Launching @ Northwestern: Optimail

While the transition from academia to industry is always fraught with uncertainty and unique challenges, two recent graduates from Northwestern’s Psychology department have discovered that the demands and toolset of entrepreneurship closely parallel those of their Ph.D. training. Since completing their Ph.D.’s, Brock Ferguson (Northwestern ‘16) and Jacob Zweig (Northwestern ‘17) have gone on to form two new ventures in the industry: a data science consulting and development firm, Strong Analytics, and a product that uses AI to make email marketing campaigns more effective, Optimail.

Co-Founders of Optimail; Brock Ferguson (’16) & Jacob Zweig (’17)

The team’s interest in data science was fostered at Northwestern. They first collaborated on a data science project when competing in a Datathon hosted by the Computational Social Science Summit at the Kellogg School of Management. Applying the experimental and statistical techniques they used extensively in their graduate work, they won second place and unlocked an excitement for data science that would ultimately lead them to their two ventures.

Following this experience, they began to seek out new opportunities to hone their skills — from building a ride-sharing sharing optimization algorithm over coffee breaks in Food for Thought to competing in numerous Kaggle data competitions and meeting weekly to discuss the newest machine learning papers. Brock Ferguson also jumped at the opportunity to develop his business skills with a Certificate in Management for Scientists and Engineers at Kellogg.

Since first launching Strong Analytics, the team has enjoyed the challenges of translating their academic training into valuable business offerings. “We had a ton of fun applying what we’ve learned through a different, more applied lens,” says Brock. “When we began to see potential for this to turn into something, it was an easy next step to start a business doing this for other people!”

Moreover, their excitement around learning about new problems and about the statistical tools used to address them have only grown in industry. “Consulting in different industries and with different organizations means you’re always learning something new. It’s challenging but, at the same time, it can be just as energizing as learning in a more academic setting.” This excitement about new ideas has led the team to build a new product based on a recurring problem their clients were experiencing.

They noticed that many of their customers weren’t getting the most out of their email marketing campaigns, and decided to build a solution for the problem. Their solution, Optimail, uses artificial intelligence to automatically adapt and personalize email campaigns based on a customer’s behavior and preferences. It learns what and when to message clients based on what they’re likely to respond to. Optimail was just launched in February 2017 and Brock says they’re continually working to learn from their customers and improve the platform.

“It’s been a really rewarding and challenging experience,” says Jacob. “Doing a Ph.D. requires the ability to be self-motivated and to learn at a really rapid pace. Building a business requires so many of the same skills – I can’t think of another training program that would have prepared me better!”

Team Spotlight: Unruled.

Classes and universities are devoted to teaching and fostering creative growth. While some people enjoy some structure in their learning, others need a blank canvas to connect ideas in whichever way they see best. When the Unruled. team met in ENTREP 225: Principles of Entrepreneurship, and had to develop a business idea, their course project grew out of a personal need.

As Bennett Hensey, a McCormick sophomore, puts it, “Students use note taking to understand the material they learned in class, but when I came to Northwestern I realized that there’s a huge problem with my note taking experience and that’s because I don’t think in lines. When I think and take notes, I take complex ideas and I break them apart, play around with them on the page. Lines were just limiting. Notebooks are a tool I use everyday that go against the way I think.”

“So I had this idea to take the fundamental note taking tool, the spiral notebook, and remove the lines, which were distracting. Talking to other people, I realized that there’s a relatively large segment of the population that feels the same way. And now we’re at The Garage, we’re at the edge of a Kickstarter, we have samples, and we’re talking to manufacturers. Things are going really well.”

The Unruled. team demonstrates what it takes to transform a class project into a full-time entrepreneurial venture. Want to support the Unruled. Team? Head to their Kickstarter campaign!

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do users care about your product or service? What makes people so interested in it?

Bennett: “There’s a lot of people who think visually, that don’t have an outlet for that. Whether you’re the physics student who staples together online notepaper, or you use a small journal to take notes, or if you use a large sketchbook. Just by reaching out to friends, I realized that there was a large amount of people who said, ‘Yeah this is a problem, but I settle.’ ”

Jacob: “We’ve also seen a large problem in the stationary space as a whole, being that people won’t even buy paper products anymore because of the environmental impact. We see that as a big problem because digital options aren’t perfect; people like having physical pen on paper. We’re trying to alleviate the pain of environmental impact, while still providing this physical product, so we partnered with One Tree Planted. Every time anyone buys a pack of our notebooks, which we’re going to be selling in packs of 3, we’re going to donate to this company who’s going to plant a tree in South or Central America for us. This is something we’re going to be continuingly trying to further in our product, so we’re going to be reaching out to manufacturers see if we can get recycled products or organic products. Just whatever we can do to alleviate that distraction from the buying experience. People who take their note taking seriously and the way they think seriously, usually take their everyday things very seriously. So we’re trying to bring those together and give people a product that they can be proud of.”

What is your motivation?

Bennett: “It started as a personal problem, but it’s turned into wanting to help the people around us. We see people with a need and we think that we have the ability to alleviate that need.”

Ellen: “We’ve been getting feedback from people in our class asking when they can get these, that they want one now. So that’s been motivation to get the product down and get it in their hands.”

Cristina: “I think that’s especially true for Ellen and me because we never really had that pain point; both of us take very structured notes so lined paper works for us. So seeing their pain point kind of started that motivation, but then seeing other people, seeing them come up to you and say, ‘That’s such a cool product!’ is really motivating at this point of the project.”

Jacob: “I think moving forward our goal is hopefully designing other products that fulfill similar needs and that fit into people’s lives in a way that they don’t have to think about what they’re using. Instead, they have the complete freedom to unleash their thoughts, unleash their creativity, and not be distracted by what allows them to get it down on paper.”

What is your biggest failure so far? And what have you learned from it?

Jacob: “That it is not easy, there are a lot of steps involved. I know one that that’s been kind of hard for us to figure out is logistics: ordering from the manufacturer, shipping from the manufacturer, fulfilling. That’s something that none of us really wants as our primary task because we’re all really invested in other parts of the project, but that’s something that needs to get done in order to actually ship our product. It’s been hard to work all of these tasks into our roles, especially coming from the classroom where we’re all working together. Now we don’t have that structure in our lives, so we have to figure out ourselves how we delegate the different work so we can run efficiently.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Bennett: “I think for me it’s been that there’s only one-third of the population that is even remotely interested in our idea. So two-thirds of people that we talk to will probably come in with a negative idea and try to shoot us down. Since this is a really simple idea, it’s amazing to a lot of people that it hasn’t been done before, it’s amazing to even me. Just having the confidence that you do know your idea inside and out, being humble and listening to people and their concerns, but also trusting your intuition, trusting the people you’ve talked to and realizing I only need to reach a tiny fraction of these people. So the people that support you need to mean a lot more to you than the people that were really never on board.”

What do you think are your biggest barriers?

Jacob: “I think it’s what I said before: there’s just so much to do right now and it’s hard for us to figure out what needs to be done and who needs to be doing what in order to maximize our efforts, which we’ve figured out recently. But for the first two weeks of this quarter, we felt like we were doing nothing, even though we were meeting around four times a week, just trying to figure out who we are, what we do and how we operate outside of the classroom. When we were in the classroom, we thought we were treating it like a real project and we definitely were a lot more than the other groups in the class. But we realized that there’s a lot of things to do that we didn’t consider. So it’s been a lot of talking to other teams, other founders, talking to Melissa (Executive Director of The Garage), and people in The Garage to figure out how other teams do this and realize that other teams go through this.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Jacob: “A big one for me is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia because he set out to do something he loves. He didn’t try to make a business or this huge outdoor apparel company. He just wanted to make better clothes for climbing because he wanted to climb better. If you listen to him talk, he still talks about fly fishing, rock climbing, and taking months off at a time to go out and do what he loves, even though he owns this huge multimillion dollar business. I really admire that because that’s what draws me to entrepreneurship; that you can follow a passion of yours and make it into something that other people can get on board with, as well.”

Bennett: “It’s probably pretty cliché but Elon Musk is pretty amazing; my reason for that is that I like having an idea, realizing it’s feasible and then doing it.”

Ellen: “I really like the founder of Under Armour, Kevin Plank. I like him because he was really scrappy and started it with a few pieces of clothing in his mom’s basement. Then, he was able to develop all this fabric technology on his own without any structure and create this huge company out of it.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Jacob: “It’s great having an office space to meet in. It’s definitely a lot better than meeting at Panera every Sunday, so that’s helped us a lot. Also I feel like my circle of entrepreneurs has grown so much since being here. Just being around other people who are likeminded and doing similar things has really helped by showing us what we’re capable of and how we can do things the same or do things differently from other groups.”

Christina: “The mentorship has been very helpful for us going through this process. It’s really nice to talk to Melissa and hear her ideas; she’s so willing to help us with our project. It’s a very supportive nature and I appreciate that.”

Bennett: “Definitely the support. Also, we only work on our business when we’re here so it is an office for us. It’s like a trigger and it makes us take it very seriously.”

Unruled. recently launched their Kickstarter campaign! Head to their website for updates and to support the team. 

 

Top 10 @ The Garage

The Garage is always a busy place. On any given day, entrepreneurship courses are being taught in our Workspace, drones are flying around the Resident co-working space, new video games are being beta-tested by students in the Cafe, and our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence are prototyping their next big idea.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all of the cool and innovative things the staff and students are up to at The Garage, so we’ve put together a list of the top ten things you should know happened at The Garage in the last 30 days. Want to find out how you can get involved in entrepreneurship and innovation at Northwestern? Head to our Get Involved section or stop by for a quick tour of our space.

1. We welcome a new entrepreneur each week to our Resident Family Dinner, offering students an opportunity to hear a founder story. In the first week of February, we welcomed Northwestern alum, Jai Shekhawat (KSM ‘96) and founder of Fieldglass, just a few years after selling his company for over a BILLION dollars! Want to see part of Jai’s talk? Check out a clip below. 

2. On February 2, The Garage swept the competition at Kellogg’s new pitch competition, Shark Tank Pitch Night. Resident Teams Tiltas, eRetirements, and Re-bucha, all incubating their startups at The Garage, took home a combined $10,000 in prize money. Read more about how our teams impressed the judges in our feature here.

3. Just a few days later, on February 6, three Northwestern teams took the stage at Cupid’s Cup Validation Day, competing to be a part of the final five, and Northwestern alum Luna Lights is headed to the finals! Cupid’s Cup is coming to Northwestern on March 30! Click here to grab your spot at the event.

4. Later in the month, Resident Team BrewBike was voted the Best Coffee Shop in Evanston in the Daily Northwestern’s annual Best of Evanston competition! Head over to the BrewBike Shop located in Annenberg Hall to grab a cup of BrewBike’s signature coffee or tea, and keep an eye out in the Spring for the iconic bike, serving up cold brew coffee all over Northwestern’s campus.

5. Resident Team Unruled. launched their Kickstarter campaign, introducing their product offering creative minds an open canvas. With 20 days to go, the campaign is nearly halfway funded, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for this team this summer during our Wildfire Pre-Accelerator program.  

6. Just afterwards, The Garage was excited to learn that Resident Team IFM (Intelligent Flying Machines) was selected to compete as a semi-finalist team in the New Venture Championship graduate business plan competition in Portland, Oregon at University of Oregon. 

7. That’s not all for IFM! Founder Marc Gyongyosi and his team are also headed to the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world’s richest and largest student startup competition, in Houston in April!

8. On March 2, we welcomed Clayton Bryan from 500 Startups, one of Silicon Valley’s most active seed funds, to chat with Northwestern’s student entrepreneurs about their capital fund and startup accelerator.

9. Northwestern Alumni Magazine highlighted the best of what The Garage has to offer and profiled some of our Resident Teams in their Spring 2017 edition! Check out the full article here

10. And, last but not least, for the first time ever, The Garage partnered with Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM) as a sponsor!  This year, all the dancers, guests, and VIPs rocked wristbands provided by The Garage. Check out some of the pictures from the 30-hour event on NUDM’s Facebook page!  

How Startups Can Ensure Happy, Loyal Customers

Early in my career I worked for clothing retailer Esprit. The company’s motto was “the customer is always right,” and we meant it. We took back anything, any time, for any reason. A customer once came in with a pair of filthy, torn jeans. “These are in bad shape,” she said, stating the obvious. “I want my money back.” We gave her a refund without batting an eye.

The cost to the company of taking back heavily used merchandise was insignificant compared with the gain: The customer returned again and again and bought more. She even became an unofficial ambassador for the brand, telling friends what great customer service we provided. Had she left angry, the conventional wisdom went, she would have told far more people that she’d had a bad experience.

That was before the digital age, which has made it much easier for disgruntled customers to share their frustration. A book called Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000 was inspired by an incident in which a customer recorded a contentious conversation with an AOL rep, then posted it on YouTube.  A decade later, the “Cancel AOL” video has been viewed more than 700,000 times.

Despite the statistics and anecdotal evidence that good customer service is crucial, many companies ignore it. I’ve worked with young companies that proudly play hardball with customers. “We don’t want to make it easy for the customer to return our product because we’ll lose money,” one co-founder told me.

Not surprisingly, the way companies treat customers is often the way they treat employees. The same co-founder who wanted to make it tough for customers to return a product boasted of paying employees the lowest amount possible, even when there was enough money to comfortably pay more.

The result of this shortsighted thinking, in my experience, is that customers and employees leave. And the cost of acquiring new customers and employees exceeds the savings reaped by not treating the old ones well.

At Esprit, the visionary co-founder worked hard to keep employees happy and motivated.  He subsidized employee trips around the world and provided hefty discounts on clothes. In exchange, employees—many of them college graduates who didn’t fit the typical sales clerk profile—enthusiastically worked long hours, even on holidays and weekends.

Because of my ongoing focus on company culture, my antennae are attuned to it. Here are a few companies that do things right:

  1. Mariano’s
    I’d always viewed grocery shopping as an unpleasant but necessary chore. Until I went to Mariano’s. Employees are upbeat, friendly and accessible. They’ll grill meat and seafood for customers at the store; make custom guacamole (no onions for me, please); and hand out enough samples—chicken, chips, cake, the latest flavor of coconut water—to make a meal. Oh, and all while a pianist plays classic songs in the background.
  2. Old Navy
    I recently purchased five items from Old Navy, then got home to discover I had been charged for six. I dreaded going to the trouble of getting the credit for the extra item. Surely, they’ll question me, I thought. How will I be able to prove I didn’t get six items? I went into the store and explained the situation, expecting the worst. To my surprise, the cashier quickly refunded my credit card and didn’t call in a manager to size me up.
  3. Zappos
    Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has taken the customer-centric philosophy pioneered by companies like Esprit and L.L. Bean to the next level. He’s famous for delivering happiness, not shoes. He got a smile from me years ago after I wrote him on a whim. He’d shared his email address in a Ted talk video, and I asked where I could get a copy of the Zappos Culture Book. He replied within minutes asking for my mailing address. The next day, a Fed-Ex box with the book was on my desk. I had never ordered anything from Zappos before then but have many times since. And I’ve shared this story with several people and, now, you!

 

At Legacy.com, the online memorial company I joined in 2000, we followed the same customer- and employee-centric philosophy: do everything to make customers (site visitors), clients (newspapers and funeral homes) and team members (employees) happy.

Since many Legacy customers were grieving, emotions ran high. It was not unusual to pick up the phone and have someone start cursing, angry about the mention of an estranged sibling in an obituary or a decision not to post defamatory content in a guest book. Rather than yell back or hang up—not an unnatural response—team members were encouraged to calmly listen and empathize.

So successful was one customer service representative that the caller who had been upset asked to speak with the rep’s boss to apologize: “I am sorry I was so horrible to the woman who answered the phone,” said the caller, explaining that her husband had just died. “The rep was so kind. I felt like I was talking to my minister.”

Actually, that particular customer service rep was in seminary school… But that’s beside the point. When Legacy was being evaluated for acquisition, potential buyers said that they’d never heard such consistently positive customer and client reviews.

Being decent when it comes to customers and employees—indeed, all business matters—is the smart way to go, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem in some situations. I was once in a meeting in which an executive noted that there was a perfectly legal path to a windfall, but it would compromise the company’s integrity and likely alienate customers. In other words, the big payoff might be the last payoff.

A board member responsible for the bottom line weighed in. “I don’t do anything I wouldn’t want to tell friends and neighbors about. I wouldn’t feel good telling people about this.” And so, the shortcut to making a lot of money wasn’t taken. It was the decent thing to do. And, ultimately, the absolute right decision for the business.

Hayes Ferguson is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at The Garage, mentoring students building ideas. She is involved with several early stage companies, including HistoryIT. Hayes was a member of the founding management team at Legacy.com, which hosts one of 50 most visited websites in the U.S. Early in her career, she profiled Christina Aguilera for People magazine, snuck into Cuba for The Times-Picayune, and helped open retail stores for clothier Esprit.

Resident Team Spotlight: Zcruit

College football has climbed the ranks to become one of America’s top 3 favorite pastimes. Some assert that nostalgia is the driving factor for the love of the game; the memories from going to school there or growing up in the area could turn even the most passive fans into extreme loyalists. Another reason why college football is so deeply ingrained into the hearts of Americans is how widespread it is: while only half of the States in the USA have any major league sport, only Alaska and Vermont don’t have a NCAA Division 1 football team.

Regardless of your stance in the Michigan Wolverines versus the Ohio State Buckeyes rivalry (or even just as a Wildcat), college football is remarkably lucrative, bringing in more than 3 billion dollars in 2013. Yet, it’s also a competitive business with schools often vying for the same candidates. To convince a candidate to sign with their university, recruiters will often spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with the prospective students, which can be a waste of time and money if the student decides to go elsewhere. And that’s where Zcruit comes in.

“Zcruit helps college football programs recruit smarter through predictive analytics. We’ve developed an algorithm they that can accurately predict how likely a high school prospect is to commit to any given school in the country,” explains Ben Weiss, Northwestern senior and Founder of Zcruit. The Garage sat down with Weiss and the rest of the Zcruit team to learn more about their product and what they’ve learned on their journey.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What big problem does Zcruit solve?

Weiss: “Currently schools are only getting about 10% of the prospects that they extend scholarship offers to and they only spend time actually evaluating 0.5% of the prospects in the recruitment process. On top of this, each school is spending on average over $450,000 on their college recruiting expenses alone. The majority of this time and money that is currently being spent on recruitment is being wasted chasing the wrong guys. So if you can optimize this process and cut down on that time wasted chasing the wrong candidates, you can save schools a lot of time and a lot of money in recruiting and also help them produce better quality recruiting classes.”

What was your biggest motivation to start Zcruit?

Weiss: “I was a big recruiting nut and on the fan side of the college football recruiting process who just wanted to know where the next stars of my college football program were going to wind up coming from. So I got involved in the Northwestern football program at the beginning of of my freshman year of college, was there for about two years, just kind of saw how the inside of a college football program operated and saw the inefficiencies that existed firsthand.

Then I took the Morty Shapiro class, Humanities 260, winter of my sophomore year and I learned about how elite colleges operate in the admissions offices. I saw that top colleges use a statistical based algorithm to predict how likely an average student is to actually accept an offer to a school.

When I saw that this was already being used for a lot of elite universities, I said this would be really applicable and useful in the world of college football recruiting. But we also know a whole lot more about the football players that we’re recruiting in our office than admissions officers know about the general applicants applying to their schools. So from there, a friend and I gathered all the data on Northwestern. We started working with Danny, and after going back and forth for a couple of months, Danny developed a highly accurate algorithm. After year and a half of testing our algorithm with Northwestern’s guide, Northwestern University football recruits right 94% of the time.”

What was the biggest motivation for your team members joining?

Danny Baker: “When Ben told me about it, it sounded like a really good idea. And I wanted to work on a project where I could both work on my data science and my business development skills, so it seemed perfect.”

Alex Cohen: “I joined because I wanted to apply the skills that I’ve learned in a project that real people would use. I only joined a couple of weeks ago and it has been a cool way to apply skills I’ve learned to a real world application.”

Nicholas Karzmer: “I joined because I only took 2 classes in the fall and I had a little bit more free time. I wanted to think of a good way to spend that free time and thought this was a good project. I already knew Danny and Ben and wanted to work with them.”

What is your biggest failure so far? What have you learned from it?

Baker: “I don’t think it’s a failure but it took us a while to find a team to work on this together. I think there were various different guys who we had involved early on who didn’t end up panning out either because they weren’t physically with us on campus or they weren’t motivated as other people. So I think that’s something that took us while to get right.”

Weiss: “Some of them also just didn’t have the skills to do it. I started working on this in April of 2015. I don’t think we really brought the core team together to get this going and really off the ground until January of 2016, so there was a lot of wasted time early on in a sense. In terms of really building the web interface, we definitely stalled there because we didn’t have the right team to help us for a while. We know it wasn’t all for nothing because we were able to get the proof of concept with the system model. I think also, we don’t have any sales yet, and I think that’s something we need, we really kind of need to get going to validate this because it’s hard to really say that we’ve failed at this point, but it’s really hard to say we’ve had success at their point either.”

Baker: “In terms of other obstacles, I think being in school makes it hard to work on entrepreneurial ventures because we get distracted or preoccupied with other things.”

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned overall?

Weiss: “I think the cool thing about our team is that we all have complementary skill sets; none of us could do this on our own and we really kind of have needed and relied on everyone else to to put all the pieces together. I think been just one of the coolest learning experiences out of this whole thing.”

Baker: “I think I’ve learned a lot about team dynamics and how to have a successful team without a hierarchal structure before. So I’ve learned a lot about how to motivate other team members from an informal leadership position. And also, personally, [I’ve learned] a lot about time management and how to take big overarching goals and break them up into smaller actionable tasks.”

What is your biggest barrier?

Weiss: “The biggest barrier I think for us seems to be the time; really buckling down and working on our venture. Obviously if we didn’t have school and everything else going on, we’d be able to make much more rapid progress with what we’re doing. I think we have a lot of interest from the market right now and we’re at the time when we should start selling. So just being able to buckle down and get that time to see it through and build out everything we think we still need to build is currently our biggest barrier. Hopefully within the next month or two, once we start to sell, we’ll really know what our limitations or barriers may be. But before we get there, it’s just about building a product and getting to stage in which we can do it.”

What entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Baker: “There are these two Northwestern graduates, Michael McRoberts and Brian Baker, who started a college football game analytics company called Championship Analytics, who I definitely admire because they set a good example for how to run a successful business in the same space that we’re all trying to enter and how to do it while still being really nice to everyone.”

Weiss: “I agree with Danny, and what I think is very inspirational about them is they provide a lot of value to their clients and care a lot about them. They don’t just care about making sales. They sell their software for a lot of money and have been fairly successful doing it. But everyone that uses their software or their platform seems really happy in the usage. It seems like a good model for what I strive to do with Zcruit. Making sales is only half the battle. Then it’s retaining the customers and making sure that everyone is really getting value from the product that you’re building or that you’re creating.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Weiss: “I personally think that The Garage has done everything for us. It’s given us a great space to [have] our meetings. The summer Wildfire program really gave us the resources and the time to buckle down, get to beta prototype and make this thing happen. I think that the mentorship we’ve received from Billy, Melissa and just everyone else at The Garage, the community of other people that are in the same space, is invaluable. Also, if we ever just need help with legal, accounting, if we ever need money, if we ever need anything like that we know that we can turn to The Garage and they can help us solve our problem. I think that they make the entrepreneurial journey so much easier for students and such a positive experience for me at Northwestern.”

 


Update: This interview took place on January 22, 2017. Since then, the Zcruit team is excited to see traction, with a lot of demos scheduled with high profile universities around the country and a feature in USA Today.

Compete Less, Star More

The “Superman Theory” is a metaphorical way to look at competitive advantage. In the comic book context, Superman and Kal-El are exactly the same person. The only difference is environment. For the uninitiated, Kal-El is a nobody on Planet Krypton yet gains tremendous power and strength from our yellow star (aka, the Sun) and the weaker gravity on Planet Earth, and thus becomes “Superman.” There’s no one else like him on Earth, so he shines.

In the metaphorical context, one’s own “star” is the “employment context” or “industry opportunity” that heavily favors your strengths, due primarily to the scarcity of people like you. Every industry has rules of engagement and develops its own strengths and core competencies. You’re looking to find the opportunity that already favors and rewards your skills because the environment itself is so lacking. Thus, the right environment gives you the appearance of superpowers. Echoing Superman’s powers, think “weaker gravity, better sunshine” (or basically the way California looks to Chicagoans in the winter time).

For example, if you have a marketing knack you’ve gleaned from working at Proctor and Gamble, can you start a marketing firm specializing in private practice medicine? Absolutely. Why? While the technical knowledge of physicians is strong, the marketing skills tend to be weaker (or even non-existent). In other words, marketing is not a core competency in private practice medicine, yet you come from a world where it is. Similarly, if you’ve honed your programming skills at Google, you can take those skills to an old economy industry, where the finance or operational skills tend to be strong and software engineering/user experience skills comparatively weaker.

If you need more convincing that a strategy like this has upside given the obvious risks involved with going against the grain, then let me tell you about something in competitive dynamics called the Superstar Effect. The Superstar Effect is an economic theory proven by the late great Sherwin Rosen at some University-in-Hyde-Park-which-shall-remain-nameless that shows (with lots of math) how minor differences in skill levels at the top of the competitive heap lead to massive differences in individual rewards.

Professor Cal Newton, a guru on individual competition, powerfully expands on the Superstar Effect with his Superstar Corollary: “Being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.”

Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One, makes an equally compelling case discussing firms and monopolies. Monopolies are superstar firms in the sense that they garner disproportionate rewards. Thiel’s theory is that “competition is for losers,” and he cautions entrepreneurs with an inverse method for finding their star (and thus building a monopoly): “If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.”

So whether you are an individual looking for your next job or an entrepreneur starting your own business, Superstardom is within much greater reach when you find a far less competitive environment to apply your existing skills. The same amount of effort for much greater rewards—a type of leverage, actually. (And unlike Superman’s journey to Earth, no intergalactic space-bending is required).

As a succinct assimilation of all these ideas and theories, I offer the following eloquence for those Lex Luthor kinds of minds (the sophisticated part, not the evil genius part):

“A man becomes a Superman when he finds the right star. And thus, a Superstar he becomes. And as such, all Superstars are Supermen (and Wonder Women), yet not all men are Supermen. Find your star, and rewards will shine upon you.”

Or, for the General Zods out there: “Change your planet to change your paper.”

So I end this article with the question that began it: Who would you rather be, Superman on Planet Earth, or Kal-El, the Son-of-Jor-El with nothing “super” or “star-like” about you, on Planet Krypton? If your answer is Superman, then where is your Planet Earth or yellow star? It won’t be easy by any means, but if you are committed to finding it, you too will fly through work (and life) like a superhero.


Peter Anthony Jackson is the Chief Revenue Officer for Truebrew Outfitters, a results-oriented specialty coffee distributor, where he’s accountable for sales results and marketing metrics. A resident and native of Chicago, Peter received his MBA from Kellogg (concentrations in marketing and entrepreneurship) and BA in economics from the University of Chicago. Both schools gave Peter a framework for data-driven decision making, which has served him well in entrepreneurial business and b2b sales—including his experience at Groupon, where he helped build their early sales model. Peter mentors young entrepreneurs at The Garage and enjoys helping them avoid the mistakes he made.

To schedule Office Hours with Peter Jackson at The Garage, click here.

It’s Gametime: Luna Lights Heads to Cupid’s Cup

Many of today’s most successful startups begin with something simple: a problem. And, as we’ve heard from other entrepreneurial superstars at Family Dinner, founders must be committed to that problem. It was that connection and commitment to solve a problem that landed Luna Lights in the finals at Cupid’s Cup, the entrepreneurial pitch competition started by Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, to be held at Northwestern on March 30! The Garage was lucky enough to welcome Luna Lights Co-Founder, Matthew Wilcox, to our weekly Resident Family Dinner just one day after Luna Lights competed in the semi-finals round, held in Baltimore.

Northwestern engineering alumni Matthew Wilcox (‘14) and Donovan Morrison (‘14) aimed to develop a solution to a major problem–falls in assisted living facilities, as a project in their Design for America (DFA) course.  This recurring problem has resulted in more than $30 billion dollars being spent annually in America for falls. Matt and Donovan saw an opportunity to develop an innovative solution to an expensive and dangerous problem and after exploring it in depth, founded Luna Lights.

Luna Lights is a seamless bed sensor that illuminates a safe path to a bedroom or bathroom door, activated when the user gets out of bed. There is also an integrated system in which caregivers are contacted should a user not return to bed in a specific period of time. Matthew and Donovan have also recently developed a cloud-based platform that uses predictive analytics to track activity and help doctors to identify underlying conditions based on behaviors captured using Luna Lights, overall making the older adult population happier, healthier, and safer.

The Luna Lights team isn’t new to pitch competitions–they competed in the 2015 Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC) where they won the undergraduate and social enterprise tracks, but according to Matt, they are also experiencing lots of firsts these days. They’ve completed their first round of fundraising, hired their first team, and can’t wait to see how things progress in the future.

Matt spent some time answering questions from students, and shared that the most successful pitches convey passion, energy, and the ability to draw people in. He also shared that being a superior storyteller will engage the audience and help them to understand the impact your idea has. Want to see what else Matt had to say? Check out his video below and RSVP to head to the Cupid’s Cup finals! 

The Garage Sets Sail: Marc Gyongyosi’s Summit at Sea

How do you get 3,000 of the world’s most prominent thought and industry leaders to talk to each other face to face? Simple: put them on a boat and ship them off to international waters, far away from any wifi or cell phone signals.

Last Summer, my team and I won the Wildfire Accelerator Pitch Competition special category. The prize was an exclusive invitation for me to join “Summit at Sea”, a 3 day trip on a chartered cruise ship with a lineup that would scare the WEF in Davos. When I first got the brief, it was hard for me to imagine what this was going to be like. Sitting on a boat for 3 days? Going from talks with Eric Schmidt to apnoe-diving and breathing exercises with “The Iceman” Wim Hof? And then there was the “content.” Trojan Horses? Superhumanification? Origins?

How did this all fit together?

At least one of the topics I was familiar with: Black Turtlenecks and Garages. Or so I thought…

Obviously, I tried to figure out ahead of time what I was getting into, but there wasn’t much information available online. A few pictures of people boarding a cruise ship, a short video and some very vague articles describing an unparalleled experience. Summit’s website showed lots of ocean imagery, some people you would read about in the New York Times, and others I had never heard of.

So, on Tuesday, November 8th, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to Miami to board a cruise ship the next morning (something I never ever imagined myself doing). When I walked on that boat – aptly named “Norwegian Escape,” I left a world behind that I would never see the same way again.

For the next 3 days, I slept an average of 1-2 hours per day, if at all. The boat was awake 24/7 and time did not matter. Every hour was packed with talks by people such as John Sculley, Quentin Tarantino and Tony Hawk. I listened to a North Korean refugee tell her story about escaping the regime while a 20-something was sitting next to her talking about his experience setting up a startup incubator in Pyongyang. After listening to Christopher Ryan’s fascinating account of primate sexuality and its impact on human evolution, I discussed producing music with a Norwegian DJ and learned about the World Expo’s plans for the future. While the results of the election were officially confirmed in one part of the world, Dolores Huerta and Sonia Sanchez were talking about fighting for women’s rights in the 80’s and embracing love, peace and understanding to make a difference in the world. As Summit founder Jeff Rosenthal puts it: “The more diverse the inputs, the more complex the output.”

Summit at Sea 2016 from Summit on Vimeo.

Although the talks and panels were a major part of the program, I quickly realized that you really got to know and meet people once you ventured outside the schedule: Discuss nutrition with an MIT scientist building micro-farms for the future? Sure, just head up to the deck and check out his plants. Meet VC’s and entrepreneurs while sipping on cocktails and discussing leadership techniques? Just go to the pool. Discuss the future of AR and VR with chief engineers from Oculus and HoloLens – that’s what the Whiskey bar is for. And if that wasn’t enough, dinners were again a time to meet new people and make connections, like the New York Jazz band who put on a jam session for all the people at the table after we finished dessert.

Everyone was trying to maximize their time spent on the boat by talking and meeting new people, exchanging ideas and finding ways to solve problems. And everyone was doing that with an incredible openness to connect and talk. Even in the elevators – which is usually a place for awkward looks and silence!

Looking back, I now understand why there isn’t much info about Summit available online. Summit at Sea is so immersive and captivating that no 2D screen or text could ever capture fully what it means. And so, from the moment you board the ship onwards, you basically enter a contract to be present in person, not via email or text. Instead of pointing eyes to screens and words to phones, people pointed eyes to faces and words to each other. At least for 3 days.

The crowd on the cruiseship was the most diverse group of people that I have ever met and I cherish every second that I was able to spend with them. Thank you to The Garage for providing me with this incredible opportunity and thank you to the Summit Team for putting on what was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been through. It changed my perspective on the world.


Marc Gyongyosi is the Founder and CEO of IFM (Intelligent Flying Machines), a current student at Northwestern, and a Resident of The Garage. 

The Garage Sweeps the Competition at Shark Tank Pitch Night

Eight student founded startup teams went head to head in a Shark Tank style pitch competition held by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Inspired by the hit ABC TV show, teams gave quick pitches to acclaimed judges including four from Perimeter Advisors, MATH Ventures, Corazon Capital, and OCA Ventures. Audience members were able to give their pick for a winner, too which the judges took into consideration.

Prize money totaling $10,000 was up for grabs at the competition and it was up to the judges how the money would be distributed among the top three.  Who went home with the cash and who went home empty handed?

Resident Teams incubating their startups this quarter at The Garage swept the competition, landing in first, second, and third places. So what was it about Re-bucha, Tiltas, and eRetirements that impressed the judges enough to get a chunk of the prize money?

Founder of Re-Bucha, and Kellogg student, Kathryn Bernell, took first place and $5,000 thanks to her bootstrapping style and incredible traction in just a few short months. Re-bucha is kombucha made with less than perfect looking produce, and Kathryn is working hard to master her formula and sourcing the best ugly ingredients.

Find out more about Re-Bucha, one of our newest Residents Teams here.

Tiltas has a simple mission: to change the narrative. Founder, Tiffany Smith, aims to connect recently previously incarcerated individuals with employment by working with both parties. Tiffany and Tiltas took home second place and $3,000 for its web-based platform.

Find out more about how big the mission of Tiltas really is here.

Last, but certainly not least, long-time Resident Team and Wildfire participant eRetirements took the third spot and $2,000.  Founder Jared Scharen uses analytics and questionnaires to match retirees with the ideal retirement destination. Interested in how Jared is constantly improving his idea?

Check out a recent piece on how eRetirements prioritized learning here.

Five other startup teams competed alongside Re-Bucha, Tiltas, and eRetirements including even more Residents of The Garage, like NewMoon Chicago, an event services startup; QuickPulse, a tool to increase millennial retention rates B2B,  and Tadpole, a fun way to connect beta users to apps. Shoutout to the other Kellogg competitors, Kheyti (a tool that protects farmers from uncertainty) and Buk (a payroll organizer for Chilean business).

To learn more about the resources we offer our Resident Teams, find out more about our programs and things like Office Hours and special educational workshops.

EIR Spotlight: Hayes Ferguson

The Garage is not only home to more than 60 Resident Teams, made up of students working on their startups, but four Entrepreneurs-In-Residence. EIRs spend their time working in our space, and in return offer mentorship and Office Hours to students at Northwestern. Let’s get to know one EIR a little better.

After working as a foreign correspondent in Latin America for a number of years and reporting for People Magazine, Hayes Ferguson took on the world of entrepreneurship as a member of the founding management team of Legacy.com. Started right here in Evanston, IL, Legacy.com is now among the 50 most visited websites in the U.S., working with newspapers and funeral homes to share inspiring life stories and memories about loved ones.

Recently, Hayes has been providing advising to early stage companies such as HistoryIT, while also trying to start an innovation incubator for under-resourced individuals. Her connection to Northwestern began with her role as an adjunct professor at Medill, and she now relishes the opportunity to work with and mentor students as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at The Garage.

Here is some advice from Hayes for student founders. Want more? Click here to schedule Office Hours with Hayes and get your idea off the ground.

  • The physical space of The Garage is a huge advantage for students; take advantage of the fun and inspiring physical space filled with so many knowledgeable people.
  • The Garage is not just for engineers and business students – anyone with an idea or problem to solve can and should come and seek out resources from The Garage.
  • Be proud to be a Northwestern student incubating at The Garage. Many students fear that admitting that they are a student will put them at a disadvantage when trying to propel their company. Instead, acknowledge that you’re a student and don’t put up a facade; let people know that you are still figuring things out because then they will be more understanding if you make mistakes.

To learn more about the EIRs at The Garage, click here.