Daily Archives: November 11, 2013

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Innovation Digest: from 3D Liver to Beer Sensors

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Amazon Reaches Out to Individual Bookstores: Amazon announced a program, Amazon Source, to allow independent bookstore owners to sell its popular reading devices, the Kindle. In return, the booksellers receive a small payment on each sale and a commission on all e-books the readers buys on the Kindle. The new program reaches out to Amazon’s ‘most bitter rivals’ to make up for lost valuable real estate for its Kindle line in certain stores, such as Target and Walmart – yet in doing so, has been met with skepticism from most booksellers in concern for the livelihood of their independent businesses.

Drinks by the Sensor: SteadyServ Technologies showcased a new piece of technology that allows restaurants and bars, and even perhaps their patrons, to keep track of the amount of beer remaining in a keg. The process involves placing a sensor under each keg to send signals to an app to indicate how fast the beer is being consumed and how much is less. The system, meant to help owners efficiently stock favorite drafts, also has the potential to be used to lure drinkers to a bar with ready supplies of unique and local brews.

3D-Printed Mini Human Liver – and it works! Scientists at Organovo have been improving their 3D-printed mini-livers. From the previous record of only five days, the revamped and more naturally composed mini-livers have broke their own record and carried out the same cellular functions as a natural human liver for 40 days in the lab. The improvements prove promising for the thousands of patients on organ transplant waiting lists.

An Exclusive Look into Xbox One’s Voice-activated Dashboard: Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox One, pushes the boundaries with its new dashboard experience. The Xbox One dashboard utilizes the Kinect to recognize users by their skeleton (even recognizing them in pitch darkness!) and log in; from there, the dashboard utilizes voice-recognition technology to carry out commands and functions between the new Xbox platform and TV integration. The console will be in stores, November 22.

By Connie Long, Columbia College, Class of 2016

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Business Digest: Jobs Growth, California Town Bankruptcy

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Strong Jobs Growth: In October, total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 204,000 and the
unemployment rate was little changed at 7.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Employment increased in leisure and hospitality, retail trade, professional and technical services, manufacturing, and health care. Despite beating consensus estimates of an increase of 120,000, the number of unemployed, 11.3 million people, changed little in October.

Solid GDP Growth: Real gross domestic product increased at an annual rate of 2.8 percent in the third quarter of 2013, solidly beating the consensus estimates of a 2 percent increase. Real GDP is the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States and the increase in real GDP in the third quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), private inventory investment, exports, residential fixed investment, nonresidential fixed investment, and state and local government spending that were partly offset by a negative contribution from federal government spending.

Twitter Soars in IPO: There has been huge demand for Twitter stock its stock price is currently at $43 up $17 in a few days from its IPO price of $26. Major hedge funds are reported to have requested millions of shares pre-IPO only to receive a few thousand shares due to overwhelming demand. Twitter has a valuation of around $25B and is currently not profitable.

Desert Hot Springs Bankruptcy: The resort town of Desert Hot Springs, California, is projected to run out of cash by March 31. If it files for bankruptcy, it will follow in the paths of two fellow Californian cities Stockton and San Bernadino, which have also filed for bankruptcy. At the center of its decision to potentially file for bankruptcy is its annual projected revenue of $13.9 million, $2.7 million less than budgeted. This sudden unexpected drop in revenue has led the City Council to consider declaring a fiscal emergency at its next meeting, a prerequisite under state law for a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing.

By George Liu, Columbia College, Class of 2017

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Behind the Scenes: Startup Internship Program

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At a time when entrepreneurship is hailed as the Next Big Thing, and everyone secretly envisions themselves as an undiscovered, underappreciated Steve Jobs in the making, there is a kind of romance in the idea of working at a startup. During his talk on campus a month ago, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, enthusiastically urged the audience to intern at a startup. Working at a startup is glorified as something rewarding, meaningful, characterized by unfettered independence. Which college student wouldn’t want that?

Interning at a startup is all of that, but also more complex and multi-faceted. Now, Columbia students (including freshmen) will have an opportunity to try it out for themselves through the Columbia Startup Internship Program jointly organized by the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs and the Centre for Career Education. Expand the provision of medical services online. Revolutionize the online dating industry for couples and singles alike. Transform your community. The possibilities are limitless.

“It’s often hard for students to find the right startup to intern at,” Tanay Jaipura, leader of a 6-person team from CORE organizing the program, shared. “Startups could be hit and miss, and it may be hard to identify the good opportunities. We wanted to streamline the process.”

The CSIP is a 12-week long internship during the spring semester, and offers technical and non-technical internships with 15 startups that run the gamut from finance to fashion. “This program follows a similar model of CCIA, VIP and CAE in that in provides a great deal of support and resources to both students and employers in order to help everyone have a successful outcome in the program,” Heather Perceval, associate dean of Experiential Education and Student Enterprises at CCE, explained.

Tanay was inspired to helm this program after his own experience interning at a couple of startups, including Clothes Horse, one of the participating startups. “At a startup, things change a lot more quickly. You will rarely have a defined role, so you’ll be wearing many hats. The scale of a startup also means you will have a greater impact on the eventual product.” Many of his team members had also interned at startups before, and used their connections to bring the startups on board.

This is part of CCE’s effort to create new opportunities in entrepreneurship. They had previously organized the spring semester Startup Career Fair and An Evening with Jack Dorsey. “Much of the increased focus on entrepreneurship has been jointly driven by the burgeoning NYC startup community and their need for talent, and a shift in student interest away from more traditional careers towards the faster-paced more innovative world of startups,” Patrick Smith, senior associate director of Employer and Alumni Relations at CCE.

In the future, Columbia students can look forward to an expanded CSIP with more startups involved, more semesters covered, and a heavier emphasis on community-bonding within the interns.

Interested in finding out more? Check out our webpage, or attend the info session on 14 November 8-9pm, at East Campus 2nd floor lounge. Representatives from the startups would be present and raffling free goodies.

by Lim Jia Ying, Columbia College, Class of 2017

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Y Combinator: Looking Beyond the Application

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In the minds of many entrepreneurs, a startup graduating from Y Combinator walks away with a crown. Indeed, this increasingly influential incubator is more than a “financial aid office,” using a college example. It helps admitted startups pave the trails not only to doors of mentors and VCs, but also to the possibilities of becoming precious unicorns in the market.

People fight for admission to the coveted program twice a year. Y Combinator is seen as more attractive because of the close relationships the partners had intentionally nurtured in the past few years. A CEO of an YC-baked startup once compared it to the mafia. If you are poorly treated, the partners will treat them poorly in return. Conversely, YC alumni are always enthusiastic and eager to give advice to prospective and accepted candidates alike.

Thus scrappy amateur entrepreneurs boldly throw in all they have. And established startups seek an authoritative badge and yearn for the resources, such as the network in Mountain View. The possibility of receiving an offer is intimidatingly low. Yet entrepreneurs invest hours of their time filling in the application meticulously. Why?

That is because the application process in itself is one of the best methods to examine the battlefield, read the competitors, reflect on their own strategies and rally around their common ambitions. From my own experience, providing accounts of the most impressive achievement of each founder or talking about your successful hack to your own system is not just about showcasing your capabilities to the judges. It is about reasserting your confidence as well.

During the winter 2014 application season, some of the YC alumni posted their perspectives and tips for the application process. YC graduate Zachary Townsend, the cofounder of Standard Treasury, offered the following advice:

“Be yourself.

Be concise.

Be demonstrably committed.

Don’t lie. Don’t bullshit. Don’t exaggerate. Avoid adjectives and pronouncements.

Prove that you and your co-founder likely won’t get divorced. This is how most companies die early.”

My personal favorite advice piece was offered by Zain Shah, the cofounder of mobile analytics company Watchsend, who graduated from YC in the summer of 2013. In addition to his philosophical musings, he went through the questions one by one, analyzing the issue addressed in each.
For example:

Question: What’s new about what you’re making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn’t exist yet (or they don’t know about it)?

His opinion: Present your problem as a hair on fire problem, one that people would use immediately if they knew existed because the switching costs are negligible compared to their existing suffering.

Answer: On demand, quick and convenient, appliance repair simply doesn’t exist. The industry is old and resistant to change, but the customer base is not. Most customers resort to calling their friends who are less than experts despite the risk they pose to their equipment just because of the hassle of scheduling a repair. They gladly pay their friends just as much if not more than they pay us just for that convenience.

A common mistake that applicants make is that they use the response from YC as a definitive guide to decide whether to keep working on their ideas. The CEO of Hipmob, who got into YC in winter 2012, gave his perspective in this issue.

“It’s important to actually believe in what you’re doing. This is true for doing a startup in general, and it’s also true for YC. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it will be hard to convince co-founders, prospective employees, partners and investors to work with you. Because if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, why should they? If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’ll probably quit. If your cofounder doesn’t, she or he will probably quit. Even if you only kind of believe in what you’re doing, investors and customers will smell it. Why? Because there’s a dozen startups in your space pitching them every day who are hungrier and more aggressive and believe in what they are doing.”

Applying to YC or other incubators is just another ordinary, everyday task. It aligns with the company’s short-term and long-term goals. If you get the offer, you will continue. If you don’t get the offer, you will continue too. For my team, we had only begun working on our project less than three weeks before we filed the form. Thus the rejection letter was not a sign of failure or our blind optimism in the past few weeks. Our idea was validated by the ample research we did for the application.

Thus what I would like to share is: make sure your business would do well with/without YC, and that it shows on your application.

by Tianjiao Saihan-tal Yu, Ph.D student in East Asian Languages & Cultures department (from 2008 to 2013), co-founder of Aktively, an online marketplace for people to list and book hands-on experiences all over the world.

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Pinterest + Gumroad: Building Products People Love

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Whether you’re an up-and-coming comic book artist or a big-name musician like Eminem or Ellie Goulding, chances are you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to sell your product directly to your audience. You’ve probably thought “Why is it so easy to share something for free on platforms like Facebook, but the minute I want to sell it, it becomes so difficult?”

Enter Gumroad, the startup for selling digital goods founded by Sahil Lavingia two years ago. When he left his job as the second employee and first designer of the wildly popular Pinterest to become the CEO at Gumroad, he was only 19. Last Thursday, Sahil came to Columbia and shared his experiences and thoughts on startups, leadership, and more.

Sahil’s journey began as a middle-schooler tinkering with tools like Photoshop in his spare time. He soon reasoned: why make a painting of a building when you could build the building yourself? Thus he took up coding, and passionately immersed himself in programming. He knew then that he wanted to become a software engineer, and perhaps start his own company too.

While studying computer science at the University of Southern California, he encountered Pinterest. Sahil attributes this first job as a fruit of personal branding and actively reaching out. “It’s very important to get good at talking about yourself,” and even if you have an awesome idea, “no one is going to talk about [it] on your behalf.” But he was soon to leave for other pursuits.

The idea of founding Gumroad came to him suddenly and spontaneously. One afternoon, Sahil spent four hours at home designing a realistic pencil icon in Photoshop. He realized the value in his product to many designers, including those who happened to follow his twitter, and sought ways to market and sell his product. However, he found that this was far from a painless process.

“There’s probably so much that gets this close to getting put out there, and then never does,” he lamented. To him, it just “felt wrong” that such a tool to sell digital goods hadn’t existed yet. So he built Gumroad the following weekend.

Since then, Gumroad has grown to a team of 10 with $8 million of funding. Sahil’s role has changed from working “on Gumroad” to working “at Gumroad”, as he manages the team and focuses on the long-term vision instead of writing code day to day. Sahil had a lot to share from his managing experiences, and here are some of his words of wisdom:

Topic 1: Starting A Business
Do it for the right reasons. If you just want to build a product, you don’t always need a company. For Sahil, he realized that the best way to solve his problem was with a business. Ask yourself, what’s the best way to solve yours?
Who are you building for first? Sahil always made sure to test his product on himself – thinking of himself as a first user.
Wants turn into needs. You didn’t need your phone five years ago, but now the social context has changed so much that it has become a need. Sahil realized that people focus on problems that are “needs” and despise problems that seem like a “luxury.”
Build something you know will exist in 10 years, and more important, something that you want to work on in 10 years. “If you really want something to exist, it’s a lot easier to stick with it”, Sahil said.
Move to San Francisco. Sahil called this choice a “no-brainer.” One of the benefits, he recalled, to being a student at USC was the exposure to startups in the Bay Area. He currently lives in San Francisco, where he describes the multiplier effect on his career as “invaluable”.

Topic 2: Attitudes
• You are mostly correct, so trust your gut!
• Make a list of things that might stop you, and then prove them wrong.
Get rid of all distractions. Sahil left Pinterest to start Gumroad, knowing that “you have to focus 100% on a problem to make it work.” Those who try to juggle too many things end up dropping both the balls. Like code, people should know their number one priorities.

Topic 3: Leadership
Focus on hiring brains, not arms. Sahil’s goal is not to hire people to do the job faster, but to “figure out what the project to do is.” Ideally, he said, you shouldn’t have two people doing the same function in order to avoid redundancy. As he put it, “If you’re doing the same thing every Friday, find a way to automate it or get rid of it.”
Pass on the credit, take on the blame.
Say no, a lot. Sahil acknowledged this as something you have to do in software and product development all the time, and likewise, something you have to do in recruiting.
Sahil ended his talk on one last piece of advice: believe in yourself, and believe in your idea: “If [Mark Zuckerberg] said ‘I want to build Facebook, but first I’m going to convince a hundred people that they want it’… they’d be like, you’re an idiot.”

You can check out Gumroad, contact Sahil at sahil@gumroad.com, or on twitter, @shl. Gumroad is currently hiring.

by James Xue, Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science, Class of 2017

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Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran Talks Failure

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Barbara Corcoran is not someone we would associate with failure. A frequent face on ABC’s Shark Tank, she co-founded the real estate business the Corcoran Group in 1973, and has gained a prominent reputation in the New York real estate scene as a notable investor and commenter. Yet, she makes it a point to begin her profiles, whether on her website or on TEDxBarnardCollege’s programs, with the fact that her “credentials include straight D’s in high school and college and twenty jobs by the time she turned twenty-three”. At last week’s TEDxBarnardCollege hosted by the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, she candidly shared her experience and reflections on failure.

Here are some of the highlights of Barbara’s talk:

“Failure and innovation are kissing cousins”
A few decades ago, Barbara had an idea that felt like a winner. To make the process of showing apartments in New York City to potential customers more convenient, Barbara planned to list all the apartments she was trying to sell, record her salespeople showing the spaces on videotape, and then send those videotapes to any prospective tenants. Barbara invested $77,000 into the project, but it failed to produce any business. She admitted that her idea was “dead on arrival,” and soon her basement had stacks of useless videotapes. However, it just so happened that her husband, a U.S. Navy Captain, had been using a new technology that he could not stop talking about: the Internet. Intrigued, she decided to put some of the videos from the failed tapes online, and, to her surprise, they sold almost immediately. Barbara’s real estate company was able to establish an early presence on the World Wide Web, and she told us that she owes the nearly “two year head start” over her competitors to the misstep of her videotapes.

“The best successes all came on the heels of failure”
Barbara shared an anecdote: during a crucial Citibank presentation, she suddenly lost her voice—it was completely, utterly gone. Embarrassed, she was forced to abruptly end her talk. Instead of being held down by this defeat, she contacted NYU the next day about teaching a real estate course. Serendipitously, one of the attendees at these lectures was Carrie Chiang, a woman who impressed Barbara so much that she was brought in to work for the Corcoran Group. Today, Chiang is a powerhouse, one of the top sales brokers in New York City. Barbara points out that, if she had not fallen short in the bank presentation, she would have never met one of her most important business partners.

“Stand up to rejection”
Her role on Shark Tank did not come easily and involved many twists and turns. When she was invited to be an investor on Mark Burnett’s new series, she thought it was a great opportunity and signed the contract. However, a week before the taping, she received notice that a different candidate had been chosen for the spot. Undaunted, Barbara sent an email to Mark expressing her desire to be on the show, explaining why she was the best fit, and requesting that she and the other candidate be allowed to compete for the spot. Mark listened, and Barbara eventually became a “shark”. Barbara closed this story with a revelation she did not discover until after she had been on the show. Many others had also signed a contract to be a judge on Shark Tank, but, like Barbara, were turned down. The difference, however, is that Barbara was the only one to send Mark a letter.

Barbara was undeterred despite all the challenges posed to her, and that led to her eventual success. She demonstrated how failure has a way of bringing about new opportunities, and she explained that failure is not something to be feared, but something that is a natural part of business and a part of life.

Look out for the full recording of Barbara Corcoran’s TEDx Talk here: http://www.ted.com/tedx.

by Will McAuliff, Columbia College, Class of 2014

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KeyMe: The Solution to Locking Yourself Out

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Ninety million people in the US have experienced the frustration of accidentally locking themselves out of their homes. Chances are, you are one of them. What do you do then? Most of the time, you call a locksmith, and spend $200 and precious time waiting to get a new lock and key. KeyMe aims to reduce that expense by 95% to $9.99.

Last Friday afternoon, KeyMe co-founder Kris Borer hosted a casual Dine & Discuss lunch event at the Carman lounge, and shared his hit solution: a cloud-based key management platform.

The New York City-based startup allows users to store, share and duplicate their physical keys based on a physical scan that is stored in the cloud, via a free application. KeyMe intends to place 50-100 kiosks around the country in the next 12 months to help those that are locked out.

According to CEO and Tech Co-Founder Kris Borer, the idea for KeyMe originated roughly two years ago while his cofounder Greg Marsh was still at Columbia Business School. His fiancé was continually locked out and you can imagine the following stress and expenses which ensued.

As a hardware company, KeyMe found funding to be an issue. The founders started the company with around $20,000 of their own money, which was enough to make a prototype to show their friends and family. They also managed to raise $300,000 with investment from friends and angels. “The goal was to build kiosks and mobile applications that were good enough to raise an even bigger round of financing,” said Kris. With adequate initial funds, they spent the next year building prototype kiosks and mobile applications.

Kris and Greg first worked on their prototype kiosk inside our very own Columbia University building Uris Hall, and stored the kiosk inside a janitor’s closet in the beginning. One day, they went to work on the kiosk and realized that it was not there. They frantically ran around looking for their kiosk until one janitor staff member told them that he moved the kiosk to another office. From that day forward, they kept it inside of the office until moving off campus.

KeyMe has been growing steadily ever since. Now they have 5 kiosks around New York where you can duplicate your keys in thirty seconds. KeyMe is also working on increasing their user-base by creating fancy-looking keys: one of their most successful campaigns was asking NRA members to purchase gun-shaped keys. At this point, KeyMe has raised the $2.3 million with another round and that placed its evaluation at around $6 million.

KeyMe is working on a delivery service that will hopefully be rolled out soon to lessen the amount of time that customers wait outside in the cold. Maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be delivering keys to your door sometime!

Other than KeyMe’s business model, Kris also discussed some startup advice, covering topics such as what your pitchdeck should include, how to approach venture capitalists, and recruit and manage a team. He encouraged entrepreneurs to do adequate research on their target markets, such as what the previous solution was to the market gap, what your new solution is, and why it is better. He points out that investors want to see that you can answer everything with confidence because you’re the person who knows most about the market you’re targeting.

by Harry Danilevics, Columbia College, Class of 2014