Visiting Detroit Startups with VFA

September 22nd, 2014 View Comments »

As a new board member of Venture for America, I wanted to meet more fellows and explore one of the destination cities. I recently had a chance to visit Detroit where VFA has the most fellows at ~40.

It was my first trip to Detroit so I was looking forward to getting a sense for the city and the startup environment. I was thankful that VFA fellow Max Nussenbaum picked me up from the airport and gave me a tour to start out.

A key part of the tour was Rebirth Realty. Max and some other fellows are “transforming an abandoned house in Detroit into a communal living and working space for Venture for America Fellows.” The house still a work in progress although you can see the potential. They got the house in a tax auction for something like $8,000 which sounds like quite the deal. Then you learn that the place was missing windows and needed a full gut rehab. Like I said, a lot of work.

I also got to hear about Castle, the SaaS business for landlords that Max started with Tim and Scott. They are early stage although looking for landlords that want in on the private beta. As they put it “We’re making land-lording simple and stress-free, starting with automatic rent payment.” One tip I picked up from Max is that he has the following in his email signature so it looks like a PS on every email he sends. “By the way—I’m working on a real estate startup and trying to talk to as many landlords as possible. If you know one, I’d really appreciate an intro!” What a way to get leads!

The next day, Brian Bosche, founder and CEO of TernPro, was good enough to lead me and some folks from VFA on a tour of a bunch of startup spaces. We got to see some great incubator, co-working, and startup spaces like Grand Circus, Bizdom and Detroit Labs (loved the two story kitchen/breakroom – I think you can see pictures on their website). And I’m sure there were other spots but we went so many it is hard to remember them all.

Alas, I did not meet the founders of the other VFA Detroit startup: Banza as they were traveling on business. They offer first pasta made from chickpeas. Since I’m a recovering pasta addict, I am totally excited for the product. I’ve tried many of the other alternatives to wheat and it is definitely better than black bean pasta, rice pasta, etc.

I had the privilege of dinner two nights with a whole mass of fellows. I must have met 20+. The passion and intelligence of the fellows I met was impressive. It was an amazing group of people and so welcoming of a visitor like me. Without a doubt, it increased my commitment to mission of VFA and I hope you get a chance to meet some fellows, too, some day.

Never Been Better for Student Hackers at Yale

September 18th, 2014 View Comments »

Times have never been better at Yale for student coders and those that aspire to be hackers. Want proof? Here are four examples:

One, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute recently completed another summer of the Tech Boot camp. “The YEI Tech Bootcamp is a 10-week immersive full-stack programming bootcamp for Yale students who want to learn to code. Over the course of the summer, students with little or no experience in programming are given the skills to become capable and knowledgeable programmers who can create their own minimum viable products. By the end of the program, students will have a solid foundation to continue their programming knowledge independently.” More on their website.

Two, YHack is gearing up for a second year of the 36-hour hackathon held in West Campus. The student organizers have done an impressive job in turning out 100s of students from many other colleges and mobilizing $10,000s of corporate sponsorship.  If you’re not otherwise engaged on Halloween this year, you can still join in.

Third, HackYale is in it’s fourth year and just completed its application cycle for the fall semester. As you may recall, HackYale is a student led and taught non-credit set of courses in programming including web front end and advanced JavaScript. The effort started without administration support and now has taken root such that the student-teachers are paid a stipend by Yale Engineering. Kudos to Bay Gross, Will Gaybrick and the the original founding team and the leadership that is taking it forward.  HackYale was a real inspiration for many other efforts on campus.

Forth, if you’re really into coding and want to get some on-campus job experience, you can work for the university.  ~30 student-employees in the Yale Developer and Mentorship Program building web and mobile apps (Rails, iOS and Android, etc.) for use by other students. The team is led by Casey Watts who is also helping with the  Yale SOM software development course Kyle and I have planned for the spring. (How does Casey have the time?!)

And I should mention, these extra-circular efforts in in addition to the for-credit courses I have mentioned before.

The Personal Finance Review

September 18th, 2014 View Comments »

So, I’m a huge fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. I’m so into GTD that the thing that got me to switch off Blackberry phones was when they dropped support in Tasks for categories (which I used for what Allen calls “context” – and yes, I know that was late to drop Blackberry but I did like the real keyboard).

Also, I’ve read the book Getting Things Done three times and tend to tear-up towards the end. I know – pretty silly that a “mere time management” book would do that to someone. For me, the book is about how to be clear about your dreams and gives you concrete tools to get a step closer every day. Empowering people to do what is important to them is quite a noble effort.

In a recent presentation to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute fellows, I happened to mention GTD and gave my usual plug. Apparently, a couple of folks took me up on it. I was pleased to hear from two that they read the book and felt it had impacted their lives positively.

And they asked for more “life hack” tips.

In that vein, I offer a plug for a habit you can built into your GTD system. I call it the Personal Finance or Personal Cashflow Review. I am not quite sure where I picked it up, although I recommend it.

A standard part of the GTD system is the weekly review there you take stock of where you stand and plot your next steps. The cashflow finance review is something I try to do twice a month. It is not meant to always be a full stock of your balance sheet, retirement planning or the like. Rather, it is ~20 to 30 mins to focus on cashflow first and then other matters if needed.

Like other parts of GTD, I find it works best with a checklist. First up is I check the balances in all checking, debit cards, savings accounts and credit cards and recent transactions to confirm things are as expected. Best to list out the accounts even if you only have 2 or 3.

Using online banking, I check major bills (credit primarily like home loan or credit cards) that I want to make sure are getting paid from my transaction accounts as planned. I have as much as possible on credit card recurring billing, EFT/ACH auto-debit or automatically through bank run bill pay. That said, I’ve seen billers or banks make mistakes and it is good to check.

Also, I review the upcoming bills that will be debited and make sure there is sufficient cash available in the transaction account for scheduled bills. For example, I adjust the dates for outgoing bill payments in online bill pay if required or transfer money from savings.

If there is time, I like to also review the PFM (like Mint or similar) that I’m using at the moment to better understand spending trends by category. You could in theory start here if you wanted to do so, although I prefer to go to the source first.

If you choose to adopt a system like this, the key will be consistently doing it. The exact steps, order or tools are less important than making it a habit.

Joining the Venture for America Board

September 10th, 2014 View Comments »

I am pleased to share the news that I am joining the board of directors of Venture for America.  I went to my first meeting last night and enjoyed meeting more of the team.  Excited to be a part of supporting and helping to build what will prove to be an important American institution.

Some of you may remember when I first blogged about Venture for America back in 2011.  The basic outlines are still the same although with growth in the number of cities and fellows.

You’ll recall: VFA is a non-profit program for young, talented college grads to spend 2 years in the trenches at a start-up in a lower cost city with the goal that these graduates will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward. The tour of duty is to work for two years at a start-up in a lower cost city, train with seasoned entrepreneurs and investors and then have a shot at starting your own venture or doing something else.  The cities selected are not the famous hubs for startup activity and therefore are very happy to have the talent.
In the first batch of fellows, I was pleasantly surprised how many are continuing in their chosen city and how many are continuing on to start a venture or work at a startup.  So, I think that shows some real traction.
When I went to training camp this summer at Brown University, there were ~100 fellows.  The energy was amazing!  The quality of people attracted and their enthusiasm for having a positive impact on these cities and the country was inspiring.
The only slight disappointment is that New Haven is not yet a VFA city.   Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans and Providence are all cities, for example.  With my new found influence, I hope to continue to woo the managemet team.
Please let me know if you’re interested in helping in that regard, or otherwise.

Announcing the New Haven Startup Tour

September 10th, 2014 View Comments »

Who doesn’t love a good backstage tour?

I think it is time for a backstage tour of the New Haven startup community.  For those of us working in startups, how often have we seen each others offices?  For those of us interested in working in a startup, how can we get a sense of what they are like in general or what one in particular is like specifically?  And also, are there that many “real” startups here?  Where are they and how can I get a visceral feeling for the community?

The answer is the New Haven Startup Tour.

On Friday, November 14, 2014, startups (and a few former startups that have grown into larger companies) in the New Haven area will be hosting the public for ~1 hour sessions in their office.  They will be talking about the company or something closely related and offering a peak at their offices.  In either a day or half day program, participants will be able to visit one to multiple companies and get a cross section of the community.

Here are the companies we’re announcing now as participants (subject to change) and I hope to have others as we finalize the schedule.

  • AxioMx
  • Core Informatics
  • Continuity Control
  • Digital Surgeons
  • The Grove
  • Grey Wall Software aka Veoci
  • Higher One
  • SeeClickFix
  • Tangoe

The organizing committee at this point includes entrepreneurs, Yale entrepreneurship staff and student leaders, and we definitely want many others to participate.  We’re doing this for the first time and generating structure on the fly so I welcome your input.  I hope you can join us and stay tuned for details on how to sign up!

List of New Haven Area Startups

August 29th, 2014 View Comments »

After talking to a few folks, I was not able to easily find a list of startups in the New Haven area.  So, I decided to create one.  With the help of Derek Koch, John Seiffer and a few other Twitter folks (thanks!), I got a draft put together.

The definition of startup is intentionally vague as is the definition of “New Haven area”.  Startup to me means that the company is high growth or hopes to be.  I personally tend to lean more towards tech ventures.  So, those are the ones I am likely to know about of the top of my head.  Done my best to add other industries, too, as I want all industries here.

Here is the list of New Haven Area Startups that can be edited by anyone.  Add your startup, update or generally, please help keep this current.

Yale Embraces Entrepreneurship

August 28th, 2014 View Comments »

Yale continues to take concrete steps forward in embracing entrepreneurship.  Now, with even more academic classes and staff dedicated to the cause.

Yes, some Yalie’s were involved in kicking off the oil industry in the US, but for a period in the 20th century it was definitely believed that entrepreneurship had no place at a university.  In 1999, when we started the (still) student-run Yale Entrepreneurial Society, we hoped to have an impact on the culture by creating networking and educational opportunities.  I think YES has contributed to bringing visablity and bringing together some successful entrepreneurs.  (Of course, many were already or were going to be successful on their own.)

Things definitely had sifted by the time the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute was established (in 2008?).  I like to think the move had something to do with prompting by folks like me who advocated for it.  The university at that point dedicated full-time staff and a budget to supporting real-world entrepreneurial experiences for students.  Although at first it was focused on the summer, it grew to year-round programs and worked to be relevant at more stages of a student’s journey.

There was enough community and activity, that in 2013, YEI published an official handbook on entrepreneurship at Yale to help people navigate the landscape.  With the President of Yale talking about encouraging entrepreneurship and the Provost saying things like “Entrepreneurship is a big part of Yale’s agenda.”  There definitely is support from the academic leadership.  (Don’t forget Pres. Levin and VP Bruce Alexander were supports all along.)

Then in the past few months, the business school has an bigger official commitment to its entrepreneurship program that builds on the work by David Cromwell, Maureen Burke and others.  What we’re talking about is a doubling or tripling of staff, a multiple million dollar war chest, an explosion of courses, a physical space, and scholarships for students and loan deferrals for graduating entrepreneurs.

To further the excitement, the Yale Daily News wrote yesterday about the new Computer Science class that is Yale’s answer to Harvard’s CS50. Prof. Daniel Abadi and Prof. Kyle Jensen, both successful tech entrepreneurs in their own right, are teaching the class. With a practical focus on building Android applications for those with no previous coding experience, combined with lessons on entrepreneurship including a virtual stock market for student ventures, the course sounds amazing!

I am so pleased to see this flourishing of student excitement, co-curricular and for credit entrepreneurship at Yale.  What’s next?

I am Teaching at Yale School of Management

August 27th, 2014 View Comments »

Big news!  I’m co-teaching a class in January at the Yale School of Management on the Management of Software Development.  For those not familiar with it, SOM is Yale’s business school.  They have created a new entrepreneurship center and putting a lot more funding and emphasis in this area.  More on that later.  For now, more about the class.

Here is the official course description:
Mgt 656 Management of Software Development

Software is a ubiquitous component of the increasingly technology-driven economy: “Software is eating the world” in the words of John Hermann. Students in this course will learn 1) management of the software development lifecycle and 2) basic technology skills for creating modern mobile web applications. The management techniques will include hiring technical teams as well as planning, implementing, and maintaining software projects. We will focus on agile methods for software implementation including extreme programming (XP), scrum, and others. Students will use these techniques to develop a mobile web application in teams. The application will require an understanding of Linux, OS virtualization, networking, version control, databases, and programming (HTML, JavaScript, & CSS). No familiarity with these technologies is assumed, but would benefit the student. The course is most appropriate for students planning to found new ventures or work in leadership roles in the technology sector.

The class is open to Yale College students, as well.  So, if you’re interested, please join.

Kyle Jensen is co-teaching with me, thankfully.  (And since he is the one with a PhD, he is probably the official “professor” for the course.  Not sure the official designations for such things.)  Kyle is a serial entrepreneur with multiple scientific journal articles and patents to his name.  Locally, he is also known for creating newhaven.io which is the developer group with weekly meetings.

While I have a CS major and do speak geek, it has been a while since I have been hands on with production code.  Kyle will be leading the technical parts of the course and I will be speaking much more to the management side of things.  We do want students to get some hands on experience with tech and process to have a more visceral understanding of the topics.  There is nothing like checking-in code and deploying to production to give you a sense of what a technical team “does all day.”

As we plan the syllabus, we are realizing even more that there is a lot of material to cover in 8 weeks.  That said, I’d love to have your ideas and pointers on examples, case studies, exercises or guest speakers.  Can’t wait to share more with you when we’re ready.

Biofeedback

January 31st, 2014 View Comments »

Ever tried biofeedback? Technically it is defined as “the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function” Or as I think about use of sensors and displays to create a an explicit and external feedback loop in order to learn and train internal body or mind function.

Yes, you could say that in some sense using an online class is a form of biofeedback, although learning is not one the bodily functions people normally mean. I’m not sure if wearing a heart-rate monitor while you exercise is considered biofeedback? Definitely changes the way you exercise.

I have exposure to a few biofeedback devices and curious to learn about other useful ones.

Resperate
A machine to help you meditate.

With Resperate you place a strap around your belly and earphones in your ears. After a period of monitoring your breathing, it then begins to play music and tones to guide your breathing and gradually slow it down. It is not just about slowing your breaths, I believe, but also about being conscious of your breaths that provides the benefit.

I’m a little embarrassed to be using a machine to help me meditate. In some sense meditation should be the most cheap free and easy to start but hard to do well system available. But, using this helps me meditate more often and for longer. There are many documented benefits to mindfulness and even without those I feel better when i take the time to stop the constant forward motion to take a pause. So, that’s how I justify it.

Resperate is the only device approved by US FDA to lower blood pressure. It is over the counter so you don’t have to have that issue to use it.

It is expensive, although cheaper than the alternative of unmanaged stress. The first time I did it I felt a sense of relaxation equivalent to a hot tub and glass of wine.

Galvanic Skin Response
Galvanic Skin Response monitoring device like the GSR2, is another way to measure and manage stress. Someone I know swears by using this simple device while engaged in otherwise routine activities. It can remind you how small triggers during your daily life can get your stress response going. This can help you be more mindful during other parts of your day when you are not using the device.

HeartMath
I have not used one yet, although I have a friend who is a fan of the HeartMath system. It monitors pulse (only?) and provides biofeedback that can be combined with computer display or not. If you know much more about this system, please let me know.

Neurofeedback
I’ve done neurofeedback a few times although hard to say exactly what it accomplished. I went into a lab where they had the equipment to measure my brainwaves during the session. The screen in front of me displayed a PAC-MAN like interface. If I could get the right Alpha-Theta(?) brainwave balance, then the character on the screen would move forward. If you ever wondered then the character would stop. In theory this helps enhance the ability to focus. I had trouble noticing the effects after the sessions although thought I could sense some different state of being when I was able to get the PAC-MAN character to move.

For Benefit Enterprise in New Haven?

January 27th, 2014 View Comments »

I grew up in San Francisco and remember buying our Christmas trees from Delancey Street lots. As a child, I was more focused on the sights, smells and fun of running through the trees. As I grew older, it was less about the trees and more about my fascinated with that type of social enterprise.

Delancey Street describes themselves as “a community where people with nowhere to turn, turn their lives around. [They are] the country’s leading residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom.” And a key part of it are the businesses they run to provide jobs and generate revenue.

Over the past year or so, I have been thinking more about these types of social enterprises (aka for benefit companies) that are focused on job creation for those that may not otherwise easily find employment. It seems there may be a group in Bridgeport that is doing similar work although not enough of this type of thing in the New Haven.

A few like-minded entrepreneurs and I have been giving it some more thought and are getting closer to deciding to start such an enterprise in New Haven. To me, food service is a natural choice for industry although we have thought about some others.

If you’re still not sure what I mean, here are a few of the more famous examples. I’m looking for other examples of successful social enterprises that are multiple-bottmline and are centered around hiring those that might may have challenges with traditional employment. If you have suggestions or other thoughts in this area, please let me know.

St Vincent de Paul of Lane County
St. Vincent de Paul is an internationally recognized leader in developing recycling-based businesses. These businesses have a quadruple bottom line: they responsibly reuse and recycle products; provide quality goods and services to the community; provide jobs and job training; and generate revenue to fund our charitable activities.”

Here’s a great video that tells their story well.

Delancey Street Foundation
Delancey Street Foundation as mentioned above.
Enter with a history. Leave with a future.

Greyston Bakery
Greyston Bakery is famous for the saying: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.” More formally, they believe that “employment is the gateway out of poverty and towards self-sufficiency.” And created the bakery to give “the hard-to-employ a new chance at life.”

Homeboy Industries
Homeboy Industries serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with a continuum of free services and programs, and operates seven social enterprises that serve as job-training sites.”

If you are interested in their story in more depth, check out the book Tattoos on the Heart.