Posted on March 20, 2012 by

A Chicago Fear Experiment.

Late last year, I participated in Potluck 2.0 and quickly realized that I was unaware of an incredible underground Chicago scene.  Potluck is a speaker series (see: Ignite) where people from very diverse backgrounds speak undisturbed for 6 minutes.  After presenting about taking the leap into entrepreneurship, I listened to a group of amazing and eclectic poets, actors, writers, and comedians tell creative and unfiltered stories.  I was blown away.  And they referred to a Chicago scene that I had honestly had never heard of: live magazinesbooks & beerdesign based speaker series, and much more.

When friends in other cities ask me about Chicago, I evangelize the beach, our college football Saturdays, how nice people are, and of course, our summers – none of which is novel.  When asked about trying new things like Yoga or Farmers Markets, I say that I can’t touch my toes and can barely cook but that I experiment with Chicago by regularly attending start-up events and trying new restaurants.  Being with such diverse group of people at Potluck made me realize that I had never left my comfort zone. Even when I worked in finance previously, I would volunteer on junior boards composed of other young finance professionals.  My exploring of Chicago was tied to my profession and my palette.

potluck chicago

My fellow Potluckers.

So I want to continue expanding my status quo.  Saya, the co-host of Potluck, shared a list of events and activities that are underground to me.  My experiment is to attend one new event each month.  The list is below. Who’s with me?

Fear Experiment (another of Saya’s ventures that helps strangers face their fears of dancing comedy very very publicly) http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sayahillman/fear-experiment-strangers-facing-fears-in-front-of
Story    http://2ndstory.serendipitytheatre.org
Get Mortified    http://www.getmortified.com/
Dollar Store    http://www.dollarstoreshow.com/index.html
Write Club    https://www.facebook.com/#!/WRITECLUBRules
2nd Fridays    http://www.chicagoartsdistrict.org
Salonathon    https://www.facebook.com/Salonathon
Essay Fiesta    http://essayfiesta.com/
Reading Under the Influence http://readingundertheinfluence.com/
Paper Machete    http://thepapermacheteshow.com/
Tuesday Funk    http://www.tuesdayfunk.org/
Drinking and Writing Theater    http://drinkingandwriting.com/
Interview Show
Funny Ha Ha    http://www.zulkey.com/funnyhaha.php
Story Lab    http://storylabchicago.com/
Ignite    http://www.ignitechi.org/
Pecha Kucha    http://www.pecha-kucha.org/cities/Chicago
P. Fanatics    http://www.pissfanatics.net/
This Much is True    http://www.thismuchistruechicago.com/
The Moth    http://themoth.org/events
The Encyclopedia Show    http://www.encyclopediashow.com/EncyclopediaShow/Home.html
Here’s The Story    http://heresthestory.org/
Story Club    http://www.storyclubchicago.com/
Grown Folk Stories    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Grown-Folks-Stories/120392737992152#!/pages/Grown-Folks-Stories/120392737992152?sk=wall
Windy City Story Slam    https://windycitystoryslams.wordpress.com/about/
Real Talk Live    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Real-Talk-Live/135852693139029
Posted on January 16, 2012 by

Customer Acquisition is Not a Field of Dreams.

Next week is the fourth edition of Tech In Motion** (TIM), an event at which a startup “pitches” its product, and panelists and the audience analyze the business.*  In November, I participated in TIM III as a panelist along with Troy Henikoff, CEO of Excelerate Labs, Bob Sell, a Partner for Seyfarth Shaw, and Matt Cobb, VP of Product of the Chicago startup Valkre to hear from the presenting startup, Spontaneous.

During the Q&A session, we broke down what I consider the key elements of any startup business model: (1) identify the problem; (2) learn from customers and/or partners; (3) develop a corresponding solution; (4) prioritize which network to target; (5) revenue model; and (6) implement customer acquisition strategies.  The last point is often a black box for startups.  Dashfire brainstorms with a number of startups, and before we discuss technical feasibility, we always touch on customer acquisition and ask, “how will you acquire your first 10,000 users?”

field of dreams for startups

If you build it...

The most common response is “we will build an awesome site that will attract new users.”  Unfortunately, this is not the field of dreams. Just building something does not guarantee that people will come.   Our attention is divided between 500K iPhone apps, 300K Android apps, and a gazillion web applications.  Attention is a currency and startups need to focus on building up their reserves.  Having a defined customer acquisition strategy is integral for a startups; the dreaded scenario is launching a site to no audience.

A business that targets end users (B2C) is often the most challenging.  Where do you find your users? How do you convince them to not only try your application but to return? Going viral? That’s not something you can just will. It takes a perfect combination of position, product, and luck.  Facebook? Twitter? Both are options, but the user bases are so vast making it difficult to target the key demographic.  Search? The associated individual user acquisition costs with  Facebook or Google can be a gamble and expensive.

Instead, go to where your customers currently reside.  Make channel partnerships.  Find a business, a group, or a targeted network and gain access to their users. It may be a longer sale cycle, but once executed, you can grow from 0 – 10,000 more quickly and cost effectively than acquiring users one at a time.

*Our very own JC Garrett will be a panelist at TIM IV.

**Video highlights from TIM III:  http://vimeo.com/32249128

Posted on January 9, 2012 by

Tablets for Fourth Graders.

Here’s an idea for a new venture as described in less than 250 words…

Fourth grade math in 1992.  I remember my teacher introducing a new topic, writing a question on the board, explaining the answer, and then handing every student the same worksheet of practice questions.  A linear curriculum for a classroom of students who differ in not only the way they learn, but in their strengths and weaknesses.  With the available resources, this made sense for 1992, but not 2012.

Addressing this archaic methodology makes education technology so exciting.  At Dashfire, we have worked with companies that help high-school teachers, alumni organizations, and teacher training.  Meanwhile, companies like Khan’s Academy (which should be used by adults too) are monumentally progressing the way children learn.  I look forward to seeing how tablets influence children’s education.  Although not initially designed for them, children have mastered the iPad, whether by sliding to unlock or playing Angry Birds.  I envision students conducting their coursework on a tablet (or to a lesser extent, computers) with intuitive programming.  The software would use how the student responds to a question – correctly, incorrectly, methodology – as a diagnostic to generate the subsequent question.  Students will learn at a pace that is appropriate for them while teachers can identify (from a tablet of course) which students need extra, real-time attention.   This would finally sideline reactive education – waiting for students to fail before addressing their needs.  I imagine that there are leading engineers and/or decision science PHDs building this technology.  And if there aren’t, let’s get started!

Posted on November 18, 2011 by

Creating Change.

I am headed to the American India Foundation (www.aif.org) Chicago fundraiser tonight.  On the surface, it is an elegant Bollywood-themed gala that will host over 600 corporate and philanthropic leaders from Chicago.  Behind the scenes, the annual event is a primary source of capital that funds AIF’s mission to catalyze social and economic change in India.  AIF packs a strong punch for a lean organization that relies on hundreds of ambassadors, volunteers, and supporters.  It has partnered with 115 NGOs that has impacted the lives of 1.5 million underprivileged Indians by partnering with and funding vetted Indian NGOs.  I appreciate this model because rather than blindly donating to a cause or a country, AIF supports local organizations that can execute, not just ideate.  It is also the organization that granted me and 22 of my peers the Clinton Fellowship in 2008 to work directly with the NGOs it funds.  I’ve posted candidly about my fellowship experiences working in Gujarati slums with the incredible NGO, Saath (www.saath.org) here.  But in short, my 10 months in India were a perspective-changing experience.  I learned that through innovation, creativity, understanding, and entrepreneurship, anything is possible; but I also learned that social change requires patience and diligence and takes years or generations, not months.

Tonight’s event will likely raise thousands of dollars which will continue to expand AIF’s reach and impact.  But what excites me most about AIF and the general social development landscape is the new market-based approaches.  Donor-based investment is critical to charitable organizations, but it is susceptible to recessions, and therefore, not entirely sustainable.  Many of AIF’s programs, including the ones employed by Saath, utilize the model illustrated below.  One investment recycled for continual empowerment.

Posted on October 10, 2011 by

Ignite Your Own Technology Venture.

I presented at Ignite Chicago late this summer. Ignite is a speaker series (see: local TED Talks) where presenters discuss a topic of their choice for five minutes but have only have 15 seconds per slide before it auto advances. Not easy.  The topics ranged from why dogs should wear seat belts to bob dylan’s art collection, and in the past have discussed “why you hate comic sans” and ” boobs & boys.”  My favorite presentations from this night were @BoopBoopBDoop: Annie – in her a mile a minute delivery – had the crowd in fits; and @jersmith22: Jeremy spoke about how his love affair with parking tickets fueled his start-up idea.

I spoke about how non-engineers can and should lead internet start-ups.  Like I’ve done during previous presentations, I polled the crowd to see who had a start-up idea and roughly half the room raised their hands. But when I asked how many engineers were present, only 4 hands went up. It’s becoming more apparent that people want to launch the next. big. idea., but don’t know how to get started. I spent my 5 minutes explaining how to do just that. I was asked to publish my slides, so I’ve linked them below with text descriptions.

Here’s the actual video, however, the sound quality is poor.

Thanks to @startupstella and @timjahn for bringing Ignite to Chicago. Can’t wait for the next series!

Posted on September 29, 2011 by

Measuring Tangible Klout.

Here’s an idea for a new venture as described in less than 250 words…

Let’s start recognizing individuals who influence us in a tangible manner. Over the past year, I’ve actively created a social brand beyond Facebook and have connected with a variety of individuals – many of whom I’ve never met.  But while I’m finally developing a rapport with my Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections (at least according to Klout – a social influence ranking site), my social profile doesn’t capture the people who really move the needle for me. You see, most connections on social networks provide me with intangible benefits – general knowledge and information shared through insights and, of course, links.

Intangible certainly doesn’t mean inconsequential.  When Brad Feld shares an article, I read it.  And when Shaq tweets about a new company (see: Tout), people check it out.  But are these actions tangible to my day-to-day life?  I’d like to factor and weigh depth of influence more heavily than the number of followers, retweets, and mentions.  My influencers – those who make introductions to key individuals or companies, provide thoughtful feedback, or help advance my status quo – should receive infinite points for how they have moved the needle for me (see: PBOD).  Similarly, my offline influence of advising companies, networking, career guidance, etc. are more valuable than my tweets.  Are current metrics actually just smoke and mirrors?  I’m not discounting the power of the network, as I rely on Linkedin for introductions and Twitter for awareness.  But to appropriately measure clout, we should  document  tangible impact from our network.

Posted on September 8, 2011 by

AOL Instant Messenger on 9/11.

Note: I commented on a post my friend Varun wrote about how quickly the news of Osama’s death spread via social media. I’ve added to my original comments in the post below.

A decade has passed since 9/11 and since then, our security and privacy has forever been altered.  As expected, our security measures are far more stringent (see: airports) and the government redrew personal privacy boundaries in an attempt to keep us safe.  But over the same time period, we, on our own accord, lowered our guard on personal privacy.  Why?  Because Facebook (and now social media) presented us with a unique value proposition: exchange your information for access to others’ information, and personalized and relevant content.   The latter – a result of Twitter, push notifications, and being “mobile” – has led to revolutions in the Middle East and real-time breaking news (see: Osama’s death).   But this didn’t start after 9/11.  In fact, it was happening during 9/11.  We already had in place the foundation that drives today’s network effect.

I was attending Georgetown in DC during 9/11 and was oversleeping when, my mom, a morning news fan, called from Michigan to tell me to turn on the TV. She actually called my land line before trying my cell.  In the aftermath of the Pentagon attack, cell phone lines in DC were flooded and we were no longer accessible to concerned friends and family.  So we turned to AOL Instant Messenger.  Long before G-Chat, Facebook Chat, & Tweeting, my entire universe was on AOL. On 9/11, I was able to connect with family and friends on my Buddy List and let them know we were safe. Patriotic Away Messages that week resembled my patriotic Facebook & Twitter Newsfeeds after Americans learned that the architect of 9/11 had been killed.

AOL Instant Messenger was one of the earliest tools that facilitated real-time communication.  In participating, we were making ourselves more accessible and thereby, less private.  This value exchange relaxed the flood gates for next decade’s social expansion. I have not IMed anyone on AOL in over 6 years, and I wonder what application will consume our attention 5 years from now. But, the takeaway remains the same. We are willing to give up personal privacy for access to transparent and better information and connections.  This transparency is pervasive and provides us with a huge benefit: it allows us the freedom and ability to be more aware and shed our dated assumptions and misinformation, especially as we reflect on that tragic day in 2011.

-rd423 (my very dated AOL Screename)

related: Bostinnovation‘s post on 9/11 In a Social Media World

Posted on August 9, 2011 by

My dad loves utellit.

My dad just turned 61 and for his birthday, I really wanted to buy him a Batman belt so he could holster in his iPhone, hospital pager, and pedometer.  And if an iPad belt holder existed, I’m sure he would clip that on his belt too.  The same guy – who didn’t have Cable TV until 1999 (“son, it’s for your own benefit”) and lectured my sister and me when we used star-69 to make-up for our caller ID-less house – is undergoing a technical renaissance.  He has over 10 pages of apps on his iPhone and is now venturing to social media.   My mom says he spends more time on Facebook  liking and commenting than checking his stock portfolio (prior to the recent bloodbath) or listening to Bollywood music.  He is also an avid follower of Dashfire’s partners’ tweets and recently earned the compliment: “Your dad is a baller. Only uncle i know on Twitter.”

So it was a no-brainer for Rishi and Arjuna, the founders of utellit, a new Dashfire partner, to select my dad as a beta tester.   He is addicited. And although it is only a sample size of only one, we have identified our first key demographic.  In just over two months, he has sent 158 utellits or 2.6 utellits per day mainly comprised of:

·         “happy birthday” wall posts to his Facebook friends;
·         “long time no talk – hope all is well” texts to his doctor colleagues;
·         “why won’t you pick up my calls” messages to my sister; and
·         “you can’t beat me at racquetball” notes to me

Here is why my dad loves utellit: http://utell.it/am/SzL4d

You will love it too.  Learn more: www.utell.it.

utellit

Posted on July 12, 2011 by

Defining My Relationship with Google+.

Dear Google+,

I really want things to work out between us.  I know that my relationships with your siblings have ended abruptly (see: BuzzWave), but I’m extremely loyal to your family (see: SearchGmail, and Maps) and want to invest the time to make this happen. Your family is the Kennedys of the internet, and you were crafted by engineering Gods, which makes you irresistible to date. But this is a two-way street, and I’ll need you to make some sacrifices too.

First, I don’t want to move too fast.  It’s not that I’m a prude; it’s just that I’m in a few other long-term relationships and I can’t commit all my time to you.  I know you have friends, photos, streams, statuses, group video hangouts (see: awesome), and circles (who doesn’t like curves?), but it’s overwhelming and disingenuous to pretend that we’ve been together since the spring of 2004. We can’t just fabricate our past by circling up 700 million friends and billions of photos.  Relationships take time. I know you hate Facebook, but she and I took gradual steps to improve our relationship over the past 7 years.  We may have been poking early on, but we weren’t emoting our “I love you” statuses publicly until our 3rd anniversary.

If I marry you, Google+, I’ll also be cheating on Gmail.  And I don’t want to do that, I love Gmail.  Gmail is my journal, my confidant, my best friend.  And like Facebook, Gmail will surprise me with awesome new gifts like Chat or Talk or Labs.  These presents are easy to embrace because they are given gradually and not desperately thrown at me all at once.

You know what? I’m realizing that I want to take the next step with Gmail, not you, Google+.  All of my circles are already on Gmail. I communicate with them incessantly.  Add the group video and the stream to Gmail, and let’s start hanging out.

Deal?

Love,
rick.desai@gmail.com

Related: An e-mail to my blackberry.

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

Personal Board of Directors.

I was recently asked to join the board of directors…of my friend Sammy.  He calls it his Personal Board of Directors (PBOD) and I am responsible for career guidance.  I love the recruiting space and if I can be helpful to my friends re: resumes, interviews, and introductions, I will.  It is not your standard directorship, but something I take seriously.  Everyone should have a PBOD. I have leaned on my PBOD (you know who you are) heavily since starting Dashfire for everything from introductions to life coaching.  I was surprised to learn that people want to lend support and guidance.

Mentoring is also strongly encouraged in the entrepreneurship community.  I heard Jeff Bussgang, VC extraordinaire from FlyBridge Capital, give the keynote speech at the Kellogg Entrepreneurship Conference in May*.  He stressed the importance of mentorship and attributed his entrepreneurial and investor successes to the guidance and support he received from his mentors.  He encouraged all entrepreneurs to surround themselves with mentors and asked serial entrepreneurs and investors to actively mentor.  David Cohen, co-founder of TechStars, presented at an Excelerate Labs event last summer, and he delivered one of my favorite quotes related to informal mentorship: “if you meet someone who doesn’t have a clue, take the time to give him a clue.”  David believes in the start-up ecosystem and stresses that the existing participants should support the growth of entrepreneurship.   I agree.   Many of our Dashfire partners form advisory boards as they gain traction.  But I believe it is of equal importance to have a personal sounding board when launching or even contemplating a new venture.

While starting EverTrue, Brent Grinna (also a Dashfire advisor) surrounded himself with influential mentors who provided constructive guidance to help evolve the EverTrue business model from alumni mobile applications to donor intelligence.  Consistent with Bussgang’s view of a two-way mentorship, Brent is also a selfless mentor and advisor who willingly makes introductions, provides feedback, and even helps raise capital for entrepreneurs and companies he supports.  In his previous finance life, Brent connected numerous people with jobs in private equity and investment banking.

Check your LinkedIn connections and Twitter community and identify your Brent Grinnas (business idea:  LinkedIn should start tracking influential connections — people who make actual contributions).  Form your PBOD with people who are genuinely interested in your development.  They can be your friends, parents, or colleagues.  Don’t hesitate to ask people you may not personally know or are only connected via social networks; if they see your, they will want to help you.  And if you can move the needle (a must read post by Sid Shah) for others, you should! Mentoring and advising your friends and colleagues will only make you sharper and better position you to seek mentorship.

*Jeff also cautioned the audience on prematurely labeling the current environment a “bubble”:  “In 1996, my company had a $1.8bn market cap and $1.2mm of revenue.  If you had exited the market on account of a bubble, you would have missed the greatest period of wealth creation…ever.  Is 2011 like 1996 or like 1999?” -Jeff Bussgang

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