Pittsburgh once again is on an impressive list as TechCocktail ranks it among the top 10 most-improved regions for startup funding.
A common question we are asked as we meet with teams interested in applying to AlphaLab is whether the “stage” of company is right for AlphaLab. We have previously tried to address this and believe that AlphaLab can help a company accelerate its learning through its different stages – whether taking idea to customer-validated product, acquiring initial customers or testing repeatable customer acquisition processes.
At recent talks about AlphaLab, I have shared our philosophy, our belief in founding teams, and tried to convey that AlphaLab is about openly challenging/testing your ideas iteratively in a collaborative environment with your fellow companies. In fact, rather than targeting a particular “stage” of company, we’re really targeting a “state of mind” with the founding team. (An acknowledgement to a fantastic video of a Vanderbilt student seizing an opportunity to play “New York State of Mind” with Billy Joel.)
We have accepted companies with just a vision/concept and we’ve accepted companies that entered AlphaLab with a working product, customers and in a few cases, funding. In each case, we felt there was a compelling market opportunity and an exceptional team that had the capabilities and desire to rapidly iterate and grow their company with the support of the AlphaLab program. Here are some examples:
Jim Ruiz, founder of CDL Warrior, came into AlphaLab with over 20+ years experience in the trucking industry and a strong vision for how mobile devices could change the industry. While in AlphaLab, he talked in depth with truck drivers and fleet owners to hone in on unique problems that weren’t being solved and how different customers viewed existing “solutions.” These conversations gave him greater insight into the differences between customer segments and helped him define and develop a differentiated mobile application and fleet trucking software that was quickly adopted by initial customers.
NoWait had done in-depth customer research when it joined AlphaLab and focused its early efforts on building a beta version of their waitlist management/text messaging tool for a set of restaurants here in Pittsburgh. They spent a lot of time working closely with these restaurants, observing its usage in the restaurants (all weekend!) and iterating on the software to make it a trusted tool for restaurant operations. When they finished AlphaLab, NoWait had proven its value across its 10 beta restaurants, seating over 1000 parties using the app. Today, the company has seated over 80 million diners across thousands of restaurants and recently completed a $10M Series B investment round led by Drive Capital.
The Resumator, founded by Don Charlton, is another high profile AlphaLab alumni company. It has taken a product that its initial customers loved and has built out a SaaS HR platform that solves the recruiting/hiring needs of thousands of customers today. When Don entered AlphaLab, he had a working product and launched it on the 2nd day of the program. During the rest of the program, he focused on ensuring that the initial customers were loving the product, getting great value from it while developing and testing the company’s customer acquisition plans and pricing. The Resumator has grown to 70 employees across its offices in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, counts many high profile companies as its customers and recently completed a $15M investment round led by Volition Capital from Boston.
Finally, AthleteTrax, had a working product, early customers/revenues and initial seed funding when it entered AlphaLab last summer. The company still had questions about its initial target market, college athletic departments, including market size and sales cycle, and needed to demonstrate active usage from its customers. During AlphaLab, the company tested customer acquisition strategies through different channels and with adjacent markets and discovered that they were gaining greater traction (and less friction) with recreational sports programs. AthleteTrax pivoted to focus on this larger market and has rapidly grown its team and user base in the past year.
We hope these examples give you a sense of the different “stages” of companies that have been successful within AlphaLab and if you could relate to any of the above, we invite you to apply for our Winter 2015 program – the deadline is Friday 10/31/2014 and fast approaching! (Now if you haven’t seen it, you should really check out that Billy Joel video!)
It’s confession time, guys.
We are excited to announce the next Open Coffee Club which will be held on October 22, 9-11am at AlphaLab (2325 E Carson St).
The Open Coffee Club was started to encourage entrepreneurs, developers, and investors to organize real world meetups to chat, network, and grow. I’ve heard from prior attendees that Open Coffee Club is where startups first met the investors in their company, and also how new Pittsburghers became integrated into our entrepreneurial scene. This is the objective of Open Coffee Club and what we set out to accomplish when Alan Veeck @aveeck and I @atainter started OCC over 7 years ago. We aimed to increase the transparency of investors and developers in the region, encourage collaboration amongst Pittsburgh startups, while maintaining a very informal setting – no meeting agenda, no name tags.
But we can’t take credit for coming up with the concept. The first Open Coffee Club was held in London March of 2007. We were fast followers here in Pittsburgh. I believe our first Open Coffee was held sometime mid-2007 at Crazy Mocha in Sewickley (and we developed our Facebook group soon after). For the first 2 years, we hosted Open Coffee Club in various coffee shops around Pittsburgh with humble attendance numbers. OCC continued its slow growth while more and more folks became aware of it.
In 2009 Alan and I partnered with AlphaLab (hey, they provided free coffee and donuts) and AlphaLab has remained the host of OCC ever since.
So that’s where we are today. Open Coffee now averages over 100 attendees, and I’m excited about its continued value that is provides to entrepreneurs, developers, and investors in Pittsburgh. If you’re available on October 22, 9-11am I encourage you to attend – I’m sure you’ll meet someone interesting.
Come meet Chris Olsen, formerly of SequoiaCapital and now a founding partner of Drive Capital, a venture capital firm based in Columbus, OH. With a focus on the Midwest, Drive recently led a $10m investment in NoWait, a Pittsburgh-based startup that has developed a mobile network for consumers and restaurants.
In addition, a panel will use NoWait as an example to discuss what investors are looking for in a company at different stages of development and funding, from accelerator/seed to Series A and Series B. Our panelists will share their unique perspective including Chris Olsen; Ware Sykes, CEO of NoWait; Sean Ammirati of Birchmere Ventures; and Jim Jen of AlphaLab/Innovation Works and will be moderated by Justine Kasznica of Schnader Attorneys at Law.
Date: Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
Time: 4:30 pm
Location: AlphaLab (2325 East Carson St., Pittsburgh, PA 15203)
To register: http://www.showclix.com/event/DriveForward
AlphaLab Information Night is an opportunity for you to come and learn about AlphaLab, ask questions about the program and the application process, and hear from participants in the AlphaLab program about their own entrepreneurial experiences. We’re hosting the event at the AlphaLab offices, where we’ll provide appetizers and refreshments along with an opportunity to network with your fellow entrepreneurs as well as members of the AlphaLab team.
You will hear from Executive Director, Jim Jen, Program Manager, Aaron Tainter, and an Alumni Panel representing alumni from various classes and different stages of growth.
To Register please go to:
One of Pittsburgh’s fastest-growing companies just raised $41 million.
Thorley Industries, which does business as 4moms, completed its second institutional funding round, led by Castanea Partners. Existing investor Bain Capital Ventures also participated, 4moms said Wednesday.
The money is earmarked for new product development and to accelerate growth at 4moms, which puts a robotics twist on baby gear from strollers to playpens. CEO Rob Daley said in a prepared statement his company is “a world leader at developing consumer robots that solve real problems for families.” Ranked fifth among the 2014 Pittsburgh 100, which are ranked by three-year compounded revenue growth, 4moms’ rate was 354 percent.
Are you an early stage technology company with big ideas? Well, you’re in luck because we’re currently accepting applications for AlphaLab Winter 2015 Cycle. You can apply here.
What is AlphaLab, you ask? AlphaLab is a nationally-ranked startup accelerator program based in Pittsburgh, PA. We’re also one of the first accelerators in the nation, so we have lots of experience helping companies to launch quickly and successfully. Each cycle we select 6-8 companies to participate in our program and receive funding, mentorship and office space. The cycle includes many opportunities to build your product as well as your network.The program culminates with AlphaLab Demo Day, a chance to introduce your company to the world.
Another great benefit of being in AlphaLab is the ability to build your network. AlphaLab is a program of Innovation Works, one of the nation’s most active seed stage investors which has built a network of portfolio companies, investors, and expertise that AlphaLab companies are encouraged to tap into. We’re also a charter member of the Global Accelerator Network which means that you have access to GAN mentors, tools, and perks. The GAN perks range from $1,000 in Amazon Web Services credits to $60,000 in Microsoft Azure credits and beyond. You will also have access to the AlphaLab Alumni Network. This means that you will have sessions and be given feedback from the founders of some great companies such as Don Charlton and Robb Myer.
The office space is pretty awesome too. We have lots of soda, and cabinets stocked full of snacks and coffee. You get your own space as well as a lot of shared space so that you can collaborate with fellow companies. Collaboration is a major part of AlphaLab, and we encourage you to learn from each other.
So you know about us, now we want to know about YOU! We see a lot of applications so you really want yours to stand out but, this does not mean writing your app using an etch-a-sketch or sending us flowers. Below are some tips on what we DO want:
1. Do Your Research.
Is AlphaLab right for you? Read up on our program.
Is your company ready for AlphaLab? Read up on our blog post.
Can your founding team handle this? Read up on our blog post.
2. Take time to fill out the application.
Make sure that you understand our questions and are answering them. We want you to be as specific as possible – whether it’s in the target market, problem/ use case you’re solving, what you know/what you don’t know and your plans to test, this is the time to tell us.
3. Ask questions.
If you’re filling out the application and realize that you want to talk about your company with someone from AlphaLab we’re happy to meet with you during our office hours.
Bringing new employees onto a team forces managers to judge a mix of mandatory skill sets and intangible personality traits. In Silicon Valley — home base for tech giants Apple, Google and Twitter — that process has resulted in a workforce of thousands of highly skilled, innovative and loyal workers, most of whom happen to look remarkably similar.
Earlier this month, Apple reported that its global workforce is 70 percent male — a figure that mirrors Google and Twitter’s overall workforce.
A breakdown of racial demographics proves even more significant, with Apple reporting its U.S. workforce as 55 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic and 7 percent black. At Twitter, the U.S. workforce was reported as 59 percent white, 29 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. Google’s U.S. workforce was 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black.
The figures, all released by the companies over the course of the last few weeks, raised eyebrows among industry insiders and sparked initiatives within all three companies to try to balance the scales.
The situation made Promise Phelon, chief revenue officer of West View recruiting software company The Resumator, briefly consider if the issues raised in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book “Lean In” — specifically about how more women need to step up to leadership roles — played a part in the situation.
But then, Ms. Phelon settled on the most important consideration: that this discussion offers an opportunity for her company to present a solution.
“When I saw those numbers, I asked myself two questions. Is this a systematic thing or is this about the point Sheryl was making about [women] getting a seat at the table? My conclusion was it actually doesn’t matter [how it happened]; it’s about breaking patterns,” said Ms. Phelon.
Shifting the paradigm that drives hiring decisions has been The Resumator’s primary mission since it was launched in 2009, said founder and CEO Don Charlton.
Mr. Charlton, a Masontown native who grew up steeped in the culture of coal mining, envisioned The Resumator as a way to help small- to medium-sized businesses level the playing field with large corporations when it comes to attracting top talent. After an independent launch, he teamed up with Pittsburgh startup accelerator program AlphaLab. Within a three-year period Mr. Charlton was able to raise $3 million in outside funding.
The Resumator’s offerings of job boards, referrals, questionnaires, interview management and custom assessments for hiring have so far helped more than 70,000 companies find more than 2.5 million candidates for various job openings. The suite of products and the data contained within them help the company streamline the job search process in ways that have helped it rise to the heap of a fledgling market.
The small business engine has also catered to some of the nation’s biggest players. Its portfolio of clients ranges from Major League Baseball’s MLB.com to the 2012 presidential election campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The company does not publicly disclose its financials, but a company spokeswoman said it has generated millions of dollars in revenue.
After adding Ms. Phelon as its chief revenue officer in December, the company opened a Silicon Valley office in March to keep close to West Coast investors. It embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign in June that set an eight-week time limit to meet the $15 million mark.
That push paid off this week, with a goal-matching investment led by Boston-based Volition Capital and supported by Tucson, Ariz.-based Rincon Venture Partners, South Side-based Birchmere Ventures, New York-based Blue Cloud Ventures and Riverfront Ventures, an investment firm run by South Side-based Innovation Works.
Hiring a team of data scientists and looking for a new space for a staff expected to grow from around 60 to 100 by next year top a list of priorities to be addressed with the new funding. With eyes on Downtown, Mr. Charlton hopes to work with city officials to address parking concerns and find an appropriate space.
Mr. Charlton, who envisions the company becoming a household name among small business recruiters, believes having The Resumator’s name shining within the city skyline could be a win-win proposition.
“We have a strong desire and belief that the recruiting software industry, especially catering to small- and medium-sized businesses, is emerging,” he said. “We have a leadership position. We have the data and resources now to take that position and become a dominant and fast player.”
Capitalizing on those data — a set of more than 1 billion points compiled over the course of the company’s five-year existence — will be a key factor in boosting the software’s ability to help people make consistently solid hiring decisions, said Ms. Phelon.
Not only that, the method of screening applicants through algorithms comes with the bonus of weeding out biases within the hiring process.
“The Resumator is at a stage where we’ve got millions of resumes, hundreds of thousands of hiring decisions,” said Ms. Phelon. “We can actually reverse-engineer what success looks like inside a company and allow organizations to look at candidates irrespective of anything besides what their skills are, what they’ve done.
“And we can give people data-driven, evidence-based decisions on the candidates they should be considering, and quite frankly I think that would remove a lot of natural biases that exist in the hiring process.”
Besides letting data dictate hiring, Mr. Charlton said tech and other industries seeking to diversify their forces could also make sure positions that don’t require advanced degrees are as heavily promoted among minority and women as skilled positions.
Diversity within Apple, Google and Twitter is slightly better for nontech positions in the U.S., but the majority of those positions are still held by white males in Google and Apple. Twitter did not have information about the number of women working in nontech positions in the U.S. immediately available, but reported a 50-50 split between men and women in the positions globally.
Noting that secretaries and customer care workers cashed in on Twitter’s $24 billion initial public offering just as easily as executives, Mr. Charlton said tying a lack of diversity solely to a lack of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — training among women and minorities was a “red herring scapegoat” that could delay action for generations.
“One of the things I think a lot of minorities don’t know is that personal wealth creation — especially an acceleration of personal wealth creation — occurs when you join very early companies that have a high probability of failure,” said Mr. Charlton.
“You don’t have to be a computer scientist or engineer to be in tech. We have plenty of women and minorities in our company right now who wouldn’t know how to code if their life depended on it but they feel just as much involved in tech as we do, every single day.”
Calling themselves capitalists in the purest sense, Mr. Charlton and Ms. Phelon said opening doors to new faces in the workforce isn’t about charity so much as a means of maximizing options for quality talent.
Within a tech company founded by a black man that boasts a 40 percent female executive board, standing out as the new face among industry counterparts is a reality. On the other hand, so is standing out for being exceptional.
“The best way to break patterns is to shape the pattern,” said Mr. Charlton. “We believe by us focusing on building a really great business and this happenstance of what our demographics are, it will all play out in the end.”
When Taiwanese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung needed a more efficient way to manage the hourlong waits for tables at its U.S. locations, it turned to mobile tool NoWait. “Our locations seat as many as 2,000 guests a day,” says Aaron Yang, partner and operations manager for Din Tai Fung USA. “NoWait has become essential to help us, and we’ve gotten very positive feedback from both hosts and guests. We’re definitely seeing a decrease in wait time.”
The dumpling specialist, which has locations in 10 countries, is now using NoWait in all six of its U.S. restaurants.
Robb Myer conceived NoWait after one too many holdups at his favorite eateries. Formerly a director at an employee-benefits and consumer-health company, Myer teamed up in 2010 with developers James Belt and Richard Colvin and marketer Luke Panza to launch their NoWait host app for the iPad, which moves traditional restaurant wait lists from paper to tablet.
Arriving customers provide the restaurant host with a cell number and receive a text message confirming their spot on the wait list. When their tables are ready, customers are notified by another text; the setup gives them the freedom to leave while they wait, without having to carry a pager from the restaurant.
On the restaurant side, the service provides hosts with a running clock on each individual party, as well as a floor map of the establishment with progress bars that indicate when tables will open up. At the end of each day, NoWait sends the restaurant manager an e-mail summary with analytics about seating totals, wait-time quote accuracy and the number of parties that left or were removed from the list.
In February, Myer and his Pittsburgh-based team launched a free consumer-facing version of the app for iOS and Android that can be used to add a name to a list or to check wait times. It also has a “suggest a restaurant” feature that encourages diners to vote for eateries that should use the service. Within the first three months, the feature generated 80,000 votes for 13,000 U.S. restaurants.
NoWait says it is seating 5 million guests per month, up from 700,000 per month in 2012. Restaurants that use the system “can turn their tables faster and ultimately seat more guests,” Myer claims. “We see a 15 percent increase in revenue after the implementation of NoWait at a restaurant.”
NoWait is free for use by restaurants that seat up to 200 parties per month; the standard package covers 1,200 parties for $119 per month and includes additional features such as text-message customization, two-way texting and a wait-time predictor. An enterprise option, available for large clients, has been implemented by the Buffalo Wild Wings, First Watch and On The Border chains.
Next up for NoWait, which has received more than $15 million in funding from investors such as Birchmere Ventures and Drive Capital, is to expand beyond restaurants to markets such as doctors’ offices. Now that’s an innovation worth waiting for.