Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Reaching the milestones of start-up success

When it comes to student start-ups, more seed capital is better than less, motivation is an imperative, but a team of trusted and experienced advisors might be the greatest asset of all. So in an effort to provide more attention and resources for the most promising start-up teams after the UW Business Plan Competition, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship worked with the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to launch the Milestone Achievement Awards.  “We wanted to accelerate some of these start-ups,” says Michael Bauer, president of the Jones Foundation, a long-time supporter of the competition. “So we came up with this idea of a real financial incentive for the teams to set and reach key developmental milestones.”

Serious about starting their companies, five of the winning teams from the 2010 competition have spent the last six months participating in the Jones program. The start-ups worked with CIE staff and a special advisory committee made up of CIE board members and past winners of the Business Plan Competition to draw up a short list of “realistic but measureable” milestones they could reach within that timeframe.  “We’re proud to say four of the five start-ups reached their milestones and will receive awards,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of CIE. “But what’s really stunning about each of these teams is that they all raised angel or grant funding and have made great progress on their prototypes or pilot projects.”

Led by CEO Brian Glaister, EETech is developing a medical device that enables people in wheelchairs to walk again and received a $25,000 award. Another $25,000 went to YongoPal, a service created by Darien Brown, for South Korean university students who want to hone their conversational English with American peers at top US universities. WISErg, with team members Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell, developed a solution that uses compostable organic waste to create natural fertilizers and biogas, and received $15,000. Emergent Detection, led by Eric Fogel and Keegan Hall, also received $10,000 in additional seed funding for their handheld device that measures and records fat loss.

“The committee helped us identify what the most important milestones would be for our first six months, in order of priority and contingency,” said WISErg’s Jaimee Jewell. “That helped us keep each of our revenue streams fresh in our minds, but also prioritize what needed to happen to bring them all together.”

“For me, the mentorship was the best part of the program,” said Brian Glaister of EETech. “As a first-time entrepreneur and a first-time CEO, it was really helpful to have an outside view of the company, particularly to put the advice of our internal team and directors into the proper perspective. Even though the program is finished, I expect the relationships with our mentors will continue, which I’m very happy about.”

Members of the Jones committee included Marc Barros of Contour, Bill Bromfield of Fenwick & West, Alan Dishlip of Billing Revolution, Geoff Entress of Voyager Capital, Alan Portugal of Ivus Energy Innovations, Adrian Smith of Ignition, and Michael Bauer, of the Jones Foundation. And the committee had their share of accolades for the teams, noting that it was gratifying to help fellow entrepreneurs start off on the right foot and avoid some of the common pitfalls and “newbie” mistakes. “I got a real kick out of seeing the teams make progress on their first set of milestones,” said Geoff Entress. “I’m already looking forward to next year.”

Photo left to right: Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell of WISErg.

Lights, camera, entrepreneurship!

Guest post by Vance Roush, undergraduate student at the UW Foster School of Business

A couple years ago, as a sophomore in the UW Foster School of Business and Lavin Entrepreneurial Action Program, I was fortunate enough to interview Leonard Lavin when he visited the University of Washington. Mr. Lavin is a brilliant businessman, racehorse owner and most notably founder of Alberto-Culver Company which he recently sold to Unilever for $3.7 billion. From my interview with Mr. Lavin, I took away three key ideas that have driven my success in the business school and prepared me for my future career and entrepreneurial ventures: greatness can arise from obstacles and conflict, it’s what you have inside of you that matters, and be a risk-taker and pursue your passion.

That meeting with Mr. Lavin shaped my life, and because of that, I thought to myself, “How much more insight can be filtered to students, and how many more lives can be positively impacted if someone were able to capture entrepreneurs’ best insights and keys to success?”  That was the inspiration for the  Lavin Video Project and the “Entrepreneurship is…” video series.  This video series will bridge the gap between the Seattle entrepreneurship network, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) and the outside community.  More specifically, our goal  is to connect Lavin undergrad students to entrepreneurs in the local community in an engaging way to create meaningful relationships and tangible productions. The story behind the “Entrepreneurship is…” series is as follows:

Often times people can’t even spell the word “Entrepreneurship”, let alone fully grasp what it means. Lavin students quickly realize that there is not just one definition, but many different meanings. Our vision is to capture a wide array of perspectives on the topic by going out into the field and interacting with the business owners, serial entrepreneurs, VCs, and other thought leaders in the Seattle community in hopes that they will chime in with their thoughts, experiences, and wisdom.

The first interview in the series is with Michel Brotman, CIE’s Entrepreneur in Residence and a serial entrepreneur involved in Costco, Garden Botanica, Sweet Factory, Play Network and the Chocolate Box. Brotman believes that entrepreneurship is a very creative process and that it’s all about selling your story. He is emphatic when he states, “Entrepreneurship is art!”

The Lavin students will be unveiling other videos throughout the year with such influential local entrepreneurs as Lon McGowan of iClick, restaurateur Tom Douglas, Kay Smith-Blum of Butch Blum, and Rob Salkowitz, author of Young World Rising.We hope you follow our journey and are inspired to learn more about entrepreneurship, start your own endeavor, or become involved in the entrepreneurial scene!

Vance Roush is a senior information systems and marketing major in the UW’s Foster School of Business Honors Program. He is a Lavin student and serves as the president of the Foster School’s Business Economic Development Center. Vance plans to extend his entrepreneurial endeavors after graduation when he begins his career with Google in Mountain View, CA.

Creating a company one t-shirt at a time

Jeff BeckerLook around any college campus today and you’ll find something arguably even more prolific than cell phones and iPods. Greek system T-shirts. And if you’re on the University of Washington campus, chances are those T-shirts are from a UW start-up, Kotis Design, a company that has recently made the Puget Sound Business Journal’s list of 100 Fastest Growing Washington Companies for the third year in a row.

As a freshman, Jeff Becker (BA 2003) started making T-shirts for his fraternity’s dances. “One day a light bulb went off,” he said. “No one was making T-shirts that anyone really liked. So my goal became to sell a T-shirt to every Greek student here.” During his junior year, Becker took a pivotal class—Creating a Company. “My advice for any student is to take this class. You learn from doing. You actually run a company and do what a real business does: work with other people, have disagreements, experience the exciting times together. That was the most positive experience for me.”

Becker competed in the Business Plan Competition three times while at the UW, making it to the semi-final Sweet 16 all three times. He first entered the competition with HuSKIbus, a collaboration with Stevens Pass, The Ram, and Helly Hansen, which he developed in the Creating a Company class. His second and third entries were Kotis Design. While he didn’t win, he did see tremendous value in competing. “It really pushes you to think about the process behind starting a company. You might have a great idea but don’t know where to begin, so [the competition] is good practice.”

Today, Kotis provides customers with everything from design services and online storefronts, to packaging and fulfillment services. Becker emphasizes that in addition to the quality of the products, it’s the overall customer experience that keeps campus organizations and businesses around the country coming back again and again. The strong focus on customers has lead to a growth rate of roughly 50% every year. As Becker explains it, “We’ve experienced solid, steady growth because we have great people who are hard working, efficient and forward-thinking.”

The art of entrepreneurial decision-making

Emer Dooley“Do I take the job or start my own company?” It’s a tough decision but just the first of many decisions an entrepreneur will make during his or her career. And that’s the point of Emer Dooley‘s Entrepreneurial Decision-Making class: get used to it now because you’re going to spend your career making decisions—often with incomplete information and few data points.

Each week, graduate students hear first-hand from an entrepreneur who is grappling with or has just gone through the decision-making process on an issue from the start-up lifecycle, from generating an idea and writing a business plan to financing, growth, and a successful exit. Small teams of students are responsible for engaging the guest in discussion and digging into the hows and whys of the entrepreneur’s final decision.

Dooley, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the UW Foster School of Business, has no problem getting leaders from Seattle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to share their experiences with her class. “We recently had Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia, come in and talk about his latest idea and he asked the students how they would generate viral traffic. Now one of the MBAs is working with him on the project,” she said. “I wanted to make this class interactive and more of a conversation where there’s real feedback about what’s happening. The ownership is on the students to make this a useful part of the class.”

Students also look at a variety of entrepreneurial models during the quarter, everything from franchising, to buying a company, to high-tech start-ups. Dooley tries to balance the types of companies that come into the class. “Right now Web 2.0 is huge in Seattle so we’re spending a little more time on those companies this quarter,” she said.

While helping students develop the tools and network they’ll find most valuable after they leave the university, Dooley also promotes the idea that there is no one set track or right answer for an entrepreneur. “It’s all about figuring out who you are and what makes you tick,” she said. “Some people start their companies right out of school but others may be better off joining a big company for a couple of years. Every entrepreneur is different.”

Figuring out who you are. Put that in the tough decision category.

Bacon…in a glass?

Stefan Schachtell, Sven Liden, and Chris Marshall, founders of Black Rock Spirits.
Stefan Schachtell, Sven Liden, and Chris Marshall, founders of Black Rock Spirits.

In the food industry, bacon is the “it” food of the moment. And if industry awards and late night talk shows are any indication, Bakon Vodka may just be the “it” beverage of the year. Sven Liden (MBA 2004), co-founder of the parent company, Black Rock Spirits, says it all began on a camping trip in 2007 when a friend brought along 20 pounds of bacon. As the campfire conversation turned to infused liquors, they began to wonder if all that bacon could make a good drink. “The next weekend we bought 12 types of bacon and a bunch of different types of vodka and did all of these infusions in Mason jars in my kitchen,” he said.

The best infusion came from a mix of peppered bacon and potato vodka. After getting a positive response from friends who sampled the winning concoction, Liden and his business partners decided to test the product to the commercial market. In May 2009, after a year and a half of working through all of the liquor industry’s requirements and regulations, they produced 1,500 bottles of Bakon Vodka—enough, they figured, to last three or four months.

Posts about Bakon Vodka on Facebook and Twitter soon had the blogosphere buzzing. Within two weeks of its initial release, Conan O’Brien was sampling Bakon Vodka on his late night talk show. And those first 1,500 bottles were gone in no time. While many other small liquor companies struggle to get their products distributed in one or two states, distribution of Bakon Vodka has expanded from two states to 20 in just one year. Black Rock Spirits expects sales of the beverage to top $1 million in 2010 and was recently awarded a Gold Medal in the Beverage Testing Institute’s 2010 International Review of Spirits—a very prestigious award in the liquor industry.

Before entering the full-time MBA program at the University of Washington, Liden already had one start-up under his belt. “My background was in engineering and software development, but I felt that something was missing from my tool box. I wanted that knowledge of business,” he said. While at the UW, Liden participated in the 2004 Business Plan Competition with TeachTown, a company that provides educational software for children with autism. “I’ve been part of three start-ups now and that’s been really interesting because they are all so different,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think all entrepreneurs should try that, but the broad foundation I developed at the UW has allowed me to do that and succeed.”

One million tweeps

Arianna O'DellThe Twitter phenomenon will soon be immortalized in that most retro form of publishing: a book. Remember those? Arianna O’Dell, a UW entrepreneurship undergraduate, is hoping to capture the faces of one million Twitter users in a coffee table book called One Million Tweeps.

O’Dell and software developer Ludo Antonov launched the “One Million Tweeps” website in early October and have received close to 1,500 submissions to date. Twitter users, or “Tweeps” as they’re called, can upload their Twitter photo for free to a tile on the site that will be included in the book. Businesses and public figures are also encouraged to upload photos or advertisements at a cost of $5 per tile. Several marketing and social media firms have already signed on and staked out their spots in the book.

Inspiration for the project came from the “$1 Million Home Page,” a wildly successful website created by a student in the UK to fund his university education by selling ad space for $1/pixel. Similarly, O’Dell and Antonov will use any proceeds remaining after publishing their book to bootstrap their next start-up, “a business focused on making the web a more transparent and informed place.” But this unique project is as much social experiment as it is business venture. “Our goal with this book is also to create a time capsule of the state of social media today,” O’Dell said.

O’Dell is now talking with potential publishers to determine final pricing of the book as well as the layout and design. The pair hopes to reach the one million–tweep point by the end of the year. “We’re really excited about how well it’s all going. The Whidbey News Times and just ran articles about the project, which was great,” said O’Dell. “Now we’re just focused on getting the word out.”

To contribute to One Million Tweeps, go to:

Taking aim at energy solutions

AIMER SystemIn 2008 Brian Pepin and Anthony Simon were running Energizing Solutions, a small industrial efficiency consulting company, while studying electrical engineering at the UW.  The two undergraduates discovered that while efficiency monitoring systems were available in the marketplace, they were often cost-prohibitive for their manufacturing clients who were already operating on the thinnest of margins and feeling pressure from lower-cost competitors abroad. Passionate about helping their customers save energy and money, Pepin and Simon invented a new type of monitoring system that detects inefficient and abnormal operation in electric motors at a fraction of the competition’s price.

Called the Attachable Indicator for Maintaining Efficiency and Reliability, or AIMER, the system monitors energy efficiency in electric motors and tells the operator what kind of maintenance is needed and when. This, in turn, allows plant operators to move from preventive to predictive maintenance on their electric motors, cutting maintenance costs by more than 70 percent.

More efficient motors equate to reduced electricity costs and consumption. And when you’re talking about the billions of dollars spent each year on electricity costs by the US industrial and manufacturing sector, that’s some serious cost savings.

After recruiting Mark Ramme (MBA 2009) to join the company as chief operating officer, Energizing Solutions entered the UW Business Plan Competition in 2009. They won second place and $10,000. “The BPC was an invaluable experience for us,” said Pepin. “Coming from an engineering background, we were unaware of the start-up environment, from financing to organizational structure. It was great for us to learn what VCs and angels want to see from a company coming to ask for money.”

Since graduating from the UW, Pepin was accepted to the electrical engineering doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Energizing Solutions also applied for and won a spot at the Berkeley Venture Lab, which provided the company with free lab space and mentoring as well as a $5,000 prize. Energizing Solutions then partnered with Far Sciences to produce the first generation prototype, and with Siemens Technology-To-Business Center to conduct a one-year pilot of the AIMER system.

If all goes well with the pilot, the next step will be to enter into either a joint venture or licensing agreement with Siemens. After that, who knows? Perhaps another entrepreneurial adventure. “The entrepreneurial community has a lot of energy and excitement,” Pepin said. “And the appetite for clean-tech solutions in manufacturing is only going to grow. I don’t think we’ll be sitting around for long.”

Update June 2011: Energizing Solutions recevied a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR).

Generosity of women leaders in India

Guest blog post by Cate Goethals, UW Foster School of Business lecturer

Women Leadership Trip - India 2010I first noticed it on the plane before I even reached Mumbai when I sat next to a woman who owned a handicraft business. I told her I was bringing a group of 22 students to India. “Come to my home,” she said. “Let me cook for you.” Her sister-in-law, who ran a different business, came to sit in our row. “Please let me host your group,” she said.

University of Washington students and I (their faculty trip organizer) had set out to study women’s leadership in India. I expected the accomplished women we met to be powerful, visionary, confident, charismatic, any number of traits. What I had not anticipated was generosity.  Extreme generosity. The more responsibility someone had, the more time and attention and respect they gave us.  Some more examples:

  • Rohini Nilekani, who runs a multimillion-dollar foundation in Bangalore and is known as “the Melinda Gates of India,” spoke to us and then had to go to a meeting.  After the meeting, she returned and gave us another hour of her time.  Half of that was spent asking us for our ideas.
  • Poorvi Chothani, well-known attorney often seen on Mumbai TV, not only agreed to brief my group on women and the law in India – but went on to spend many more hours organizing a special session of the Ladies Wing (!) of the Mumbai Merchants Chamber to gather dozens of women in our honor. She turned what could have been a personal platform into an exchange of ideas.
  • Veena Mankar, leading banker and co-founder of microfinance institution Swadhaar, had to cancel our visit to go to a funeral. She then rearranged her schedule and spent more than an hour driving across Mumbai to meet with us at our hotel early one morning. “Young people have the best ideas,” she told me. “I talk to them whenever I can.”
  • Amma, “the hugging saint” and most well-known female spiritual guru in the world, heard that we were rushed through our first session with her. Although she hugged thousands of other people that day, she invited us for a second session, asked that we sit at her feet and personally answered our questions about women’s leadership. Then she asked her swami to give us back the money we paid to stay at her ashram. “Students should have pocket money,” she said.
  • Women of the world-famous Self Employed Women’s Association greeted each of us several times with a personal flower, a special bindi (red dot pressed with rice on our foreheads to nourish our spirits) and a bit of sugar to eat.

I was struck by this generosity on nearly every visit.  It may be part of Indian culture, it may be related to gender, it may be a function of the exceptional people we saw.  In any case, it is an overlooked and undervalued leadership trait – and one that is infectious, making the students and I want to give back…and give elsewhere…and do it again, creating new cycles of generosity even now that we’re home.  The ripples are still being felt.

Cate Goethals, University of Washington Foster School of Business lecturer and Seattle consultant, leads global business seminars and study trips focused on women and international business. She has taught at the UW Foster School for more than 20 years—including a class called “Women at the Top” that was named one of the 10 most innovative MBA classes in the country by Forbes in 2010.

The India exploration seminar abroad, called Half the Sky: Women Leaders and Entrepreneurs, included 22 graduate and undergraduate students.

Entrepreneur Rich Barton on consumer-driven start-ups

Expedia founder and serial entrepreneur Rich Barton spoke candidly to University of Washington Foster School of Business entrepreneurial alumni about his philosophy, lessons learned, venture capitalist experience, owning consumer-driven dot coms and social networking.

Rich Barton is executive chairman of Zillow, chairman of Glassdoor, chairman of new venture Travelpost, board member of Realself (started by CEO Tom Seery, Foster MBA 2000) and involved with numerous other start-ups.

Watch a condensed 12-minute version of his guest lecture:

 Click on image above to play video

Women leadership in India via microfinance

Guest post by Cynthia Sánchez (UW English major, graduating in 2011)

I used to believe microfinance pertained only to those in the banking industry. However, I’ve discovered this is not the case. Microfinance can be utilized by many banks, but also individuals seeking to help others. I learned microfinance does more than lend money. It helps people save, build their resources and reduce their vulnerability.

Microfinance repayment gathering in India
Microfinance repayment gathering in India

Meeting with Grameen Bank in Bangalore, India allowed me to witness the difference the bank makes by giving 97% of their loans to women while they also strive to educate the next generation. Our meeting with Grameen Bank began by attending a repayment meeting. We arrived at the gathering location—encountering a few goats along the way—and entered an open space. A group of women sat leg-crossed chanting the sixteen decisions, a set of values, followed by the recitation of a vow. This was the way they commenced meetings. They welcomed us with smiles and requests to sit next to them, tapping the floor beside them to signal open spots. The women wore saris and a few cradled their children. We took our seats barefoot and watched each member sign in. Their glass and golden bangles slid up and down, synchronized to the movement of their arms.

The session was quick. The women were prepared with the money stacked in their hands, like a deck of cards. They all sat attentive waiting to hear their name to pass the payment to the lender. The money circulated, hand in hand, until it reached him. He counted the amount and recorded the amount in the borrower record sheet which contained the borrower’s picture, her name, the names of her children and spouse and dates of all the past payments.

We learned from the women that with the money they borrowed they had paid for their children’s education, started businesses, resolved personal issues and emergencies and also had the opportunity to expand their knowledge of business. Obtaining a loan from Grameen Bank had empowered them to decide what was best for their families and their future. Women who were once considered “uncredit-worthy” are now beginning to move away from poverty in a country where 41% of its population is still “unbanked”—demonstrating the difference a small loan can make.

Cynthia is a University of Washington student participant in the Foster School of Business study tour during fall quarter 2010. The trip, focused on Women Leadership in India, was organized by Foster faculty member Cate Goethals.