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.

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

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.     

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 StartupGrind.com, 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 StartupGrind.com.

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.

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

What this Entrepreneurial Governor Can Teach Us About Inventing the Future

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe shows his entrepreneurial side to DC's Startup Grind community..

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe shows his entrepreneurial side to DC’s Startup Grind community..

Getting some perspective on Richard “Terry” McAuliffe, the 72nd Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is good. He can be larger than life when he winds up for a good story. It’s all in the name of public service. A businessman from age 14, with a driveway sealing and parking lot resurfacing business, 58-year-old McAuliffe observes he has never worked for anyone else.  He has had experience in some 30 different fields, from nation’s youngest bank chairman, home builder and Florida real estate developer. What he likes most about that was trying 30 different fields.

Terry McAuliffe grew up in Syracuse, NY, and has spent half his life as a volunteer raising a total of about $1 billion for the Democrats. From 2001-2005 alone he raised an unprecedented $1/2 billion for the Democratic National Committee.

At 23, he left Georgetown Law School (and a scholarship) to raise funds for the Carter/Mondale campaign. After co-chairing Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and chairing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential Campaign.  He had followed his love of politics and temperate climate and moved to raise his family in Northern Virginia.

The governor is passionate about helping people, particularly if they are from the state that elected him. He told Startup Grind DC:

I’m on a mission to bring as much business, industry, and investment as I can into Virginia…

Less Military Spending, More Innovation

Gov. McAuliffe laid out the problem/solution: Government defense and military spending and related contracts awarded in Virginia are diminishing. The world’s biggest naval base is in Norfolk, VA.  Sequestration is coming in October. The future requires non-military industries and that’s going to take the right infrastructure, workforce, and lots of money.  He said:

Our economy is changing…To be honest folks, we are unique in Virginia as being the largest recipient of all military dollars.  That’s great when the government is spending money, but not wen we’re in a period of defense cuts.

Gov. McAuliffe announced he is set on winning the new cyber security campus the White House is expected to spend billions building to consolidate its considerable security resources.  He declared, nearly growling towards the end:

The White House has announced it will be building a cyber security campus.  I want that campus in Virginia.

[Pause here for applause during a political speech.]  Because he is addressing Startup Grind, instead of pausing he outlines how he is attracting more investment, global business, and new industry to Virginia.

The U.S. Government is expected to spend millions on a cyber campus, and Virginia’s Governor says:

Virginia has a built-in advantage because Cyber is so related to defense, military.  The Pentagon is in Virginia.  Quantico already has a cyber presence with the FBI, which has a facility at Quantico.  We have all the cabling, all the data centers, we are a natural place.

Virginia has been preparing to go after the Cyber Campus, it has:

1. Created a Cyber Commission where the best cyber companies in the community advise the Governor’s office, which coordinates with the schools, and

2. Named Richard Clarke, who advised the past three presidents on cyber security, to head his Cyber Commission.

Other Targeted Industries

Virginia’s other targeted industries also include:

  • UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) industry.  The Federal Government has designated Virginia as one of six state sites, down at Virginia Tech, to develop and test UAV technology.  They will coordinate with the Wallops Island launch pad. Virginia is building UAW testing infrastructure in parts of 495, 95, and 66.  “I’m passionate about driverless cars.  I’ve talked about this extensively with [Senator] Mark Warner — who got in early on the cell phone — and he thinks this could be bigger than the cell phone…,” says the governor.
  • Satellite Technology
  • Human Genome Sequencing/Personalized Health/Medicine
  • Environmentally sound Energy sector plays.  Virginia is the first state to get an offshore lease for a wind turbine.  The Governor’s new solar development fund got Dominion Power to contribute $700 million.  “Solar, renewable energy, this is huge,” he said.  “Net metering, energy efficiency are incentivized through our tax code.”
Gov. McAuliffe has honed his comedic timing.

Gov. McAuliffe has honed his comedic timing.

Startup Grind’s DC host, Brian Park pitches him a softball:

Amazon just announced it’s building the largest solar farm East of the Mississippi…

McAuliffe goes to bat:


Brian responds:


McAuliffe connects…:

Thank you!

He adds, scoring a laugh with his comic delivery:

Why do you think?

Learning the Limits

As a young entrepreneur, McAuliffe learned it could pay to go big and push the limits. By age 15 he tells of driving around town in a pickup truck with no drivers license, no license plates, and a business card that named him as CEO of a driveway sealing and commercial parking lot business. The worst that happens is you fail.  It’s what you do the next day that matters.

In 2009, I ran for governor on a platform of high speed rail, renewable energy…and said ‘if you don’t like my big ideas, don’t vote for me’…and they didn’t!  I got up the next day and got back to it and now I’m the governor of VA.

McAuliffe made it clear, he’s got no time for gossip.  He’s all about being positive, forward thinking, and helping Virginia transition into a new business era. He has the chops of a seasoned stand-up comedian. Listen to him tell a few stories on the taped interview from Startup Grind and you’ll hear the laughter escalate. He published a book with writer Steve Kettmann, What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and other Wild Animals.  Bill Clinton’s book jacket soundbyte read:

Terry McAuliffe has discovered that laughter is the best survival strategy.

Let’s hope his ambitious plans for Virginia keeps everyone laughing all the way to the bank.

Posted in DC Metro Area Startup Community, entrepreneurial community, entrepreneurs, Governing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Esther Dyson’s Way to Wellville Model Is Paved with Support, Jobs, and Funding

Esther Dyson tells Thomas Goetz, Co-founder of Iodine and former Wired Magazine Editor, About the organization she co-founded, HiCCup, and her ambitious Road to Wellville project.

Esther Dyson tells government and private sector leaders at Healthcare Datapalooza 2015 about the organization she co-founded, HiCCup, and her ambitious Road to Wellville project.

It’s a major challenge for the U.S. to figure out how to set so many more citizens on the path to healthier lives.  Entrepreneur, angel investor, and philanthropist, Esther Dyson, has embarked on a 5-10 year national challenge, The Way to Wellville, to show how to make the world healthier, community by community, with “multiple, interacting health-promoting activities.”

The high-energy chairman of EDventure Holdings described her latest project in her keynote at the 6th annual Healthcare Datapalooza. Esther founded nonprofit organization, HICCup (Health Initiative Coordinating Counsel), to rally around a project “to encourage new models and markets for the production of health.”

An active angel investor in health data startups 23andMe, HealthTap, PatientsLikeMe and several others, Esther has found her current experience eye-opening.  she explains:

 I came into this as a nice person concerned about poor people…and discovered there is a serious hole that other people fall into as well.

You fall into that hole, whether you lose your car, you get sick, your husband runs off, you don’t pay parking tickets — you can lose your job, your home.  They’re all intertwined.  People in Washington DC and on the coasts don’t see that this hole is real.  It is a combination of things that feed on each other.  If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to your dental appointment, same with child care.  Then, people stuck alone in their homes get lonely and some turn to substance abuse again.

Esther’s goal is to help create measurably healthier communities that people want to move to, where there is better food and more work opportunities.

We’re trying to build these programs, write the business plans, define the financial flows — is it health and insurance companies who will pay? Local taxes? Is there a social impact investor that’s going to get half the cost savings and you need to keep track of that carefully.

Key Community Criteria

The Way to Wellville sought five motivated, defined communities with under 100,000 people.  They looked for geographically discreet communities where you could “see and change things through collective action.”  Esther observes:

If you really want to make change it is easier to do it at critical density vs. great scale.

One condition had to be present: The community had to have a group that already decided it needed to be healthy and would like some outside help.  They don’t have a lot of investment bankers and financial people or attract pilot projects.

To the founder’s amazement, 42 communities applied to be a Way to Wellville community, from which it chose five to attract talent and invest in healthy lifestyle businesses.  Rick Brush serves as the project’s CEO.  The communities are:

  • Clatsop County, Oregon
  • Greater Muskegon, Michigan
  • Lake County, California
  • Niagara Falls, New York
  • Spartanburg, South Carolina

The rest of the applicants are now part of an online healthcare and healthy lifestyle support and educational community.

Esther says:

People in our communities are not thinking about healthcare.  They’re thinking about jobs, children, food, trying to figure out can they be late on car payments to buy a football for their kid to take to school.  Whatever people in the community are doing, you’re now asking them to do something additional.

National Scale Is Too Big to Experiment

Esther has perspective on what government can and can’t do well. She related this conversation about piloting in smaller communities:

I was talking to ‘mumble VC’ when we started this and said: ‘We’re going to take these communities, make them healthy, change the food supply.  They said that’s really nice, Esther.  But, that’s OK.  Ten years from now we’ll give everyone a Fitbit and it will be automatic… [you’re supposed to laugh].  I wanted to tell him he should fly commercial more often.

So, the idea is: It’s not the choices people make, it’s also the choices they have.  Our challenge is to help communities build their own capacity and train their own people to do these things; our second is to help them define business models and find funding.

Preparing for Impact

Seeking to document ways of having an impressive impact over 5-10 years, The Way to Wellville is receiving guidance on which results to measure from respected members of the health and wellness industry.

Rallying initial assistance took some convincing.  Esther explains:

The first time I talked to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about this their reaction was: That’s sweet.  Now they’re funding Rethink Health to work with us on the model.

People face grave problems in each of the five chosen communities, but the populations are relatively small enough to explore and measure outcomes of new ways of healthier living.  Esther observes:

Yes, there’s money so we can hire people.  Direct care diabetes management care, care coordination, restaurants, sports clubs, urban gardening — all will employ people but we need to restructure the business models so that people are in the business of producing health, rather tan trying to recover it.

But, it’s not enough that you notice, not just enough so that a data scientist will notice, she explains:

It has to be big enough so the mayor, and ideally the press and Silicon Valley billionaires and the people in Washington, DC notice.  And they’re going to say, Boy, if those jokers in Wellville can do that, so can we.  And it will inspire them.

That’s the plan.

On a personal note:

I had interviewed Esther’s father, Freeman Dyson, the British-born astrophysicist over 25 years ago and really enjoyed him.  It was one of six scientist interviews in the textbook College Physics, Serway and Faughn (Third Edition). See that here: Doc Jun 04, 2015, 17_11

I was hoping to meet Esther at Healthcare Datapalooza 2015, tweeting an invitation for her to come to the GeoHealth.US booth where I was helping out.  I’d checked in between presentations but she didn’t come.

On the final exhibition day, she was over with Jean Case at the Case Foundation, but the conference organizer who mentioned it didn’t know when or if she’d be back.

I had to leave early, stopped at a bank machine, then set one foot onto the down escalator at the Woodley Park Metro Station.  At that exact moment, Esther appeared on the up side.

“Esther, hi!” I said, stepping back off the downward escalator.  I was the one who tweeted to you to come to the Geohealth.us booth.”

“I did,”  she said.  “The British fellow was there.”

“Pete!  I didn’t know.  He had no idea who you were.”

She shrugged and waited politely for me to continue.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for a while,” I said, reaching for my cell phone.  “I interviewed your father in 1990.”  I held up my phone with a copy of the by-lined interview with her dad’s photo credited to her sister, Mia.

She looked curiously at her father’s photo on my mobile phone.  I promised to email her the interview and walked her to the top of the hill to the hotel where she had an appointment in five minutes. She suggested that GeoHealth.us connect with a company she knew and offered to forward an email to them.

She glanced over and noticed the hotel’s gated swimming pool.

“Oh, there’s the pool,” she said.  “It doesn’t open early enough to get in a swim before I have to go to the airport.  I’ll have to jump the fence.”

Strong, smart, open-minded, committed to the public good, and irreverent —  like her dad.

Mission accomplished.  I hugged her and repeated the promise to send her a copy of the interview.  But, I want to do more than that.  I want to do what I can from Washington, DC, to help communities find the way to Wellville.  Please tell me how I can help.

You can read about Esther’s 2008 decision to accept an offer from Space Adventures to train as backup for Charles Simoni, author of Microsoft Word, next (and repeat) customer to go as a “space tourist” to the International Space Station.  A $20 million ride. “The Road Not Taken: A Detour to Space (Almost) Confirms My Path on Earth.”

Posted in entrepreneurs, Hacker News, Health | Leave a comment

AddThis founder, Hooman Radfar, Is All About Progression

Hooman Radfar, founder and chairman, AddThis, and most recently partner at EXPA, counsels StartupGrind DC to find the right advisors or investors, depending on where you are in the growth cycle.

Hooman Radfar, founder and chairman, AddThis, and most recently partner at EXPA, counsels StartupGrind DC attendees to “find the right advisers or investors, depending on where you are in the growth cycle.”

If I hadn’t met Hooman Radfar before, I’d wonder if he were for real.  For such an accomplished entrepreneur, he just seems so…normal.  When the Pittsburgh-raised son of two Persian doctors told the crowd at Startup Grind DC in May that his parents were both psychiatrists, he deadpanned, “So let the jokes ensue about what happened to me.”  He had our full attention.

People want to know how Hooman, at age 35, has had such great success and continues to build on it.  Sure he’s smart and grew up amidst the dot.com exuberance.  But, he’s got something else going for him: He’s grounded.  His recent chat at Startup Grind DC with Brian Park made clear that Hooman owns his mistakes, learns from his actions, and accepts input.

For him, a healthy culture is transparent.  He warns entrepreneurs not to confuse amenities, like foosball tables and free food, with culture. “You hit a recession and those things go away,” he says.  “What are you about?”  He recalls that he didn’t even have chairs his first year in business, his team sat on bean bags.

A logical progression

Hooman’s view of his accomplishments to date seems to indicate his ego hasn’t grown big enough to cast a shadow on reality.  He sees his entrepreneurial path as a logical progression of experiences and projects. Straight out of Carnegie Mellon with an MS in Electrical & Computer Engineering-Information Networking in 2004, he scored big as Founder and Chairman of AddThis, the world’s largest content engagement platform.  Hooman says the idea for AddThis seemed like something worth pursuing simply because “at the time people were sharing a lot of things and widgets on the Internet.”

AddThis raised over $73M in funding from top institutional investors and noteworthy angel investors, Steve Case, Ron Conway, and Ted Leonsis. Hooman moved from Pennsylvania to DC where he found proximity to New York City particularly helpful for building marketing technology or advertising technology.  When he grew into a role as investor/adviser to “companies that think in billions,” including Uber, Hooman moved to San Francisco, which “clearly has the most VC dollars, most management, and most engineers.” That said, he observes there are trade-offs of living in San Francisco.  For starters, it’s harder to get visibility, the churn is higher on your team, and what you pay for a developer is insane.   DC has a smaller base of institutional investors, but there’s also “more loyalty” all around.  His next comment pegs him as down to earth.  He says:

   …And, honestly, there is the benefit to not be subject to the buzz I’ve already seen at board meetings.  Every single meeting, the same investor comes in with a different Tech Crunch article they’re referencing, ‘I read this,’ or ”We should be trying that.’  You almost want to record them in snapshots: You…know…how…crazy…this…sounds.  There’s less of that here.”

For his most recent venture, there’s no place like San Francisco.  In September 2014, became a partner in Expa a $50M early stage fund led by Garrett Camp, cofounder of Uber, and Naveen Selvadurai, cofounder of FourSquare that is a hands-on co-founder in products.  Their resident UX guy helped design Twitter.

Two of Expa’s projects, Reserve and Operator, are focused on consumer internet, partly because they’re less costly to bootstrap, and maybe because of a bit of founder inertia. But, there’s an enterprise company coming soon and Expa has been looking at “more aggressive plays” for its second fund.  They’re into basic needs with trillion-dollar markets, like transportation and food.  He observes: “Trucking is a $3 trillion industry worldwide…If you build an online advertising marketplace, it’s ballpark $150 billion.”

Hooman Radfar tells the crowd at Startup Grind DC:

Hooman Radfar tells the crowd at Startup Grind DC: “The challenge for investors dealing with really smart entrepreneurs is that some entrepreneurs sound like they know what they’re doing, but they have some areas where there’s no depth.”

What to look for in an investor

Finding the right advisor or angel investor can be valuable, depending on where you are in the learning cycle.  Some provide hands-on help; others offer funding and a great network. There’s a place for different investor types.  You’ve just got to understand what you need and when.  And, it doesn’t hurt to be the kind of person others feel good about referring and mentoring. Hooman says:

One of the weird things that happens with founders, especially if you grow something really fast is there’s a false positive on all of your decisions.  You tend to learn a lot so you sound like you know what you’re doing but some parts you do; some parts you don’t.  Nigel Morris [co-founder Capital One, a $21 billion company] was the first real management push I ever had that spent a lot of time and taught me very basic things.

He adds this tip, smiling: “When VCs tell you your idea is ‘interesting,’ they’re not interested.”

Nigel Morris wasn’t “as hard to get to as he should have been,” Hooman explains:

 The Internet itself, in particular consumer and enterprise, is a small network of people that are investing in and building companies.  In DC, Ted [Leonsis], Steve [Case], and Nigel [Morris] all knew each other and what was going on in the community.  They were shuttling deals to each other…I believe one of our investors said: Hey, you’re going to get along well with Nigel.  He’s an analytical guy, he probably thinks like you and can teach you how to do business maybe in a way that fits your style.

No doubt, being well-grounded and receptive to others’ ideas helped Hooman get referred and learn to avoid some major mistakes going forward.

Biggest Mistake He Ever Made

As an early entrepreneur, Hooman admits to “not being a data-informed business.” Ironic, he notes, given the company he founded. It led to his biggest mistake:

We definitely tracked our metrics, but it wasn’t a hypothesis-driven loop.  We didn’t say ‘if we do this, it’s going to move by this much, let’s roll back the test to see if it succeeds or fails’…It wasn’t deterministic, it was more by the seat of your pants.  One of the mistakes I made was that I didn’t use data at all in the very beginning because I had been right a couple of times — so I’m awesome, right?  And then, when I was wrong, I was really wrong.  I think we probably lost $1 million on this product that I launched.  So, that was bad…

If he could give his younger self some advice if face to face with a big-time entrepreneur? He says simply:  “Listen twice as much as you talk.”

What’s ahead?

The on-demand ecosystem represents a systemic shift in a lot of industries from the ownership to the rental model.  “I would even say that Spotify and others are like it are part of this modern movement,” Hooman says.

When he talks about business trends, he almost sounds a bit like a psychiatrist himself.  He says:

There’s more of a noncommittal relationship with companies these days.  Optionality is key.  In particular, Millenials have a good reason to think that.  They’ve had a crappy time after the recession, they don’t know what’s going to come next.  It’s easier to just buy as they go.  I think a lot of it is stemming from this economic stuff, but it’s going to [continue to] be very big.

“Honestly, right now we’re just looking for solid businesses that we can build with people,” he adds.  Stay tuned for some interesting things from Expa this summer.

Life as progression

Every Startup Grind DC ends with the question: “If you could be any historical figure or super hero, who would you be and why?”  Hooman was prepared:

Tony Stark.  I don’t know about you guys, but engineer-turned-entrepreneur-turned super hero?  It’s like, a progression, right?  I have something to shoot for.  I told Garrett straight up if we’re not working on Ironman suits in 10 years we’re doing the wrong stuff.

Hooman is all about progression.  It just never ends.

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

WeddingWire Founder, Timothy Chi, Reveals Faux Pas While Pitching Martha Stewart

WeddingWire Founder/CEO, Timothy Chi, discusses his great big global chapter.  June, 2015 #Connectpreneur

WeddingWire Founder/CEO, Timothy Chi, discusses his great big global chapter. June, 2015 #Connectpreneur

The idea for Timothy Chi’s second company, WeddingWire, was borne of painful experience: Helping to plan his own wedding.  There were magazines that educated and inspired, but none that made it easier to execute sales, orders, and arrangements online.  Tim would have appreciated not flying so frequently between his U.S. home in Boston and the wedding venue in Toronto, Canada.

He was featured in a chat with @TienWong at #Connectpreneuer, Summer 2015 edition.

Focus: WeddingWire’s early years and what’s next besides a strong leap into 14 additional countries, with recent acquisitions in Spain and Portugal.


  • Faux pas while pitching Martha Stewart for Series A funding.
  • And an instructive accounting of a major mistake Tim recalls from early startup days.
  • Spotlight on 5 recent acquisitions and partnering opportunities that come with global growth.

What is WeddingWire?

WeddingWire is a vertical marketplace that’s focused on the wedding space.  Tim is a Founder.  This technology platform is similar to other successful models (Yelp, Zillow) because it sells subscriptions to connect customers to current, well-recommended wedding event resources, from the planning couple’s perspective.  WeddingWire crowdsources reviews of current wedding industry vendors by city.  The fast-growing startup is now one of the largest site’s in the U.S., and just expanded globally in 14 countries.  Tim says about his model:

We’re primarily an ad-driven business.  Eighty-five percent of our revenue comes from photographers, venues, florists, that are subscribing to our platform in exchange for what they expect – the door swings, the phone rings, orders come in online…

Tim really talks like this.  He grew up in Corona Del Mar, CA.

Tim told us:

  • Weddings are a high-risk, high emotion purchase, average $25,000-$30,000.
  • WeddingWire helps couples make better purchase decisions.
  • The market is tremendous – Here’s an idea how big a portion of it WeddingWire commands: There’s 2 million weddings in the U.S., average spend is $25,000.  Of this $50 billion spend, about half use WeddingWire.
  • The one-shot nature and high referral rate of this dominant business in the space result in vendors choosing to advertise each year.
  • Loyalty in this industry comes in the form of referrals that drive future business.

Built, hire, start

Early in 2007, the path to building WeddingWire began with one critical step:  Asking his wife (who he had followed to Boston for her last two years of grad school) if he and his early team could put their desks in their home living room .)

We started hammering away on our sales and marketing process.  We said we’ll build a minimum viable product (MVP) and launch in DC, weddings get planned locally so city by city expansion makes sense.

1.) First financing round, family & friends, $1/2 million. 2.) One year later, the firm entered the traditional VC landscape while talking with a lot of media companies in the wedding space about a strategic partnership. That’s when Lee, Wedding Wire’s COO at the time, did some business development 101 using an early release of LinkedIn researched potential partnerships online and sent cold call emails.  The company began a commercial agreement to sell through a commercial arrangement with the Martha Stewart brand:

After the deal, when I called for WeddingWire, I said ‘This is Tim Chi calling from Martha Steward Wedding Wire, and they were like ‘Oh, Martha’s calling me, I’ll hang on the phone for this one.’ And this was a great way for us to start as partners growing our brand.

Subsequently, the startup raised $25 million from Spectrum Venture Capital in Boston, a San Francisco-based VC in September 2012.  Total capital raise about $33 million.  “We’re really capital efficient,” Tim says, “We turned capital positive in 2011 so we’re growing really fast and still focused on growth.”  Look for acquisitions and rapid growth ahead.

But first, they had the chance to pitch Martha Stewart.  Tim says what happened that day was embarrassing.  At one point, he was pitching for a commercial relationship to sell through Martha Stewart Wedding Wire.com.  Lunch arrived.  We were at a studio where she shot a show, so we agreed to a working lunch.   As we pitched, Martha got up and started tossing the salad and getting lunch ready to be served.

After the pitch, I kept talking, arms flailing, served myself some lunch.

At one point, Martha Stewart looks over at me and asks, ‘Tim, why did you use your dessert plate for your entree?

He looked down at a plate piled vertically, quiche, salad on top.

On the heels of this mildly self-deprecating story, I asked him what was the worst mistake he’d made — in business.  Tim thought the Martha Stewart plate faux pas could have been the worst if he’d lost the company millions in Series A funding.  But, he hadn’t.  Tim has people skills that contribute to making him adorable.  [He likes reading about what motivates people to do what they do.  He mentioned the book #Nudge, which should definitely seek out his cover review soundbyte for the quality paperback reprint.]

In vertical marketplaces like YELP, winner takes all.  Scale begets more scale.  It’s hard to catch up to four million reviews.  Timothy Chi says:

If you can get scale, you build a moat around your business.

WeddingWire Founder/CEO, Timothy Chi, was a featured guest of Tien Wong (pictured elsewhere.)

WeddingWire Founder/CEO, Timothy Chi, was a featured guest @TienWong #Connectpreneur

Then, the biggest challenge is keeping your feet dry as you step in it from time to time.

Recent growth continues to be opportunistic, building on four or five acquisitions so far, including ones in Spain and Portugal.  The company just acquired Arlington-based Gay Weddings.com.

WeddingWire looks for three things in an acquisition:

  1. Technology
  2. Talent,
  3. Target Adjustable Market.

Tim’s top biggest business mistakes

The early Wedding wire launch deployed “a mistake but also an opportunity as well,” Tim explained:

We had a very technology purist view on how people were going to pay us; how other merchants were going to interact with our system. We spent a ton of energy and resources developing this whole pay per lead system for small businesses.  Adwords had just come out, people should not have to buy advertising and not get what they want.  What happens if your lead doesn’t get purchased, recycle it and make the right match.  We called it Smartmatch technology.  We released it and people didn’t understand what we were trying to do — we spent a good amount of energy doing that.

“How do people want to buy?  It’s a really interesting question.”

But, nobody was interested enough to buy what they were selling.

WeddingWire, seems to have no problem attracting subscribers, vendors, and engaged couples and their families and friends who refer future customers to its platform.  At about 400 employees and growing fast, the concern is how to keep the culture  entrepreneurial, fun, and energetic.  Here’s his secret to hiring well:

We look for really talented people and good leaders, we don’t just screen for job-specific functions.  I like to think if I were on a four-hour layover, would I want to talk with him?

Tim’s fun.  He found the right business and model.

Tien Wong creates and maintains a community to connect  local business leaders, startups, investors, and accomplished speakers: #Connectpreneur summer edition, 2015

Tien Wong creates and maintains a community to connect local business leaders, startups, investors, and accomplished speakers: #Connectpreneur summer edition, 2015

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

The Creator’s Code Mentors the Entrepreneur in Us All

Amy Wilkinson's new book draws on interviews from 200 top entrepreneurs who scaled businesses over $100 million or  over 100 million served.  Includes broad research into views from other disciplines on high-scale entrepreneurs.

Amy Wilkinson’s new book draws on interviews from 200 top entrepreneurs who scaled businesses over $100 million or over 100 million served. Includes broad research into views from other disciplines on high-scale entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship has always been a staple of the American economy, but the velocity of business development by creative enterprises has accelerated since the web and its parade of related innovation.

Looking at the role of technology and beyond, Stanford Business School lecturer, Amy Wilkinson, spent the past five years at Harvard researching and writing a brilliant book about the replicable skills that helped entrepreneurs initiate and scale the world’s most successful creative ventures.

“The research of the Creator’s Code, is basically out of my time as a White House research fellow,” Amy recently told the crowd in her keynote at the Mid-Atlantic Venture Capital Association’s TechBuzz Spring 2015.  She had moved from Silicon Valley to DC and recalls thinking that the companies that passed through the White House doors were too large to study to get the full picture of innovation in America.  The inspiration for the her book came while attending a party in New York City.

“I went to a party in New York and people from eBay, Gilt Group, Google and a bunch of other Silicon Valley people showed up.  I started thinking to myself even as a public policy person, what if we could crack the code?  What if we could figure out what skills they had so more of us could replicate and emulate those skills.  That’s the genesis of the Creator’s Code.”

The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs, is an important addition to business literature and education.  It identifies six skills entrepreneurs who have scaled businesses generating revenues over $100 million (or serving over 100 million) use to make great things happen.

This is not a typical self-help business book.  Amy conducted over 200 interviews, and methodically had 10,000 transcript pages reviewed and coded for skills employed, with her insights supported by cross-disciplinary research from sociological and psychological scholars.  Amy is a sociologist with an MBA.  She emphasizes that every single person can create and scale ideas.  A copy of this book should be in the hands of every educator, student, employee, entrepreneur and corporate leader.  It is a gem.

Author Amy Wilkinson delivers keynote at Techbuzz Spring 2015 at the Sphinx Club in Washington, DC.

Author Amy Wilkinson delivers keynote at Techbuzz Spring 2015 at the Sphinx Club in Washington, DC.

The insights Amy provides into the founders of PayPal, Starbucks, Chipotle, Chobani OPower, DropBox, AirBnB, Spanx, UnderArmour, Uber, Theranos, SpaceX and others instruct as much as they inspire. Their first-person founder stories shed light on the six skills they employ when exploring, launching, and scaling new ideas.

Amy emphasizes: “The principles in this research apply to everyone, whether they work alone or in a large corporation.”

Cracking the Code

The most effective creators do all of the following six things:

  1. Find the gap.  “The big difference with creators is they ask questions all the time,” said Amy.  They see things others don’t.  They don’t ignore ideas that appeal to them from the corner of their eyes.  They have different patterns of discovery, they either transplant concepts, design a new way, or merge separate ideas. “That’s something we can do all the time,” she emphasized.  “We all have tacit awareness, think something is interesting but rationalize it away.  Creators, jump on it.  They ask, probe, and continue to ask.”  That’s how a fax salesperson, Sarah Blakely, created a pair of panty hose she could comfortably wear under her pants and turned her $5,000 investment into a wholly owned multi-billion dollar undergarment enterprise.  Like Sarah, Elon Musk is an architect who builds his ideas, such as SpaceX from the ground up.  Idea integrators, like Steve Els, a culinary institute graduate question why fast food has to be so limited and created a new category with his tasty fast-but-delicious Chipotle.
  2. Drive for Daylight. Creators move steadily towards their goal with their eyes on the horizon, scanning the edges without being distracted by what others are doing around them — even if it takes a decade as it did for Elizabeth Holmes, who came up with the idea for Theranos, a revolutionary blood diagnostics company, at age 19.
  3. Continuously update their assumptions in a fast OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.)  The ultimate masters of this skill (and proof it can be taught by example) are the PayPal team, Peter Theil, Elon Musk, and Max Lechin, who moved their model six times in 18 months, from encrypted software, to virtual wallet,  raising money based on beaming it between Palm Pilots.  How?  “The co-founders observed people were on the website trying to do something that would be online or emailing money, oriented themselves to determine it was a great idea, [and] quickly decided to act,” said Amy.   Then they realized that eBay auction buyers and sellers were trying to use Paypal and had an epiphany to build on top of eBay.  eBay was never able to catch up with them and they sell when the bubble burst.   Even more interesting is to trace the serial success of the original 12 PayPal employees, dubbed the “Silicon Valley mafia,” who created and scaled Yelp, U-Tube, LinkedIn, Slide, Tesla Motors, Dig — and were among the first investors in Facebook.  The Paypal intern who scaled Yelp told Amy he learned to look for the counter-intuitive blip of data.  “Yelp was built as an email referral system.  It’s founders noticed that a small feature asking if people wanted to write a review of a restaurant, dry cleaner, dance studio etc. was popular.  They observed, oriented, decided and acted.”
  4. Fail Wisely.  Run small tests to hone ideas and plan to learn from an acceptable ratio of little failures.  “The founders of Stella and Dot say they know that one out of three things they try as a jewelry company won’t work, that’s their ratio,” said Amy.
  5. Network Minds. Build on the thinking of diverse individuals.
  6. Gift Small Goods.  Generously contribute to the productivity of others and cement relationships.

That’s the gist.  The book unfolds with examples that will stay with you and inspire attention to the skills that could fuel your own great creative venture.  Listening to Amy spin these tales is solid gold.

Amy Wilkinson, author of the Creator's Code,  listens carefully to people as they stop by to get their books autographed.

Amy Wilkinson, author of the Creator’s Code, listens carefully to people as they stop by to get their books autographed.

So we’re excited to learn that she will be speaking in DC at 1776 on Thursday, April 23.  If you get to go, please share your comments with us here.

The author's encouragement infuses every page.

Thanks, Amy.  Back at you!

Posted in Creator's, Creator's Code, entrepreneurs, startups, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

When Improvonia’s Co-Founders Realized the App Wasn’t Their Own

Improvonia's co-founders, Jag Bansal and Konstantin Zvereff (LtoR), started building their app with as a project while students at Georgetown's MBA program.

Improvonia’s co-founders, Jag Bansal and Konstantin Zvereff (LtoR), started building their app with as a project while students at Georgetown’s MBA program.

Last year, The Mid-Atlantic Venture Capital Association (MAVA) moved from Georgetown to a stunning shared-space near the Farragut North Metro stop in the heart of DC’s Golden Triangle (BID).  Maybe it’s the new view, but it seems that TechBuzz keeps getting better.

Here’s a close up of one of the companies that got a nod from half of the investor panel for addressing both hospitality business food purchaser and vendor in one intuitive platform.  (Update 8/9/15: Congrats on raising $4 million series A from Blue Run Ventures!  Update 10/30/2015: Improvonia is now BlueCart and free for both buyers and suppliers.)

The Company: Improvonia – Ordering Made Simple

Co-founders Konstantin Zvereff, CEO, and Jag Bansal started Improvonia as a project while students at Georgetown’s MBA program.  “It was originally built for Sweetgreen,” said Konstantin.  The co-founders had “met at school and bonded over their early experiences working in kitchens,” Jag explains.  “We were waiters, I was a dishwasher in high school.”

Konstantin says he worked as an “expeditor” for serving at a high-end restaurant in Northern Virginia.  That is how he knew how to work in an environment where occasionally plates were thrown and knives pointed in your direction.  He turned that skill into several interesting entrepreneurial endeavors.

Fixing a broken communication chain

The team was inspired to create a platform to better connect the buyers and vendors of the hospitality industry.  Legacy systems consisted of leaving a bunch of telephone order messages and returning missed calls separately, for every food and beverage vendor for restaurants and resorts.  Buyers spent their mornings waiting for vendors to return their telephone calls to confirm their orders.

Communications in this industry are too loosely connected considering the affordable technology available to aggregate and streamline food orders with all vendors.  What sets the solution apart is that it was developed for both sides of the transaction: buyer and seller.

“We ended up winning local and national competitions and then Georgetown flew us to Canada to compete in business school competitions,” says Konstantin, who says the successes along the way encouraged him to go all in.  Industry feedback was good.

Konstantin’s background was part of his inspiration

“I lived in Uganda for three years running a nonprofit organization focused on micro-enterprise development in rural areas,” he explains.  “We could see that farmers, rural agribusinesses, lacked the infrastructure to compete with the big guys.”

His gut instinct was that it would be ethical to help quality producers succeed by helping to create that infrastructure.

Improvonia CEO and co-founder, Konstantin Zvereff found inspiration to fix broken communication from experience running the East Africa sectoin of Village enterprise, a nonprofit organization focused on microenterprise development in rural areas.

Improvonia CEO and co-founder, Konstantin Zvereff found inspiration to fix broken communication from experience running the East Africa sectoin of Village enterprise, a nonprofit organization focused on microenterprise development in rural areas.

How their sales strategies evolved

Currently, buyers and vendors  have the incentive to share Improvonia with each other.  That’s the 1:1 referral secret that Konstantin says helped the company achieve its high user growth.

What is significant is why they strategy changed.  In the first quarter, July – October, the team went after restaurants.  “We were shooting for 16 and got 159 just by walking the streets in DC and telling them about the platform.  Instead of adding 159 users, we grew to over 1,000 second quarter,” said Konstantin, “and we switched to the vendor focus.”

Refining the Approach

The team realized that the biggest bottle necks were vendors sitting on the platform that people didn’t use.  In February 2015, they released a new invitation-only version that enables restaurants that are not registered on the program to start transacting with any vendor.

Three-Year Vision

In the next three years, the co-founders plan to put Improvonia into the hands of every single chef and decision-maker in the hospitality industry.  The challenge is how to activate people as fast as possible so they can spread its use.

“The more buyers a given vendor has on the platform, the more useful it becomes to understand purchasing patterns and other data based on time, users, and buyers,” says Konstantin. “It is remarkable that we’ve been doubling our aggregate order numbers from July to the end of December 2014.”

Improvonia has learned to balance different investor priorities on the East vs. West Coast.  The company uses a separate pitch deck for each coast.

It’s been fascinating to see what different investors care about, Konstantin observes:

“There are different sets of priorities for East Coast vs. West Coast venture investors.  East Coast investors are really focused on how much revenue you have today.  West Coast investors want to know more about user engagement and growth, not financials. Balancing the two different sets of priorities is complex. While a West Coast investor might view selling sponsored ads as a way to supplement growth, a team on the East Coast might think that’s a terrible idea.”

Improvonia has already been approached by other verticals, such as dental and veterinary practices that have a fragmented communications channel.  Improvonia could be used to help streamline their ordering process, but not now.  The team remains focused on the food/hospitality sector.

Tell your favorite hospitality chains, independents, caterers, to start using Improvonia.

Posted in entrepreneurs, Funding | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

TechBuzz: Fresh Tech Look for Spring 2015

Techbuzz Spring 2015 Keynote address by Amy Wilkinson, author, The Creator's Code: The Six Essential Skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs

Techbuzz Spring 2015 Keynote address by Amy Wilkinson, author, The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs

Ideas all over the place at the Mid-Atlantic Venture Capital Association (MAVA) Spring 2015 TechBuzz in DC’s The Sphinx Club.  It was as if Elon Musk’s head had exploded.

To get off to a great start, MAVA’s Executive Director, Julia Spicer, introduced Keynote speaker, Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code:  The Six Essential Skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs.  The book highlights teachable skills practiced by 200 of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time.  In addition to spending four years on outstanding research, Amy has held leadership roles with McKinsey & Company and J.P. Morgan, been White House fellow and special assistant to the U.S. Trade Representative, and has lectured at Stanford and Harvard Universities, etc.  [Dedicated Creator’s Code post coming soon]  

I enjoyed the polished pitch from founder and CEO of Sickweather(r) – See what’s going around(tm), Graham Dodge, a TechStars graduate currently raising $1.5 in seed funding led by my favorite back-in-the-day interviewee, Brad Feld, VC, cofounder, The Foundry.

Graham Dodge, co-founder/CEO, Sick Weather(r): see what's going around (tm) starts his 4 minutes off well with a heat map of the US.

Act 1: CEO & Investor panel presentation feedback and observations.

Act 1: CEO & Investor panel presentation feedback and observations.

Feedback and lessons for all

The all-star cast of 20 total entrepreneurs selected by a hands-on investor/entrepreneur committee received feedback two four-person investor panels:

Act 2: MAVA's Julia Spicer introduces CEO and Investor Panel for  feedback session.

Act 2: MAVA’s Julia Spicer introduces CEO and Investor Panel for feedback session.

Interesting Presenter Mix

Pitching that day were: Antenna; Arcadia Power; BeHealth Solutions; BiJoTi (panelists cited for its presentation on adapting cybersecurity and generating business risk management intelligence); EquityEats; EventKloud “Audiences Delivered,”; Immersive 3D LLC (i3d), a gaming approach to science, technology, engineering, and math; Maya Health Network (smart-phone doctor consultation app that integrates demographic, medical, and diagnostic data in a patient-centered, cloud-based record with a back-end analytics platform that generates insights for doctors to improve patient care and create a more efficient and profitable practice.:); Medex Spot (Instant Telemedicine Service); Synapsify, Inc., platform allows enterprises to test analytics with a customized machine intelligent system that users can deploy to rank and prioritize content wihtout expensive in-house technical resources or expertise.  TidWit Inc.’s Exterprise(r) cloud-based network connects hundreds of organizations in more than 60 countries with their channel partners.

Hard to Ignore

Just when you thought you couldn’t get any  more distracted in your car, HeadsUP!, announced the first aftermarket hardware- connected car device of its kind, harnessing the capabilities of smartphones and adding its own functionality to upgrade any car into a “connected car.”  Co-founder, Smita Majumder, says it’s less of a distraction to mount your directions, messages, phone call capability onto the windshield edges than to fiddle with your cell phone — you know you do it anyway.   I have a hard enough time driving while navigating NPR.

ParkedIn seemed like yet another parking app until co-founder Matt Provo made it sound like AirBNB for precision monitoring capacity, demand and utilization of parking inventory before, during and after an event.  The VC sitting next to me perked up when he heard Harvard and Apple used in the same bio.  Oh, and SENTEL, Pfizer, Genworth Financial, American INstitutes for Research and UC Berkley.  ParkedIn has already got some great event manager and organization partnerships onboard, such as The National Cherry Blossom Festival.  Matt had me with his opening confession that when he first moved to DC he had amassed over $2,500 in parking tickets.  (Somebody tell him about Bikeshare?)

Panelists Expressed Interest in the following presenters:

  • GotMyJobs’s mobile collaboration tool appears to bring the construction industry into the 21st Century and got some positive attention from investor panelists.
  • Lineapple Inc., a smartphone app that lets you skip the line, see nearby promotions, and be rewarded for loyalty.  Co-founder, Danielle Jones, I could have used this when standing in line at the Gaudi Museum with three kids in the blazing heat.
  • MyMuzik.  This cloud-based music library platform accesses over 250,000 pieces of sheet music on a purpose-built device.  Download fees apply.  This Kindle for musicians would save a lot of trees and help spread culture worldwide.
  • QuotePie: Agents Competing to Earn Your Business.  This web-based insurance marketplace turned some heads with U.S. property and casualty agent penetration covering 94% of the U.S. market.
  • Return Logic: Compelling return analytics platform for e-commerce companies to reduce costly returns.

Thanks, Kim Weir, Deputy Executive Director, MAVA for suggesting Routeam, the gang I advise, check this out to hone our pitching skills!

Stay tuned for the story behind another notable presenter that caught the VC panelists eyes:  Improvonia.  It’s the back story on a promising idea that’s evolved through perseverance and paying attention in class in Georgetown’s MBA program.

Posted in entrepreneurial community, entrepreneurs, Funding, innovation, Investing, Startup DC, startups, Tech-Enabled Business, TechBuzz, Uncategorized, Venture Capitalists | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment