Apr 02 2013

Rick on Tasty Trade

Dashfire co-founder Rick Desai was recently interviewed on Tasty Trade on their “Bootstrapping in America” segment.

Tasty Trade is “a real financial network” where hosts Tony and Tom conduct online discussions about all things finance. In the past, they’ve interviewed tons of successful entrepreneurs including Eric Lefkofsky, Chuck Templeton, and now, Rick!

Rick hasn’t sold a company for billions of dollars like Eric or Chuck so he just talked about things he loves: Michigan, BucketFeet, Startups, and of course, Pizza.

Watch the full segment here.

Mar 22 2013

Dashfire Portfolio Company EverTrue Raises $5.25 million from Bain Capital!

Yesterday, EverTrue, a Dashfire portfolio company, announced a $5.25 million financing led by Bain Capital Ventures.  Though EverTrue, an education fundraising platform, is headquartered in Boston, the story has a very important built in chicago back story.

At EverTrue’s core is improving the relationship of Alumni and their schools, which is also a personal mission of EverTrue’s CEO, Brent Grinna.  Brent credits his success – starting from a farm in Iowa to Brown University to finance in Chicago to HBS to founding EverTrue – to alumni networking.   In fact, I first met Brent while we worked together at Madison Dearborn Partners in Chicago, a position he was introduced to through the Brown Alumni Network.  While in Chicago and raising capital on behalf of Brown University, Brent saw that the entire process was managed with spreadsheets.

Shortly thereafter, Brent conceptualized EverTrue and he and I began wireframing the initial version of EverTrue’s mobile application.  Dashfire supported EverTrue’s V1 product development and worked closely with Brent on the business model.    As the company grew, Brent benefited from introductions and investments from influential Chicago investors, many of whom have strategic ties to alumni organizations, including Paul Finnegan, Sam Mencoff, Tim Sullivan, and Jim Perry at Madison Dearborn, executives atWilliam Blair & CompanyKevin Willer (via New World Ventures), Stuart LarkinsBrendan Carroll of Victory Park, and Trunk Club CEO Brian Spaly.

This event is a reflection of Brent’s vision and leadership – having turned a series of wireframes into a venture backed business that solves real problems for educational institutions.  It is also an important milestone for Dashfire and a testament to our approach to enabling startups.  Launching EverTrue with Brent and watching the company grow over the last three years has offered incredible learning experiences, some of which I’d like to share in this post:

  • Identify your customers.  And their willingness to pay.  Brent came to us in late 2009 and said he wanted to make an alumni app for Brown University. We designed a few screenshots and he pitched the alumni office on the concept and they agreed to pay for it.  Customer – check.  Revenue – check.  We had no idea at the time that EverTrue would become a fundraising platform, but by making sale #1, Brent had access to an engaged customer who – by paying for the product – was invested in the success of the application.  The best entrepreneurs don’t seek risk, they mitigate risk.  Having a paying customer mitigates the risk associated with product solution fit.
  • Product over powerpoints.  Call it a proof of concept, call it an MVP, call it what you want.  Having a product whether it’s online or offline that can generate feedback, create a sale, or demonstrate strength is essential to validate your business model. Pitch your product, not your powerpoint.
  • Networking.  This is at the core of Brent and EverTrue.  It should not be confused with politicking, rather, networking requires establishing thoughtful relationships with colleagues, mentors, and bosses that exist before and beyond raising capital.  Attract people who care and who will provide constructive feedback and introductions.  Brent’s advisors include his former bosses, his professors, HBS/Brown alums, and his fellow entrepreneurs – many of which are investors in EverTrue.
  • Ability to build a team.  This is especially imperative for a non-technical entrepreneur.  Locating engineering talent is as difficult as raising capital.    You have to start early.  While we were in the middle of building the initial product, Brent was attending developer meetups and sharing office space with technology companies to get acquainted with the developer community. Brent met his eventual CTO (and eventual co-founder), Eric,  over 3 months before Eric joined full time.  For Eric, the opportunity was attractive (and substantially de-risked) as the company had a product, customers, and revenue.  And having a team enabled EverTrue’s acceptance toTechStars.
  • Have heart.  Sounds cliché, but there is nothing harder than starting your own venture.  We like to glamorize the ramen diet and couch surfing lifestyle, but do you really want to lose your salary, health benefits, free time, and sanity? You will run into brick walls every day.  If you can’t find a way to run through, around, or over them – this is not the career for you. Brent destroys brick walls. Usually in a superhero costume.

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Congrats to Brent, Eric, the entire EverTrue team, and all of the Chicago supporters. Looking forward to what’s next!

Mar 06 2013

There’s No Such Thing As Mainstream Education

Times have changed. College isn’t the only path to success anymore. In order to land a great job, you’ve got to stand out. “Getting another university degree doesn’t make you different,” says the NYTimes.

If you agree, get excited about Dev Bootcamp. 

Dev Bootcamp is a school for developers that originated in San Fran in 2012. In just over a year, Dev Bootcamp SF has graduated tons of developers who’ve gone on to work at awesome companies; Exec, Twitter, Groupon, LivingSocial, Hipmunk, and Thoughtbot, just to name a few.

DBC doesn’t just teach you how to code, but also helps you land you an awesome job after. On the same DBC students graduate, they attend DBC’s Hiring Day; where coders essentially “speed date”, spending 5 minutes with top tech employers. Afterwards, employers follow up with students they clicked with and move on to the interview process. Boom.

It’s the perfect model: combine the right students with great teachers in an amazing learning environment, teach them to code in a fast-paced, intensive 9 week course, and then put them in the hands of some of the best tech recruiters in the business. It’s quick, efficient, effective, and perfect for the right people.

So, are you the right person? DBC is looking for motivated and dedicated self-starters who want to learn basic coding and beyond. DBC’s head of Operations and former Groupon tech recruiter, Elliott Garms, describes students (or what DBC calls “Boots”) as “hard working and tenacious; they’re often seen struggling earnestly and relentlessly with a problem, just because they’ve got to figure it out. They’re resourceful; they know when to ask for help, and know how to lend a hand. They’re excited about startups and their future. Above all, ideal Boots really, really want to launch their career as a developer.”

Think you’re up for it?

DBC’s new Chicago digs are located in the heart of the startup scene, in River North on Hubbard and Orleans. The first class (which is already full) will begin on April 22nd, with a new class beginning every 3 weeks following. Spots are going quickly, so apply here.

Dashfire is excited about Dev Bootcamp because we love when new, high energy companies enter Chicago’s startup scene. We recognize that there’s tons of potential in Chicago and love seeing new talent emerge. Dev Bootcamp grads are exactly the kind of people we enjoy working with: they’re forward-thinking, self-motivated geniuses who like to think out of the box. In addition, Dev Bootcamp’s recruitment strategy is one we admire. It’s a mentorship program that we’ve yet to see at other developer schools who’ve come to Chicago. It’s not just about learning to code, but getting the perfect job after. Dev Bootcamp gives students great opportunities inside the classroom and out – which is awesome.

Video: CBS Chicago – Dev Bootcamp

 

Mar 05 2013

Dashfire Launch – Applications Now Open

I’m excited to announce that applications are open for our Dashfire Launch program!  Dashfire Launch will enable one MBA-led team to validate their business model and launch their startup through $35,000 of services and collaboration from Chicago’s best strategists.  The program is targeted to Kellogg School of Management and Chicago Booth.  The selected team will spend 10 weeks working with leading Chicago companies and agencies that will provide the chosen startup with over $35,000 in hands-on, actionable mentorship and services.

Why MBAs?  We were inspired to launch the program for two main reasons:

  1. Dashfire believes that MBAs make great entrepreneurs
  2. I am a recent MBA grad and believe that my experiences at Kellogg and in Chicago were a driving factor for me to pursue entrepreneurship

What does the summer consist of? There are many contributing factors to the viability of a startup.  Idea, team, product, unfair advantages/innovation, sales and marketing, etc.  We are fortunate to partner with  best-in-class strategists to help refine these attributes for the winning startup.

How is Dashfire Launch different than other startup focused programs?

Similar to Dashfire’s traditional model, we will work closely with the select startup to refine the business model and launch an initial version of the product.  For Launch, we have received in-kind sponsorships from our favorite strategic partners to support a more hands-on summer program.  At the end of the summer, the selected startup will have converted their idea into a business.

Applications are now open until April 8th and you can learn more at www.dashfire.com/launch.  If you have additional questions, please visit our FAQ or you can email me at kelsey@dashfire.com.

We are looking forward to selecting a promising team and will keep you updated on our progress as the program begins!

 

A special thanks to our participating sponsors:

Mar 01 2013

My Start-up Journey

Hi Everyone!  This week marks my six month anniversary at Dashfire and next week, we’ll launch a new Dashfire competition that I’m spearheading.   The competition is focused on digital startups, Chicago collaboration, venture capital, and business school – all components of my journey from Wall Street to River North (I don’t think “digital prairie” is very flattering) over the past 3 years.  As such, I wanted to share some my experiences with you:

 

I wanted out of finance in 2009.  Partly because we were amidst the financial crisis and partly because I was no longer feeling challenged.   I could handle the hours (and don’t get me wrong, the pay was awesome), but the value we created for our clients was not tangible – especially as an analyst.  I wasn’t ready to take the leap into my own venture (I hadn’t found a problem I passionately wanted to solve, I can’t code), so I chose to attend business school at Kellogg as a reformed financial professional.

I know many people question the merits of business school if you want to pursue entrepreneurship.  Why take loans, you’ll end up back in banking, etc., but I believe that business school can be a breeding ground for founders – if you are committed (i.e., don’t work at McKinsey your first summer).  I took the following approach:

NETWORKING
It’s no different than recruiting for a banking or consulting job.  You connect with the influential professors and alumni.  You attend all the industry events and you craft a course load that prepares you for your future.   For me this consisted of working closely with people like Mike Marasco and Carter Cast, joining the e-club and Wildcat Angels, and enrolling in an entrepreneurship heavy schedule.   All other time was spent with classmates ideating on new startups (and enjoying the fine establishments Evanston has to offer).   At the beginning of 2011, I was connected with a CS professor who had developed a promising technology, acquired interested customers, had access to angel funding and a team of developers.  Importantly, the technology’s initial application was in the soccer industry, a sport I had played my whole life and followed religiously.  It was the perfect coupling of a startup and one of my passions.  I convinced the professor to let me help him run the company and I spent the summer between my first and second year working full time on the business.

EXECUTING
I enjoyed the ride over the summer.  I worked out of a co-working space, attended TechWeek, and managed a team of interns.  I also worked my ass off. I researched the market and competitive landscape exhaustively, established strategic partnerships, managed product development, and leveraged the Kellogg network to meet with professional soccer management teams.

By the end of the summer, after countless late nights, piles of research, hundreds of conversations with potential partners, and highly informative powerpoint presentations, we did not have a single new paying customer.  I reiterate, not one.  The summer wasn’t a complete failure. We knew the market better, grew our brand awareness to a small degree and added features to the technology to please our existing customers, but overall, our progress was not where I wanted it to be.

 LESSONS LEARNED
At the time, I thought I had done everything right and believed our lack of success was a consequence of the product.  I realize now that I was wrong.  The product – given the maturity of our company – was acceptable.  I just failed to sell it. More specifically, I failed to do the following:

  • Create a Brand Identity: Because our product was still in beta and open to changes, I focused on selling an idea and not a brand. We didn’t have a “voice” or cohesion among all of our external communications and people were confused about what we offered and how we were different.
  • Enterprise Sales: I had never been involved in an enterprise sales process and didn’t understand the lifecycle, approach, measurement, and importantly, closing.  I learned how to over the course of the summer but even as a technology driven company, sales was the backbone of the business.
  • Manage Messaging: I thought by hiring interns with relevant backgrounds that they would be a cheap way to manage our entire digital marketing. I didn’t realize that they needed direction on choosing the right outlets to target, how to increase engagement and more. Interns should be used for implementing strategies not creating an entire campaign. Writing a blog post doesn’t add any value if no one reads it.
  • Integrate Strategy & Technology: I spent hours with the development team brainstorming new product features. Just because a feature sounds cool does not mean it should be built. It’s essential to understand the importance of balancing the desire for new features with the strategy and testing behind each incremental feature release.

Like many others, my startup journey has been a road filled with success and failure. There is no perfect way to operate a startup – there are a number of right ways most of which are born out of failure or realized retrospectively.   At Dashfire, we work with ambitious and passionate entrepreneurs who are building their own path.   We are excited to continue to extend our platform in Chicago.  Stay tuned for our new program next week!

Feb 27 2013

Dashfire’s New Home

Dashfire officially has two homes: our desk in the friendly confines of 1871 and our new home in FarShore’s office in River North, just a block away from Big & Little (best. lunch. tacos. ever.)  Our new office – the location, the décor – is fueled almost entirely by the power of the internet!

We wanted an office in River North – the tech hub of Chicago.  We were lucky to meet our broker, Jason Simon at a Built-in-Chicago Launch event.  A few weeks after meeting him, we moved into the below:

Our main wall art was created by Aaron Firestein, co-founder of BucketFeet, a Dashfire partner company.

Our coffee table (checkers = the new ping pong) was sourced from Furnishly, and the chairs were bought from Joss and Main. 

And finally, our client wall (featuring TableSavvy) was inspired by a Pinterest post:

 

Let us know what you think! Or better yet, come by for a game of checkers!

Feb 05 2013

I like you, LaunchSquad

The search for the perfect job continues! This is one post of the series; where I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned, who I’ve talked to, and what I like until I (hopefully) get hired. Stay tuned.

As a communication studies major, I’ve been able to take a variety of classes under the communications sector including PR, marketing, advertising, journalism, etc. In doing so, and interning throughout college, I’ve realized that each of these things are extremely important and in many cases go hand-in-hand in the creative department of companies. Companies who integrate each of these elements for clients know what’s up.

Great PR is necessary emerging startups – LaunchSquad understands this. But LaunchSquad isn’t your typical PR firm. They’re transitioning into what they like to call a “Narrative Media Firm” because they do more than just Public Relations. From branding, business growth, development, video production, strategic communications programs through marketing and social media, LaunchSquad does basically whatever it takes to make innovative companies become market leaders. They’ve worked with a wide variety of companies in web, mobile, finance, social, data and Cloud industries. Some of my favorites are AOL, City Eats, Evernote, Kurt Geiger, and H. Bloom. Check out their full client list here.

On a personal level, LaunchSquad’s environment is one I can see myself in. In October, I met with Meghan, VP of Talent, at LaunchSquad’s San Francisco office, and in December, I went to New York City where I met with Lindsey, who was recently named a VP at LaunchSquad. Taking informational interviews are an important step in the job hunt. In terms of getting hired, meeting with whoever will take the time to do so is huge. It gets your foot in the door and puts a memorable face on a stack of resumes. In addition, you can’t forget the finding the perfect job means finding a job you love and are excited about. By checking out the office, getting a feel for the environment and being introduced to people, you’ll be able to decide if you even want to continue on to the formal interview process if the opportunity presents itself.

The atmosphere at both offices is exactly what I’m looking for. The spaces had an 1871-ish feel in the sense that everyone seemed to collaborate and help each other in different areas of expertise. Everyone I met was friendly, and I could tell that they truly enjoyed their jobs. Meghan gave me some great advice for my job hunt that I won’t forget: “Find a company who you like, but make sure you like who you’re working for as well. If your values don’t align, it won’t work.”

On a professional level, LaunchSquad is great because there is a lot opportunity for growth within the company. I like to think of the first position you get out of a college as “College 2.0”, where you’ll be using everything you learned in 4 years, but are still continuing to learn and be challenged on a daily basis. I want a position that will allow me to learn from people who were once in my shoes. Many people at LaunchSquad started their careers there and will serve as great role models and mentors. The ability to start as an Account Associate and move to Account Exec, Sr. Account Exec, Account Manager, and VP over the years to come is exciting and shows that LaunchSquad is a great company to start your career. LaunchSquad assigns teams to clients, usually around 2-3 people, or bigger if necessary. I’d be working as an Account Associate, where I’d be helping with creating media lists, creating a media list database, contacting media, writing press releases, etc. It would be a great entry-level position in the sense of how much of a voice I’d have in the process.

I recently went back to San Francisco to begin the formal interview process. I met with Meghan, and was introduced to Tessa, a VP at LaunchSquad. Tessa has lived in both NYC and SF, so it was great talking to her about the perks of each city, as well as LaunchSquad’s office spaces which are located in SF, NYC and Boston. Over the weekend I was able to do some soul searching and could really see myself in SF; it’s a great city in the center of the tech industry. I’d be able to work alongside leading entrepreneurs in the startup world and gain a lot of great experience while doing so. I’m excited to move forward with LaunchSquad!

That’s why I like LaunchSquad.

 

Jan 22 2013

How to get in my gmail:

Email newsletters can be great, or they can be annoying clutter to your inbox. If you’re like me, you have an email for junk (Yahoo) and an email for not junk (gmail). Don’t make me Yahoo you, do this:

  • Know me, as a reader and your target audience. Tailor the newsletter to your me in order to become my source of information on a topic, whatever that info may be. Make your readers trust you and rely on you.
  • Make me want to click. The subject line is everything. People have already decided to subscribe to your newsletter, so they already know your company and what you’re all about. You don’t need to tell us in the headline. Be short, simple, and to the point.
  • Provide me with links to social. That way, when I like your newsletter, I’ll remember to follow you on Twitter and Facebook, too. Don’t put your social media efforts to waste!
  • Tell me about your company. Sadly, not everyone stays as up to date with what’s going on at Dashfire (or any company) as much as we do. Periodical newsletters discussing what’s new will be helpful in keeping people “in the know.” The Gift Insider has a great newsletter; they’re always providing new info about the company, links to segments, and simple gift guides for upcoming holidays.
  • Tell me about other stuff, too. Connect your company to current events and things relevant to your company in order to stay interesting. For example: I like fashion. Therefore, I like BucketFeet. Therefore, I’d like to know about the trade show BucketFeet and other cool companies attended.
  • Be original. People subscribe to newsletters that are unique and offer information they wouldn’t easily find elsewhere. If you’re a clothing company, provide a unique style guide. This will make people look forward to reading yours newsletter rather than avoiding to click “unsubscribe.”
  • Be fun! Make yourself stand apart from other newsletters your readers read. Good design is everything. Have a strong layout, provide images, be cute! People love cute.

 

Jan 21 2013

I like you, Attention.

The search for the perfect job continues! Here’s a company I love:

In December, Rick connected me with his good friend, Varun. Varun is great, and he’s one of those people that managed to get their first name as their Twitter handle so he’s pretty much famous in my eyes. Aside from that, Varun does business development and media partnerships at Foursquare. It was great chatting with him; I was able to get a lot of great info about working at a company that I feel is God-like in the startup world.

Prior to working at Foursquare, Varun was at Attention, a social media marketing and digital communications agency in New York City. Varun connected me with Amanda, Attention’s director of Beauty, Fashion and Luxury. Attention’s name is perfect for what they do. Every brand needs and wants attention, but this requires a lot of work that not a lot of brands can manage, so they hire Attention to do it for them.

Attention recognizes that the competition for consumer’s attention is great; and therefore understands that building and maintaining authentic relationships is key. They do this by “combining top-down and bottom up engagement to bridge both awareness and adoption, measurably and transparently.” Attention works with over 400 companies and are on retainer with many of the world’s largest brands, including some of my personal favorites: Barbie, Verizon and HBO, just to name a few. Check out their entire client list here.

Amanda and her Beauty, Fashion and Luxury team work with innovative companies full-circle through creating unique social media marketing strategies. The team helps with managing ideation, creating innovative social media campaigns, dealing with community management and fan acquisition, and carefully tracking social media trends. Attention gives a brand the attention they need the right way; by integrating data analytics, providing means of media production, content creation, and more, in order to make their partners the most talked about brands. Word of mouth is everything these days and Attention assures there will be constant conversation.

Attention would be an awesome company to work for because of their involvement with so many different industries and so many different companies within each sector. It would be great to find a position that would allow me to continue to emerge myself the way I’ve done so at Dashfire. I love the opportunity it presents because social media marketing and what I like to call “reputation management” is something I’ve had experience with through working with Dashfire’s portfolio companies.

That’s why I like Attention, and why I’ll be trying to get a job there.

Jan 18 2013

Have you heard about Grouper?

If you haven’t heard, Grouper is a startup based in New York. It was founded in 2011 by a guy named Michael Waxman and partners Tom Brown, Challen Hodson, and Kristen Badal. Since launching in New York, Grouper has expanded to cities across the US including Chicago, SF, Boston, LA, Miami, Philly, Seattle, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, D.C., and recently launched in Canada.

Grouper’s mission? “To end loneliness” by setting you and two of your friends up with 3 random strangers for drinks at a place of Grouper’s choice. They use Facebook to match the two groups; specifically looking at age, educational background, profession, interests and general lifestyle of each groupie, in addition to the profile you create when you sign up. It takes a little bit of time to get a match, but once you do, you’ll receive a message from a member of the team. You won’t find out where you’re going or the first names of the other Groupers until the day before, which makes it exciting.

Initially, I ragged on Grouper (but still signed up). They charge users $20 per Grouper, (which includes the first round of drinks, but still). “Why would they charge first time users who they definitely want coming back (us) rather than charging the place we’d be giving business too?!?!?!” I thought to my poor self. Grouper basically had to be certain that it was going to be worth spending $20+, which I was a little skeptical about…

And.. it was worth it. I went on my first Grouper last night with two girlfriends and had a blast. We met at Four Farthings, a low key bar in Lincoln Park, at 8pm. We were set up with 3 guys who we probably wouldn’t have typically hung out with, but it was soooooo fun. Like so fun. Everyone has to try it. The guys were smart, funny, polite, bought us drinks at every bar we went to (bonus), and by the end of the night we were all besties.

We will definitely be doing another Grouper, along with 93% of Grouper first timers.

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