GAME CHANGERS

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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.

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Transcript:

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 Community.com. 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 Community.com 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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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: TheintelligenceCommunity.com 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 Oakmontgroupllc.com.

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 Eastern-foundry.com

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

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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!

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Transcript:

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.

 

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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

 

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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 ID.me, 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?

 

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Phil Crawford

 

Dr. Cunningham: So the folks that do encryption, the folks that do, like you were talking about ID.me, and Digi.me, 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: www.cynjatech.com. C-Y-N-J-A tech.com.

John Gilroy: C-Y-N-J-A tech.com. Well, great. If you’d like to have show notes or links or a transcript, please visit the oakmontgroupllc.com. 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 eastern-foundry.com. If you’d like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, John Gilroy, at the oakmontgroupllc.com, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups Showdown on the Potomac. 

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Featuring Anaplan

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 50 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Enterprise Account Executive at Anaplan, Lauren Rhode. Anaplan offers an enterprise modeling and planning platform in the cloud across finance, supply chain, sales, HR and IT to link all company data together and plan more effectively. Learn about it below!


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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups Showdown at the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Hey, a big round of applause for show number 50! Whoa, yeah. Yeah, maybe one of these days, I’ll be turning 50 down the road somewhere. If you listened to us before, you know we’re sitting in the office of Eastern Foundry, kind of took over a conference room. We’ve got a big table, here. One side of the table, we got some students. One side of the table, got a startup. We have a little 26-minute conversation. Then, we walk out of here yelling and screaming, or fast friends, or something like that.

Like to start off by introducing the students. We have three students. We have I think two people who are in the middle of a program and one graduate of the program from Georgetown University. Phil, why don’t you start off? Tell us about your background, please.

Phil Crawford: Absolutely. Hey, my name is Phil Crawford. This is my fifth semester in the Georgetown University Technology Management Program. I’m a senior consultant, basically helping federal CIO’s do IT better whether it’s getting data center services, identity and access management services, or making their websites accessible.

John Gilroy: Good, good. And Connie, your background please.

Constance Chen: My name is Constance Chen. I work as a clinical data scientist for a pharmaceutical company. I graduated in December so now that I have a lot of free time, I just paint.

John Gilroy: So, Phil here who’s a wannabe and you’re an actual graduate. Matt, you’re background please.

Matt Pearson: Yes, my name is Matt Pearson. I currently work for Georgetown University for their school foreign service, doing data analytics for them. I come from a background in operations and systems management for universities.

John Gilroy: When do you have time to paint?

Matt Pearson: I wish I did.

John Gilroy: Great. We have three students here and they’re going to face off with our startup. Our startup is Lauren Rhode and she works for a company called Anaplan. Lauren, how are you?

Lauren Rhode: Doing well, thanks. Great to be here.

 

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Lauren Rhode, Enterprise Account Executive- Anaplan

 

John Gilroy: Well, give us all a thumbnail sketch of what Anaplan is all about, please.

Lauren Rhode: Absolutely. In short, the way that really large companies plan today and link their strategy and execution would surprise a lot of people. The way planning, budgeting and modeling is done is either legacy technology that was coded really before the internet. Your big companies, SAP, IBM, Oracle, or in Excel. In fact, a lot of folks who have those legacy technologies end up pulling their data out into Excel and emailing thousands of spreadsheets around the globe. That leads to, in the biggest companies in the world, really under performance in their metrics and top line, bottom line and in margins.

That translates really well. Right now, we’re focused on some of the biggest companies in the world but it’s really any big organization that can plan. My background is actually in the Department of Defense and we too were emailing spreadsheets around the globe for major budgeting and forecasting and planning exercises.

We offer an enterprise modeling and planning platform in the cloud across finance, supply chain, sales, HR and IT to link all this data together and plan more effectively.

John Gilroy: So if you’re sitting next to someone on the metro and they say, “What business problem does your company solve?” It would be connected planning? Is that what you do?

Lauren Rhode: Connected planning. Spot on.

John Gilroy: There’s a million ways to go from yelling and cursing at Excel spreadsheets. I’ll let Phil start off cursing at Excel spreadsheets here, but keep it clean, Phil!

Phil Crawford: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll limit in cursing. I just want to say I think you left off an option, which is that most companies also just do no planning.

 

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Phil Crawford

 

Lauren Rhode: Sure.

Phil Crawford: That’s the first thing. But no, in terms of the question, I’m always curious to know the origin of different company’s names. Is there any sort of significance to Anaplan and how it relates to your overall strategy?

Lauren Rhode: Absolutely. Good question and I would actually have to ask. Our founder of the company is a guy named Michael Gold. He founded the company not in a garage in Silicon Valley, but in a little red barn in York, England. As a small startup and really spent the first few years of the company building our underlying core proprietary technology, which is called Hyperblock. Building a database around that engine in the past and legacy software. These things were desperate and led to basically a lot of latency, speed issues and under performance. Then around this Hyperblock concept, which if you take an analogy of how Google indexes data. Basically, we index data in a way that someone comes in and wants to make a change in the model and the model will just change in real time those elements that need to be changed, which again leads to performance enhancements.

Coming back to your question about the name of the company, really ties to planning. I don’t know where the ANA came from. I think I may have heard something about analysis and planning all in one. He was actually, Michael was the leading mathematician and technologist in this space for the past 30 years, saw this challenge in the early 2000’s that still companies at that point were using legacy technologies and Excel, which of course now 10, 15 years later still hasn’t changed a ton, although we’re growing rapidly in this space and providing an alternative.

John Gilroy: Connie, do you trust something that originates in a barn in England? It sounds pretty strange to me.

Constance Chen: Yeah, that brings me to the question of, how do you get clients to be receptive of your solution if they’re so used to Excel or other legacy systems?

 

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Constance Chen

 

Lauren Rhode: It’s really a great question. It turns out, I haven’t had a bad conversation yet, since getting to Anaplan. There’s massive interest because really, we can talk about connected planning across an enterprise, which is the vision of our company, but when we go in and really sit down with planners and modelers, there is so much pain that’s experienced in day to day work, whether it’s dealing with Excel or dealing with old legacy software. You have folks who are in the fastest growing and largest enterprises in the world, our target market is really Fortune 500, Global 2000 companies that are sitting there and saying, “Okay, make this change in the database,” and sitting there for eight hours waiting for that to happen. There’s a lot of pain that’s felt there.

Where I’m finding really the challenge for folks is just in getting the budget allocated in order to migrate to something else. There’s also of course, a massive movement and migration to the cloud, so a lot of appeal there with a purpose built cloud platform. It’s been interesting because there is just so much interest in finding a better way for folks in this space.

John Gilroy: Now Matt, you work for a fairly large organization. How would this work for something as big as Georgetown University?

Matt Pearson: That is a great question. I can know from hearing about different projects, any change requires multiple years and many, many, many people. I’m curious on that point. I think you mentioned earlier before we started recording, that you’re primarily working on companies right now. As you guys like to move into the public space or even into the consumer space, is that going to change how you’re looking to expand, growth opportunities?

Lauren Rhode: Fantastic question. It’s a huge focus for us right now. We’ve got now a team that’s focused on higher ed. We’d be interested in a follow up there, as well. Anaplan is in hyper growth by a lot of metrics. We’re still a startup, a late stage startup but we’ve recently redrafted our territories in the US from 9 to 13 crafted to the Mid-Atlantic regions, specifically some of the first members of our Mid-Atlantic team. Our vice president of our Atlantic team, Rick Klein, also owns public sector and higher ed.

 

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Lauren Rhode, Enterprise Account Executive- Anaplan

 

Really, I think a lot of opportunities are there. For me, coming from the Defense space, really interested in mission-driven elements of connecting high level strategy to tactics and execution and being able to make tweaks in the strategy that you can then make in real time and cascade throughout your plans that just aren’t done in that way right now.

John Gilroy: Phil, I’m sure you’re familiar with Don Quixote de la Mancha. I think Lauren here is tilting at windmills. I think this is really, you’re going up against some big, big competition here. I mean, how could she even do that?

Phil Crawford: Yeah, I think it’s interesting what you’re saying. Within your customer base, you’re saying it’s fortune 500’s and Top 2000’s. Is there a specific sector or market you guys prioritize or target first and has been your bread and butter over the years and is there an area where you’re trying to reach out more to?

Lauren Rhode: Great question. We’ve got over 800 customers globally now. Our headquarters is in San Francisco. We’ve got offices and folks in over 15 countries. One of the interesting things in this space and speaking of the competition is that we see a lot of, even the legacy providers really focus primarily on finance and they say they do a lot of other things but have a hard time expanding. In a lot of big organizations, they’re choosing a different system of record for finance and for supply chain and for sales so we’re able to integrate with them and provide a common layer. Feed data in and then be able to model on top of it.

But to your question, that’s lines of business within companies. There are a number of point solutions there that have chosen to just work on one problem set in one industry. We have really intentionally over the course of the last five years since we launched product to market, decided not to do that. At multiple points we could have said, “Okay, we’re going to hone in on finance and on financial planning analysis.” We haven’t done that. We could have said, “We’re going to hone in on retail and on supply chain.” We’re doing a lot of work there with Kimberly Clark, Del Monte customers and doing some really interesting stuff connecting finance and supply chain but then willing to continue to expand because this really applies to any enterprise around the world.

John Gilroy: I went to your website. Anaplan, A-N-A-P-L-A-N because I’m a radio guy. You’re listed Forbes 2017 one of the world’s best 100 cloud companies. Who knew? I didn’t know that. Really?

Lauren Rhode: That’s right. Yeah, absolutely and some great accolades recently coming in from Gartner as well on Forrester. If you think about, does anyone here know when the spreadsheet was invented?

John Gilroy: Dan Bricklin, 1983.

Lauren Rhode: So, even a little bit earlier than that. Really, 1965 or so timeframe.

John Gilroy: Earlier?

Lauren Rhode: Fast forward 1980’s spreadsheets proliferating for folks personally using the spreadsheet concept for their work. In the 1990’s the number of businesses sprouted up. Comshare, Datum, Hyperion, in order to provide spreadsheets two-dimensional and then also to branch into multi-dimensional planning, but still on a desktop model.

Internet really started to proliferate in the late 90’s and those companies all basically webified their applications with multiple servers that needed to be managed, an internet security layer. I see some nodding in the room, here. A massive infrastructure that they had to support on prem. So, we were really one of the first companies to be a cloud-built platform for this kind of planning and modeling.

John Gilroy: Connie, you work for a big company. Someone like Lauren waltzes into the door of a big pharmaceutical company and says, “We’re going to change the way you’ve done things for 20 years!” Do you show here the door? How do you think it’s going to be accepted?

Constance Chen: It’s hard. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of noise out there. Even to get recognized as a potential solution, how do you aggressively market yourself?

Lauren Rhode: Absolutely. I’m coming from a much smaller, much earlier stage startup where I was working across the entire business and wearing many hats. Here, I am thankful and grateful that we’ve got a fantastic marketing team. I think in terms of thinking about a new customer, I come from a product and operations background. For me, the most important thing is coming in and really understanding the customer’s problem sets.

Sitting down with folks and understanding what are the challenges that they’re facing day to day, we can talk, it’s interesting, in the C-Suite and the higher levels across the organization. But then, what’s most interesting to me is sitting down with an analyst, whether anyone on the business side and saying, “What are some of your challenges in this space that you’re facing daily and how could we potentially help?” And then from there, there’s a lot that follows in terms of solution design and implementation. But that’s probably the most fun part of the job for me and how I would think about anyone in pharma or otherwise.

John Gilroy: Matt?

Matt Pearson: You mentioned this earlier and I’m sure it is a giant thing that keeps you up at night. How do you guys think through cyber security? You’re cloud-based. How do you protect against that?

 

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Matt Pearson

 

Lauren Rhode: Yeah, really great question. We’ve got a phenomenal technology team. We’ve clearly really started on the technology side. Anaplan owns and operates its own cloud and hardware. We’re constantly looking at ways to continue to improve security. It’s a multi-tenant cloud. We also have a bring your own key or BYOK offering to clients that’s helpful from an encryption standpoint. This is something that our tech team is really continuing to work on and watch the space closely as we move ahead.

Phil Crawford: You mentioned I think some recognition by Gartner earlier this year. I was noting that I think Gartner had said Anaplan is one of the best sales performance management systems, a leader. I was just wondering, is that also presenting its own challenges in that, do you ever want to encourage these companies or clients who are using it for sales and it’s doing really well, to use it for all the other functions like in HR, IT, supply chain management?

Lauren Rhode: Yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest things, and we were just talking about it, how we have initial conversations with new clients. Thinking about with the power and the connectivity that we can offer with connected planning, how do we then hone in on a specific? In sales, whether it’s revenue planning, trade spend management, account segmentation, territory and quota planning, incentive compensation model, a number of offerings that nest under sales performance management? And then, how do you have the conversation about would this actually be useful to collocate that data in a place where you can actually then feed your sales forecast back into finance?

Turns out that the CFO really cares a lot about that and CRO and CEO probably do as well. Ultimately, it’s about really having those conversations. When a company, if we’ve started working with them in one space and they say, “Hey, this is really working very well,” which luckily has been a lot of the feedback, really strong product offering. Then, there are other things that we can do to make this even more effective.

John Gilroy: We’ve been doing this podcast for over a year. About a year ago, we had a company in the studio here called DocuSign. I don’t know if you remember them. Guess what? They’re one of your customers!

Lauren Rhode: They are.

John Gilroy: Are you familiar with that company? How would they use your services? The guy’s name is Dan Tangherlini, if you remember him. Federal government guy and company based up in New York and everything. It’s interesting that I can’t imagine a small company taking advantage of Anaplan. That’s a relatively small company. I mean, there must be 50 or 60 people. I keep thinking of IBM or Xerox, being huge companies for you but it’s small.

Lauren Rhode: DocuSign is fast and growing. We are primarily at this point working with large enterprises but also with some hyper growth companies. We are out in San Francisco so there are a lot of companies that are a bit earlier in their development but are looking at their major planning and forecasting, especially as they’re experiencing double digit or even triple digit in some cases, growth and need to forecast that. What does that look like? How are they going to make planning and resourcing decisions for head count, for physical space, et cetera, given that? They would fall into that category.

John Gilroy: Well Connie, you’ve taken a course in digital strategy, haven’t you? Perhaps this is a tool that some of the smaller companies can use as well?

Constance Chen: Yeah. Are there some key performance matrix that your company has in terms of whether it’s a small company or a big company?

Lauren Rhode: Sure. In terms of market segmentation and targeting, we generally work with multi-billion dollar annual revenue companies, but we also have now expanded into the mid-market. We’ve got a whole field team that’s focused on the mid- market as well and I think we’ll see that expansion continue. Then of course, we talked a bit about higher ed and fed. As we are continuing to see growth, that’s fueling our ability to bring on folks to be able to expand our market focus as well.

Matt Pearson: I’m curious to hear about your partnership strategy. I’m thinking of similar organizations that might have other companies not connected to them that support them in change management or cloud hosting. Do you want to be a one-stop shop or do you have a lot of partner organizations?

Lauren Rhode: Brilliant. We have over 80 partner organizations. We really are focused on technology. We’re a SaaS offering in the market. We’ve got our own customer success and business partner team internally within Anaplan that work very closely with our customers on implementation. But on almost everything we do, we will work with one of our partners. We’ve got a number of them listed on our website but they range from global systems integrators to national partners. We’ve got some that also at this point exclusively work on Anaplan implementations.

 

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Lauren Rhode, Enterprise Account Executive- Anaplan

 

All of that said, one of the keys to having such a flexible platform is figuring out how to actually use that. That fundamentally has to start with a great, really solid design and thinking about process. There are some places that say, “Hey, we’re going to entirely keep our current process and we’re going to mold Anaplan to fit us.” And there are other places who say, “Hey, there are some small tweaks we want to make to our process,” and others who say there are big tweaks. As Phil you know, from a consultant perspective, really important to start with that process and get that right up front or else, everything else in technology implementation can be pretty hard.

John Gilroy: About a block from here, there’s a Starbucks. One block down is a little company called Deloitte. I’m sure that if you were to compete against Deloitte, they’d say, “Well, yeah. We can do it too!” It seems like a lot of concepts you’re discussing … Now, they don’t have the awards or the accolades you have. It would seem like Accenture the usual suspects, yeah we can do that too. Is that the objections you get sometimes from customers?

Lauren Rhode: You named some of our biggest partners, actually.

John Gilroy: Partners!

Lauren Rhode: That’s right. We work really closely with Deloitte and Accenture, to name two of the GSI’s, as well as some smaller players locally and nationally. Again, we’ve got teams in Europe and Asian and elsewhere who are working with some of the best partners there as well.

When we talk about enterprise performance management, some of these big consulting firms and smaller have been very focused in the space for decades. We work closely with them on implementations.

John Gilroy: Phil’s just killed me on that question. I want you to tango with her.

Phil Crawford: I was curious about Anaplan’s website and its overall strategy. A lot of companies, they’ll use their website to generate leads, they’ll use it to post technical blogs, white papers.  Tech, that’s a big part of what they do is showcasing their knowledge. What is your overall strategy with Anaplan’s website? Do you get leads from it? Do you post information like white papers?

Lauren Rhode: That’s a great question. I would be interested to ask our team that runs our website. It’s a phenomenal resource for me in terms of when I’m having new conversations with folks and they say, “Hey, I want a demo.” We’re happy to come in and do a custom demo but in the meantime, if they want to go check out and say, “Hey, what would this look like in any of our tens of use cases to implement?” And also, for some customer stories, about really what have they gained quantifiable metrics of their transformation with Anaplan.

The other thing that I think is cool on our website is we have something called the Anaplan App Hub there. These are some application templates that are built on top of our platform and now, there are over 100 there on the website. Partners can also build apps for the App Hub and enter them. So in a lot of cases when we’re doing a new implementation or a new use case, we’ll take the shell of that or other folks can come in and contribute to see what’s in the realm of the possible.

We also have folks who are on board either as new customers or prospects or customers who have 26 Anaplan models in place, who will come on and say, “Hey, what else might be in the realm of the possible? Where else may I want to take this platform?” Because once you have access to the platform … We have some customers who we know about 12 of the models that they’ve built and we know that they have 30, but we don’t know other 18 even are because they have at this point the experience in house to go and apply this to other problem sets.

John Gilroy: Connie, they have a conference called Hub. Is that what’s it’s called?

Lauren Rhode: That’s right.

John Gilroy: I wrote down realm of the possible. Do you think this is realm of the possible for larger companies?

Constance Chen: Oh, I think so. I think they’re always looking for different solutions and there’s a lot of discontent with what’s already out there. I do definitely think it’s possible.

I was also wondering where Anaplan will be in the next five years? Do you have any ideas?

Lauren Rhode: Good question for our leadership team. But from my humble perspective-

John Gilroy: You could be the leader of that! Hey, come on now.

Lauren Rhode: Really a the company, we want to be the planning standard for the largest companies in the world. A single connected planning platform, that’s the vision. The outcome of that is really creating immensely more creative and profitable global companies and governments and educational institutions because they can plan on a collaborative platform that scales to suit their needs.

I think along with that, as we see data becoming more important every year and exponential growth curve as you all know being able again to be able to take increasing amounts of data and not be limited by your technology and applying that and gaining insight from that.

John Gilroy: Well, great job students. Great job Lauren. Lauren, if people listening to this want to have a bit more information, is there a website that they can go to?

Lauren Rhode: Absolutely. www.Anaplan, A-N-A-P-L-A-N, .com.

John Gilroy: Great. We’re running out of time here. If you would like show notes, links or a transcript, please visit the TheOakmontGroupLLC.com.

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. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, JohnGilroy@TheOakmontGroupLLC.com. Thanks for listening to Students Versus Startups Showdown at the Potomac.

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Featuring 540

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 49 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Chief Operating Officer of 540, Chris Bock. 540 is trying to create a frictionless environment inside the government and promote data sharing across organizations, listen to how they are tackling this challenge below!


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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Hey, big round of applause for show number 49 here. Yeah! It means something. I don’t know what it means. It means something. Al Gore hasn’t shut down. It means something.

We are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry. We took over a conference room, Occupy, Arlington, wherever it is. We have a little table here. One side of the table, we have a student.

Other side of the table, we have a startup. We have a little 26-minute conversation, we walk out of here fast friends, and hopefully have a little bit of an idea of how startups maybe engage and sell and some of their marketing plans and their digital strategy. That’s the whole idea behind this podcast.

Our student here is Greg Forman and he’s recently finished his degree from Georgetown in systems engineering. Is that your degree, Greg?

Greg Forman: That’s correct, yeah, and I currently work for the Mitre Corporation. I do economic analysis and acquisition support for them, and I have a background in finance.

John Gilroy: Wow, that’s a perfect fit for our guest today. Our guest is Chris Bock and he is the Chief Operating Officer for a stranger name company. The company is 540. Tell us about your background and about this company, 540, please Chris.

Chris Bock: Sure, so I’ll start with myself. I grew up here in the DC area. My folks moved here when I was eight. I went to college not too far from here. I went to James Madison University. After college, I got a job working for the Department of the Navy working in acquisition and contracting and cut my teeth there in terms of getting a good functional background in how the government works, how the government does business, how they buy things.

 

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Chris Bock, COO 540

 

Then, after about five-and-a-half or so years doing that, I went into consulting, worked at a place called Coopers & Lybrand, which ultimately merged with Price Waterhouse, became PwC, which we’ve all heard of. I also spent some time with a little company called IBM. I spent 13 years there working in IBM’s federal consulting practice. I ran part the part of IBM’s business that focused on procurement consulting for public sector organizations, so federal governments, state and local, healthcare, higher education.

Wedged in the middle there, though, I did go to work for a startup in San Francisco in 2000, venture-backed, took my shot, had a good time, learned a lot. We went out of business, like most other startups in that era. But, a huge learning experience.

Then, about three years ago, I had an opportunity to join 540. 540, at the time, where we were about a five-person organization, focused on federal government, specifically Department of Defense. You mentioned our funny little name. It’s actually a great conversation starter for us because that’s almost always one of the first questions I get is, “What does 540 stand for?” 540 is actually the sum of the angles of the Pentagon.

John Gilroy: Oh, I didn’t get that.

Chris Bock: It ties directly back into who our initial customer base was.

John Gilroy: I thought you had 540 years of experience. IBM, the Navy, the background is pretty wide, isn’t?

Chris Bock: Yeah, it’s interesting. As I sit here, I don’t want to say how many year later, but it’s a number of years later.

John Gilroy: You seem like you’re an NFL quarterback, you’re playing for the local peewee league. It seems like you have this big skillset for a small company.

Chris Bock: No, no, no. 540 is … I mentioned when I started, there were five of us. We’re at about 35 right now, so we’ve grown quite a bit, and we’ve expanded our client base. I joined because our founder, John O’Brien, has a real vision and passion around helping make the government more effective and how it manages and uses its data. We talk about trying to create a frictionless environment inside the government, and sharing data across organizations. I see a lot of opportunity to help the government become better about the way it does its business.

For me, I was in the right place at the right time. I was ready to go back. I had been at a startup once before, so I wanted to get back to that small, build something from the ground up. The energy and the passion behind that, I was ready for all of those things. Even though we’re a small company, we’re trying to do big things.

John Gilroy: And friends with our previous guest, Avery Brown.

Chris Bock: Yes.

John Gilroy: He’s a character.

Chris Bock: Yes. I see him in the halls at 1776 pretty frequently.

John Gilroy: Greg, you want to jump in here?

Greg Forman: Sure. So, just say we ran into each other in the elevator. Give me a quick pitch on what business is that 540 does.

 

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Greg Forman

 

Chris Bock: So, our focus is helping the government, and specifically the Department of Defense, unlock its data. There’s data all over the place within the department. It’s scroll away and old systems and Excel spreadsheets. It’s all very disparate, and in some cases, very hard to get to. Our vision is a department, an organization, where that data is able to flow freely inside the enterprise, and outside to the extent that it needs to, so that people can get access to it, can do cool things from an analytics perspective, make better business decisions, that sort of thing.

We’re not an analytics company. We’re not necessarily building pretty pie charts and things like that. We’re all about unlocking the data and creating that frictionless environment.

John Gilroy: I just had a friend who was hired by Red Hat and he sent me an email today and he said, “Open source is where it’s at.” From an acquisition perspective, Greg, what do you think, harder to acquire or easier to acquire?

Greg Forman: From an open source perspective, just from my experience with the government, they are very rooted in their ways and have a lot of processes that don’t always make sense to outsiders, but there’s obviously reasons why they’ve come about.

Open source, on the other hand, seems like it could offer a lot of solutions in this space. I don’t know open source solutions very well, so maybe you could give us some examples or maybe explain a little bit.

Chris Bock: Sure. So, I certainly agree with you that there are some inherent barriers to innovation in the government, and a lot of that is security based. There’s a lot of it that’s just based on … I think a lot of it is based on perception. There’s a perception of open source that’s got to be bad … That’s maybe the wrong word, that’s got to be vulnerable. So, there’s an education process that we try to go through.

But, the other thing that we’ve really seen, and this is as some of the more innovative organizations have started to get some traction in the government, the US Digital Services, 18F, those types of organizations, they are obviously much more open-minded when it comes to things like open source, see the value of it and see the benefits to not being locked in to particular vendors, particular technologies.

So, in our case, as a small, innovative company, what we’re really trying to do is find those people within the government that have that mindset, have that way of thinking. There are always going to be people that you’re never going to get to that point of being ready to necessarily innovate. Our mission is to try and find the people that are willing to be open-minded and open to open source.

 

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Chris Bock, COO 540

 

John Gilroy: There’s a fellow who sat in that seat a couple months back. His name is Dr. Cameron Gorginpour. I don’t know if you were there, but he talked about the Air Force and OTAs. In fact, he came back for an Eastern Foundry event and had filled the room, talked about a new innovative way to acquire things for the Air Force. It seems like the government needs … An outsider who has a PhD from California, comes in and says, “Here’s a new way to achieve objectives in the Air Force you never thought of before.” They couldn’t hold on to him.

Are you familiar with the OTAs and how this works? Is it something that you think is appropriate for buying software as well?

Chris Bock: I think are definitely innovative ways. Being a former acquisition and procurement person, I appreciate the value of the process and I understand why it’s there. Anytime you’re talking about government acquisition, government programs, you’re talking about taxpayer money, there’s a fiduciary responsibility that we have as government officials to make sure that the dollars are spent in the right way, that there’s a level playing field, fairness, all of those sorts of things.

But, having said that, I also see the downsides to those processes and how they can stifle innovation, and anytime there’s an opportunity to do something different, in terms of the way the government buys things, it’s important to explore.

One of the things that we’ve particularly been encouraged by has been the way a number of organizations have gone about issuing solicitations for development programs, for agile delivery services, is the inclusion of technical challenges. We’ve participated in a number of those. 18F was really the first organization to do that. They put out a solicitation. This was, oh gosh, two-and-a-half years ago, and they had all of the vendors build something. It’s like show me what you can do, use open source tools, and instead of focusing on what have you done in the past, what can you write in a proposal and a technical volume, show me some software. Show me something that you’ve built. Show me the process. Do it out in the open. Do it all in GitHub.

We’re starting to see more of that, and I hope that will continue to happen because one of the things, again, as I put my former hat on as a government procurement official, it’s very frustrating when you go through an entire process of doing a procurement, awarding a contract to somebody and then they’re not able to deliver. You award to the low price or some semblance of best value and you end up with not a capability that’s accomplishing the mission that you set out to achieve. So, anything that the government does in terms of innovating the procurement process is a positive in my mind.

Greg Forman: So, I’m curious who within the government would be your target audience.

Chris Bock: That’s a good question. As I mentioned, we certainly focus on trying to find those pockets of innovation. In some places, it’s a little bit more obvious. If there’s an organization that has a Chief Data Officer, typically if an organization is forward-thinking enough to have a Chief Data Officer, they are probably thinking about, “What’s my data strategy? How should we be better managing our data?” And hopefully they fill that position with somebody that is open-minded and wants to hear about what the possibilities are. So, anytime we see a Chief Data Officer, that’s somebody that we’re going to probably want to talk to.

But, there are also pockets of innovation all over the place in different government organizations. Our focus is on attending … We still do a lot of the attending industry days and things like that when we see keywords like agile delivery services, open source, maybe some specific technologies that we know fit into that bucket that represent potential organizations that at least gives us some indication of, hey, these folks might be forward-thinking and might be the types of people that we want to work with and that we can help be successful.

John Gilroy: I went to your website, 540.co, and all kinds of hashtags there, #api, #angulardata, #data, and the one I liked was #elasticsearch. Earlier this year I assigned one of my students to talk to people. I said, “Talk to George Young.” Elastic search is exploding. So many sales. I don’t know if they can even print enough invoices for all they’re selling. It got to the point, one of my students turned to me and said, “I want to meet George. I want to apply to work in elastic search.”

Is this the kind work with, new and innovative? Very creative way to take a look at search.

Chris Bock: Yeah, absolutely. We know George. We’ve actually, again, we take the perspective of how can we make that data available so that you can do cool things with it? Elastic is a great platform to enable that.

One of the things that we’re doing as an R&D project, and this is something that we’ve actually had going for the last couple of years. We use it as a platform to show what our abilities are. It’s called Fed API. It’s a platform where we’re essentially harvesting publicly available data and then making available via APIs. We built it on elastic search. So, we’re pulling in data. We’re pulling in procurement data from the federal procurement data system next generation. We are pulling in budget data from the budget books that are issued.

One of the cooler things that we are doing with it and I think as a showcase of what we can do, we’re ingesting bid protest information, decision data from the GAO. When the GAO issues a bid protest decision, they just essentially issue a document. It’s a PDF, and if you’re interested in what was the outcome on such-and-such protest, you can go and read it and look at it.

We’re actually harvesting that, bringing it in Elasticsearch, and making that information searchable, so you can run analytics on it and you can do analysis on bid protest decisions over time and look for trends and things like that. So, we’ve built that as a showcase for what the art of the possible possible is and elastic is part of what makes that possible.

John Gilroy: So, Greg, when you hear the phrase bid protest, does that keep you up at night? If you have to go to the dentist, I mean …

Greg Forman: Yeah, I think I’d rather get a root canal than handle a bid protest, to be completely honest. So, I actually would like to pivot just a little bit. How would 540, how do they foster innovation? How do they come up with new ideas? How do you know which areas to try and go after?

 

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Greg Forman

 

Chris Bock: We really focus on listening to what people on the government side are saying. We don’t necessarily go into a meeting with a Chief Data Officer or a Chief Information Officer with some sort of an agenda, “Here’s how we’re going to sell you 540 and make you better.” What we really want to do is hear, “What’s your problem? What’s your business challenge?” We then take that back and try and figure out a way to address that. We consider ourselves to be builders as opposed to talkers or writers. As I mentioned, when I was talking about the technical challenges, that’s we elected so much because that’s where we’re able to show what we can really do. We don’t have to have a technical challenge to build something. We’ll sit down with somebody, a senior person in the government that talks about some business problem that they’re having. We’ll go home over the weekend. We’ll hack together a solution, come back as early as the next Monday and say, “Is this what you were talking about?”

It’s amazing how well that resonates and it really hits the mark when you can show them. Then they can say, “Oh yeah, that’s really good. That’s what we’re thinking. But, boy, it would be really cool if it also did these three other things.” It gets to a point where then the engagement model shifts a little bit and you start to talk about how can we get into a business relationship with one another so that we can actually build something for you?

John Gilroy: Listening to Chris, I’m thinking to myself, there was a commercial years ago. It was, “Not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The old traditional way would be a guy with a suit and tie would come in and say, “This is the answer. We’re the square peg in a square hole.” Now it almost seems more like what Greg would do, come in and say, “Well, let’s be real flexible about this. Let’s listen and flex and move and try something and fail and try something and move. This is classic dev ops, classic agile with software and development.” That’s what you’re describing.

Chris Bock: Yeah, absolutely.

John Gilroy: Billboard, skywriting? How do you market yourself?

Chris Bock: Thus far, we’ve done a lot through, honestly, word of mouth. The government community, we work a lot in the acquisition and procurement space. In the Department of Defense, we’re dealing with a lot of organizations that handle business information, program information. That’s a huge community, but it’s a tight community and they talk to each other. That’s been, honestly, a big part of the way we’ve grown.

We do take the opportunity when it’s available to speak and present in open forums, talk about things that we’re doing. We haven’t evolved to the point yet of running ads on the radio or anything like that. Maybe someday.

John Gilroy: I haven’t heard the word badged, haven’t heard the word security, haven’t heard the word cybersecurity yet. It seems like if you walk into the Pentagon, you’ve got to have two of those words on your business card, don’t you?

Chris Bock: Sure. I think one of the things that has helped us is the fact that our foundation of our company, being working in the Department of Defense from the outset, we kind of know what we’re getting into when it comes to that. We’re not naïve. I’m a former government person. John O’Brien, our founder, also former government. He was with an organization called The Business Transformation Agency back in the mid-2000s. So, it gives us I think a little bit of credibility when we sit down across the table from a government person, that they understand that I understand you used to work at the Navy, or you used to work at the BTA. So, having that foundation, and understanding that there are requirements around security, for example, and there are certain constraints that you’re going to have to be able to operate in.

We’re fortunate that we’ve cultivated within our team an understanding of those. So, when our folks are putting together solutions, they’re always done within the overall parameters that exist from a security perspective and things like that.

Greg Forman: I’m curious who you might think your competitors are.

Chris Bock: Our competitors. In this environment. Personally, my competitor with this one particular client is probably my partner with another. We’ve been very active in trying to participate in the community in terms of meet ups and things like that, meeting other companies that are like us that are small, aggressive, forward thinking. We tend to try and find opportunities to work together rather than work against one another. I would suppose that those types of companies do represent our competition, at least on that playing field of agile, technical challenge procurement types of opportunities. We don’t see ourselves competing with big system integrators, those types of organizations.

We try to focus … We’re focused on the build. We’re not focused on the operate, the O&M. We don’t have a bunch of consultants. I’m making air quotes. We’re not the functional butts in seats type of an organization. That’s not what we’re trying to be. You don’t really see us competing with those types of organizations, at least from a traditional we’re both bidding on the same types of things.

John Gilroy: You’re the guy with the IBM background, though.

Chris Bock: Sure.

John Gilroy: Three-piece suit and the briefcase and we’re the square peg in the square hole. What happened?

Chris Bock: I spent a long time with IBM and I learned a ton. We did some really great things. I think even in a big organization like that, there are opportunities to be innovative and to do cool things. I was a little bit more on the process side within IBM as opposed to the technology side. Everything that IBM does has some aspect of technology overtone to it.

 

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Chris Bock, COO 540

 

But, we were definitely focused on trying to push the envelope from process perspective in terms of how organizations handle and run their procurement operations and how to be innovative in doing procurements a different way.

So, even in an organization like that where you’re one of many, at the working level, you’re working in relatively small teams and trying to crack the nut to be innovative in order to help your clients be successful.

John Gilroy: Last question, Greg. Do you want to jump in here, please?

Greg Forman: I think this is a good one to end on. Where do you guys see yourselves in maybe five, ten years? What’s the end goal?

Chris Bock: The end goal for us, if we are able to continue to grow and help more and more organizations be effective, then I think we’ll consider ourselves successful. We’re not a traditional startup. We’re not venture backed. We’re self-funded. We’re not beholden to any sort of investor community or anything like that.

We’re really passionate about our mission and helping our clients be successful, and to the extent that we can find more people in the government that think the way that we do and want to innovate, want to do things the right way and make things better, the more of those types of people that we can uncover and work with. That’s success for us. If that means we’ve doubled in size, great. If that means we’re the same size we are today, that’s great, too. We’re not beholden to any metrics.

John Gilroy: Great job, Great. Chris, we’re running out of time here. If people want more information about 540, where should they go?

Chris Bock: Sure. As you mentioned, John, our website is 540.co. We do have a Twitter handle, 540co. You can also get information there. We’re located at 1776 in Crystal City, which it’s been a great place for us. It’s a hub of innovation in the northern Virginia area. So, stop by to visit.

John Gilroy: Great. If you would like to have show notes, links, or transcripts, please visit theoakmontgroupllc.com. I’d like to thank our sponsor, The Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact The Radiant Group. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry. It’s a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com and if you would like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, John Gilroy, theoakmontgroupll.com, and thanks for listening to Students Versus Startups showdown the Potomac.

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Featuring Real Time Cases

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 48 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Founder of Real Time Cases, Jake Schaufeld.  Real Time Cases takes case studies into the modern era by using fresh, up-to-date videos to teach students the latest business problems. Listen below to hear why Jake started the company!


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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups showdowns Potomac. My name’s John Gilroy. I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for show number 48.

I can’t believe, you know. Al Gore hasn’t closed us down. The FCC hasn’t shut us down, so we’re kind of lucky. If you’ve heard these podcasts before, you know what we do. We are at the offices of Eastern Foundry.

We kind of took over a conference room, got a student on one side of the table, start up on the other. We have a 26-minute discussion. We all walk out of here fast friends and maybe learn a little about some of the challenges in starting up a company.

I’m gonna introduce my student first and then introduce the startup. Our student today is Greg Foreman and he finished his Master’s degree in Systems from Georgetown University, that right Greg?

Greg Forman: That’s right. I work for the Mitre Corporation. I do economic analysis for them and I have finance background.

John Gilroy: Good. Such a very, very interesting set of questions for our start up. Our start up, his name is Jack Schaufeld and the name of the company is Real Time Cases. Local fellow from the Washington, D.C. area. Jake, tell us a little quickly about your background, please.

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Jake Schaufeld: Well, I went to Lehigh University. I majored in Environmental Science and minored in Entrepreneurship, worked in a bunch of different jobs while I was in school including venture capitalist and analyst and really just wanted to change a lot of the ways that I learned in higher ed.

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Jake Schaufeld-Founder, Real Time Cases

John Gilroy: You know, one of the best chief technology officers I ever met was a young man who has a background in environmental science because he, all of a sudden, the cloud and the environment, he was a perfect fit for it. He just was so quick in the company because he understand the interrelationships in the different systems. We’ll talk about all that today. So, let’s say we’re sitting in the metro and I turn to you, have a little conversation. So I say, “Hmm, Real Time Cases, that’s a strange name for a company, what business problem do you solve, Jake?”

Jake Schaufeld: We solve the problem of engagement and relevant learning within the higher ed business curriculum.

John Gilroy: Well that’s kind of interesting. Just like teaching a higher ed curriculum and we have a recent student who graduated from a higher ed curriculum so this makes for an interesting conversation. I’ll let you jump in right here, Greg. I have tons of questions. You can just start with the first question, please.

Greg Forman: Sure. First of all, this sounds like it would have been the perfect thing for me to have, Real Time Cases, going into the workforce, so it sounds like a really good opportunity here, but how did you come up with the idea for Real Time Cases?

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Greg Forman

Jake Schaufeld: So, it’s kind of funny. I took some business classes when I was up at Lehigh University and I really didn’t enjoy a lot of the classes either because they were very theoretical or because they were based so far in the past which was very difficult to grasp onto and was frustrating for me and I ended up majoring in environmental science, but I was working as an analyst part-time for a venture capital firm that my father started, so I was their first analyst, and I just kind of got thrown into it and had to learn how to do financial modeling, which environmental science actually helped with surprisingly and had to learn due diligence and had to help CEOs solve their problems and all these different things.

And then, at the same time, I had a fraternity brother, who was an accounting and finance major, got straight A’s in accounting and finance, but had a lot of difficulty with sort of practical accounting and finance, which I had knowledge in through venture capital. And it just didn’t make any sense why this straight A student would have to ask me for any help with anything business related because it just wasn’t my background and he ended up getting a job at KPMG and they told him anything you need to know to be successful here, we’re gonna have to teach you. So, he was obviously a little frustrated spending $50,000 plus a year going to school, getting straight A’s, doing everything that he needed.

You know, Lehigh’s a very good accounting and finance school and then we took an entrepreneurship class together and we tried to identify how I learned really by solving problems through the executives I engaged with and why can’t we bring that experience to students and obviously the closest methodology that’s used right now is the case study methodology, which originally was to solve exactly this issue. It’s just, back in 1906, when they started this, things just didn’t move as fast as today.

John Gilroy: So what your website says is that you’re reinventing the way case studies are administered and the way you’re inventing it is through video. Is that right?

Jake Schaufeld: Yeah. All of our material is video-centric, so we do have some written materials and teaching notes and things that go along for our professors and the students to reference, but it’s video-centric. It needs to be very engaging from the student’s perspective because if you’re looking at, you know at least the millennial consumer today, the biggest issue is eliminating barriers to the education more than getting them passionate, because most people can say, “I’m very passionate about learning,” but you put, you know, 30 pages of text in front of me, you’ve just made a barrier to me figuring out what that issue is and then you tell me it’s about McDonald’s in the 1980’s. Well, I wasn’t in the 1980’s, so there’s another barrier to me figuring out how to solve that issue.

Greg Forman: So how do you go about developing these systems cases?

Jake Schaufeld: So, this took a while to really figure out because originally I just said, “What would I like to learn?” I just went to executives and said what’s a challenge you have, can we put that out and put that in a video format and see if we can get it into the classroom. But academia and the real business world don’t really line up very clearly. Things are defined very differently in academia than they are in the business world.

For example, sales is very rarely taught in academia, it’s just sort of assumed that you’re making revenue. So we have a process where we really identify the co operations of a business, and then we identify challenges on their side and then try to map those to learning objectives and learning outcomes for different programs and different classes. So that not only are we solving the issue of the company, but we’re directly mapping those to learning objectives of the classroom so that a professor who gets this doesn’t have to creatively think about how to involve it in their classroom. It clearly maps to their course, so it’s just an easier adoption. And that took a while to really get that down.

John Gilroy: I’m trying to understand the business model here, you know, the buy low sell high or the add ten percent or something. So you would walk up to Foreman Industries and go … Tell me the model, I’m confused.

Jake Schaufeld: Besides selling dimes for nickles?

John Gilroy: Yes. Something like that. What’s the buy low sell high, or show me the money here?

Jake Schaufeld: So we started, our model is really like a traditional publisher right now, except it’s more subscription based. Internationally, it’s all site licenses because just culturally you’re not expected to pay for course materials past your initial tuition. But in the US it’s either a site license with the department or a school, or it’s mandated by the professor where individual students end up paying for the material in a lot of those cases.

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Jake Schaufeld- Founder, Real Time Cases

John Gilroy: So your targeted market is a university, then?

Jake Schaufeld: Our target customer is a professor. Either an aggregated professors who purchase this through a university or a department or an individual professor for their classroom. Because, although the student in most cases is paying, professor is the one whose mandating it.

Greg Forman: So is it difficult to get companies to open up about problems they have, and that kind of segues into another conversation, which is how do you go about finding executives or businesses that are willing to share, maybe problems that they have that are real world that might give competition insight into problems they’re having? How do you break down those barriers?

Jake Schaufeld: So, that’s actually one of the easier parts. Most of the companies that engage with us just see so much benefit in getting feedback from the millennial consumer or whoever else in the student demographic that it’s totally worth it to them to put forward their challenges. And in today’s world, most challenges are pretty forefront anyway. It’s like you know what’s going on, and it’s really just can we get help with it.

Now there are situations where they’ll share proprietary or confidential information, but we usually help them identify MBAs or graduate level courses where they’re used to signing an NDA and it’s a different type of engagement. For undergraduate students, I don’t think you can legally hold them under an agreement like an NDA. It’s more of a moral agreement, if you ever do it.

John Gilroy: So, you’ve read Harvard Review case studies, I’m sure? Would this be a good mix for you, Greg? I don’t know.

Greg Forman: It definitely seems like it would be. I mean, what Jake mentioned before was that some of these business cases or case studies tend to be difficult to apply in real world, even though some of these Harvard Business Review, they’re probably the better of business cases. But the video format and I think just their target audience seems like it’s really beneficial for going into the workforce and people that are getting an early start on their career.

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Greg Forman

John Gilroy: Would you qualify for receiving grants for education? I mean, it seems like one way to fund your company, wouldn’t it?

Jake Schaufeld: I think there are a lot of grants that we could go after for our company. It’s mostly from a, when you look at it from a bandwidth perspective and a sales perspective receiving grants or searching for grants is like developing another sales team. You have to develop people to drive revenue in that way rather than just selling our product. It’s not something that we’ve gone after, we got some grants very early on, but we’re lucky enough to be well funded. We can continue the way we want to.

Greg Forman: So we’ve talked about Harvard Business Review as an example potential competitor. Do you consider them a competitor or would you say, maybe there’s another niche that you kind of fall into, or who would you say your major competitors are?

Jake Schaufeld: So, we’re competing for time in the classroom, which could mean anything. If you’re talking about us as just a case, then Harvard owns, I think 80-90 percent market share of case sales. So they are the standard. The problem with the case methodology is its been so defined by Harvard for such a long time that it’s unobtainable for most students. A traditional Harvard case takes a year or two to make, it’s lots of pages, it’s very difficult if you don’t have an overarching knowledge of finance with marketing and sales and all these different things.

And a lot of the cool parts about our cases is that you can actually focus on one section of the business. You could say I’m going to focus on this marketing aspect or you can pull together different modules of operations that we have so that you can look at an all encompassing case that might have 40 minutes of video broken up into sections. So it’s just a lot more dynamic than sort of the traditional case, but really it’s what do … Professors have a set amount of time, they have certain things that they have to teach to their students. Are they gonna teach it with this? Or are they gonna teach it with a textbook or some other methodology.

John Gilroy: You know my sister, named Cathy, lives in California. She teaches out there, she teaches Social Media Marketing. And so what you folks would do is your sales rep would call up Cathy and go Hey Cathy, how you doing, I’d like you to subscribe, I’d like you to buy a set of cases for your class or what’s the nuts and bolts of it?

Jake Schaufeld: For her class, we either will have a package of cases selected for her, based on the learning objectives of those types of classes because a lot of them are very uniform. Even if they’re taught in a different way, they have similar learning objectives and we would help identify cases that she would want to use and then get a code that her students would then come onto our website or through their LMS be prompted to pay at that point, unless they were doing a department wide sale or an enterprise deal with the university.

Greg Forman: So in terms of these cases, do any of your cases, are they solved so to speak or are they all kind of unresolved issues that a company has. The reason I ask is, is there a way for you to kind of measure maybe a student or a classroom’s solution that they’ve offered and measure that against maybe a real world solution.

Jake Schaufeld: Cases on our platform that are marked legacy have been solved. Most of our cases, how we divide them up is timely versus timeless. You have some cases that really do last for years. For example, we have a great one with Wedding Wire. It’s a local company, but one of the number one wedding planning companies in the world and they were looking to go international. Which countries are the best opportunity internationally and why?

During that case when it was deployed, they purchased a company called Bodas.net in Spain, and students then say, okay where do we go next and how do we integrate Bodas.net, it really is a continuing case because they’re trying to grow globally and continuously. One of the cool parts about our cases though is because they’re all happening right now, every student has the opportunity to submit their solution to the company with the chance of being recognized and maybe even rewarded by the company if they’re interested in their solution.

John Gilroy: Well, you know Jake, I am your target audience because I teach in the graduate school of Georgetown and I just submitted a rubric two weeks ago for a class starting in January. Now, what happens in my situation, I’m automatically subscribed to the HPR, I can assign as many HPR articles as I want and it doesn’t cost me a dime. And so, when I look at a student, I say well I’m not a big fan of HPR but I think there are some professors that use it for a lot of different reasons.

But I don’t have to pay a dime for that, so what you’re gonna do is you’re gonna call me up and say Hey Jon, you’re getting these free HPR articles, but I want you to use our videos because of one, two and three. Is that kind of the back and forth that takes place?

Jake Schaufeld: Yeah, and for students one of the toughest parts is a lot of these schools have set up relationships with publishers where they can already purchase and then they’re taking the price away from the students, but really it’s just tied into their tuition anyway. And then in other cases, there are highly highly discounted cases where I’ll talk to professors and they’ll say I have problems with my students getting upset about paying $495 for a case, and your cases are $11, for each of your video cases. And the way I usually respond to that is the reason why you have trouble is the students had a bad experience.

It doesn’t matter how much you pay if you have a bad experience, you’re going to be upset about it and you’re going to be upset that you paid anything. You’re going to feel like you got ripped off. You had to go through the humiliation of typing in your credit card to buy something that you don’t like and that you’re not going to enjoy learning from or watching, which I think is a travesty. I think learning should be fun, and it should be relevant. Students learn to hate learning super early, and it’s just really unfortunate. And it happened with me, too. I would go to school and I would dislike a lot of the ways I was being taught and then I would go home and I’d watch the History Channel for two hours. So I knew I didn’t hate learning. I just didn’t like the way I was learning.

John Gilroy: You know Greg, big wave on Facebook of course, video. Right now Microsoft owns LinkedIn, LinkedIn is doing a lot of videos. It seems to be this is big waves, is this something trendy or something appealing or …?

Greg Forman: So I certainly think that this has some legs to it. I think branching away from just the paper or things that you can hold in your hand, I think the digital content is definitely going to reach different audiences, especially a millennial type audience and future generations. I mean, obviously you’ve seen that pretty big wave like you were talking about, and I certainly see that playing strong in the future, so.

John Gilroy: So what’s the dream for you? Five years from now, you own an island on the Caribbean, put your feet up on tables, smoke a cigar? You own the New York Jets? Maybe the Red Skins, I don’t know if that’ll happen… Where do you see this …

Jake Schaufeld: The inflection point that you get to, at least with us is when you’re looking at your TAM, or your Total Addressable Market, you need to figure out where spending money and where could we expand this type of learning to really help the educational experience, because I want students to enjoy learning. So, for us it’s the decision do you go wide or do you go deep? And if we go wide, then we say we’re gonna do supplements and videos for every course possible. And if we go deep, we try to take money away from the textbooks and we say that’s where the money’s being spent and we really want to provide a better option for that. And for us, you can get unlimited cases at $60. You could teach an entire course with cases that you switch out that hit every subject all the way through.

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Jake Schaufeld- Founder, Real Time Cases

I would really love to continue the disruption of a lot of the big players. It’s not a secret that McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Cengage, the biggest players have been losing money for almost the past decade and laying people off. And that’s because they’ve been holding on to a model that just has been dying a little bit at a time, really with these printed textbooks. If I can create something where I can make the market realize that they have to deliver content in a different way to students in bite-sized, engaging, relevant pieces; just making that change … Biggest thing for me is I want to get copied. I want everyone else to try to do the same thing just to spark that change.

When I started this company, it’s really something that we’re really passionate about, making education better and it’s honestly not about the money because you can make a lot more money not in education, a lot faster.

John Gilroy: You know, Greg, when I think of quality, HPR I mean … Harvard. And then so, are there qualitative issues you see with any of these videos, or are these just provocative for discussions in the classroom, or?

Greg Forman: Everything I saw seemed actually quite high quality, to be completely honest. And while I think HPR you can certainly expect a certain level of quality and consistency between every video, there is something I think valuable having another entrant with a different viewpoint, with different ideas coming in and providing a different solution. Yeah, I definitely see some value-

John Gilroy: What I do, in my classroom, is I bring in humans. I bring in entrepreneurs. I brought in a guy from IED-ME and he talked about starting a company and he … I think the week before he had asked for 8 million dollars or something, so they couldn’t make it last week because I had to bring in 8 million dollars. So that’s what I try to engage my students. So what you’re seeing is that there are instructors, professors whatever you want to call them who have a hard time bringing humans, or never even think of bringing in humans. I mean, maybe you’re the human provided in video format for them.

Jake Schaufeld: Experiential learning, it’s always been known that that’s one of the best ways to learn and to get students involved. The biggest problem has been what modalities do you do it with and how do you scale it. So you end up in a situation with a lot of money being thrown at issues, but it’s usually very inefficient. The used case that I’ve seen many times is you see a dean or you see a provost who has a couple hundred thousand dollars or half a million dollars or a million dollars for experiential learning because we’re gonna hit all of our AACSB accreditation goals, and we’re gonna put real world learning into everything.

And they go and they get their instructional designers, they get their alumni and things and then a lot of the professors like Okay, I’m just gonna keep teaching the way I’ve been doing because I’m a researched faculty, or it just doesn’t make sense or it’s so out of the box that it’s just not really, it doesn’t really fit the way that academia works. And then they create some special program, they educate 60 students with that half a million dollars. The money is there, it’s just so many people just try to bypass a lot of what academia has learned over the years. There’s a reason why we did case studies and we don’t just do videos. We do video cases and real time cases because that’s a modality that makes sense in academia, that’s used in academia, can be adopted in academia. We created a more flexible way.

John Gilroy: One of the hottest courses now is anything to do with cyber security. Mobile security, moving the cloud, compliance, so do you have case studies that specifically address cyber security?

Jake Schaufeld: Right now? No. But, that’s actually something we’ve been looking into a lot and trying to work with some of the leaders in cyber security, like Telos locally and the northern Virginia community colleges and things to really create some engaging content so that a lot of students can push toward a cyber security career. One of the big things that we can do through tons of little videos that’s different from a case is we can expose you to just a ton of different business aspects and a ton of different business models you couldn’t otherwise.

I know at Lehigh, it’s a big accounting and finance school almost all of the students said when they do well in accounting and finance, they say I’m going to go work for an accounting firm. Now there’s an accounting department in every business in the world, why can’t you go work for a fun start up? Why can’t you say I think KIND healthy snacks looks great, or I think Custom Ink is a really interesting company because they always win top companies to work at. These jobs and things are all over, students just don’t get the exposure to it.

John Gilroy: I saw some KIND bars in the shop today, and I thought about the video you have. You have a video on your site from KIND, don’t you?

Jake Schaufeld: Oh yeah.

John Gilroy: So what’s the business problem they were challenged with?

Jake Schaufeld: They had a bunch of different challenges. Some of their challenges are just around growth, they’re moving so quickly, they’ve had some great challenges around what products should they put out next. Because they have a company called KIND, they can really go into so many different industries- so many different products, different than like pretzel crisps where it’s like you’re not gonna be selling deli sandwiches or something like that. They have a ton of fascinating cases, and they’re all real. And they want feedback on, and even with some of these very large organizations, the feedback from students have really changed their organization, which is something that we always wished for but we didn’t always know that it was gonna happen. But it really did, which is very cool.

John Gilroy: So Greg, let’s rewind the tape Back to the Future, so right before you walked into my classroom and I started showing short videos like this, and it would provoke a discussion in the classroom. Would that aid, would that hinder; what would you feedback be?

Greg Forman: I certainly don’t think it would hinder. Would it aid? So, I think given the right case for the right curriculum, I think you absolutely would have a perfect match and I think it helps you to really stimulate creative thinking as opposed to just learning rote material. So I definitely see an advantage there.

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Greg Forman

John Gilroy: I have an engagement model, where I had all my students come to an event at Eastern Foundry instead of going to class one evening, and they had to come back with like five business cards or something. And so, it was face to face engaging rather than with a video, but I think there’s applications. I have a hard time with … So what’s the marketing model, you advertise? I mean, how do you contact these professors?

Jake Schaufeld: The tough things about professors is they’re professors, so they’re a very passive customer. They’re not seeking out content, they’re just kind of bombarded all the time with content from all over. The easy part about professors is all of their cellphone numbers and emails are up online. You can get access to all of them. They’re up on their website, you know what they teach, you can tailor things directly towards them; you know it’s a lot of inside sales, direct reach outs, different conferences. We do really well at the nerdy conferences, those are great. I love getting into case theory with people and why this works and why it’s engaging is- those are the best.

We don’t do as well at like the EdTech conferences, where everyone wants to see the very shiny new technology system that plugs into your LMS and breaks all your systems.

John Gilroy: LMS, Learning Management System? Okay.

Jake Schaufeld: Sorry, I always forget.

John Gilroy: So if someone’s listening to this, wants to find more information about your company, what website should they go to?

Jake Schaufeld: You can go to RealTimeCases.com, you can see a lot of our cases right there, are readily available. If you’re a professor, you can sign on and you can view all of our material. You can also call us whenever, we have instructional designers on call. It’s our job to help you with it. And you have the selection that you want. We’re there for it.

John Gilroy: And there’s a lot of engaging videos, you can spend an hour there on all kinds of different topics and talk about KIND bars, all kinds of different things.

Well unfortunately Jake, we’re running out of time here. If you’re listening to this and want show notes, links or a transcript, just visit the OakmontGroupLLC.com.

I’d like to thank our sponsor, the Radeon Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact the Radeon Group. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry. It’s a community of government contractors, who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace.

For more information on them, go to Eastern-Foundry.com, and if you would like to participate as a student or start up, contact me, John Gilroy@The Oakmont Group LLC.com and thanks for listening to Students Versus Startups: Showdown at Potomac.

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Featuring Spira

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 47 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Founder of Spira, Elliot Roth. Spira is made from spirulina, which is a fresh ingredient that is virtually tasteless that provides a significant portion of dietary needs. Listen below to hear about food for the future!

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

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Thanks to our Sponsor:

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Transcript:

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 here for show number 47, yay baby! Wow, matches my IQ, matches my IQ. 47. Well if you’ve heard the podcast before, you know the drill. We have a conference room over here at Eastern Foundry. We kind of stole a chair and a couple tables and put them in the room here. One side of the table we have some students, one side of this table we have a startup. We have a 26 minute conversation, then we walk out of here and go to the local brewery or something, we have some fun.

Our students today, we have a good section of students here. Ricardo tell us about your background please.

Ricardo: Hi. I recently graduated from Georgetown’s technology management program and now I work for a startup called clutch.co, and we connect B2B service providers with potential clients across the world.

John Gilroy: Whoa, so you’re a student and a startup.

Ricardo: Student and a startup, yes.

Elliot Roth: We need to switch spots right now.

John Gilroy: So in a couple weeks, have you on the other side of the table or something. Ikena your background please.

Ikena: My name is Ikena Nwampa. I am a graduate from Georgetown’s technology management program. I work in community development developing the business systems that financial institutions use to apply for grants.

John Gilroy: And Elliot Roth is our startup here on the other side of the table. Elliot tell us about your company and how you got involved in this please.

Elliot Roth: Yes, my company is Spira. We create technology that grows, processes, and engineers algae for a variety of different applications, primarily protein for human consumption. Part of the reason I got involved in that is a kinda crazy story that I’ll go into in a little bit, but you can kinda consider me as this mad scientist and inventor. I built a laboratory in my garage.

John Gilroy: A laboratory!

Elliot Roth: A laboratory! A bit Dexter-esque. From scavenging and dumpster diving for lab equipment out of the back of my university. And using that lab I started all sorts of crazy projects, and this is one of them that has just taken off.

John Gilroy: Wow, interesting, interesting. So S-P-I-R-A, is that right?

Elliot Roth: Spira. Yep.

John Gilroy: Well I got tons and tons of questions. We’re gonna have Ikenna jump right in here and have at it there, big fella.

Ikena: So could you talk to us about your technology solution for the Spira.

Elliot Roth: Spirulina, yeah. So one of the core issues that many people end up having is just getting access to basic nutrition. I can’t count the number of times that I go to my fridge and open it up and don’t have anything to eat at all when I just need bare, basic, essential nutrients. So when I was living in Richmond, Virginia, I was going to school and a recent graduate, and I was living in a food desert. And I’d been such a mad scientist and inventor and I was just so focused on my work that I didn’t really notice that I was running out of money. And I didn’t necessarily … Being an entrepreneur, you don’t necessarily wanna go work for somebody else, and there was no jobs really around the area, and so I had a choice. I could either decide to go home, move into my parents’ basement, figure out different ways to kind of make money on the side, other things like that. Or, alternatively, figure out ways to cut cost, and focus on what I was truly passionate about.

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Founder of Spira, Elliot Roth

So, I had a choice between rent or food at one point. I was evicted from my place. It was incredibly difficult. Without friends, I wouldn’t have really gotten by. So I spent a good couple months couch surfing, and then wanted to figure out different ways to cut my only other cost, which was food. And I looked into the different ways that NASA had been growing food for astronauts in space. So in this tiny amount of space, for very, very little resources, how do you grow almost complete nutrition for a person? So, taking that research, I ended up using that in my little home laboratory as a means of … Actually it was a friend’s garage … as a means of growing and producing my own protein.

So Spirulina is something that was fed to astronauts as a means of providing for their nutrition, and we ended up creating a device that can grow almost all the protein you need at the press of a button every single day.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, jump in here buddy.

Ricardo: That’s awesome. I am actually a big fan of astronaut food, so can you talk to us a little bit about the Halcyon program at Georgetown and how does that play a role into your company?

Elliot Roth: Definitely. So-

John Gilroy: I have to jump in. H-A-L-C-Y-O-N.

Elliot Roth: Exactly.

John Gilroy: Halcyon. So you can look and Google it and find out.

Elliot Roth: Yeah. Halcyon is a program that was started by Dr. Sachiko Kuno back in 2011. And they bought this massive house in the middle of Georgetown, and what they do is they support creative individuals as a means of sponsoring social impact in the world. So they give you a small living stipend and five months’ residency in this giant mansion with some other crazy entrepreneurs that are working on world-changing problems as a means of solving some of the biggest global challenges of our era. So it’s been an incredibly supportive time. Halcyon stems from the phrase “halcyon days.” So it’s a period of calm in the midst of the Mediterranean, in which these birds can actually raise their young and rear their fledglings out of the nest. So that’s kind of what it does for entrepreneurs. It gives you a brief period of time to not have to worry about providing for your basic needs, which is what my company focuses on anyways, but in terms of focusing on your company and making sure that it grows.

John Gilroy: Ikena.

Ikena: So are there any strategic partnerships that come from out of that house that helps your company grow?

Elliot Roth: Yeah, so Halcyon is incredibly networked in the D.C. area. They end up bringing by some of the most prominent impact investors. And part of the reason why I moved my company to D.C. is that it’s the epicenter of connectivity in terms of international conglomerates. You have some of the most … the largest foundations located here, and it’s kind of a source of government funding as well. So, recently we had a Saudi Arabian prince come on by. We end up having all sorts of wild people, like Miss America came on through. Sorry, Miss Universe, pardon me. So, we get all sorts coming through our doors, and they’re all very interested in social impact and helping us make a change for the better in the world.

John Gilroy: And that’s the theme for Halcyon House: social impact.

Elliot Roth: Exactly.

John Gilroy: That makes sense to me. Before you were born, health food stores would sell Spirulina, as it’s a lot of different proteins and minerals and everything else. So, do people actually use the supplement, or is this a main food stay? Where do you see this fitting in?

Elliot Roth: There is a tribe right outside Lake Chad called the Kanembu tribe that actually uses Spirulina as a main supplement to their diet. However, I really see food as an enjoyment, and food should really be a pleasurable kind of experience. We shouldn’t have to worry about our basic needs.

So when I was working out of my garage lab and trying to figure out how to provide for my own basic needs, I kinda came to this aha moment. Normally Spirulina, as a powdered substance, it’s kinda bitter tasting. It’s not all that great tasting, and that’s why algae as a food substance hasn’t really taken on. But when you have it fresh, it actually has no taste whatsoever, and it has this really interesting buttery consistency. You can use it as a spread, and when it comes out, it kinda looks like blended avocado. So I started eating it pretty much daily, as a means of providing for most of my protein needs.

John Gilroy: So you grew it yourself?

Elliot Roth: Yes. So you can grow this kind of thing yourself, and that’s actually what we end up giving to people and selling to people.

Ricardo: How is it to grow this? What are the costs involved and difficulties?

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Ricardo Real

Elliot Roth: Spirulina is incredibly easy to grow. All you really need air, water, light, and a little bit of salt. And you can grow it virtually anywhere as long as the temperature stays relatively constant, and the lighting is present. So what we do is we create the environment in which Spirulina can grow in the best possible way. It doubles every single day. So to put it in perspective, if I took probably about half this conference table worth of volume of Spirulina, and then over the course of three months, it would be the entire mass of the world’s oceans. So I really see this-

John Gilroy: That’s disturbing!

Elliot Roth: Yeah, well I see this as a solution to global malnutrition. Granted, it only grows in very specific conditions, which means that we cater the environment in our devices to grow it in the best possible way anywhere in the world so you can get protein at the press of a button.

John Gilroy: Now, what some people say is that the B-12 in Spirulina is not ingestible by humans, so you could have a B-12 deficiency, which is classic for a lot of vegans, isn’t it?

Elliot Roth: Yeah, so one of the core micro-nutritional deficiencies we end up targeting is actually anemia, which is another component of the reason why B-12 is necessary for especially vegans and vegetarians. Spirulina has a high percentage of iron, so we can provide more bioavailable iron, whereas it might not provide bioavailable vitamin B-12. So there’s other kinds of micro-nutrition we can provide, but initially we were just focused on protein, and it seems like, with protein, you can end up using proteins for a variety of different applications, not just for human nutrition. As everybody knows who’s taken a biology class, proteins end up doing all the different functions of our body, and we’ve seen quite a bit of potential in the biotechnology industry.

Ikena: So, since it has so many functions, how would you describe your target market for … What’s your customer look like.

Elliot Roth: We have two different ways that we’re approaching this. One is the very lean startup methodology. We initially kind of did the same thing that I was doing in my laboratory where we have a very simple device that we sell online right now at livespira.com. L-I-V-E-S-P-I-R-A. And that device is basically a hobbyist kit where you can go take it and grow your own protein in your own home. We sell it for $100 or so.

Then, by improving upon that device we can reach more and more of a market. So right now, we get a lot of hobbyists who are interested in growing it for personal nutrition, and then a lot of the education space, people who are interested in learning about algae. What we found, though, is that the main technology for the algae industry in total … The algae industry in total is about $44.7 billion projected by 2023. It’s one of the largest, most unknown markets out there, because it’s in practically everything we just don’t know it. But the peak of technology for the algae industry is digging a hole in the middle of the desert, and then putting algae in that hole, and putting it in the sun, and just letting it grow.

So we realized in order to bring the algae industry into the 21st century, as means of providing additional tools for them, we needed to create a small scalable device that allowed them to grow algae as quickly and efficiently as possible. So right now we have a lot of interest from the algae biotech industry, a lot of algae researchers who are contacting us, trying to figure out how they can work with us and partner with us. In order to automate their processes, make sure they have less contamination from what they’re doing and what they’re growing, and then produce high value products out of these different devices.

Ricardo: That’s awesome. You mentioned Spira could be a solution to global malnutrition. Have you identified any areas of the world where you wanna put this in first? Why and what are some steps that you’re taking to get there?

Elliot Roth: One of the biggest challenges for any kind of social impact company is balancing both your financial sustainability and those kind of goals along with your kind of impact goals. So by the very nature of our company, by growing Spirulina we end up absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere 20 times as efficiently as trees. So by growing this you have a negative carbon output. So just by the nature of that, we already have a social benefit, but what we wanna end up doing even more so is distributing these kind of very simple devices to families in developing countries and nations in need. We ended up working with the World Food Program a little bit on developing different kind of strategies on doing that. Right now what we’re trying to target is these high-end sales and high-end units in order to subsidize deployment of these units, particularly in areas of the Four Famines in Africa, which is a problem area in the world right now.

John Gilroy: Ikena, if you go to Mexico they have tortillas, you go to India they have chapati. I think there’s cultural identification people have with food. I mean, it’s culturally what they have. You can’t get away from it. French bread. Do you think there’d be cultural objection to some of this? I don’t know, what are you thinking Ikena?

Ikena: I’m not certain. I think it’s a pretty good idea. I think it all kinda depends on how you decide to manage that marketing strategy.

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Ricardo Real and Ikenna Nwankpa

John Gilroy: I guess that’s the question for you. So how can you go into Africa and say, “Hey, have a bowl of algae, it’s great for you!” I mean, you’re gonna have some cultural resistance to that.

Elliot Roth: Yeah. So what we discovered is that there’s an effect where especially developing nations take a look at the Western world and what we end up having and they say, “We want that.” So if there’s something that the westernized nations and the Western world is doing, people in developing countries point at it and they say, “Well they’re doing it, we should also be doing that.” So if we prove out our business model here in the United States and showcase that everyday people will eat algae in some kind of way, that it’s a health food, then people elsewhere will end up eating algae. I like to kind of call to mind the story of lobster. So lobster used to be a prison food, they would give it to prisoners.

John Gilroy: In Boston, I remember.

Elliot Roth: Yeah, and sushi too. So sushi used to be something that poor people ended up eating. And then the paradigm ended up shifting and flipping when westernized countries and westernized nations they realized, “Hey, you know, we can make this a delicacy.” And so I see spirulina as becoming a delicacy. Seeing it as something that people can end up using in their own homes. And already people are using these kind of green juices and drinks as a delicacy in the local markets, and so I see a very clear fit there.

Ricardo: I can definitely see it working in Latin America, and that same case happens the other way around in which things from developing countries come here, like quinoa or avocados become really popular. So I can definitely see it working from here to Latin America or Africa.

John Gilroy: The Halcyon House. So, have they helped you? Tell us a little bit more about that.

Elliot Roth: Yeah, so it’s been a fantastic help. Our journey over the past couple years, we’ve been through a number of different programs ranging from RebelBio, which is a biotechnology accelerator program in Ireland. I like to say that we started as an international company before we even started as an American company. And then we went through Lighthouse Labs in Richmond, Virginia. We went to the World Food Program boot camp innovation accelerator. And then finally we landed here in Washington D.C. which is actually where I’m initially from. So it’s very cool having this bit of homecoming as a means of being an adult in the area, and being able to connect with so many different people who are all actively pursuing different solutions to global challenges.

John Gilroy: So if I have lunch with Ikena tomorrow and I spend $10 for a hamburger, I don’t know. Well, with Spirulina, what does it cost?

Elliot Roth: So one of our small devices can produce the same amount of protein as a cow in the same amount of time. A cow takes about three years to grow an entire cow, to produce all of the protein of a cow. Our device can do the same thing faster, cheaper, and less polluting. One of the harvests from our device produces anywhere from 10 to 20 grams of protein. So you’d be able to get all of the protein from that hamburger almost every single day at an incredibly low cost.

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Founder of Spira, Elliot Roth

Ikena: Have you guys monitored the results of your consumers? Have they kinda seen an increase in their health and nutrition?

Elliot Roth: Yeah, so there’s some initial studies that have been out that we personally haven’t conducted, but Spirulina’s been around since the 1970’s or so, as a consumer product. What we found from our consumers is that they end up taking their Spirulina and feeling better because of it. So there’s simultaneously both a positive health benefit from just taking additional protein, and then as well as a placebo effect from having the ability to, and the knowledge that you grew this yourself, that this is something that you ended up producing, that you then use as a food source. So people have reported feeling better, acting better. I feel better. I mean, I can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

John Gilroy: So Elliot, in the 70s we used to have blue and green algae, that they sold as Spirulina, and I don’t think it caught on very well. It didn’t explode. What do you think about that? Good, bad? You think that’s gonna happen with your product?

Elliot Roth: So I think one of the main issues of the algae industry not only is the processing really a problem, it’s the taste. The taste itself is one of the biggest hurdles of customer adoption right now. So the aha moment we had is, if you actually eat it fresh, when it’s freshly harvested, it has no taste whatsoever. So part of what we’re working on in terms of our technology development are different ways to keep that flavorless profile consistent so it can be used as an additive and an ingredient in foods.

Ricardo: In that same line, what’s your favorite recipe?

Elliot Roth: So I recently made some Spirulina pancakes. You can make literal green eggs and ham. You can mix it into a smoothie as per usual. So all sorts of different recipes. I like mixing it with carbs because it ends up balancing out the carbohydrates. Spirulina has mostly protein and then a lot of micronutrients. Very little carbs, very little calories.

John Gilroy: I was at a satellite conference, I sat next to two guys from Indonesia who started talking about the foods they eat. They eat, of course, tempeh, which is a fermented soybean food. Up in Japan they have a soybean food called tofu, and they can make the same kind of arguments about vegetable-sourced protein, and it’s more culturally acceptable. So I think that’s your challenge there. I think, I don’t know. Would you agree?

Elliot Roth: Yeah. The consumer side of things, in terms of the consumer adoption, that’s been more of an issue when we’re especially talking to investors who see the total market potential of this. For other algae companies and our B2B applications, that’s where we really, really end up fitting right now. In terms of our technology development, it’s more so being able to build our devices so that they can produce massive amounts of protein at very low cost. And then, steadily start replacing some of that animal protein in our diets. It should be such that you don’t even notice that you’re having hamburgers that actually aren’t made from cow. So that’s what we’re working on.

Ikena: Would you consider yourself a disruptor to the food industry, since you’re gonna kind of play a role of providing an alternative form of protein?

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Ikenna Nwankpa

Elliot Roth: It’s an alternative. It’s not exactly a replacement necessarily. The animal industry is pretty bad at polluting the environment. However, I still think that there’s a lot of farmers that exist solely dependent on their animals themselves. So if we can provide an alternate means of production of income for a lot of people in using our devices, then that’s really what we wanna go for, more so than replacing their current sources of income completely.

Ricardo: What challenges do you have in the next six months?

Elliot Roth: Right now it’s a big problem in terms of communication and education and understanding the potential of algae, and in terms of our devices and producing protein. So a lot of the investors around the area aren’t necessarily familiar with algae, and so we’re working on our communication strategy in that kind of sense, and our financing model, in order to make sure that we can scale and grow the company in this area. And so that’s our biggest challenge right now is figuring out what is the overall market potential of what we’re doing. Because even I don’t know all the potential benefits and impacts that we could potentially make.

John Gilroy: Ikena?

Ikena: What would be your vision for the company in, let’s say long term, for 10, 15 years from now.

Elliot Roth: So, I definitely see there existing a device in every single person’s home that produces nutrition. And, whether that’s our device, which is what I’m hoping for, or some other device, I see a future in which that’s possible, where you can get endless nutrition at the press of a button.

John Gilroy: My daughter makes her own yogurt, and she says it’s real easy. But most people who work full time, commute, and maybe take classes in the evening, like these two gentlemen sitting across from you, there’s no time. I mean, I don’t know how much time Ikena has when he comes home. He studies, he gets a couple hours of sleep, he gets back at it again. He almost … Food preparation is maybe a hobby that he can’t have the luxury to enjoy. It almost seems like a hobby to grow this.

Elliot Roth: Currently right now, because it’s so challenging to grow your own food in your own home, that’s been the main hurdle. With algae in particular, it grows so quickly and so easily that you’d be able to produce it every single day, and we’re working on our devices and our technology to get it so that at the press of a button, you just get a protein shake out of that. We’ve worked with a number of different advisors. One of our primary advisors is the CEO of Soylent. So, “Soylent Green is people.” For us, algae really provides your main protein source, and to be able to get access to it readily is more so what we’re going for. But we realize that people want convenience over the idea of growing it themselves, and so that’s why we’re working with a lot of businesses on making sure that algae is included as a protein source in other foods so it’s convenient, and then readily accessible for people that wanna grow their own.

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Founder of Spira, Elliot Roth

John Gilroy: Ricardo, last question please.

Ricardo: Yes. Will you accept a buyout?

Elliot Roth: I think our main strategy right now is we see this as a platform technology to affect a lot of different industries. As a founder I think it’s very important to build for sustainability, not necessarily for an exit. However, there are a lot of different companies out there that I can see us partnering with, and see our intellectual property ending up affecting and positively benefiting those companies. So yeah, I’m open to any kind of possibility as it occurs, and during my journey I’m looking forward to other people being a part of that story.

John Gilroy: Elliot, because I’m a radio guy, I can say the phrase that pays. So the phrase that pays is “sustainable protein.” I think that’s a nice two-word summary of what you’re trying to accomplish here.

Elliot Roth: I like it.

John Gilroy: It’s not bad. If people are listening to this and wanna have more information, what website should they visit?

Elliot Roth: They should visit livespira.com, and you can join in our alpha testing group as a means of getting and growing your own Spirulina in your own home. We sell these kits for $100 a pop, and they’re really, really easy to end up setting up, and you can produce anywhere from 10-20 grams of protein every couple days.

John Gilroy: That’s interesting. Well, we’re running out of time here. If you would like to have show notes, links, or a transcript, please visit theoakmontgroupllc.com.

I’d like to thank our sponsor, The Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geo-spacial projects, contact The Radiant Group.

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 Eastern-Foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, JohnGilroy@theoakmontgroupllc.com, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown in the Potomac.

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Featuring Drone Airspace Management

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 46 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown, and the Director of Platform, Wachira Reed. DAM collaborates and supports pre-seed through enterprise level organizations to transform their ideas into successful, high growth businesses to pioneer the UAS (unmanned aerial system) commercial industry. Listen below to hear how Drone Airspace Management is helping drones to fly freely!

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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: showdown in the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for show number 46. FCC hasn’t canceled us, the Interwebs hasn’t canceled us, so we’re still doing this. If you’ve listened to this podcast before you know what we do. We’re in the offices of Eastern Foundry , we kind of took over a conference room. We have a little table here. One side of the table, we have a startup. One side of this table, we have students. We have a little 26-minute discussion and we all walk out of here fast friends. Hopefully, a little bit more knowledgeable about startups at the end of this conversation.

What I’m going to do is introduce the students and the startup and we’ll jump right in here. Our first student is Ricardo Real. Ricardo, tell us about your background please.

Ricardo Real: Hi, my name is Ricardo. I recently graduated from Georgetown and I’ve been working on a startup recently, directing the Latin America efforts for the startup. We connect B2B technology services firms with potential clients.

John Gilroy: So, you have a Master’s degree in Technology Management from the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies.

Ricardo Real: Correct.

John Gilroy: And, you’re a startup, too.

Ricardo Real: Yes.

John Gilroy: So, next time, you’re on the other side of the table.

Ricardo Real: We can do that.

John Gilroy: That wouldn’t be bad. Ikenna, your background please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: My name is Ikenna Nwankpa. I’m also a recent graduate from Georgetown’s Technology Management program, and I work in community development, helping design the systems that organizations use to apply for grant funding.

John Gilroy: Oh, great, great. And, our startup today is a company called Drone Airspace Management and the guest we have here is Avery Brown. Avery, could you tell us about your background and how you got hooked up with this company please?

Avery Brown: Okay. I’m actually the founder of the company, so that’s kind of how I got hooked up.

John Gilroy: A regular startup.

Avery Brown: It helps when you come up with the idea. I’m old. Do you want my whole background?

John Gilroy: No, no. Gimme 30 seconds.

Avery Brown: I can give you the abridged version.

John Gilroy: No felony convictions.

Avery Brown: There you go. That’s right. Lawyer by trade, which probably, I don’t know if that’s a good startup place to be in your reactive world. Used to do lobbying … Actually, I was an administrative judge before that. I served the Capitol Hill Judiciary Committee. What else have I done? Hints of …

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Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown

John Gilroy: So a wide background?

Avery Brown: Yeah.

John Gilroy: Good good good.

Avery Brown: Yes, really broad.

John Gilroy: So when did you start this company and what precipitated the company?

Avery Brown: Okay, we started … We’re only about a year ago as of October. We came off of a consulting role, we used to consult with the FAA, the main thing being crowdsource, a lot of retiring talent that could advise to the FAA. While doing that we saw this drone, there was these pilots and air traffic controllers kept saying, “Are you looking at the drone space?” And we’re like, “What are you talking about? We just started this.” And they kept bugging us until one Sunday you’re sitting around and say, “Alright, what is all this stuff they sent me?” And then you start looking and your eyes just blew up. You’re like, “Wow. Digital data age coming in and it’s nascent stage.” Pivoted out of everything we were doing and moved and said, “What quality do we have?” We knew the national airspace where the commercial flights fly, how that was organized, figured you’d need that talent in the next phase down, and we started working from there. We started off with one model and now we’ve sort of iterated into an education technology company that trains people in using drone technology.

John Gilroy: So what business problem do you solve? Simple.

Avery Brown: We actually solve the skills gap. The skills gap in training: what the employer’s looking for versus what the educator is providing. We use that using drone technology because a lot of these are digital related skills, and this is a great modem to get there and an interesting avenue into the data world.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, I got a hundred questions I’m gonna let you have that one.

Ricardo Real: Sure. So, which educational institutions are you partnering with to deliver this solution?

Avery Brown: We came out in sort of a unique way. I worked at the Department of Labor for years also, so there was a lot of workforce training and education background I have. Just a lot of past experience. Being on Capitol Hill you kind of understood what some missions for some of the grant agencies were, and they were in workforce training and education. And what we saw in areas like rural America was this gap between … They’re still betting on coal maybe moving forward and growing, but they weren’t teaching the skills that were going to be relevant to the digital community. So we address that space and use our drone technology to now start teaching those skills.

John Gilroy: So, Ikenna, the FAA says there’s gonna be seven million drones out there by 2020 and that’s an incredible number, isn’t it? So how are those people gonna get trained and then learn how to fly them, the commercial folks?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah, I would like to know the answer to that question as well.

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Ikenna Nwankpa

Avery Brown: We tend to focus on the commercial space. We right now have one regulation. It’s called Part 107, and it would be probably the equivalent of you getting a driver’s license, but probably never have driven a car. You know, you could pass it basically on some intellect and … But it doesn’t tell you anything about being able to pilot this thing. So we actually went to employers and said, “What are you looking for, if you’re gonna do a cell phone inspection or something, a power grid, or something like that,” and drone technology is wonderful for that, “To automate a lot of it and make in smarter, increase efficiency, how would you find the talent for that?” And they’re like, “We don’t know.” There is no real standard. And so we said, “We’re gonna fill that gap. We’re gonna create that professional standard using drone technology.” And once they come out of our program, they can look at that skilled labor pool and say, “Those are the kind of people I can let around something very sensitive.”

John Gilroy: Ricardo.

Ricardo Real: Very interesting. And have you identified any competitors in this space that are doing somewhat, if the same, work?

Avery Brown: Not the exact prose. There’s a lot of different training schools, it’s a disparate sort of market in that way. Has anybody sort of looked at it from the employer’s standpoint down? I’m sure they would claim that, some of the education institutions, and what we call MOOCs, the massive online companies, are all in the ed learning space, but we believe we have a clear differential because we can actually tag ours to jobs. We’ll bring an employer there and attest to this type of training and saying, “This is the skill set we need.” And they will identify that directly. So I’m sure there are in very disparate forms, but we’re gonna deliver it on a platform and hopefully sort of do a blended online and offline programming.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: So how do you all leverage what kind of partnerships that look ideal to you? In other words, how do you look at this guy and say, “I want to stand next to them and work with this group?”

Wachira Reed: From the industry side?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yes.

Avery Brown: We tend to like energy infrastructure. One, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t go overseas. And also, if you’re looking sort of in a rural community to revitalize it, they need to be able to tie it to the resources around them. But they have to have something relevant for them, they’re not teaching anything that the facility’s going to need because they don’t know the skills, they’re not talking to them. There’s a gap there, and we’re filling that gap. So we like energy infrastructure, which can mean anything from utilities, cell towers, wifi, other inspections. We’re going to 5G, it’s gonna proliferate the number of towers by 10, 15, 100 times. So, as you get to the IOT, we like … Power lines! That’s another great one. Power line inspections. A lot of these schools have power line programs, but they don’t know how to use the drone as a tool.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, this wasn’t even conceived of seven years ago, was it? This whole new world!

Ricardo Real: You mentioned a web platform. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that? What does it include? Do you have educational videos on this platform? Or what does the platform help you accomplish?

Avery Brown: We’re in that early stage. Right now we’re delivering it offline. We’ll probably use an existing platform like Blackboard, because the value’s not really in the platform for us. It is that content though, the learning content. So, we’re getting that mix now, that product market fit where it’s blended enough. Enough of it’s online to drive cost. And then enough of it’s offline that we can sort of utilize the schools and some of that just as training ground.

John Gilroy: So there’s a company in downtown DC called Measure, and they offer themselves as, “Drone as a Service.” So it’s like you don’t have to buy a drone, you can rent one, and then you gotta find a pilot and a commercial usage. So do you pair with companies like that?

Wachira Reed: We were just talking to them.

Avery Brown: It is. And Measure does a lot of work for a large power company called AES that’s global, and they’re doing the drone work for it. So we’re like, “Well, Measure, we want to talk to you about looking at our labor pool. Like a farm team, we’re gonna train them up to a certain level, you’ll add whatever you do from there.”

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Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: You alluded earlier to some of your challenges initially. What would you say your biggest challenge is right now?

Avery Brown: Because our model’s sort of unique in the sense we’re running grant projects and then we’re sort of building out our particular platform and … It’s getting that product market fit, understanding what’s really going to penetrate the market at the right pricing. You kind of want that magic where everyone says, “I want that.” You know? And they kind of pass it on innately and you hit that sweet spot and there’s a lot of positioning … And also being true to the value we’re bringing, which is the skill level. That’s at the heart of what we do.

John Gilroy: Ricardo.

Ricardo Real: What kind of marketing plan do you have?

Avery Brown: Right now? None. Well, you know, we get a lot of marketing because of the grant projects. So we’ve had a White House release early, we’ve been to SXW. I mean, we get picked up when we do a great project with some great partners, and the media tends to pick it up from there, because we’re also doing good as we’re doing well. We’re in the areas turning them to more digital related skill sets. So we get some media coverage and pick up from that. The marketing is one school will say, “Hey, you see what they’re doing? Did you read about in …” More that word of mouth. But we’re kind of a little in stealth mode right now, but we’ll come back out soon.

John Gilroy: Avery, I went to Google Trends and typed in, “Drone” from the last … Since 2004 and straight up, a lot of interest. It’s fascinating. I mean, I think I’d even like to even learn. I don’t the know about you, Ricardo, but it sounds like a real fascinating topic.

Ricardo Real: It is a fascinating topic. And there are so many applications, not only in the energy market, but so many others. I’m interested in learning a little bit more about what other sorts of applications, aside from the energy infrastructure, you have in mind to tackle.

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Ricardo Real

Avery Brown: Yeah, we’d be happy to talk about that. You know, what really blows our mind is really getting into the broader- I think robotics meets sensors meets data. Even just in a drone, a drone is just a flying computer with some sensors on it that collects massive amounts of data. Petabytes of data, that’s a huge amount of data. And then what do you do with it? The business wants you to get something intelligent out of it so, you’ve got the algorithms, and all of the other … It’s just so early in a massive stage of everything. Just, automation and a new sense of everything. We get excited all the time.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, about 100 years the Wright brothers started doing these crazy things and no one really knew how to regulate them. You saw a plane in the air, how do you identify it? They had to come up with rules. There’s a lot of parallels here with … No one really has any rules and trying to figure it out.

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah, I’m curious about the type of focus, work ethic, and kind of just mentality that you have to have in this type of space. How would you describe that?

Avery Brown: I wonder every day. It does require … There’s a lot of discipline and there’s a lot of noise and setting your priorities. There’s the strategy, then there’s setting that day-to-day priority and there’s a lot of sleepless nights, there’s a lot of crazy … Not always worn batteries. Once you rev up your brain like this and the excitement of where you’re going, it’s hard to turn it off. Even that’s noise to you and it’s good to be around other startups. You need to talk it through sometimes and then have advisory things to reach out to. The more you can do that, and you’ll have your own internal conflicts, too. Believe me, there’s a lot of battles you fight to keep yourself from doing things, but you move through them.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, please.

Ricardo Real: Yeah, how do you get funded in the beginning? How did this all start?

Avery Brown: Three F’s: friends, family, and fools. That was sort of initially. But because we had a varied background and we sort of crowdsourced the people, it was our illustrious Grand Project and what we called Drone Commander also here, his father worked for the FAA and we developed a consulting company early. That’s how we really understood the space. We worked with a lot of air traffic controllers and pilots and a lot of FAA technical folks. So we were generating there. The pivot just allowed us to move a lot of that in. And like I said, there’s some three F support.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, if you went out and spent $300 on a little drone, and went down to the White House and tried to fly it, you’d be in big trouble, wouldn’t ya?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Absolutely.

Avery Brown: We’ll see you on the news at least.

John Gilroy: Another question for Avery, please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: How can other organizations find you guys to collaborate and work with you guys to kind of create these emerging opportunities?

Avery Brown: Our website is www.droneairsp.com and I should give you his email because he’ll take it.

Wachira Reed: How you guys doing? This is Wachira with Joint Airspace Management. You can contact me at wachira.reed@droneairsp.com.

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Director of Platform of Drone Airspace Management (DAM), Wachira Reed, and Founder, Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Okay.

Wachira Reed: Teamwork!

John Gilroy: There’s a plug. Ricardo. After that shameless plug, you gotta give an aggressive question.

Ricardo Real: Yeah. The most aggressive of all the questions, how have recent political-

John Gilroy: Talking about the White House!

Ricardo Real: -changes impacted your company?

Avery Brown: You know I used to lobby, so this is right down my alley. You’d be surprised. They’re in an anti-reg stance right now. We actually are crying for more regs. But they’re proscriptive-type regs. Regs that allow us to do more. We want to fly at night, we can fly over people, the technology is there, they’re looking for the track-record on safety. We think we can provide it. We would love them to say, “Hey, go ahead and fly over people, fly at night, fly autonomously.” We’d love it.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, brave new world. There’s no rules. People are just figuring out the rules now. I think it’d be hard to project out future sales in this kind of fluctuating situation, I don’t know, environment, huh?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah. How would you guys, giving us enough detail, how would you guys describe your business model? How did you come about developing your business model?

Avery Brown: Kind of in a wacky way. You sort of look at what you do well. When we moved from consulting, we said, “What value can we provide?” We understood the airspace and how it was organized, and said, “They’re gonna have to do that here, we can provide expertise there, but what else?” And I worked on a startup but it was in government contracting, a little different. You’re like, “Well what would startups want?” We really started out with a subscription-type model saying, “Well we can actually connect you and technology companies together and bring it in a process where we can actually test out your product.” Well that really wasn’t how the grant worked, it really had more of workforce flow, so we switched it. We sort of said, “Oh well this … I was in the labor department and did a lot of our workforce training so I said, “Let’s look at that skills gap issue, and that’s going to proliferate through the entire industry forever. Everybody’s gonna have to make this shift. It’s gonna be everywhere.”

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Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM),  Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Avery, I’m trying to draw a parallel here. So let’s say … Truck drivers. They’re all licensed and tested and carefully controlled. In three or four years there could be a million commercial uses and they can’t find people to fly them, and there’s gonna have to be some testing, some accreditation, some certification. This is like the early days of the Wright brothers trying to figure out what’s a valid test? What’s not? Who’s a good pilot? Who’s not a pilot? Just generating the, what’s called, content of the course material, in academia is called a rubric, a rubric is hard to start with, isn’t it?

Avery Brown: It is. And like you said, it moves fast. I mean, the technology in our area moves fast. We call what we create a learning loop. That’s why we have to stay in touch with the industry to understand, “What is it that you actually need?” We take it and translate that into the learning modules and have the schools update. We’re updating that training so it’s relevant to them. Because the drones will move quickly like any other robotic technology. The price goes down, certain things are better for certain applications, they keep developing. That gap is gonna go on. But for the truck drivers to move into the space, they’re gonna have to learn new skills. It’ll be there. But that gap has to be filled and you have to do it quickly these days because technology moves.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: This is a question for both of you guys. What kind of unique advantage do you guys think your experience gives you to be the leader in this industry?

John Gilroy: That’s a good question.

Wachira Reed: I think we’re crazier than the others.

John Gilroy: Put that on your resume, huh?

Avery Brown: You know, we talk about this all the time, and this is constantly what you’re doing. Really, you could ask how many people are really doing what you’re doing using drone technology. They’re teaching with it, but they’re not teaching professional level skills that a job actually wants. That learning loop that we have is very powerful in that we are creating a standard. This is what the industry wants, and we’re gonna tell you how to deliver it and show you and bring your school up to that expertise level so that they can actually train these students that way. It is partly coming early into the space, it’s partly with a weirdly creative model using grant projects to sort of build up the capacity of how we’re doing what we’re doing, and it gives us the school partnerships and the other industry people all at the same time. We hope that’s enough. You just move like Hell to … You move fast if you can.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, please.

Ricardo Real: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Avery Brown: Look, it’s hard to project. There’s some strategy that reaches you out one to two, three years and then it’s execution, but the iterations happen so quickly, so we could be into something a little different but near where we are right now. So obviously we hope for growth and scaling and things like that once we hit that sweet spot, but we’ll see. Hopefully I’m not a sob story.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

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Ikenna Nwankpa

Ikenna Nwankpa: How easy is it to train someone to operate a drone proficiently?

Avery Brown: It can happen faster than you think. It’s like anything else, quickly you see how you adopt. Gamers and people like them, they’re fast.

John Gilroy: Finally. My son has a skill!

Avery Brown: Yeah, exactly! You’d be surprised. We talked to one of the … Pilots that flew the …

Wachira Reed: Black Hawk.

Avery Brown: Black Hawk class, they were like, “Oh please, we suck at flying drones. Because we’re used to being in the cockpit.” The remote aspect is adopted by gamers and people like that. Other kids are even … Manual and work with cars … What do they call it? Like, mechatronic types. You’d be surprised how fast. So to get up to that proficiency if you’re dedicated we can do … We have a fast-track program that works like 12 weeks?

Wachira Reed: 10-12 weeks.

Avery Brown: 10-12 weeks. But typically we would say … I would say about two semesters. Or you could do it in one, it depends on how hard you’re trying. But we like to, in a regular educational system … You asked about schooling, we tend to like community colleges because there’s a lot more training in them, and technical colleges right now. That’s who we’re targeting.

John Gilroy: So, Ricardo. International application here? What do you think?

Ricardo Real: Could you give us a concrete example of one community college that you introduced your curriculum to and how many people were affected or what were some of the results of this training?

Avery Brown: We have one in southwest Virginia, which is in Wise, Virginia. They’ve trained about 100 people. What we’re doing is taking their level now and advancing it to an industry professional level. We have 100 who have come through an initial piece, now this next set we’ll see how many come out. We’re in two other states also, just starting some training. So we’ll see. There’s none that have come all the way through, but we’ll see how many come out of that first 100 that we’ve done.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, final question please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: So if I’m interested in becoming a drone operator and I live in one of these rural ares, how much does that cost me to obtain this training?

Avery Brown: That’s a little bit part of the school. In our grant we’re delivering it to the school and training their trainers. They tend to keep the cost relative to their curriculum pricing, or even lower. Sometimes they want to heavily get these people, particularly retired miners and things like that in, so they’ll subsidize parts of it. So whatever their existing curriculum cost is, they’ll give that or lower.

John Gilroy: Well we are running out of time here. If you’re listening to this podcast and wanted more information, what website should they visit, please?

Avery Brown: Drone Commander.

Wachira Reed: Www.droneairsp.com and you can follow us on Twitter @droneairsp.

John Gilroy: Wonderful, wonderful. If you’d like show notes, links or transcript, you can visit theoakmontgroupllc.com.

I’d like to thank our sponsor, The Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geo-spacial projects, contact The Radiant Group.

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 Eastern-Foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, JohnGilroy@theoakmontgroupllc.com, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown in the Potomac.