BLOG: Before January 2012


In the weeks leading up to the deadline for YEI's Summer Fellowship application (January 18th), we've asked past Fellows to share their advice for starting a company - and applying for the fellowship.

By Avery Faller

Avery Faller HeadshotThink about it: would you rather attempt to create something audacious and new that, if successful, will disrupt the way the world works, or rebuild an existing company with a slightly different twist?  Also the name for the current Big Apple Circus performance at Lincoln Center, “Dream Big” should be a key strategy you employ as you develop the idea for your company.  

Whatever path you choose, there is no guarantee that your company will succeed and personally, given the choice, I would rather be working on an idea that I was truly passionate about, that I want to put my all into.

If you think of the advancements that have been made in the world in the past ten years, you can see that big ideas hail from any number of sources: everything from childhood aspirations to a deep understanding of a market.  Now I admit, not all successful companies are centered on truly unique ideas (look at the recent flood of recurring-payment diaper websites).  Even the latest articles on TechCrunch may not focus on new companies, but rather on new features being launched by big established companies or large companies buying smaller companies for their technological talent, rather than their ideas. But the ones that are doing something new seem to consistently draw my attention and inspire me to build and create companies and technologies of my own. 

How do you dream big?  Where should you look for inspiration?  Reading science fiction novels, holding brainstorming sessions with your friends, and reading the science and technology section of the newspaper are all good idea.  The entrepreneurs and VCs who are consistently the best in the world at dreaming big often combine a combine a childlike naivety about what is possible with the acute business know-how of assembling top-tier teams from extremely talented individuals. 

To be clear, encouraging radicalism is not an endorsement or excuse for you to found a company whose goal is so impossible that there is no realistic way for you to accomplish it, but if you have invented a method of solving a problem or technological knowledge that would lower the difficulty level of a problem from impossible to plausible, than you may just be on your way to founding a great start-up.

Avery Faller (YEI '11, YC '11) is a cofounder of Roammeo, a realtime event discovery engine. Avery also works as the Media Intern at YEI.

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In the weeks leading up to the deadline for YEI's Summer Fellowship application (January 18th), we've asked past Fellows to share their advice for starting a company - and applying for the fellowship.

By Huijia Phua

As a young entrepreneur, there are some mornings when I would wake up and hit the ground running, fueled by the feeling that I could conquer anything in my path.

Then there are Those Mornings.

On Those Mornings, I awake with my brows already furrowed, as if someone stitched them together during the night. That’s usually due to my worry about, our fledging startup. Something has probably gone wrong the day before, or didn’t turn out to be what we expected. On these fateful mornings, I feel incredibly lost - as if I’ve been fumbling in the dark for a torch-light only to grab a cucumber. That’s when I feel like giving up.

But we’re still here, and working harder than ever. That’s because every time I have one of Those Mornings, I remember why we started I remember the heart of our social venture, why we even decided to go down this unpredictable path, and the students that we set out to help with our startup. And I have it written down – that the day we know has made it, is the day we are able to award scholarships to needy international students.

I sit down, close my eyes and envision that day, in the most vivid detail.

I describe this scene to my co-founder Wilson, and we both agree – we have to keep trying our best, no matter how difficult it gets. After all, UNIcq is not just about us, the founders. It’s about the people who helped us create it, and the generations after that who could benefit from our work. And I remember the thank yous and the appreciative emails we have received so far from students all over the world, and I find in myself again the strength to carry on.

Now if I was driven solely by the prospect of becoming a millionaire, I believe I would have quit a long time ago. There are easier ways of earning money. The entrepreneurial path is a tough and tiring one, with many pitfalls along the way. Whenever you stumble – and trust me, you probably will – you will need to find something within you that will drive you to carry on. External rewards, in my opinion, can only take you so far.

A final note – I was watching a documentary called “Married in America” some time ago, in which they profiled couples when they first got married and checked in on them five years later. The couples that stuck together all had one thing in common –a deeper connection with each other beyond mere looks; whether moral values, life philosophies or religious beliefs. In my humble opinion, the same would apply to your venture. Want to remain happily married to it? Consider being driven by something greater than profits.

Huijia Phua (YEI '11, FES '10) is the cofounder of Unicq, a one-stop resource for international students seeking higher education in the U.S.

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By Avery Faller

As anyone who has ever owned a share or two of stock can tell you, keeping track of your investments can be a difficult and painstaking process—hence the preponderance of websites offering to help you manage your portfolio.  This process is further complicated when your investments are not listed on the stock market, like a house or a piece of artwork. 

You can imagine then the difficulties that might arise when investing in a living organism whose literal growth (and death) directly affects the asset’s value.  Which is why, when you invest in forests, made up of thousands, and sometimes millions of trees, it can be quite difficult to get an accurate read on their value. 

Enter Zack Parisa FES ’11 and Max Uhlenhuth YC ’12, who cofounded SilviaTerra to help “enable superior forest management.”  Currently companies that own forests estimate the value of their timber by having ground crews record data for sample plots.  From this data they extrapolate the value of timber across a larger plot of land they own.  SilviaTerra has developed technology using satellite imagery to automate and improve the extrapolation process.  The accuracy of the computer-based satellite image analysis allows SilviaTerra to greatly reduce the size of the sample plot needed to calibrate their equations.  As the cost of having crews of experienced foresters on the ground measuring trees can quickly accumulate, this reduction in sample plot size correlates with a large savings in employing SilviaTerra over traditional methods of inventorying forests.  

“We require less ground data to get better results,” Zack explained, highlighting the advantage of their satellite-based approach.  The technology behind SilviaTerra comes from the expansion of research that Zack was conducting at the Yale School of Forestry in Dr. Chad Oliver’s lab.  “We sell data to companies, consultants and landowners to show them what they actually own,” said Zack.  “We have to be right. Integrity is paramount.”

Proof that their software is a viable alternative to traditional methods is the success that they have had in signing companies up for their service.  SilviaTerra recently closed a deal with one of the largest timber companies in the US, to provide inventory data.  The company, along with several other smaller companies that they have already worked with, make up their quickly growing portfolio of partners. 

Although they are currently targeting companies with holdings over 100,000 acres, they hope to eventually be able to provide their service to smaller companies as well, as the majority of forests in the United States are held in small plots. 

“Better information is always a good thing and management depends on good information,” Max said.  “If we can be a key enabler of high quality forest management then we are creating real value in the world.”

SilviaTerra is already well on its way to achieve this goal with its automated plot inventorying website and Plot Hound, an app that allows the user to employ an Android device as a sophisticated forest sampler.  Keep your eye on SilviaTerra in the coming months as it continues to expand its client-base and technological portfolio.

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Last weekend's Hackathon at Yale (the first ever on campus!) drew together over 40 students and community members to work on programming projects ranging from websites to apps to device plugins.  Organized by Sebastian Park (YC '13), the 17-hour event was kicked off by TechStars NYC Managing Director David Tisch, who encouraged hackers to take advantage of the event as a chance to meet and work with other like-minded people (since it was unlikely a truly viable project could be completed in 17 hours).

YEI was excited to support the event, along with HigherOne and Elm Street Ventures -- and the dedication and enthusiasm of the seven teams that presented on Sunday after their marathon coding sessions was impressive.  Among the highlights were the following finalists (the "best" projects received GitHub repositories among other prizes):

A Kinect iTunes controller - Want to listen to music just by waving your hands?  Using the Kinect's motion sensing technology, these hackers created a way to control your iTunes: increase or decrease the volume, mute, change songs, and more.

ScrewYale - A way for Yalies to find dates for their suitemates for Yale's infamous "screw" dances.  A webapp with some basic matching rules, suitemates can enter profiles and look through potential matches.

Sports Smack Talk - Like to rib your friends after their sports team loses?  This Twitter app analyzes your friends' feeds and automatically alerts you to opportunities to smack talk.

And the grand winner, - Have an event coming up and want to keep guests informed?  This webapp, built on the Twilio API, allows interested parties to sign up for text message and voice call notifications up to the date of the event with just a couple of clicks.

Sebastian has promised another Hackathon for the spring -- we are looking forward to it!

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Pixtapes HomepageA month ago, SOM students Steve Reis and Michael Mossoba launched, the photo-sharing site that they co-founded.  Pixtapes, which was a 2011 YEI Fellowship Venture, has come to be known for its clean graphics, smooth animations, intuitive interface and retro-hipster feel.  If you live near Yale you may have noticed a series of hysterically brilliant posters that have begun to pop-up around campus that are all part of Pixtapes' larger marketing campaign to build their user-base.  With all their progress since launching we felt that it was past time to have them update us on the status of Pixtapes.

Pixtapes Main PagePixtapes Image View Page

YEI: How has your understanding of Pixtapes changed since you launched?
PIXTAPES: I'm not sure if "changed" is really the right word for us. It's probably more about growth. We tried to go into this without too many big assumptions, and have really taken the opportunity to listen to our users and find out what makes them happy at a more granular level. Everyday, we learn more and the product gets a little better!

What are some of your favorite albums on Pixtapes?
PIXTAPES: With a name like Pixtapes, I think music is really in our DNA. So, I love this concert album by Soulive. But we've already seen so many different types of albums, from weddings to political protests. I think the more personal albums are all about relevance. If an album contains photos of people you know, experiences you've shared, it is a really powerful feeling to relive that through photography. That's a big reason why our site integrates with your social graph.

What has been your marketing strategy up to this point?
PIXTAPES: Initially, we just wanted to reach out to our friends and learn more about how a tightly connected community would use a service like ours. Beyond just the organic growth that happens from a really collaborative tool like ours, we're trying to experiment creatively with a few different use cases by reaching out to various communities, brands, and organizations.

YEI: What can we expect from Pixtapes in the coming weeks?
PIXTAPES: Our team is growing, so we'll have more bandwidth for product development and we are working on some fun partnerships as well.
Read a profile of pixtapes here.
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