Entrepreneurship

2015 Annual Report (Mid-Year Report)

Dear Grad Techers, Alumni, Friends, and Supporters:

A few months ago, in our 2014 Annual Report, I wrote about the Grad Tech Club’s activities throughout the fall.  While that writing feels just moments ago, much has occurred in the interim, including my walking the field at Alumni Stadium alongside the Class of 2015 just three days ago.  We began the year with an ambitious agenda to equip members with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the tech industry, to raise the overall profile of the BC MBA program within Tech, and to get our members hired.  With the year behind us, it’s time to reflect on how we did. (more…)

Catching Up with BC MBA and Entrepreneur Ryan Traeger

Last week I had the chance to catch up with Double Eagle Ryan Traeger, CEO and co-founder of ACHVR.  Ryan received a BA from BC in 2003 and an MBA from the Carroll School in 2012.  I have always believed that BC is a great place to start a business, yet our MBA program is not always viewed as such from the outside.  One of the goals of the Grad Tech Club is to change that perception and create opportunities for plenty of future businesses to come out of the walls of Fulton Hall.

Even before his MBA, Ryan was no stranger to entrepreneurship, running a small web design firm out of college before taking on some marketing agency firm jobs.  While he loved marketing, Ryan started to feel the entrepreneurial itch again and decided to go back to BC for an MBA.  He hoped in the time to either start something or find a fledgling business to join while there.  In his first year, Ryan was a member of Professor Gallaugher’s TechTrek West class which he says was the pivotal experience in his MBA program.  It really invigorated him and was the true impetus to making him really dig in and start exploring ideas with new vigor.

The idea for ACHVR came to Ryan early in his second year and he ran with it.  ACHVR would be an app that would gamify the experience of setting and pursuing life goals.  It would also generate significant and valuable data for marketing and advertising uses.  Passionate about pursuing the idea, Ryan approached the Dean of Graduate Programs and got permission for himself and a few others to approach the business as a class.  He further developed the idea and then spent his second semester raising money.  Ryan recruited a BC heavy management team tapping an undergrad classmate as CMO and a fellow MBA for the CFO.  In October of 2013, ACHVR raised $1.3 million in seed funding!

Clearly Ryan made great use of his time and skills at BC but was there anything he wishes he would have done more of?  Of course!  Ryan says he did not do enough going out to the slew of entrepreneurship events happening nearly every night in the Boston area.  These events can sometimes be dominated by Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern and could certainly use an infusion of Maroon and Gold.  In particular Ryan suggests the Drinks on Tap meetup for Mobile entrepreneurs and the Greenhorn Connect calendar for discovering other events.

Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to talk and for his willingness to help out BC entrepreneurs!  I look forward to chronicling more BC MBA startups over the next few weeks and to seeing more arise over the next few years!

Interested in learning more about ACHVR?  Check out this video interview conducted by BC’s own Greg Stoller.

David LoVerme is a 2nd Year MBA at Boston College and the President of the Grad Tech Club

TechStars Boston: the Right Place, the Right Time

Last Friday, members of the Grad Tech Club joined forces with our undergrad counterparts to visit TechStars Boston in their headquarters downtown.  The visit was a great experience where we learned a lot about one of the most prestigious accelerators out there.  Like most accelerators, TechStars provides space, resources, and mentorship for the 1% of applicants it accepts as well as some upfront capital and the promise of more in a convertible note should the company get funded later on.  More than just great companies, however, Techstars is committed to producing great ecosystems.  One way they do this, which I found to be particularly interesting, is by bringing on not only startups but also coders and young business professionals as Hackstars and Associates.  These people serve as floaters so to speak, and resources available to the different Techstars companies.  This gives an on demand labor force for the companies and the opportunity to plug in to the Techstars ecosystem for the Hackstars and Associates.

We also got a good glimpse into what sort of startups Techstars is looking for:

  • Team first–Since most companies have some kind of pivot it is important to invest in good teams.  If you invest in an idea and then the idea changes…what did you really choose?
  • Very rarely take single founders, instead look for 2-4 person groups with at least one business and one technical co-founder–A Hustler and a Hacker
  • Look for founders who are passionate about what they do, where at least one has significant domain expertise
  • Ideally, the founders will have acute experience suffering from the pain point their product is trying to solve
  • Companies that already have traction in the form of a working prototype, some revenue, an established user base, and a functional business model
  • Companies that get shit done
  • Since Techstars is an accelerator they are looking for companies that are primed for that growth curve.  They often take companies from incubators or more early stage accelerators like Mass Challenge, and sometimes even take companies on their third or fourth time applying

TechStars

The real highlight of the visit, however, came by happy accident.  One of our group asked a question about hardware startups.  As we were sitting in the open, various people had been shuffling by all afternoon and at that moment, our host stopped the gentleman walking by and asked if he had a moment to answer a question about hardware startup.  The guy turned out to be Harish Kamath, cofounder of Headtalk the makers of Magnet.  In the next 5-10 minutes Harish managed to give us a succinct and anecdotal summation of the real value of doing Techstars.  His product, Magnet, is a bracelet with a pair, designed for long distance significant others.  When you tap your bracelet, it lights up and vibrates its counterpart to let your significant other know you are thinking of them, regardless of the distance that separates you, helping people stay connected.  Although they had a crude prototype, Harish and his co-founder are engineers not designers but one of the mentors Techstars paired them with was the design firm IDEO.  With the help of this mentor, they learned to understand their users better and develop form factors that really met their users needs and preferences.  The next task however, was to produce multiple prototypes for testing and time was in high demand.  Founders juggle a million and one tasks at a time, as Harish put it, “they don’t call it an accelerator for nothing!” and therefore assembling the prototypes was a task that was hard to find time for.  Once again, Techstars could help!  Techstars has a 3d printer and one of the Hackstars had an interest in hardware and was happy to help, assembling dozens of prototypes so that Harish could focus on other aspects of the business.  Finally, there is the value innate in being part of a cohort.  The Magnet team decided to do a Kickstarter campaign and needed to create internet buzz about their product.  Once again, however, these guys are engineers and not web marketing experts.  It turns out, however, that fellow Techstars cohort members Fortified Bicycle had already successfully executed two Kickstarter campaigns and social marketing was literally Mavrck‘s product!  This gave Harish and his team the resources and advise they needed to tackle the digital world, even with a hardware product.

We could not have had a better case study in the value Techstars brings and the reason for doing an accelerator.  BC already has some strong ties to Techstars through previous hackstars and associates and we look forward to an MBA startup slingshotting out of the program sometime soon!

Two Hours at Highland Capital

Anyway you slice it, getting a meeting with a leading VC is tough, and getting to spend an hour plus is almost impossible. Yet as members of the BC Grad Tech Club and the overall BC Community, we have had the great fortune of having it become almost commonplace.  Only a few weeks ago, we were able to spend an hour with Spark Capital’s Bijan Sabet, and a number of our student entrepreneurs recently discussed business ideas 1:1 with Highland General Partner and BC Alum Peter Bell.

Last Friday was no exception as a group of us were fortunate enough to spend almost two hours in Highland’s Cambridge office on the top floor of One Broadway.  BC Alumni Dan Nova and Chris Protasewich hosted us, answered our questions, and dropped some serious knowledge.  While my notebook contains several pages of scrawled notes, I’ll do my best to distill it down to my impressions of a few key takeaways.  A huge thanks to Dan and Chris as well as the whole Highland team for being such staunch supporters of the school and our programs!

highland

Key Take-Aways

On what type of companies they look for and fund:

  • Highland is looking for revolutionary companies that seek to reshape an entire industry such as Uber with transportation, HourlyNerd with Consulting, and Rent the Runway with high end fashion.
  • This requires founders with big ambitions who are a little bit crazy.  In often cases, these are people with goals to start a movement or reinvent the future.  For successful entrepreneurs, opportunities to make a few million by selling early can be hard to say “no” to but can also hamper the potential of a company.

On Highland’s People First Approach

  • Highland evaluates opportunities with a People, Market, Product, and Deal Terms approach-in that order.  They sees themselves as selling a relationship based on trust and value-add and therefore the most important element is people.
  • Highland looks for solid, smart, and hard-working people.  They believe that if they find the right people, they will be able to adjust successfully to the changing market.
  • Of more than a thousand meetings each year, Highland will only fund about 15-20 companies after a great degree of due diligence on the people.  As Dan says, “There is no substitute for time when you are investing in a relationship.”
  • They look for people who can communicate well and honestly even when its bad news.  In Dan’s words, “We make a living dealing with bad news.”  Highland has a lot of experience and can often recognize patterns that allow them to provide sage advice as long as the founder comes to them honestly and in time to take action.

On Corporate Venture Funds

  • Dan is not personally a fan because there is often a disconnect in alignment between them and companies like Highland.
  • Corporate Venture groups move less slowly and they usually have a strategic interest that can alter the natural course of business development.

On Continued Investment

  • Highland recognizes that companies often require more than one infusion of cash, as a result they set aside a dollar for every dollar they invest initially to be used for further investment.  This allows the company to continue to support its portfolio companies as needed.

On the Future

  • “We are in the Golden Years of Major Marketplace Shifts.”  Transport, Housing, Fashion, Consulting, are all being rocked at the core and Dan believes this will continue to take place.  There are a lot of entrenched but ridiculously inefficient industries out there and the market and technology is now prime for disruption.  We can expect to see a lot more of this.
  • Immersive 3D Virtual Reality is here and will be huge.  Dan believes that the moment is here though he admits he is awfully bullish on it and my may be a bit early
  • VCs do not know all.  In an admirable moment of self honesty, Dan also admitted that VCs have a lot of experience and insight but certainly do not know all.  He asked about what are the most popular technologies on BC’s campus and was surprised to hear the anonymous social app Yik Yak was among the leaders.  He admitted he isn’t big on the anonymous thing, calling it “…the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” but appending his statement with “but I said that about Twitter…”

David LoVerme is a 2nd Year MBA at Boston College and the President of the Grad Tech Club