Compete Less, Star More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did this all fit together?

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

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

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

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

Summit at Sea 2016 from Summit on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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


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

The Garage Sweeps the Competition at Shark Tank Pitch Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIR Spotlight: Hayes Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

schedule a tour or stop by for an event.

Family Dinner: Samir Mayekar

The Garage is back in full swing for the Winter 2017 quarter, bustling with Northwestern student entrepreneurs, flying drones, new prototypes, and exciting builds. To get the quarter going for returning Garage Residents, and to usher in more than 20 new Resident Teams, students were welcomed back with the first weekly Family Dinner and special guest speaker, Samir Mayekar.

Samir is a Northwestern Kellogg School of Management alum (2013) and a true Wildcat. As a student at Northwestern, Samir won the Rice Business Plan competition and raised over $1M. Prior to founding Sinode Systems, where he is the current CEO, he served in the Obama Administration at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the White House. Samir is also the President of the Northwestern Alumni Association and met his wife at Northwestern.

Samir shared candid stories of his time as a student founder alongside five important lessons he learned along the way.

  1. Never give up. He learned this after winning the Rice Business Plan Competition. Entrepreneurship is relentless, and takes grit and giving up is not an option. He encouraged student founders to take advantage of pitch competitions and to travel all over and always give them a shot, no matter how small or big the prize.
  2. Pivot if you need to. Samir learned that providing what a customer wants is crucial, and if it means being flexible, so be it.
  3. Widen your market. Samir attributed some of his success to penetrating international markets through local contacts, and encouraged students to avoid being US-centric.
  4. Use the alumni database. As a student at Northwestern, students have leverage and a network at their disposal.
  5. Know your competitive landscape and own it. Samir described calling his competitors himself to find out what they did right, what they did wrong, and gain any insight into the market from anyone who would talk to him.

Samir engaged with the Residents by not only sharing his successes, but also his struggles, and recommended students check out The Struggle According to Ben Horowitz. Check out part of Samir’s talk below.

“The Struggle is where we turn adversity into opportunity.”

The Next Big Thing: Northwestern Alum Makes Forbes 30 Under 30

Over the past six years, the Forbes 30 Under 30 list has highlighted the next generation of thinkers, doers, and innovators that are challenging and rewriting the rules for the future. Just 4% of the more than 15,000 online submissions made the cut, making this year’s list harder to get on to than ever before. The coveted list includes 30 honorees vetted by judges in 20 categories including media, business, technology, finance, culture and more.

This year, 36% of those who made the cut are immigrants, representing 44 different countries, including Northwestern alum and South African native, Adam B. Struck. Adam was awarded one of just 30 spots in the Venture Capital category. Adam received his undergraduate degree from Northwestern before heading to Georgetown University Law Center for his J.D.

After making the exclusive list, Adam reflected on his time at Northwestern fondly, saying it allowed him to try new things and experiences for the first time without the fear of failure–something that goes hand in hand with innovation. “I was truly free to explore and embrace a plethora of subjects – from philosophy to economics to politics to technology,” Struck said. “Four years of exploration [at Northwestern] allowed me to figure out not only what I wanted to do–but most importantly, what I did not want to do.” Struck also met his wife, Angela, at Northwestern.

Adam’s entrepreneurial path began with starting and selling an iced tea business, Long Island Beverages (sold to Cullen Investments), before joining the investing game. Today, Struck runs his own $25 million dollar fund, Struck Capital, and has been on the forefront in investing in companies like Nutanix, Postmates, and The Honest Company.

As an immigrant, the road hasn’t been easy. Struck shared that he has had to fight for every accomplishment and opportunity in his life, but his entrepreneurial background and experience as a founder helped him to learn to take risks and diversify his perspective, making him a unique investor today. Adam shared his diverse background and education sets him up as a unique investor, able to recognize the many challenges founders face. Entrepreneurialism takes grit, he said, and the ability to get back up after failures and losses has helped to shape his his career today and his style of investment and mentorship today.

When asked to share some words of advice to Northwestern students or alumni embarking on their own startup venture, Adam shared that as long as a founder has true passion for what they’re doing, the key is to stay the course and keep pushing relentlessly through adversities. “Learn from the losses, and revel in the wins.”

For the complete list, feature stories and exclusive videos, visit: www.forbes.com/30under30.

Changing the Narrative: Tiltas

Tiltas has a stance. Tiltas has a mission. Tiltas is ready to change the narrative.

The mission is simple – a platform to connect previously incarcerated individuals with employment opportunities in skilled labor. Formerly known as OrangePrint, and co-founded by Tiffany Smith (Kellogg), Tiltas sets out to make the world a place with something to offer those formerly incarcerated, which isn’t a small feat. Just how big is this problem in America today?

According to CNN, former inmates face “enormous challenges finding work after they’ve been released.” Many have been out of the workforce for years, and their criminal records often prevent them from even getting their foot in the door. A recent survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights discovered 76% of former inmates voiced finding work after being released was nearly impossible. Two thirds of the respondents to the survey were either unemployed or underemployed five years after being released. “Ban the box” campaigns in various states are calling for employment applications to do away with the question regarding previous criminal history, forcing employers to first determine if a potential employee meets the requirements for the job. However, with employment playing a major role in an individual’s reintegration into society, and the still huge barriers having a record causes, Tiffany Smith was determined to find a better way.

Tiffany has a personal connection to Tiltas’ mission and values. She has friends who were previously incarcerated and were unable to find employment, but also knowing some previously incarcerated individuals who had found work (in construction, specifically), she recognized a need and a possibility for a solution.

Tiffany and her team have been working to connect construction companies with recently released or previously incarcerated individuals using a web-based platform to streamline the job-finding as well as the recruitment process. Previously called OrangePrint, the company shifted to the name Tiltas, the Lithuanian word for “bridge.” The name is tied more closely with the purpose of the company. Tiffany’s team is working hard to expand their network, and plan to continue exploring their options with hopes to grow their company and fully launch their web-based system.

Tiltas has also caught the attention of the tech world in recent months. The team just won $50,000 in the 2016 Kapor Capital PeopleOPS Tech competition. The Garage is looking forward to tracking the sure to come future successes of Tiltas.

If you’re interested in helping change the narrative in the world of employment, or you are an employee willing to hire the formerly incarcerated or you are someone who was formerly incarcerated and ready to take the right first step, join Tiltas here.