Jeremy Welch – WHAM

Starting with a WHAM

Jeremy Welch, co-founder of WHAM Labs, jump started his entrepreneurial career in one bold move.

He called his dad and told him that he was dropping out of Duke University to pursue a venture.  He was taking a major risk to join a fledgling media company.  He knew that there was a small chance the company could go nowhere (it collapsed within a month of him joining), but was confident that he would figure out a path no matter what happened.

“You seem to have thought everything through and your gut seems to be there, so if that’s how you feel, make your decision,” his dad told him.  “But understand that from now on you’re on your own.”

Jeremy was willing to take the risk.  That’s not to say that he wasn’t scared, it just meant that he knew where his path needed to go.  He had a clear vision, a drive to work hard, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Today, with WHAM Labs, Jeremy’s goal is to build companies and then sell them.  To create products that fill market niches.  He is an ideas man through and through, but just as importantly, he knows how to execute his vision.  He can both dream it and build it.  A big part of this is that Jeremy knows how create software.  Together with his partner, Jeremy takes on software consulting gigs to funnel money into their product design projects.

“The real pleasure for me comes from building good products and building good companies themselves.”

Accidentally in Love

It all started when Jeremy co-founded Shoeboxed.com with a senior at Duke University.  Jeremy was a sophomore at the time, and his cofounder was on the way out the door, on the cusp of graduation.  Once Jeremy started, he got “bitten by the bug.”

Although Shoeboxed took off in a different direction, and Jeremy did not stay involved, Jeremy told me that, “it was very eye-opening” and also, “really bad for school.”  After working on Shoeboxed, Jeremy knew that he couldn’t stay in school much longer.  He needed to be on the ground, creating things.

As a philosophy major, Jeremy didn’t derive his technical skill set from his classes.  Rather, he began teaching himself the technical and programming skills necessary to work in the technology world by taking on projects in high school.  Later, whenever he identified something he didn’t know how to do, he would buy a book that explained how to do it, and banged his head against the wall until he figured it out.

The Right Place at the Right Time with the Right People

Looking for an apartment in Durham, North Carolina is much easier than in New York, or any other major city.  But even in Durham, apartments can fall through.  Sometimes, that’s the best thing that can happen to you.

For Jeremy, that one event catalyzed everything he has done to date.  The girl had told him he could have the apartment.  Done deal.  But then she called, and told him she had given it to someone else.  Out of guilt, she asked Jeremy about his story.

“Let me introduce you to my friend, Brian O’Kelley.  He’s involved in the startup tech scene,” she volunteered.

Yes, the same Brian O’Kelley that started Right Media, which was an advertising marketplace acquired by Yahoo in 2007 for $680 million.  The same Brian O’Kelley that has since created AppNexus and has grown his company from two employees to over two hundred in four years.  Basically, “the god of ad-tech,” as Jeremy said.

It was a fortuitous turn of events.  Jeremy began getting advice from Brian and, over the course of a year in Durham, identified the key things he wanted do to with a startup, along with the proper habits to cultivate.

“It took me a while to get it into my head that I had to be the one to create the proper habits. To be very careful about watching myself.  You can set up a goal list.  I try to do 3-4 things per day that are high priority tasks and I’ll have a list of all things that need to get done but no matter what, I’ll get those done.  And at night I’ll figure out what’s there for the next day.”

After some soul-searching, Jeremy told Brian, “I really want to work for you.  Or with somebody doing something like you.”  Introductions were made.  Jeremy hit it off with Invite Media, in New York City.  Invite Media, according to their website, is “a high impact demand-side platform that enables advertisers, agencies and agency trading desks to use real-time bidding to buy and optimize online media.”

Jeremy moved to New York.  The next chapter began.

Invite to Success

It was a whirlwind year.  Jeremy worked 16 hours a day alongside his colleagues.  They were trying to grow Invite Media as fast as possible.

It worked.  Invite Media grew from 7 employees to 45 employees.  And they caught Google’s attention.

“It was a lot of hard work, and being at the right place at the right time.  You don’t build a company with the end goal of selling it.  You say ‘I’m going to build this company to the point where we’re going to continue growing and make money.’  Then maybe Facebook or Google or whoever else will be scared to the point where the company will actually pose a risk if they don’t buy it.”

Being acquired by Google gave Jeremy a feel for how to start a company, build it to the success point, and then sell it.  The rush of excitement he received from the sale though, was nothing compared to the satisfaction of building a great product.  Jeremy considers a sale like a “check on a scorecard.”  It means that what he built was valuable enough to be sold.

That’s why, if you’re looking to sell your company the best way to do it, according to Jeremy, is to not be for sale.  That way, all of your energy is focused on making your company the best that it can be.

After spending a year working under Google, Jeremy left, again to do his own thing.

The Era of WHAM Labs

Jeremy and his cofounder, Jason Mitchell, have been working on and off together for almost four years.  For example, they built a restaurant review application linked to Foursquare that prompts users to submit a review 30 minutes after they check into a restaurant.

But August of 2011 was when they started WHAM Labs.  Officially, WHAM “solves problems for businesses large and small using software and information technology.”  Part of this means that Jeremy and Jason take on consulting projects.

The other part means that they explore gaps in different markets, and create solutions to fill those gaps.

Take the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market, for example.  One thing WHAM considered was the small business niche market for CRM systems.  These small businesses aren’t going to pay for a large CRM system, it just isn’t worth it for them.  And even if the systems were low-cost, or free, they are too complicated and bulky for many small businesses.  Many small businesses just end up using Excel.

Hence the ideation of “Spreadsheets Plus.”  WHAM built a CRM system that looked more like a GoogleDocs spreadsheet than Salesforce (a common CRM system). This allows users to quickly input data, while also diving deep into individual customer records when necessary, using a separate non-spreadsheet view.

But the key constraint in creating new products is time and money.  WHAM believes in the concept of Spreadsheets Plus, but for now they are investing their time and energy in other places.  “We think someone might stumble upon [a concept like Spreadsheets Plus] and make it first.  That’s okay.”

WHAM has decided not to raise funding at this point, because “once you raise money, you start a timer.  If you don’t deliver certain things then you can’t raise any more money because investors don’t trust youRaising money has to be a well-timed strategic decision.”

His team also has evaluated several other product ideas, including a mint.com type website to maintain and keep your assets healthy.  For example, if you own a home, when is the last time you changed your air filters and when is the optimal time to change them? Wouldn’t it be great if you had an app that tracked all of this for you?

For Jeremy, the best part is combing the creative process with the creating process.  “That’s what it’s about for me, creating my own path through life.  Just coming up with an idea and executing on it, and then coming up with another and executing.  It’s like lifting weights.  The ideas get more complex and the markets get bigger with each one.”

So hit the mental gym, cultivate your ideas, and make them bigger and better each time.

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Jeremy’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • Find your non-work related outlet, because it will help your productivity.  Mine is performing with my band, Liberty or Death.

Jeremy performing with his band, Liberty or Death, in New York.

  • Some people are going to be entrepreneurs regardless, but it’s not an easy life.  Don’t pretend it’s easy.
  • If you think you’re interested in creating a startup, go hang out at a startup.  Get a feel for it.  Go start as an intern somewhere.  Because there’s a lot of hype, and it’s not for everyone.
  • You can’t be an ideas person without being an execution person.  You can find people to do those things, but you also have to know quite a bit about what you’re trying to implement before you can judge what’s good and how you can execute it.  Regardless of whether you want to or not, you have to be technical.
  • Even if you recognize that there’s a product you can build to fit into the market you’re interested in, you still have to get the timing exactly right.  Enough people have to be ready for your new product.  So sometimes a big part of your job as an entrepreneur is educating people.
  • The best way to learn is under extreme pressure and just throwing yourself into that. (Caveat: Be prepared that if you do that, you will probably screw something up, too.)
  • You’re bound to make mistakes.  Fix them as quickly as possible and move forward.
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Benjamin Ryan Nathan – I Can Dance!

Hundreds of kids on a stage, twirling, creating swirls of color.  Now in unison, now apart, now a soloist as the crowd oohs and aahhs.  Finally they bow to a standing ovation and a great feeling of accomplishment rushes through each of them… I Can Dance!

This is the name of Benjamin Ryan Nathan’s film about how learning to dance can transform children’s lives.  It will follow four children through their fourth grade year at a New York City Public School while they learn how to dance under the tutelage of National Dance Institute (NDI).

Says Ben about this journey, “these are the experiences that, as a child, change a person’s life.  And that’s what we need.  We just need kids to have these life-changing experiences to give them the ‘oomph’ to create the lives that they want, the world that we all want.  That’s the way it happens.”

And Ben should know, having been one of those kids.

At nine years old, Ben was a shy, skinny kid who was made fun of a lot in school.  The last thing he wanted to do was dance, because he thought it meant wearing tights or a tutu that would get him made fun of even more.  But his teacher cajoled him down to the auditorium, where all the kids were already dancing.

“I looked over and I saw the fattest kid in the class and he was dancing.  And I said ‘if he can dance, I can dance.’  So I gave it a shot and at the end of that year I was dancing on a stage with 1,000 other kids in unison at Madison Square Garden. So that experience just clicked for me and shifted the way that I saw life.”

Over the next six years, Ben kept dancing.  He even began choreographing dances for National Dance Institute.  When he filmed his choreography to critique his work, he began thinking “okay, I can move the dancers on the stage… but now with the camera I can move the stage on the dancers!”

Suddenly, things clicked for Ben: the best way to self-express was through film.  He went on to study Philosophy & Psychology in Filmmaking at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, all the while teaching dance.

Fast forward to college graduation.  Ben accepted a job with NDI teaching dance in a school in New Mexico.  Arriving at his first day of work, the only warning he was given that one of the kids had cerebral palsy was that “one of the kids can’t use his arms very well.”

But the principles Ben learned through NDI prescribed that he treat this child just like all the others.  To encourage him to use his arms just like all the other kids.  In fact, Ben discovered that this child had an incredible sense of rhythm, so Ben had him stand in front of the class and demonstrate the steps, helping him gain confidence.  Over the course of the year, little by little, the boy’s arms started to move.  More, and more, the power of dance worked its magic, and by the end of the year the boy was dancing with his arms.  Ben smiled, saying “his mom didn’t think it was possible.  He didn’t think it was possible.  The doctors didn’t think it was possible.  But dance made it possible.”

That’s when Ben knew he had to tell the story of National Dance Institute and the potential that dance has to transform kids’ lives.  He knew he wanted to do it in New York, his home, and where he had undergone the same experience.  So in 2008, Ben came back to New York to make the film.

His first step was to convince National Dance Institute that he should be the one to tell the story.  It was an easy sell, given his background and relationship with NDI.  The founder, Jacques d’Amboise, one of the most famous ballet dancers of all time, placed his trust in Ben and will also be featured throughout the film.

So how do you go about making your own feature-length film from scratch?

Ben’s first step was to write a treatment for the film.  Answering questions like: What does the whole film look like?  Why are you shooting?  How will I pay for this?  He created a range of explanatory documents, from a one page paragraph to a full PowerPoint.

And then there was creating the trailer.  Imagine distilling a year-long life experience into just 150 seconds, and those 150 seconds need to be the emotional hook for your entire project.  They are what draws in your viewer, what gets your project rolling.

Throughout this process, Ben was forming his team.  One partner was his former thesis advisor from college.  The others he met by networking and sharing his idea with as many people as possible. “It’s been piece by piece putting together a team.  It’s like playing Jenga.  You need the right pieces or the whole thing will fall apart.”

So far his team has been amazing.  In fact, in the beginning, whenever Ben mentioned his idea, people would say “oh, like that movie Mad Hot Ballroom!”  At first Ben tried to distance himself from the concept… “well, you know… it’s similar, but in my movie…”  Then he realized that Mad Hot Ballroom wasn’t his competition. After all it was a different story but it was also amazingly successful.  Why not bring the creator of Mad Hot Ballroom onto his team?

Ben found her e-mail address online, and she wrote him back almost immediately, loving the idea for I Can Dance!  Now she’s an official industry advisor on the project.  It’s that kind of initiative that makes idea-makers like Ben a special breed.

But it’s not all easy.  Sometimes it takes a couple of years to get to where you need to be in order to fully commit to the project.  Every year since 2008 Ben has wanted to start filming, but he never felt comfortable beginning the project without having all of the funding.  He and his team tried a variety of options to get the funding, but nothing panned out.

This year, Ben put his foot down.  “When I stopped giving the power away to other factors and other people and took responsibility myself and said okay, clearly I wasn’t playing the game of, ‘it’s more important to make this movie than anything else,’… it became much more easy to move forward with it and take responsibility for whatever happens.  I have an incredible team but I’m still the person spearheading this.  If I’m not 100% committed to this, if I’m not living and breathing this project, it’s not going to happen.”

Before, Ben had been relying on having the entire budget in the bank before starting the film.  Now, having broadened his perspective, and launched his own production company, Footage Films, he’s content to have partial funding for the film, raised through his Indiegogo Campaign, as well as private grants, and is confident that he can raise additional funds when the time comes. 

The shooting will be a full-time daily commitment.  The I Can Dance! team will be filming in four public elementary schools, to capture the school-life of NDI dancers.  On top of that, the four kids featured in the film will be given their own cameras, to film at home throughout the year.  They will be given weekly assignments, such as to teach their grandma a dance move… and have grandma teach them a dance move from when she was young.

Speaking of grandmas, Ben recalled a great story that I thought captures the epitome of big thinking.  Visiting his grandma one day, and telling her his funding challenges, she said “you know who should fund this film, Michael Bloomberg.”  At first, Ben laughed her off, but the idea crept back into his mind months later.  He called the Mayor’s office because, as he said “there’s no point in being intimidated because they’re just people.  They just have a different job than you.”

Guess who is now endorsing the film, and will even be making an appearance at the year-end show?  The truth is, you never know until you ask…

And right now, Ben is asking for your help.  This film is his passion, it will represent why his life is the way it is.  Help him, make it happen here. Only 24 hours to go!!

“I want every family with a dancing child to donate to this film, so they each can contribute to sharing this experience with the world.  That’s what it’s about – it’s a community-building piece.  It’s a life affirming story of joy, and struggle, and dance, and sweat, and family.”

Become a part of the family.  And in case it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but have never tried… I’m confident that you can dance!

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Ben’s Tips for Aspiring Filmmakers and Entrepreneurs

  • Spend the time to find your vision.
  • Ask questions of people who have more expertise than you and also form a relationship with them.  It’s not just a one way street: you want to give something to the relationship as well.
  • Share your vision with others.  Sharing it makes it more real for you, and also makes you accountable for your vision.
  • Be willing to take risks.
  • It’s not an actualized dream if it’s in your head.  Get out of your head and start making things happen.
  • Even as you keep your eye on the goal, focus on the process.  The most important part of your story, is the journey.
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Michelle Greenwald – Inventours™

Thomas Edison’s words flowed through Michelle Greenwald’s mouth like electricity through a wire: bringing her to life.  “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk,” she quoted.

I could sense her passion about invention, about innovation, about helping others find their way.  Michelle loves to promote innovation and invention, and her new program for innovators, called Inventours™, does much more than deliver a pile of junk to spur invention.

Each weeklong Inventours™ program, in a different city globally, exposes its participants to cutting-edge innovation in product and industrial design, architecture, fashion, food, art, technology and hospitality.  Or as the Inventours™ pithy tagline says, “insider access to leading innovators in the world’s most creative cities.”

Barcelona, Spain. Paris, France.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  New York, United States.

Every city/country has different innovation specialties – such as Denmark’s design tradition of simple aesthetics and functionality – to inspire the eager minds of the participants.  The participants, who will be Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, and Heads of Research & Development, and Design at large corporations, mixed in with other unique individuals, will each bring their viewpoint to the table.  The goal of the program is more than just providing stimuli; it is also to engage the participants in scintillating conversations and to inspire a true cultural shift in ways of thinking about innovating within their companies.

So how did Michelle’s career lead her to this point?

Michelle spent her career in marketing and new product development, working for Disney and Pepsi, among others.  Along the way she has supervised the thousands of new product and marketing projects her students have developed.  And, in case it comes up during your next trivia game, she is the brain behind the brand name “Laffy Taffy” as well as the idea of licensing Daffy Duck to represent it (it’s Daffy for Laffy Taffy!).

Throughout her career, she developed a profound interest in innovation. “I just love when I see something innovative.  I’m working on a book about innovation and I go around literally the world – wherever I am – and I take pictures of anything that I see that’s innovative.  And I look at what’s innovative about it.  I think there are different lines of thinking to come up with innovative ideas and I have categorized them to help companies think more broadly as they innovate,” Michelle told me.

It all culminated when she was teaching at IESE business school in Spain.  The chairman of the Marketing department co-wrote a case about Ferran Adriá, one of the most creative chefs in the world.  Adriá’s food concoctions, as detailed in the HBS Working Knowledge Forum, range from beetroot and yogurt ice-cream lollipops to a deconstructed Spanish omelet presented in a parfait glass.

Learning more about Ferran Adriá’s unique and successful approach to the culinary profession left Michelle pondering how she could contribute more to the world of innovation.  “There’s a notion of cross-pollination of ideas that’s very prevalent right now,” she said, and that led her to think about how innovation in food could be applied to innovation in business, art, music or interior design, or… so many other industries!  Someone wrote a symphony, inspired by a meal at Ferran Adria’s restaurant.  They all cross over.

But at first this was just an idea, with no tangible implementation method.  Then, Michelle observed a Darden professor’s study tour program in Barcelona.  Daily, the students would explore the work of famous artists and architects – Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, Miro – and afterwards they had a debrief session about management principles and innovation: how the innovations they had seen in the paintings and buildings can relate back to business.

Suddenly all these stimuli around Michelle coalesced and she knew what she had to do: create Inventours™!  Cross-sector inspirations with exposure to different cultures and practitioners, people who have innovated and succeeded in different ways.  She also explained another integral part.  “The participants will learn about different innovation processes and philosophies.  So we’ll be going to the offices of these places, to these innovative firms, so we can see how the physical environmental contributes to creativity and the interplay between different functional groups.  Because there are definitely a lot of firms that have thought a lot about how they create an interactive kind of environment.”

Pilot Program

Inventours™ is launching in full force in 2013.  But before that, Greenwald held a one-day pilot program in New York this past September 28th.

The program featured guests such as Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, a 3-D printing company.  “Weijmarshausen feels that 3-D printing will revolutionize the world in very broad and profound ways.  It makes sense though.  Think about if a ship is out at sea and a part breaks down.  Instead of having to go to port, they could just manufacture the part on the ship,” Michelle explained to me.

In contrast, the program also explored smaller-scale innovation.  For example, the participants ventured to 5 Pointz in Queens where experts in color and fragrance discussed trend forecasting based on the graffiti art in the neighborhood.

The one-day pilot program in New York will help Michelle work out the final kinks in program design and logistics.  “Unless you actually implement something you don’t necessarily think of all the issues.  So this is forcing me, in a more manageable way – a one-day program – to deal with a lot of the issues.  Then I’ll know and be more conscious of these issues when I launch,” Greenwald told me.

Putting together the final programs is a study in logistics.  In each city Michelle plans to organize five visits a day, for a total of 25 visits in one program.  There’s food, speakers, transportation, and every tiny detail to organize.  But Michelle finds the logistics and research exhilarating and exciting.

The Future

Eventually Greenwald hopes to maintain six programs a year, and also develop programs that drill down in one topic.  Want to do a food innovation tour?  Or one about fashion?  Inventours™ will be there.

She also hopes that her program will change the way companies innovate, by encouraging people think more broadly when they innovate.  “They won’t look at just what’s going on in their industry.  My favorite example is Apple.  When they developed the iMac computer with the glossy colored plastic exteriors they went to a jelly bean factory to see how they made shiny, colored, glossy materials because they wanted the same effect.”

The Key to Innovation?

“That’s a hard question to answer.  Coming up with something different, but in a good way.  Something that makes people’s lives easier, more fun, more enjoyable.  It can be very simple – meeting a consumer need in a way that can be totally obvious.  For me, there’s a can of tennis balls that added a fourth ball to the can.  I thought that was innovative.  Why had nobody ever thought of challenging the 3-balls-to-a-can rule?  Everybody always needs a fourth ball!”

Inventours™ is to businesses as the fourth ball is to a can of tennis balls.  It will make the businesses last longer in the game.

“Every firm wants to be faster to market.  They’re all looking to be better, faster, have more breakthroughs.  So hopefully they’ll get some ideas with Inventours™.  If they get one good idea about how to innovate differently, it’s all worth it,” Greenwald concluded.

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Michelle’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • Develop a concept board, something visual that people can respond to.  It needs to stand on its own so people can understand what it’s all about when you’re not there to champion your idea.
  • Be aware of all the nuances in everything you do.  The fonts you pick, the words and visuals you select and where you place them, are all important details.
  • New product design is always subject to Murphy’s Law.  Be aware of that, keep adapting, and try to anticipate what can go wrong.
  • If you’re not sure who your target audience is or what parts of your idea they like most, show your concept to a wide range of people so they can provide you with valuable feedback.
  • The more people you talk to, the more you will learn.
  • Learn, learn, learn.
  • Listen.
  • Always plant seeds.  You never know what you’ll spark in someone and how they might contribute to your project.
  • Make sure to put yourself out there as much as possible.
  • If you don’t do things, nothing will happen.  Everything depends on you.  If you stop, then things are going to stop.  You must be in perpetual motion, moving your idea forward.
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