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Polis: Door knocking brings voters to polls

The Polis team celebrating at MassChallenge Awards last week. FOUNDERSWIRE STAFF PHOTO

By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

BOSTON—The world is waiting to know who will be the next president of the United States. But first, voters have to feel motivated to cast their ballots.

Polis, the app for political campaigning and door-to-door sales, suggests an old-fashioned approach that still drives results, says founder Kendall Tucker.

After working on political campaigns since the age of 16, Tucker narrowed in on this pivotal truth: Door-knocking gets results. “By far, the most effective way to win a campaign is to knock on people’s doors. We call this having a field campaign, hiring canvassers and having them go to likely voters’ doors and talk to them,” she explains. “They feel listened to, it builds trust. But that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

Canvassers can use Polis to input lead prospects and generate ideal routes based on set objectives, thus enabling them to maximize their time by targeting specific voter neighborhoods. At the doors, data from conversations is easily inputted and tracked.  Individual canvassers’ stats are also tracked and consolidated—the number of doors you’ve knocked on, the number of conversations had, the ratio of supporters versus opposers of a particular candidate or product, and so on. Campaign or sales organizers are then able to use this data to further strategize.

In the political sector, Polis (both a TechStars alum and 2016 MassChallenge finalist) has seen exceptional growth. “As a political company, we’ve worked with 85 campaigns, including both independent candidates for president, Jill (Stein) and Gary (Johnson).

Its model doesn’t stop at political campaigning but extends to private sector sales. This, according to Tucker, is no coincidence: “We started as political company, but now we also work in door-to-door sales, particularly solar and telecommunications. These kinds of companies are often run by former political people; you can see the private sector taking their cues from the political sector.”

Tucker’s door-knocking realization was discovered partly through analysis of what didn’t work. Campaign organizers spend endless time and money on more glamorous or traditional avenues. “I was frustrated that instead of building amazing field campaigns, we saw campaigns spend $1 billion on TV ads,” Tucker explains. “They’ve done studies—TV ads, unless they’re run every week, they have zero effect on voters. It’s a tremendous spend for very low payout.”

Similarly, phone calls were a popular but ineffective avenue. “When I was running campaigns, they always wanted to do the phones, and I would tell them over and over: Not only are phone calls not effective, 50 percent of Americans don’t even have home phones anymore. There are too many restrictions on cell phones now. Phone banks’ effectiveness has gone way down, call screening killed it.”

The forgettable and impersonal nature of the phone, though, is the ultimate killer. “Who answers the phone anymore?” Tucker asks. “I don’t, absolutely not. I was super frustrated, and I wanted to send people to doors. But there wasn’t really effective technology to make that work.”

That’s where door-knocking has particular personal power. Not only is it memorable, you can’t “hang up” on a door-knocker the way you can a caller. “When you recognize someone else as a person who cares about something, even if you don’t agree or want to buy their product, there’s still a social nicety of saying, thanks for coming. It’s almost impossible to look someone in the eye and be rude—that’s what makes it so effective.”

Who are the most effective Polis canvassers? “Our point of view is millennials and retirees are definitely the biggest volunteer groups, they’re engaged in that way,” Tucker explains. “They were there for Bernie Sanders, and they’ve been there for the other campaigns as well.”

This innovative ability to reach potential voters—voters you might not normally find—is the real game changer. “For Gov. Johnson’s campaign, they’re targeting voters who are frustrated Republicans. For Bernie supporters and independents, anyone who’s looking for a change in politics,” Tucker says. “The Johnson campaign has well over 50,000 volunteers, but the problem with traditional technology and door knocking is there’s no way staffers can generate routes for all of them. So the really cool thing about Polis is anyone who supports Gary Johnson can download our app and it will automatically tell them where to go and what doors to knock on. And then the campaign can monitor what you’re up to.”

Polis is focused on engaging voters and boosting voter turnout. “Ultimately I think our country is best served when everyone turns out to vote, and we do have a problem with disenfranchised voters,” Tucker acknowledges.

How can this be remedied? “There’s a get-out-the-vote initiative, or GOTV. The nature of the conversation of any campaign at this point is, ‘Do you know there’s an election on Tuesday, what’s your plan to vote? We’ve found, historically, the most effective way to get people to the polls is to get them to have a plan. It’s the highest voting indicator of … logistics, like (if you’ll vote) when you drive your kids to school on or on the way to work.”

That’s the key takeaway, Tucker asserts. There’s a lack of action, not a lack of passion. “As much as they’re upset about the election, people are paying attention,” Tucker explains. There’s a lot to care about. There are a lot of societal problems. Whatever side you’re on, you feel the need for change. I think this election could be the highest voter turnout we’ve ever seen.”

Tucker says the team is excited to watch the numbers as election results roll in. “And we’ll be watching the number of doors we knock in the lead-up to the election and the day after, too,” she says. “Just because you won an election doesn’t mean you should stop listening to your voters. We see this as a movement, not just something that ends on Tuesday.”

To find out where your polling place is here tomorrow, CLICK HERE.

Captain goes from war zone to DropZone for Veterans

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a celebration of the women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Courtney Wilson, founder of DropZone for Veterans, takes this week’s honors for her commitment to serving her country and her fellow veterans, by making sure they get the available services they need and deserve.

We also continue our spotlight on some of the innovations our military servicemen and women are creating, in honor of Veteran Small Business Week. If you are a veteran working on a startup or if you know of one (even after VSBW ends), please let us know RIGHT HERE.


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderswire

BOSTON—Courtney Wilson, as a United States Army engineer, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her service in Afghanistan. Now she’s applying her tactical and technical expertise to help other veterans find the services available to them.

“I want the focus on veterans, I want them to be able to be the best version of themselves,” Wilson says. “In the military, we have to have a level of uniformity, it’s what keeps us alive. In the civilian world, you have the chance to be anyone you want. If they want to go become a Fortune 500 CEO or hike the Appalachian Trail, I want them to do that. If they have to go to healing retreat first, I want them to do that. I want them to continue to do excellent things, just in a different environment.”

There are 21.8 million veterans in America, and tens of thousands of free and low-cost programs available to them, including coding bootcamps, LinkedIn premium accounts, five-day healing retreats and more. They run the gamut from personal, professional, financial and emotional benefits. But research shows less than half of veterans ever capitalize on those programs—mostly because veterans don’t know they exist.

DropZone for Veterans, a platform that aggregates all the free and low-cost services offered to military personnel and their families, is making those opportunities transparent. It works like Groupon, Wilson says, especially in terms of finding programs locally and nationally, with more than 50,000 benefits already catalogued.

One of the biggest issues for veterans when they do find services is discerning whether they qualify or if the program will fit their needs, Wilson says. DropZone’s mission is to ensure all veterans find these programs, and then present those that are most relevant for each member of the varied veteran population.

“So many people trying to help veterans,” says Wilson. “Helping any demographic of America, that’s hard enough, then layer on top of that: Is this person post-9/11? Is it a Vietnam veteran? My dad was a male, enlisted Marine during Vietnam. I’m female, post-9/11 and I’m a combat veteran. What’s available to me and what will be helpful for me is going to be completely different. No war is the same, no veteran is the same. What we all having in common is serving this country, but beyond that we’re pretty diverse.”

Wilson, who recently placed second in the HUBWeek Beantown Throwdown pitch competition, is a Babson MBA candidate and also a member of this year’s WIN Lab cohort. She also came in third in the Vets in Tech hackathon at Facebook headquarters in San Francisco.

In her military career, she was a platoon leader who led more than 100 combat missions throughout southern Afghanistan, constructing main supply routes for NATO forces. Now she’s leading a team to scale DropZone—because it’s addressing an obvious need that many in the tech world can easily get behind.

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“This is one of the reasons I know I can make DropZone a success,” she says. “When I first started, I found someone who believed in our mission, he is a Ph.D. at MIT, he helped me out for free because he believed in our mission. He was so good, I brought him on as CTO. For our initial prototype, people just donated their time.”

Wilson says she knew DropZone could add value to both the veteran community and the business that want to serve them. “Platforms are everything,” she says. “Look at Amazon, Yelp, Groupon … no one should not be doing single marketing anymore. No one wants to do that, people want to see all their options at once and make a choice. This has been done before, just not in this industry.”

While DropZone works on an affiliate model, Wilson is also exploring the value of firsthand information and connections to the greater veteran buyer demographic. DropZone works on referral fees built into all the goods and services veterans buy, but Wilson sees a greater market opportunity in connecting brands to this particular consumer group.

“This is going to end up being our main value: being able to offer strategic marketing planning to companies that don’t understand the veteran landscape at all. They don’t see the potential of connecting with the veteran buying group.

“When you look at the military as a vertical … products have to be good. When we deploy, we have to be ready to move quickly—(most companies) have never thought of that vertical because they’ve never deployed, they can’t see it,” Wilson says.

From a financial perspective, companies that sign on for the platform get increased brand awareness and a direct line to the veterans that need and want their offerings.

“All the companies I’ve talked to, it means so much to them to be able to support veterans. It’s an honor and a privilege and they love it,” Wilson says. “On both sides, they just gain an awareness.”

They gain increased market share, too: She points to the Under Armour brand and its expansion into the military market, with its Under Armour Freedom initiative, which offers a 10 percent discount to active duty service members, veterans and first responders, and also gives a hoo-rah from those who wear the gear as a sign of support for those who defend our country at home and abroad.

“When Under Armour connected with the military community, their revenue increased 30 percent,” she says, plus 70 percent new customers and a significant increase in positive sentiment toward the brand on social media.. “It’s not just, hey, there’s this opportunity, and here’s exactly how you get it. We are going to be able to go to a company and say, here’s a list of all the veterans, here are the most popular influencers … having all that information is very valuable to a company.”

She also appreciates how DropZone for Veterans is connecting disparate sides of our nation, between those who serve and those who don’t—but who might use their businesses as a vehicle to show their support for them.

“There’s a huge military-civilian divide. People who haven’t served feel bad, and veterans doubt their value in the civilian world. But both sides should realize that they’re amazing and valuable, in their own right. When you bring those two groups together, they’re unstoppable,” she says.

“This is about bringing all sides together as a whole. We’re building community and taking down that divide of us versus them.”


Through such programs as Veteran Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Association provides veterans, active duty service members, Guard and Reserve members and military spouses the entrepreneurial training and education programs, business technical assistance counseling, special access to capital programs and federal procurement training and access to opportunities they need to create their own opportunities. Share these stories on Twitter at #MyVetBiz to show support to veterans and their families. Learn more about SBA veteran initiatives here.

Veteran-designed Gripsher solves multi problems

It’s Veteran Small Business Week, so FoundersWire is going to spotlight some of the innovations our military are creating. If you are a veteran working on a small business or you know of one, please be sure to let us know RIGHT HERE


By CHARLOTTE EMSLIE

No more fumbling to reach for wire cutters while trying to hold a wrench in place. Army veteran and MIT grad Christian Reed has crafted a tool that everyone from soldiers abroad to those of us at home working in our garages will want to use.

Designed around the concept of single-handed use, GRIPsher, the easily held multitool combines more than a dozen functions into one compact gadget. Just to name a few: knife, pliers, file, keychain holder, even a bottle opener.

“Last year, when I was overseas, I partly got the idea from the Army outfits,” Reed says. “You’re wearing gloves, bulletproof vests with full loops on them. I was also looking at pictures of tools meant for just one use, like measuring thickness, and I thought, ‘This looks perfect for scissors at the top.’ The big thing with this tool is you don’t need a pouch for it, you can fasten it right onto you.”

It didn’t take him long to nail down the design. “I used my free time to make drawings of tool ideas I had. Once I had them sketched out, I did the design and layout on the computer, then eventually the 3-D printing back home. Having them printed gave me a better idea of the layout and functionality.”

As far as revenue generation, GRIPsher’s seen huge success on Kickstarter. GRIPsher has already secured more than 820 backers and $40,000, well beyond its initial $10,000 goal. (Support it yourself RIGHT HERE.)

“Those Kickstarter campaigns are very hit-or-miss,” Reed admits. “Some people are interested and want to learn more, some people don’t care.” He’s had no problem, though. “I’ve had hundreds, even thousands of emails from people interested. It’s a chain effect, too, where someone writes about it on their site, then more people hear about it, and so on.”

Reed’s highly skilled technical background comes from both studying mechanical engineering at MIT and working in the engineering branch while stationed in Kuwait, doing construction and project management. “I had a rough background of prototyping and 3-D printing at MIT, but really what I learned came from my extracurricular activities at school, playing around with machines and bouncing around ideas with other people. It’s a rite of passage, in a way, as an engineer to create my own product.”

His time serving in the military was key in shaping not only Reed’s product but his perspective. “The military’s been very kind to me. They paid for my whole education—MIT wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Not only that, but the people there have been the most supportive through this process. When I was creating, when I was promoting—whenever I posted something on Facebook, they were the first people to like and share it. There’s that real brotherhood and promotion of opportunity.”

The desire to give back to that community is what inspired Reed to establish the GRIPsher giving program: For every “GRIPsher Black” product sold, one is given to a service member for free.

Promoting that brotherhood and support network is especially important, Reed says, given the frequency of politicized or negative perceptions about the military. “It’s important to highlight the good things. Also, in a way these are opposite ends of the spectrum. Lots of people have gone to MIT but have never served, and vice versa. I’d like to think I’m merging them together.

What  does the future for GRIPsher look like? “Our manufacturing process right now is really scalable,” Reed says. “It’s reliable, we’re confident with how it looks. The initial hurdles were the costs, the molds for tools. I had the final design done this past March, so now it’s shooting bunches of photos and finalizing things like the right clip length. As far as future distribution, I’d really like to see it on Amazon or at Home Depot. I want it to be one of those handy knickknacks everyone has.”


Through such programs as Veteran Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Association provides veterans, active duty service members, Guard and Reserve members and military spouses the entrepreneurial training and education programs, business technical assistance counseling, special access to capital programs and federal procurement  training and access to opportunities they need to create their own opportunities. Share these stories on Twitter at #MyVetBiz to show support to veterans and their families. Learn more about SBA veteran initiatives here.

Shark Tank advice is shallow water for Stina & Mae founder

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—The odds of getting attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million.

But one Boston entrepreneur took her chances on an Instagram contest, and won a 15-minute telephone call with ABC’s Shark Tank star, Lori Greiner.

Mishell Ekunsirinde, founder of Stina & Mae and a member of this year’s Babson WIN Lab in Boston, saw an opportunity on the social media site to share a #yougogirlshark moment, and to her surprise, won the big call with Greiner.

mish-instagram-phone-sharktank

Her emotional post, honoring her mother, a breast cancer survivor, caught the eyes of producers and with a little persistence, their call was on the schedule.

The blond shark, known as the “Queen of QVC,” has helped to launch more than 400 products and holds 111 U.S. and international patents, Forbes reports. So it made perfect sense that Ekunsirinde, building a lifestyle brand for Millennial moms, would try to glean as much information as she could out of the TV pitch expert. Stina & Mae’s first product is a high-quality, hip, antimicrobial diaper bag that fashionable moms will actually want to carry.

Ekunsirinde says she wants to create one line for stores, and one that could go out direct-to-consumer—which is Greiner’s calling card.

“My strategy really was to use that call as a means for getting information, you know,” says Ekunsirinde. “I mean, here’s someone who’s been there, done that, wouldn’t you want to say, ‘Hey, can you give me some of your wisdom on how I can do it?’ I didn’t want her money, I didn’t want to pitch her. My goal was to get some knowledge.”

Ekunsirinde says she did end up feeling a little bitten, however, because before the call even got started, Greiner revealed a conflict of interest—she told the Boston founder she already has recently put money into a accessory company focused on the mom demographic. And she even tried to discourage any potential competition.

“She said, to paraphrase, ‘Every mom wants to make a diaper bag, that’s not very original. It’s a very crowded space,’” Ekunsirinde says. “I was surprised because she said she already invested, so I said, ‘OK, I understand that’s how you feel about it, but because you’ve had so much experience bringing products to market, how would you do it anyway?’”

Greiner talked about building her business by “coming up with original things”—then doubled back to wanting Ekunsirinde to go back to the drawing board.

“She said, ‘You sound like a very smart girl, come up with something more original.’ But I never even got a chance to tell her what was original about Stina & Mae, because she told me not to tell her anything about my business, as she already was investing in something very similar on Shark Tank this season,” Ekunsirinde says. “I didn’t tell her anything more than that I had a business that made diaper bags—she knew nothing more—just a bag you put diapers in.”

mish-baby-on-blanket-with-two-bags

Ekunsirinde didn’t want to take something negative away from her experience, but she did say what a contrast the experience was to her WIN Lab co-founders and mentors. “She’s made it, she is clearly a successful entrepreneur, so … I think I kind of held her to a higher standard, I was looking for that same woman-to-woman helping one another out (that I get from the WIN Lab).

“In the WIN Lab, and the in circle of entrepreneurs I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with, they’re so supportive. They give me tools to strengthen my weak spots. They’re constructive,” she says. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Now I’ve been able to couple what’s innate for me with structure—that’s what has been missing for me. As a creative, sometimes I get lost in the creativity. The WIN Lab is helping me figure out how I’m going to get there. I’m getting that structure and visually mapping my vision.”

And even though 15 minutes doesn’t always turn to fame, Ekunsirinde predicts a bit of star power in her future.

“This is a $10.4 billion market, and 83 percent of new moms are Millennials. All those numbers show me there’s considerable room for improvement,” she says. “We can be at the forefront for improving that for moms. Just because you’re only going to need something for a couple of years doesn’t mean you should be stuck with a less-than product.”

Mom accessories are big business and it’s only growing, she says. “There’s not a mom out there who hasn’t thought her diaper bag was on the brink of destruction. Straps break, zippers are popping. Millennial moms don’t mind spending more if they’re getting good value.”

Diaper bags generally look like something a child would carry—with colorful prints and patterns. They’re not a great fit for women who feel—in the midst of the biggest transition of their lives—that they have to leave behind their sense of style and high fashion. “There are millions of moms out there who want that sense of identity back. We’re bringing style into their role as mothers.”

mish-bag-baby-hand

Ekunsirinde, a still relatively new mother herself, speaks to a hidden truth that comes along with that abiding love: Women do not automatically surrender their past when they give birth; often, the identity struggle of blending who they were with who they’re expected to be as a mother is complicated.

“When you’re able to bring a small piece of who you were pre-baby to your motherhood—this role that you stepped into for the rest of your life—to have that little piece of who you were before can help ease that transition.”

While Stina & Mae looks to grow into that brand, Ekunsirinde isn’t sold on any advice from Greiner—shark or no shark. “(What she said) was a bunch of jewels. She’s already committed to a product in our same space. Money speaks louder than what she said.”

“All she confirmed is that I’m in the right space. I have the resilience and commitment. No one is going to deter me from the vision I have.”

Education is personal for Curriculum Associates chief

By SHELAGH BRALEY

NORTH BILLERICA, Mass.—Personalization is the future of education, experts say, defining curriculum with real-life skills, data-gathering tools and learning environments that meet individual students’ needs.

“This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. “It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student. By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money.”

Nowhere is this more important than in communities where the poverty divide has only grown in the last few decades. To disrupt this have and have-not dynamic, school districts are leveraging technology to better understand student needs, and make the most effective use of school resources.

Helping educators down this path is Curriculum Associates, champion of improved education for all. CEO Rob Waldron, deeply impassioned about what’s at stake for students, knows what he’s up against.

“I think the work of education is hard, and it’s principally done in the same way that great doctors and nurses are doing the healing,” he says. He likens that to the role of Curriculum Associates as they create educational materials (print and increasingly digital) that assess where a child is in the learning process.

“We try to figure out exactly where a child is, where they’re ready to learn, and then adjust the content to that child so they’re gaining whatever set of skills they need in the teacher’s view,” he says.

Waldron—a 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year—came on board Curriculum Associates in 2008, taking over for founder Frank Ferguson just when the effects of the recession were hitting schools the hardest, especially in lower-income districts.

“We work with … those kids who are on a spectrum of poverty,” he says, estimating that at least two-thirds of the students they serve receive a reduced lunch subsidy. The benefit of working in these communities is multifaceted, saving already-overstretched teachers a significant amount of time trying to assess where students are faltering, providing a simple way to share results with parents, and addressing students from where they are educationally, to lower their stress and increase success rates. They also serve private schools, Waldron notes.

Waldron says Curriculum Associates aims to create rigorous standards to ensure that students are consistently acquiring the tools they need for the future. “We want to make sure kids are ready, not just depending on people’s feelings—no, the kids are really learning,” he says. “(Teaching to the test) has had all these downstream consequences: You get people prepping for the test and not really learning.”

But what students need to learn is complex, and it isn’t always clear where they fall off track. That’s where Curriculum Associates does its best work.

“Is it a better deal to buy a pound of coffee for $9 or 12 ounces for $7.50?” Waldron asks, re-creating a typical question for students. “That’s a multi-step process, you’re doing fractions in your head,” he encourages. “You knew that ounces were part of a pound. That concept has to be taught.

“We’re behind the scenes capturing how many times a child has had trouble with this. We’ll grab those lessons and pull them out based on the fact that you have to work on conversions before you can work on fractions,” he says, “especially if English isn’t your first language.”

Waldron, a Harvard MBA whose driving force grew from his previous positions with Jumpstart, a non-profit focused on providing a strong educational foundation for preschoolers from under-resourced communities, as well as Kaplan Education, has expanded Curriculum Associates into the nation’s fastest growing K-12 education publishing company. His mission remains to improve classrooms everywhere.

“What we do has made a big difference, not just to teachers but to learners, families, and of course, to the administration of schools that are trying to figure out how to improve,” Waldron says.

He recognizes the trials of a legacy business such as publishing, but sees the opportunity only expanding—as company revenue has quadrupled under his leadership and added more than 300 new employees to the team since 2015. The pressure is also present to continually deliver innovation that meets—even surpasses—industry need.

“If we don’t perform and deliver great results, (our customers) are gone, because they’re subscribing annually. We have to keep making great content,” he says. It isn’t a significant worry, though, according to Waldron. “We have focus groups all the time,” he says, “and the biggest thing I see is our renewal rates. Our top 100 customers have a 99 percent renewal rate—they’re going to buy again next year.”

Those numbers are making an impact on students, with more than 3 million of them already using digital product iReady alone. Curriculum Associates serves more than 10 percent of all U.S. students in K-8 nationwide. “If a child uses our software for 45 minutes a week on average, they will have a 47 to 48 percent gain in English skills and a 65 percent gain in math skills,” Waldron says, citing research completed by the Educational Research Institute of America among others.

The student data tells the real story, and the happy ending is adaptability. When a lesson is deployed to 20,000 students, but only 5,000 get to mastery, the team is quick to respond, assess, change or even toss out the lesson. “Before, it would take five years for that (level of analysis and reaction) to happen,” he says, and goes on to describe how they can further segment student results to drill deeper. “(In specific): Why didn’t African-American boys on free lunch not get mastery of that lesson? We can figure that out.”

While Curriculum Associates continues to grow its customer base, students’ needs and expectations continue to evolve—with more parents and educators looking to digital content to make the difference.

“The change to adaptive learning is huge. It will take a number of years to get great, but I’m super excited about kids getting (lessons) at their level, and I’m excited about how content will improve,” Waldron says.

Growth does not come without its challenges, but for Waldron, solving this education puzzle is an achievable goal.

“I have to figure out how to give (students) hundreds of hours of norms-based content they find engaging … it’s a hell of a challenge. We have to keep cost low. It’s high stakes things like teaching kids how to read,” he says.

“It’s a huge Rubik’s cube that I find really exhilarating.”

Richard Branson, born July 18, 1950

We celebrate the founders who make an impact, to remind us all: We choose the future we create, for ourselves and others who need our innovations to improve their lives.


“Through the right people focused on the right things, we can, in time, get on top of a lot, if not most of the problems of this world.” —Sir Richard Branson, born July 18, 1950

MyEdGPS expands to eldercare, rebrands to torchlight

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BRAINTREE—Adam Goldberg has been on a mission to illuminate the problems modern caregivers face. Now his company brand has been brightened up to match.

MyEdGPS, the tech platform that has helped caregivers of special needs children find crucial support services, has now expanded its reach to elders under the brand torchlight.

Goldberg himself lights up with excitement when talking about his work, and how it impacts more than 22 million Americans who spend an average of 29 hours per week caring for their charges in addition to their full-time work. The Ceridian Lifeworks 2015 report he references estimates that these caregiving demands cost employers more than $38 billion in lost productivity annually.

Torchlight gives employers a resource to help their caregiving employees quickly answer complicated and emotionally heavy questions, taking them through a journey that starts with fear of the unknown and ends with more confidence and stability both at home and at work.

“We are extremely proud and excited to launch our new name and believe it more accurately represents who we are and how we help the modern caregiver,” Goldberg says in a release. “We continue to support employers in helping their employees receive the caregiving guidance they need, where and when they need it, so they can maintain a work-life balance and still provide the best possible care.”

Goldberg’s work began in practice with his mother, Leslie, a world-renowned pioneer in caregiving for children with special needs. The one-on-one consulting practice inspired Goldberg to create a digital platform where parents and caregivers find affordable help navigating the maze of services they require.

“It’s really hard,” he says, “taking something so viscerally emotional and complex, and automating it,” Goldberg says in an interview. “That’s why it took a good two to three years to build something that would answer the need in a way that provides the best outcomes.”

Torchlight, a White House-featured innovation, is the culmination of years of experience working one-on-one with families that struggle through an undeniably chaotic and stressful time, realizing their children and elders need help—but having no idea what kind of help, who provides it or how to get it.

There are so many questions that run through caregivers’ minds, Goldberg says. “(You have a knowledge gap, so) … you’re asking your friend, your neighbor, should you listen to school? Do you need services privately and pay out of pocket? Does your employer help?”

Then add the demands of careers to the pressure cooker. “Folks are working, and (finding services) is stuff you have to take care of during the workday. There’s a huge collision of interests. Figuring out what you need can be another whole full-time job.”

“There is a whole crazy process with a lot of hoops, and typically you have to hire an advocate and an attorney to navigate it,” Goldberg says. “That’s where I knew we could help.”

At that point, Goldberg envisioned the distribution method that could change everything. Employee Assistance Providers had started looking to him and his team to help them understand the services their employees needed.

“They wanted us to back-end their offerings, to help employers help employees by providing support. People are more and more often calling for help with (caregiving), and the EAPs wanted to answer the call but didn’t have the expertise, so they started calling us,” Goldberg says.

“It became really obvious, there are process elements that are standard that everyone faces. That’s where I had the vision to roll this (platform) out and scale it.”

Torchlight is a tool provided as part of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), offering personalized action plans, self-service information, on-demand tutorials, and access to expert advisors. Employers pay a fee to include the platform in the company’s benefits package, and then any number of employees can access the services 24/7, Goldberg says. The model has been a great success, and clients range from global corporations to “smaller, energetic companies.”

“The value to them is twofold and enormous: The productivity of the impacted employees losing five hours a week—that’s how complicated and paperwork-intensive this stuff is—it’s a huge problem. Also the healthcare spend, there’s a huge savings. Twelve percent of employees account for 50 percent of a company’s healthcare spend. So many of those services are publicly available if we know how to advocate. There’s a real hard-money saving proposition. It’s not just a nice or right thing to do (to make the service available to employees), it’s going to save you money, too. It’s why I really like this channel, as it makes good sense for everyone involved,” Goldberg says.

Goldberg talks about his mother’s influence on how torchlight has evolved, as one of the founding matriarchs of the specialized education consulting world. “She was running full force out there, educating the market, saying ‘These are real problems that people aren’t talking about. We can be of huge life-changing help,’ ” Goldberg says. “She ran the business for many years unprofitably, and she always said to my dad, ‘Hang on, there’s a huge gain to be had out there.’ She was dead on, and she was a pioneer for services all around the world.”

Torchlight leverages those decades of resources, industry knowledge and expertise, and makes it all easily accessible from one source. Goldberg talks about the company’s goal of “democratizing the system—because it hits everyone, regardless of status or power.”

“These are problems everyone faces. It has no bearing on job position, no matter how high up you get in the company. You could be a CEO, or you could be on the production line. Your family is as important to you and you feel that pain,” Goldberg says.

When caregivers find torchlight, it’s mission accomplished.

“Suddenly they have hope. They have a direction. And that’s what they need to put one foot in front of the other.”

Torchlight-2

Gatsby, your new social director, brings the party to Boston

By BRIDGET McLAUGHLIN

BOSTON—If you like Amy, the popular AI assistant extraordinaire, you should really meet Gatsby.

Gatsby sits on the fun side of things,” says founder Aaron Jun. “Gatsby wants Amy to lighten up.”

Gatsby, a location-based bot app, makes social planning with friends as simple as a quick chat with your new robot BFF.

“We want to position ourselves almost like a friend, like a person,” Jun says.

Gatsby isn’t just your ordinary Yelp or Google. Gatsby can not only help you find a restaurant for dinner plans, but it can invite guests and even set reservations. Hosting a dinner party? Gatsby is there for you, politely suggesting what guests can bring and keeping track of attendees. Eventually, Gatsby will even be able to predict activities you may want to do and offer suggestions for you and your friends based on previous interests.

Jun, 30, who arrived in the United States from South Korea at age 8, says this will help solve a unique Millennial problem. “We have so much information, so many options, and it’s so easy to make plans where it’s actually gotten extremely hard to make that decision and follow through with it.”

The app’s name, honoring the beloved character Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s renowned novel The Great Gatsby, “implies a certain vibe, a certain ambiance, a certain class and status … in terms of building a social app that’s designed to get people together, it seemed like a natural name for it,” Jun says.

Growing up in Cupertino, Calif., and attending University of Southern California, Jun would have been a prime candidate for Silicon Valley success. But Boston made practical sense for the Gatsby beta. “Boston, just having everything on a small scale but having enough of everything, gives us a good testing ground for a lot of our pieces.

“Boston ends up being a really interesting place to build something like this where there’s enough to operate on—there’s enough content for us to utilize as recommendations—and there’s enough going on that it’s hard for any individual person to maintain complete 360 degree focus on everything that’s happening in the city,” Jun says.

He and his team have so much information, so they’re focusing on making sense of the behaviors that drive users. “What is the psychology behind when people make plans and what sort of plans are these people making?” he asks. “If we can start figuring that out, then we can get this really interesting, scalable business in terms of figuring out why people do things and then helping people do those things in a more optimized way,” he says.

Gatsby aims to be ahead of the curve on everything users want to do socially—and be exceptionally cool about it. “I think that’s where the conversational bot unlocks its true magic,” he says. “It’s something tapping you on the shoulder saying, ‘Hey man, I can get you and your friends tickets for this show you’re probably going to like. Do you want to buy them?’”

Jun really sympathizes with trying to balance planning fun vs. having fun. “We have all this technology at our fingertips, yet things got harder for us in terms of options. It’s busy. You don’t have time to find things to do, to plan things to do, so whenever you want to do something, come to us and we’ll take care of every detail.”

Introduce yourself to Gatsby here, and put a little more party into your summer. And if you know her, bring Amy. She could probably use a night out.


Bridget McLaughlin covers nonprofits, foundations and founders. You can reach her at bridget@founderswire.com

Streaming opportunity is music to DeVesto’s ears

“I love music,” Thomas DeVesto says.

He would have to—to innovate as he has for more than 40 years in the audio industry.

DeVesto, 68, co-founded Cambridge SoundWorks, and, later, Tivio Audio. And now he’s on to his third act: a high-quality, simple music system that streams without using a smartphone.

“My phone is busy enough,” the CEO and founder laments. “Why waste a phone’s battery streaming music?” The market seems to concur: The Como Audio system he created has already crushed its Kickstarter goals, with nearly 300 backers and a month to go.

DeVesto’s experience has delivered one critical lesson, he says: “Don’t give up, just keep working at it.” He also emphasizes simplicity. “I call it the guestroom test,” he says, referring to the ease with which a houseguest can use a product. He wants to make the Como Audio “as simple as pushing a button.”

DeVesto reflects on the disruption and opportunities now happening in the audio industry. “Streaming is becoming a more popular way for people to access the music they love,” he says.

Como Audio offers two high-quality yet simple music systems that enable Spotify, bluetooth and Internet radio. The Duetto offers twice the output of the company’s other product, the Solo. Both Duetto and Solo feature either a classic walnut or sleek white frame. The best part? “People are surprised when they hear about the speakers,” says DeVesto. They offer a 60-watt amplifier.

Anyone who likes music and a well-made product, DeVesto says, should consider his. Currently, there is a discount for those who buy through the Kickstarter campaign. (See and buy the products here.) They are expected for delivery in October.

Duetto-kickstarter

 

WorkinGurl’s got Kickstarter success in the bag

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a weekly celebration of the women who are building business in Boston. Victoria Hall, founder of WorkinGurl, takes this week’s honors for solving a big problem with simplicity and style.


By SHELAGH BRALEY

Making life easier for women is the challenge that guides entrepreneur Victoria Hall, 31, the Easton-based founder of WorkinGurl.

She’s starting by designing a beautiful bag that accommodates everything women carry every day.

(Raise your hand if you don’t need a better bag, if you’re totally fine with carrying three bags to work every day. Bag lady, be gone, or support this Kickstarter right here.)

“It’s not a problem that a lot of people talk about, but it’s something we all share,” Hall says. “We just do what we have to do to get it done, until someone opens up a dialog, to acknowledge this is an issue.”

The issue centers as much on the many hats we wear as it does on the bags we carry. And what’s in those bags? Work and workout gear, lunch, kid stuff, keys and more.

Pretty much our whole lives.

Women have few options for consolidating and carrying everything they need to get though the day, and even fewer that are streamlined and stylish, Hall notes. So in summer 2015, she decided to create one that could help women feel prepared for anything.

“We just don’t have a bag that accommodates the many roles we play in life. Thinking about those roles—women are not just one thing, you’re not just a working woman, you’re probably 20 other things. The one thing that goes with you through all of this is your handbag.”

With 14 days to go on her Kickstarter campaign and $12,800 of $18,500 already raised, Hall says she feels strongly validated by her customers. “When I started, I conceptualized this line of bags because I was trying to address my own problem. To me, I feel like I get validated almost every day. I love hearing all the different stories that women tell about what they carry.”

Two of the three bags Hall has designed thus far—the large tote, the slightly smaller crossbody—are available through Kickstarter pre-order. (The bold backpack will be sold online in the fall.) They are made of high-quality durable nylon with a waterproof lining.

Hall looks forward to using customer feedback to design better products that improve their lives. “The great thing about my line and where I want to go, I want my customers to help me as we grow. It’s really cool to incorporate feedback from real women into that innovation. That’s where I see myself going in the future,” Hall says.

Hall says she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive to improve women’s lives, inspired in huge part by her single mother, working and raising two daughters.

“Watching my mom struggle, going to school, trying to build her career and make a name for herself, bringing us to school and basketball practice—that image is what drives me,” Hall says. “When you’re a kid, you know your mom is doing a lot, but it doesn’t really register. When I am going to work and the bank and the gym and the store, and I have all my bags, I get that small glimpse of what she must have gone through.

“I’m not a mom—I can only imagine having two kids and having that life. But I can ease in some small way all the things that women do, that’s my passion,” Hall says.

Hall’s mother, working in education at a community college, is featured in Hall’s Kickstarter video (watch it here). “(She) has always been my rock and champion. She’s very proud that I’m creating something and building my own business.

“She tells all the new students that I started there (at the college) and now I have my own business,” Hall laughs.

Hall was a finalist in the EforAll accelerator in Fall River, after winning second place in a pitch contest the group held in Lowell. EforAll supports entrepreneurship as a means for socio-economic revitalization in declining cities.

“I drove there and thought, ‘I am not going to win anything, these are all tech people.’ I was ready to pack up, and then they announced I came in second place. I realized people hear me and it is a good idea,” Hall says.

Hall continues to challenge herself, and to stay connected to the larger issues women face.

“Having to pitch the idea, I try to go back to what drives me: What is the social impact of what I’m doing? And I asked myself, are you making a leap? How can a handbag solve the problem of helping a woman and making her less stressed? Is that reality?” she asks. “Then I keep talking to women and I don’t think it is a leap.

“Your handbag, you put your life in it. If everything can be organized, and that bag can make your day that much easier, you’ll feel more prepared to accomplish everything.”

That’s all a WorkinGurl can ask for.


WorkinGurl bags are available through preorder right now through Hall’s Kickstarter campaign. Don’t miss out: The campaign ends June 30. Order yours here. Delivery is scheduled for fall.

Perfect your pitch with these do’s and don’ts

Learn from Katharine in person at tonight’s (Wednesday, June 15) SheStarts/WeBOS event: Build a Better Pitch Deck, 6-8 p.m., Burns & Levinson LLP, 125 Summer St., Boston. Get your tickets here


By KATHARINE BURKHART

Most startups share the experience of standing in front of judges or potential investors for a formal pitch presentation. The goal is to walk away with the prize or investments in your company. Most of these pitches include a pitch deck, which can serve as a great tool to communicate your company’s brand, vision and value.

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Here are the top do’s and don’ts when it comes to designing your pitch deck. Ironically, the most important part of a pitch presentation is you: Every person presenting should be able to give a solid, professional pitch, even if the projector catches fire and makes their deck unusable. The deck is there to support the points you’re trying to make, as well as to establish your brand in a primarily visual fashion. Keeping that thought in mind allows you to make more strategic design decisions.

Here are three choices to avoid:

Don’t Write a Novel
One of the biggest flaws in pitch deck design is the compulsion to write out everything possible about the company. This typically includes every number, statistic and talking point in detail and in small font. The message you’re trying to convey cannot be read. More importantly, this means that the audience you’re trying to engage will either be attempting to read what you’ve written (and are therefore missing what you’re saying as you can’t read and listen at the same time), or will be frustrated at the onset and ignore your slides completely. In both cases, you’ve lessened your total impact. Reducing the amount of text in your pitch deck also will help you not read your slides to the audience, which is another big don’t.

Don’t Overcomplicate
Only so many points can fit on any one slide, whether they are visual or text-based. Including too many slides is overwhelming and cluttered, and again, they will be largely ignored or will take the attention away from you. You will undoubtedly know more about your company, market and value than what shows up on the slides directly. A good way to narrow down what gets included in the deck is to give thought to which points will be best represented in a visual behind you, and which points can be communicated equally as well verbally.

Don’t Overuse Animations
A touch of animation can add a nice level of professionalism and clarity when applied to a pitch deck. An overuse of animation can pull the attention away from you in a distracting manner. If you’re not sure how to best use animation, it’s better to leave it out.

With that under your belt, here are some things you should consider doing when designing your pitch deck:

Be consistent
Consistency adds dramatically to your audience’s ability to digest the information you’re communicating to them. For example, use your fonts consistently throughout the deck. Your audience will start to look for the header in the same place if you establish it that way, which will help them grasp your slides with ease. The same goes for imagery. If you use black and white photos as part of your brand, make sure that they’re all black and white in your pitch deck. More specifically, if you’re a photo-heavy brand, be cautious with the use of graphics, as it may be jarring.

Use clear imagery
Your deck should include more imagery, such as graphics, charts or photographs, than dense text. Yes, it’s worth repeating. Specifically, you should select imagery that is clear. This means making sure that the imagery and text have enough contrast so that they are legible to the audience, as well as using high-resolution photos and graphics so that your points are not lost in pixilation. The clearer you can make the imagery, the better, as most pitches are capped and you want the audience to absorb as much as possible.

Know your audience
To give a really good pitch, or presentation of any kind, audience is key. To make the most of your deck, think about who you’re presenting to and what actions you want them to take, and then try to tailor the slides to them. This may mean shifting emphasis slightly, or even adding in a few points or comments that are specific to your audience. It does absolutely mean taking any environmental or time factors into consideration. For example, if you have only a few minutes to present, you may need to reduce the number of slides you have, shifting points from a visual to a verbal note or removing them completely.

This all being said, your pitch deck design should reflect your brand and brand story. Depending on where you are in your entrepreneurial journey, you may not yet have much to draw on, but there are always standards that you can leverage. As you invest more time in this area and grow as a company, the more specific to you your pitch deck will become.

A pitch deck can provide excellent impact and support to a company’s pitch. The tool is available to you; make the most of it.


Katharine Burkhart is founder of Katharine Burkhart Designs, a Boston-based graphic design and brand agency that specializes in helping entrepreneurs launch with quality, affordable branding. 

A new kind of unicorn in Boston: eCommerce for vegan products

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a weekly celebration of the women who are building business in Boston. Cayla Mackey, founder of Unicorn Goods, has been chosen for her fearless pursuit of a new market, with all the unique expertise that gives her the confidence of her convictions.


By SHELAGH BRALEY
@founderwire

BOSTON—Cayla Mackey’s spirit animal must be a unicorn: inherently good, difficult to find, just enough sass, and a little bit of magic thrown in. Now she’s building an eCommerce company and betting that it has a different kind of unicorn potential.

Mackey, 25, CEO of Unicorn Goods, was raised in Florida, schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated Phi Beta Kappa on a full merit scholarship from Vanderbilt. Then she got right down to business. This is her fifth venture.

Since arriving in Boston, she has built Unicorn Goods—a digital vegan catalog, aiming to become the Amazon of vegan-sourced products.

“I’ve been motivated since high school by the world’s biggest problems and the best way to solve them,” Mackey says. “And with Unicorn Goods, I’m trying to address the issue of animal rights, human rights, and sustainability by using market forces to drive consumer behavior to a better end.”

That’s a mouth full—but it’s a position Mackey doesn’t shrink from. Her market is the main source of her confidence, eying the growth trajectory of the 16 million known vegans and  vegetarians in the United States alone. Her shoppers also track from a massive pool of consumers—vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians (people who eat meat but less of it)—who also care about animal rights, eco-consciousness, even those on the Paleo trend for health reasons. Mission-based companies like Unicorn Goods are leading the vegan trend, in line with millennial sensibilities pushing for social good, as well as the desire to be part of a “food tribe,” according to Nutrition Business Journal, a national source of nutrition, natural product and integrative healthcare research.

According to Mackey, the more aware these customers become, the more they champion—and spend their own green on—companies whose practices are environmentally progressive.

In 2015, the NBJ reports, the “special diet” buying population spent $92 billion, 50 percent more than expected. The market is projected to reach $144 billion by 2018. John Bradley, editor-in-chief of the NBJ, says: “Food tribe motivations range from health to emotions to ethics to personal identities. It’s a complex but fascinating landscape, and one rich with opportunities for brands who are clear about whom they are serving and why.”

Mackey is ready to capitalize on that opportunity, with an eCommerce experience tailored to the discerning vegan buyer.

“We know now that 65 percent of all consumers are actively trying to buy more ethical products,” Mackey says, but knowledge and access are barriers in this market. “So we have the vast majority of people trying to purchase things that are better for the world, better for people, planet and animals, but they don’t know where to find them and they don’t know what they are. So it’s a big transparency issue.”

Public consciousness has shifted because people in places of power are coming out about these issues more and more, she continues. “People in the celebrity and political spheres, for example, they are advocating. They’re advocating for more sustainable food systems or more sustainable ways of living for healthier diets. And that’s really what’s driving this trickle-down effect that we’re seeing with consumer behavior.”

Unicorn Goods, headquartered at ImpactHub, attracts the most conscious consumers first, to help them make more informed decisions, then branch out to the open-minded but not-yet-active communities. “So our initial target market for Unicorn Goods is vegans and vegetarians first,” she says, “because they’re the tip of the iceberg—the sort of people who have the highest standards for ethics.”

Cayla-Mackey-2-Unicorn-Goods-May-2016

Mackey says she believes consumers are inherently good and that if given the right information and opportunities, they will make more sustainable decisions. “Our job as a brand is to make that purchasing decision as easy as possible. We’re removing the barrier to entry from being a time investment.”

Vegan goods also have the perception of being costly. But Mackey says the unit economics work out for quality-comparable goods.

“It’s not that vegan products are more expensive, but vegans, because they’re not just animal rights conscious, they’re also human rights and sustainability consciousness, they’re inherently minimalist and they want to buy one thing that’s going to last a long time. So it’s not necessarily comparing this bag to a throwaway H&M bag that’s $10. It’s comparing this bag to a high-quality leather tote, like Brooks Brothers.

“And if you compare things that way, it’s actually much more economical and better for the environment,” she says.

Additionally, this consumer group isn’t motivated or deterred by price because they’re driven more by value and by their belief for the need for sustainably sourced goods. “We’re also finding items that are priced more competitively,” she says.

“These are people with high ethics who are willing to pay more because they know that they’re voting with their dollars,” Mackey says. “Whenever you buy something, you are saying, ‘I endorse the way this (product) is made, and I endorse this product and the materials that it uses, and I endorse what this product stands for. I am going to reward the company that made this, with my money, and thereby encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing.’ So, we look at the consumer as an empowered individual who’s able to vote every day with their money for a better world.”

The inherent social behavior of this consumer group is vital to growth, Mackey indicates—a conversation that Unicorn Goods is prepared not only to leverage but to lead.

“When someone purchases something that they’re really in love with, they talk about it with other people,” Mackey says.

“When someone compliments them on the item, ‘Oh, that looks really nice,’ (buyers) want to share where they got it from. They want to share what the material is. They want to share that it’s carbon neutral and that it’s low impact and sustainably made, or that it’s fair trade or made from organic cotton. These are all parts of an item’s story and people need to know that in order to be empowered as individual advocates for the products that they buy.”

With four previous purpose-driven ventures on her CV, sustainability has been the consistent thread, as Mackey developed a habit for getting her hands dirty, sometimes even literally.

When her first company (a publishing group with a green mission) needed revenue, she sold $350,000 worth of magazine ads. When Native.is, the zero-to-120,000-circulation magazine needed distribution in Nashville, she said, “Why not deliver it by bike?” and hired another startup, a bicycle delivery company, to help.

When her next company needed to source organic food to provide breakfast tacos (also by bike, food cart-style) to her customers, Mackey didn’t just apply to the organic certification program—she simultaneously got a job on an organic farm and sourced her own ingredients. “I worked as a farm hand,” she laughs. “… I wanted to know what was going on with the farm, I wanted to know what ‘organic food’ meant, if the environment that it came from was better. It is way better,” she affirms.

Most of Unicorn Goods’ value lies in the research they’ve put into finding their products, Mackey says. “We have a portfolio of over 2,000 products and 250 brands, which is enormous for this field. There hasn’t been anyone who has aggregated this information in this way and made it available to a wider audience.”

“We’re trying to create the place to shop for vegans on the Internet. And in doing that, we hope that more and more consumers make the shift toward buying animal free products,” Mackey says.

“We’re doing for clothing and products what Whole Foods did for food.”


If you would like to nominate a female founder for this feature—or you are a female founder—please send information to founderswire@gmail.com or apply HERE.

Kickstarter alert: Pense by Appostasy

Appostasy, Inc., the Boston-based hardware startup that calls Canopy home, may have just exceeded its Kickstarter goals, but there’s still plenty of product left to snatch up, and still time to support this energetic and focused team.

But only less than 48 hours … so be quick about it.

PenSe “takes the beautifully designed Apple Pencil, and provides it with added functionality and protection.” You must know someone who needs this magnetic Apple pencil case. It’s beautiful. It’s useful. And this is the best part. You’re supporting a team that wants to scale in the Hub. (Co-founders Craig LeafTed Sirota and Greg Caulton have a unique mix of skills and perspective. Check out their bios here.)

From their website: “PenSe was born in Boston, one of the great innovation capitals of the world. We took everything we love about this city and put it into our work, and thus the city is reflected in PenSe. PenSe is no stranger to coffee shops, cold winters, and worn faces. It blends seamlessly into the community of thinkers, and never feels out of place where creativity is flowing.”

How can you NOT support that? Donate and get your PenSe here right now.