Pixar, Artists, Founders and Corporate Innovation

I’m still surprised when I find unexpected connections with innovation in different industries.


In a recent workshop with a large company focused on the Innovation@50x process, I mentioned that founders and intraprenuers operate more like artists than accountants – on day one they see something no one else does. One of the innovators in the room said, “It sounds like you’re describing exactly what Ed Catmull the CEO of Pixar wrote in Creativity, Inc.”creativity inc

Say what?  I kicked myself knowing that I should have thought of Pixar.

While I’m sure Ed Catmull doesn’t remember, when Pixar was a startup selling the Image Computer, their VP of Sales and Marketing brought me in to put together their marketing strategy. John Lassiter was just beginning to make commercials, Alvy Ray Smith was building Iceman and Loren Carpenter and Rob Cook were writing Renderman.

I should have realized there was a ton I could learn about corporate creativity by looking at Pixar.

So I bought the book.


I always thought that when I used the “founders as artists” analogy, the “artists” I was describing were painters, writers, sculptors and composers. I wondered what lessons Pixar, an animation studio, could have for founders. What were the parallels? Startup founders operate in chaos and uncertainty. Founders get out of the building to talk to customers. We create minimal viable products to test hypotheses/our vision, and we build a culture that supports innovation. It never occurred to me that the directors of 3D animated movies at Pixar could be the same “founders as artists.”

It turns out that they are. And in fact, the creative process at Pixar has a ton of lessons for both startup founders and corporate innovators.

Directors = Startup Founder
Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio. That means the entire company is driven by directors – the artists – not by corporate executives in management with MBA’s or financial models or a development department.

A director at Pixar is the equivalent of a startup founder. At Pixar a director’s vision for a film is much like a founder’s vision for a startup. The director starts with a vision of a great story he wants to turn into an animated movie. On day one, all a director has is his vision – she doesn’t yet know the exact path to get to the final movie. (Like a startup founder.) Pixar directors use their ability to tell a compelling story to convince management that their initial idea is powerful enough to be a great movie. (Like a startup.) They get approval, build and rally a team, get their team out of the building and do research and iterate and at times pivot the story/film as they refine the vision of the movie. (Like a startup.) Once their idea is approved, the company organizes its technical and production resources (hundreds of people on each movie) behind those directors to turn their vision into a great movie that lots of people will go see. (Like a startup.)

It Starts With a Vision
While the parallels between a director and a startup founder are striking, what’s even more surprising is the match between the creative process Pixar uses to make its movies and our implementation of Lean for startups in the Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps incubators.

When Pixar begins a new movie the movie doesn’t exist yet. It’s only an idea in the head of the director (or in the case of a startup, the founder.) How the director crafts reality out of this vision is exactly like how a founder creates a startup – it’s a combination of vision, reality distortion field, tenacity and persuasion.

pixarDirectors, like founders, develop mental models for how they search for an unseen destination – they “get in the zone.” Some directors view it as finding a way out of a maze, or looking for a light at the end of a tunnel or uncovering a buried mountain.

Greenlight = VC Funding
At Pixar, if you’re a director with a passion for a project you pitch a very simple minimum viable product – in this case storyboards which are just rough illustrations that help to tell the story page by page. If you can convince John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, the film will be greenlit – it gets funding. The process is akin to pitching a VC firm.

Braintrust = Continual Feedback
One of the systems that Pixar has put in place to keep the development of a movie on track is regular doses of open and honest feedback from other experienced directors in regularly scheduled meetings called the “Braintrust.” A director shares his latest progress in the the form of storyboards, demo reels, etc. (what we in startup world would call the minimum viable product) and the critiques from other directors take the the form of comments like, “Have you considered x or thought about y?” Directors are free to come up with their own solutions. But if feedback from the Braintrust is given and nothing changes… that’s a problem. And if the director loses the confidence of his crew, Pixar management steps in.

In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps our equivalent to the Braintrust are weekly meetings where teams present what they learned from talking to customers and show their latest minimum viable products, and instructors provide continuous feedback.

I found other parallels between Pixar’s method for managing innovation and what we built in the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps incubators. (Oren Jacob, Pixar’s ex CTO has been teaching with us at Berkeley and Stanford and has been trying to point out this connection for years!)

Innovation Management – Animation and Startups
Dailies are the way animators (and movie makers) show and measure progress. Everyone can comment but the director decides what changes, if any, to make. Dailies are Pixar equivalents of showing your incremental MVP’s- minimum viable products. In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps, we make our teams show us MVP’s weekly to measure progress.

Research trips – Pixar wanted to avoid the trap of cutting up and reassembling what was done in previous movies so they instituted research trips – “getting out of the building” to get authenticity and keep clichés at bay. Pixar animators flew to Hawaii and went scuba diving for Finding Nemo, to Scotland while they were making Brave and drove Route 66 when making Cars. Pixar movies feel authentic because they’re modeled after the real world.

Lean Startups are built around the same notion as Pixar research trips. With startups, there are no facts inside your building so founders have to get the heck outside. Entrepreneurs work hard at becoming the customer, so they can understand customers needs and wants and experience the customer’s the day-in-the-life.

Pivots – Directors can pivot as long as their team can believe the reasons for changing course. When you lose your team’s trust, the team will bail. Same is true for startup founders. And if pivots don’t work or the Pixar Braintrust feels that after lots of feedback, the movie still is heading in the wrong direction, they replace the director – identical when a founder loses the the board’s confidence and gets replaced.

The power of limits – Although Pixar movies are incredibly detailed, one of their strengths is knowing when to stop.  In a startup knowing that every feature isn’t necessary and knowing what not to ship, is the art of a founder.

Postmortems – After a film is completed, Pixar holds a postmortem, a meeting to summarize what worked, what didn’t and what they could do better next time.  In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps classes, the teaching team does post mortems weekly and then a final wrap-up after class. More importantly, our teams’ final presentation are not a Demo Day, but a Lesson Learned presentation summarizing what they hypothesized, what they did and what they learned. 

Artists and Founders

Pixar            Startups
Visionary Director Founder
Discovery Research Trips Customer Development
Outside Feedback Braintrust feedback Weekly team feedback in
Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps
Progress Dailies Minimum Viable Products
Continuous Learning Post mortems Lessons Learned Day &
Instructor Post Mortems

Continuous corporate innovation @ Pixar
While the parallels between individual Pixar movies and startups is striking, Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull has built is a company that has continued to innovate, making hit after hit.  While part of Pixar’s success has been built on a series of world class directors (John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich), what makes Pixar unique is that in a “hits-based business” they’ve figured out how to turn directors’ visions into blockbuster movies repeatedly. Pixar has built a process of continuous corporate innovation.

Innovation Killers – Pixar Lessons for Corporate Innovation
Ed Catmull points than one of the impediments to innovation in a large company is the “fear of failure”. In a fear-based culture people avoid risk. They repeat things that are safe and have worked in the past. His solution at Pixar was to get directors to talk about mistakes and their part in them.  Surfacing failure publically by the most respected innovators makes it safe for others to do the same. (Getting middle management to tolerate and not feel threatened by problems and surprises is one of the biggest jobs of Pixar’s CEO and senior leadership.)

The second innovation insight at Pixar is the power of iterative trial and error – the notion of being wrong fast. (One of the key tenets of the Lean Startup.) Catmull observed that even the smartest person can’t consider all possible outcomes. Managers who over-plan just take longer to be wrong. Managers see change as a threat to their existing business model – and it is. Self-interest motivates opposition to change but lack of self awareness fuels it even more.

Finally, Catmull’s observation that “originality is fragile” speaks to the startup process as well as to making movies. At Pixar in it’s first moments, originality is often far from pretty. Early mockups of Pixar films are called “ugly babies.”  However, while it may be ugly, it’s the opposite of the established and entrenched. (We remind large companies that version 1.0 of disruption – these ugly babies – coming their way always looks like a toy.)


Lessons Learned

  • Founders are closer to artists than any other profession
  • Founders and Pixar directors have uncanny parallels
  • Pixar, more than Apple, Google, Amazon or any other large company, holds the record for continuous innovation
  • Pixar and the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps share common ways to support repeatable innovation and market success


Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 7: Betsy Corcoran and Miriam Altman

Startup success starts with passion for a job you want to spend your life doing. And great founders never stop to wonder if they’re qualified to do a startup.

Passion and fearlessness — two key ingredients the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111, leveraged to build their companies.

Betsy Corcoran

Betsy Corcoran

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

  • Betsy Corcoran, co-founder and CEO of the education technology news site EdSurge
  • Miriam Altman, co-founder and chief business officer of Kinvolved, which is working to improve high school graduation rates by increasing student attendance
Miriam Altman

Miriam Altman

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Betsy Corcoran was a science and technology journalist for many years, working at Scientific American, The Washington Post and Forbes. While at The Washington Post, she broke stories on the Microsoft antitrust case from Washington before establishing the paper’s Silicon Valley office. She left journalism in 2009 seeking a way to bridge the education and technology spaces, and went on to co-found EdSurge.

She told me that she received the best career advice of her life as she looked for her first job out of college:

As I was graduating, I was coming out of Georgetown with a degree in economics and math and all this weird stuff in the background. I did a number of different interviews for jobs … with people who came to school and that included banks. I would have these interviews and the bank would say to me, “So why do you want to work for Irving Trust?” 

… I’m a terrible liar, so I would say things like, “Well … I have an economics degree, we have a lot in common, right?” These were by far the worst interviews of my life and it was so bad … that some guy leaned across the desk and said, “I’ve got an idea for you. Why don’t you apply for a job you’d like to have? … It was the single best piece of career advice I’ve ever received.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam Altman got her career start through Teach for America teaching in the New York City public schools. There she saw inequities in the education system that inspired her to act.

Her first idea for a startup was not Kinvolved, but was also education-based. She never paused to consider whether she was qualified to do it.

My idea, and what I wrote about in my application to go to grad school, was to start a school. That was my plan. … charter or public, either one, but I really wanted to stay in education, so the experience of the classroom had gotten me hooked. And I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. … 

Steve: What make you think you were qualified to do this?

Miriam: … I don’t know if I ever thought about qualification. … I don’t really know if I ever really thought about that in particular.

Steve: I want you to know that’s one of the key characteristics of a great entrepreneur. My wife used to explain to me that I was too dumb to know I wasn’t qualified for whatever job I was attempting to do. And I’ve heard that implicitly or explicitly from a number of entrepreneurs, but I think you just nailed it. Right, it’s like well, if I would have thought about what’s required, I never would have started that company, right?

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Both women cultivated a love for entrepreneurship from an early age.

Betsy enjoyed participating in Junior Achievement, a hands-on program that introduces high school students to entrepreneurship:

… I was in Junior Achievement like so many kids, and I went out and I hit the streets, I sold plant hangers. …

Junior Achievement is a program for high school kids to start companies. … It’s been around forever and what you do is come together, create a product. In those days, we made things out of wood, so we made wooden plant hangers and we made these really really awful wall hanging things that you could use as a cork board and chalkboard. They were terrible looking. And then you’d go out and sell the thing. And you created a full company and you ran it, and competed in sales competitions. … 

The astounding thing is that I sold more plant hangers than anyone in their right mind should have sold. … I was the best salesperson in the Northeast corridor one year. … Those plant hangers were moving like crazy. … 

… I did Junior Achievement for a couple of years and I did wind up as CEO of my little Junior Achievement company and I loved running the company. I think what I took away from that experience (was that) I loved coming up with an idea, I loved making something, and then I loved getting it in the hands of people who got excited about it. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

That passion for starting things grew during her work as a journalist, particularly when she was at IEEE Spectrum, where she created a new section:

What I found most fascinating and what maybe kind of does go back to the early days of Junior Achievement was the chance to create something. I was creating it within a framework, within the context of the magazine, that I was creating my own section, I was creating kind of new types of ways of talking about things. (It felt) great. I loved it …(although it was) very scary.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam was similarly introduced to entrepreneurship at a young age:

My father, Frank Altman, is the founder and CEO of an organization called Community Reinvestment Fund. They … work to … help get capital to communities that typically can’t receive traditional capital to grow small businesses and fund  charter schools …  

When a lot of other kids during breaks from school were playing or doing other fun activities, I was going to work with my dad, which maybe didn’t seem that fun at the time but I actually thought it was a pretty cool experience. …

Lots and lots of filing and lots of uploading business cards. At the time it wasn’t really that simple to digitize. …

It definitely built character. It was fun to see how an office operated and really from an early age learn about he mission and be surrounded by professionals who were really focused on social impact work. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Betsy shared why she created EdSurge:

I quit a very well paying, very prestigious job in the middle of what will hopefully be the biggest economic downturn we will experience in our lifetimes. 2009. And I took a deep breath and said the only way I’m going to figure this out is if I really set aside time to do it. 

And so I quit and then I devoted the next year to really understanding what was going on in education, what was happening in the schools. I worked as an IT person in the local public school, and plugged in computers and did professional development for teachers and learned a lot about what the problems were that were going onin the schools as well as what’s emerging in technology. And around that time, I started to see new technology companies starting to pop up and at that moment I realized what I could do. … When a new industry is emerging, there needs to be some way of pulling people together, some sort of information source, some sort of water cooler, because people who are coming into an industry have several characteristics in my opinion. …  

… No. 1 when they are really, really smart and really talented and critically don’t actually know very much about the business they are starting to get into, because if they really understood it and they really understood how hard it was, they’d probably choose not to do this. So they need someone … who helps introduce them to other people in the industry, who shows them what’s going on in the landscape. So that was one idea.  

The second, really powerful idea in education which is that this is a marketplace where people — schools — were starting to buy millions of dollars worth of technology without any kind of outside commentary, without any third voice, without any independent analysis of was this stuff the right stuff for them.

So we started EdSurge with two very strong ideas. No 1: support this emerging ecosystem of companies, but No. 2, help the buyers, help the schools get an idea of what they are getting themselves into and make smarter choices.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

A grad school competition got Miriam and her co-founder, Alex Meis, started building Kinvolved:

We saw an email on the Student ListServe, (and said) why not enter this competition? It sounds like fun. It was open-ended what you selected as your issue area, and I said I definitely want to do education. I threw out a couple of ideas. Alex said parent engagement is something I really am concerned about and focused on. We had that in common so decided to put together just a one-pager and advance through the process, really talk to 100s of people. 

… I definitely think that’s a huge part of the process,, not keeping your idea within your own head, but talking to people in a variety of different areas — potential customers, school leadership, administrators, district leadership, teachers, colleagues, but also researchers, people who develop technology and really understand how you can put this kind of idea into action.

… We wanted to focus on improving family engagement, which is a very broad goal. As we wee talking to more and more people, we said, ‘So how are we going to do that?’ and what does that mean? We decided to really target the issue of absenteeism and try to engage families more towards the end goal of trying to improve student attendance rates. And decided, again through conversations with people, that developing an app was the best tactical way to do that. Certainly we tightened our business model by talking to many different people. 

… Neither Alex nor I have technical background. We have a lot of deep passion for the issue areas and experience in the community, but not a technical expertise. So we found ourselves at a hackathon at Pace University one nice Friday night. We had no idea what a hackathon was. We sort of found it in an email and said, Let’s try and see if we can get someone to develop a prototype that we can present at this competition and sure enough, we go the prototype developed. It was like a 48-hour thing adn there was also a competition associated with that particular hackathon, which our team won. So I guess that was our first success early on.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Miriam also shared her startup lessons learned and advice for other founders:

I think most broadly no matter how you think things are going to go, they never go that way, so being flexible and comfortable with uncertainty is necessary. 

Steve: You mean no business plan survives first contact with customers?

Miriam: That’s true! … we developed our business model canvas … through NYU’s Summer LaunchPad — the accelerator program that we participated in — that really practices and enforces Lean Startup (methods). Every single week within that 10-week program, we were going back and revising our business model canvas… and I would say that is a practice we’ve taken on with us since 2013. …

… Being able to talk to customers, realize that nothing is static is also an important lesson we learned, and always being as nimble as possible … and really taking data from your customers to understand what’s working, what’s not working, what needs improvement, and implementing that in the product roadmap. 

Steve: What’s the one piece of advice you would tell aspiring entrepreneurs?

Miriam: … Don’t worry if you’re qualified or not. … Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Don’t be afraid of failure. You’re certainly going to along the way. And take a moment to celebrate the successes, because they are all so easy to overlook but really important to your team. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Betsy and Miriam by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Phil Randazzo, founder of American Dream U; and Derek Andersen, Founder of Startup Grind.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 6: Al Milukas, and Zahra Aljabri and James Faghmous

Sometimes your passion is what you think about outside your day job. And sometimes solving your own needs turns into a startup opportunity.

Passion and need — two ingredients that help drive success for startups. The latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111, shared how a passion for food, and a personal need for modest but fashionable clothing fueled decisions to begin second careers as startup founders.

Joining me in Sirius’ New York studio were:

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Channeling a passion

Al Milukas

Al Milukas

Al Milukas has been in the radio business for 35 years and currently co-hosts The Paul & Al Show in Providence, RI. In addition to his day job, Al is a Master Gardener, self-proclaimed foodie, and writes a food and travel blog called Live the Live. He also makes krupnikas, a family-recipe Lithuanian honey liqueur. He is now turning his passion for food and spirits into a business.

Making the leap from radio mic to startup founder means channeling his passion, much as he did as a young man breaking into radio.

I have two sisters who are both math majors, so my dad, who was an electrical engineer, was thrilled with the fact that they wanted to major in that. And for me it was really all about radio from the beginning and he really wasn’t happy with my career choice at all. (He) kind of gave me that line of, “What makes you think you’re so special that you’re going to get into radio when thousands of other people fail?” 

I think that’s kind of in line with what entrepreneurs face, the fact that people may tell you along the way that what you’re doing is really impossible, why are you doing it? It’s such a risk, etc., etc., and (yet) it’s a passion of yours you need to follow. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

As a new founder, Al will be calling the perseverance he used to make it in radio. Here’s how he knew he’d finally won his father over:

Probably when I got the New York City job, because he knew what a big market it was. … He basically started telling his friends that his son was in radio. And when I overheard that, that’s when I knew I had made it in my dad’s eyes. 

And then I was unemployed actually, when they blew everybody out of New York. … He never told me, “I told you so” to his credit. …

 … You had to search for (a) job yourself. Nobody was going to give you your new job. … And he saw me do that for a year and not succeed, which is why I went to Cape Cod. It was the first job that somebody offered me.

And again, he was just shaking his head (saying), “I’d never be able to do that.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Fulfilling a need

Zahra Aljabri

Zahra Aljabri

Zahra Aljabri is an estate planning attorney and civil rights advocate who struggled to find modest, but fashionable, clothing styles that reflected her Muslim values. With encouragement from her husband, data scientist James Faghmous, she decided to fill the need herself. She and James founded Mode-sty in 2012.

James Faghmous

James Faghmous

Zahra explained that many women seek conservative, but fashionable clothing that allows them to stay true to their religious values, but finding styles that offer the right amount of coverage and are on-trend is difficult.

… There’s about 10 million women who dress modestly in the United States (for religious reasons). …

And then we get some many customers who, for other reasons, want modest clothing. Older women who want to be on trend but can’t be dressing like younger women anymore or don’t feel comfortable dressing like young women any more. …

There’s lots of holidays in many of those faith groups and they need occasion wear. …they need the clothing for all the categories. So think activewear; these women still want to dress conservatively when they’re running, when they’re swimming. Maternity. When they’re having a baby they still need their clothing to be modest. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Zahra discovered the opportunity for creating Mode-sty while living overseas.

It was (in Norway) that this idea started percolating, because over there the shopping was so much better to find things that met my needs, that were modest, and I was trying to explain to James why the shopping was so much better.

Through the course of the discussions he kept pushing, “I don’t understand why it’s so hard in the US and what could you do there to replicate this experience or make it better. …” 

At first it was like, “You could totally do something like this,” and I was like, “No, no, no. Maybe somebody is already working on it.” So it started with research to find out if somebody else was already working on it and I hadn’t searched hard enough. … Almost the whole time when I was in Norway (I) was looking and searching for companies, physical and online, that were providing a solution, and there was not.

So when we came back, push came to shove and we said, “OK we’ll take this leap.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Al’s startup journey began with a personal project:

We took a family trip to New Zealand and I wanted a place where I could log what we were doing, day by day — photos, food, all that kind of stuff. So I started Livethelive.com for myself … and from that I started featuring every bit of travel that we did and all the food that I cooked. I started posting recipes… and it … blossomed … 

(It began) personally for me, but then I started getting into the fact that other people were reading it and enjoy it as well and that was kind of fun. You put something on Facebook or Twitter or on the webpage and you get a response from somebody saying, “Hey, wow that looks really great, I’m going to try it today.” So that eggs you on to do more.

And I’ve always been kind of a crazy cook. Even when I was single I had parties at my house with 80 people and I used to cook all the food. People looked at me like, “You’re nuts,” but I just enjoyed doing that.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Al is writing a cookbook:

Originally the goal of the website was just to have fun … and share ideas with other people. I started recently putting together my recipes for a cookbook. … Now the focus of the website is to get a cookbook together that … features some of these recipes. … 

I’d love to find a publisher. (But) these days you can do a lot of self-publishing. Because my wife is in the art world, we have a couple of friends who are extremely talented food photographers … so we can almost do it all ourselves.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And he’s researching the best way to sell the krupnikas honey liqueur he makes and gifts to friends and relatives each Christmas:

Al: There’s a lot of legalities to go through. I have friends that have done similar things and we also have some local distilleries that are popping up in Rhode Island. … It’s all the rage now. They have all these craft breweries popping up for beer…  so now a distillery is the next step. They make a rum in Rhode Island called Thomas Tew, and … Sons of Liberty is one of the distillers in Rhode Island as well. They make whiskey. …

I’m talking to those guys to get an idea of what the business is all about, what’s required. And they all just kind of roll their eyes and say. “Paperwork. Get the right lawyer.” …

…You can (run a still in your basement), but not for sale. … I make a ton of (krupnikas) every year. … I use a case of grain alcohol per batch that I make. I make small batches, but over the course of a week, I use the whole case. … I get about 30 liters out of it. 

At Christmastime, I ask (everybody) what they want … and they say, “Give me a bottle.”

Steve: I don’t know if you’re listening to yourself, but I’m listening to you describe the basis of a really interesting business. … Not the only the honey liqueur, but the website and the food… there’s something here, don’t you think?

Al: I think so. They’re tied in a bit to each other … I’ve written about my honey liqueur on livethelive.com, but of course I didn’t give the recipe out. …

Steve: If they’re already these people making hard liquor in Rhode Island, any of them want to carry your line?

Al: That’s what I’m working on… 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s how Zahra and James tested their idea for Mode-sty:

James: All we did was put up a webpage with a dress that we thought met Zahra’s aesthetics and function, so the coverage and the style.”

Zahra: A landing page. …

Steve: Was it designed to be a Minimum Viable Product?

Zahra: It was, it was just to collect email addresses and to see if anyone else saw the need that I saw. … (We used) social media (to create demand) … mostly Facebook. … We got a lot of signups and people emailing us, “When are you going to launch? I have something coming up soon.”

Then we had been reading your books so we started to ask people if we could call them and talk to them. … I found a lot of women who were feeling how I was feeling. So that was reassuring. I think my husband, now he’s a believer, but initially he was like, “I don’t think there’s going to be that much. There can’t be that be that many.” It was my job to prove to him that there are a lot of women who are looking for the fashion and the coverage, because we thought more would be just concerned with the function and the price.

James: And ironically… about 24 to 48 hours after we put up the landing page, Refinery 29 reached out to write a story about us (even though) we had nothing … but this landing page. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Zahra concedes that doing a startup is much harder than being a lawyer:

Being an entrepreneur is the hardest thing. … You really test yourself. You learn a lot more about yourself. You have to rely on your own instincts. …

(Working with James) has made it easier. …There’s that level of trust, the honestly we can have with each other and in our relationship we want to reach good outcomes, so there’s that incentive to … discuss this and argue it until we get the best outcome. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And yet the experience has been empowering. Knowing what she knows now, here’s what Zahra would have told herself when she first took that leap:

I’d just say, “You can do it.” I think that’s probably the biggest thing is (that) before (I thought), Who am I to do this? I have no fashion background, I have no business experience. … Who do I think I am? 

Steve: Who convinced you?

Zahra: Reading about other entrepreneurs who just started and said no one else is solving this problem. I’m going to take it on, and also the encouragement from James. …

James: Zahra’s a brilliant person, so I just saw it in her and I knew that she could do it. I was convinced from the get-go. … For me I think I was more entrepreneurial from a younger age, so to me … it’s very similar to going to graduate school and doing a Ph.D. I always look for problems, for gaps. Where are the gaps in the world. And once Zahra showed me the gaps, and I saw these emails from people (saying) … “We love you. Thanks so much. We need this so much.” I just knew that this could be done if we were thoughtful … 

We want to move forward. It’s like experiential learning going though this. You can read as much as you want, you can watch how to start a startup videos as much as you want, but being on the ground and doing it, and knowing that no, we don’t have anything to lose so much, so no mistake can really be fatal, just try to do and learn and do as you go without being too outlandish was the way that … got us where we are today. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Al, and with Zahra and James’ by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Betsy Corcoran, co-founder and CEO of EdSurge and Miriam Altman, co-founder of Kinvolved.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere show No. 5: Daniella Yacobovsky and Jane Moritz

Nature and nurture together shape successful entrepreneurs. And it’s possible to balance work and family when doing a startup.

Family relationships influence founders and their startups. That was the message from the two latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Daniella Yacobovsky

Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of online jewelry retailer BaubleBar, and Jane Moritz. a food entrepreneur who owns Challah Connection, an ecommerce site specializing in Jewish gift baskets, joined me in Sirius’ New York studio.

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Jane Moritz

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of BaubleBar, previously worked at American Capital Securities and UBS Investment Bank. She discovered that investment banking wasn’t for her, and chose to do a startup instead.

She told me she was born with an entrepreneurial streak that her parents fostered.

It’s probably a mix of nature and nurture. You have to be born with a little bit of (an entrepreneurial) streak. … I definitely have friends who I meet who I think, “I cannot ever see you doing this type of a job,” and there are elements of personality they think are ingrained in you and that you’re born with. Then I think there are some that you learn and that are honed in you in terms of having life experience whether it’s in school or whether it’s in some of your early jobs or early parts of your career.

My parents definitely pushed me to work hard and to be independent, and definitely pushed me to be an independent thinker. That’s something that they really taught… all three of us from a very, very early age, whether it was encouraging reading or having conversations at the dinner table, whether it’s about politics or current events, really encouraging us to think for ourselves and have our own opinions, and really pushing us to be thoughtful about how we approached the world. I think that that’s a really valuable skillset to take to starting your own company or having your own venture.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

She explained that working as an investment banker didn’t allow her to use the skills her parents had encouraged.

I wasn’t challenged. I felt like I was constantly doing a lot of the same work. … At a young age I still felt that I had really great ideas that I wanted to bring to the table, and it’s just very hierarchical. (At a big company) it’s really hard to make your voice known and be able to have a seat at the table.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Jane Moritz owns Challah Connection now, but previously founded her own direct marketing agency, DMTG, which she ran with her husband. They had a young family at the time.

Jane shared how she and her husband worked together to achieve a work-life balance.

This is a good lesson for entrepreneurs: Be careful what you wish for. (When) I started (DMTG) my (future) husband (Josh) and I were engaged at the time, but I knew we were going to get married. I had this idea for this business where I was going to be able to work … part-time, like three days a week or something like that.

… Very quickly, I got a lot of business. We got married and then I had my first child. I had so much business, it was way beyond what I could handle.

… Just as I was pregnant with my second son — we have three sons — I said to Josh, “I just can’t handle this. This is way too much.” While I wanted to work, (being a mother) was very important to me, I didn’t want my kids being raised exclusively by our beloved babysitter. I wanted to be there.  

Maybe a month or so before my second son was born, Josh was very unhappy in a job … at another direct marketing agency in (New York) city. We decided, you know what, let’s just take the plunge. You join my company and together we’ll grow it. We did. It was very scary at the beginning because here we were both self-employed doing this together.

… We built that company up together for about another eight years and then we sold it to Earle Palmer Brown.

Now the very great thing about that period, though, was that Josh and I really shared the company and we shared kids. We had a great setup where we both worked four days a week and one day he was home with the kids and one day I was home with the kids. Our clients understood that.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here. 

When Jane purchased Challah Connection, it was a local challah delivery service for the Jewish Sabbath. She initially planned to grow the service nationwide, in a model similar to the cosmetic and food subscription services popular today. Customer feedback pointed her in a different direction:

This was 2002. The Internet e-commerce was really just getting going and I thought I would build (the business) up using the Internet and UPS, etc. …

One day I picked up the phone and called Florence Fabricant (food critic at) the New York Times and I said, “I just want to tell you about my company.” It was a stroke of luck that she answered the phone. … 

She loved the idea … and in February 2003 (the Times published an article about Challah Connection). … We were inundated with orders that day and phone calls. …

That did not make our business, but it did put us on the path that we’re on now. In the article … Florence talked about the Challah subscription program and said that we also sold babka and Russian coffee cake. … Ninety percent of the people that called that day and for the next few weeks said, “Can you take those three things and put them in a gift basket?” … I’d never even thought of gift baskets. … of course I said, “Absolutely!” …

That turned on the light bulb in my head that said, “Oh, this is really interesting. This is what they want.” And also that… was a whole lot more profitable than selling challah subscriptions. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The idea for BaubleBar originated during one of the midday shopping trips Daniella and her co-founder, Amy Jain, had a habit of making. Here’s how they got to know their customers:

The first thing we said was, We know we would love this, but will other women love this? So we started doing surveys and … testing selling product. We would buy a product from wholesalers because we obviously didn’t want to go out and invest in a whole production arm and we started testing: Would women buy this product at a $20 price point, a $30 price point, a $50 price point, a $70 price point? We sold product literally out of our apartment. …

… We learned a lot about the type of product that (the customer) wanted and the price point that she wanted it at, and we learned a lot about merchandising assortment, which was incredibly helpful. … We had this thesis that jewelry is a category where women are really experimental in terms of their style. They want a really broad range and a broad selection, but that’s obviously expensive to produce against, so we needed to test that a little bit. 

…Every time we did these shopping parties… in our apartments … we would really monitor what women were buying and we found they were buying a really broad range. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s how they knew they were on to something:

We wanted to really to get an understanding for, OK, well, this customer group that we know really well because they’re our peers and they go to school with us, they like it. What about total strangers? What are they going to do?

We put up this website. … It was a closed site, meaning you had to sign up for an account and be invited to shop. … We could not afford (to advertise, so) we sent emails out to all of our friend groups (tens of thousands of people), and we really pushed people.

… a lot of people shared (the invitation) with friends. People started forwarding it, and it … picked up steam. We got a lot of traffic to our little testing site (and) we started selling product. 

(But) what was most exciting is not only did we sell product, but as we were putting new products up people we didn’t know kept coming back. What we got most excited about was … we had women coming back and buying from us four or five times within the first three to four months of being up as a site. I think at that point Amy and I looked at it and said, “We think we’re really onto something.” That kind of sticky behavior for us really validated this idea that there is a consumer need.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Daniella’s full interview here

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Jane initially ran Challah Connection from her house:

(In the early days), we did all the (order) fulfillment in my basement. Our living room was our customer service center. For holidays we would have to take over the dining room, the family room for other packing and outbound calling, but we basically took over the whole house. In February 2014 (having acquired thousands of customers) we moved to a warehouse. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here. 

And as was the case for Daniella, Jane’s family support was key in shaping her entrepreneurial path:

Both my parents were very entrepreneurial. My father was a dentist, a very prominent dentist in Stanford and he also developed real estate on the side. My mother … created a line of cosmetic organizers that she was selling into all kinds of large department stores. She also sold direct to consumer, this was back in the ’70s when there was no Internet, but she did those small ads in the back of the New York Times.

… Also, my father was very prominent in our lives and my mother as well, but my father had some lessons that he taught myself and my 4 siblings. One of those lessons was that self-employment and entrepreneurism was the ticket to freedom. … that that really stuck in my mind. … My father was actually very progressive and he felt that even in his day, again, in the ’60s and ’70s … that women should have a fair shot at everything. He taught us a lot about empowerment and wanting us to go on to be successful and so on. He was very cool. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Jane’s full interview here.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to the Daniella and Jane’s full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: radio personality and food entrepreneur Al Milukas of Live the Live, and Zahra Aljabri and James Faghmous of Mode-sty, an online clothing retailer of modest styles.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere show No. 4: David Lerner and Gary Marcus

Growing interest in entrepreneurship is driving a culture change across Columbia University. And Silicon Valley’s pay-it-forward culture is a huge help to startup founders.

Culture matters whether you’re starting up or helping others to do so. That was the message from the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Dave Lerner

Dave Lerner

David Lerner is an entrepreneur, angel investor and director of entrepreneurship at Columbia University. Gary Marcus, one of the country’s best-known cognitive psychologists, is a professor of psychology and neural science at NYU and founder of Geometric Intelligence.

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Gary Marcus

Gary Marcus

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explore the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Entrepreneurship bringing people together 

David Lerner became the director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia University after seven years running Columbia’s Venture Lab. He is also an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School, and an angel investor hailed as one of New York City’s top 100 early-stage investors.

He explained that entrepreneurship is the galvanizing force as Columbia University works to redefine its culture and became an outward-facing institution.

Dave: We’re trying to take a lot of the stuff that you’ve done with the Lean LaunchPad methodology and move that out across university into the other schools.  

… Entrepreneurship is the tip of the spear for efforts to try to galvanize siloed groups. Everyone is interested in solving problems. And entrepreneurship is a mysterious force that everyone is interested in and it brings everyone together. It’s not threatening. It’s collaborative. It’s creative. We’ve had a lot of success in bringing people into the community and welcoming them. 

Steve:  This is both student projects and faculty research as well figuring out how to apply some of the basic research that faculty is doing, right?

Dave:  Absolutely. … I would say that in the last five or six years, it’s gone from a weird conversation to have to if you’re not having it, you’re not in the mainstream anymore. Everyone is involved in the innovation entrepreneurship community in some way now.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

What’s more, as the Lean Startup revolution has gone mainstream, Dave said, it has started to change the trajectory of our economy.

I’m seeing it in real time. I’m teaching Launch Your Startup and the Greenhouse Accelerator at the (Columbia) Business School. There’s more interest on the business school students and engineer students than there’s ever been. A lot of them are fed up, they’re not going back to the consulting firms, they don’t want to go back to their banking jobs. They want to create something new and it’s palpably different than it was five years ago. It’s in the air. It’s a conversation. If you don’t know about it your first year, you certainly will find out about it by meeting your peers. …

… I think universities that don’t have an entrepreneurship focus now are in the minority. I’ve seen so many of my colleagues are hiring entrepreneurship directors, creating new programs. They want to collaborate. They want to learn from what we’re doing, from what other schools are doing. It’s in the air, whereas five, six years ago, it wasn’t even spoken of.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Gary Marcus is professor of psychology and neural science at NYU and CEO and founder of the artificial intelligence (AI) startup Geometric Intelligence. Described by The New York Times as “one of the country’s best known cognitive psychologists,” he is the author of four books including Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, and the New York Times Bestseller, Guitar Zero; and writes frequently for The New York Times and The New Yorker. In addition, he is co-editor of the recent book, The Future of the Brain: Essays By The World’s Leading Neuroscientists.

As he has worked to build Geometric Intelligence, Gary has found valuable help from other founders thanks to Silicon Valley’s pay-it-forward culture.

I’ve been blessed by having a lot of very supportive people in Silicon Valley, including you. … We’ve spoken a few times and you’ve been very generous. I found a lot of people in the Valley have really been there for me when I’ve had questions, “How do you handle this? What do you do with an advisory board?”

…It’s an amazing (pay-it-forward) culture, actually. Academia does not have that culture, at least in the parts that I’ve been. I actually found that people have been nicer to me in the business world. I don’t doubt that we will come up with some cut-throat competitors yet and so forth … but so far people have been really generous with their time. It’s been great.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Gary also told me why being a science professor was good training for being an entrepreneur

It’s not that different from running a lab where you have to raise funding. You have to pitch your ideas to different people all the time. …I had a lab in the university…. It varied between two and ten people at different times…. A lot of the skills that I developed there, and also in the writing for the public, have been very valuable in making, you know, in liaison with the investors and helping to recruit people. It’s actually not that different a skill set.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The stuff founders are made of

Dave shared what he looks for in a founder:

I’m always looking for somebody who is courageous, who is relentless, who’s prepared for the long slog that is inevitable, and who’s on a mission and so focused that they’re just going to keep moving no matter what…

… I remember with my dad and myself, people were saying no to us constantly, I don’t even think it registered when people said no to us.

Steve:  I’m going to remind everybody that no is just the beginning of a conversation for an entrepreneur …

Dave:  Exactly right. …

Steve:  Maybe fearless and relentless (are also key traits)?

Dave:  I think so. The one thing the one sort of tale that I have is, when you’re having a conversation with an entrepreneur, how deep down the rabbit hole are they ready to go? I’ll give you an example, there’s one friend of mine … the CEO of venture-backed company… it’s a parking app… but when he was starting out, … I said, Sean, what do you know about parking, you’ve been in e-commerce … and then probably for two hours, question after question he just kept going down a rabbit hole, and he was ready to go for eight hours to talk about algorithms, and zones, and cities. Every aspect of parking you could possibly imagine. I was ready to get carried out on a stretcher- 

Steve:  He became a domain expert?

Dave: Yes he did.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Dave was a champion chess player in high school and honed his game with the help of his peers. He told me why learning to play chess is like being an entrepreneur:

Dave:  In retrospect I’ve kind of realized that those guys to me, they had this closed knowledge. This is of course, pre-Internet. Once you were sort of in with the club, so to speak, and had access to this knowledge you immediately starting performing, you know, 10 acts of what you ever were before.

Steve:  I see. I’m surprised you went there. It wasn’t like chess taught me how to think multiple layers deep, it was actually that it was a closed system of knowledge, kind of like investment banking or venture capital or startups that once you got in the club someone would actually teach you. Is that?

Dave: Exactly. Truly it was like an apprenticeship model and of course, they didn’t have an eloquent way about them, it was gruff and rough, and there were a lot of insults but … kind of like startups, they let you in fine, begrudgingly and if you showed up and you had heart they appreciated it.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Dave’s full interview here

If you can’t hear the clip, click here. 

Gary shared why he decided to go for it and do a startup.

I had dinner with somebody … who closed a deal one night. … He couldn’t tell me what it was, but I read about it the next night. It was this company DeepMind, which sold to Google for $650,000,000. I read what they did, and I was like, “You know, what they had is one really interesting technology” …

…I was like, “Why am I writing about this for trivial amounts of money? Maybe I should do it.” They assembled a really cool team, and they had some good ideas. I had some good ideas that I’d been sort of ruminating on for a long time. I knew how to put together a good team, and I started doing it. Then, I started talking to people in Silicon Valley, and they were very receptive.

(I had) an epiphany …These ideas that I’ve been chewing on might actually be useful to somebody on a large scale.

… For three months I just sat on the idea. … “Should I write a book, or should I start a company?” … There’s a good chance I’ll make more money doing this, but I’ll also be more stressed.

I really like writing for The New Yorker. This is a good gig I have, and I figure the odds of becoming manic-depressive if I ran a company were pretty high. I was like, “Is that going to be worth it?” Eventually, I decided that this was a special moment in time. This was my one chance. I could always write another book.

This is a moment where the kinds of ideas that I had seemed like they might be commercially very valuable. It seemed like there was a lot of funding around. I talked to Adam D’Angelo, who is the CEO of Quora, about what I was doing. I didn’t even ask him for money. He offered me money, and his name sort of helped me to raise money from other people.

It wasn’t very hard to raise money…. Some of it’s like the feel was at a right moment. I approached an old friend, Zoubin Ghahramani, who’s really a top machine-learning expert, and he was excited to do it. All these things seemed to fall into place very quickly.

… Five years from now someone else might have had the idea that I had. A good idea isn’t fresh forever. … The whole market could change. … It felt like this really is the moment if I’m going to do it. Now is the time.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Still, it’s been a steep learning curve

There is a ton of things I had to learn about lawyers, which I’ve hated every minute of… There are (also) challenges in the beginning like negotiating equity (how to split up stock) among your founders and with your employees and things like that. …There are lots of things that need to be negotiated. I have gotten … a lot of practice at negotiation let’s say, and you don’t do it in quite the same way in academia, but it’s not totally different.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Gary’s full interview here

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Dave and Gary’s full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of BaubleBar and Jane Moritz, owner of of Challah Connection.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 3: Frank Rimalovski and Frank Sculli

You have to teach entrepreneurs how to fish rather than serving dinner for them.  And wishing you had asked for help much earlier in a startup.

Giving help and getting help. Those were the messages from the two latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Frank Rimalovski

Frank Rimalovski

Frank Rimalovski, executive director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute joined me in the studio to discuss how the Entrepreneurial Institute is transforming the culture at NYU; and Frank Sculli, co-founder of BioDigital Inc shares what he wishes he’d known before he started his company.

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Frank Sculli

Frank Sculli

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explore the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Teaching entrepreneurs how to fish
Frank Rimalovski is the executive director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and managing director of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund. He teaches at the NYU School of Engineering, and for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, and co-author with Giff Constable of Talking to Humans: Success Starts With Understanding Your Customers.

Frank has spent 20+ years in technology companies and venture capital, working at Lucent, Sun Microsystems, Apple and NeXT.

Entrepreneurship at NYU is more than just offering  classes. Frank’s goal is have students to leave NYU with skills they can use throughout their business careers. Frank describes how:

The (NYU Entrepreneurial) institute provides a host of resources, programs and the like to help our faculty and students learn how to (start a company). We don’t do it for them but … we teach them how to fish rather than serving up dinner for them.

(There) are proper for-credit entrepreneurship classes but the majority of it happens on an extracurricular, co-curricular basis. The thing that unifies all of them, whether it’s a class or some kind of program is … (that) we don’t just teach people the theory of entrepreneurship, we also teach them how to do it. You taught me the analogy of teaching someone how to be an entrepreneur is like teaching surgery. You can’t just expect someone to read a book and know how to perform surgery. You have to get out and practice it. …

Everything we do is highly experiential. We teach them about it and then we make them do it right away. The other thing that we try to make everything that we do in and of (New York).  We try to bring the entrepreneurs, the investors, the venture capitalists (the entire New York startup ecosystem) into everything we do. It’s done in a real-world context, not in some theoretical context.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The goal of the entrepreneurship program is to change all of NYU’s culture, Frank explained. The NYU Innovation Venture Fund plays a critical role in the effort.

Frank: Somewhat serendipitously through a contact I made through IBM, I learned about this opportunity in NYU… to create a new venture fund to essentially do very similar work to what I’ve been doing inside Lucent and the venture partners … to work with researchers and invest capital to create new startups…. We invest exclusively in startups founded by NYU students, faculty and researchers.

Steve: You’re a venture capitalist essentially for a single school. Is this because you want to support the professors or because the university wants to have an additional source of funds? What’s the rationale?

Frank: …To change the culture within the university. … to be more externally oriented, more market oriented and to get our innovations and ideas to market. … MIT … Stanford … and Berkeley do things similar to this.

Steve: (Was the goal) … to turn NYU into an outward-facing university? Meaning, “Gee, we’re a great research university but we’ve been staring at our navel for 100 years.” Is that a fair way to say it?  “Perhaps we ought to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time?”

Frank: I might not say it that strongly but others could 🙂 Put another way, you know as well as anybody that the world has evolved in a lot of ways. Big companies don’t just come to universities and line up to (just) license technologies. Similarly, jobs for our students ain’t what they used to be. I view our mission as both to help advance those technologies into the marketplace to get the more informed customers in the market and to help our students create opportunities for themselves at the same time.

Steve: You’re a change agent with a bag of money inside the university, right?

Frank: You can describe it that way.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Frank Sculli co-founded of BioDigital, in 2003 to build a kind of flight simulator for doctors that would be used to train them in specific medical procedures. That original vision didn’t pan out. Frank explains why:

We learned a number of things, (first) that there really was a need there to transform the way people are educated around these concepts (the need for using medical simulators to practice surgical procedures.)

(Second,) we learned that 3D was very effective in doing so…, but why hasn’t it become mainstream yet? … (The reason was) because it wasn’t cost effective. It took too long to develop and … it really wasn’t ubiquitously accessible. You’d build that simulator, and it would sit on a desktop somewhere and you’d have to fly people to that training center to use it. Even if you created a video, the video was accessible but it required updates, those updates were expensive and the formats changed and so on. …

(Third) I think with the adoption of any new technology you need to mitigate risk as best as possible and because of the hefty price tag associated with it, it was hard to do it in volume and even when you did the margins on those projects weren’t spectacular.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s what Frank Sculli wished he’d known when he was building BioDigital:

Frank Sculli: … I would have asked a lot more questions. I would have sought help. I think that I learned that too late…. People have done this before, not (this) specific technology, but they’ve scaled companies and I think it’s incredibly helpful to surround yourself with those people, those mentors and ask the right questions.

Steve:  Do you think it was the fact that you didn’t take venture money, that you didn’t have a board or did you not have the right advisors? … My problem was, I always thought I was the smartest person in the building and didn’t need any (advice). Did you have that problem, too?

Frank Sculli: There’s a little of that when you’re young and you don’t want to reveal that you’re may be incompetent in certain ways …

I think that (now) there is a much stronger supporting ecosystem in New York City and that’s been incredibly helpful. I don’t know if I would have leveraged that better back then. I mean the whole concept of startups just wasn’t really as high profile back then, at least in technology.

Steve:  Where do you get your advice now?

Frank: Investors …with other CEOs whether or not they are in a relevant industry, just becoming friendly with a lot of those people, just mentors. … When you do reach out people are very willing to help. They really do enjoy it.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

This was his a-ha moment:

We went from a services company to a company that has a product. (We’re addressing the) same problems but we wanted to solve the problem in a much more scalable way so we saw, around 2011 … the Internet was going to support 3D natively. … We saw the emergence was becoming a standard and … devices had become so powerful that even your phone could run 3D.

We looked back and one of the great things is a byproduct of all those service was just this massive library of 3D assets, 3D models of the human body… that we owned.

I will emphasize to pay attention to intellectual property issues as early on as you can. … When you’re bootstrapping things and you know you’re just, you’re constantly weighing where you should invest your money and highly recommend legal (advice). ..It’s not cheap but (the lack of) it can really come back to haunt you otherwise.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Early in our interview, Frank Rimalovski took us back to his early days in startups. Out of college, he briefly worked as an investment banker in New York, but before long heard the siren song from Silicon Valley.

Here’s what happened:
I started my career in Chase Manhattan Bank … then quickly made my way over to Bear Stearns because I really wanted to be an investment banker and do mergers and acquisitions. … I was 22, 23 at that time. … Bear Stearns was very much a sink-or-swim kind of place at the time which I loved and thrived in, and had a great time doing that. I worked with a lot of really smart people, but after a couple of years realized this is not what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Like a lot of people at the time, went back to business school to try to figure out what I wanted to do. …  I picked up a book … a recommendation of a friend, called “West of Eden,” which told the story of the founding really of Silicon Valley and ultimately Apple. … I read about Xerox PARC and then ultimately Apple. I was like, “Oh, my God. That is where I want to be.”

… In ’92, the country was in a recession and none of the West Coast companies were coming to North Carolina that year, so I made a point of every free moment I had I’d go to the library and I would read rags like Info Week and PC World and learn about the industry through that. (I would) then spend every free moment I had writing old-fashioned letters to every name I could find in Silicon Valley. Then I would go out there and say, “By the way, I’m here. Can you spare 30 minutes?” I probably got, over the course of a few weeks, 20 or 30 interviews of people. That ultimately led to a bunch of different opportunities.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Working in Silicon Valley left a lasting impression. He told me about meeting one of the startup world’s icons:
The summer of ’92, I was able to con my way into an internship at … Steve Jobs’s Next when it was still an independent company. He’d … recently taken money from Ross Perot. … I was brought in to help them try to figure out a strategy for entering the healthcare market where they were seeing a lot of interest from primarily academic hospitals …

I got to interact with Steve a little bit on my first day. My then-manager Ken Rosen is walking me around the building giving me a tour and we bump into Steve on the stairs and I’m like, “Oh my God, there he is.” Ken introduces me: “Meet Frank, he’s an MBA intern at Duke, he’s going to help us figure out the healthcare markets this summer and he’s definitely qualified because his dad’s a doctor.” There’s this 3-second pregnant pause and I’m waiting for either him to rip Ken a new one or to throw me out of the building.

Then he slaps Ken on the back and there’s a big laugh and he says, “Welcome aboard.” Or something like that and walks off.

I had an opportunity to interact with him a few times over the summer, convince him to go speak at a healthcare-related conference and things like that. The thing that I really took away from that was the interplay and complexity of the industry between the developers and the channels and the integrators. That was something that was I think really hard to wrap your head around as an outsider reading case studies and books in business school.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Frank Rimalovski also shared lessons from Silicon Valley that have stuck with him.
When I went to Sun Microsystems in ’96, the development team that I was working with … was trying to figure out what the next version was going to do. My first instinct was, well let’s go talk to our customers who were developers at the time, and they were like, what do you mean?

I schlepped two of our most senior developers on an airplane. … I remember we went to visit Corel, which was a big developer at the time, and … and a bunch of others, and we actually sat down and spent a couple of hours with these customers, not pitching them, but actually asking them about what worked for them today, what were their problems, what were their issues, what were their challenges, what would they like … A little bit about what they would like to see. This is why when I first learned about customer development, I’m like I get this, this made a lot of sense to me. …

(The senior developers) were not happy that I was schlepping them across the country, but afterwards they thanked me, because they learned so much. … In the end I think they totally agreed that seeing what things really got a rise out of (customers), being able to probe, and have follow-ons and free-form discussion, breaking bread with people, it was a very different conversation than you have online.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank Rimalovski’s full interview here:

If you can’t hear the clip click here.

Frank Sculli explained how Biodigital came to be
Following grad school, it was the inception of the dot com boom. I had fielded a number of different options – everything from going to work in Manhattan in finance to big consulting firms to energy to device companies. … I ended up at at … a smaller niche consulting firm that was growing quickly as a result of the .com boom.

The boom ended quickly and abruptly and the business still survived because they had a lot of business outside of those Internet companies, but the enthusiasm was no longer there. It was at that time that I met my co-founder. He was also at the consulting company and we had strategized for a number of months over the premise of which became Biodigital Systems.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Like many founders I know, Frank Sculli isn’t only focused on the bottom line.
We’re not driven by the money, to be completely honest. It’s about building something big, working with great people. Our mission is to improve health literacy and I really think we’re on to something. … It’s a lot of fun. Every day in the office, we’re really de-mystifying things that were previously incomprehensible to most people. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank Sculli’s full interview here.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank’s and Frank’s full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)


Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Dave Lerner, director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia University and Gary Marcus, CEO and founder of Geometric Intelligence.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 2: Anand Sanwal and Chris Shipley

Starting up requires both passion and a willingness to learn from mistakes, and gender balanced teams outperform imbalanced teams. Those were the messages from the two latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Anand Sanwal, co-founder and CEO of CB Insights; and Chris Shipley, executive producer of MIT’s Solve initiative, joined me in the studio to discuss the day-to-day chaos of building a company.

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)
Chris Shipley

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.Anand Sanwal

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explore the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Women in startups: ‘It’s just business’
Chris Shipley is executive producer of MIT’s Solve initiative, through which business, technology, policy and philanthropic leaders work together to identify and solve to some of the world’s biggest challenges. A former tech journalist, Chris has built a career identifying innovative startups that create markets and drive positive and disruptive change. As the executive producer of the DEMO conference from 1996 to 2009, she helped more than 1,500 companies make their market debut.

Her 30-year career gives her keen insights to the startup world, how it works and what has changed.

Among the topics she addressed was gender bias in startups:
All the data point to the fact that gender balanced teams outperform imbalanced teams, whether they’re all men, or all women. …You have to be an idiot as an investor not to demand that the team be balanced because that will put your company in a better place.

I think it’s easy to say, “These are my friends from college, and we’re going to start a company.  … These are the women I was in a sorority with … We’ll start a company.” Neither of those teams is going to be optimized for success. When you bring different perspectives to bear, I think you start to have a better company, and a better culture.

… It’s (not just about gender but about perspective generally. I know that there are a lot of … “fill in the blank” and technology, or “fill in the blank” and startups. It’s women and technology, and women and venture, women and entrepreneurship. I think it’s just entrepreneurs. It’s just startups. It’s just business.

I have not made my way through 30 plus years in this industry by being a woman and an entrepreneur. I’ve done it by being an entrepreneur, by being a journalist, by trying to be a thought leader. I think that you just have to do it. I think that you have to demand, the respect, and part of that is by earning it, and working hard.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Chris also discussed how the startup world has changed

Chris: There are cycles. We know about investment cycles. We know about waves of innovation around new markets. …. I think about the early ‘80s, and … all the entrepreneurs who now we think of as sort of tech legends, who were just making stuff. They were just taking advantage of an opportunity and trying to create a market. … (They were operating like) there’s an opportunity and there’s a market need. (So) let’s bring this thing to market, and we hope that we can build great companies and be successful at it. I think we went through a period, and maybe we’re emerging from it, thankfully, where entrepreneurship became a thing to do.

… there was a time over the last 10 years where I started to refer to the startup community as the startup industrial complex. They had created this whole infrastructure for the purpose of starting companies and supporting entrepreneurs and flipping businesses and creating wealth creation, really — a mechanism for wealth creation. … It felt like we were just creating companies for the purpose of flipping them and selling them and going off and doing it again, not for the purpose necessarily of really fulfilling a market need or a larger ambition.

Steve:    You know, I call this the Hollywood-ization of Silicon Valley. Hollywood in the beginning was a bunch of artists who wanted to make entertainment, and then the whole infrastructure of PR and hangers on and the New York money came in.

Chris:    It’s exactly like that. When we get a television show that parodies the Silicon Valley community, and we don’t even notice that that’s what’s happening often, then you kind of know you’re in trouble. …it has to be the easiest script to write you just sit in a café in Palo Alto and write down what you overhear.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Eye on the Prize
Anand Sanwal is the co-founder and CEO of CB Insights, a National Science Foundation-backed data as a service company that provides data and insights to high-growth companies and investors. He got his start at Kozmo, a now-defunct startup that offered free one-hour delivery of DVDs, food and other goods, then went on to manage American Express’ $50 million Innovation Fund.

When Anand left American Express, he knew he wanted to start CB Insights and kept that goal top of mind.

I left Amex Jan. 1, 2008. … (and) the economy tanked right as soon as I started. In the beginning, it was really just do anything to make some money. We were doing advisory work for hedge funds … doing a survey of people in the credit card industry and we would sell this sentiment survey back to hedge funds (and) executives in credit card companies. We’d ask them, “What do you think about delinquencies? What’s going to happen to them?” or the key metrics in the credit card business.

… A lot of this, as I look back, was luck. The mortgage crisis had just happened. Mortgages were understood and credit cards became the next thing everybody was worried about.

There’s some serendipity in this (too). We met a few folks who were distributors of research to hedge funds. They said, “Hey, there’s this gap in the marketplace. Can you guys put something together?” …  We knew we had relationships in the credit card industry just given our background. A lot of ex-Amex people … (and people) at Citi … Barclays … Chase. We could call them up. The quid pro quo … was they got this data back.

… Everybody wanted to know, “Hey, what’s the general pulse of the industry? Where do people think certain key metrics are going?” We knew as we were building that business that it had a very short shelf life. It was basically crisis driven. … 

If they feel that we’ll give them any incremental advantage, they are willing to pay for it. We had credibility. We were the only folks with a product on the credit card space. The three of us who were doing it, we’re all ex-Amex and knew what we’re talking about. … It was like an advisory consulting business (but running such a business wasn’t the goal). … It just paid for a couple years. … That funded us.

 CB Insights was always the goal. … We said we think we can build the Bloomberg of the private company data space. … (So) from when I left Amex, that was the goal. It was just I had a desire to not fund the company by raising capital.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Anand shared mistakes he made early on and what he learned from them. Among these was the realization that a formal onboarding process for new hires is critical.

Anand: Onboarding is when a new employee joins the team. It’s giving them their footing… Making sure they understand everything from where the snacks are, to how to order lunch, to who is on the team, and what’s the product, and all of that good stuff.

Steve:    There used to be this culture, it still is in a number of startups, is you throw them in the deep end of the pool, you assume you hired smart people and they’ll figure it out, right? So what was wrong with that?

Anand: …We hire really high achieving people, and they felt that they weren’t achieving anything. They were just sort of floundering around trying to figure out even the most basic things. The other thing is they didn’t feel like they were connected to anybody in the organization, and that’s hard to do on your own. Some people have that innate ability to go out and just meet people, but we needed to help foster that. The other thing was people didn’t even know our vision as a company, they didn’t know the product.

Steve:    But you’re sitting right next to them. Shouldn’t they have known that?

Anand: Yeah, I mean this was one of my naïve assumptions. I think what we saw was it just doesn’t happen. It actually leads to a sub-par sort of experience.  We spend a lot of time wooing people when we’re recruiting them right, and so we paint this great picture of what CB Insights would be like. Then when you actually showed up, to be very frank back in the day it was pretty bad the first day.  What we want, when you go home that first day to your significant other, your parents, or whoever, is to say, “Hey, I had a really good first day of work and I think I made the right decision.” I don’t think we were living up to that obligation initially. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Looking forward, looking back

Anand also explained how he learned that company culture doesn’t scale:

Anand: I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned over time is the importance of culture. I think I completely … I underestimated this. I thought culture, to be very frank, was just sort of corporate brainwashing. It was bullet points on the wall. … I thought it just kind of happened organically. You hire really smart people-

Steve:    And they sit next to each other. The osmosis would happen, right? …

Anand: Yeah. … culture does happen up to 10 maybe 15 people (but) it doesn’t scale. (While you’re) building the operating system … you will have a culture, it just won’t be the culture you want.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And he discussed how he draws on the experience of working for American Express to foster innovation within CB Insights today.

Anand: The first thing we did was we codified what do we want the culture of CB Insights to be, what are the characteristics we want. But … just putting it to paper doesn’t really get you there. The next step is what are the actual actions and strategies and rituals and tactics that we’re going to have and how we’re going to reinforce those things.

We do something called “pitching demo day” every three months. Basically we take a few days off. Anybody in the team — it’s not just the developers but from the business, to marketing, to content — can propose an idea. Essentially, they have to kind of rally support from within the team and get other people to want to work on that project. For three days, we just take off and we work on these projects. The goal is that they’re experimental. They don’t have to go get folded into the product. They could just totally sort of die. But experimentation is a big part of sort of what we’re going after. …There’s a lot of good ideas that people on the team have. They get lost when we don’t give everybody a channel to surface them …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Anand’s full interview here

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Chris spoke about watching startup history being made when she was a tech journalist:

Steve:    This was at the beginning of Microsoft’s ascent, right?

Chris:    This is 1984.

Steve:    1984, and so this was when the Apple Mac first came out, Microsoft starts dominating with Windows, and Steve Jobs hires John Sculley, and all these exciting things that we now look back as, I hate to admit, many decades. It was the beginning of the computer industry we kind of take for granted. You were right in the middle of it. Did you have a sense of history at the time?

Chris:    I knew that something was happening, just because there was so much activity and so many people coming into this thing and doing things for the first time. There were a lot of the first spreadsheets, and the first different software applications. It was clearly a sense of maybe an era beginning. I don’t think we ever talked about it in that way, but clearly a lot of pioneering activity was occurring. We were really fortunate to be there at that time.

Steve:    When you started writing about these technology companies, did the pattern kind of emerge about, “Oh, here’s another founder with a standard pitch telling you it’s the best whatever’? Did you kind of go, “Oh, that’s number 903,” after they left?

Chris: Early in my career my job as an editorial assistant was to do the charts in the buyer’s guides. Of course, then we had these long dot matrix printers with the green bar paper, and it would just spew out row after row. I think there were 68 companies at one point in the database buyer’s guide. You knew that all 68 of those were not going to make it, especially when all the features across the columns were very similar. You knew that there was a lot of attempt to be the one, and a lot of repetition there.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And what the startup landscape was like back in those entrepreneurial salad days when she was with DEMO:

Chris:    DEMO is all about pattern matching. I’ve talked to about 1800 to 2000 companies a year… I always think the shorthand for Demo is, “I’ll look at all those start-ups so you don’t have to.” We would talk to all of these companies, these startups mostly, listen to their pitches, look at the products, and try to identify the outliers, the companies, the people that were doing something really different that I thought had the potential to have real impact, that would kind of push markets in new directions. … and use that pattern matching to kind of point the direction to where I thought markets might go. …

There were companies and things that we would not know today — that are not even footnotes in the industry– that had a lot of influence, a lot of impact early on that didn’t quite get the credit in their moment. I think back to … ’97, and there was this company called Hot Office. …. One of the best companies you’ve never heard of. … Web platforms were very, very new at that time. The browsers were relatively primitive. Here’s a company that said, “A browser would be a great way to access a word processor or a spreadsheet. We’ll do office in a browser.”

We had people coming up and going, “Have you lost your mind? There’s no way we’ll ever use a web browser for software. It’s not intended for that.” All I could say was, “I think there’s something there.” It turns out there was. Hot Office wasn’t the company to make that big. The next year Salesforce comes along and then an army of them afterward, but a lot of really early pioneering things that I was fortunate enough to get to see and put on stage.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Chris’ full interview here

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Anand’s and Chris’ full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next week on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Frank Rimalovski, executive director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and Frank Sculli, co-founder of BioDigital Inc.

Tune in next Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

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