Mark Cuban Bets You’ll Hear About FiscalNote

Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO, FiscalNote. The next generation SaaS (software as a service) platform let's users track and predict with up to 94% accuracy legislation at any given moment. It has been referred to by outsiders as Bloomberg for legislative reporting.

Tim Hwang, 24-year-old co-founder and CEO, FiscalNote. The next generation SaaS (software as a service) platform let’s users track and predict with up to 94% accuracy legislation at any given moment. It has been referred to by outsiders as Bloomberg for legislative reporting.

FiscalNote co-founder and CEO, Tim Hwang, and his childhood friends, Jonathan Chen, CTO, and Gerald Yao, CSO, are making the U.S. legislative process transparent. Their company is entering its third year of refining next-generation legal software with programming expertise from friends formerly with NASA, Sprint, and other technology companies. The company just got $10 million in Series B funding led by China’s Renren so they can move full speed on aggregating legislation, regulations, eventually adding court cases in the U.S. and around the world. It will extract information, normalize it, and allow people to get a better sense for what’s going on in the regulatory environment at any given time. Think of it as the Bloomberg of legislative news. Its potential market: huge.

FiscalNote’s 24-year-old CEO illustrated the value of his company’s platform with a ridesharing industry example.  Tim told the capacity crowd at Startup Grind DC:

Say you’re sitting at Uber or Lyft headquarters and you’re getting slammed left and right. You’re slammed $7 million one day, you get shut down in this state here, you get fined in this city here; you’re going crazy trying to follow all these different things. What do you do?  Naturally you hire general counsel, as any major organization would. Then you start hiring a bunch of attorneys, lobbyists, start following the issues, start advocating for certain things.

Who is used to hiring general counsel by age 17?  Hint: Tim.

He Did What?  How Young?

At 23, Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO of FiscalNote, has organized a grassroots charitable organization; volunteered extensively with Barack Obama's    presidential campaign, and served on the board of Montgomery County Public Schools at a particularly litigious time.  He has cracked the entrepreneurial code.

Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO of FiscalNote, has organized a grassroots charitable organization; volunteered extensively with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and served on the board of Montgomery County Public Schools at a particularly litigious time. He has cracked the entrepreneurial code.

Tim’s understanding of the problem of keeping up with legislative information grew out of his experience with community service, public policy, politics, and startups. It was here he learned  about specific challenges, consequences, and opportunities. He was familiar with U.S. government bureaucracy by osmosis through his South Korean-born parents who both worked for the federal government, his mom at local art museums and his dad at the National Institutes of Health, in Maryland. No surprise he is the oldest of two.

Tim’s political experience before graduating from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy includes:

  • Instrumental in a charitable organization for local assistance in middle school.
  • Volunteer, Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign
  • Elected Student Representative for the Montgomery County School board
  • Founder of an organization to help institutionalize the youth force in Washington, DC. Early in his junior year of college, Tim was approached by alum he knew from the first Obama Campaign to create a center/left grassroots 501(c)(4) political organization advocating for the 18-34 year old demographic, tackling issues such as immigration, implementation of ACA, and Pell grant funding.

He told the crowd:

You realize quickly even if you’re here in Washington, DC, you don’t really know what’s going on at Capitol Hill in different departments.  My approach with the school board was very traditional. I had a bunch of interns analysts reading information, assembling reports so we could go back and react to events.

The only problem was that it took weeks to get information and by the time the board got it it was generally too late to do anything about it. His friends working in federal government agencies faced similar issues. As Congress was shutting down effectively; a lot of governance was moving to the state and local levels.  

“You notice the splintering of government information as it becomes harder and harder to collect,” Tim says. “Look at any massive government affairs office at the White House, Sierra Club, any major organization, and you will see a tremendous commercial opportunity.”

It was a stupid problem.  It was a search engine problem. Now it’s on the way to fixed for more industries.  Today if you type “ridesharing” in FiscalNote, you can surface all of the ridesharing laws in the U.S. at any given time. You can follow it every single step in the process, and by the way, you can  forecast with over 94% accuracy whether or not a particular bill’s going to pass.

The ridesharing industry is only one use case for employing software tools to help channel resources into the areas needed most, whether that’s lobbying, litigation, general counsel, compliance.

FiscalNote’s challenge is less on building the technology and more on taking this broad-based application technology and creating use cases.

Their Use Cases Are Out There

Magnify the ridesharing information challenge in financial services, where you have Dodd Frank; in healthcare where you have ACA regulations coming out; in energy, with new clean power plants coming out; any major industry really in retail or technology there’s a very specific use case.

The Product Came Together

Co-founder Jonathan Chen’s Chinese-born parents knew through their suburban Maryland community about a competitive summer computer science internship at government-run computer related industries. Jonathan said he learned more about computer science that summer internship than in his years in U.S. schools. Jonathan and Tim combined computer skills and policy ideas and designed a platform to use to access open government data. Together with third co-founders came in second, and were told they could have won first if they had a working prototype.

But How Did The Co-Founders End Up Living in a Motel Six?

The team was accepted into a Summer Accelerator Program in Silicon Valley

Housing was expensive so the three co-founders split a Motel Six room with two beds and a cot by night and office by day.  Like an episode of the Silicon Valley TV comedy, the guys coded for a couple of months at times sharing the more comfortable double bed, or ending up on the floor, or a cot.

One night Tim was in another state to make a presentation. He had some time so he cold-emailed investor, entrepreneur and sports team owner, Mark Cuban, a five-line note introducing FiscalNote and asking if he would like to know more.  The angel investor, seen on SharkTank,  responded with interest in 40 minutes and a list of questions.

What Happened Next Made It Happen

The team jumped on it, abandoning movie tickets purchased for Wolverine, and working around the weekend to answer the questions and close a deal. Mark Cuban led their first round of investment, joined by Yahoo co-founder, Jerry Yang, now with AME Ventures, First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Funk, and the world’s largest venture capital firm, NEA.

There Is No Secret Sauce. Stop Saying It, Please

Tim says:

I don’t think there’s any secret to attracting a brand name investor. I honestly think If you build a strong business from the core you can attract anybody.

Making the MVP helped them realize they had a company.

Until that point it was just all hustle. The team spent weeks calling potential buyers, like attorneys, consultants, all day asking questions. Tim said:

We had to talk to customers. The reality was we were 21, and didn’t know what we were doing. We compiled lists of potential buyers and cold called to ask questions. The call went like this: “Hi, we’re a  tech company here in the valley, not the only one solving the legal policy problem we find others have.  Are you facing this problem? How do you solve it?”

They were trying to grab as many data points as possible, trying to validate it as quickly as possible. They ended each of their 60-70 market discovery calls with this question: Would you want to buy it [the solution] from us?  

Two Key Company Values:

  1. Level up.

The rate of your professional development needs to be greater than your company’s growth. To be a top CEO, CTO, by the time your company gets to next stage you have to commit to constant development, training, mentorship, so we get there. Eventually that value we have internally spreads to others, more willing to take chances for someone not necessarily with tech skills, with a sense of culture and a commitment to culture.

  1. Be aligned and transparent.

After every board meeting, every quarter, the entire company reviews the board investor deck with Tim to go over entire strategy, the expectations set by board members and ourselves, expectations for our investors and ourselves. Challenges, issues, strategies, debating. Getting metrics is a challenge.

If you could name a perfect acquirer who would it be?

Google. Less so around the name, more around the values it has in place. (This is before it instituted Alphabet as a holding company for more independently looked at Google, Nest, and other expanding areas.)

Acquisitions aren’t always about money, they’re about the mission you’re trying to bring to fruition. Acquisitions should be a combination of your efforts.  We have a big mission to build next generation legal software.  

Tim said:

Our strategy from the very beginning has been we are industry agnostic but role specific…We had to drill down and solve one problem for the person in a particular role in that industry.  

Biggest Mistake So Far:

#1 Not keeping a closer eye on finances when they assumed their first promised capital raise was imminent. (Really? Because for awhile there his parents thought it might have been dropping out of Harvard’s MBA program, to which he had a scholarship.)

On the bright side, he says, his mother had always wanted him to go to law school.  

FiscalNote might just be OK after all though.     

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FiscalNote Sprints with Mark Cuban and $10 Million Series B from China’s RenRen

At 23, Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO of FiscalNote, has organized a grassroots charitable organization; volunteered extensively with Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and served on the board of Montgomery County Public Schools at a particularly litigious time. He has cracked the entrepreneurial code.

At 24, Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO of FiscalNote, has organized a grassroots charitable organization; volunteered extensively with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and served on the board of Montgomery County Public Schools at a particularly litigious time. He has cracked the entrepreneurial code.

Please enjoy the longer read just published at, the global entrepreneurship community — front page!

FiscalNote Inc, formed March 2013, first appeared in this blog early in 2014, after I bumped into CTO, Jonathan Chen and his co-founders CEO Tim Hwang, and Gerald Yao, CSO coming out of a photo booth at In the Capital’s (now DCInno) 50 on Fire. They were on fire.  They still are. The childhood friends from Montgomery County, MD, near Rockville, set out to make the legislation process transparent.  They’re succeeding.

FiscalNote co-founders: Front left, Jonathan Chen, CTO; front right, Tim Hwang, CEO; and Gerald Yao, CSO in the photo booth with some lovable, sketchy characters at the first 50 on Fire.

FiscalNote co-founders: Front left, Jonathan Chen, CTO; front right, Tim Hwang, CEO; and Gerald Yao, CSO in the photo booth with some lovable, sketchy characters at the first 50 on Fire.

In the past few years, their platform has moved rapidly towards the goal to enable anyone to keep track of legislation that could affect their organization. They are refining a next-generation legal software platform with some help from tech friends who had worked at NASA, Sprint and other organizations.  It lets users track and predict pass/fail outcomes with up to 94% accuracy legislation at any given moment. It’s a road map for where to focus time and money.

Jonathan is so happy to be part of the company he helped launch while a member of the Hinman CEO program at the University of Maryland.  MTech supported the team with $5,000 Citrin Impact Seed Fund grant during its earliest stages.  At his suggestion his co-founders entered the University of Maryland Department of Computer Science’s first annual FISH Bowl competition. [I included FiscalNote in a 2014 post with owner, Washington Capitals team, American Online alum, and entrepreneur: Ted Leonsis.] The trio won second place (primarily because they had no prototype) and were encouraged to apply to the Plug and Play Startup Camp for 10 weeks in Silicon Valley, where they got in and traveled to work on one.  They started with about 60-80 cold calls to survey their potential customers.

Their $1.2 million seed funding was led by serial entrepreneur, investor, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban.  Tim had sent him a 5-line email to which he had responded in 40 minutes with a list of questions. (According to Jonathan, with some prompting from a lawyer they both knew.)  The team was perfectly positioned for what happened next as they participated in the 10 week Silicon Valley program, living and working in a Motel 6 with two beds and a cot because other available housing was too expensive.

The team jumped on it, abandoning movie tickets purchased for Wolverine, and working around the weekend to answer the questions and close a deal. Joining Mark Cuban in the first investment round was Yahoo co-founder, Jerry Yang, now with AME Ventures, First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Funk, and the world’s largest venture capital firm, NEA. 

Recently, China’s RenRen followed with $10 million.

Tim chat with a packed house at Startup Grind DC and I will include a link to a more detailed story by me highlighting Tim’s interesting background when it is published on

The photo of Jonathan below took place in the winter before he would graduate from the University of Maryland.  See his graduation speech in this post.

Jonathan Chen, CTO, FiscalNote learned the most computer science from his high school summer tech internship in China with a government owned organization.

Jonathan Chen, CTO, FiscalNote learned the most computer science from his high school summer tech internship in China with a government owned organization.

Tim Hwang, co-founder and CEO, FiscalNote. The next generation SaaS (software as a service) platform let's users track and predict with up to 94% accuracy legislation at any given moment. It has been referred to by outsiders as Bloomberg for legislative reporting.

Tim Hwang (left), co-founder and CEO, FiscalNote comes directly from an all day retreat to join StartupGrind DC’s organizer, Brian Park.

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