Step Back to Move Forward

It’s a difficult notion to comprehend, and an even harder realization to experience at a personal level: sometimes, the path to progress requires us to pause, assess the path we’re on, and decide that the best move forward might be an entirely new one. StepBackMoveForward

And when we’re pushing in multiple directions at once, the knowledge gained from stepping back for a second can prove invaluable.

I have some exciting news for you today, Verge nation!

After 9 months as your executive director, I and the Verge team have learned a lot. After adding a few key contributors, and once Matt jumped back into Verge activities more extensively a few months ago, we’ve seen tons of forward progress. It’s shown us that the most exciting path forward is a wide one, and will require many hands.

I’m thrilled to announce that Verge will continue to move forward by growing our team, and that I’m taking on a new role with the team.

Matt Hunckler will focus on some exciting new initiatives and supporting our Verge Hubs in other cities. Tim Hickle will continue to help us create online content (and will be on stage more, too). And several other members of our community are stepping into new Verge roles.

And we’re hiring! If you know of a Project Manager-type who would be interested in joining the Verge team as our full-time Operations lead, drop me or Matt a line.

Ohanian Synnestvedt HuncklerStepping back and finding new ways to approach opportunities has yielded improved strategies and tools for the Verge team to provide the most value we can to you, the community we care so deeply about. And, by stepping back, I’ve found something of a new path of my own, too.

In addition to continuing my work with Verge in an editor and volunteer capacity, I’m:

  • Building a solution for autism therapy I hope to tell you more about from the Verge stage soon
  • Working with awesome clients to launch products and market online
  • Looking for my next adventure in marketing and sales

So, it’s with immense gratitude that I would like to thank you for being a member of our amazing community, and for allowing me to serve as your executive director for this past year. You’ll continue to see posts and updates from me here, I’ll continue to help you and Verge however I can, and together, we’ll keep moving forward!

Synnestvedt Verge Team

Two Companies to Watch: DCODIA and Social Sweepster

2 Companies to watchCamera and image-based technologies are at the core of two Verge startup companies. And, while their businesses couldn’t be more different, both founders draw from close personal experiences to focus on a problem they know well. Both are pitching at Verge on April 24th.

These startups approach interesting problems with novel solutions that are well worth keeping your eye on.

Picture This: Two Image-based Startups to Watch

DCODIA Decodes Dyslexia

Co-founder and CEO Kris Parmelee recently said, “Necessity is the mother of invention and I’m the mother of a dyslexic child.”

Kris at DCODIA


Frustrated with the lack of assistive technology for her son’s needs, Parmelee decided to solve the problem herself.

DCODIA is a discreet mobile solution designed to help dyslexic students read without the assistance of a parent, teacher or tutor. With it, readers who get stuck on a tricky word can un-stick themselves—which means greater freedom and independence for dyslexic students everywhere.

And, thanks to the unique data tracking features baked into DCODIA, dyslexic students will soon have better insight into precisely where their challenges are and how to overcome them.

Social Sweepster Cleans up Your Act

As a recent college graduate, Tom McGrath wanted to make sure that he continued to carry the lessons he picked up at Indiana University with him. He didn’t so much want to carry every beer he’d had at school with him, though. But with the proliferation of social media into so many aspects of our lives, Tom (and countless grads like

Tom at Social Sweepster

him) discovered that it’s not so easy to leave your digital footprints behind.

Enter Social Sweepster, the image recognition platform that promises to simplify putting your best foot forward online. The tool scans users’ social profiles and flags unbecoming photos (how many solo cup photos do you have on Facebook?) so graduates can be confident stepping into the “real world.”

Social Sweepster isn’t alone in the image recognition market—but as Facebook, Google and Apple are already snatching their competitors up, the future looks bright for this young company.

Continue reading

How Passion and Prototyping Led to The Pocket Drone

Kickstarter smash hits like the Pebble Watch or Oculus Rift rise above the 59,000 other funded projects on the platform because they carry a certain polish, a “finished” feel, that backers love to buy into.

The Pocket Drone was one of those blockbuster projects. The team behind The Pocket Drone, AirDroids, raised $929,212 on a $35K ask and attracted national media attention from Tech Crunch, Wired, Popular Science and The Wall Street Journal with their Kickstarter Campaign that aimed to “democratize the sky”—but The Pocket Drone wasn’t always a headline grabber.The Pocket Drone

Like many astounding innovations, it started with a simple idea, passion, and the “maker” mentality. And, while The Pocket Drone now reigns as Kickstarter’s most successful project of it’s kind, it didn’t always feel so finished.

In fact, it didn’t even start as The Pocket Drone at all.


How The Pocket Drone was Born

“Let’s Make a Flying iPhone Case.”

TJ Johnson, AirDroids Co-Founder and CTO, is a trained engineer, Intellectual Property attorney and pilot. When he invited me to his basement workshop to tell the story of The Pocket Drone’s humble beginnings, I was reminded that even the most stunning steps forward in technology often start with a simple idea.

The incandescent light. The steam engine. The world wide web. The…flying iPhone case.

TJ was talking to his friend (and future Co-Founder) Tim Reuter at a DC area Drone User Group Meetup when they came up with a novel idea.

“Think we could make an iPhone fly?”

And thus the experimentation began.

TJ and Tim began diligently prototyping their flying iPhone case. Model after model was tried—different combinations of rotors, folding components, guidance mechanisms and more were tested.

And none of them worked.

“I’m convinced it’s impossible,” TJ chuckled.

But as they say, where one idea ends, another begins.

The Pocket Drone Folds Up

Aerial photography and videography for the average consumer was the key problem their flying iPhone case tried to solve. But the options already in the market were either to complicated, too large, too expensive, or not capable enough

In a world of remote controlled toys, TJ and Tim wanted a remote controlled tool.

So, with tons of experience trying to carry a big payload with a compact drone, the AirDroids team set out to make an affordable drone that simply did what users wanted it to do.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…The Pocket Drone!

I’ll share more of The Pocket Drone story–and more Drone video–after TJ pitches at Verge on April 24th. For now, here’s a sneak peak at footage from a Pocket Drone prototype.

See TJ pitch The Pocket Drone at Verge on April 24th

Winning Startup Trade Show Ideas from The Innovation Showcase

It’s been a big year for Santiago Jaramillo and the BlueBridge Digital team. The kind of year that landed him on the Inc. 30 under 30 list.

Startup Conference Tips to Win

Santiago Jaramillo, Founder and CEO of BlueBridge Digital.

A year ago, BlueBridge had fifteen clients and three employees. They now have over 110 clients and more than fifteen employees, but that’s only the beginning–with plans to add 199 jobs over the next nine years, Santiago and BlueBridge are only going to continue accelerating.

And when Santiago pitched at The Innovation Showcase in July 2013, the team was already well on their way to growth mode: they took home 1st place in the Early Stage Startup category, attracted lots of attention from the startup community in Indiana (and around the country), and have continued to innovate in the mobile space.

So when Santiago shared with me how he and the BlueBridge team prepared for The Innovation Showcase, I knew it was advice worth heeding.

Santiago explained that three things take the most effort and time to prepare for startup conference and events: the exhibit, the team, and the pitch. Catch the full interview and my takeaways below.

Winning Startup Trade Show Ideas

Startup Trade Show Idea #1: Be Intentional with Your Exhibit

Attendees at most conferences won’t have any clue what your company does when they walk through the door, so start with the pain or problem you solve. Try to avoid industry jargon. Your goal is to be understood–to create an “Ah, yes, I see!” moment–not to speak over attendee’s heads.

BlueBridge delivers Mobile Apps as a Service (MaaaS?). Which may or may not come across clearly, even to a techno-literate audience.

Keep your exhibit simple, like your pitch, Santiago said. Put a lot of thought into the few items you will bring, and keep attendees laser-focused on the real value you provide–not the chintzy usb drive the booth next to you is giving away.

Startup Trade Show Idea #2: Be Intentional with Your Exhibit

Startup teams are tight-knit, but that doesn’t always mean that everybody is on the same page going into scrutinous environments like The Innovation Showcase. Prep your team with finely-tuned talking points to make sure the message is consistent. Rehearse.

“When you start describing what you do,” said Santiago, “There are just so many solutions out there that people wonder why you should even exist.”

So why does BlueBridge exist?

“There are more smartphones sold than babies born in the world,” said Santiago, chuckling. “It makes you laugh, but it captures their attention…and they’re willing to listen to how we’re solving that issue.”

Key Startup Trade Show Idea: Ask yourself what key metrics you can share, and how you can create buy-in from attendees with your reason for being.

Startup Trade Show Idea #3: Perfect the 60 Second Pitch

Startup Conference Pitch

Santiago Jaramillo and his partner Adam Weber delivered a conversational, easy to understand pitch that really resonated with the judges.

At The Innovation Showcase, companies only have 60 seconds to pitch–but since founders really only have about a minute to get the point across any time they pitch, the lightning-fast 1-minute pitch gets a lot more use than you might think.

“Put yourself in the shoes of your audience,” said Santiago. “You have to really simplify and condense.”

Key Startup Trade Show Idea: Keep your pitch simple. Really simple. Questions afterward do not always mean the pitch was unclear–often, they demonstrate real interest.

Santiago’s pitch style earned him a win at The Innovation Showcase–and if you’re thinking of applying for the 2014 Showcase, his advice is certainly worth incorporating into your pitch: “Be very specific, clear, and simple. Those people don’t know the industry and buzzwords like you do.”

“You want to be either loved or hated, but not ignored or confused!”

The Innovation Showcase is accepting exhibitor applications until April 30, 2014. Get your application in now for a chance to secure one of the first 15 spots!

Case Study: Relevance on Navigating Startup Acquisitions

Digital Relevance Startup StoryWhen an entrepreneur takes to the stage or the web to tell their story, it’s often because they have achieved a major milestone or recently had a big win. This is, of course, fitting–we can learn a lot about what it takes to succeed by studying each other’s successes. By sharing what works at conferences, online and in communities like Verge, we both enable others to reach for higher goals and inspire others to achieve them.

But as they say, the best lessons are often the hardest ones learned. And as entrepreneurs, it’s often difficult for us to share our most significant insights because they are our hardest earned–and are the most humbling to talk about. So when Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, two of the co-founders of Relevance, joined me on stage to share some of their most significant insights, I knew we were in for a special night.

Case Study: Relevance Founders on Navigating Startup Acquisition Offers

Passion and Youthful Enthusiasm Fuel Growth

Digital Relevance Post

Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, Co-Founders of Relevance, share their insights on how to navigate startup acquisition offers.

Bailey and Dearringer developed interests in the internet and marketing from an early age. They loved learning about it simply for the sake of learning, and pursued SEO as a passion and hobby throughout high school. They split paths for college, but Derringer’s early experience helping his dad’s company with SEO led the friends to realize that their shared interests could turn into a business.

The business plan was born out of their passion, and as they say, was created with the kind of unbridled optimism that so often comes with youth.

Dearringer and Bailey owe much of their early success to a few key things:

  • Their mantra: “Make clients successful, make clients successful, and never forget to make clients successful.”
  • An excellent partnership program
  • Tried to ensure that every client referred them three new clients

They grew fast, hitting the Inc 500 list for three consecutive years.

“In a nutshell,” said Bailey, their recipe for success “Was a lot of passion and confidence. Granted, it was our first time doing any of this. We didn’t know what an acquisition process was like, we didn’t understand a lot of the stuff the wiser business people knew.”

“We were just really passionate and enthusiastic. You need that to keep you going in the beginning,” said Dearringer.

How to Navigate an Acquisition Offer: What to do When Someone Wants to Buy Your Baby

“We ran into some challenges in the last year and a half. Some people may have associated those challenges with changes in the [SEO] market and space–but something else was going on that people may not know about,” said Dearringer.

“FedEx was one of our enterprise clients, and I was invited to speak on a panel in front of 300 global marketers at FedEx. I didn’t even feel like I belonged there, to be honest,” Dearringer chuckled. “I was sitting there with executives from Facebook and Omnicom, and it went really well. And afterwards, people kept coming up to talk to me.”

Those panelists Jeremy spoke with at the event continued to speak with him afterwards.

“I think they were surprised that [Relevance] had worked our own way in with FedEx. He kept following us and talking to us for weeks after that, and it ended up leading to a $30 million offer for our business,” he said.

Suddenly, that youthful enthusiasm that fueled Dearringer and Bailey’s startup had propelled them into completely foreign territory.

“I think some of the people that are working on startups think about it a lot–it’s a big decision to sell your baby,” Dearringer said. “You have employees, it’s like a family you’ve built up, and it’s a big decision to think about what [an acquisition] means for everybody.”

“We immediately started going into what I would call ‘Cover Your Ass’ mode: how do we not let this slip through our hands, and capitalize on this?”

Founder Lessons Learned

Here are a few key decisions and milestones Dearringer, Bailey, and the Relevance (then Slingshot SEO) executive team reached while working on the acquisition that didn’t end up coming together:

Reward the people that helped you get there.

They couldn’t tell everybody what was going on as negotiations were ongoing, but they gave 16 employees phantom shares anyway.

Follow the advice of mentors, but don’t take your eyes off the prize.

They worked with an investment banker, and then decided to hire a CEO, then a COO. In foreign territory, they thought, best to have people that have been there before on your team.

There is a lot of risk to taking on acquisition offers as a founder. It takes a lot of time, effort, and attention away from the machine the business runs on. Though the Relevance executive team tried valiantly to divvy up responsibilities, with some working on the business and others working on the sale, the process affected a starkly different day-to-day from the youthful, optimistic culture they had started with.

The acquisition process is private, they pointed out. You can’t talk to a lot of people about it. You have to work through that process relatively alone. The buyer wants to watch you for six months, maybe more, to ensure that you and your sales projections and maintain EBITDA profitability.

“They were putting a lot of pressure on our sales team to hit our numbers, and at the same time couldn’t make hires the way we wanted to–we weren’t as agile as we wanted to be with the business at that time,” said Dearringer. “We introduced a lot of change to the business during that time, so the cover your ass mode–as opposed to being optimistic and excited and focusing on our business–was one of the biggest changes that occurred.”

“We learned a lot from them. We honestly did, even when we were in CYA mode,” said Dearringer.

Don’t let big numbers get under your skin.


Their hard work had paid off. Big time. Relevance had competing offers to buy the business, and they wound up with a top offer for $60 million.

“So that was even more material and more significant–which sent us into even more of a C.Y.A. mode,” Dearringer said.

There is a strong possibility that your business can get in a really bad spot if the acquisition doesn’t happen. I thought, ‘How do we manage that risk?’ So we hired a CEO and hired a COO.

Key Insight: The real lesson there is this: If you ever get to that goal, get to that spot, make sure that you stay fixated and positive and optimistic–the same stuff you built the business on must continue through the acquisition process. Don’t take on the protectionist mentality. Your energy needs to be focused.

And as Kevin said, “It means you will work 24/7, but that’s just part of the deal.”

Watch Jeremy Dearringer at Verge when the negotiations were ongoing:

How it turned out

After a year of over 100% growth, Relevance projected 50% growth for the year as they entered the acquisition process.

“We thought that was conservative,” Bailey chuckled. “We started coming in a little short of that–but the whole point of a long process is so that you don’t it your forecasts so they can keep negotiating with you.”

The process kept getting delayed, and ended up lasting almost a year. And that, my friends, is a lesson to learn from.

Key Insight: “If you ever get in a competitive bid process, get it done in a quarter, and take the second best bid. It’s still a lot of money, you know?” -Kevin Bailey

Bailey elaborated, “If you take your eye off your business for that long, you can really put a hurt on your clients, your team, and your own sanity.”

On Hiring C-Level Executives.

“Another thing: Kevin and I just had kids during this time, too,” Said Dearringer. “This will change your life. It changes everything. You need to figure out how to manage your workload and balance your personal and professional life.”

Kevin added, “Another lesson to think about: some entrepreneurs talk about the concept of ‘Working your way out of your job.’ That can happen on an exit, but I think as a founder, you bring something key and very important. It’s actually VERY hard to work yoruself out of your job.

In a lot of ways, it’s harder to watch someone else run your business than to run it yourself.

Relevance Today

Relevance still has clients like Qualcom, Sears, and more. They still do what most would think of as traditional SEO services, but today, their sites are laser-focused on content promotion.

“What happens when your content marketing efforts aren’t doing enough for you? What happens when your content falls in the woods?” Dearringer asked. “We create badass content and then we promote it.”

As Relevance VP of Marketing Chad Pollitt recently pointed out, “Content is King, but Promotion is Queen…and she wears the pants.”

So how did the Relevance team weather the storm? See for yourself. (hint: they’re still on the INC 500)

As Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey said:

If you have questions about the acquisition process, if you think something like their situation is coming up for you, if you’re working on balancing your startup baby with your new baby, or something else, please get in touch. As straight-talking, active contributors to the entrepreneurial community, they’re happy to share even more of what they’ve learned from experience with you.

Go ahead and leave your questions or comments below and we’ll monitor them for response.

Startup Investor Insights: Elevate Ventures’ Ting Gootee

When you score as much as the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl, the way people refer to you starts to change. They call you things like “dominant,” “effective,” and “the best.” 

Elevate Ventures has been called many of those things.

That’s why I was so excited to hear what Elevate Ventures’ Vice President of Investments, Ting Gootee, had to say about what she considers when evaluating deals–and what startup founders should know about how Investors approach deals–on one of our recent Investor Panels.

Startup Investor Insights: Elevate Ventures’ Ting Gootee

Investor Insights Elevate Ventures Ting Gootee

Ting Gootee, VP of Investments at Elevate Ventures

Not All Money Is Created Equal

If Firm A agrees to the same terms as Firm B, why would their investments be any different?

Because, as Gootee pointed out, not all investors bring the same resources, network, and commitment level to the table.

“Look at it as a partnership,” Gootee urged founders. “When you take money from someone, they are in this with you for a reasonably long time.” Startup funding is not marriage, but the investor panel agreed: it’s close.

As with any relationship, Gootee said, you’ll want to look for three Cs when evaluating your potential investors.

The Three Cs of a Healthy Investor-Startup Relationship:

  • Competence. Do your due diligence on your investors. You can bet they’ll be doing theirs on you.

  • Character. You’ll depend on

  • Chemistry. Are your goals aligned well, or is it more of a loose fit? You’ll want your investors to be in lock-step with your goals so you can leverage your relationship with them effectively.

“Know that you are in this for the long term, and know that there will be bumps in the road,” said Gootee. But, as she illustrated, if you have kept the Three Cs in the front of your mind as you secure funding, you’ll encounter those bumps in the road with the confidence that all parties involved want the same result.

What Makes Investors want to Invest?

As Gootee pointed out, you should not ignore the human side of the investor-startup relationship. And her investment team at Elevate certainly doesn’t.

  • Gootee looks for “Someone that is comfortable managing the human side of business. As early stage as they are, there is a lot of subjectivity in finding the right fit.”

  • The second thing Gootee and her team at Elevate Ventures look for in a founder is leadership. But, as Ting so rightly asked, “What does that mean?”

    • When she evaluates a founder, Gootee wants to see servant leadership. “It’s not just about you, as the founder,” Gootee said. “It’s about the resources you can bring to your team.” That, Gootee said, is how companies can really grow and scale.

Gootee’s fellow panelist, Gerry Hayes of Slane Capital, agreed with Gootee and explained that the difference between a founder and a CEO can mean the difference between whether or not an investment will be made.

Both investors concur that the founder may not be the person to scale the startup–which really gets at a key insight I got from this panel:

  • When they’re evaluating founders, investors want to see someone who is willing to acknowledge that, although they built “their baby” until a certain point, in order for it to grow bigger than themselves, they may need to assume new, different roles. Be humble.

Intrapreneurship Case Study: Angie’s List and SnapFix

Get your company acquired and have yourself a nice little exit. That’s the dream of many startup founders, and it’s a fine goal. Intrapreneurship Case Study: Oren Shatken of SnapFix, Angie's List

But that’s the problem with goals. There’s no clear next step. So if you get acquired, the real question is this: what comes next?

I got a chance to chat with Oren Shatken about precisely that question.

Shortly after Shatken won the Powder Keg Startup Bowl 2012 with his startup, FoundOps, it was acquired by Angie’s List. Shatken joined the Angie’s team after the acquisition, where he has since been working on building and launching SnapFix, a mobile app to help get home repairs done. It’s based around the camera on your phone, and is, in his words, quite frictionless.

I was excited to catch up with Shatken to hear about what he had learned from his transition into intrapreneurship. This intrapreneurship case study in product innovation certainly taught me a lot about what that transition from startups to corporate intrapreneurship takes, and surprised me more than once.

Intrapreneurship Case Studies: Angie’s List and SnapFix

You can see Oren Shatken pitch SnapFix at Verge on Thursday, January 30th or via the livestream on the Verge Indianapolis Facebook page.

Founders Make Great Product Managers

When it comes to his experiences with leading a startup and leading a team at Angie’s List, Shatken says, “There are more similarities than differences. The hacker mentality lends itself pretty well to Product Management in any sized organization.”

As Shatken points out, “Getting things done, at the end of the day, is what counts for any sized company.” And as Shatken navigates between large departments with their own KPIs to achieve in support of corporate goals, startup experience makes seeing the big picture a whole lot easier.

Product Innovation Can be Easier in Larger Companies

In startups, we’re used to facing new challenges and encountering problems we’ve never seen before. When that happens, we hunker down, strap our thinking caps on, and hold on for dear life. That’s how we do product innovation.

And in larger companies, as Shatken describes, there is a directory of niche experts at your fingertips. This makes getting things done a little easier–provided, as Shatken points out, that you communicate every step of the way.

“With that many people involved in projects, you just have to err on the side of over communicating. I’m used to having my six person team in a room with me, and now it’s tons of people spread over multiple campuses and cities. You have to over communicate to be successful.”

Angie's List SnapFix

SnapFix lets you submit photos of your home repair or service projects, find the right service person for the job, and track and pay for your project–all through one frictionless mobile app. And you don’t even need to be an Angie’s List subscriber to use it.

Startup Project Plans are Different than Corporate Project Plans

When building a product for release, three variables define the product release cycle and how the project is managed.

  • Delivery date

  • Resources required

  • Scope of project

The Startup Project Model:

  • Delivery date: set

  • Resources required: set

  • Scope of project: fluctuates

This is sort of the 37 Signals model, or the Lean model, and it’s how startups tend to live and breathe.

The Corporate Project Model:

  • Delivery date: set

  • Resources required: fluctuates

  • Scope of project: set

In a corporate environment, you have a certain feature set that must be released on a certain date–so, the resource pool fluctuates. The company trusts individuals to go out and find the resources, internally or externally, to release the identified feature set on time.

This key difference highlights one of the limitations startups bump up against: the opportunity cost of being resource constrained. So, what can we take away from this difference as founders and startup leaders?

When you identify an opportunity you can’t pursue due to resource limitations, plan how you’ll react (on the roadmap) if one of your competitors does take that route.

Entrepreneurs Need to be Managed by Entrepreneurs

Intrapreneurship Quote

The Angie’s List story is relatively unique in that, though the company has hired many hundreds of employees and is now publicly traded, it’s still founder-run.

“Angie and Bill are still here. They founded the company almost two decades ago,” says Shatken, “But they’re still very much involved in the day-to-day.”

This, Shatken says, makes the transition from entrepreneurship to intrapreneurship much easier.

“The nice thing is that it’s a shared outlook, a shared mindset, so it’s really easy to work with them and relate to them,” said Shatken. “If you’re ever in the position of acquiring a company and you’re trying to figure out how to manage entrepreneurs–which sounds like a total Catch-22–the important part is that you have other entrepreneurs manage them.”

Whether it’s the founder, an early team member, or an entrepreneurial executive that manages intrepreneurs, the key is that they can understand each other’s concerns and ideas more easily. Entrepreneurs speak the same language.

“I’ve experienced both at Angie’s List, and for me the experience was night and day,” said Shatken.

More traditional corporate employees work their way up through their department by setting and achieving Key Performance Indicators. As the employee advances, the set of KPIs they are responsible for grows. But as an entrepreneur, Shatken can’t ignore his holistic view of the company–and his recipe for success requires teammates managing him that can understand his point of view.

Shatken’s recipe has yielded a fresh-baked new mobile app–give it a taste for yourself: iOS | Android

“Once you’re entrepreneur, you never stop thinking about the big picture.”

There are lots of intrepreneurship examples that we can learn from, and Shatken’s experience with SnapFix is a great one. If you have questions about intrapreneurship, ask in the comments!

Or join us in-person on Thursday, January 30th to connect with Oren and get your questions answered face-to-face.

One Startup’s Journey to Revolutionize Professional Development & Recruitment

It’s no secret that the video game industry is now twice as large as Hollywood, thanks largely to the Millennial Generation. It’s also no secret that the rising Millennial generation in the United States is facing employment challenges that few have faced before. And the problem isn’t because they’re playing too many video games. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson writes in his piece, “The Unluckiest Generation”:

Finding a good job as a young adult has always been a game of chance. But more and more, the rules have changed: Heads, you lose; tails, you’re disqualified. The unemployment rate for young people scraped 18 percent in 2010, and in the past five years, real wages have fallen for millennials–and only for millennials.

Cue entrepreneurial efforts to solve this problem for America’s unluckiest–and largest–generation.

Like Chris Gray and his startup, Track Ahead.

Chris Gray, Track Ahead

Track Ahead aims to revolutionize the way that students develop their professional interests and relationships by leveraging gamification and incentives to drive action.

“Too often,” said, Gray, “People spend more time shopping for a car than looking for their first job. We’re changing that.”

Learning more about a company, for instance, earns points for a student. And offering learning opportunities earns points for companies.

“After a student accumulates enough points, companies will want to talk to them.”

Track Ahead is diving into solving some of the challenges that come with higher education–and as Gray has continued to pursue his mission with Track Ahead, he continues to learn how to better resolve his own challenges. He’ll be sharing some of that learning at the Verge Education Celebration on December 11th. But in the mean time, I’ve shared a little of what I’ve learned from Chris Gray and Track Ahead below.

Learning in Action, and Action in Learning

Track Ahead

Track Ahead aims to drive proactive learning–and Chris Gray has certainly learned a lot about how people learn about Track Ahead.

In October 2013, Gray pitched Track Ahead at The Economist’s Human Potential Forum. Watch it, then compare it to his first ever pitch at Verge in 2011.

Gray’s pitch from The Economist’s stage is brief, concise, and crystal clear. Compare his recent pitch in New York to the first time he ever pitched Track Ahead at Verge.

Pitch Practice Makes Perfect Pitch

Gray’s Track Ahead pitch at Verge is certainly a good one–and you can see how much he learned from it. For instance…

Show Me the Money

Notice how Gray’s recent pitch focused much more on the company side of the Track Ahead platform, not the consumer side. Where do you see Track Ahead’s growth coming from?

Watch the Game Tape, Seek Feedback.

Gray wanted to pitch Track Ahead years ago, and it wasn’t just to get the name of his startup out into the market–in addition to the round of financing Track Ahead was raising, Gray wanted feedback on his pitch from the other entrepreneurs in the Verge community. Just like football teams deconstruct their competitor’s game tape to find weaknesses in their defense, Gray was able to learn from his pitches over time to really deliver at the Human Potential Forum.

Note: He’ll be sharing some of that learning in less than 24 hours at the Verge Education Celebration.

What Did You Learn from Comparing how Gray Pitched Track Ahead?

Let us know in the comments!

Celebrate Learning with Chris Gray and Track Ahead

See Chris Gray discuss what he’s learned with Track Ahead at the Verge Education Celebration Event, Wednesday, December 11th 2013. 

Four Founders (and Their Businesses) You Should Get to Know

Four Startups to Celebrate Learning from the Verge Stage

At the end of the year, it’s common (and, in fact, highly advisable) to take pause and reflect on what you have accomplished over the past year and what you hope to achieve over the next one. As the Verge community prepares for 2014, we’re coming together to share what we’ve learned in 2013 and celebrate the progress we’ve made.

These four founders have certainly made plenty of progress lately. And as their startups continue to grow, Grant, Ashton, Greg and Max are looking forward to big years in 2014. Get to know them below and meet them in person at the Verge Education Celebration on December 11th, where they’ll share some of the key insights they’ve picked up that have helped them get to growth stage.

Grant Glas: Eternal Optimist and Lover of Meticulous Design

Grant GlasHe’s helped build more than 50 mobile apps for iOS and Android that have resulted in more than 1 million collective downloads. In addition to his UX and mobile wizardry, Grant Glas has has a knack for marketing, especially when it comes to the Apple and Google Play app stores.

Grant’s Business: App Press

App Press® is a code-free solution for creating Android and iOS apps on phones and tablets. Now, anyone using App Press can build, manage and distribute apps to the massive app store audience (Apple, Amazon, Google). Companies use App Press to develop apps faster, and to


save time and money on production costs. In the past 6 months, over 3,000 students, designers and professionals representing media, publishing, education, government, non profits, healthcare and financial companies worldwide have joined.


Ashton Chaffee: Boundless Builder and Marketing Mastermind

Ashton Chaffee

Since graduating from Butler, Ashton Chaffee has been a chameleon, of sorts. During her time at Slane Capital Partners, she has gained experience as a start-up co-founder, brand strategist, co-author, and marketing coordinator, to name a few. In addition to being involved with all of Slane’s companies and projects, Ashton is currently pursuing her MBA at The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. If she’s not at school or work, you’ll probably find her obsessively training at CrossFit Indy North.

Ashton’s Business: Slane Capital

Slane Capital PartnersAshton is a Partner at Slane, a serial start-­up team. Slane identifies, de-­risks, launches, and builds enduring companies. We also support other entrepreneurs (usually as the first money in).

For outside projects, Slane looks for three things:

  1. a quantifiable problem
  2. capable founders
  3. a way to defend


Greg Kraios: Creative Connector and Master in the Science of Email Deliverability

Greg Kraios

Greg Kraios is an email geek dedicated to helping deserving businesses deliver more messages to inboxes. As an established thought leader within the email deliverability industry, his expertise in dealing with receiving networks has made him a highly sought-after consultant with some of the largest email volume organizations around the world.

Greg’s Business: 250ok

250ok250ok was born out of our passion to serve the evolving needs of email deliverability managers at companies of all sizes and industries. We are excited to introduce products that help advance the email deliverability space and the opportunity to work with brands as passionate as us. 250okworks exclusively with legitimate senders, helping them to connect and win.

Max Yoder: Working to Make the Complex Simple

Max YoderMax Yoder‘s passion for clean, functional design helps his work stand out in more ways than one. He’s always pushing to make complex problems like education and scholarship simple, and now that he’s on this third startup, he’s getting quite good at it.

Max’s Business: is a corporate training application that helps businesses get their stakeholders up-to-speed and keep them there.


From employee on-boarding to ongoing corporate education to client on-boarding, makes it easy to build, distribute, and measure the effectiveness of company’s learning materials via user-friendly, web-based software.

Learn what makes these founders tick:

Come meet these founders in person. These four entrepreneurs will present at Verge’s Education Celebration, next Wednesday at The Conrad in downtown Indianapolis, alongside other founders eager to share what they’ve learned with the community.

Here’s a sneak peak:

Founder Stories: Lessons Learned from a Startup for Startups

He was knee deep in it. And it was from his unique vantage point, squarely in the middle of the action, that Nathan Beckord’s wheels started turning.

Beckord was an investment banker during the dot com boom, and through his consulting work with startups, he recognized the passion he had for guiding young companies to success by smoothing out their operations.

Nathan Beckord, FounderSuite

Today, Beckord is the Founder and CEO at FounderSuite, the San Francisco-based tech startup that builds software tools to help founders build tech startups. Yes, that’s right–FounderSuite is an exemplary Startup Inception.

While consulting, Beckord realized that scaling his efforts with software would help productize his work, and once Beckord connected with Indianapolis’s Gerry Hayes, they started building FounderSuite last September. After running Beta from March to June, the FounderSuite platform has been released to the wild and is gaining traction.

After hearing about FounderSuite from Gerry and the team at Slane Capital, I got a chance to chat with Nathan Beckord to learn more about the startup for startups.

Software as a Service, or Service as Software?

Turning a Consultant into a Web App

Beckord will tell you that FounderSuite needed to be born. If, for no other reason, than to make his life easier.

“Consulting was nice, and it was lucrative,” Beckord said. “If I can charge $5-10k for a retainer,’ I thought,  ‘Surely it would be easy to charge $15 a month for a product.’” But, it turns out, products present entirely new customer conversion challenges.FounderSuite

“Everyone thinks their startup is going to launch and hit the hockey stick right away. But I’ve worked with a lot of startups and that rarely happens. I knew that, but I still thought it would be easier.”

Lesson Learned: When you’re trying to productize a service, be patient.

“Getting adoption is two things: one part educating people about what you’re doing, and another part removing barriers to adoption.” Beckord has a strong background in consulting and investments, and working through the products has shown him different ways to problem solve. “People will say, ‘I love it, but it doesn’t have xyz,’ or ‘ I love it but I want to work with my co founders on it.’

Lesson Learned: Conversion is about lot more than landing page optimization.

Removing Barriers for Founders, and for Customers

FounderSuite launched with a handful of web apps, each designed to solve a specific founder-focused problem.

“I always get asked [as a consultant], ‘hey, I have an idea for a startup, here it is–what do you think?’ And I always want to know just a little bit more about it,” Beckord said, “What’s the market like, who are the customers, what’s the business model, that kind of thing. To give you a good answer about whether you should quit your job and jump into a startup full time, I need to be able to get some thoughtful feedback to you.

“Idea Validation is a way to sketch out a summary of your idea and push it out to your advisors for feedback. The original idea of that was actually from the advisor side–they realized that the system for feedback on ideas between advisors and founders was broken, so we built Idea Validation to solve that problem.”

In addition to tackling fundamental concepts like idea validation, Beckord is also interested in helping make order out of the startup choas that is fundraising.

Investor CRM

FounderSuite’s Investor CRM

“I’ve worked with startups raising before, and one thing I can say is that it always becomes very messy. You’re tracking what was said in what meeting when, follow on items, etc. in a big sprawling spreadsheet. Some people color code it, others tab things–everyone has their own method for dealing with the madness.”

“Investor CRM replaces that spreadsheet, and has plugins with Angel List to show where your connections might come in handy.”

Lesson Learned: Build your product the way your customers want it, not the way excel wants it.

“Half the time when I’m on the board of a startup,” said Beckord, “Unless the CEO is really proactive about asking for help, it’s hard for an investor to be really all that helpful. Progress Tracker is a tool to help keep investors better in the loop. That way, startups have a better chance to succeed because their investors are earning their equity.”

FounderSuite’s Founder’s Key Takeaways for Founders

Do customer research. Then do it some more.

You’ve heard it before: get feedback early and often. But why are so many founders afraid of doing just that?

“The initial products were itches we identified that we could scratch,” Beckord said. “…we spent this time in the first launch building all of these products. And for instance, progress tracker hasn’t really been adopted the way we expected it to be. So we’ve realized that maybe it wasn’t such an issue after all.”

“So now, after hiring someone to help with customer development work, we’re really excited about the feedback we’ve had from asking the question, ‘What do you want?’ If the first release was pushing tools out there, this one comes from pulling from the market.”

Read: 5 Must-Have Customer Feedback Systems for Your Startup

Just do it. All of it.

Be prepared to be Customer Service / Product Manager / Recruiter / Marketing / PR / Fundraiser / (all in the same day), said Beckord.

“If you let the marketing slip, the top of the funnel slows down. if you let your support emails age more than a day, you start to lose customers.”

Reality is Real (Not a Dream Inside a Dream)Startup Inception. (Photo Credit: wikipedia)

Beckord’s insight into startup sales cycles is something I’d bet almost all product companies have felt.

“You might think it’ll take a month to get a deal done, but so often it just takes four months or five months. You can’t always simply sell better–sometimes, that’s just a reality.”

What do you think?

Let Nathan Beckord and I know what you think of FounderSuite and our conversation in the comments!

Join Verge and more than 200 founders, investors, educators, and lifelong learners on December 11 at 6pm EST in downtown Indianapolis at The Conrad. Tickets available here