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 made it to the finalsCupid’s Cup was held 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, 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, 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 Started right here in Evanston, IL, 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.

After The Garage: Akshat Thirani

The Garage is home to more than 60 Resident Teams this quarter, but in addition to incubating new and exciting student startups, we also love to keep up with alumni of The Garage. This week, we caught up with Akshat Thirani, Northwestern ‘16 and alum of The Garage Residency Program. Let’s find out what Akshat and his team behind Amper have been up to.

What’s life like after The Garage?
After leaving The Garage in August 2016, the Amper team moved to Shenzhen, China to join HAX – a hardware accelerator. The four months spent in Shenzhen have been the most exciting and intense times so far!

Our business pivoted to an industrial monitoring system in which our product monitors machines and manufacturing operations in factories. Prior to that, we were building a home energy monitoring product. At HAX, we developed full prototypes in three to four days and were able to visit several factories. It was insightful to see how products that we use every day are made – from Legos to smart phones! I also had the chance to learn conversational Mandarin and practice it every day! We’ve recently joined Alchemist Accelerator, a program focused on startups selling to enterprises. The program is based in San Francisco, where we will be until June 2017.

The Garage was formative to both Amper and my own perspective on building a company. Through The Garage, we were introduced to some incredible mentors and industry experts, who helped us look at our business critically.

The Wildfire program made us (forced us) to talk to customers and validate if customers really wanted what we were building. This led us to pivoting from our first product idea based on what we learned by having those uncomfortable conversations with customers. Also, being surrounded by people working on ideas they are passionate about was the most rewarding part of being at The Garage. The Garage became my second home and family, and it will be the first place I will visit at Northwestern.

This is the first in a new series “After The Garage,” on The Magazine, highlighting alumni of The Garage.  If you are an alum of The Garage, please contact us to share your story. 

The Garage + Mark Cuban

This quarter, Residents at The Garage at Northwestern were given a once in a lifetime opportunity with The Secret Field Trip. More than 200 Residents competed in an Instagram contest (check out some of the submissions here), showcasing their most interesting, funny, and candid moments at The Garage for a chance to hang out with entrepreneurial superstar, investor, author, philanthropist and shark from ABC’s Shark Tank, Mark Cuban on the iconic Chicago Bulls court at the United Center.

Ten lucky Residents were selected and privately escorted onto the court to see the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks warm up, and meet with the man himself, Mark Cuban.

Mark spent 30 minutes courtside with The Garage Residents, sharing real life wisdom and advice with the Northwestern student entrepreneurs. After making more than 150 investments, 70 of which are Shark Tank investments, what are Mark Cuban’s best tips for student founders?

First, he pressed the importance of sale and cash flow, not downloads, KPI’s, but sales to people. Second, having a “secret sauce” is essential to take off, and he encouraged students to bootstrap their startups early rather than raise money to maintain ownership of their companies and work for themselves.

According to Mark, it’s good if people think you’re crazy. Student founded startups shouldn’t be aspiring to be the next Airbnb, the next Instagram, the next Uber. If you’re looking to be the next big thing, you aren’t looking in the right spot.

He shared his own interests in up and coming fields like AI, neural networks, automation, computer vision, machine learning, and robotics and pushed students to continuously learn about new fields. 

Finally, Mark shared some practical career advice with the students. According to Mark, if you’re straddled between maintaining a startup and taking that salaried position, take the job. Get paid to learn and learn forever.

After a candid chat with Mark Cuban, students got to stick around to watch the Chicago Bulls take on the Dallas Mavericks, capping off what might’ve been the best night ever with The Garage. For all the photos of this truly once in a lifetime field trip, check out our Facebook page.

To keep up with the other cool things The Garage is doing all the time,

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