Blog: 2012 summer fellowship

By Tiffany Pang

Hilary & TiffanyWhen my business partner approached me with the idea of starting a social venture for bullied children in November 2011, I immediately googled find out what being an “entrepreneur” meant. As a Neuroscience major with few aspirations to start a company, I wanted to find a consulting job for after college – as sane senior undergraduates are wont to do – I had to make a choice between a job after college and the enticing, new opportunity to start my own business.

Before I decided, however, I had to answer a daunting question that, throughout the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute summer fellowship, has now been asked of us multiple times and in various forms: Are the idea and company worth it?

Depending on who you ask, “it” may mean different things. “It” may be time, money, attention, or opportunity cost. For me, it was all of the above, and my partner and I had ten weeks to decide.

Learning the Startup Process

The very first day of the boot camp, we began to learn what questions we needed to ask to understand whether we had a business—the science to go along with the art of starting a venture. The inaugural event, the 48-Hour Challenge, prompted all fellows to identify and survey potential customers to validate whether there was a need for their companies. Following the customer discovery principles of Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, my business partner and I set off with an idea and hypothesis to find our customers.

The need was easy to find: we wanted to help victims of bullying in the wake of recent student suicides. Where we stumbled was three weeks into the fellowship, when we tried to validate the financial side of our business. After our first check-in meeting with our staff mentors at YEI, our company faced its first major setback: it sounded too much like a non-profit, and it was difficult and costly to prove its financial viability.

While schools and students had a clear problem that needed to be addressed, we could not build a business around it.

Back to the Drawing Board

And as tough as it was to admit, it was time to go back to the drawing board and ask our guts whether continuing was worth it. In this moment of duress, I found that starting a company – as daunting as it may be – should never be a lonely journey. We learned to not only look to our gut instincts but to also turn to our network of friends, family, and YEI staff and mentors for advice.

A few days later, we decided ultimately to pivot to a different idea – to bring autism therapy augmentation online. The incubator’s stress tests had pressure-cooked our previous idea to death but brought a new, better idea out of us.

And, in the topsy-turvy world of entrepreneurship, early failures were good. There was much to celebrate of our first failure: we failed fast, lost little, and learned a great deal from the process that would carry over in our new venture.

Taking the Next Steps

With fresh ears, learned eyes, and hungry hearts, we tackled our new venture with greater ferocity. Throughout the fellowship, speakers – from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists – came to speak on their experiences. Like re-visiting a favorite book, their stories began to resonate and take new meanings as I started to understand entrepreneurship and my own venture—some immediately relatable, some eventually but inevitably. Through the culmination of their stories of hard-won battles, our experiences, and the advice of YEI mentors, we learned to ask the right questions to find the answer to whether or not our venture was worth it.

One week prior to YEI Demo Day, the penultimate fellowship event and the metaphorical Olympics of budding Yale entrepreneurs, we decided the venture was worth it, and we will continue on this path to see its end.

In the past ten weeks with YEI, I went from wanting to be a consultant to being an entrepreneur and learned more about companies, entrepreneurs, and myself than I did at any other job I have worked. And the journey has only just begun.

Tiffany Pang is the cofounder of Specially, a 2012 YEI Fellowship venture.

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Team Name: Youlo
Team Members: Colin Mills (YC’13), Carol Lasky
Industry: Webtech, Publishing, Healthcare/Elder Care

The Pitch

Youlo empowers individuals to personalize their own end-of-life send-offs and make their intentions known with a suite of in-print and online tools.’s online registry for creating, curating, and recording personal statements, ethical wills and giving designations, as well as the print legacy planner Youlo Pages, gives the individual the “last word” in how their lives will be celebrated, taking an enormous burden off of friends and family who would otherwise be left to decide what in the world someone “would have wanted.”

The Team

Colin Mills is a rising senior Economics major at Yale and a member of Pierson College. Observing the challenging and changing terrain of the healthcare market, Colin was inspired to enter the world of entrepreneurship. A Boston native, Colin has previously interned in management consulting. He has been a member of the Yale Varsity Fencing Team and enjoys writing short fiction.

Carol Lasky is a seasoned brand marketing professional with over 25 years’ experience. Her Boston-based firm Cahoots Design has launched multiple web-tech, healthcare and biotech startups and initiatives. Cahoots has been recognized for excellence in communication strategy and design with numerous commendations, most recently by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Cahoots’ work is featured in many Best Of… juried compilations.

What problems did you see that led you to develop Youlo?

By most accounts, over 55% of adult Americans do not have wills. A far greater number die without having an opportunity to articulate and pass along their stories, share their life intentions and personalize their send-off celebrations/funeral arrangements. This creates a costly logistical and emotional quagmire for family and friends. Our recent surveys, targeting professionals in elder care, hospice, legal and financial services and the funeral industry, underscore the need for — and value of — tools (online and in print) that facilitate important legacy conversations. Personalized legacy planning platforms hold the promise of enhanced peace of mind, intergenerational understanding and improved health outcomes. With 78 million baby boomers approaching their milestone ages and rapidly driving up the demand for senior services, we recognize that this is a group that wants to be remembered and celebrated in the same way they have lived: uniquely.

How is the Youlo solution different?

We are building a social platform of personalized, experience-based legacy creation. Our emphasis is on dynamic storytelling. In contrast to many current sites and tools that are clinical and impersonal, Youlo encourages personal expression. Youlo enables individuals at all life stages to affirm life in simple, secure and honest reflection by providing a “necessary repository” for memory storage and retrieval.  At its core, Youlo is a secure, comprehensive, and trustworthy social-model platform that allows members to create and share their last words and final wishes.

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Team Members: Paul Christensen (SOM ’13), Patrick Paczkowski (Ph.D. Candidate ‘13 - Computer Science), Julie Dorsey (Professor of Computer Science), Smita Venkat (SOM ’13), Andreas Kalpakci (Master of Environmental Design ARCH ’12)

The Pitch

Mental Canvas revolutionizes the development, exploration and sharing of ideas in 3D. Unlike the current "top-down" approach of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems that define large masses in 3D and then add details, Mental Canvas enables its users to explore unfinished ideas built from sketches and photographs in a coherent, lightweight environment built for the features and interface of the tablet computer.

Mental Canvas

The Team

Paul Christensen (CEO) is an MBA candidate at Yale SOM. Paul has 7 years’ experience in public relations and non-profit consulting in Asia and the US. He has a B.A. in Political Science from Yale University.

Patrick Paczkowski (CTO) is the co-inventor of Mental Canvas. Currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science at Yale University, he has a B.Sc. in Computer Science and Mathematics from Duke University.

Smita Venkat (CMO) is an MBA candidate at Yale SOM. She has 7 years’ experience in brand and management consulting to MNCs in Asia. Smita has a B.Sc. Economics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Julie Dorsey (Chief Scientist) is a co-inventor of Mental Canvas. Currently she is a professor of computer science at Yale University. Julie came to Yale in 2002 from MIT, where she held tenured appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Architecture Architect.

Andreas Kalpakci, (Creative Advisor) studied research methods in architecture on a Fulbright scholarship at Yale. Andreas has an M.Arch, B.Arch, from Academy of Architecture, Mendrisio and is a registered architect.

What problems did you see that led you to develop Mental Canvas?

Given the growth of tablet computing, Mental Canvas has a unique and compelling opportunity to be a transformative force in the development and sharing of 3D ideas. Through its intuitive tablet interface, Mental Canvas makes exploring 3D ideas easier for designers and more accessible for everyone. Mental Canvas addresses two problems: (1) modern Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems are frequently used in the later stages of the design process, but are inadequate for the quick and conceptual early stages, and (2) there is currently no effective way to contextually incorporate the location or actual surroundings of a design.

How is the Mental Canvas solution different?

Through stroke-based sketching on multiple canvases, and importing images and visual data to create lightweight environments, Mental Canvas allows users to quickly explore concepts in 3D before committing to an idea. No other software offers this capability today. Built on proprietary technology developed in Yale’s Computer Science department, Mental Canvas will help both professional and casual designers explore ideas and potential directions without having to commit resources to creating a complex design model.

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By Sohara Mehroze Shachi

 “Set your ego aside—you need money,” said quick-service grilled cheese chain Cheeseboy founder, Michael Inwald.  A 2009 YEI Fellow and serial entrepreneur, Inwald’s experiences with multiple ventures in resource-constrained environments highlighted the importance of finding sources of funding early on in the venture process.

Competing in Crowded Markets

Before arriving at Yale’s School of Management, Inwald started a number of new ventures including, Inwald Media Inc./, a multi-media production company, and, a nightlife/entertainment search engine and user-based rating system for bars, clubs, and lounges. In each venture, the lack of funds became a major obstacle for scaling the company, and he quickly realized that entering a crowded market without funding made it extremely difficult to differentiate the venture from the competition.

Enrolling at Yale SOM, Inwald’s entrepreneurial spirit was still alive. He’d always loved cooking and enjoying cheese-related dishes – his specialty being the grilled cheese sandwich – and he realized there weren’t any quick-service grilled cheese chains out there.  From this came the concept for Cheeseboy, a quick-service grilled cheese franchise, which was selected for the 2009 YEI Summer Fellowship.  His priority that summer was to find and secure enough capital to give his fledgling company a fighting chance in the tough restaurant business.

Jim Boyle & Michael Inwald


As part of his search for capital for the company, he self-funded booths at county fairs around Connecticut and videotaped consumer reactions to his grilled cheese.  Armed with copious video evidence of enthusiasm for the sandwiches and market research he conducted that showed demand for grilled cheese and willingness to pay, he was able to find an investor that partnered with him to bring the first Cheeseboy pilot test location to Milford’s Connecticut Post Mall. 

Today, Cheeseboy has eight locations throughout the Northeast, including in Boston’s South Station and Prudential Center.  His success in the competitive quick-service restaurant business has enabled him to be thoughtful about Cheeseboy’s growth going forward—the company aims not to be the largest necessarily, but rather one of the most respectable national chains, a choice that Cheeseboy’s prosperity and financial backing has allowed the company to make.

The Takeaway

Be realistic about the resources your venture needs to take on a crowded space, and focus on securing them early on in the process.  Having them under your belt will allow you to make measured, strategic decisions about your company’s future, rather than scrambling to stay afloat.

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By Sohara Mehroze Shachi


  Chris DeVore, co-founder and General Partner at Founders’ Co-op, a Seattle-based seed-stage investment fund, has years of experience working with entrepreneurs.  He’s one himself – as a co-founder of e-commerce services firm Adjacency (acquired by Sapient) and local social search platform Judy’s Book -- and today is an investor and advisor in more than a dozen venture-backed startups including Appature, Appfog, GroupTalent, Remitly, Simply Measured, Urban Airship and Zipline Games.  Needless to say, he has been around the block a few times and has some ideas about what NOT to do.

Don’ts for Entrepreneurs

One of the pitfalls for entrepreneurs is their stubbornness. “Smart people are so convinced that they are right that they don’t always take signals from the world,” he said. While this belief in one’s own “rightness” can be part of the reason young people decide to pursue entrepreneurship, DeVore emphasized the importance of reaching out for feedback and advice from outsiders. “When you are young you have a tendency to focus just on yourself, but for people like your mentors who don’t have anything else to prove, it is rewarding to help young people like you.” DeVore said a lot of entrepreneurs fail not for lack of business planning but for not creating and sustaining human relations, and mentors can help with that.

However, he warned the entrepreneurs against “cosmetic advisor collection”–merely getting a laundry list of mentor names without being strategic about engaging them.  It is important for entrepreneurs to identify a handful of mentors that they connect with and make sure that they have shared interests that overlap with the venture.  Taking them out for a drink and “treating it like dating” is one way to go about it. The key is to concentrate, invest and over-communicate.

Another common hazard in this arena is that many entrepreneurs are very proud and protective of their venture, and often want to be sole proprietors. However, DeVore emphasized that it’s usually better to have cofounders since there is a lot to cover. While the process of finding the ideal cofounder can seem daunting, he said going to “Startup Weekend”-type events is a great way to meet like-minded individuals and potential cofounders.

“You gotta show up where other people with your ideas are,” he said. “You have to put signal out to the world for them to bounce back.” The ideal cofounder might or might not be in the room but if the entrepreneur is not broadcasting the message will not get across.

The Takeaway

To be successful, entrepreneurs must recognize their own limits and find ways—and people—that can help them circumvent them. 

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