Tag Archives: start-ups

Zulily and Maveron: Building a successful company

Guest post by Emilia Griswold, Foster MBA 2014

Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily
Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily

Foster students were recently treated to a discussion of “What Makes a Successful Company” with Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily.com, and Dan Levitan, co-founder of venture capital firm Maveron. Maveron led the initial funding for Zulily, and this was a rare opportunity to see a founder and investor speak candidly about their partnership. Cavens and Levitan, along with moderator Emer Dooley of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship discussed start-ups, venture capital, and building high-performing teams.

The recent $1 billion valuation of Zulily prompted several questions about how a billion dollar company gets started. The answer, from both Cavens and Levitan, was hard work. Zulily was started by Cavens and former Blue Nile CEO Mark Vadon with little more than a spreadsheet and whiteboard. Although they didn’t have much of a business plan, Maveron believed in the team. The people, Levitan pointed out, are what a company is all about. With the Zulily team, Maveron saw leaders with the ability and vision to bring others along for the ride and a staunch dedication to constant improvement. Cavens and Levitan agreed that Zulily never thought of itself as a billion dollar company, but as a company focused on doing and growing. And fast.

By creating a culture with an “iterate and grow” mindset, they could run on Zulily Time: twice as fast as anyone would think is doable. To illustrate Zulily Time, Cavens told the story of getting the first fulfillment center up and running in 10 weeks—instead of the 7-12 months that was originally estimated. That lesson of maintaining focus and going after what everyone thinks is impossible certainly resonates with many students. And Levitan had more advice for those just starting out and lacking Cavens’ pedigree: be comfortable thinking on your feet, surround yourself with entrepreneurial people, and take time in school to figure out who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what you excel at.

Dan Levitan
Dan Levitan, Co-founder of Maveron

Cavens emphasized that part of developing yourself is developing a team that compliments your skills. When he was building the initial Zulily team, he looked for people that would not only add value, but also take risks and thrive in ambiguous situations. Cavens advised taking time to find investors with whom you really click, because they are also part of the team. Funders can add networks and resources as well as validation of your idea. Because Maveron knew Cavens and his capabilities, they were even willing to let Zulily write their own term sheet tied to a specific set of milestones. And unlike many start-ups, Cavens knew that if this idea didn’t work out he wasn’t going to pivot, he would just give the investment back and go do something else.

Ultimately, Levitan noted, it’s great entrepreneurs and their teams that build an amazing company—not venture capital firms. But no one, Zulily in particular, can deny the importance of money and resources to get a company off the ground. Zulily is proof that incredible things can happen when driven founders and the right investors come together.

This event was organized by Foster’s Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Club.

The Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship awards $170,000 to eight student-led start-ups

Haiti Babi Blanket
Haiti Babi

When Katlin Jackson returned from her second trip to Haiti in January 2012, she was a woman on a mission. After spending time in a Haitian orphanage, she’d discovered that a good number of the children there weren’t orphans at all. Their parents were simply too poor to care for them. Within months, Katlin, along with UW junior Kari Davidson, cofounded Haiti Babi and entered the 2012 Business Plan Competition.

Haiti Babi now employs four Haitian mothers to knit and crochet high-quality, incredibly soft baby blankets and accessories that are sold to moms in the United States. In 12 months, Katlin and Kari have taken an idea, defined a mission (Moms helping Moms), and created a start-up company that is making real headway. They have a well-thought-out brand, fashionable products, and a detailed operations plan. Their Indiegogo campaign brought in double their fund-raising goal, pre-orders for their first blankets surpassed all expectations, and Haiti Babi has been featured in Seattle Magazine, Social Good Moms, and Disney Baby.

Much of Haiti Babi’s success can be attributed to the intelligence, drive, and dedication of its founders, but they’ve also had great help along the way. They were admitted into the Jones Milestones/Foster Accelerator in July 2012.

The JM/FA at the Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship is a TechStars-like program that provides a milestones-based framework, monthly coaching from Seattle entrepreneurs and investors, and connections that help student teams make the transition to start-up companies.  From July 2012 to February 2013, 10 teams worked to recreate their teams, develop their technologies or get product to market, and raise early-stage funding. On February 13, eight teams were awarded between $10,000 and $25,000 for their efforts.

  • PatientStream, a cloud-based electronic patient-tracking system for hospitals, licensed its technology from the University of Washington and secured a $500,000 investment from the W Fund.  Ben Anderson (TMMBA 2012) is the founder, and brought in Keith Streckenbach as COO and co-founder to drive sales. Anderson quit his day job at UW Medicine/Harborview in October.
  • Haiti Babi provides mothers in Haiti with employment to keep their children out of orphanages. As part of their “Moms helping Moms” mission, Haiti Babi’s mothers knit and crochet high-quality, incredibly soft baby blankets that are sold in the United States. Co-founders Katlin Jackson and Kari Davidson (BFA 2014) raised funding through an Indiegogo campaign, pre-orders for blankets surpassed all expectations, and Haiti Babi has been featured in Seattle Magazine and Disney Baby.
  • LumiSands was awarded a $150,000 National Science Foundation SBIR Phase-I Grant and a $50,000 gift from the Washington Research Foundation for the development and manufacture of its silicon-based alternative to rare-earth phosphors used in LED lighting. Co-founders Ji-Hao Hoo (PhD 2013) and Chang-Ching Tu have negotiated an agreement with the University of Washington, and are still in the technology development phase.
  • JoeyBra, “the first sexy and comfortable fashion bra with a pocket,” closed a successful angel investment round, produced a new, quality sports bra with a waterproof pocket in a full range of sizes, and has been featured by Forbes, MSNBC, and CNN.  Mariah Gentry (BA 2013) and Kyle Bartlow (BA 2013), the co-founders, have contracted with a former Miss America as a spokesmodel and will launch their product nationwide in April 2013.
  • Microryza, a KickStarter-type site for smaller science and research projects,was admitted into Y-Combinator in October and moved to the Bay Area. Cindy Wu (BS 2011) and Denny Luan (BS 2011) have raised more than $170,000 and their site has funded projects from tracking Magellanic penguins to sustaining native bees and student-designed electric racecars.
    Update: March 28, 2013 – Microryza was named one of the top 5 Y-Combinator start-ups to watch by Inc. Magazine.
  • Strideline sold more than 60,000 pairs of their signature city skyline crew socks in 2012. Co- founders Jake Director (BA 2013) and Riley Goodman (BA 2013) have organized a national sales team, are now selling in Nordstrom and Zumiez, and were the subject of a UW TV short feature
  • SuperCritical Technologies has designed and will build compact modular power plants that provide up to 5MW of clean, reliable electricity for heating and/or cooling. Chal Davidson (MBA 2012) is the CEO, with Max Effgen (MBA 2012) as a co-founder. The company raised $200,000 in angel funding to complete the conceptual design and establish supplier relationships, and is currently fundraising to build the prototype.
  • UrbanHarvest is an urban farming company that grows high-value hydroponic lettuces and herbs within feet of where they’ll be consumed. The brainchild of Chris Bajuk (MBA 2011) and Chris Sheppard (MBA/JD 2012), UrbanHarvest is currently negotiating with a large SoDo corporation to build a rooftop greenhouse.

So what’s next? The work certainly doesn’t stop here. As any entrepreneur knows, it takes more than six months to grow a thriving business. And that’s what the JM/FA ultimately provides at the end:  additional runway.  This follow-on funding is a testament to the companies’ hard work so far, and an investment in what we know they can become.

The Jones Milestones/Foster Accelerator is funded by the Herbert B. Jones Foundation and additional private donors who, like us, believe in the ability of student entrepreneurs.

The sweet sniff of success: Kyle Polanski finds great potential in dog treats

Kyle Polanski
Kyle Polanski and Havana

Kyle Polanski eats dog food. So do his employees. In fact, he says, “It’s rare that we have a staff meeting and don’t taste some of the product.”  A little strange, perhaps, but if you’re picturing them spooning up mouthfuls of that smelly canned stuff, you’ve got the wrong idea.

Polanski, MBA 2008, is the CEO of Blue Dog Bakery, a dog treat company headquartered in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. The bakery produces all-natural dog snacks made with the same kinds of ingredients you might find in your favorite cookie (minus the sugar and salt), and sells to retailers across the country.

Blue Dog Bakery was started in 1998 by Margot Kenly, who directed her passion for healthy, natural foods toward making natural dog treats with pure ingredients like whole wheat flour, molasses, oats, and peanut butter. Initially sold at Costco, the treats were a hit, and the bakery soon began receiving calls from other retailers like QFC, asking when they could get Blue Dog Bakery products on their shelves.  By 2008 the company was distributing biscuits to Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Petsmart outlets throughout the Northwest and the Northeast.

At about this time, Polanski, an MBA student at the UW Foster School, established Halibut Flat Partners, a search fund backed by 12 investors who had agreed to finance his acquisition of a promising local company. His plan, once he found a company to purchase, was to use his business savvy to make it grow.

During his search, Polanski met Kenly, and spent several months doing a deep dive into Blue Dog Bakery. “There was clearly potential for expanding the company, evolving the brand, and scaling distribution to a national level,” he said. Polanski acquired Blue Dog Bakery in 2009 and the rush was on.

Since then, the bakery has grown its geographic and retail footprints (its products are now in 12,000 stores across the country) and increased sales (30% since the beginning of 2012 alone). The brand has become popular in stores like QFC and Safeway, and gained attention from the media, appearing in the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News & World Report. Blue Dog even won the 2010 Supermarket News Category Excellence award.

Polanski and his now 7 employees have expanded their product line to include items like Doggie Cremes and Bakery Bones, and redesigned their packaging. The company also started Pet Treat Pantry, a program that donates boxes of dog treats to animal shelters in five regions across the country.

As he looks ahead, Polanski is focused on competing in the national market, vying with billion-dollar brands for the attention of pet-owners and their pups. He believes Blue Dog’s all-natural products can go head-to-head with anything the competition throws their way. “People want healthy, natural, and affordable for their pets,” he said. “That’s Blue Dog.”

Building economic bridges in South Park

Since the South Park Bridge closed for renovation in 2010, Raymundo Olivas has felt shut off from the surrounding city, as if on an island. But he’s not on an island. Olivas does business in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, a sliver of commercial and residential land wedged between the Duwamish River, I-509 and a green bluff rising to Highland Park.

The South Park bridge provided the primary access to the neighborhood’s commercial district. Since its closure, businesses have suffered.

Something had to be done. Olivas, a member of the South Park Retail Merchants Association (SPRMA), decided that the association needed to do more outreach to community businesses and customers. He contacted the UW Business and Economic Development Center and requested a team of student consultants to come up with a plan to bring customers and businesses to South Park.

Student Consulting ProgramThe BEDC Student Consulting Program helps small businesses grow while providing hands on consulting experience to students. All under the guidance of expert advisors like Parker Montgomery, a 2005 graduate of the Foster School and current candidate in the UW Masters in Public Administration program. While an undergrad, Parker was a student consultant with BEDC. He has mentored student teams for the past four years.

“I’ve learned a ton from the program about small businesses in the community,” he says.

Beginning in January 2012, Parker offered this experience to the student consulting group tasked with reviving small businesses in South Park.

The students developed a neighborhood plan to attract new businesses to South Park. They identified the area’s needs, zoning issues, and market power to encourage potential business investors to consider it a viable location for their businesses.

Among the neighborhood’s unmet needs was for a grocery store. Through their research, the BEDC students met the founders of Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery, second-place winners at the 2011 UW Business Plan Competition, who were considering opening their first permanent location in South Park.

In August Stockbox opened its store in South Park. Business has been good and the community has appreciated having access to fresh, healthy food in their neighborhood.

While businesses and customers are starting to come to South Park, the neighborhood is looking forward to the bridge reopening in early 2014. Until then, Olivas and the Retail Merchants Association will continue to encourage economic development in South Park.

Parker says an ideal career for him, after finishing his MPA, would be working in economic development in the community. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Apricots, creativity and food trucks

Guest post by Sohroosh Hashemi, Foster BA 2011
He attended the panel discussion Food on Wheels – A Foodie Blogger Dishes with Food Truck Owners, which was part of Entrepreneur Week 2012. Panel moderator was Jennifer Lewis, blogger and author of Food on Wheels.

A local organic farmer’s fresh apricot harvest was inspiration for Molly Neitzel, founder of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream. Neitzel placed a large order of apricots and began planning for the debut of her new roasted apricot ice cream.

Monte CristoThat was that start of the story, as Neitzel told the students and alumni in attendance at the Food on Wheels panel discussion. She went on to explain that her great idea—roasted apricot ice cream—was not what her customers wanted in October, when the new flavor would be on sale. Neitzel ended up with 100 pounds too many of apricots, which she turned into homemade jam. She used this experience to highlight a challenge she often faces, “a lot of times the creativity that we desire, or that you might desire as an entrepreneur, is the opposite of what your customer wants.” Neitzel’s apricot surplus also demonstrates the seasonality of her business. Molly Moon’s uses local ingredients, so any fruit or vegetable it sources is only seasonally available.

All of the other entrepreneurs on the panel—Josh Henderson of Skillet, Danielle Custer of Monte Cristo, and Marshall Jett of Veraci Pizza—also agreed that the seasons have a huge impact on their businesses. Both consumer preferences and the availability of local ingredients vary from season to season. Each of these entrepreneurs owns a company that relies either exclusively or in-part on food truck sales, and all of them find a large chunk of their revenues through catering seasonal events like weddings.

After the discussion, the audience question and answer session produced some takeaways. Danielle Custer, founder of the newly launched grilled cheese truck Monte Cristo, gave this advice: “Simplify. Specialize. Do that one thing very well.”

Entrepreneur Week is put on by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Watch highlights from the panel discussion.

Want to see more? Watch the full video.

Food on wheels: a foodie blogger dishes with food truck owners

Molly Moon Food TruckFood trucks are not a fad. There are over 80 operating in Seattle currently and the number continues to grow. If you want to know what it’s like to start and operate a food truck, this is your chance. SmallFoodBiz.com blogger and author of Food On Wheels, Jennifer Lewis, will lead a panel discussion with food truck entrepreneurs Molly Neitzel, Molly Moon’s; Josh Henderson, Skillet; and Marshall Jett, Veraci Pizza. Jennifer, along with the panel, will cover everything from permitting and budgeting to executing on your idea to becoming profitable.

The challenges of owning a food truck are real. Food truck restaurateurs have to worry about competition, not only from restaurants but also from other food trucks. There are also other considerations: cost, location, rules and regulations, and marketing a business that moves. We’ll also talk about the amazing food truck craze. The initial impression was that it’s low rent food, but it’s actually delicious, high quality cuisine sought by foodies all over the Northwest. Join us for this insightful panel discussion about the business of operating a food truck.

Food on Wheels Panel Discussion
Wednesday, October 17 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. in Anthony’s Forum, 320 Business Hall

Food trucks will also be open for business! Molly Moon’s, Veraci Pizza, and Monte Cristo will be serving food from 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. on October 17 on the Business Hall Promenade.

EntreWeek: Film premiere celebrates China’s Jack Ma and Alibaba

Since Jack Ma first launched the business in his apartment in 1999, Alibaba has transformed into one of China’s largest internet companies and Ma has become known as China’s Steve Jobs. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is excited to be hosting the Seattle premiere of Crocodile in the Yangtze a film about his life and start-up adventures, as part of the annual UW EntreWeek. The film presents a strikingly candid portrait of Ma and his company, told from the point of view of Porter Erisman, an “American fly on a Chinese wall” who witnessed Alibaba’s successes and mistakes along the way. This insider story captures the emotional ups and downs of life in an online start-up, including Ma’s battle with eBay, when the Internet was bringing China face-to-face with the West.

Don’t miss this film, which recently sold out its San Francisco Premiere and was awarded “Best Documentary” by the United Film Festival jury. With Erisman in attendance as CIE’s special guest, this Seattle premiere will include a lively Q&A session, so attendees can learn even more about his eight fascinating years working with Ma.

Seattle Movie Premiere: Porter Erisman’s Crocodile in the Yangtze: The Story of a Westerner Inside China’s Alibaba.com
Monday, October 15
5:30-7:30 PM in Shansby Auditorium, Paccar Hall 192

Watch the movie trailer.

Learn more about all EntrepreneurWeek events.

Less pivot, more mountaintop

Erik Viafore, the CEO of Mountains Plus Outdoor Gear is Mr. Focus. His small Seattle-based start-up has seen 237 percent three-year sales growth by focusing on core competencies: delivering excellent gear, emphasizing customer service, and tending to vendor/supplier relationships. Since founding the company in 2003, Viafore has clearly kept his eye on the mountaintop. So much so that the 2012 INC Magazine 500/5000 rankings listed Mountains Plus at  #64 in retail, #24 in Seattle, and #1,301 overall.

Though there have been temptations along the way to “pivot so much we’d end up going in a circle,” as Viafore puts it, he chose to step back from an extremely successful product line in the economic downturn of 2008 to stay true to the “outdoor gear” of Mountains Plus’s core mission. Car rooftop rack boxes had been selling like crazy, but Viafore recognized that shipping them all over the country was not a smart business decision.

Viafore’s experience in the 1998 Business Plan Competition with “Personal Jukebox” won his team second place. The process, he said, did two things: it “helped round out the rougher edges that younger entrepreneurs have,” and it drilled into his brain that an entrepreneur should “never undercapitalize his business.” What Viafore has loved about the growth of Mountains Plus, which has doubled its number of employees this past year, is the experience of “growing up” alongside a few now-great outdoor gear brands that were also very small and just starting out. “It’s fun to look back and see how much we’ve all contributed to one another’s success along the way,” he says.

Being named to the INC Magazine list (for the second year) certainly is a marketing boon, making Mountains Plus Outdoor Gear more credible in the eyes of its customers, vendors, and competitors. But, as Viafore wryly notes, “It also means my phone rings more often, with very cold calls.” Good thing he has his choice of gear and so many happy customers to keep him warm.

Standing room only: celebrating “entrepreneurial speed”

Outside the sun set gloriously over Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains.  Inside, even the sky couldn’t distract the entrepreneurs, student teams, judges, press and guests in Seattle’s Pier 66 ballroom from the excitement of the main event—the 15th annual University of Washington Business Plan Competition (BPC) awards.  Having no idea how the finalists had placed for the $68,000 in prizes, the crowd listened with rapt attention to each team’s one-minute pitch.

The diversity of the four finalist start-ups made it difficult for audience members to venture a guess who would take grand prize. Would it be Xylemed or Joey Bra? Bicycle Billboards or Urban Harvest? As each student ended his or her team pitch minute, you could almost hear guests thinking, “Fantastic idea!”

What Zulily CEO Darrell Cavens then shared during his keynote speech was how to get such fantastic ideas to market by leveraging what he calls “Zulily time.” Called “an entrepreneurial speed freak if there ever was one” by Geekwire, Cavens emphasized not only the importance of “going fast” but of using the Internet as a tool to tweak the offering, making it better each day along the way. “Don’t spend five months on your business plan—apologies to the professors in the room! Put that plan together, and try it, innovate on it, adjust it, move forward.”  Now launching 1,400 new styles of kid products a day, Zulily focuses on beating rivals to the punch while delivering exceptional customer service. “It’s what we do every single day,” Cavens explained.

The BPC prize winners are now putting that sentiment into practice.

The $25,000 WRF Capital Grand Prize winner, Urban Harvest, will soon convert one of Microsoft’s Redmond parking garage rooftops into an active garden, allowing them to “grow their own” lettuce and herbs rather than continue to truck their food service salad fixings from the Salinas Valley. The team of two Foster School of Business MBAs, Chris Sheppard (MBA/JD)  and Chris Bajuk (MBA/MS real estate), intend to put many more  commercial rooftops to better use as hydroponic gardens that serve building owners as well as the local community. In addition to delivering the benefits of local agriculture, the Urban Harvest co-founders, both former military, have made hiring fellow veterans a priority.

Xylemed, the winner of the $10,000 Jones Foundation second-place prize, provides cloud-based electronic patient tracking and operations management system for hospitals. Their  goal is to eliminate patient care white boards used in surgery departments and replace them with 60-inch screens that can be updated with current information from any hospital computer. Ben Andersen and Marc Brown led the team of Foster School Technology Management MBAs that designed the system.  Xylemed’s product is already used in several of Seattle’s top hospitals—including Harborview Medical Center and the UW Medical Center—to improve safety and communications while reducing costs and administrative headaches.

After gaining incredible national press coverage with their initial product launch, Joey Bra’s fashion- forward bra with a discreet cell-phone pocket garnered the team one of the BPC’s $5,000 finalist prizes. Marketed initially to female college students who need a place to stow their phone and keys while out on the town, the two Foster School undergraduate co-founders, Kyle Bartlow and Mariah Gentry, are now working quickly to introduce a sports bra version to market.

Finally, Biking Billboards, which brings mobile marketing focused on building strong, personal customer connections, won the second $5,000 finalist prize.  The company, whose founding team includes Foster undergraduates Curtis Howell and Claire Koerner as well as two non-students, is now expanding to Los Angeles. As existing clients T-Mobile and PEMCO can attest, Biking Billboard “brand ambassadors” are able to more authentically engage with micro-targeted consumers on specialized routes.

Alumnus is Pirq-ing up the daily deals market

Maybe James Sun was never the hiring type.

More of a job creator, the 1999 BA graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business has been one busy entrepreneur since being the last contestant “fired” on national television by Donald Trump in the season six finale of “The Apprentice.”

Sun’s latest venture is Pirq, a clever twist on the buzzing “daily deal” industry that was pioneered by Groupon.

James Sun (Foster BA 1999) is a serial entrepreneurPirq’s innovation is a smart phone app that identifies instant deals offered by businesses—initially restaurants—near your location or destination. Simply activate the virtual coupon and redeem on the spot for up to 50% off the total bill. Instant gratification.

Sun says it’s a win-win. Customers pay no upfront charge, endure no waiting period, swallow no pre-purchased coupons that never get used. And businesses get the opportunity to offer more targeted deals and the flexibility to avoid being crushed by oversold daily deals.

“Pirq shifts the way we discover and get deals by letting our smart phones help us find instant, relevant savings wherever we are—in a way that benefits both consumers and businesses,” said Sun.

UW alumni exclusive deals

Pirq recently raised $2 million in venture capital funding and is expanding rapidly from its home market of Seattle. Sun, the company’s CEO, has been busy making exclusive partnerships with a variety of organizations. The newest is with the University of Washington Alumni Association, announced in May 2012.

UWAA members have only to enter their member number when downloading the free Pirq app to become eligible for exclusive offers unavailable to the general public. What’s more, Pirq will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each member transaction to support the UWAA.

“Pirq is an innovative business founded by a UW alum, and it provides our members with relevant benefits they can access through their phones while generating support for the UWAA,” said UWAA executive director Paul Rucker, in an interview with GeekWire. “Members will absolutely enjoy saving money with Pirq and… we’re thrilled to be working with Pirq.”

Life after Trump

Given his adventures since “The Apprentice” wrapped, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Sun would have been better off as a foot soldier in Trump’s gold-plated, real-estate empire.

After his televised dismissal, Sun leveraged his new-found celebrity to launch and host his own international TV show. “Sun Tzu: War on Business,” a co-production of the BBC, MediaCorp and CCTV, was broadcast in 20 nations across Asia in 2009-10. In each episode, Sun counseled motivated-but-struggling entrepreneurs on lessons from “The Art of War,” the iconic writings of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Returning to business of his own making, Sun founded GeoPage, a location-based search company that helps people find restaurants, hotels and attractions in their vicinity. GeoPage built the platform upon which Pirq now operates.

Sun also is an active angel investor and strategic advisor to a number of start-ups. He serves on the board of United Way of King County and the King County Scoutreach Program, as well as Seeyourimpact.org, an organization that solicits micro-donations to support children in the developing world.

Columns magazine recently named Sun one of the UW’s “Wondrous 100 Alumni,” and he recently judged the Foster School Business Plan Competition.