IFM Wins $45k at Pitch Competitions

Time and time again, alumni of Northwestern and former student entrepreneurs have visited The Garage for Family Dinners and shared this advice with our Resident Teams: take advantage of the multitude of resources available to student founders including access to pitch competitions around the country.

Just take it from recent Family Dinner guest speaker,Samir Mayekar, founder and current CEO at Sinode Systems. Samir is a Northwestern Kellogg School of Management alum (2013) and a true Wildcat. As a student at Northwestern, Samir won big at the Rice Business Plan Competition; raised over $1M, and reminded our own students that there’s even more money out there.

So, last week, The Garage was excited to keep track of Resident Team Intelligent Flying Machines (IFM) as they made the rounds at two recent pitch competitions.IFM is a Data Analytics Company using Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Robotics to automate indoor data capture.

Founder and CEO of IFM, Marc Gyongyosi took his team on the road and raked in some serious cash at two competitions, just one week apart!

First, the team headed to Houston, TX for the famed Rice Business Plan Competitiontaking place April 6-8, known as the “richest student startup competition” where more than $1.5M in prizes are distributed. Marc competed alongside 41 other student founded ventures (including fellow Northwestern founded startup Lilac Solutions), and pitched to make it past the semi-finals cut.

Even though IFM didn’t make the finals of RBPC, they didn’t walk away empty handed. IFM were fourth place of the semi-final round, flight 1, and took home the Rice Brown School of Engineering Tech Innovation prize of $25k! Want to see how the rest of the prizes were distributed? Check out the list of winners here.

Just one week later, on April 13, Marc and Team IFM were off to the University of Oregon New Venture Championship (NVC)! Marc pitched along with 15 other teams. Check out Marc’s, and the other semi-finalists’ pitches on the NVC website.

Sushobhan Ghosh, IFM Team Member; Marc Gyongyosi, Founder and CEO

Team IFM walked away from NVM with first place overall and $20k! Not to mention a giant trophy!

IFM is just one of 60 Resident Teams incubating at The Garage at Northwestern, and one of our favorite things is watching our teams develop that entrepreneurial grit necessary to compete with the best of them. Be sure to follow us on Twitter to stay up to date with all of our teams!

 

Heating Up for #WinterWildfire2017

Winter Wildfire Demo Day is coming to The Garage, and we couldn’t be more excited. Five student teams are heating up and rehearsing their pitches after participating in the Winter edition of ENTREP 395, combined with The Garage’s Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program. Want to learn more about what Wildfire is all about? Click here for an article featured in Northwestern Now.

For the first time ever, Wildfire was offered in conjunction with the Radical Entrepreneurship course for credit. Five teams participated in the course, and worked to develop as both leaders and founders by being introduced to new ways of thinking and problem-solving. Student-founded startups are offered mentorship, coaching, and additional resources and funding to catapult them to the next stage of their venture.

Wildfire culminates at the end of the program with Demo Day: a Shark Tank style experience in which all the participating teams present their pitch and compete for a pool of cash prizes, sponsored by Exelon. This year, students are competing for a prize pool of $10,000!

This year, we’ve invited an elite panel of judges to the table to hear five pitches including tech industry vets and one of The Garage’s own Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. Be sure to head to our event page to get the details on who will be handing out $10k!

Five teams have been working hard all quarter. There were 15 applications for just five spots. Each team was assigned a growth coach throughout the Winter quarter, and were supported by students from the Legal Design Institute EDI program. Let’s get to know each team a little better.

Zcruitoptimizes the college football recruiting process through predictive analytics, saving college football programs time and improving the quality of recruiting classes.

HearYe: Plan less, do more. HearYe is a mobile application that’s designed to organize casual group outings in an efficient way by allowing users to create, share, and communicate outing details on a central platform.

VertigōMetric Dx has developed a retinal-imaging medical device that rapidly helps an ER physician differentiate between a diagnosis of a non-life threatening issue and brainstorm stroke. Diagnosing this issue quickly will lead to tremendously better health outcomes for the patient while saving hospitals nearly a billion dollars annually.VertigoMetric Dxis led by an accomplished physician, a bioengineer, and a Kellogg MBA student.

 


HotPlate is an app designed to help you decide what to order at restaurants. Users can rate individual menu items, so that it is quick and easy to see the best dishes. HotPlate also allows users to see friends’ ratings, search by specific dish item, and receive tailored recommendations.

NewMoonChicago provides Spectacle Services that pair performance art, mechanical contraptions, and the fundamental elements of an event —from serving food to musical performance— to create new elements that redefine ultra-premium, cutting-edge aesthetics and transform perceptions. From Drones flying guests appetizers to Aerialists pouring champagne, NewMoon provides the fantastical experience guests are seeking and creates memories they never forget.

Want to get in on the excitement of Wildfire? There’s still time to RSVP here!

Be sure to follow TheGarageNU on Snapchat for a peek behind the scenes of the event, head to our Twitter where we will be live tweeting during pitches, and check out our Facebook page for the Demo Day results!

Family Dinner: Oliver Leopold

Each week at Family Dinner, we’re excited to welcome an accomplished entrepreneur to share their founder story and tidbits of wisdom with our Resident students. And this week, we had an extra special guest stop by (with his parents). Oliver Leopold, local “kid entrepreneur” of Evanston, is just 14 years old but packs the punch of an entrepreneur with some serious experience.

Oliver’s journey started at just 10 years old, when he became interested in investing but had trouble finding easy to understand resources on the subject, and was interested in investing his weekly $10 allowance. So (naturally), he penned his own online newsletter titled, “The Investment Times.” At just 10 years old, Oliver was soaking up knowledge from his grandfather and former Bank of America Corp. private banker, Tom Leopold and even attended investment conferences. Oliver’s newsletter was picked up by the Wall Street Journal! Oliver, who is incredibly self-driven, shared with The Garage Residents that he authored about 6 or 7 issues of his newsletter before moving on to his next project.

Oliver described one of his first entrepreneurial ventures very simply: with gum. Gum was popular at school, and often traded or even bought between students. Oliver realized he could buy larger packs of gum online, sell them at a lower cost than they were already available at, and make a profit. What’s more? He applied the same idea to a small spinner toy. Oliver knew it was being marked up so much, that he could make his own, sell them for less, and still make some extra cash.

Oliver has coded a few of his own apps that made it to the App Store, including “How Rich?” which analyzed and compared salary data from around the world.

Aside from some apps, Oliver’s most recent and popular project is his YouTube channel, which has garnered more than 5,300 subscribers. Oliver is most often reviewing products sent to him by companies, where he can earn as much as $100 per review. Oliver has even shared his YouTube wisdom and wrote The YouTuber’s Handbook, available on Amazon, which has generated some real revenue for Oliver.

Most importantly, despite his young age, Oliver was able to share some useful entrepreneurial advice with our students, like doing what you really love and loving what you do. He even shared his love of cockatoos, some challenges associated with wanting to run a business at 14 years old, and where he thinks he’ll be in ten years. What’s next in Oliver’s journey? An app to make neighborhood babysitting simpler for both sitters and parents.

Business Credit for College Students: How to Find the Card & Successfully Fund Your Startup

As great as it is to have an idea for a new company, it’s never quite as easy to figure out how to initially fund that business, especially if it won’t immediately return a profit. That goes double if you’re still in school or have student loans to repay.

The truth is, the average graduate from the class of 2016 had $37,172 in student loan debt, which is about 6% more than what the average class of 2015 graduate had. That can be a serious hurdle to overcome, especially for those trying to turn start-up dreams into entrepreneurial realities.

“Many college students have already put themselves deep in debt to cover the opportunity cost of higher education,” Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, said. “Students who are wishing to start a business under those circumstances should take a step back and examine the reality of launching a startup, and how that might influence their ability to manage their financial obligations.”

So, whether these include student loans, a cell phone bill, rent, car loan or anything else, it’s important to make a list and a strategy to keep them under control while you focus on your career goals.

Once that’s all in order, you can begin thinking about where you’ll get the funds for your startup. Don’t have a backer? Perhaps a new credit card is the way to go.

“A startup may need to rely on the founder’s personal credit initially — although they should work toward separating personal and business finances (and credit) as soon as possible,” Thomas Nitzsche, media relations manager for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, said. (More on this in a minute.)

Got It. Now, How Do I Choose the Right Credit Card?

There are a lot of credit cards out there for you to pick from. But finding the right plastic for your wallet comes down to more than simply choosing an issuer. Here are three major things to consider as you narrow down your options.

  1. Eligibility: Find out what cards you qualify for based on your credit scores.
  1. Compare Interest Rates: “Interest rates on credit cards are higher than other forms of financing for your business, so review all offers carefully to ensure that you are selecting the most affordable deal if you do decide to open an account,” McClary advised.
  1. Consider Fees: These can include everything from annual fees to balance transfer fees, so make sure to factor those into your budget, if applicable.

Ultimately, you will know what your needs are better than anyone, and chances are, there is a card out there that can meet most (if not all) of them.

Of Course, There Are Risks Involved

Remember earlier when we mentioned that it is wise to get your personal and business credit separate once you can? Here’s why: “If the company fails, the debt cannot be written off as easily as it would if it were in the name of the business,” McClary said. In other words, if your business goes down and you haven’t set it up as a limited liability corporation or other type of entity, you’ll go right down with it.

McClary also noted that “credit cards should only be used for short-term needs, not for ongoing business expenses like utility bills and employee salaries” as this isn’t sustainable and can lead you toward a land of extreme debt.

And Once Your Business Is Up & Running …

You don’t have to say goodbye to credit cards, as they’ll likely be a helpful tool as you continue to grow your business. “Cards that offer rewards points or cash back on purchases are appealing, especially when there is travel involved in the operation of the business,” McClary said. But you’ll want to make sure you’re using them responsibly and stay consistent about paying your statements on time.

“Paying on time, keeping balances low in relation to credit limits and avoiding too many open lines of credit are some of the things business credit card users should do to avoid financial setbacks,” McClary said.

These are some of the finer details that come along with starting a business, but don’t let them stand in your way of accomplishing your goal. After all, no one thought Northwestern’s Wildcats would make it to the Big Dance, but this team sure proved them wrong, not only making it but landing their first ever NCAA victory.

 

Brooke Niemeyer is the Deputy Managing Editor — Syndication for Credit.com. She writes about a variety of personal finance topics, with work featured on CBS, TIME, The Huffington Post, MSN, FOX Business, and others. She has a Master’s degree in Journalism from New York University and was a reporter for NBC before joining the Credit.com team. You can follow her @RNYBrooke.

Learning Through Challenges: NoteShark

I was the Marketing Director for NoteShark, a student-run venture in The Garage at Northwestern, in addition to being a junior studying Spanish and Marketing. NoteShark was Northwestern’s online marketplace where students could buy and sell notes for their classes. Co-Founders, Wyatt Cook, Derrick Lee, and I had wanted to make Northwestern a more collaborative environment by sharing materials for classes. We used money as an incentive for students to share their note-taking skills with other students who either missed a class or wanted to supplement their own notes. Students who submitted their notes would make 50% of the proceeds of any sale of their notes. The pricing model was based on content and page loads, and the minimum cost was $3.00. Overall, we thought that our project would revolutionize learning on campus. So many students, like myself, took notes and then stored them in the depths of their drawers or, more likely, simply threw them away. With NoteShark, however, students could be paid while going to class. We were sophomores excited about our idea and expecting success. But, a year later, we suspended our operations.

We faced many challenges, some of which we couldn’t overcome, and we ultimately failed to turn our project into a profit. One of the biggest challenges we faced as a company was not actively communicating the legality of our company and our company’s goal to the Northwestern faculty. Before launching, we underestimated the backlash we would receive from professors, who didn’t want classroom notes to be traded in a marketplace. Our marketing campaign was directed at the student body, rather than all of Northwestern; therefore, we missed an opportunity to control the narrative with an important constituency. Before launching, we should have consulted with a more diverse group of faculty, from a range of departments.

Additionally, our website stated in big letters “stop wasting time on verbose readings,” encouraging students to use our study guides rather than complete the readings for the class. At the time, I thought this was a good idea because it would catch the attention of the student body–which turned out to be true. Within the first 24 hours of launching our website, over 40 students created accounts on NoteShark. At the same time, we were still uploading notes onto the website ourselves, so while we didn’t generate many sales that first day, it was an encouraging start. During the first week of our launch, I was interviewed by the publication North by Northwestern and The Daily Northwestern to talk more about NoteShark and our goals. We were creating a buzz on campus, and Derek, Wyatt and I were very confident that NoteShark would be a success.

However, while everything was going smoothly from the perspective of our targeted market (the student body), the Northwestern faculty began actively opposing our project. After our launch, I received e-mails from professors, asking that we remove their notes from our website. The faculty claimed that our website was violating intellectual property rights. Even though IP attorneys that we consulted with concluded that our site did not, in fact, violate IP laws, the backlash continued, which I found to be a distraction and very frustrating. We were forced to remove notes from our website, since we had not yet incorporated, which was a momentum killer at a critical juncture of our growth. After an attempted pivot to more of a textbook-note model, we decided to shut down operations in December 2016.

Even though we failed as a business, my year in The Garage was still an incredible experience. In fact, at The Garage, failures are embraced alongside success. That was the most impactful lesson I learned from The Garage. Every week, Melissa Kaufman (The Garage’s Executive Director) hosts Family Dinner where we held a discussion about the week’s successes and failures. And while the successes were sweet, we paid more attention to our failures. It was difficult to admit to failure in a room filled with other entrepreneurs. Melissa would give out party poppers to celebrate our failures, teaching us not to be afraid of failure, but rather to embrace it and learn from it. I nervously announced two failures while I was a Resident. However, rather than feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my failures, I moved on and learned from them, after popping the requisite bottle of confetti. These lessons proved to be impactful when it came to interviews for summer internships. In fact, my final interview question for my application for a summer internship at IBM was: “What has been your biggest failure, and what have you learned from it?” Rather than talking about doing poorly in a class or avoiding the idea of failing, I talked about NoteShark and our failures as a company. After my response, I was given a verbal offer for the job. Learning how to accept my failures was one of the most impactful lessons I learned from The Garage.

Not only did Elisa Mitchell, Billy Banks, and Melissa teach me how to embrace my failures, but they taught me how to properly communicate our product. I believe that this was the most impactful skill I learned from The Garage. Pitching and communication are essential because everyone is constantly “selling” to those around them, be it arguing a thesis for a paper or during a job interview. We live in a world where our social interactions involve marketing products, ideas, and people, oftentimes ourselves. With the help of The Garage, I have been able to learn this skill and master it. It has proven to be handy, not only during my time as a Resident, but also when I was interviewing internships.

Though our company did not succeed, NoteShark was a life-changing experience for me. While I am not a Resident anymore, I am still involved in the Northwestern community through my work for Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM) and I’m an extended family member of The Garage. I recently accepted a position at IBM as a Client Relationship Representative Intern for Summer 2017. I am excited about this opportunity and the chance to learn more about marketing and sales in the technology field. Upon graduation in 2018, I don’t know what my future will hold, but I feel so prepared for whatever I end up doing after my experience with NoteShark and The Garage.

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 alumLuna Lights made it to the finals!Cupid’s Cup washeld on March 30 here at Northwestern, and Luna Lights took home $5,000 with the audience choice award! Read up on the event here.

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. Their campaign was 104% 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.