Featuring Qnexis

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 57 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Kurt Nguyen who’s helped create a mass emergency communication and accountability mobile app called RUOK. Listen to Kurt’s story below!


Thanks to our Sponsor:

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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for show number 57. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Al Gore invented the Internet. We love him for letting us do our podcast here.

John Gilroy: We are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry, took over a conference room here. One side of the table we have some graduate students from Georgetown University. Other side of the table we have a startup. We have a 26 minute conversation, and we walk out of here fast friends.

John Gilroy: Our two students today bring an interesting background here. We have Ekaterina and Elias.. Ekaterina, tell us about your background please.

Ekaterina P: My name is Ekaterina Pamsheva. I’m a graduate student at Georgetown. I’m halfway through the Technology Management Program. My primary study focus is cybersecurity. I work as a consultant in IT field. In my current role, I’m engaged in supporting and overseeing IT web portfolio for the federal government. I’m involved with application ONM and development, modernization, enhancement of the websites and associated cloud platforms.

John Gilroy: Yeah, and she’s looking real carefully at a big data center called Cyxtera, and will do a report on that at the end of the year, so it’s going to be kind of fascinating. Cyxtera Security. It’s going to be great.

John Gilroy: Our second student is Elias Yarborough. Elias, tell us about your background, please.

Elias Y: My name is Elias Yabarow. My background is in electrical engineering. Currently enrolled in the same program, the Technology Management Program at Georgetown. I’m currently a software developer at Accenture. I’m also doing my own startup on the side that I think is going to be able to change the way real estate is being done.

John Gilroy: So in other words, you want to switch sides of the table one of these days. We’ve had that happen a couple times. We really have. That’s good. Couple of smart students here.

John Gilroy: On our right, we have Kurt Nguyen. He is the founder of a company called Qnexis. Tell us about your background, Kurt.

Kurt Nguyen: Hello everybody. Thank you for having me here tonight. Again, my name is Kurt Nguyen. I’m the president and CEO of Qnexis. We are not quite a startup. We’ve been around for about 16 years now. I have been involved and have founded three other startups prior to founding Qnexis. We specialize in communications and technology. How do you bring and leverage technology to deliver information and content across the enterprise in an effective way? Tonight, I’d love to talk to you a little bit more about one of the products that we have recently launched, and I’m sure you have a lot of questions about that.

John Gilroy: What’s the product?

Kurt Nguyen: Tonight’s product we’d like to talk to you about is a product called RUOK? It is a mass emergency communication and accountability mobile app.



Kurt Nguyen


John Gilroy: Good, so we spell that out R-U-O-K. That’s kind of interesting. Tell me what business problem this app solves.

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. It’s a great question. The problem we’re really trying to solve is a very fundamental one. One of the issues that we’ve found in many recent incidents that’s happened with regards to emergency disaster-related situations that’s happened is that, whether it be something that’s by nature or even by manmade, when a disaster occurs, one of the biggest problems that we’ve found with regards to the ability for first responders, local law enforcement, as well as fire and rescue folks is the ability to provide direct, continuous and sustained communication and information to the people that are affected.

John Gilroy: Oh good, that’s all kinds of roads go down here, communication. We had a little windstorm here, a few days, a lot of people out of communications for a day. So a good place to start.

John Gilroy: Ekaterina, first question.

Ekaterina P: You recently participated at the Cybersecurity Shark Tank series.

Kurt Nguyen: Yes, that’s right.

Ekaterina P: I was able to find it online and see your demo.

Kurt Nguyen: Oh good.

Ekaterina P: I notice that your application has a very nice sound when the alert goes on, but that’s not what my question is about. My first question is if RUOK? is a company’s proprietary application? Do you have a patent on this, or is it a third party product? My second question, how are your case different from the regular, let’s say, text alert system?

Kurt Nguyen: Very good question. I’ll answer your first question in this way. First and foremost, our application is proprietary. We have filed for a patent on it right now. It is patent pending.

Kurt Nguyen: To answer your second question with regards to just how does it compare to the other industry. The reality is that, right now, what we’re finding is that there are a lot of current existing systems that are in place that are provided by the government. Many of them are the usual things whereby you’re subscribing to a text-based type of alert.

Kurt Nguyen: The problem with that is that it may not necessarily be directed at you, nor does it really designed to provide a sustained communication so that in any situation, whether it be, let’s say a weather emergency or a safety emergency or an active shooter incident, you’re going to find that those situations can be very fluid. The situation changes minute by minute. So to provide that type of mass broadcast alert, sometimes it’s not very well directed, and it may not be getting to the right people in the right place.

Elias Y: I also notice that your product was patent pending as well. So one of my questions was A, have you raised any funds for this particular product and B, if you did, how did your status as being patent pending effect, positively or negatively, for that?



Elias Yabarow


Kurt Nguyen: Up to this point, as I mentioned to you before, our company has been around for about 16 years. We’ve been providing a host of different services to commercial as well as to the federal government with regards to IT services and communication type of services. When we found this opportunity and we started developing it, we really developed it as an outcrop of, we saw a very fundamental need. We didn’t see anything out in the marketplace that quite addressed the situation the way we wanted to address it.

Kurt Nguyen: Case in point, this actually occurred, if you don’t mind me just stepping back and telling you, the source for our product is that a number of years back, we actually were performing some work at the Navy Yard out in DC. It happened on a fall September Monday morning, and I heard about an active shooter that was on base. At the time, we have some clients that we were working and performing at the Navy Yard. Like many people, the first thing I did was that I picked up the phone and I tried to call into some of the folks that I knew. The reality is that I couldn’t get to many of those folks, because either A, I couldn’t get a hold of them or the few people I was able to get hold of, they didn’t know what was going on. So they couldn’t tell me anything, less they weren’t getting any information in.

Kurt Nguyen: I came away from that experience saying, “Well, there’s got to be a better way to be able to provide information to the people that are actually in those situations, because they’re the ones that need to know that, first and foremost.” Secondly, I thought about it more and says, “Well, shouldn’t there be just a simple app? An app that you can download if you’re part of that organization, whether you’re an employee or a teacher or a student, depending on whatever organization they’re at, and that in the event of an emergency, a first responder or anybody that has the responsibility to send out those alerts, can send it to you directly.”

Kurt Nguyen: With that, what we tried to focus on was to try to provide it in as simple, effective and as light as an application as possible. We believe that’s important. We’re not trying to address all the permutations that that can be addressed in terms of communication alert. That could be part of the larger EMS strategy that should be put in place, but what we’re finding is that we’re just trying to solve one basic problem, which is how do you quickly send out information and communicate it out to people that are affected, and at the same time, account for those people, and do it as quickly and rapidly as possible?

John Gilroy: I was writing down active shooter. It’s very serious. We think about Florida, and I got to add a little levity here.

Kurt Nguyen: Sure.

John Gilroy: My wife is a Latin teacher. She teaches at a small school here, and they’re all scared about this. They have meetings, and they have changes in their security plans and everything else. The problem is this, is that every year, they do a musical, and this year the musical is Annie Get Your Gun. Little problem with that. We got to bring this up a little bit later here.

Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, and-

John Gilroy: Also, when I first say R-U-O, I thought it was some kind of computer code or something, but it’s a license plate. RUOK? I’m okay.

Kurt Nguyen: Exactly.

John Gilroy: Did you get that, Ekaterina? Did you get that the first time?

Ekaterina P: I couldn’t read it the first time, but-

John Gilroy: No it’s a license plate.

Ekaterina P: Right.

John Gilroy: I’ll let you ask a non-license-plate question.

Ekaterina P: My next question about RUOK functionality, just trying to compare if there is a feature for the people who are in emergency situation, is there a way for them to respond back to the alert?


Ekaterina Pamsheva

Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely. That’s the beauty of it in that, if you want, I can quickly just show you a demo. Unfortunately, the listeners-

John Gilroy: Limitations of podcast here.

Kurt Nguyen: Right, won’t be able to see this, but I’ve actually have the screen up right now, right? This, the view that you’re seeing right now is actually the view that an administrator or first responder would have. That basically would say, in this case here, unfortunately I’m going to make this not as levity as I’d like to, but it’s just an active shooter, okay? They can put in there, “Evacuate the building.” Now what it does is that it gives you three choices. You can send it out as a push notification, a text or an email alert.

Kurt Nguyen: But at the same time, to answer your question, Ekaterina, is this. By checking this box here, below this, it says, “Check the box to require okay or not okay response.” That means that when I send it out, I’m going to send it out right now. Hopefully you’ll hear that sound.

John Gilroy: That works for a podcast, yeah.

Kurt Nguyen: Exactly. What you’ll get is that, from my view, I’m the administrator. I get this dashboard view, okay? I also see the alert that I just sent out, its time and date stamp. What you don’t see here, but you as the user would see, is in addition, you’ll see the alert, but you also see two buttons that’ll come up. It’s going to ask you, “Check here if you’re okay or not okay.”

Kurt Nguyen: In a crisis situation, doesn’t have to be an active shooter, keep in mind. It could be a safety situation. It could be a weather alert. It could be a tornado, whatever that might be. By simply pressing that, it automatically updates in real time the system, and as a first responder, you see this little … A little levity for you here, a little thumbs up and thumbs down? Depending on the response, ah. It sounds like somebody just responded to me, and I’m going to see here. I can thumb up or thumbs down. Somebody that I just know just pressed thumbs down. It’s actually somebody that works for me. They are already standing by to respond to us here.

John Gilroy: Elias, I’ve got to ask the Tom Cruise question, the show me the money question. You got to ask this. He’s waiting to ask this. You might as well ask it before I do.

Kurt Nguyen: Go for it.

John Gilroy: There’s got to be a financial model here, doesn’t there? Where’s the money here?

Elias Y: Yeah, yeah. I was going to leave that for later on, but could you go through your A, your marketing strategy to gain traction and grow, and how that’s being affected by existing competitors, and the type of value added you’re doing for that? B, where are the leads coming from really?

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. Maybe I can, before I talk to the marketing, how we go to market and talk to you a little bit about the market itself. As we can see right now, as best of our knowledge, there are quite a number of providers of emergency communication app or technology sets out there. There’s no shortage of that. However, what we’re also noticing is that there are some large players, but there’s not clearly a leader. The industry hasn’t really settled onto this is the type of technology. I think partly that we’re still a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of all these new technology that’s available out there.



Kurt Nguyen


Kurt Nguyen: Having said that, a lot of what we try to do in terms of marketing right now is a little bit of evangelizing. It’s helping organizations, whether it be federal sector or commercial sector, to understand how an app like ours can fit into their overall emergency management strategy. Okay? Once they understand that and they see the value proposition that we offer through our app, the simplicity of it, then it’s a lot easier for them to understand and adopt.

Kurt Nguyen: To answer your other question, how do we actually go to market. We actually have two models. We’re going both direct as well as through channel partners. We’ve already signed on a reseller, and we’re talking to numerous other channel partners, to be able to take our product and be able to re-market out as part of other solutions that they have.

Ekaterina P: Behind every solution, there is a backbone of sophisticated technology. Could you talk a little bit more about your technology partners, in particular, how do you utilize Google and Amazon technology solutions?

Kurt Nguyen: I can talk to you in a limited fashion, because first and foremost, I’m not the CTO or the engineer. My head engineer’s actually not here with me, but I’ll be glad to share with you a little bit about how the product is set up. It’s basically, it’s a hosted solution at this point in time. It’s hosted on Amazon cloud environment to provide the security. We have been, actually, approached by some organizations. I can’t name who they are. To see if they would be open to having this be an on-premise. The reason being for that is because they may have certain security and firewalls that they want it just behind themselves, and they want to have better control of it. We are open to that, so we’re under discussion with them as regard to if that model works best for them.

Kurt Nguyen: What we care more about is how do we get this thing out there, because we truly believe that something like this has not been well addressed in many of the different communities out there. We just want to see something like our app, even if it’s not our app, we’d love to be able to see somebody out there start adopting this type of technology.

John Gilroy: So Kurt, your target, let’s say, Loudoun County Public Schools? Is that a target for you?

Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely.

John Gilroy: I don’t know who your target is. Or is it a larger group than that? I’m trying to figure out the price model. How much would you charge them? Or is it a monthly fee? How does it all work?

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. To answer your first question, John, any organization that have a lot of people that they have to be able to provide information to in a crisis situation would apply. Schools would be a great market for that, we believe. The reality is that, as you’ve seen, the number of incidents that’s been happening of late, the ability to provide maybe a teacher, a parent or a student in higher education, such as yourself, right? Wouldn’t it be great if you had an app that not only you can be able to have the information when it arise, if there’s a weather situation, safety situation or threat situation.

Kurt Nguyen: In addition to that, your parents or your loved ones or whoever else that you want to be able to provide permission to have this app, instead of them doing what naturally comes to instinct, as I mentioned to you before, pick up the phone and call in, right? Wouldn’t it be great if they also get the same information you have. “Hey, here’s the situation, and oh, by the way, here’s your status.”

Elias Y: I just got a new phone, and what I realize is that a lot of these smartphones have already a limited amount of alerts already embedded in them in the software.

Kurt Nguyen: Right.

Elias Y: For example, this new iPhone already comes with weather, Amber alerts, certain different types of alerts anyways. What type of alerts could I expect with RUOK? that I couldn’t find already in …

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. The ones that are already embedded in most phones right now are generally, I would call them, more general types of alerts itself, just like an Amber alert. You can get an Amber alert, but you don’t know whether that it means you or not. But if you’re part of an organization, again doesn’t have to be a school. Schools are a great application for this, or higher education. Or you can be part of federal government, employee of a large organization or a corporation, right? Providing that directed information because you’re part of that organization … Let’s say, for example, you going to be going out and getting your job, depending whatever the company that is with, you’ll know that that information is sent directly to you.

Kurt Nguyen: Case in point, even in our company, we actually drink our own Kool-Aid. We actually have our employees using this application. Last year, summer of last year, I believe it was, there was actually a fire alarm, a real fire alarm, that actually happened in our building. Unfortunately, the property management company didn’t have our type of application, so they had the normal audio fire alarm that went off.



Kurt Nguyen


Kurt Nguyen: What we did, and everybody started moving of the building. But what we did was that I activated RUOK? and I sent out the information out is that this is a fire alarm. It is not a drill. I sent it out to all of our employees, and guess what. Some of our employees were in the building and some of them were not in the building. Some of them were actually driving around. I think it was early afternoon, so they were driving around during lunchtime, and they got that information. So it didn’t really matter where they were. They knew that that came from us and it was directly toward them. So that’s the value is that it’s meant for you, it’s directed for you, because you are part of that organization.

Ekaterina P: I have a question about your partners. How did you establish trust with those companies, and some of them are big players? Do you work in collaboration with them, or is it a subprime contractor partnership?

Kurt Nguyen: The best way I would describe is we have different types of relationship. We do have large technology players that we port off some of their solution. Such as, for example, we’re leveraging the Google Maps for being able to … There’s a function within our RUOK? that you can actually not only account for people, but you’d actually use their GPS from their phone, if they have it activated, to be able to find them as well. So that provides one level of capability, and we’re just leveraging the phone. So whether it be an iPhone or a Google or Android type phone, we can do that as well.

Kurt Nguyen: Other types of partners that we do have, as I also mentioned before, which are our reselling partners, our technology reselling partners. They’re what we call our value-added resellers. So they actually already have certain expertise, whether it be technology or market capabilities that can help us go into certain markets that we may or may not be able to do before. So they’re basically extending our reach and our capabilities.

John Gilroy: So, Kurt, let’s say you waltz into Loudoun County Public Schools, and you pitch them on our RUOK? Who would you normally compete with? Who’s a typical competitor for you?

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. Well there’s a number of different types of competitors that’s out there. We actually, as I said before, right now there’s still a lot of education of the marketplace that has to be done. So depending on how a, let’s say, you mentioned a school like Loudoun County, how they would respond to that. They’re in the process, I believe, as many organizations are, trying to assess their overall emergency management strategy. So first of all, they’re looking at what their total comprehensive needs has to be, and how does that translate in terms of tools or systems that in place.

Kurt Nguyen: That could be everything from modernizing their alarm systems to electronic access points, those basically means that nowadays you can have security systems whereby you can lock down the rooms and whatnot, those are very important things to do, to integrated unified communication so that in the event of an alert, you can send it out through emails, to people’s desktops, to digital signage. So there are many different ways to be able to deliver this type of content. Very few, though, I believe right now, are actually addressing it from a mobile application perspective, or provide similar type of capabilities that we are.

John Gilroy: I’m just thinking that typically in most schools students may not be allowed to keep their phones with them in the classroom.

Kurt Nguyen: True.

John Gilroy: Or some can, some can’t. I think that’s a transition here. I would not want to be a school administrator right now. Ekaterina, this would be … Because you have signs you have to worry about. You have humans you have to worry about. You have privacy issues. There’s just so many issues here. It seems like … I don’t know where it fits. It seems it would be a tough sell.



Ekaterina and Elias


Kurt Nguyen: Right. What we want, would rather do with something like our application is work with the organization, whether it be a school themselves, to help it adapt as part of their overall process or policy that they would want to have. For example, you know, we don’t believe, like for K to 12, that every student should have an app like ours itself, and many students, especially in the elementary grades don’t have mobile apps. So it doesn’t make sense for them to have that. It might make more sense for administrators, staff, as well as teachers that would have that, because as we can probably recount some of the incidents that has happened in our school systems, it would’ve been better if even the teachers would have had the app.

John Gilroy: It’s not a fire alarm. Lockdown.

Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, absolutely.

John Gilroy: That would’ve worked in Florida I think.

Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, yes. How do you enable the people that actually are in that situation, that can actually send out communication and be connected with other teachers, as well as administrators. Let them know all what’s happening.

Ekaterina P: Right now I’m taking a marketing of technology products class. For that reason, I decided to ask the following question. What is your digital and marketing strategy? What is your digital presence? Can you talk about that?

Kurt Nguyen: Sure.

John Gilroy: Five hour answer.

Kurt Nguyen: Sure, that is.

John Gilroy: Give us two minutes.

Kurt Nguyen: As a matter of fact, my background, I actually graduated with a marketing degree.

John Gilroy: Wow.

Kurt Nguyen: So it’s all about the four Ps of marketing, if you took that, right?  Exactly. But just to answer … Actually, a number of years, I was actually, I held many marketing and management roles from product marketing to communications to branding. So that is very near and dear to my heart.

Kurt Nguyen: Nowadays with the advent of digital, how do we go to market? Obviously, I’m a big believer. I actually maybe because of, I’m showing a little bit of my age here, but I’m a big believer that it’s great to put yourself out there, but I’m also a big believer of not necessarily just trying to put a shotgun approach. It’s more of a rifle shot approach. That’s where you can be much more effective in how you go to market.

Kurt Nguyen: When you look at the mediums like Twitter, Facebook or whatever the current social media digital platform that’s out there, I tend to take a little bit more pragmatic approach towards that, only in the sense that at the end the day, you want to make sure that your message is very clear and crisp, and that it’s actually riding on the right platform. Otherwise, to me, buzz is just nothing more than noise if nobody gets it nor nobody cares.

Ekaterina P: There are so many outlet channels right now. Did you find any particular that works well for you? For your company?

Kurt Nguyen: Yeah. Actually for us, we actually still do a lot of Twitter feeds. LinkedIn we’re big on, because right now for us, because of this particular type of application, and the types of individuals that would interested in this, we’re finding we’re making better connections on LinkedIn, because there’s a lot of folks that are involved in first response, emergency communication, government officials. So we’re finding more of that as our market, so we are putting more content such as white papers, our videos and blogs, all on there, because I think it’s resonating more with those folks.

John Gilroy: We’re running out of time here. If people want to have more information about your company, where would they go?

Kurt Nguyen: Sure. I invite them to go to

John Gilroy: So

Kurt Nguyen: Exactly, and forward slash R-U-O-K.

John Gilroy: Mm-hmm, great, great. If you’d like to have show notes, links and a transcript, please visit I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, Radiant Solutions. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions. We’re hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to

If you would like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, Thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.


Featuring UrbanStems

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 56 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Ajay Kori, the co-founder of UrbanStems. UrbanStems is working to revolutionize the flower delivery service by leveraging technology. Listen below to hear how.


Thanks to our Sponsor:

00 00 00 radiant_logo


John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups Showdown in the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today.

Big round of applause. Show number 57. Yay. Yay. Thank you, Al Gore, for inventing the internet and giving us 57 shows without shutting us down.

If you’ve heard this podcast before, you know the drill. We are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry. We took over a conference room. We’ve got a big old table here, a couple of students on one side of the table, and we’ve got a startup on the other. What we do is we provoke a discussion, go back and forth for about a half hour. Everyone walks out of here fast friends.

On this side of the table, we have my students. The first student we’ll introduce is Christopher Smith. Tell me a bit about your background, please, Christopher.

Christopher : Well, thanks, John. I currently work at the School of Continuing Studies as an IT support specialist. And I’m going there, as well, pursuing my degree in technology management. My background is in customer relations and sales.

John Gilroy: And Taiwo, your background, please.

Taiwo: Thank you, John. I started off as a network engineer, network and security engineer, and I did that for about four years, and I went into doing master’s degree in computer and information security, after which I picked up a job as a security engineer for about three years. And I’m currently a full-time student at Georgetown University doing technology management with a concentration in information security, and I also work for University Information Security Service. I’m a security analyst for the University at the moment, part-time, though, like student’s job.

John Gilroy: And you almost found a job about a half hour ago. We think you did. And it off starts kind of a fast starting startup. We’re kind of nerdy and technical around here, but the name of the startup company is UrbanStems, and they deliver flowers all over the place, just got into … it’s a wonderful model. I went online and saw a very simple, easy to use website, not confused about the message at all, and the company’s called UrbanStems. And representing UrbanStems is Ajay Kori. Ajay. How are you?Image result for urbanstems logo

Ajay Kori: I’m great. Thanks for having me.

John Gilroy: So tell us about your background and how you wound up “deliverin’ flowers” in Washington, D.C.

Ajay Kori: Sure, absolutely. I’ve been a startup person for a while. So I actually started my first company back in high school, was not the most popular guy, and decided to learn how to code instead of talking with human beings, and started my first website during the dot com boom, ended up becoming really, really, popular, had millions of visitors, didn’t know anything about venture capital, brought on other teenagers who were creating great content, and basically did a rev share with them, and built a big website that way, built an email service, built a start page, which was a thing back then. You guys probably don’t remember that. I ended up building one of the most visited entertainment sites in the world for teenagers, sold the website to the wrong company.

So there were two companies trying to buy me. One was offering more stock during the dot com boom, stock only went up, so, you know, sold to that company. They went bust six months later during the crash. The other company that I didn’t sell to started a site called My Space. I don’t know if you guys have heard of that, eventually sold to News Corp, very different story.

But after that, I really discovered my love of creating things and I, ever since, have been lucky to be part of some pretty amazing startups, including starting UrbanStems.

John Gilroy: You’re very humble. You have a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard. So you must know something about running a business. I mean, you’re very humble here, aren’t you? I mean, come on, let’s put our cards on the table. Well, yeah, yeah.

So let’s say we’re sitting in the Metro, I turn to you, and I go, oh, UrbanStems, what problem, what business problem does UrbanStems solve?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. It was a problem that I acutely had, actually. So, when I was living in New York, I was dating someone at the time in Philadelphia, and I sent her a lot of bouquets, because we were both really busy, and time after time, just had bad experience after bad experience. And I thought I was just getting really unlucky. And it kind of crescendoed on her birthday. I sent her a bouquet to surprise her. I didn’t call because I was waiting for the bouquet to surprise her.


40 Under 40: Finale!

Ajay Kori: Co-Founder, UrbanStems 


John Gilroy: Oh, I can hear what’s coming.

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

John Gilroy: Oh, huh-uh.

Ajay Kori: I mean, the not calling part was my fault. All right? It’s not all on …

John Gilroy: This isn’t going to … this doesn’t end well.

Ajay Kori: … the big flower company. But, yeah. I kept going on into the night, and I kept calling this flower company saying, you know, where’s the order. And they kept saying it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming, and never came, ended up with a really angry girlfriend.

After that, I called up one of my college classmates who I’ve built websites with before in the past, and one of my best friends, and said, “I think there’s something wrong with this industry. Let’s look deeper into it.”

And when we did, we realized it’s completely true. It’s a 100-year-old system that essentially, to make a really long story short, you have order aggregators, who are all the big players that you know of. They take your order, they pass it on something called a flower wire, then it goes to a local florist who actually fulfilled the order.

Because there all these parties involved, you end up paying a really high price. But when you actually look at it from the person fulfilling your order, they have two types of customers. They have the people who walk in their front door, pay full price, and can become a repeat customer. And then they have these online orders where they’re getting 80 cents on the dollar, and it’s fully branded as someone else’s product. So they essentially take care of online orders last. They use the inventory that’s about to expire typically, and they deliver it after they’ve delivered their current customers.

And so, when you put it all together, you end up, as a consumer, paying a higher price and getting a lower quality of product. And when you think about e-commerce, it’s made everything better, faster, cheaper, but with online floral, it’s actually done the opposite. It’s made it more expensive and a worse quality experience.

And so we saw a huge opportunity to come in and create a better experience. And it wasn’t easy. We had to rebuild an entire supply chain.

John Gilroy: Wow. Christopher, this is a fun one.

Christopher S.: So, I had a question. How did you get the name UrbanStems? How did you come up with that?



Christopher Smith


Ajay Kori: Yeah, yeah. You know, I think what we … we wanted to bring the joy back to gifting. And so, for us, we wanted a name that was quirky, but also relayed that this is done differently.

You know, one of the hardest things that we predicted and we were right about, one of the few things, is people were very cynical about flower companies when we came into this market because every … if you Google “flower delivery” today, you’ll get thousands and thousands of results, and thousands and thousands of companies. They all overlay over the exact same system. And it’s why they’ll, in fact, advertise with $19.99 flowers, and by the time you check out, it’s 50 or $60. And that just happens over and over again because it’s the exact same system.

And so we wanted a name that conveyed, hey, this is totally different. This is hand-delivery from couriers that we employ, that … with flowers that are better. It’s an experience that’s more urban, more fun. And …

John Gilroy: Taiwo, it sounds like a classic building a better mousetrap, huh?

Taiwo: You went from starting up a very tech company to …

Ajay Kori: Delivering flowers.

Taiwo: … having a company doing flowers. Has a lot to do with emotions. Right?

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

Taiwo: So tech to emotions. How? Why?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. Well …

John Gilroy: Oh, good question.

Ajay Kori: It’s a great question. I don’t know how many of you guys have read the book “Love Languages.” My love language … and this, I promise, relates … is gift-giving. I think it’s one of the best ways to show someone an emotion, to tell someone how you feel, to convey anything that you want to convey to another person.

So, you know, when you think about kind of our grandparents’ generation, the way that they did that was Hallmark cards. That was a new innovation generations ago. Any time someone, you know, our grandparents’ generation wanted to say “Thank you,” or say, “Happy birthday,” or whatever the communication expressing that emotion was, they just dropped a Hallmark card in the mail, no questions asked. And you don’t see that in our generation. And it’s not because we’re less thoughtful. It’s because there isn’t an easy way to gift.

And so what we ended up doing is using technology, leveraging a lot of advances in technology to create a system where people can do that again. And what that looks like today is hitting a couple of buttons on your phone, and then an hour later, having a bouquet with your message on a handwritten note at that person’s office or at that person’s house.

John Gilroy: You know, I’ve been at trade shows in San Francisco. One is RSA. Another one, believe it or not, is called Subscribe. I’ve been to that show in San Francisco, Subscribe. It’s a really a big movement.

And when I went to your website, I saw the word “subscription” right there, and I said to myself, “This is genius level.” I mean, my wife has the same birthday every year, doesn’t she? Right. Am I going to forget next year? Yes. But subscribe, it’s … is that your concept? What a great idea.

Ajay Kori: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly what it’s for.

John Gilroy: It’s for dumb people like me.

Ajay Kori: It’s not dumb. It’s just that we all have a lot going on in our lives, and we try to make it as easy as possible because it’s good for us, also.

John Gilroy: Yeah, yeah. The subscription economy is a big deal.

Christopher, please.

Christopher S.: Okay. So how did you guys get funding for the business?

Ajay Kori: Sure. So we are a D.C.-based company, and D.C. is … actually used to be a huge tech hub, but in recent times, is not exactly known for being a big consumer tech hub. That being said, we have wonderful investors in the area, you know, obviously smaller group of people than in Silicon Valley, or even New York. But the investors that we do have here are really, really strong, and really, really care, not only about the companies that are incubated here, but about growing the ecosystem.

And so we’ve been lucky to have some great investors from this region. Midland Capital based here in D.C. led our seed round. SWaN & Legend, out in Leesburg, led our series A. Both, could not ask for better partners. I mean, we’re lucky we have Mark Katz, the founder of Custom Ink, as one of our earliest investors. And one of the biggest pieces of advice he gave us early on was don’t just take any capital, take the right capital. It will absolutely impact your trajectory moving forward, especially the ones that early … you know, join your board early.

So we’ve optimized for the best capital partners, and they’re here, and we’re lucky to have them here in D.C.

John Gilroy: Capitol is capital.


Taiwo: Yeah. A lot of companies use their website to generate leads.

Ajay Kori: Yep.

Taiwo: So how do you use your website to generate leads?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. So, I mean, our website is everything. All right? We don’t even have an offline presence. We don’t have a brick and mortar store. We don’t have … you know, we have a phone number, but we don’t … we only take orders from it if people really are having an error with the website. Or there are some adorable grandmas who call us, and we’ll take their order.

But, no, the website is 99.8 percent of all orders. And so we’re a true e-commerce player, and we use … rely heavily on digital channels, Facebook, Instagram, Google AdWords, pushing into Pinterest, as well, to drive customers to the site.

John Gilroy: I’m about to give a lecture on LinkedIn to this class, and I couldn’t find you on LinkedIn. Is it intentional? Are you on LinkedIn? Maybe I couldn’t find you.

Ajay Kori: I am on LinkedIn, yeah. I’m just not very … I’m not an avid social media guy.

John Gilroy: Yeah. I guess I didn’t know that.

Christopher, please.

Christopher S.: How are you becoming more innovative in the space? Because, I mean, we have our days, we have birthdays, Valentine’s Day. How are you guys trying to disrupt that, or trying to garner more business?

Ajay Kori: Yeah, great question. So, typically, when you order from one of the big players, you know, with “800” in their name or whoever, you end up spending 60 or $70 after all the fees, and getting something that’s not great. And so, because of that, people don’t do it that often. They do it when they have to. In fact, those big sites get the majority of their revenue on a couple holidays, the days when you have to send.

We actually look nothing like a traditional flower company. Our customers send … our repeat customers send four times a year. Our number one send reason is happy birthday, instead of happy Mother’s Day, or happy Valentine’s Day, which is what the biggest reason is for the traditional companies in this space. And after happy birthday, it’s actually a pretty long tail of everyday reasons. And the reason why we see that is because we’ve made it better, faster, cheaper, to send a gift. And the way that we’ve been able to do that is through technology.

So we’ve completely reinvented the supply chain. We work directly with farms. We dictate what’s being grown at the farms months ahead of time. They grow those ingredients. They put together the bouquets at the farm level. They come up daily from the farms to distribution centers that we operate, and then the couriers who are our employees walk in with an app that tells them exactly what to pick up. They pick those up, they go out on their route, they drop it off, they come back. Everything is purely online, and we’ve cut out so many steps from the supply chain and own everything.

John Gilroy: You know, when I think about the flower business internationally, I think a lot of them are grown in Colombia, and I would think a company like yours would be based in Miami, not in Washington, D.C., or maybe Atlanta or something. Is that true, most of them are grown outside the United States, or how does that whole ecosystem work?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. Hey, you know more about the flower industry than most people do. I’m pretty impressed, John.

Most people don’t know this. Eighty percent of all the flowers in the U.S., almost all the flowers you see on the East Coast, they come from Colombia and Ecuador. The U.S. farm flower-growing sector has shrunk drastically in the past 30 years.

John Gilroy: Because Colombia has whooped them. They’re just faster and better.

Ajay Kori: The land in California, actually, is being turned into strip malls and …

John Gilroy: Wow.

Ajay Kori: … a lot of marijuana farms, to be actually completely honest.

John Gilroy: While they grow flowers, we grow the marijuana?

Ajay Kori: It’s a pretty big flip, actually. I never thought about it like that.

John Gilroy: Oh, wow.

Ajay Kori: But, yeah.

John Gilroy: Turning the tables.

Ajay Kori: Yeah, completely. So Colombia and Ecuador have really picked up the mantle, and they made it so efficient that it’s cheaper and easier to get the flowers from out there. The planes, every single day, multiple planeloads of flowers coming in, land all in Miami, so … which is the port of call for the majority of flowers in the U.S. And then they’re trucked from Miami to the end destination.

We do some pretty cool things with our supply chain, and we actually are able to eliminate the airplane trip from a lot of trips of our flowers, which increases the life of the flowers, and decreases the cost. So it goes, again, back to our kind of secret sauce of how we reinvented the supply chain.

John Gilroy: Taiwo, please.





Taiwo: Let me play the devil’s advocate here.

Ajay Kori: Of course.

Taiwo: How big do you think you can grow?

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

Taiwo: The reason I ask that is, there’s a limit to the number of flowers individuals buy in a year.

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

Taiwo: Let’s say, we can say they buy flowers for birthdays, for weddings, for Valentine’s Day, and stuff like that. Now, if we calculate everyone in America and say, yeah, they’re going to buy flowers three times or four times a year, then there’s a limit to your income. Right?

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

Taiwo: So based on that, if you want to grow really, really big, how do you plan to overcome that situation?

Ajay Kori: Yeah, great question. There are a couple of answers to your question. A, the flower market is much bigger than most people expect. It’s about 8 billion in the U.S., cut flowers. And that is, with our per capita consumption of flowers, at nearly half that of Mexico, and I think about a fourth out of Europe.

John Gilroy: Wow. That’s a good Jeopardy question. I wouldn’t get that. Listen to that. Yeah. I’m in your classroom. Really?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. The U.S. consumes far less flowers that even countries that have far less GDP. And the reason for that, we believe, is because sending flowers is just really inefficient here in the U.S. And part of what we’re doing is increasing the efficiency of the entire market, which, as we’ve seen with our customers, they increase their per capita consumption of flowers.

So we think that there’s a big floral market, but the actual … what we say internally, it goes back to what I was saying about the Hallmark … you know, being like the Hallmark. What we say internally is that we’re building the Hallmark of our generation. It’s not just about flowers. It’s about communicating something to someone else. And that’s a massive market.

Another thing that a lot of people don’t guess is that gifts are one out of every five non-consumable purchases in the U.S. so one out of every five non-food, non-diapers, non-consumables bought in the U.S., one out of every five of those purchases is a gift. It’s close to 300 billion in gifts bought in the U.S.

John Gilroy: Well, I don’t want to be a downer here, but because I’m an old guy, I’ve been to funerals, and I’ve been to weddings, and these would be targets, also, I think for flowers, aren’t they? Or is this just something that’s …

Ajay Kori: Yeah. No, no, no. Absolutely. We have a lot of brides who actually choose us because it’s … yeah, I mean, even though you can’t customize your bouquet because we only have six or seven bouquets at any given time …

John Gilroy: But they’ll be happy, won’t they?

Ajay Kori: It’s much more … versus spending 10,000 on floral? If you spend a thousand with us, it will … you’ll get much, much more.

John Gilroy: Wow.

Christopher S.: Are you guys developing any products that you’re going to release in the future, or …

Ajay Kori: Yeah. I think a lot of the innovations are going to be around how you’re able to order, so making it easier, pushing more into subscriptions, having … you know, even basic things I think we should be doing and don’t do right now, which is just reminders on your big holiday, like on your anniversary, on your girlfriend’s, or wife’s, or partner’s birthday, having all those really automatic, and it just being about hitting a couple of buttons and having a gift out there.

There’s a real opportunity for us, even more forward thinking with our product. I think one thing you’re going to really see is I think there is a lot of app fatigue in this country right now. Average new users, I think, downloaded 1.5 apps in the past year. You know, our power users use our app, which is essentially we’ve taken away resources from it because our mobile experience is better. But I think what we are really going to push into is ordering via text. And so being able to leave a meeting, text our concierge, which is augmented by AI, and say, like, “1100 Wilson Boulevard, Floor 9, send flowers,” and it will be done.

John Gilroy: AI again, huh?

Taiwo: Not again.  So if you were to advise a new startup on how to get funding, what would you tell them?

John Gilroy: Let’s say the startup was owned by Taiwo, let’s just say, theoretically.

Ajay Kori: Theoretical startup. There’s a lot of advice. I don’t know if I can roll it into just a couple of things, but be passionate about what you’re doing, and I think … and try. Just get off of … I think a lot of people will spend a lot of time creating a business plan and building up infrastructure well ahead of understanding how their customers are going to interact with that infrastructure, and that’s the absolutely wrong way to do things.

I think when Jeff and I started this company, we literally loaded up his car with flowers from Costco, drove around, and delivered the flowers ourselves to our friends. You know, we had a website up, but as soon as the order went in, it went to Jeff’s car. And that’s how we discovered what the demand was going to be like and what infrastructure needed to be built.

John Gilroy: You know, I teach about calls to action, calls to action. I also teach Twitter. What’s fascinating, again, about this guy is that his Twitter handle is @sendurbanstems. Its call to action is right in the Twitter handle, isn’t it? @sendurbanstems, it’s right there.

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

John Gilroy: You put some thought into this.

Ajay Kori: Well, you just have to go do it. It translates well, I think, your point, John, to your question. You know, to raise funding, there’s no magic formula for raising funding. You know, investors are going to invest in good businesses. And to build a good business, you have to go out there, do, and learn, and iterate.

Christopher S.: So what if we just heard today Google just bought out 1-800 Flowers or … like, what would you do?

John Gilroy: Would you take air out?

Christopher S.: What would you do?

John Gilroy: Some 500-pound elephant steps on you.

Ajay Kori: I think this is one of the lessons we’ve learned through this entire thing. Very early on, we were very concerned about our competitors. You know, we were always watching what our startup competitors are doing, always trying to just make sure that we’re differentiated, and that we’re paranoid about what markets they move into. And we put way more thought into our competitors than we ever should have.

Eventually, we got to a really good point where we just said, if we put our heads down and create the best possible customer experience, we’re going to win, no matter what our competitors are doing. That’s essentially what’s happened. A lot of our startup competitors have shaken out because they were worrying about jostling, and positioning, and that kind of thing. Whereas we literally just created the best experience for our customers, and that’s all we worried about, because customers are going to go towards what the best experience is. It’s the lesson I learned.

I was lucky enough to be at Quidzi, which ran,,, and I learned from the founders, Mark and Vinny. Mark went on to start, sold it to Walmart for 3-and-a-half billion, and they sold Quidzi for 600 million to Amazon. The entire premise of all of these sites was you create the best experience, you’ll win at the end of the day. It’s that simple.

And so we stopped worrying about  . . , inventory space. Amazon sells flowers today. Walmart sends flowers, sells flowers. These players are going to be there. But if you’re better than them, that’s how you create a valuable business.

John Gilroy: So it sounds like the business problem you solve is keeping that end-user happy, understanding the customer in a thorough, detailed manner.

Ajay Kori: Right. Absolutely.

John Gilroy: I wonder who teaches that? That’s crazy.

Taiwo, do you want to jump in? Please.

Taiwo: Yeah. Do you have any challenges right now? And if so …

Ajay Kori: Lots.

Taiwo: Okay. So do you want to talk about some of them?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. I think …

John Gilroy: We don’t have to name names. Just I’m not going to give anyone else any air time here.

Ajay Kori: If we don’t have any challenges, then we’re not doing something … we will absolutely have one big challenge, which is we won’t be in business. Like, if you don’t have any challenges, you’re not doing anything hard. If you’re not doing anything hard, you’re not beating companies with thousands of times of more resources than you.

You know, I think the constant balance for us is pushing more into some of what I was talking about earlier, the innovations that we need to do, pushing into new cities, pushing into new markets, at the same time, balancing our capital efficiency, you know, or the money that we have in the bank, frankly.

We are a startup. We are trying to do a lot of things at once to create that best possible customer experience, and we’re trying to do it on a really bootstrap budget. And so that is always going to be the tension, and continuing to fund-raise, and continuing to build a consumer brand with millions of dollars, instead of hundreds of millions of dollars, is a huge challenge. But it’s one that we take on with gusto.

John Gilroy: When I first heard about the company, I figured it was geographically focused on urban areas, UrbanStems.

Ajay Kori: Yeah.

John Gilroy: What about folks that live in more rural areas? You just ignore those, or keep … we’ll take your money, as well? Or what about the folks in the middle of nowhere?

Ajay Kori: Yeah, so another great question. About three weeks ago, we actually announced that we ship nationwide now. So we’ve partnered with a couple of people, namely Fed Ex, but also Vogue magazine, who have designed really amazing bouquets, and we are shipping those nationally now anywhere in the country via multiple distribution centers that we have located across the country, hand-delivered to the end recipient via Fed Ex.

John Gilroy: Well, Taiwo, the class is going to be Vogue magazine and digital marketing. Connect the dots here. I couldn’t connect those dots at all.

You got a final question, Taiwo?

Taiwo: Yeah. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Ajay Kori: Yeah. I think, at the end of the day, if we are kind of what I was referring to earlier as the way that people express any kind of emotion to each other, if we are the Hallmark of our generation, I think that we will consider that a success, the ubiquitous way that people send … say, you know, communicate with each other through gifts.

Christopher S.: What kind of marketing plan do you have? Like, do you use cases or personas to kind of build on who’s that going to … who you’re going to target?

Ajay Kori: We do. We do. But we actually look at our cohorts based on their entry point and how much they’re spending. So what we’ve realized is that our cohorts, you know zero to $50 spending on your first purchase, versus 50 to 80, versus 80 plus, all those cohorts behave differently. And so we’re able to segment our marketing and really smartly target people based on where they think they’re … you know, what level they’re going to purchase at, and how often they’re going to repeat. And our entire marketing plan is very just data-driven, I mean, without using the buzz phrase “big data.” I mean, it is a very data-intensive activity. Marketing is probably less sexy than people think it is.

John Gilroy: As long as you didn’t say that the flower business is growing. I’ve been waiting for that. As long as you didn’t say that.

Ajay Kori: Yeah. We’ve seen it all.

John Gilroy: So we are running out of time here. If someone wants to find more information about UrbanStems, where should they go?

Ajay Kori:

John Gilroy: That’s really good.

If you would like show notes, links, and transcript, please visit the

I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, Radiant Solutions.  If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to

If you would like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, John Gilroy, at the And thanks for listening to Students versus Startups Showdown in the Potomac.


Featuring Emergent Network Defense

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 55 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Joel Benge from Emergent Network Defense. Joel tells us about his unique journey from birthday clown, to White House Cyber Security Policy Advisor, to working for Emergent. Listen below for this truly fantastic episode!


Thanks to our Sponsor:

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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for show number 56. Whoa. We made it. We made it. Yeah. Al Gore hasn’t turned off the Internet on us yet so we’re still somewhere bouncing around the interwebs. As most listeners know, we are sitting on the offices of Eastern Foundry. We kind of took over a conference room, got a big table here. One-sided, got a couple students. Other side of the table have a startup. We have a 26-minute conversation and we all go out and get beers or something like that or fast friends as we walk out of here.

I’ll start off with my students. Christopher, tell us about your background and how you wound up in this crazy podcast.

Christopher Smith: Okay. Well, I first got into sales and customer service before I joined into IT as a desktop support admin. I currently work at Georgetown School of Continuous Studies, where I also study.

John Gilroy: And Taiwo, tell us about your background please.

Taiwo: Abioye: I started work as a network engineer, network security engineer, basically I did that for about four years. Then I got a master’s degree in computer and information security. After which I picked up a job as a security engineer for Cloud  Services in which I consulted for the Nigerian government. I actually worked as a security architect on building a could infrastructure for the Nigerian government. Right now, I am a full-time student at Georgetown University and I also work in the University information security service office as a security analyst.

John Gilroy: And our startup is a company, Emergent Network Defense, some people just call it Emergent and our representative is Joel Benge. Joel, tell us about your background please.


Joel Benge: So, I got started as a birthday clown.emergent

John Gilroy: Truly, that would be my goal.

Joel Benge: Honest to god. So, my background is actually in theater and education and then in the ’90s just before the IT .net bubble burst I accidentally got a job testing video games which got me doing help desk, network support at NASA, and doing some late night working in the trenches cybersecurity stuff. So, I was applying for a job at the department of homeland security when my resume floated across the desk of a guy who was the director for cyber strategy for the department headquarters, they were standing it up. And he looked at my background. He goes, “Well, he’s got some really good technical background, but look at all the liberal art that he’s gotten. So he’s a nerd but he talks good.”

John Gilroy: He talks good.

Joel Benge: So I became the communications officer cybersecurity person at Department of Homeland Security. I was there for about seven years before he left and went on to work at the White House, worked under the previous administration as a cybersecurity policy advisor and then left to go work for the banks. Meanwhile, he stood up this company, Emergent Network Defense, or rather the patent, which is actually at Georgetown University. That’s where he finished his PhD. They productized the patent, did some R&D on it, and lured him over as CEO. And so he was looking around, realizing that this is a, and I’m happy to talk tech and all that crazy stuff later, but he said, “This is really hard to explain.” So he asked me if I would come over and figure out how to communicate this thing. So, been doing that for about two, almost two and a half years now.



Joel Benge


John Gilroy: Joel B-E-N-G-E, Benge. I went to your Linkedin profile. I saw some kind of difficult to understand concepts here. You’re recommended for strategic communication security and computer security. That sounds pretty good. And you also describe yourself as a beerthusiast. So, what’s a beerthusiast? What’s that got to do with cybersecurity?

Joel Benge: So, that actually goes back to college when I was brewing in the dorm room. Had an early interest in microbiology.

John Gilroy: I that’s actually the justification.

Joel Benge: So, to get nerdy in engineering, which is about beer brewing, but what’s funny is the thesis of the product and the model that we have is actually biologically inspired swarm. So if you think about ants, what our product actually does is it discovers the risk that is lurking in an organization. Not whether they’re being hacked or not, whether there’s something bad going on, but those crack, and those holes, and those things that could go wrong. And so, if you think about the way ants find food, they spread out, they collect the little bit here and there, and eventually, they coalesce around a path to food. That’s what our product does. So, from beer brewing and microbiology, and birthday clown, and magician, and stuff, and then we ended up with a digital risk product that’s actually in use at some of the nation’s banks. We’re doing some stuff with the federal government and some international non-profits. So, kind of a convoluted path.

John Gilroy: On your website, you talk about being with a top University startup, so it must be a Georgetown affiliation. Is that right?

Joel Benge: Yep. So we were selected to represent Georgetown for the NCET conference last year. We also presented at SXSW last year in their incubator program. Did some TechCo startup. Didn’t get that but we have paying customers so I don’t feel so bad about not getting the beauty contests.

John Gilroy: I teach a course in social media and I talk about Twitter and I’m focused on 140 characters, 100 characters, and hashtags. So, #seearoundthecorner, that’s what I see at your website, #seearoundthecorner. So what do you see? Who sees?

Joel Benge: So, what our product does is we actually, like I said, sample actual real live network data, policy data, from the organization. And then we tell them where they might have a digital incident next. So we’re actually doing predictive risk analytics and telling them, “Hey, heads up because out of the thousands of things you should be worried about this is the one that’s going to hurt your business.”

John Gilroy: Christopher, my, my, my all kinds of roads go downhill so, pick one.

Christopher Smith : So, I was just, after listening to you, I want to know, who do you specifically target as far as the market goes?

Joel Benge: So the market, this is interesting, so we are cyber security is our bread and butter, but we’re a digital risk management company. And the reason for that is there was a level of maturity that we’re seeing in the financial services industry, large banks, actually this a lot comes out of the Dodd Frank stuff that happened with the subprime mortgage meltdown and that maturity that they got in risk management, not cyber stuff, moved into the cyberspace and they started asking for a lot more accountability from their CIO, their CRO, and they’re CEO. So what we’ve actually done is we’ve targeted not, the CISO, not the cybersecurity people, but the risk organizations. So we’re focusing really at financial services, some federal government agencies cause they have a regulatory burden for risk management, but it’s the risk officer. ‘Cause if you see what happened at like Equifax, I mean they canned the CEO and he was hauled before congress and his answer was, “Um, well, one guy forgot to apply patch.” And that just doesn’t fly anymore. So it’s organizations that have a high regulatory burden and are very mature, so financials is number one.

Taiwo: You talked about predictive security analysis. I’m just curious, how do you do that?

Joel Benge: So, this is very cool, what we do is we automate and speed up tabletop scenarios. So, anybody who’s ever done cybersecurity, one of the things that we do for risk analyst is we get all of the smart people in a room and we think, what’s the worst that could happen? What’s a bad thing that can happen? And they write down a story. So this comes into some of my background in theater and education from a storytelling perspective. And then they’ll say, “Well, how would we know if this would happen?” Or “What would cause this to happen?” And so they’ll think, “Well, I need some reports over here and I need to pull this data in and I need to ask these people some questions.” So, it’s a very manual process.

Our system does away with that manual process by automating it. So we use actual data and we have an ontology of about 900, almost 1000 objects. If you think about these legos, if you just reach in and pull out an actor, a vulnerability, and a target, snap them together, and you have a scenario that could happen, and what our system does is it uses its metrics to say, “Is this thing likely to happen in our organization?” But what we do that nobody else does is we actually model a statistical projection of how much it could cost. So then we say, “If this happens in your environment it’s going to cost your legal 5 million dollars.” For example.

So, what’s really cool is with 900 objects you could literally be looking at almost any potential scenario that could ever happen, stuff that we’ve never even thought of before. So we have a machine imagination algorithm that cooks up new scenarios. You give it 20 and it’ll give you 100.

Taiwo: How similar is your system to a regular intrusion detection/prevention system?

Joel Benge: So, we need those types of products. We get that asked a lot. How are you not like this? How are you like an RSA Archer? And a lot of cybersecurity right now is focused on what’s happening now and preventing something from happening. But what they don’t ask is, what happens next? And so what we do is we use all that data. We use intrusion detection. We use threat intelligence. So, my system uses Twitter feeds, calendar, so are we close to tax season? We always see more attacks during tax season and we get more nervous around then, right? So we use all that first line data, that tactical first line tools, and we’re actually answering to what was called the second line of defense, which is your risk officer and your CIO and your executive risk board to say, “Hey, look, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but something like this might happen in your environment.”

So it’s kind of like, the weather. So your intrusion detection is the rain meter that tells you if it’s raining. Or your firewall is your temperature gauge, right? But you need your temperature gauge, your firewall, your barometer, your airspeed, all that stuff to tell you whether there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow.

John Gilroy: You know, Christopher, very few people predicted the most recent Superbowl. It’s hard to predict things. I mean, fewer variables I think than what he has to handle. Well, I’ll let you go with the SuperBowl question.

Christopher Smith: So, when you’re going to the C suite and you’re telling them, “This is what you may need to watch for.” What kind of measures do they have to really think? Do they think more of like as far as risk mitigation or risk avoidance?


Christopher Smith


Joel Benge: So, we implement something called a risk appetite. So that’s the first thing. And most people, if you were to stop a tactical first line CISO and say, “Hey, what’s your appetite for cyber risk?” He’s gonna say, “Zero. Zero percent. I have zero tolerance for anything happening.” And I’ll say, “Congratulations. Shut down your computers. Go home. You’re out of a job.” Right? A business person knows that you have to take a certain amount of risk. And so what we do is we actually capture, and this is moving, again, from the financial risk space into cybersecurity to say, “It’s okay for some things to happen.” We can mitigate that. We can be insured against it. We can transfer it. We can do something to reduce the impact. The thing you need to do though is know what’s coming. So we capture the risk appetite which we do quantitatively on a curve. And then what our product does is it projects a likely curve. So it’s all probability space. It’s really … I got a lot smarter people than me doing the math on that stuff, but it’s really saying, what are you okay with? This is what’s going to happen. Where’s the crossover and what’s the delta? So we can say, “You have a 3% chance of being over your risk appetite, for example.

John Gilroy: So, Taiwo, you’ve been in situations with evaluating risk. What do you think of this?

Taiwo: Yeah, I’m still curious. Do you leverage machine learning for this?

Joel Benge: Absolutely.

Taiwo: Because it seems, for me, for it to be able to achieve that you are obviously talking about quality machine learning. So what kind of machine learning do you use?

Joel Benge: So, we have machine learning in a couple different places. One is in the development of the scenarios. So we have people building actual scenarios feeding into the system. And then we have what’s called machine imagination. And you’ve probably seen this online. Google might have had one of these things where you hand draw a stick figure kitty cat and push a button and it generates a fake photograph that looks realistic of a cat. It’s called machine imagination. Because machine learning is so good at this point for certain problems that if you show it enough of an example it can start proposing new things. That’s where we do machine learning to machine imagination. We also use a naïve basing classifier to assess the scenarios. So, like you said, you have to use machine imagination to look at a thousand scenarios because if you were doing this manually within Excel spreadsheet and a consultancy group you’d need a thousand consultants to do this.

Christopher: I’m thinking about the Equifax hack. How is the change of how CIOs are responsible for mitigating risk, how has that changed how you guys … Are people calling your phone nonstop and like, “We need you now?” Or is it like-

Joel Benge: It’s been funny and I was laughing with John earlier saying that, I hate to hear the word it depends, but it depends on the organization. So you’ll have typically in a mature organization, you have now a corporate risk officer, or a chief risk officer who will turn and partner with that first line CISO, that tactical person. And there’s often a communication barrier where they know they just can’t … They’re not getting what they need from that tactical person. So, they’ll say, “How’s my cybersecurity risk look like?” And the tactical person will give the a bunch of compliance metrics or performance metrics and things that don’t really relate to risk.

And what we say at Emergent, and what we’re learning in the enterprise risk management spaces. If you’re not able to tell me the business impact it’s not risk. The risk is we’re gonna lose in the marketplace or we’re gonna have a capital failure, or we’re gonna have a reputational failure. The cause might be cybersecurity but that’s not communicating risk. So when they reach a wall where they’re not able to have that communication they bring us in ’cause what we have is a model that actually unifies the first line of defense and the second line executive view.

John Gilroy: You know, Joel, military people, those kinds of comments about them, historians look at them and they say, “They always prepare for the previous war.” And it seems to me that some of your limitations might be in preparing for what happened before and not … With hockey players you’re supposed to skate where the hockey puck is going.

Joel Benge: Skate where the puck is going.

John Gilroy: Yeah. And so, but how do you know where it’s gonna go. I mean, it seems like you may be limited to the past experience rather than the unexpected guy jumping out of the sky or something.

Joel Benge: That’s exactly the idea behind black swan. There’s a fantastic book called The Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb and what is basically are these really low probability high impact events. So your 9/11s, your sub-prime mortgage meltdowns, certain political upheavals, and what always happens is, something big happens, the person who’s responsible is standing there with his hands in his pocket going, “I could never have seen this coming. Nobody ever imagined this.” It’s a failure of imagination. But then you bring in the experts and they do a post-mortem, and they look at it and they go, “You know what? All the data was there. All the markers were there. If I had known what I was looking for I would have seen it coming.” So that’s what our product does is our product imagines literally, given enough time, hundreds of thousands of bad day scenarios and then looks at the data and says, “Could any of these happen right now?” So that’s how you can see the future and get predictive.

Taiwo: Cool. I did cost works on, I think it was in the summer, where I did something on security and machine learning. I’m a little bit interested in this and your product, especially because it has a lot to do with some research I’ve been doing in the past. My prediction was that in the future security is gonna be run on machine learning or deep learning. So, what’s your prediction for the future of security as regards machine learning, artificial intelligence, and deep learning?





Joel Benge: So, I was at the Darpa Grand Challenge last year, or the year before when they actually had the machines attacking and defending, so if you’re familiar with that. And Carnegie Mellon University won that by the way, which is where we actually teach digital risk model, at Carnegie Mellon. Never attended there but teach there, so I like to toot that horn. I think we’re not yet on the cusp of replacing people. Very much in the tactical first line lighting strikes, bam, bam, bam. We’re very good at machine learning. That’s very fast. We can do that. But it’s the understanding why it matters, making the decisions not of how to get in but what to go after, that type of stuff is always gonna be in the hands of the attacker and there’s an intelligence behind that, there’s human. So we have to have an intelligence on our end who are saying, “What do we protect?”

If I have to make a decision about letting an attack succeed because, given enough time, they will always succeed. Ants and water always find a way in. You can’t stop it. Ask my wife. My kitchen is overrun right now with ants. So what I can do is mitigate. And I can choose to present them with a soft target. Or I can choose to give them dummy data so I can reduce the impact. I can’t stop them but I can reduce the impact. And that’s always got to be human intelligence. What we’re finding is the cybersecurity people don’t have that understanding of the business. They can’t make that decision. The business people don’t have enough understanding of cybersecurity to understand when the first line tactical person is running around with their hair on fire saying, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do something.” So what we need are maybe artificial intelligence systems like ours that bridge that gap and help create a communication linkage between the two. So I don’t think we’re gonna see cybersecurity taken over by the machines but we’re going to be working side by side with them.

John Gilroy: Christopher I had the pleasure of meeting the CTO from RSA and they spoke at Eastern foundry. Pretty smart guy from Israel and he could do math upside down and I mean, this is tough competition. I wouldn’t want to compete with that RSA guy. He’s brutal. He’s really sharp and this is just one of hundreds. And this sounds like a very competitive environment to me – – – doesn’t it.

Christopher: Yeah, and I was kind of thinking who would be a competitor for you in this +marketplace ’cause it kind of seems like you have that golden nugget that people haven’t really-

Joel Benge: So, we get asked that a lot. There are some companies that are trying to look at this and many of them, maybe they have better math than we do as far as the dollar calculation, but they’re doing it manually and they’re doing it with a survey, and it’s a very static and linear algorithm and they do it for one scenario. Where I think we have the advantage is in the technology in swarming. So our swarming algorithm that lets you look at incomplete data. It’s a dynamic. It’s real time. It moves a lot. And so in that way we’ve talked with several of saying, “Hey, you’ve got a great piece of it and we’ve got a great piece of it.” In business you think about competition, but if you really look at cyber security and what we have to do with it and where we are even as a nation right now, we’ve got to work together. So we’re in touch with RSA. We’re in touch with companies like Quallas which we don’t compete with at all but they’ve got great data. So we need their data and what we can do is we can better use their data, uplift it, and put it in front of the board. So it really becomes win win. There’s no competition in the cybersecurity space? John, give me that guy’s number because I would love to talk to somebody at that level at RSA.

John Gilroy: I keep thinking of you walking into a bank and saying, “Hey, give us all this information.” I think most financial institutions gonna be reluctant to just open up their doors and say, “Well, here. This is what’s happened to us in the last two years.”

Joel Benge: Well, that’s what’s so sweet about the way we set up our product is we don’t save any sensitive data of an organization in our system. So, what we do is we query those first line tools and we say, “I don’t want all of your network data. I don’t want the list of your users. I just want to say how many system administrators do you have? How many of these types of traffics did you see?” And we anonymize that down to nervousness. So you actually are just seeing the high-end numbers. Are we increasing or getting nervous in one area or another. And in that we’ve actually be deployed into the German Amazon Web services which, if you know anything about upcoming GDPR and the European privacy concern we sailed right through that process because when they saw that we don’t collect sensitive data they were very comfortable with that.

Christopher: So how did you guys get funded for the whole-

Joel Benge: So we are extremely lucky to have been angel funded and we are angel and bootstrap. And we are, I wouldn’t quite call us post-revenue yet but we do have some clients and some paying clients. We have a couple really mega angels you could call them who keep us fed. But we’re extremely lean and we were talking earlier, I update the website. I could give somebody $20,000 to do it for me but right now the focus is on product and delivering. We’re in talks with some A rounds and that will come when we’re ready.

John Gilroy: Taiwo, what do you think? Gonna be around in five years?

Taiwo: Well, to answer, I’m gonna answer that question with a question. So, what kind of marketing do you actually have? Because that’s basically you’re gonna let us know what five years old for you.

Joel Benge: So as far as the marketing, we’re keeping that really, really slim. I wouldn’t call us stealth, but again our target market is very high end. So we have a lot of relationships and we’re doing a lot of introductions through that way. So, you won’t see a ton about us online. Website is Probably be rebranding that in the future. The marketing is about getting the thought leadership out there and getting everybody understanding this. So we’re giving away a lot of our content through blogs and articles because we think we’ve got a different approach to this. The technology may not necessarily be right for every single company, but the approach and the model can be.

Taiwo: Who do you see as your biggest competitor?

Joel Benge: I can name names.

John Gilroy: You’re gonna name names.

Joel Benge: I’m gonna name names.

John Gilroy: It’s like in Seinfeld.

Taiwo: There’s a company in New York that does exactly what you do. I’ve been trying to look … I can’t remember the name right now. It’s a British company and I will put up like yours, but I can’t really remember the name right now.

Joel Benge: Well, you don’t need to. I can’t think of anybody right now. No, there are some great companies out there, again. And there are some great companies in the cybersecurity realm who are trying to do this, but they try to do it too tactically. And they try to say, “This server, this user, this buffer overflow.” And that’s just unmanageable right now. We don’t have the computing power to do causality. So it’s much better to do prediction and it’s more like weather modeling to say, “Hey, you need to look at your third parties and probably their websites. I can’t tell you which one’s having a problem but I’m nervous about that.” And from a cybersecurity perspective, the cybersecurity guys pull their hair out because they want 100% coverage, 360-degree visibility, yadda, yadda, yadda. A business person, a risk officer, they just want uncertainty reduction. So if I can help a business person reduce their uncertainty by 5% that’s a huge win.

John Gilroy: Well, Joel we are running out of time here. If people listening just want more information where should they go?

Joel Benge: So, you can go to that’s E-N-D for Emergent Network Defense. No we’re not at the end of security and the beginning of risk but that’s sort of the play on there. We also tweet @EmergentRiskAI and you can email us at for more information.

John Gilroy: Seetheswarm, that’s interesting. If you’d like show notes, links, or transcript visit

I’d like to thank our founding sponsor Radiant Solutions. If you’re interested in getting involved in Geospatial projects contact Radiant Solutions.

We’re hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. More information on them go to and if you’d like to participate as a student or startup contact me John Gilroy at and thanks for listening to Students Vs. Startups showdown in the Potomac.


Featuring Lovelytics

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 54 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Scott Love, CEO and Founder of Lovelyitics. No, it’s not the next online dating craze, Lovelytics helps companies organize and visualize their data so that it can be used to its full potential. Listen below to discover their unique approach!


Thanks to our Sponsor:

00 00 00 radiant_logo


John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups Showdown Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for Show Number 54! Whoa, yeah, baby! I think it’s time, Claude, that we thank the founder of the internet, Al Gore, for this magnificent Internet. It’s been a great job and all kinds of stuff, people doing all kinds of good things with the internet and without him, we wouldn’t have a podcast.

If you’ve listened to this before, you know we are taking over a little room at the Eastern Foundry. We have a table here, one side of the table we have some students, the other side we have a startup, having a little conversation. Twenty-six minutes from now, we walk out of here fast friends. I always start off with my students. Let’s start off with Yasir Khalid. Start off with your background, please.

Yasir Khalid: Thanks, John. Yes, I’m Yasir Khalid. I’m a recent graduate from the Tech Management Program at Georgetown University. I come from a marketing and BI background, and I’m exploring my options right now, fresh out of school.

John Gilroy: Oh great, great, great. So he’s a graduate of the Technology Management Program at George Washington University, right. And Brian, you’re in the middle of that program, is that right?

Brian Howell: I’m Brian Howell, and I’m not quite in the middle. I’m gonna graduate this semester hopefully.

John Gilroy: Oh, good.

Brian Howell: I come from a background of software development where I’ve been testing software for several years now for a variety of companies, from start-ups to giant multinational corporations, and I’m looking forward to getting into this interview today.

John Gilroy: Last week, we found out you have your own blog and pretty active on your blog, huh?

Brian Howell: Yeah, I try to be. I like to write.

John Gilroy: Good, good, good. Well, we’ll find out how good that blog is in class, won’t we? Alexander, please.

Alexander: I’m an MA student in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown. I’m interested in emerging technology, so specifically artificial intelligence, cloud computing, things … so that’s kind of my bag, and I’m very interested to see where this conversation goes.

John Gilroy: Good, so we have three students on one side of the table. We have a startup on the other, and our startup today is Scott Love, and he is the CEO and founder of a company called Lovelytics. Tell us about your background please, Scott.

Scott Love: Absolutely. Thanks, John, for having me on, thanks, everyone, for being here. I’m originally from the Indianapolis area. I lived abroad in the Netherlands for a little while, attended Purdue University, and been out in the D.C. area for about six years. I worked everywhere from start-up in Bethesda, worked in sales for Cox business, then got into the BI space, also in sales, and then have now recently went into starting my own Tableau services company.



Scott Love, CEO- Lovelytics


John Gilroy: Well, good, good, good. So, let’s say we’re on an airplane to Indianapolis – I’m sitting next to you – and I turn to you and ask, “Well Scott, what kind of business problem do you solve?”

Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So today, I think companies don’t have a problem gathering their data, right? It’s a lot to do around deciphering if they’re having this issue, so that’s where we come in and help companies essentially organize that data … once it’s organized, visualizing it, and making sure that it gets in the right hands in an effective way.

John Gilroy: So, when I first heard the term “business intelligence,” BI, I thought that was just being able to make money in a business. So what business intelligence is it’s visualizing information that a business might produce. Is that how you define business intelligence?

Scott Love: I would define it like that, absolutely. I mean, the best example I give to a lot of people is a CEO might get a report of every order placed … 200,000 line Excel sheet. What are you gonna make out of that? Tough to make any real insight into it. That’s where we come in. If you’re able to visualize it and then give them that ability to drill down … Much better business intelligence, if you want to use that term.

John Gilroy: Well, Yasir, I’ve used a lot of Excel spreadsheets and so have you. Why don’t ya get the first question first?

Yasir Khalid: Yeah please. Lovelytics. So, Lovelytics comes from your name.

Scott Love: Sure.

Yasir Khalid: But did you have any problems initially with this … Because for me when I first saw it, my initial thought process was maybe something related to maybe dating.

John Gilroy: A dating service? You’re barking up the wrong tree there. And you put your name in.

Scott Love: Yeah, actually that’s funny. I’ve gotten that, like, once or twice, and it’s something that I didn’t really think about. I mean, it’s understated how difficult it is to think of a name. In starting a company, I would put that as, like, top three most difficult part. And something that truly delayed me starting the company, so … No, I’ve actually gotten that before. The way that I thought about it, I didn’t want to use my last name being “Love.” I didn’t really want to use it in the last, in the company name … Just wasn’t something I wanted to do, but if you start to think of something, talk to other people, like, you have to use that. It’s too easy, so ended on that. But no, I see where you’re coming from, but unfortunately, sorry. Not a dating company.

John Gilroy: You know, Brian … ’cause I’m an old guy, in my youth, there was something called, “The Summer of Love.” It was in the 1960s. Brian, I’ll let you have the next question.

Brian Howell: Yeah, so I could see a ton of applications for this in the business to business space, but individuals now are collecting more and more data about themselves. Do you see any potential for a B2C application of visualization?



Brian Howell


Scott Love: I mean, I think that there is a lot of applications for that. I wouldn’t say that’s something we’ve come across at this point, but I mean, you’re starting to see it, right? I mean, I even see, on a different level, I see people inside of companies. Let’s say we go into a project for a large data warehouse development or something like that. People come up to us afterward and like, “Hey, I’ve been working on this small little side project. Can you just take a quick look and help me out with…” You know, even things like that or just siloed inside of a company, people are starting to do so. I’m sure on a personal level that’s bound to become something soon, right? I think that’s where a lot of these BI tools come in, where they’re able to allow people who maybe aren’t technical. I mean, I don’t come from a technical background, and you’re able to pick up these tools relatively quickly. And I’m sure that’s only going to get easier and easier to do so…

John Gilroy: Alexander.

Alexander: As data grows in importance and this sort of society, I think you’re seeing more and more people who are previously not really into data world start to realize it’s gonna be a centerpiece of their business. Have you, over the course of your work, seen any change in the types of people who would come and be seeking these services?

Scott Love: Yeah, definitely. So, I think, you know, a lot of companies … What’s funny is even the younger companies seem more interested in doing this data-type work initially, right, because they have younger people running the companies. Generally, they don’t have as much data that they’ve gathered. Maybe they’ve only been around five or ten years. Where now, I’m starting to see a lot of these larger companies that were … I think they’re starting to realize they’re falling behind a little bit, right? The Fortune 100 type companies where we’ve started working with them as well. I mean, they’ve always had aspects of it, but they’re starting to realize that they really need to become efficient in this, and making it available to larger portions of their company, not just C-level people who can’t have iPad executive dashboards. Every salesperson needs to have one that’s available offline that they can track, whatever they might need.

John Gilroy: I deal with a lot of aerospace engineers, and when new airplanes go up and come down, there’s all kinds of sensors, and they’re collecting thousands and thousands of bits of information, and everyone knows it’s called the Internet of things, IoT. I mean, what about structured, unstructured data … People throw st- … I mean, how do you organize it for your analytics?

Scott Love: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest challenge that I come across a lot of times is one, these business intelligence tools are sometimes sold as, “You have your data, pop it in, and you can use it right away” where to your point, you get millions and millions, or billions and billions, of rows of data, that’s just not the case, especially 99% of the time, it’s not organized in a way that’s effective. So, that’s a tough conversation that we usually have to have in that first meeting of, “Hey, where’s this data coming from? Has anyone organized it?” Most the time, I would say people say, “Yes” and then they start looking at it and the answer quickly turns into, “No,” but no, that’s absolutely one of the biggest issues that we run into in this space.

John Gilroy: So, Yasir, have you ever used Tableau and what do you think of it and how does it apply to Scott’s company?

Yasir Khalid: Yes, I’ve used Tableau. It’s been a while ’cause I’ve been hopping across different platforms: Click, Power BI most recently, Adobe Analytics. It’s a different arena, but coming to your services, is it just dashboarding that you provide? What is the portfolio services that you provide to your clients?



Yasir Khalid 


Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think dashboard’s the most attractive thing that we can sell, right? Everyone loves this beautiful looking dashboard, they can see all their information, it’s much better than an Excel sheet. Honestly, that encompasses a very small portion of the business we do. A heavy portion of it comes from the data aspect of it, just as are previously mentioned. I mean, it’s quite a bit of work when you have to consolidate a lot of data sources. A lot of times people want some sort of automation, so we also work with a tool called Alteryx that’s great for what was traditional ETL, what they call data blending now, and being able to automate it and make it available to the business user in the same way Tableau made data visualization available. That data side of it is really where a lot of our work comes from. Additionally, training … I mean, of course, as a big company, you start to roll this out. That’s become a much larger piece of our business as well.

John Gilroy: You know, Brian, when you come up into Microsoft, it’s really tough competition. That’s what Tableau is going up against, the bigger groups. Have you used any of these tools at all?

Brian Howell: I’ve seen some demonstrations of Tableau, but not for anything more serious than Fantasy Football.

Scott Love: That’s a good thing to use it for.

Brian Howell: Yeah, one of the questions I have when I was kind of going through some of your material is how do you educate your customers, your clients, about the value of visualization? I think at the executive level, it’s just numbers, bottom line, that kind of thing. How do you show them the value of seeing something in a visual way?

Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, there’s two parts of it. There’s certain clients that we do some sort of initial proof of concept or guided evaluation for to, we actually have to prove it out, to prove it out to them because showing them examples isn’t gonna get ’em anywhere. I would say a majority of them though we are able to show some dashboards that we’ve pre-built out, just to give them a visual of actually what they would be utilizing.

But more importantly, I always start our meeting with … We do quite a bit of research before we go onsite to any customer, and being able to come in with some very clear benefits. For example, a lot of, let’s say, nonprofits in the area. They have to build reports that they send out to all of their funders on a daily basis, weekly basis. Sometimes, they have one employee almost completely dedicated to that, so if we can spend “x” dollars upfront and completely automate that service where it goes from taking eight hours to one hour or even less, very easy ROI there, easy selling point, so for me, it’s two-fold. It’s actually showing them. I mean, people don’t know what they don’t know, so we do have to put something in front of them. But going through very specific benefits of, “Hey, this is gonna save you money here, or save you time, or make you money in this way” usually is our best way to go about it.

John Gilroy: Alexander, did you visit the website for Scott here?

Alexander: I did, yeah.





John Gilroy: Yeah

Scott Love: Yeah

John Gilroy: Did you see it Mapbox? I’ve never heard of Mapbox before, have you?

Alexander: I have never, no.

John Gilroy: Yeah.

Alexander: Well, I guess my question would be how did you actually fi- … or how did you get into this field ’cause I know for me, I’ve used Tableau before, never used Mapbox, but used Tableau. It’s a great tool, really good for visualizations. So, just from a perspective, how did you stumble upon Tableau and the data industry as a whole?

Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So, it actually goes back to when I was in sales – won’t mention the company name – but they didn’t have any data for the sales people. I mean, I was going around selling and I had no clue what competitors were in the area, anything to do with essentially doing my job, so I became fascinated in this idea of, “Hey, what third-party sources can I use to help me personally.” There’s definitely some selfish side to it, but really started using it there and then decided, “Hey, I really like this industry.” I started picking up some of the basics and found a job at one of the Tableau services partners. They also worked with MicroStrategy and Microsoft and all of them across the board, but really that’s where I got very interested in utilizing the tools. I started working a lot with Tableau. They have a huge office here across Potomac, so got to know some of the sales reps. The community that they have is great. Not saying the other BI tools aren’t. I just personally had some good relationships with some of the reps in the area and the team and loved their conference that they put on, so that’s really how I got started in that BI space.



Scott Love, CEO- Lovelytics


John Gilroy: Yeah, in the last three or four years, Tableau has just blown up and they’re very popular in many areas in the Washington DC area. So tell me about Mapbox, and is that similar to what Google provides or what a company like Boundless provides. I mean, what’s it all about?

Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So, how I got involved with Mapbox is they also have a nice office here, which they just moved into across the Potomac in DC, so a lot of the mapping solutions that companies are using … Inside of Tableau, let’s say their out-of-the-box capability. They’re great for 95% of what people are trying to do, but what Mapbox essentially is offering is full customization. So, it’s the easiest example I can give is if you’re a commercial real estate company, and you go into Google Maps and you just wanna highlight all the buildings you might own in downtown New York City, you can’t do that because Google’s pretty much completely locked it or you can really have to find creative ways around that where Mapbox takes the complete alternate approach where it’s, “Hey, you can customize anything you want.” If you want the buildings to bounce up and down to music, which I’ve seen. If you want to highlight individual buildings … For commercial real estate, maybe you want to highlight the buildings and then zoom in on a 3D image of it and see each floor color-coded by occupancy. So that’s really where I’m fascinated by the mapping aspect of it. I think there’s a lot that can be down in that, especially with asset tracking and in that whole side of the business.

John Gilroy: You know, I’ve seen case studies with Tableau. It’s just amazing, some of the geographic things I bring up. It’s reinforces the point.

Scott Love: They really integrate with … Mapbox integrates well with Tableau, so that helps our side as well.

John Gilroy: The sponsor for this program, by the way, is Radiant Solutions, and they specialize in geo-spacial data projects. That gets into a lot of crossover here.

Scott Love: There you go. Absolutely.

John Gilroy: They work with a lot of federal government clients.

Scott Love: Gotcha.

John Gilroy: Yasir?

Yasir Khalid: So, what’s your business development strategy and how do you generate leads and do you create user stories and personas and identify different segments within the market or any specific targets or segments that you are focused on and how successful have you been up til now?

Scott Love: Yeah, so, oof, tough question. So, no, to start, I see our business development strategy as three-fold. We have a lot of relationships here in D.C. being that we’re local. That makes it easy to work with a lot of these sales reps where I’ve built trust and I’m able to help them essentially close some of their software deals. In return, I have introductions to those companies where we can then help them with services and everything across the board there. Additionally, different events, whether it’s Tableau Conference, whether we’re hosting our own individual events here nearby in the D.C. area. I’m able just to make those connections. You know, some of them, it’s a federal government type event. We can talk about how other agencies are using Tableau, so those events are definitely helpful. And then additionally, we’re able to actually resell Tableau licensing, so from a more traditional sales aspect of it, we’re able to go out and make a percentage of that sale, but more importantly, that makes us really self-sufficient because not only can we sell the software, we can then help you implement it and go through services as well.

John Gilroy: Now, Scott, I’m asking you the most important question anyone’s every asked you. What kind of watch you rockin’?

Scott Love: Well, Apple Watch with a nice $6 Amazon band.

John Gilroy: That’s the combination.

Scott Love: Very expensive, absolutely.

John Gilroy: So you’re visualizing data right now as we speak, aren’t we?

Scott Love: Absolutely. You got it.

John Gilroy: Data visualization  . . .  Alexander.

Alexander: Yeah, so I’m interested in funding, especially for funding in this area. How easy was it to get funding? We know data is a very hot area right now, so did you encounter any difficulties or  . . .?



Brian and Alexander


Scott Love: Yeah, so I would say this is, like, my first big mistake I made as a founder. I kind of pushed off funding toward the end. I don’t know if that was more of, “I don’t really want to deal with it” subconsciously. I just thought, and when I was at Purdue, I studied entrepreneurship. We kind of learned, “Oh, you just go to the bank. You can get a loan. You can go to Venture Capital. They’ll hand you some money.” So once I started realizing that you’re a start-up, I had a couple years of experience in the industry. But as a professional services firm, no one’s really handing out business loans to small companies, so started to look at funding it a little bit of myself, and then also with friends and family. Then, once you have a little bit of money coming in through the revenue side, I mean that opens up other opportunities. But, I think that’s something I didn’t really expect when I started this was having to figure out, I guess rookie mistake, but just I should have looked into funding from banks a little early on.

John Gilroy: You know, Brian, earlier in the interview, Scott used the word, “data blending.” Now, you just tossed that out there. Now, four or five years ago, that wasn’t a popular term. People using the term, “data lake.” When you first said data blending, I thought, “Will it blend?” There’s a risk in blending data. You can come up with the wrong conclusions if you blend the incorrect data, won’t you, Brian?

Brian Howell: Yeah, I thought as far as risks go, just the fact that you’re taking data from companies that could be sensitive. How does that transfer process work? Are you taking their data off premises? What’s the security like around that?

Scott Love: So it can really change. Usually, I defer to the client being that most the time, I’d say they’re a large organization, so they generally have pretty strict rules around the data. So for me, it’s easy just to defer to them, and generally, barring any crazy financial aps, that we can make that work. But for companies, there are some that like to have it completely onsite. And for us, we’re willing to work either remote. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of data transfer there that’s secure. Or we can go onsite and stay within their own premise there.

John Gilroy: Yasir, limitations, you know? Sometimes, you can’t boil everything down to a data point in a chart. Have you experienced that or what do you think about the value of data visualization, limitations of data visualization?

Yasir Khalid: Actually, that’s what I was thinking about. So, have you limited yourself to Tableau as a solution that you’re uniquely serving or do you plan to expand the offering for your clients, especially who are operating in certain environments and maybe they are locked in, you know, with all the licensing and most importantly, the technical know-how within the company. And, secondly, there is the question of how you generate value in big enterprises who are looking for end-to-end solutions as … Do you see yourself becoming an information architecture partner with the big names, Fortune 500s … or is it just focused on visualization only

Scott Love: Yeah, absolutely. So on our end, to answer your first question about being Tableau-only. Right now, completely Tableau-specific, and I don’t really see that changing. I just believe in their mission. I like the organization, and they’re treating their partners in a great way. Not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of the other BI tools out there, but just for me personally, that’s been my experience. So that’s really why I want to stay strictly to Tableau. I want to make sure we don’t expand too fast when we’re a still relatively young company, so the idea that, “Could we go out and become partners with every tool in the market?” Absolutely. People would take our money and love to have another partner in their team, but for me, staying only with Tableau, I want to make sure that we can become great in one tool. Alteryx can become great, and we do a lot of data work, whether it’s data modeling, data blending, anything along those lines … the training aspect of it.

So, I think we can continue to expand our services offering. I just want to make sure … I mean, my biggest concern is making sure any tools we work with that we truly are great and that people are bringing us on are bringing us on for a reason. We’re not learning on the job. That’s not why they’re bringing us in.

John Gilroy: So Brian, I went to Scott’s Twitter feed today and I saw retweet of something about data scientists, a number one job in America. Do you want to be a data scientist? Would you consider Scott to be a data … or how would you even define that term?

Brian Howell: Yeah, I mean, that’s an interesting question and kind of getting into how you identify people that you’d like to work with. Is a background in data science really important or how important is that compared to a background in visual design or graphic arts and presenting things visually?

Scott Love: For me, a background in data science … I mean, obviously depending on the role. If we’re looking for something highly technical, senior-level in a data role, sure. Having a background and understanding the concepts is very important to me. There’s individual tools. For example, if you don’t have experience in Alteryx, but you have a great understanding of data blending in ETL Solutions, perfectly fine for me. But additionally, to go on your data visualization side of it and understanding … For me, I think with user adoption, and especially anything that we build, making sure that what we look actually looks nice and you have that understanding of visual analytics or whatever buzzword you want to use there, so that to me is very important. We do work a little bit with a graphic designer who’s proficient in Tableau so that we can … The idea is that you have a dashboard that’s designed by a designer but then developed by IT, so you kind of get the best of both worlds, right? Well-designed, performs well, which usually helps with user adoption.



Scott Love, CEO- Lovelytics


John Gilroy: Alexander and Brian are in class with me, and one of the students has got a degree in sculpting. It’s and he’s doing exactly what you’re saying. He’s taking the artistic capabilities and applying it the world of data, so that sounds like a perfect balance, doesn’t it? He only lives two blocks from here.

Scott Love: Perfect.

John Gilroy: Brian, you have any questions, please.

Brian Howell: Yeah, one other thing I was thinking about in terms of how you identify potential customers and clients … Are you looking at specific industries or sectors that are in the narrative, storytelling business, like media or advertising and that kind of things or are you more looking at agencies with just vast amounts of data, unstructured?

Scott Love: I wouldn’t say that we’ve limited ourself to any individual vertical or essentially targeting, to your point, people who are trying to tell stories. I think it has a lot to do with companies that just need help deciphering that data, right? They’ve gathered so much of it, and that ranges anyone from … We’ve worked with Fortune 100 insurance companies to two-person, local polling companies in DC. Truly can range, and for us, you’d be surprised. Some of the smallest customers actually can build the most value through services like ours, so it’s not necessarily reflective of, “Hey, this company’s worth 50 billion” … not necessarily gonna match the same, so … really, open to working with a lot of different industries, but sure. I mean, of course, there’s certain industries that are out there. I mean, right now non-profits in D.C. really can utilize a lot of these services, whether it’s tracking their grants, whether it’s a lot of internal-type work, reporting. We’ve definitely worked quite a bit with them.

John Gilroy: Thirty-five hundred non-profits in the Washington D.C. area, and all of them are broke. They don’t got no money. They got nothing. “Hey, you wanna buy lunch?” I mean, I was at one yesterday. It’s called Five Talents. So, do you qualify for money or funding. I mean, this is the frustration with many people who deal with non-profits in the area is they waltz in and they wind up with egg in their face. I mean, this is … You have to qualify for payment, don’t you?

Scott Love: Absolutely, of course. But sometimes you can build that value, and there is a real return on investment that they can get grants for this type of opportunities. Maybe it’s something they’ve been building up towards. Not every project … Usually how I like to label all of our projects is phasing them out through, “Hey, we can help you here, and this will be the benefit for task 1. Task 2 will benefit this.” So that we can break it down when we have “x” thousands of dollars to spend, no problem. We can just find something that actually brings a benefit and maybe next year, and we can help you out.

John Gilroy: Okay, Georgetown University has a lot of institutes that they get National Science Foundation funding from in order to use data visualization …Well, we’re running out of time here, so Scott, if people would like to have more information about your company, where would they go?

Scott Love: Absolutely,, Twitter @LovelyticsData, same with Facebook and LinkedIn as well.

John Gilroy: Great. If you would like show notes, links, and a transcript, please visit I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, Radiant Solutions. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to and

If you’d like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, John Gilroy, at Thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups Showdown at Potomac.


Featuring Peloton Strategies Group

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 53 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Charlie Bobbish who, after his long career in the defense community as well as working at many startups, spends his time mentoring and investing in the DC Tech area. Listen below for Charlie’s insights.


Thanks to our Sponsor:

00 00 00 radiant_logo


John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Big round of applause. Show number 53! Yeah, wow, 53!

So, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had 53 startups in this studio going back and forth with our students. I thought it’d be a real switch to have someone who invests in startups maybe sit and talk about what he thinks is important to be successful in a startup, because every startup out there doesn’t necessarily succeed. Some fail, in fact, this is America. You fail, you pick yourself up. You fail, you pick yourself up, and Charlie here has got a good reputation down here for knowing what horse to bet on.

So, let me talk about horse racing today. Have you talk about startups and methods for evaluating startups and maybe investing in startups.

As you know, we’re at Eastern Foundry. We have taken over a conference room. We have a table here. One side of the table we have three students from Georgetown University. Other side of the table we normally have a start-up, but this time on the table we have Charlie here and we’ll talk about what’s going on here.

What I’d like to do is introduce the students, go back and forth a little bit. Our first student is a gentlemen by the name of Rahul. Raoul, your background please.

Rahul: Good evening everybody. Happy New Year! Raoul Bardwaj, graduate student at Georgetown University. I have a Math degree from the University of Chicago, as well. Varied history, in terms of career … Career path started on Finance and moved into kinda Technology Management, and I look after different solutions that could potentially go into the market as well.

John Gilroy: Varied career. McDonalds?  No, no, varied career in the professional world.

Nathan, your background please.

Nathan Wallace: Yeah, I’m currently a student at Georgetown University studying Technology Management and I’m also a web developer for Georgetown University. So, we create their marketing websites.

John Gilroy: And our media star, Phil Crawford. Your background, please.

Phil Crawford: Hey everybody, my name is Phil Crawford. So, I’m a Georgetown University technology management student, fifth semester. But during the day, work for the federal government as a consultant helping federal CIOs do IT better, whether it’s setting up data centers, procuring data management services, or making accessible websites.

John Gilroy: On this side of the table, we normally have a startup, but this time we have Charlie Bobbish, and he is the principle of a group called the Peloton Strategies Group.

Now, this is a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and I ask around and try to get good guests, and we have some mutual friends. We have a guy named Michael Weldman who spoke to my class. And we have a woman by the name of Georgia, who is really smart. She does penetration testing with mobile devices.

Charlie Bobbish: She is scary smart.



Charlie Bobbish, Principle- Peloton Strategies Group


John Gilroy: Yeah, scary smart. And that’s why I asked her on, I say, “You know, I like to maybe spice things up.”

What Charlie does is he evaluates startups and he decides if he is going to invest in them or not. And so, I figured he’d have a pretty good idea of what would make for a successful startup. And what about in the Washington DC area, maybe there is a characteristic for a start-up in Washington DC that might make it more successful than in Austin or San Diego, but maybe not. Maybe the same characteristics … Would love to get someone from Silicon Valley in here with a different mindset, so that’s good.

So, tell us about your company and your background please, Charlie.

Charlie Bobbish: Sure, I’m Charlie Bobbish. I had a career in the defense community, and it was sort of interesting listening to the last speaker here because one of the things that he said about the background in the intelligence community is applicable because that’s where my background is. I had an opportunity as a bridesmaid in executive team of companies, small companies that grew up and were sold for several years, and finally said it was my turn.

So in 2005, I formed a company called CMX Technologies and it was a really original idea. Something that nobody in the DC area has thought of as a government services company. So, sticking my head up and realizing that I was one of probably 5,000, I had to innovate and realize that to be a services company, really a product of your people, and I had been very, very fortunate in my career. I worked for some amazing startups, and some amazing small companies that grew up. And all sets of amazing mentors. And so, when my time came I was able to apply some of the best of those experiences. One of those companies was a company called BTG. Ed Bersoff had formed in the 80s and sold that to Titan Corporation. And I was fortunate to work there and work in management as well as on the tech side. And then I worked for a company called Intelligence Data Systems, which is now … that was sold in 2005, and the owner is running Sunset Hills Vineyard in Loudoun County.

John Gilroy: Oh! One of my favorite vineyards.

Charlie Bobbish: I had some very good mentors along the way and I was able to take some of the best experiences that they had culturally and be able to differentiate my own company. So it was my turn at the altar. I essentially wanted to build something that was not only mine, but would be lasting, and people would talk about and be able to say, “I enjoyed that. I learned something.” And have the opportunity that I had, and hopefully be able to give back.

And I’m thankful to say that I did. It was a wonderful opportunity. Sold the company in 2014, and I went on to do some corporate development with purchasing companies with the company that bought mine. And it was also a wonderful experience. And so, of late, I’ve been both investing personally as well as aiding companies, particularly ones that would like to exit, and try to help the owners through that process, and prepare for that process.

John Gilroy: Great background. I’m really looking forward to some of your insight here.

Lots of startups in this town, and I’m just gonna turn over to Rahul, and go ahead, I mean, I got tons of questions. But you go first buddy.

Rahul: Sure, sure. I mean, congratulations on your exit and your success, and so you have kind of a dual role. You’re kind of looking at your building portfolio, per se: doing different evaluations and looking at company best practices, and then you’re also doing advisory from an exit side. So are you making the investment in companies that you’re advising to exit? Just for clarification. Or, is it a completely separate book of business? Just out of curiosity.



Rahul Bardwaj


Charlie Bobbish: That’s a great question. So far, it’s been completely separate. One has led into the other in both directions, but for the most part, the engagements have not been related to an investment.

John Gilroy: Nathan Wallace, please.

Nathan: Yeah, the background is widely interesting, and it sounds like you’ve traveled quite a ways to get to where you are. And the question I have is, what was sort of the catalyst to get you to a place where you were ready to dive in and create your own company?

Charlie Bobbish: I think it does come back to having a good set of mentors and networking, and watching businesses grow almost as if they’re an organic animal. In that they have culture and they have cash flows, they have things that are very definable. But the things that are intangible about how people are treated, and learning from that, and knowing that the idea that people quit people, they don’t quit jobs, and making a long term investment in folks.

So I set out saying that I always wanted to do right by people and make sure that they would have a lasting legacy of something that I was able to do. And again, coming back to very good mentors and being very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on that.

Phil: Yeah, so I’m assuming that the bulk of the companies that you’ve been working with have been in the defense base?

Charlie Bobbish: Yes.

Phil: Okay. So what are some of the biggest challenges for your customers that are trying to exit their company? Is it just, “Hey, I’ve got to exit this company” and that’s it? Or is there specific things that they’re having challenges with?

Charlie Bobbish: That’s also a great question. A lot of the DNA of the companies that I’m looking at are, they’re small businesses that have a really good idea. They were started by somebody who came out of government, or came out military or something like that, and this was essentially their first term. So they had a great idea, they had an opportunity, they capitalize it, they’ve grown it to 50, 60 people, 75 people or something like that, and they don’t know what’s next. And they’ve never done it. So the concept of what got you here doesn’t necessarily get you there, and sometimes they need a little bit of a nudge. Sometimes they need to understand that the business they’re running is essentially a lifestyle business and they need to look at it as an investment vehicle for the future. It really is, it’s more than just something that’s providing a salary, they have to look at it as a business, and that involves, sometimes, making a hire that isn’t them to run it so they can stick to what they’re good at doing.


But for the most part, the companies don’t know where they wanna go. They know they want out, but they haven’t defined what that is yet.

John Gilroy: So Charlie, the name of your company is Peloton, is that right?

Charlie Bobbish: That sounds good in French, I pronounce it Peloton.

John Gilroy: Peloton?

Charlie Bobbish: Yeah, doesn’t matter what you call us

John Gilroy: So group? That’s the whole thing, so this reflects maybe working with groups rather than individuals? Or is this your hobby?

Charlie Bobbish: No, it’s a little bit of both actually. So, if you were to Peloton, the French word for platoon, it’s commonly used in cycling and in road racing. The idea is that I’ve aggregated a number of consultants as well as a partner and among all of us together trying to move something forward for the greater good. So moving the group or the peloton for … It just allows me to bring my hobby in to my professional life.

Rahul: So then the natural next question would be, does one of you, and you have two hats so to speak, so how do you divide your time in terms of what is it going to take you to participate in looking at my business per se and helping me exit? Where are you seeing the opportunities in the short term and medium term let’s say to you know, place a bet?

Charlie Bobbish: Okay, so are you asking the question from the perspective of investment or from the perspective …

Rahul: Both.

Charlie Bobbish: Okay.

Rahul: So first question is, what is it going to take you to motivate … to join my team or give me some advisory or … and then …

Charlie Bobbish: Okay. Thank you for the clarification. I’m not a turnaround guy. So it’s important to me that the company’s culture, its bones, its foundation is strong. So the analogy that I would use if you compare it to real estate is that I can help a company determine whether or not to renovate the kitchen or put the company on the market. And along with that kitchen renovation, you know, you have to sell off a lot of the appliances that are dragging down and renovate the entire electrical system, because it’s dragging on cash flows. And try to help the company determine who’s the right broker to sell it or try to sell it themselves.

I do a lot of diligence myself and always go through a mock diligence process where I use some of the consultants we have, as well as my business partner, and we look at the company as if, “Are we going to buy it?” And “Are their problems?” And that helps the owner also find some issues if there are some, but also lets us know is this really, I mean, are there termites in the walls or not? We’re fortunate that we don’t have to take those on. It’s not our specialty.

So for the second part of your question: To make the investment in a company, I think if I had that answer, I joked earlier that I’d be doing the interview from a castle. I’m not. But it is important to me that the founders can articulate to me who their competition is, how they are going to beat that competition, and how they are going to earn cash flows. And look at it as, if I give you that dollar, how are you going to turn that back around to ten dollars? And really understanding their market and having a team that understands that market.



Charlie Bobbish, Principal- Peloton Strategies Group


I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but the companies that can do that, to me, tend to me a little bit more successful. They tend to be approaching things a little bit more professionally.

Rahul: I appreciate that answer. So the intent was, are you looking primarily at small businesses or startups that are targeting the public sector? Or are you casting a broader net in terms of innovative solutions in technology or what have you.

Charlie Bobbish: A little bit of both. I’ve done some investing in the cyber side. One of the ways that I was interested in getting involved in investing, not only through connections here at Eastern Foundry, but also mentor the Mach37 Incubator, and my network has exploded as a result of that. There’s some incredibly talented people there, both on the investing and the startup side. That’s held me … Led my way towards some companies that I may not have been able to find otherwise.

The startups that are there, and also in the D.C. ecosystem are incredibly talented. We have a lot of cyber talent here. I don’t claim to know that market, but I can find out about it. It’s been helpful.

Rahul: That’s good.

John Gilroy: So Charlie, last week I actually tried to find a sign spinner, you know like on the street they spin those signs? I had a creative way of advertising. Always thinking of new and different ways … I wanna have someone from the convention center spin signs and … I always wonder about advertising – how do people find you? Is it sign spinners? Is it sky writting? Hey that … take my idea!

Charlie Bobbish: No, but I think I may take that idea! That’s also a great question. Again, it comes back to, I consider myself fortunate that my network is strong.

John Gilroy: Oh it is.

Charlie Bobbish: And success leads to more success. We have a website because literally my first job out of college, somebody said, “I won’t hire a company unless they have a website.” And I don’t know why that stuck with me for over 25 years but, in the early days of the web, but essentially that’s not our marketing vehicle. It is networking, word of mouth, and do good and more good will come.

John Gilroy: So Phil, on the weekends, are you part-time jobs sign spinner downtown?

Phil Crawford: I like it. I’m open to it. Yeah, so, you know, on average from initial, sort of, being aware of a company to actually offering to invest in them … How long does that take? Or is it something that’s shorter where you guys rent some bikes down in Georgetown and you have a race and if they beat you in a cycling race then you agree to invest?



Phil Crawford


Charlie Bobbish: It’s ironic, because although I didn’t make an investment in this company, one of the first investments I was involved with came from cycling through somebody who I had biked with and this town is a small beltway. But that said, that wasn’t your question.

I think it really varies. The diligence that I do is much more personal. I want to know who knows them, and who vouches for them. And obviously, if they’ve done this before, they know the game and it’s not going to be naïve. But I think there’s some bravado and ego in investing and I look at investing as a partnership. You know, you’re putting money in but obviously you’d like to get the money back, so it’s not sort of a handed over the table and sit back and place stump the dummy while the company hopefully succeeds. I’d like to be able to put money in to something that either I can help out or somebody in my network can help out. It’s for everybody’s good that they win.

To answer your question about time – I think it really does vary, but for the most part, by the time I’ve made the decision to do it I will have spent several weeks doing diligence on the company personally. Not just the standard finances, but who knows them? What have they done? What has the founder done previously? And the team?

John Gilroy: In my misspent youth, I would associate with people who bet on horse races.

Charlie Bobbish: Got any tips?

John Gilroy: Well, they always look and they go, “Well this horse is a ‘mudder’,” and it was raining, they bet on that horse, you know? And so, there’s certain keys, certain clues you know? Quarterbacks look at the defense and figure this guy is this way, so they can do a pattern. So when you’re a Quarterback looking at a startup and evaluating it, are there any clues or tips? Do you look for educational background? Or years in service? What are the … How do you know if it’s a ‘mudder’ or not? How do you know how to identify a winner?

Charlie Bobbish: The team is really important to me. I like to know what they’ve done before in their careers. What it is that they … Where they fit. Are they more than just a title? And what’s going to happen, and I’ll ask questions about what will happen if one of the founders is no longer in the picture.

John Gilroy: Oh. That’s a good question isn’t it?

Charlie Bobbish: What sort of plans do they have to take care of that? And how can they truly articulate their market? And how they can turn that in to cash flows. So again, I wish I had the winning tip but I’m not sure that I do.

John Gilroy: This town’s full of charismatic individuals who start a company, and then what happens if they leave? Then, oh it’s difficult. Nathan?

Nathan: Yeah so having successfully, you know, sold your business and then shifted more towards this advisory role, what are some of the challenges that you had in your path?



Nathan Wallace


Charlie Bobbish: Some of it was not knowing what was out there. And again, I was lucky. The contracts that I have were all full and open. We learned along the way that that was much more valuable. I wish that was advice that was given to me early on. Frankly, had something like Eastern Foundry existed early on, I would have greatly benefited from it. Being able to separate what was really valuable in terms of advice from places like this, as well as … there are a lot of service providers in the industry that are knocking on the door. I probably got two or three calls a week from somebody else trying to help sell the company, trying to help the company’s re-registration with the government, all kinds of things. And they all are well meaning, but not knowing where to focus and how to focus on the exit. Once my eyes were on that, that was helpful.

Rahul: So one thing about the diligence that you do, you do the personal due diligence, does that also go … Is that a criteria for you to do co-investments with other potential investors? Do you join an investment syndicate or something like that? Or is it all equity that you’re managing? Or … I’m assuming it’s equity, you’re not doing senior data mezzanine or anything . . .

Charlie Bobbish: No, I haven’t done anything like that. I’ve looked at it, but those deals tend to be a lot larger than I’m comfortable with. It is all equity. I have done some consolidate investments, but for the most part it’s just been myself. And my wife is a wonderful investment advisor, so if it helps passed her test then that’s important as well.

John Gilroy: So I was driving here this morning and down Route 7 there was a carcass and a bunch of vultures. And you know where I’m going with this. Many people in your position are vultures. I mean they look around and they try to pick up someone, buy low sell high, get something in and so, that’s not your reputation in town here. You have a better reputation that believe it or not but … There are individuals who have that reputation and if I have a company and I’m looking for help, I’m going to be very wary about old Charlie … I mean this is realistic, isn’t it?

Charlie Bobbish: It is, and unfortunately the lawyers in town build very big buildings and in Tyson’s Corner is probably supported by them. But, you know, money breeds an ego unfortunately, and I’m not interested in that. I would like to be able to give back and to try to help out. I’m not interested in playing stump the owner and find something in diligence, I’d rather point it out and say, “Let’s get that corrected,” or “Here’s somebody I know that could help you correct that.” And then let’s come back together in six months or something like that. If it’s something that’s a showstopper for me personally. I’d rather not capitalize on that and know that it’s probably going to come and bite me down the road.

John Gilroy: Pretty mature, huh Phil? Pretty mature and sophisticated.

Phil Crawford: Absolutely.

John Gilroy: Now I’m gonna go to this side of the table.

Phil Crawford: I attended a panel on a healthcare, sort of startup panel with a bunch of companies that do investment in health space at the Georgetown Business School. It was moderated by a guy called John Drabar, who was the executive residence, in residence there. One of the people that were on the panel, they talked about you know, their investing particularly in the healthcare setup space, they are sometimes looking for startups, investment opportunities where there are certain roles that the people play. Like they are looking for a business person, but then kind of paired with a developer, or someone that has technical experience. Do you ever look for people with specific roles when you’re thinking about the due diligence? Like, I need to have a technical person and a business person and a communications … Something like that.

Charlie Bobbish: I think people that are building portfolios with a larger plan are doing that. I haven’t personally. You know, they want to have something that they can aggregate together and either sell or bring … And I haven’t got to that point. And I may not, quite honestly.

John Gilroy: Here we are in Washington, D.C., and I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote a President. LBJ he once said, “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.” Which is a sophisticated comment now.

If you look at a company and you do see a charismatic leader, that’s the one that ‘brung ’em’, you know, I mean … And if you are in a situation where the company is being sold, I mean this gets to be some … Personality evaluations here, and what’s going to happen if … I mean I’ve been in situations where organizations have been sold and the charismatic leader had to leave after six or eight months. And then where does it go from there? This is more social skill than anything isn’t it?

Charlie Bobbish: It is. Yeah and I think it depends on the market and what the company does and why they were acquired. Whether or not the leadership was asked to stay. In a lot of cases, particularly in services companies, they are asked to stay. It tends to be the case, even more so, if they are smaller, because the founder may have been the one that aggregated the company together. The recruiting may have been around that founder, one or two degrees away from that founder. And buyers know that, they’re not going to let that person go out the door.

So they’ll try to sweeten the pot, they’ll try to make sure that the founder is invested in a year or two with the buyer or the leadership team. But also they’re interested … I think the company is made more valuable if the owner is clear up front what he wants to do, or he/she wants to do. So if they want to get out of it totally, I think it’s helpful to say that up front and articulate what the plan is. Say that you’ve got company behind you, you’ve got a General Manager, and that’s the person that will be the future of this. That doesn’t necessarily have to be articulated to the staff, but I think it helps show the buyer what the art of the possible is.

John Gilroy: Nathan, any sophisticated quotes from Presidents?

Nathan: Not sophisticated ones.

John Gilroy: Phil, why don’t you come up with the last question please?

Phil Crawford: Yeah, I mean in terms of the, you know are defense space, do you see yourself expanding beyond that in terms of your investments? Or, any other sectors you’re interested in?

Charlie Bobbish: Ironically most of the investments I’ve made have been out of the space.  But the companies I’m helping have been in the space.



Charlie Bobbish, Principal- Peloton Strategies Group


Phil Crawford: Oh okay.

Charlie Bobbish: Some of the, you know, the DNA of my background I said, I’m a little bit more valuable to somebody in Gov Con, particularly in the Intelligence community because of what I know; the experiences that I’ve had. But on the investment side, government contractors I think are a good investment but they are a longer term investment.

John Gilroy: Good job, students. Good job, Charlie. And Charlie, if people are listening to this and want to get more information on your website you’ve had for 25 years, where would they go?

Charlie Bobbish: www.pelotonsg, as in Peloton Strategies

John Gilroy: And because I’m a radio guy we gotta spell it out:

Charlie Bobbish: P-E-L-O-T-O-N

John Gilroy: Super. Running out of time here. If you would like show notes, links and a transcript, please visit I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, Radiant Solutions. If you’re interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to and

If you would like to participate as a student or startup contact me, John Gilroy, at And thanks for listening to ‘Student vs Startups showdown on the Potomac.’


Featuring The Intelligence Community

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 52 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Graham Plaster, creator of The Intelligence Community. With a goal of attacking the fragmentation of the defense industry through social networking and meetups, The Intelligence Community has over 100,000 members.


Thanks to our Sponsor:

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John: Welcome to students versus startups showdown at Potomac. My name is John Gilroy I will be your moderator today, let’s have a big round of applause for show number 52. Wooh! Yeah! Yeah! And some people think that’s my IQ, no it’s in the 60’s for sure.

Here we are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry, we took over a conference room here. On one side of the table we have graduate students from Georgetown University, on the other side of the table you have a startup, we’ll have a little 26-minute conversation we all walk out of here fast friends. Kind of an interesting way to have this exchange here on the banks of the Potomac.

Let’s start off with our students, our first student is a gentleman named Rahul, Rahul tell us about your background please.

Rahul: Sure thanks John, happy new year to everybody Rahul Bardwaj graduate student at Georgetown University. I have a background in applied math from the University of Chicago as well. I have various different roles in different companies from telecommunications and investment backing as well. I’m happy to be here, thank you.

John: And Nathan Wallace.

Nathan: Hi, I’m a web developer at Georgetown University as well as a graduate student at Georgetown University. About four years ago I made a transition from the fine arts industry into technology. I’ve been doing that for the last five years.

John: Math background and you’ve got an arts background, this should be a good conversation. Mr. Phil Crawford please your background.

Phil: Hey good evening everybody. My name is Phil Crawford it is my fifth semester in the technology management program at Georgetown University, I am a consultant with the federal government helping federal CIO’s do IT better. Helping them set up data centers, procure identity management services, make an accessible website.

John: Well that’s great good background, and our startup today is a gentleman by the name of Graham Plaster and he works for an organization called The Intelligence If you want to take a look at the Washington D.C. area couldn’t get a better group of people on the table here huh? All kinds of backgrounds, Graham tell us about your background please and your organization the Intelligence Community.

Graham: Sure no problem. Graduated from the Naval Academy in 2002. Did 11 years active duty including deployment to the middle east and around the world. Got out in 2013 and launched this business the Intelligence Community Inc and the Intelligence as a social network for people in defense and intelligence, we do a lot of different things including crowdsourcing, staffing, next-generation networking for the defense sector.



Graham Plaster, The Intelligence Community


John: My My my, it seems to me it would be very difficult to just meet someone at an event and tell them what you do. Let me ask you a question then. So what business problem does your organization solve?

Graham: So it solves a number of problems but I think in the name you can hear the word community, I think one of the things we say unofficially is we put community back in the intelligence community. If you look at the 9/11 commission report, there was a critique on the fragmentation and cold war mentality that was inherent to the defense industry.

So one of the things we do is we do monthly meetups and events and we attack the fragmentation through social networking and that creates a lot of new opportunities for crowdsourcing and also helping small business bid on government contracts through surrounding them with a cloud of expertise.

John: We’re probably going to L.A here in June and all kinds of entertainment in the entertainment community out there, only makes sense to have the Intelligence community here. It’s kind of a different application here isn’t it?

Rahul: Yeah absolutely. It’s interesting so you’re developing a very focused ecosystem, connecting folks with a common background to solve what specific problems in the public sector? So the question is how does the business model really work for your organization and how does the deal typically flow if you’re aggregating a bunch of different contractors so to speak? Or not. . .

Graham: Yeah there is a number of different business models that we are utilizing currently. I think the most interesting one is actually a very traditional one, which is defense contracting as a subcontractor, where we come alongside another small business that wants to prime on the contract, so they bid on the Government contract maybe they have a set-aside category like 8A or veteran-owned small business. Then we are sub-contractor but because we have a large social network of people in the defense sector we enable a small business bid very confidently on pretty much any kind of defense contract.

We have a social network of about 100,000 members and we are growing about a thousand new members every month. If you can imagine a large defense contractor having to keep everyone on the bench or on the beach all the time on overhead we can enable small business to compete with that by coming alongside and surrounding their business with a virtual bench of talent.

John: So Nathan when I was your age I moved into town here, next door to me was someone who worked in the intelligence community and they would even tell me where they worked. It would seem like this is a tough sell.

Phil: Yeah what was really the catalyst for you to start the social network for this type of audience.



Phil Crawford 


Graham: I was working on a Master’s degree thesis back in 2010 where I was looking at the blogging phenomenon in Iran and what I saw was there was a lot of unofficial groups in social networking that were springing up and they were not necessarily connected to official organizations. So for instance in Iran, you had a lot of blogs that were starting to become prevalent but they were not endorsed by an official government entity or group, and I saw the same thing happening in the United States.

A great case study is a national public radio’s Facebook page in which the unofficial page grew to several thousand I think 10,000 members before NPR thought to create a Facebook page and so what they did was offer to take over the unofficial one and the guy who was the moderator made a stay because he realized that all the work he had been doing wasn’t for nothing. They partnered with him, so I saw that the defense sector and the intelligence community would probably be the last ones to take advantage of this type of merger acquisition plan of social networking.

But I was connected to a number of senior leaders in defense and intelligence and I saw that some of these organic groups springing up online could be connected between unofficial and official groups. So what I did was started taking over some of the unofficial groups and started offering them as a resource to people that were in positions of authority in the government. Looking for ways to solve that 9/11 commissioner report problem, which is the fragmentation of the intelligence community.

John: So this is a fascinating concept isn’t it?

Phil: Yeah absolutely and I think it gets back to something you were talking about with identity. I was kind of curious so on the intelligence community website I think it’s the social side there was like a LinkedIn group you guys had from like 2008. I was kind of curious what was the strategy for that group on LinkedIn? How do you guys keep it cultivated, do you have any strategies for it in terms of that platform? How does intelligence federals even have profiles on LinkedIn?

John: That’s the real question

Graham: We use the term intelligence very loosely because if you think about the information age where information is currency and we’re looking forward into a new future in which security really has to do with information dominance and information security. Both in government and for the military in the intelligence community and private intelligence and business intelligence. So the intelligence community with a small “c” is really about that whole continuum between the private sector and public sector for information operations.

And so I would like to create a wider on ramp and off ramp between people who served in government or the military and doing something in the private sector, or coming from the private sector and coming into the government service. So I use that moniker the intelligence community as a centerpiece as a conversation piece to draw certain types of people. But we are very inclusive, which I see as being pretty counter-culture to be so inclusive. It’s an international network, and we typically have people from other places offering to help the United States in different ways and that creates interesting referral networks.

But the LinkedIn groups that we run and there are 11 of them currently they map to different specialties within traditional “ints,” intelligences specialties – – but we would like to expand that indefinitely and continue to grow up groups as they merge and be creative and open-minded about how those should actually evolve.



Graham Plaster, The Intelligence Community 


John: Those who listen should know that Graham has pretty active twitter account @Grahamplaster. I went there and hashtag change agents, hashtag innovation, hashtag discovery, this is what it’s all about, it’s all about creative new ways, getting new people together and looking at perspectives different and really sounds like an exciting group to be part of. And where else than Washington D.C. right Rahul

Rahul: Absolutely it’s a very interesting and very fascinating concept and I wish you all the best. So you have 100,000 subscribers or members in the community and I think you touched on what your growth strategy is, how do you on and off create an on ramp and off ramp for people to engage with government so to speak. So the question I have is you also talk about cutting-edge security products, are you looking at investing or facilitating or creating unique IP, is that another strategy for growth or?

Graham: It is, actually one of the Eastern Foundry email newsletters that came out just today talks about the importance of OTA’s in next strategy and one of the things we’re looking to do and we just launched this year is called TIC consortium, if you’re familiar with Other Transaction Authorities and how they are typically constructed there is usually a management firm that oversees the coalition or consortium I should say and so we would like to become one of those firms.

Because we already have a social network of  100,000 people we would like to partner with government agencies that would want to use that network and start sourcing technology sourcing ideas. And we see our network as something that could reach outside Silicon Valley and outside D.C to bring in some really new stuff.

John: You know Nathan if you do your homework and listen to an interview six months ago with Camron Gorguinpour and he talked about OTA’s and exactly how can you bring innovation to the federal government, first of all, you have to have some tools. The OTA’s a tool, and how you going to make people aware of it, so it fits in perfectly with Eastern Foundry and innovation the federal government technology.

Nathan: Yeah and of speaking of start-ups what kind of funding does it take to grow a community to that size?



Nathan Wallace


Graham: Well a lot of it can be done with Guerrilla marketing. I’d say start early, dominate a platform early so Gary Vanderchuck likes us I guess, as you know this LinkedIn group started in 2008 and it is called the intelligence community so if anybody hasn’t already claimed some sort of presence on something like Snapchat or a newer platform you could probably get in there and do that. But I think you know I’m a big proponent of finding out who already exists in the space and offering to help them and then over time maybe there is an opportunity to take over. That’s what happened with me and with these groups.

John: How can I help you, we’ve heard that before haven’t we Phil?

Phil: Absolutely. And I guess in your view who do you see as your biggest competitors in this space?

Graham: Well it really just depends on, which business model you’re talking about, because we are still a startup and we’re raising money right now so we got a number of business models at play, so we’ve done some staffing I wouldn’t say our major competitors are the staffing companies but we’re making money that way. We are in a sense doing some of the things the trade associations are doing AFCEA, NDIA but we don’t take dues we do, networking events like they do and we have an internship program with about 300 interns in it. And they are virtual, we had an intern in Australia or is over 80 years old.

John: There’s a headline story!

Graham: Yeah and we have had interns in Iraq and Afghanistan program. That’s really interesting network, we treat that like it’s a fraternity, sorority type of group rather than a traditional internship program, it’s called our fellows and associates program.

So what we want to do is take a large, rapidly growing social network and we want to create concentric circles of trust inside of that as people kind of graduate up through those circles they can assume more responsibility and obtain more opportunity, and as we build that sticky network of professionals I believe we are going to discover a lot of business opportunities for ourselves. So we’ve operated very lean from day one, we started making money after three months of operation, and we’ve never made so much money that we can employ somebody full-time so our whole company is still so lean that we’re all still volunteers and part-timers, that’s why we’re raising money right now.

But we have had some business opportunities in the last year that could be very large, government contracting opportunities so we’re trying to scale to meet that.

John: You know I’m a big believer in face to face networking. In fact, Eastern Foundry has face to face networking events here, and your twitter feed looks like there’s a lot of face to face you have. It looks like, look I hate to say it but they’re having fun, their getting together and creating new things.

Graham: Yeah we just, we do monthly happy hours, mostly they are designed to do matchmaking between job seekers and recruiters or job seekers and CEO’s of small businesses. We’ve had people come to our happy hours and not have a clearance and walk away with an opportunity to get sponsor for a top secret clearance and polygraph, which is pretty unique. And we’ve also had recently a happy hour with about 150 people over near Eastern Foundry in Crystal City and our guest of honor was J.J. Snow. Who’s the dawn of innovation officer for SOCOM. So that’s Special Operations Command.

So that attracted a lot of innovators in the defense space and our questions to them really involved, how do we bring more and better and faster innovation into government into the intelligence community. And I think there is a lot of excitement around OTA’s and I think there is a lot of excitement around defense innovation board, which was meeting the same day. And there is a lot of excitement around DIUX and MD5 and hacking for defense and a number of those programs, but beyond that I think it all comes back to the personalities that are really interested and willing to work together to make these things reality.



Graham Plaster, The Intelligence Community 


John: You mentioned Hacking for defense. Nathan here is participating in the Georgetown hackathon, isn’t he?

Nathan: Yeah, we’ll be working on some projects around social innovation and using some data source and coming up with a novel way to simplify the way people can access information for social good. And speaking of social good it sounds like the community is very participatory and collaborative so how has it had an impact on you personally?

Graham: Serving 11 years in the Navy, I had a number of leadership opportunities, but because it’s such a large organization you don’t really get to flex your creative muscles until you get to run your own thing. So getting out in 2013 was an opportunity for me to take something over and drive it the way I wanted to drive it and that’s been the most rewarding thing for me, I must say.

I really loved leadership challenges, and I love the possibility of mentoring people and that’s one of the reasons why I launched that fellows program I mentioned. That’s been one of the most rewarding things although there is no money in it per se. It’s been one of the most rewarding things about starting this business and running it is having the opportunity to mentor people who are up and coming in their careers.

John: I get up every morning and try to keep up with technology, I fail everyday. I mean think about the people in the Pentagon with these huge budgets and innovations coming and poring in every single window, it’s difficult just to keep up. I think this is one opportunity in the community environment to, have you heard of xyz? Because you can’t even, some stuff isn’t even printed it just comes out through twitter it comes out through informal sources.

Rahul: So it’s 2018, we’re at the beginning of the year. So what are some of the, from your vantage point, what are some of the low hanging fruit or the gaps that you see exist in the current relay with the government, today that maybe you could fit or fill in the near future.


Rahul Bardwaj

Graham: I think for the last several years there has been a trend to try and get small businesses to do more work for government. And so, for instance, hub-zone companies there’s a lot of T’s to cross and I’s to dot in order to get a company that does something well into the category of hub-zone so that they can start winning contracts a little bit more easily.

And I’ve heard of some companies in the defense sector having an 8A status, which I don’t know how much you know about that but, having an 8A but not knowing how to use it to actually win work. Or a company that does great work is very innovative but doesn’t know anything about defense contracting, and I think that’s a space where organizations like Eastern Foundry and our company and our networks can really help each other, by paring a company that has an 8A status and can win contracts and prime and a company that can subcontract and has a unique technology and that can happen inside of an OTA, consortium structure or just at a networking event informally.

John: Graham when I read the description about the organization, I thought it was going to be a dot org, I wrote out intelligence community dot but it’s a dot com. So it’s a for-profit organization?

Graham: Yep

John: So where do you see your profit-making opportunities to expand in the next four to five years?

Graham: You know I think that there are opportunities both in the public and private sector for open source intelligence contracts. Because we’ve already done one contract that was crowdsourcing for an intelligence agency a couple of years ago. And we’ve got about six other contracts out for potential award. Two of them are starting to firm up pretty well. One of them with the United Nations, so we’re looking at those opportunities to see where that will take our company, but I think open source intelligence and crowdsourcing is really interesting.

But I’m cognoscente that in a lot of the attempts to do crowdsourcing there has been a lot of gamification so I don’t know if you’ve participated with anything like what’s the new Amazon HQ2 there’s a number of initiatives to get people involved with crowdsourcing for micropayments or awards or bounties. I’m cognoscente that our company has emerged out of a LinkedIn community a lot of people that are in our groups are motivated based on career opportunities.

And really what I would like to do is follow in the footsteps of uber and lift and other eco-systems that have been able to create a fair wage opportunity for people rather than just points and pennies, I’d like to be really offering people a secondary income or maybe even the possibilities, ideally the possibility of geographic arbitrage. Where you could have somebody get out of the military and choose to live anywhere in the world and do part-time or full-time consulting online or services and continue to support a family. And my dream for a long time has been to create new ecosystems all across the Midwest, for people that are transitioning out of the military for a time, especially wounded warriors, for a time maybe you though oh what are they going to do for their next career and for that to not be a question anymore, but to say their knowledge will be valuable wherever they live.

John: Phil’s taking a course right now in social media marketing tactics, this whole idea of a LinkedIn community and springing up from there, it kind of flips it in reverse doesn’t it. It’s kind of fascinating isn’t it Phil?

Phil: Yeah Absolutely. And I guess you kind of hit on an interesting point that it sounds like a lot of people kind of organically found out about the LinkedIn group but you sort of hit on this potential other customer base, which is the person who just came out of active service. Do you have any strategies for reaching those folks or have you guys just more focused on organic growth and developing that?

Graham: So it’s been, you know burning the candle from both ends kind of strategy. You know I saw that the groups were springing up organically, and I saw simultaneously that a lot of institutions especially government institutions were creating their own official programs that were not connected to the unofficial and so for instance in the military you have something called TAP or TAMP.

Transition assistance programs, so when someone gets ready to get out of the military they typically go through a week or more of programmatic training to go into the civilian workforce and a couple years ago it might still be happening but we had people that were sponsoring our company, advertising with our company they would go in and they would be teaching during the TAP program and would be mentioning our company and our resources at the class and that was happening because we had done so much legwork to build this organic network. So the two were meeting, now would it be nice if the government turned around and hired us on a contract to go run a TAP class? Yeah sure, and we’ve talked about it and we’ve looked into that, it’s a possibility.

John: Students great job, Graham great job, now if someone is listening Graham where can they get more information your organization?

Graham: or .org or .net

John: Oh you got all three so I guess my esp was good on that one. We’re running out of time here, if you would like show notes, links and a transcript visit the

I would like to thank our founding sponsor Radiant solutions, if you are interested in getting involved with GeoSpatial projects contact Radiant solutions.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace, for more information go to

If you’d like to participate as a student or a startup contact me John Gilroy at the and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown at the Potomac.


Featuring CynjaTech

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 51 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Dr. Chase Gunningham, the founder of CynjaTech. How did a company who started making apps for kids turn into a cybersecurity company? Listen below to find out!

If you would like to get weekly updates sent straight to your phone, you can subscribe below on iTunes!


Thanks to our Sponsor:

00 00 00 radiant_logo


John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups, Showdown on the Potomac. My name’s John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Big round of applause for Show Number 51. Yeah, 51 times. Al Gore hasn’t shut us down. The FCC hasn’t shut us down. I guess we’re getting lucky here. If you’ve listened, you know what’s going on here. We kind of took over a room at Eastern Foundry, got a little conference room here, big table. One side of the table, some students, the other side of the table, a startup. Have a little back-and-forth yelling and screaming, throwing chairs. After 26 minutes, we walk out of here fast friends.

On this side of the table, we have three students. Most of them are from Georgetown University School for Continuing Studies. I’ll let Phil introduce himself, who doesn’t need any introduction, I don’t think. Phil, your background, please.

Phil Crawford: Yeah, hey, I’m Phil Crawford. I’m in my fifth semester at Georgetown University’s Technology Management program, a senior consultant, basically helping federal CIOs do IT better, whether it’s data center services, or making the websites accessible.

John Gilroy: So you’re in the middle of the program. Is that right?

Phil Crawford: Yes, I am in the middle of the program.

John Gilroy: All right, great. Connie your background please?

Connie: I recently graduated in December of 2017, and I work as a clinical data scientist for PhRMA, just making sure that the data is clean and is meaningful.

John Gilroy: So Phil is just a wannabe and you’re an actual graduate, right? And Matt, you’re back on please.

Matt: Yes, I work for Georgetown University, been doing data analytics for them for about six months now, and before that was doing operations and support for academic programs.

John Gilroy: And your picture is all over the Internet at Georgetown University, isn’t it?

Matt: Oh, I’m not greedy.

John Gilroy: Well, good or bad, it is. Well we’ve got some students with good technology background. Our startup is a company called CynjaTech. I’ll spell that, C-Y-N-J-A, CynjaTech, and we have Dr. Chase Cunningham, he’s the founder. Dr. Cunningham, how are you?

Dr. Cunningham: Great, thanks for having me.



Dr. Cunningham- Founder, CynjaTech


John Gilroy: Give us a little nutshell of your background before we go into the questioning please.

Dr. Cunningham: Sure, I’m a retired U.S. Navy, spent my career supporting special operations guys, so I was the unfortunate geek that wound up running around with all the dudes with too much ammo and way more, way too much testosterone. Did that, until I got medically retired from the military back in 2011. Came out and started just doing regular consulting work and what I would call hard-core cyber opts for the government and for companies. And then about four years ago, almost five years ago now, we started down this path of building up this CynjaTech platform.

John Gilroy: Interesting. So I know you fly a lot. What if you were to get stuck in the airport in Chicago, and the person next to you says, “What kind of a strange name? What’s that company do?” So what business problem does CynjaTech solve?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so what we really solve is fixing the giant problem you have with massive data security. If you look at the site, you’ll see things around MicroCloud, and really what we’re talking about there is flipping to security paradigm on its head. It used to be where if you go to a bank, everybody takes your money and they put it in those lock boxes, and you get your money, because it’s your money and you have control of it, right? Well, the problem that we have with Internet data is you take all of your data and you stick it in someone’s database, in their cloud, and you hope that they did their security, right? So what we’ve done is we’ve basically flipped that paradigm on its head and said, “If Chase Cunningham’s data is going to be in an insurance provider’s cloud or whatever else, I’m in control of that data, I manage, maintain, and control who has access to my information, based on the privacy controls that I put in place.”

So really, what we’re trying to do is give the individual back the power of control of their data using the security capabilities that are built into cloud capabilities anyway.

John Gilroy: Constance, I’m going to start off with you. When I first moved to town here, the joke was you can swing a dead cat and hit a lawyer. I think in town now, if you swing a dead cat you bump into a cyber startup. So lots of cyber startups in this town. I mean, there’s dozens and dozens.

Connie: I know that there’s a few around. I’m curious to know about who your clients are. Do you have some examples?


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Connie Chen


Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so interestingly enough, we actually built the app a few years ago for kids and families and our thinking there was if we can make this sort of distribute, led to your privacy, security, controlled MicroCloud thing work for a bunch of five and seven-year-olds, then we could dang sure do it right for Enterprise. So we actually started off with a few, about 4,000, families that use this system currently. My kids use it, basically I give my daughter the iPad and I don’t have to worry about what website she’s going to, I run no antivirus on anything she uses, because she’s in control of the secure sort of MicroCloud infrastructure, and I know that the controls are applied to her, then I don’t have to worry about it. I honestly could care less whether or not, where she’s going is secure, with quotes around it.

John Gilroy: Matt, when I read the phrase descriptive ledger, bang [inaudible 00:04:59], it’s like the phrase of pace.

Dr. Cunningham: That’s a sexy term, yeah.

John Gilroy: Yeah, I’m going to let you jump in here, Matt.

Matt: Yeah, I’m curious on both that and just general and NextGen IT and technology patterns and here’s … how are you tackling Internet of things, other sort of developing ideas and technologies?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so unfortunately, we’re at that sort of time in history where everything is taking off at speed of light times 10, after smoking crack or something. I mean, it’s just crazy how fast this stuff is going. So what we’ve got a line on doing some things in IoT and whatnot. Honestly, we’ve had to sort of pick where we think we can win. And really where that is right now is enabling privacy for individuals within cloud infrastructures. The sort of Blockchain, speed push there really, we didn’t even realize we were doing Blockchain when we started this thing almost five years ago, but we’re taking Chase Cunningham Security Controls within that cloud infrastructure and spreading out who I talk to, where I talk, with the data that I share, based on whether or not the other individuals in that infrastructure have the same controls in place.

So I mean, really, this is Blockchain, bo, dah, oh, honestly, but thankfully now with cloud being as powerful as it is, we can do things at speed net scale.

John Gilroy: Phil Crawford.

Phil Crawford: Yeah, so I’m always curious about origins, history of companies. So I’m curious about the actual name itself. It almost looks like a couple things, a couple observations. It looks like it’s cyber plus ninja, maybe together. There’s also a symbol in red. I’m curious what the symbol is, and the name have any connection to your overall identity, what you’re trying to do for your customers.

Dr. Cunningham: So, like I said, we started out with kids. And funny enough, we started because … this is a horrible, horrible joke between us at CynjaTech, but … So when I came out of the military, I did Cyber for the military and for NSA and whatnot, and we were always joking, people were always going, “Oh, you’re like a Cyber Ninja. Ha, ha, ha, right?”

Phil Crawford: So that’s right, yeah.

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so anyway, my partner, Heather, her nephew asked us to write a book for him and we wrote this comic book, and you can go look at it now, it’s in four languages, and-

Phil Crawford: Cool. Wow.

Dr. Cunningham: It’s literally the Cynja



Dr. Cunningham


Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so it’s out there and it basically teaches kids how to use the Internet safely and securely. So we already had a pretty good line on Cynja, and we thought, “Well, that’s kind of cool, so we’ll just stick Tech on the back of it,” and now we have CynjaTech.

John Gilroy: Okay. User experience, remember Connie? Was our user experience? Seems like this would be a very user-friendly solution, wouldn’t it?

Connie: Yeah, it does. I did take a look at your website and I saw your products for the children, and I thought it could definitely be applied to a lot of cohorts, other than children. But what are the similarities between your solution for families and companies?

Dr. Cunningham: So that’s the great thing is we really built everything on an infrastructure that honestly is rooted in cloud and is mobile as well. So if a … we’re working with the insurance industry right now primarily, because the insurance industry has a real dedicated focus on trying to keep things private and controlled, and make it where the individual is in control of that, because honestly, they don’t want to be responsible for it after that whole Blue Cross thing. Like one in three Americans, and it was bad.

So for us, it’s really … the infrastructure itself doesn’t change. microCloud is a microCloud, a container is a container. If a company like MetLife or whoever comes along and says, “We would like to try this out.” We just rip off the kitty skin and stick on a MetLife sticker and there you go. So the infrastructure itself lives, breathes, eats, and grows and changes, based on the needs of the platform.

John Gilroy: Now we’re right here in Rosslyn, Virginia, all kinds of companies bounce around here. I can give you geography directions, Key Bridge, and everything else. A couple blocks north of here is a company called Ostendio, and they were a guest on the show previously. But there’s a lot of similar companies to what you do. So who do you compete with, again a price level, or what level do you compete?

Dr. Cunningham: So we’re really just now starting to roll in the enterprise area, and honestly, insurance was a pretty easy place for us to get into because they were willing to put the power of the control within the individual, rather than the company. Honestly, like I said earlier, they don’t want to control that stuff, they know that it’s a nightmare. So while we compete with some of those, like the one you were mentioning, and Vormetric, and some of these other companies that do encryption and containers and cloud, and whatever, they do pieces of a puzzle. We do all of that in one particular solution. So literally, when I’ve been doing this pitch decks and things like that, I show folks these are the six or seven other competitors that are out there, but they do one-seventh of what we do in one spot.

Matt: Matt … I’m curious as just to speak to you as the founder, to kind of look behind the curtain and see what strategies have you used to grow the organization? Have you tried to do a lot in house? Have you looked to expand your employee pool? Or have you looked for other resources as you grow the company?


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Matt Pearson


Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so we’re trying pretty much everything that we can to be perfectly honest with you, because that’s the nature of startup, right? It’s hustle, hustle, hustle. So we’ve got about nine people right now that work at CynjaTech, but we’ve sort of reached out and brought in some consultants here and there, and things like that. We’ve got folks that live overseas as well, that are helping us, too. So right now we’re at that stage where everybody’s just fighting and clawing uphill, but as soon as we’ve got the customers that we’re looking at landing right now, we’ll be hiring a lot of folks to grow that.

Matt: So are you based in the Washington, D.C. area, or where are you based?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, Washington, D.C. area.

Phil Crawford: Yeah, so I think on Saturday, two of Apple’s biggest investors, they released this open letter to the community about think differently about kids, the base of the premise was Apple needs to be more thoughtful about technology addiction for kids, for youth, and I was just curious, is that like an area you guys can see as potential interest? I mean, you already do the privacy security, but is that something you could be interested in tackling later down the line or-

Dr. Cunningham: Having been doing IT security for children and families of the last three plus years, I think there’s tons of merit in it and I have two daughter’s that are seven and nine, so I want to help families and kids, but the problem that we have is companies, be it Apple or whoever, don’t see a whole lot of revenue generation within helping families and kids, to be perfectly upfront with you. I mean, look at Vtech that just had six million people’s information breached, and they got a $600,000 fine, like whoopy do.

It’s not a nature of, or question of whether or not they want to help, but when it comes down to it, and you go up and say, “Look, I need a million dollars, then I can secure every family in this country.” They kind of go, “Mmm, how about I give you 10 grand.”

John Gilroy: Yeah.

Dr. Cunningham: So would Chase Cunningham love to help families and kids? Absolutely. Today sign me up. However, in the auspices of growing the business, probably is going to be further down the road.

John Gilroy: A lot of trade shows come to town here. There’s a real popular one in your community called BlackHat. Do you attend these shows? Is there any value to you? What do you think of these trade shows?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, I’ve been going to BlackHat for quite a long time, and RSA for quite a long time. I used to go, back when I had the badge that said, DOD, and no one would talk to me because they kind of figured I was one of the fed guys there, the haircut and the bad suit gave it away. But, yeah, I think those are great. BlackHat and DEF CON, and those are great to go and talk with all the other practitioners and really sort of grow the network, too, and then there’s a bunch of smaller cons that come around here, like SchmooCon and DerbyCon and Suits to Spooks, and things like that that are also really good to go to. So, yeah, if you’re in the cyber industry, you could go to a con every month, and it’d be worth it, honestly.

John Gilroy: Wow.

Dr. Cunningham: And then there’s RSA in April, which is the big SEMA car show for cyber security, if you will.

John Gilroy: Yeah, the big one.

Connie: When you’re talking to different clients, I’m guessing that there is different customizations you would offer them. Have you ever experienced where they would push back on a suggestion? If so, how do you deal with that?

Dr. Cunningham: Well, I think a lot of times clients push back on something, especially when they’re talking about doing pilots and sort of customized platforms, when they don’t exactly understand how hard it is to change things on the back end. So if it’s one of those things where we’re looking at a big time cost of infrastructure migration move or something like that, it’s time to be frank with them and be like, “Yes, I can do that for you, but it’s not going to be cheap. We’re adding into this pretty quickly.” If it’s just a graphics thing or something small, then sure we’ll make that happen, bend over backwards to keep the client happy. I think where people go wrong is they kind of just go and say, they just want to win the deal and go, “Oh, yeah, sure we’ll make that happen.” And then you wind up having to go back a month later and go, “Sorry, I didn’t actually mean that. What I meant was I need a hundred grand to fix that problem.” And that doesn’t go too well with your client growth and they get kind of pissed off when you need more money, when you didn’t in the first place.

Matt: You mentioned some of the leaks that’s happened both in insurance and there’s been banking, all sorts of areas. How have you … I’m curious what’s your perspective and then is it shaped to your business model, looking at the current regulatory state on an organization and their data?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, so as somebody that’s grown up in cyber and writes about cyber and has books and whatever else, I think we have a fundamental categorical problem that we’re still trying to apply old security paradigms to stuff that doesn’t like to live that way. The perimeter is gone, BYOD, and cloud has obliterated all that stuff. The only thing that really matters is the data, and if you can secure the individual, then great. So that’s really where we tried to focus is, I’m not worried about whether or not I can secure your laptop, I don’t care what antivirus you’re running, all that other stuff that you put in place that you think is going to save you and secure you, which obviously doesn’t work, because we continue to have breaches. We’ve moved away from that and said, “Look, I know that I can … if I put the power in Chase Cunningham’s hands and he controls who he shares information with and does it like I do in my normal daily life, and we apply controls to my piece of that cloud, then we can manage it and maintain it.”

It’s kind of funny when people wrap their head around that because just like every day when I’m going to go talk with somebody about doing a business deal, I don’t walk into a room full of a thousand people and scream at the top of my lungs, “Hey, I’m Chase, I was born in Dallas, these are my kids, here’s my wallet, my dog’s name is Chopper, dah, dah, dah.” I go up and I hand them a business card and they have my phone number and email. That’s what they need to start the deal. And once we’ve validated that they need to do business with me, and I need to do business with them, we exchange information. That’s what we’re talking about within a MicroCloud infrastructure. But we’re applying security controls to those two individuals.

John Gilroy: Now Chase, I brought in this figure of the classic guy named Blake Hall who has a company called, and he talks about identity management. And so what if identity is compromised? I mean, how does this fit into your model?

Dr. Cunningham: So we mandate things within the MicroCloud infrastructure, such as to factor authentication such as validated controls. Because we’ve grown it out of dealing with families and children, where you have things like COPA, which means you have to protect kids’ information from bad people, like sexual predators and pedophiles, and things like that. We had to build in controls that didn’t exist within a regular corporate cloud infrastructure. So those things that now are optional where you would think about an ID be compromised or whatever, we’ve changed it around and said, “You have to have those by default.” And I think from being a security practitioner and a former Red Teamer, it makes it infinitely harder. If you look around, you’ll read that the goal in cyber is not to be perfect. The goal in cyber is to be better than the guy next to you, so that they go somewhere else. Because from a Red Teamer perspective, if I know I can get a hundred thousand people’s information on some really terribly secured cloud, I’ll go there rather than try and go on a cloud where I know they have mandated two-factor, mandated encryption, mandated secure protocols, that type of stuff.

John Gilroy: Now a Red Teamer is not a Boston Red Sox fan.

Dr. Cunningham: No.

John Gilroy: So tell us what a Red Teamer is.

Dr. Cunningham: A Red Teamer is somebody that’s basically either paid or does it because they have nothing else to do and live in their mother’s basement, and break into networks and systems, and things like that. I used to get paid for it, but I don’t anymore. I’ve moved past that, I think, so. I don’t live in my mom’s basement either.

John Gilroy: Yeah, but I think a lot of them do, don’t they. I’m just curious about your credibility. Does your background in the military give you more credibility in these situations, or are they … again, wary your background … and kind of holding back to it. Do they enjoy that, does that give you credibility?

Dr. Cunningham: I think with the way things are now, it kind of offers a little bit of credibility to it, because there are so many CISOs and security people that are coming out of the Intelligence Community and out of the military that are taking up pretty big, like C-level roles within big, big companies.

Five years ago, it was one of those things where people were really resonant to start saying like, “Hey, why don’t you go play on my network, former Red Teamer guy, for the government.” But now they seem to really gravitate toward that to be honest.

John Gilroy: So the concept here is penetration testing, and have you had any experience in that Phil?

Phil Crawford: No, I haven’t. And I think it’s something to be real interesting to know more about. But I would actually be kind of curious to know who do you view as your biggest competitors in this space?



Phil Crawford


Dr. Cunningham: So the folks that do encryption, the folks that do, like you were talking about, and, and some of those other ones that are focused on personal private security and digital identity. Those are the ones that we would compete against directly.

Phil Crawford: Okay.

Dr. Cunningham: And I think that there’s a real big push coming in Europe for privacy and for controlled cyber accesses. The U.S. is probably still two to three years behind Europe, but it’s coming, with GDPR and some of the stuff that’s growing over there, it’s just a matter of time.

Matt: You mentioned living in your mother’s basement. I’m curious for other people-

Dr. Cunningham: No more.

Matt: For other people looking to start similar companies, or looking to be where you guys were at three years ago, what was your funding model, funding perspective, how did you pursue getting to where you’re at now?

Dr. Cunningham: We’ve raised close to a million dollars overall, three-quarters of a mil roughly. A lot of it was from startup … or, excuse me, from angels reaching out to people that you know have got the money and don’t have something to do with it, and sort of saying like, “Look, I have an idea, and here’s the plan,” and going forth with that. And then some of it’s come from some very small venture capital funds and things like that. But we really didn’t want to deal with any big-time VCs at the time because you can get muscled out of control of your company pretty quickly, so we’ve been extremely selective with whom we’ve talked with.

And luckily, Heather, who’s not here, who’s been really the major fundraiser in all this, she’s a woman in technology, and she’s a woman in cyber technology, so she’s got a leg up when she starts asking for things, just because of that. And honestly, I’m really glad that she is a woman in technology, because we need more of them. I’ve got daughters and my seven-year-old is learning to write code right now. So I want more women. Actually, our second comic book has a female hero in it, just because we were trying to get more women in technology.

John: Wonder woman.

Dr. Cunningham: Right.

John Gilroy: Well, you know, there was an anime fair in town here just over the weekend. Hundreds and hundreds of people there, so it’s a new way to communicate, different from an old guy, Dan Bricklin model of rows and columns, and everything else. So any business from the federal government? Or is that out of your radar, or-

Dr. Cunningham: We’ve actually put some stuff together with the VA, funny enough, because I’m a veteran, where we’re talking about doing some stuff around private secure cloud infrastructure. We’re not sure exactly where that’s going to go, because it was just sort of an RF, request for questions from the government, but it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t entertain doing business with the feds. Honestly, I think some of the technology that we’re putting in the controls that we’re putting in place, would be far ahead of what the federal government’s asking for right now on an individual basis. It’s still trying to put up great big walls to keep people out, and that just doesn’t work. And if it didn’t we wouldn’t have had a billion records breached last year.

John Gilroy: So what you’re saying is that the bad guy is already inside the walls.

Dr. Cunningham: Guaranteed.

John Gilroy: And even with encryption, that’s not enough, because the bad guy could have encryption code as well, and so one way is through identity management, or role-based access to documents. Does that pretty much summarize . .?

Dr. Cunningham: Yeah, I mean if you still conceptually think about it, just like you have with your home or your apartment, I have a key to my house. I know it’s safe inside of my house. I’ve got my controls. People come into my house the I want to allow, rather than I don’t live in an open field with 10,000 other people and hope somebody shut the gate. That’s what we’re trying to get away from, and put the power back in the hands of the individuals to use data the way that they see it should be used rather.

John Gilroy: Well, great job, students, and great job startup here. We’re running out of time, but if someone would like to have more information about your company, Chase, where would they go please?

Dr. Cunningham: C-Y-N-J-A

John Gilroy: C-Y-N-J-A Well, great. If you’d like to have show notes or links or a transcript, please visit the I’d like to thank our sponsor, Radiant Solutions. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. More information, go to If you’d like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, John Gilroy, at the, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups Showdown on the Potomac.