A Student Founded Accelerator

By Calista Dominy C’20, Co-founder of Pre-Med 

Calista Dominy presenting at YouthHack
Calista Dominy presenting at YouthHack

Being part of the YouthHack Ventures Accelerator, founded by David Ongchoco C’18, has been a beyond rewarding experience. As a team of two freshman entrepreneurs starting a patient education app company, my co-founder, Eash Aggarwal C’18, and I have found it immensely helpful to have a network around us to support and help us through the ups and downs of growing a business.

Read more A Student Founded Accelerator

Q&A with Prayas Analytics

Yash Kothari W’15 and Pranshu Maheshwari W’15/C’15 started their company, Prayas Analytics, out of their dorm room as undergrads at Wharton. Their software gives brick-and-mortar businesses the ability to test their stores, the way eCommerce companies test their websites. Flash forward to today and Prayas is now a part of this summer’s cohort at Y Combinator, the premier accelerator based in Mountain View, CA.

We caught up with Yash and Pranshu to talk more about their recent move to the West Coast, their influences, and what’s next for their company.

Yash Kothari W'15 and Pranshu Maheshwari W'15/C'15, Co-founders of Prayas Analytics.
Yash Kothari W’15 and Pranshu Maheshwari W’15/C’15, Co-founders of Prayas Analytics.

Read more Q&A with Prayas Analytics

DreamIt and Pivot: The Spot It Buy It Accelerator Experience

By Allison Berliner WG’13, Co-founder and CEO of Spot It Buy It

Watch Allison Berliner pitch her startup at DreamIt Venture’s demo day, which took place in December at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live. In the pitch, she tells the story of her company’s pivot – how the team realized their first marketplace wasn’t working, and what they did about it.

My startup was accepted into the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program on a Thursday afternoon and my Co-founder and I had 48 hours to decide whether or not to participate. It wasn’t a decision we took lightly, since the accelerator takes 6% equity. We asked ourselves, ‘was $25K and access to the DreamIt community of entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors worth it?’

Flash forward five months and one pivot later, and the answer is clear. Yes.

When we started DreamIt, our company’s main product was an online marketplace serving small and medium sized retailers. Within the first 4 weeks of the program, we released substantial updates to our platform. These updates had been planned before we got into DreamIt – but, because we were suddenly in an environment with weekly mentor meetings and group presentations, we were forced to change the way we worked. Updates became “tests”, and we had to articulate exactly what we hoped each update would achieve and whether or not it was successful. This exercise became baked into our internal processes and ultimately forced us to acknowledge that our marketplace wasn’t working.

This realization could have been crushing, but we were surrounded by 11 other startups that were hustling all day, every day. The environment wasn’t conducive to quitting or taking a pass. It was conducive to making difficult decisions and working harder than we had ever worked before. So, that’s what we did.

We talked to hundreds of customers, brainstormed concepts for a new product, and tested our ideas with surveys, landing pages, and one-on-one conversations with target users. We also bugged our DreamIt classmates – the founders of those other 11 companies – to no end, asking their feedback on everything from web design to naming our new product, which is now called Spot It Buy It. Although these people had their own companies to run, they were always willing to take the time to help.

Today, we have a great team, a great product, and we’re on track to start generating revenues in February. It’s hard to know where we’d be if we hadn’t participated in DreamIt, but I think we’re better off for having done it.

People always say that being an entrepreneur is like riding a rollercoaster – high highs and low lows, sometimes in the span of a single day. When the track does start to head down, and you feel yourself speeding towards something that feels inevitable, it’s helpful to have a community to remind you that entrepreneurs make their own momentum.

AllisonHeadshot_1 smBio: Allison Berliner is the Co-founder and CEO of Spot It Buy It, a DreamIt Ventures backed startup that helps retailers and brands create mobile optimized shopping experiences and sell more through social media. She got her MBA from The Wharton School of Business, where she was an Entrepreneurial Intern Fellow and the recipient of an Innovation Grant. Over the last decade, Allison has worked on marketing and business development for a number of entrepreneurial organizations and startups including Wanderly, which was acquired by TripAdvisor, and Endeavor, an international group that sources and supports high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging markets. She currently resides in Philadelphia and is a Fellow with the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs.

How an On-Campus Incubator Converted This Wantrapreneur

By Mike Kijewski MMP ’10, WG ’12

In 2009, I applied to the Venture Initiation Program (VIP) at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a graduate student in the physics department, with a half-baked prototype of a radiation analysis software package. I considered our product a home run in the making, and figured we’d exit within 6 months.

Our product, grayCAD, helps physicists working in a hospital’s radiation oncology department ensure that they were complying with radiation safety regulations. We had spent all of our time thinking of features that would make the software useful, like color-coded heat maps showing problem areas on architectural drawings. Any time not spent building features (which wasn’t much) was spent making contact with executives at companies that sold medical radiation sources. We had some positive feedback, but no one knocking down our door to write a check.


 

Shortly after being accepted into VIP, it became clear how much we hadn’t thought about. Our sales strategy was too passive. When I told Rob, one of the VIP advisors, that a VP at a potential customer had seemed very interested, and had given me his cellphone number, but hadn’t responded to my last email, Rob said “Call his cell.” I agreed, and said I would call tomorrow. “No. Call him right now!” Rob stood there and watched as I called the VP’s cell number. That company ended up being our first customer just a few months later.

When we landed our first enterprise customer, we were given a licensing contract that was ten pages long. I was so excited to have a customer willing to write us a big check that I would have signed anything. But Jeff, another VIP advisor, took the time to go through the terms with me, and helped me understand which terms could be problematic for us in the future. He had previously run a company with a licensing strategy very similar to ours, so he had been through all of this before.

During my time in VIP we launched a beta version of our product, signed our first customer, and raised a round of outside investment. While I’d like to think we would have been able to do these things without the help of the VIP, it’s certain that these milestones happened faster and easier with their help.

As a first year MBA student, I was overwhelmed with the number of other students in my class. There are students with almost any background you can imagine, from investment banking to professional athletics. Being involved in VIP helped me identify a group of other MBA students who were focused on starting their businesses at Wharton, making my network much more useful than it would have been otherwise.

Many student entrepreneurs focus on the business plan competition. While it’s helpful to think through all of the issues you’ll likely encounter when launching a business, incubators like Penn’s VIP give students who are actually running a business actionable advice that can significantly increase a business’s chances of success.

If you’re a student thinking about launching a business, I can’t recommend an incubator enough.

Mike Kijewski 2Bio: Mike Kijewski (MMP ’10, WG ’12) is product manager of cloud-based oncology tools at Varian Medical Systems. Mike holds a master of medical physics from The University of Pennsylvania, as well as an MBA from the Wharton School with a concentration in Healthcare Management and Entrepreneurship. He was a co-founder of Gamma Basics, a software company focused on building tools for radiation oncology. Gamma Basics was acquired in the fall of 2013.

 

Accelerators Aren’t For Everyone

By Abhi Ramesh, Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, Class of 2014

The past decade has seen a rapid expansion of the world of startup accelerators and incubators. TechStars, DreamIt Ventures, AngelPad, Launchpad LA, and, of course, the infamous Y Combinator are but a few of the hundreds of accelerators around the country.  For the aspiring entrepreneur, the accelerator landscape can be a tough one to navigate. I’m a Wharton undergrad. I took a year off from school and participated in two different startup accelerators—one on the east coast and one on the west coast—for 3 different companies. Weather put aside, my experiences were quite different. My conclusion was simple. The accelerator experience is not for everyone. Here’s why.

  1. You can be too early or too late. An accelerator is exactly that—a program meant to significantly accelerate your progress. Think of it as a crash course in “startup.” You come in with a great idea and an amazing team. You use the resources and mentors provided by the program to reach your goals as quickly as possible. You show off your idea at a demo day. You ask for money. You hopefully raise money. And, that’s it. You’re done. Your relationship with the accelerator is over. It was just a fling. The accelerator experience, therefore, caters to startups at a specific stage. If all you have is an idea, think twice before applying to an accelerator. Ideas can change. Yes, you can pivot, but time is of essence in an accelerator. Time not spent building the product, getting users, and making contacts is time wasted. Ironically, the accelerator environment, though meant to be open, can force founders to be closed. You can easily live in your “accelerator bubble” and fail to validate your product in the real world. Between that and giving away a large chunk of your company for a tiny bit of cash, the accelerator experience just might not be for everyone.
  2. It’s easy to get distracted. Accelerators are, in essence, ecosystems. Legal and marketing help, mentorship, pitch practices, guest speakers, co-working spaces, seed funding, and demo days are all important elements of most startup accelerators; yet, not all entrepreneurs need all of these things. Most will have rigid schedules and guidelines to make sure founders stay on track. More often than not, the young, aspiring entrepreneur benefits from structure and organization. “You will meet twice a week with your mentor, submit progress reports every month, and the demo day is 4 months from now.” For some startup founders, however, the structure of the accelerator just doesn’t work. In fact, it hurts. Between mentor meetings, pitch practices, and social events, it’s easy to get distracted from your fundamental goal—to build a product. You will be bombarded with a plethora of opinions and advice. Many will be contradictory. At the end of the day, you are the founder. It’s up to you to carefully pick and choose the advice you want to follow. Accelerators can make this process much more difficult.
  3. Not all accelerators are created equal. The top accelerators are at the top because they attract the best companies, investors, and mentors. The best investors, mentors, and companies are attracted to the top accelerators. The cycle repeats itself. The accelerator model, therefore, lends itself to a heavy tail distribution. The top companies come out of only a handful of programs (YC, TechStars, and DreamIt Ventures being the top 3, according to Forbes). As a founder, think very carefully about picking the right accelerator. It’s a game in which brand name matters.

abhi_photoBio: Abhi Ramesh is a senior in the Huntsman Program focusing on entrepreneurship and statistics. Having previously founded startups in the education, fashion technology, and social commerce spaces, he is currently working on a healthcare technology venture. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Abhi enjoys building scalable web apps, going to the gym, and attempting overly ambitious culinary experiments.

The FOUNDER.org Experience

The 2014 FOUNDER.org Penn Launch is February 17: Get more info here and register here.

By Vinay Mahadik WG’13, co-founder of Securly

I am a co-founder of Securly, a cloud-based service that keeps kids, schools and families safe online. This post is about our wonderful experience with the FOUNDER.org program so far – about half way into the yearlong program for founders chasing big ideas.

We got introduced to FOUNDER.org via Wharton while I was finishing up my Executive MBA at Wharton San Francisco. We applied to the FOUNDER.org $100K Competition, and were among the 10 startups that were selected (from a pool of over 500 who applied) for the first cohort. FOUNDER.org started by Michael Baum (WG ’89), the CEO and founder of the highly successful enterprise company and darling of many IT admins, Splunk. I still remember our face-to-face Skype presentation to FOUNDER.org. My co-founder and I had boot-strapped Securly and were debugging a server crash when we jumped on a call with Michael. It was perhaps the least prepared presentation I have ever given simply given how long it had been since I had pitched the company. At the end of the essentially improvised pitch, Michael said something to the effect of, “your presentation could be better, but I believe in the problem and really love your solution.” It was a refreshing change from having pitched to investors who ask a company with two first-time entrepreneurs, with no sales background, but a $250K+ recurring revenue in six months to “try making your product viral first.”

Fast forward by a month, before the program even began, and FOUNDER.org stepped up to lead our seed funding with FOUNDER.org Capital, their fund focused on student founders.  This was in addition to the $100K grant prize we received from the competition. Michael also got on a call with other investors we had lined up to both accelerate the due diligence and serve as a reference. With the FOUNDER.org investment as a catalyst, Securly was able to go from being a boot-strapped startup to an over-subscribed $1M+ round within a month. We were able to attract investments from some Wharton professors, the New Schools Venture Fund and Imagine K-12 founders all of whom have been strong networks to have access to.

FOUNDER.org isn’t a typical incubator or accelerator – it is a company building experience. The FOUNDER.org University program (of which we are now part) lasts an entire year.  We get an office hour every week with Michael and access several times a month to FOUNDER.org’s network of industry experts. The best part are the quarterly 3 day get togethers with all the other founder. It is clear that the University curriculum and program have not only shaped our company, but has also molded us into substantially better entrepreneurs. The program is extremely well thought through and executed upon. It is hard to believe that this is simply the first cohort.

The first quarter kickoff event was an entire day of immersion into the world of whole-brained thinking and high impact team building. This was a clear indicator of the kind of rigor the program exposes founders to. The hypothesis is that while a good product-market fit can easily get some early traction, it takes a lot of discipline to go from that early traction to a sustainable company with dozens of employees, all of whom collectively define the company. FOUNDER.org University kicks off with an in-depth HDBI assessment and follow-on consultation that allows the founders to build a strong founding team, and later on, an entire organization, that collectively uses the whole-brain thinking and decision making processes. This ties well into the subsequent “A-player hiring and management workshop” where we learned how we can systematically recruit A-players and develop powerful competitive advantage through hiring when most entrepreneurs only seek competitive advantage via product and strategy.

Right after the first quarter kickoff, all the companies got individual appointments with Ondi Timoner, a two-time Sundance Film Festival award winning film director and producer. Ondi and her team spent an afternoon interviewing and filming Securly at our offices along with the rest of our team. The goal has been to capture our entrepreneurial journeys so far in the form of a documentary and also allow us to use several of these video assets for our own marketing efforts.

We recently had our second quarter FOUNDER.org University event that covered all aspects of user experience, marketing and sales. After two years of MBA studies at a prestigious program, and having graduated from two well recognized accelerators/incubators, I thought I had seen it all. However, within a short period of time, we have seen immense value from mantras I had not picked up anywhere else – “Always be hiring”,  “Create a marketing-driven self-serve sales model”, “Create a vision of an alternate future that is uniquely possible only with your company” to name a few. Several of these strategies were covered at length by demand-generation, sales and positioning experts we get unlimited access to, not just at the events, but even as consultants or advisors afterwards. We have already consulted with Jef Bekes, a seasoned UX expert who helped shape the Splunk brand and product UI substantially and with pricing guru, Rich Mironov.

We pride ourselves on being part of the first cohort of the FOUNDER.org phenomenon – encouraging student entrepreneurs to dream of big ideas, helping them with seed-level financing, having experts spend 100+ hours of their time advising us, getting our team ready for a series-A funding, and eventually creating both economic value and jobs by becoming sustainable and thriving entities.  My co-founder and I have worked at large enterprises for about 10 years each. Today, within a short time, we have created high paying and rewarding jobs for seven additional founding team members of which two have received career/life changing breaks thanks to Securly and FOUNDER.org. We are looking forward to the continued success of the FOUNDER.org mission.

Vinay photoBio: Vinay Mahadik WG’13 is the co-founder/CEO of Securly – a cloud-based service that keeps kids, schools and families safe online. He has over 10 years of experience in the network security space working most recently at McAfee as a senior R&D manager leading the next generation firewall, botnet and intrusion prevention teams and was the primary inventor on several patents there. He and his wife spend most of their free time traveling and running after their two year old. Vinay holds a masters in computer networking from NCState, and an MBA from The Wharton School.