Tag Archives: start-ups

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.

Community is the new equity at SURF

Seaton Gras  is a certifiable start-up junkie who has been forming incubators and launching meet-up groups since before those terms became technospeak. Whether it was his upbringing in a 1950s-era cooperative in the woods of Massachusetts or just pure passion for entrepreneurship, collaboration is clearly in Gras’s blood. Even Wizzymouse, the “wiki for kids” business he entered into the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition, was a form of community-building.

So is SURF, Seaton Gras’ newest effort to provide a safe landing spot and creative environment for early-stage entrepreneurs. SURF (Start Up Really Fast) sprang into existence to “help an idea grow into a series of milestones,” Gras says, “because each stage needs different resources. Talent clusters and re-clusters, depending on the need.”

Early SURF member Donald Rule, the founder of Translational Software adds,  “Even before its official opening, the SURF Incubator linked me with people that have offered insights, encouragement and most importantly connections that have accelerated my progress. Combine that with the energy created by associating with dynamic and optimistic start-ups, and you have a really compelling environment for incubating a business.”

Functioning for three years as an incubator without walls in random pizza joints and donated spaces, Gras recently landed the perfect physical space for SURF in Seattle’s historic Exchange building. With over 15,000-square feet already designed for the previous tenant’s tech workers, the incubator is fully outfitted to serve as many as 100 entrepreneurs with a variety of desk space and conference room configurations. Night owl entrepreneurs can even rent a desk just for the early morning hours.

By mid-March 2012, the lease was signed and both Geekwire and TechFlash, among others, had run stories. With 19 companies already signed on, Gras has also fielded calls from the mayor of London (yes, in the UK) and interested parties in Denver looking to replicate the SURF model.

What Gras gains from launching the SURF Incubator may not earn him equity in the traditional sense, and he’s just fine with that. Instead, he values a whole different kind of ROI. “I’m driven by the experience and talent and re-clustering of teams,” he says. “I’m in a community of people like me.”

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

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.”

Learn more about Stockbox Grocers, a 2011 Jones Milestone Achievement Awards team

Sack-religious advice to budding entrepreneurs

“More important than writing a business plan,” states Andy Sack, serial entrepreneur and investor, “entrepreneurs need to get out and meet the people and explore the markets they’ll be serving.” Contradictory advice for students entering a business plan competition?  Not really.

When Andy Sack made that suggestion as part of his “Start-up Checklist for Entrepreneurs” presentation to launch the Resource Nights for the 2012 UW Business Plan Competition, murmurs and nervous laughter broke out in the auditorium. No one expected to hear that. But as Sack reminded his audience, “Ideas are not opportunities.” Thinking of starting a restaurant? Go stand on the street corner that you’d like to rent and ask the people who walk by if they’d come in for dinner.

Sack knows early-stage entrepreneurship. He’s got 17 years of experience as a successful entrepreneur, and partner and co-founder of TechStars, Founder’s Co-op and Lighter Capital. The tech newsletter Geekwire called him “one of the three people to know in Seattle.”

“Andy’s the reality-check guy,” says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “He’s direct, honest, and no nonsense. If you say that you’re in it for the money, he’ll tell you there are a million easier ways to make a living. And very often, your question to him will result in a question back at you: ‘What do you think?’  He wants to know what you’re thinking.”

After you’ve got your idea, Sack said, go directly to opportunity validation. Can you create value—and make money? Put it all down on one sheet of paper. His other fundamentals for first-time entrepreneurs include:

  • Resolve founder issues in the first 90 days: who does what and who earns how much?
  • Make a list of the top 10 personal reasons why you’re starting this company—followed up by the reasons why you shouldn’t do it.
  • Ask yourself how much time and money you’re willing to invest. Really. Put down the number of months, and the dollar amount.
  • Write an executive summary and share it with five people you respect. If you’re not hearing some negatives, you’re not trying hard enough. You should also be telling your story early and often and listening to what people say.
  • Establish [companynamelegal]@gmail.com and sending all legal correspondence there.

Perhaps most importantly, Sack stressed the value of the team. “More than anything else in entrepreneurship, people matter,” he repeated. “You need to be able to understand, communicate and listen to your employees, partners and investors. They don’t teach that skill set much in school, so get it down now.”

View Andy Sack’s full presentation. Want more tips for how to start a company? See the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Start-Up Resources.

Why Seattle breeds young entrepreneurs

Professor Nouriel Roubini, the respected NYU economist sometimes called “Dr. Doom,” is known for his predictions of the real estate meltdown, oil shock and recent recession. So it was a ray of sunshine poking through the gloomy November morning in Seattle when a Wall Street Journal article (Nov. 12, 2011) co-authored by Roubini noted that of major world economies, the long-term future appears brightest for the US. Why? We are still the leader in the cutting-edge technologies that expand a nation’s potential, including renewable energy, medical devices and nanotechnology.

If the U.S. is to lead the way, Seattle was noted as a city that contributes its share. The November 2011 issue of Seattle Business Magazine lays out reasons why Seattle provides the perfect hothouse atmosphere to encourage the start-up ambitions of younger and younger entrepreneurs.

Seattle has a reputation for a strong venture capital/angel community and a vibrant entrepreneurial community. Recognizing the increasing numbers of high-potential students, University of Washington and Seattle University have expanded their reach toward younger students. The UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the Foster School of Business recruits students directly out of high school into its Lavin Entrepreneurship Program.

At the age when most teen bands are breaking up, many students already have business experience. Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE  director notes, “Of the undergraduates we’ve admitted, nearly half started their first companies in high school.”

Young people who start companies have less risk and smaller opportunity costs. Lack of experience may work in the favor of young entrepreneurs. As Bourassa-Shaw says, “They don’t know what they don’t know, but they make up for it in sheer motivation and determination.”

Sunny days are ahead.  Meet some of the entrepreneurs, educators and investors who are making the future brighter in Seattle Business.

Making a successful Korea change

Wander's "W" logo of a path around the world exemplifies the company vision.The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the founders of YongoPal, a 6,000 mile step resulted in a dramatic shift for the better.

In the spring of 2010, Darien Brown and a team of software, political science and business students grabbed the $25,000 grand prize in the UW Business Plan Competition with YongoPal, a web service that connected university students in Korea with their American counterparts for on-line conversation to practice their English. On the heels of that win, the team received seed money from super angel Dave McClure’s 500 Startups and relocated to Silicon Valley to participate in its inaugural accelerator class. Then dark clouds rolled in from the West.

Disappointing reports from Korea showed that YongoPal was proving hard to use and not gaining the expected traction with students. After an intense UX workshop, one fact emerged. The program had huge potential but needed a complete redesign. So just before the make-or-break Demo Day, CEO Brown raced back to Korea and learned that the appeal of the service had nothing to do with learning English: students were actually only interested in its social value as a way to meet foreigners. With no time to create a prototype, and with money running out, the team pitched a new concept and scraped together enough seed money to build it. A better service and a new name were born.

YongoPal became Wander, a free iPhone app that pairs a user daily with a “local guide.” To jumpstart the new relationships, the app suggests daily “photo missions” to help users share their lives. For the armchair traveler, even the mundane is exotic: the street outside the house or the local food market. People can get to know somebody halfway around the world, “visit” places they’ve wanted to experience or study a language. Users find Wander to be simple and engaging, but its potential is even more exciting.

Brown says that, though Wander is something he feels they stumbled into, he believes they have an opportunity to define a new product category.  “We are giving people in digital isolation the ability to reach outside of what they know,” he says.  “China is a great example. We’re seeing users in that part of the world use our app to meet foreigners for the first time in their lives. And the fact that we let people interact through machine translation means that they can do it free of language barriers.”

Online marketing guru Dave Schappell of TeachStreet agrees. “I believe that the true power of the Internet to connect like-minded people is largely untapped. The first generation of social applications focused on connecting people who already know each other. Wander makes new connections a reality by matching individuals around the world so they can learn about one another.”

By any measure, Wander is making new friends around the world, serving users in more than 80 countries at a rate that doubles monthly and adding new meaning to the saying “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

Go tech, young man

Chris Ruff, two-time Business Plan Competition award winner“If at first you don’t succeed…” is a mantra for many Business Plan Competition winners who learn their lessons and emerge with laurels at a later date. Chris Ruff made that commitment to win and returned a year later—with a better idea.

Themed retail was still riding high in 1999 when Ruff and his team pitched a chain of upscale barber shops. They won the “Best Retail” prize, but it was the comment of one judge that resonated with him: “Go into technology.” So in 2000 Ruff’s Aptelix team won the competition with a novel concept at that time: e-mail delivered through a mobile phone browser.

Aptelix was just a few years ahead of its time, and in 2000 Ruff joined an early-stage tech company that was gaining traction in the emerging mobile market – UIEvolution. Today Chris Ruff is president and CEO of UIEvolution, which designs platforms and apps to “help make your company a bigger part of customers connected lifestyle.” UIEvolution has more than 100 clients, including AT&T, Bing, Disney, ESPN, Samsung and Verizon Wireless.

Most recently the company is staking its position in automobile “info-tainment.” Today’s car buyers prefer on-board amenities to gas-guzzling muscle. Toyota has enthusiasts buzzing about a UIEvolution-powered, voice-activated, system platform that delivers an easy-to-use, in-car experience that includes personalized traffic, fuel prices, stocks, weather, sports results, movie tickets, restaurant reservations and Internet searches. The system keeps drivers from getting distracted while still offering a rich interactive experience.

In a career that has taken him from being one of the company’s first employees and director of business development to VP of marketing and finance to his current role as president and CEO, Ruff said, “My business degree taught me the value of critical thinking in running a business. Having lived through one tech bubble and two recessions, I would say you will succeed if you have a good vision with the money, time and energy to make it work.”

“You also need integrity, which Chris has in abundance,“ says Satoshi Nakajimi, the original founder of UIEvolution and a current board member. “Decisions affect shareholders, employees and the family of employees. When Chris makes the commitment, you know he will see it through.”