Leave it to Georgia Tech to coin (and prove) a new axiom: Successful businesses aren’t born—they’re engineered.
The phrase may not yet be taught in business schools across the country, but if the Institute’s new Flashpoint program continues its spectacular early success, it soon will be. What is Flashpoint? It is a “startup accelerator,” with the intent of teaching fledgling entrepreneurs what they need to know to get their (very) early-stage business models off the ground—including access to seed funding. But whatever you do, don’t call it business development.
“It’s not business development because these aren’t businesses,” says Merrick Furst, Flashpoint director, Distinguished Professor in the School of Computer Science and no stranger to the entrepreneurial world. “These are startups. These are business insights that are now in the world but were not in the world five years ago. Through Flashpoint, we’re not executing a business model; we’re engaged in a process of opportunity of discovery.”
Central to Flashpoint is the idea, now gaining currency in entrepreneurial circles, that startups are such an entirely different animal from functioning businesses that many concepts taught in business schools simply don’t apply to them. Startups are special. They must be engineered. They must be approached like any other research question. And that’s exactly what Furst, along with an ambitious group of startup founders, recently attempted.
Flashpoint: Clinical Trials, Phase I
In December 2011, about three dozen entrepreneurs—ranging from current Georgia Tech students and faculty to recent alumni and more seasoned entrepreneurs, all trying to get 15 startups off the ground—emerged as Flashpoint’s first “graduating” cohort. They had participated in three months of startup engineering instruction from Furst, from the program’s guest speakers, and from a cadre of mentors who had experienced success themselves in the startup world and partnered with Flashpoint to pass along their expertise.
This educational component of Flashpoint is critical, but the real task confronting each founder was to fill in all the blank spaces of his or her “business model canvas.” The colors they used were neither oil nor acrylic, but rather informational—answers to the many questions that confront anyone looking to bring a new business idea to market: Who are your customers, and what value do you bring them? How do they find out about you? What relationship do you have with them? What resources do you bring together to make this happen—did you build a database? Who are your partners? What do they want, and what do you provide?
“When your business is running, you’ll know all these answers, but at the beginning you don’t,” Furst says. “The process of engineering a startup is the process of intentionally and efficiently bounding uncertainties and risk, the net result of which is validated discovery of opportunity. Once you have that, it’s something people can fund, something they can come work for, something you can build into a business.
“Focusing on that very early stage,” he says, “is what startup engineering is all about.”
Chemistry vs. alchemy
Flashpoint’s “offices”—basically a large open space sitting three stories above Midtown Atlanta’s Technology Square—bear the marks of creativity and inspiration. Random stacks of business cards sit atop long high-top tables littered with highlighter pens and magic markers. Modest caches of food, water, Cokes and a few bottles of beer and wine await the next occasion to celebrate. Writing adorns the walls—all the walls.
But relatively little startup engineering happens inside those walls, Furst says. The real work is done Out There, in the marketplace of the world, as the startup founders engage with real (potential) customers, real (potential) partners and real (potential) investors to fill in all that white space on their canvases.
In December and January, all the Flashpoint founders got a chance to formally pitch their ideas in a series of three demo days, first in Atlanta and then with angel investors and venture capitalists in New York and Silicon Valley. Earlier in 2011, before the first cohort had been finalized, Furst set a goal of producing two teams that drew interest from national-level investors by the end of the second cohort.
That goal was met before the first group of founders completed the round of demo days.
“It’s like the difference between chemistry and alchemy,” Furst says. “In alchemy, you mix chemicals together and see what happens. Well, that always works—something always happens, but you don’t really learn much. In chemistry, you set up an experiment, make a prediction in advance, and then see if the prediction is proven true or false. We do the same thing for Flashpoint every step of the way.”
Sustaining entrepreneurial combustion
Flashpoint is now evaluating applicants for its second cohort of startup founders, due to begin the program this summer. Though the program has already met many of the goals it outlined for two full cohorts, Furst says he’s still “living in the moment” and not thinking about Flashpoint’s life beyond that moment.
However given its early success and heavy interest in Flashpoint by Georgia Tech leadership, it seems likely the program will continue, expanding its circle of influence across the entire Institute. But aspiring College of Computing entrepreneurs, Furst says, will always be welcome.
“Flashpoint has a lot of support in Computing—Dean Zvi Galil has been incredibly supportive, and I’d like to build on that relationship,” Furst says. “I’m from the College of Computing, and I think computing in general has a lot to say about this. A lot of what we know about startup engineering comes from the fact that computing startups are able to happen very fast.
“But the lessons,” he says, “apply to all of them.”
Flashpoint - The College of Computing connections (updated for second cohort)
Buzztastic manages the complexity of negotiating, executing and measuring results so that two or more companies can market to their audiences together.
Founders: Jeremy Haile, BS College of Computing 2003
“Flashpoint has really helped us identify the assumptions in our business model and eliminate as many risks as possible. Following a methodical approach to customer discovery and interviewing hundreds of businesses has enabled us to focus our effort on the problems that are most important to our customers.” –Jeremy Haile, BS College of Computing 2003.
Techturized captures the essence of a woman’s evolution over time, catering to her need to look and feel good. This new way to talk, shop, and get personal advice about hair cultivates an exclusive community of women who receive recommendations, resources, and expert advice for hair and life.
Founders: Candace Mitchell, BS Computer Science 2011 | Jess Watson, BS Computer Science 2012 | Joy Buolamwini, BS Computer Science 2012
“Being part of Flashpoint has put Techturized on an amazing trajectory to impact the lives of millions of women. The guidance, support, funding, and network from Flashpoint have been instrumental in our individual development as entrepreneurs. From Saturday night hangouts on Google+ to attending international hair shows to pitching investors at Union Square Ventures and Mithril Capital, we have come a long way. I am so lucky to share this journey with Candace, Jess, and Chanel who continuously challenge me to think beyond excellence. Together we are living proof that you can pursue your dreams.” -Joy Buolamwini, BS Computer Science 2012
Dwellio is an app for apartment renters, managers, and owners to increase the awesomeness of the building. What is so awesome about Dwellio? Well, aside from the fact that we are increasing resident retention, our app, at it's core, makes an apartment a better community.
Founders: Chris Spears, BS Computer Science 2003
“The Flashpoint program has been an incredible eye opener, having run a small consulting company for 7 years I “thought” I “knew” a lot. Merrick’s mentorship and the involvement of the other Flashpoint mentors has been amazing. We have no doubt about our success post Flashpoint.” -Chris Spears, BS Computer Science 2003
Our world-class technologists have designed theORstandard, an intelligent assistant that helps hospital to streamline operating room workflow for enhanced patient care.
Founders: Pushkar Kolhe, MS Computer Science 2009. Current PhD Student
“Coming into Flashpoint I saw our business as a research project. After seeing the Flashpoint process take effect on our business and rest of the cohort, I learnt how a customer-focussed company can succeed. Flashpoint and our interaction with its mentors was amazing. It has helped us to change our idea - into a scalable business model.” -Pushkar Kolhe, MS Computer Science 2009. Current PhD Student.
SpringBot delivers an ecommerce marketing platform to small & medium merchants. Our SaaS offering integrates and makes simple the data, content and multi-channel marketing tools (social, online, mobile, email) merchants need to drive more traffic, conversions and overall revenue.
Founders: Dave Armento
“Being involved in Flashpoint has been a great experience. Our first Cohort produced several companies that are already successful in their own right. We just finished graduating our second Cohort, and I see a lot of promise in the field of graduates. It is always stimulating to hear the new business ideas that people have. In addition, it is a lot of fun to help other people start companies.” -Dave Armento, CO-founder & CFO of Springbot & College of Computing Advisory Board Member.
Billfold is a better billing system, solving significant paint points for web hosts. Our SaaS offering combines drasticallyimproved security, extensive automation, and a powerful user interface to save customers time, money and stress.
Founders: Tim Dorr, CS '05 | Martin Parets | Nate Jacobsen CS '06
“Flashpoint has helped take the blinders off when we look at our own business. We've gone from a company with millions of dollars of potential to one with billions of dollars of potential. The connections, advice, knowledge, and opportunities provided by Flashpoint have been invaluable to us.” -Tim Dorr
Lucena Research, LLC
Lucena provides hedge fund technology to individual investors. Our web-based decision support software enables traders to find market opportunities and reduce risk in their portfolios.
Founders: Tucker Balch, ICS '84, PhD CS '98, Associate Professor, School of Interactive Computing | John Cornwell, MS CS '11
“I didn’t know much at all about high-tech startups and the methodology created in Silicon Valley for launching them. It’s completely different from what you might expect. You should expect—and plan—to completely change your business; you have to constantly question your approach and change to accommodate the answers you find.” —Tucker Balch
SavingGrace brings new methods of fund-raising to churches at no cost, by bringing together merchants and congregations for everyday purchases. Similar to daily deal sites, Saving Grace provides discount coupons from local merchants to church-goers. Churches gain a percentage of the revenue from each deal sold, and promote the deals to all congregants.
Founders: Christopher Stuckey, CS '09 | Jessica Merriman
“The biggest thing Flashpoint provided was connections to the business and investor community. Through those connections, we got advice and an understanding that to start a company, you have to break through all the noise and focus on something.” —Christopher Stuckey
Pindrop Security offers a new solution for identifying and preventing phone-based fraud. Our patent-pending solution identifies key attributes of any phone call including the device used, call path and geographic point-of-origin to create a unique “phone fingerprint” that helps banks and financial institutions identify and isolate fraudulent calls and authenticate legitimate user phones.
Founders: Vijay Balasubramaniyan, MS InfoSec '08, PhD CS '11 | Paul Judge, MS CS '01, PhD CS '02 | Mustaque Ahamad | Johnny Baker
“Flashpoint was instrumental in providing us multiple perspectives on techniques that the directors, mentors or previous entrepreneurs in teams had used to accelerate their startups. This helped us constantly fine tune our strategies and any Atlanta startup wanting to play in the big league needs to go through the Flashpoint program.” – Vijay Balasubramaniyan
Trimensional brings 3D scanning technology to smartphones, giving consumers the easiest, fastest, and most affordable way to create 3D models of their faces and other objects. Trimensional has already been the iPhone’s #1 paid photography app in 25 countries, and is positioned to impact a variety of fields, from 3D video games and movies to 3D printing.
Founder: Grant Schindler, CS '03, MS CS '06, PhD CS '11
“Going in, I had no business experience other than putting out software on the web. Through Flashpoint I learned everything from finding your customers’ needs to developing your business model. There were also the people I met—the demo day experience was amazing. I am 100 percent in a better position than I was before.” —Grant Schindler
BISmark provides business intelligence software for home routers. BISmark’s software provides ISPs with timely, fine-grained information about performance, traffic, activity, and user behavior in home networks, enabling them to improve customer care, troubleshooting, provisioning, and audience measurement.
Founders: Nick Feamster, Associate Professor, School of Computer Science | Srikanth Sundaresan, CS Ph.D. student | Steve Woodrow, Research Scientist, School of Computer Science | Marshini Chetty, PhD CS '11, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Interactive Computing
"The Flashpoint mentorship process has helped us take our ideas from the research lab to customers through a process of relentless iterative refinement and data gathering. The program has really taught us how to think in a customer-focused way. As a result of being able to think in this way, we've been able to land relationships with customers that might not have otherwise been possible." —Nick Feamster