by Az Martin, Columbia
I recently sat down with Nathaniel Harley, the Founder and CEO of the up and coming financial tech startup, MyFin. Nathaniel isn’t your average Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. He didn’t start out in his parent’s garage or college dorm room, and definitely isn’t into the whole turtleneck thing (or ties for that matter.) Despite this, Michael is determined to change the way millennials manage and think about their finances in a time when both college debt and the cost of living are rising at ever increasing rates.
Nathaniel’s journey as a successful entrepreneur in the financial technology space first began in Northwestern University, where he majored in both film and finance.
“Half the time in college I was engaged in this really creative world of filmmaking, while the other half of my time was spent studying really advanced math, econometrics, and game theory. So in many ways, it was a really great blend between that creative, artistic impulse and the more concrete, analytical sides of me. After college, I faced a choice – moving out West to work in the mailroom of some entertainment company, waiting for my big break, or heading East to work in the greatest commercial city the world has ever known – NYC.”
Thankfully for us, he chose the latter.
After securing a position in Goldman Sachs, one of the premier financial institutions in the country, Nathaniel quickly learned the ins and outs of the financial world. “I learned a ton from my time there. Understanding how companies operate, anticipating the volatility of different markets, how to navigate complex transactions, and most importantly, gaining a real sense of financial literacy. It really helped me understand the challenges and opportunities of successful money management.”
After spending a few years as a suave banker on Wall Street, Nathaniel decided to make his move into the tech scene. His girlfriend had just founded Spoon University, a next generation food network that utilizes social media to share recipes, content, and cooking tips among eager audiences. Immediately taking on the challenge, Nathaniel became COO and was in charge of finances, sales, marketing, and securing partnerships with many large name brands in the food sector.
“Soon after I got there, the growth literally got out of control. In a period of three months, we grew from 200,000 unique visitors a month to over 2.5 million visitors! It was definitely challenging work, but it was extremely rewarding to see all the hard work pay off. More importantly, it really taught me how to navigate the start-up scene, connecting with top venture capitalists to secure funding, operating a lean operation, and understanding how to engage with a dedicated and passionate customer base.”
Two million dollars in venture-backed capital later, Nathaniel decided it was time to utilize everything he had learned thus far in both the corporate and tech world to truly create something special.
“I was trying to get my finances in order, and I checked out all the apps in the financial tech space, including Mint, and was really disappointed with the functionality of them. Many of them felt clunky, and didn’t let you do anything more then view where your money was currently located. It didn’t actually let you know where your money should be located, in terms of maximizing efficiency. Should I keep my money in a checking account or a savings account? Leave it in a 401k or transfer it to an IRA? How can I manage my credit card debt?
And of course, most importantly, how can I meet my savings goal for that awesome trip to Hawaii I’ve been dreaming of?”
Teaming up with his long-time friend Ben, a talented coder with an extensive knowledge of all things technical, Nathaniel decided to build a platform where millennials would feel empowered to take charge of their financial destinies in an increasingly complex world.
“Financial literacy is pretty low among a lot of people. It’s a dense topic with complicated jargon that, quite frankly, takes a long time to gain proficiency and expertise in. It’s hard to manage money effectively in ways that maximize your bang for the buck. We wanted to change that.”
Not only does MyFin link all of your accounts in a super clear way with a really intuitive interface, it also allows you to move money between accounts, and its sophisticated algorithms will automatically make sure your money is in the right accounts at the right time. Say it’s the end of the month, your rent is almost due, and there’s not enough money in your checking account. MyFin makes sure to move around money from other accounts so that you don’t end up with an angry landlord or get evicted, saving you from those New York winters!
Or say you’ve got that dream vacation planned out. The beaches, bars, boat chills. The whole deal. MyFin’s got you covered.
“We’re building an infrastructure combining the best of tech and finance. Our built-in recommendations not only go along way in educating people and giving them the financial literacy they need to be successful, but actually goes a step further by making sure these practices are implemented. If it makes the most sense for that extra money in your savings account to be invested, we’ll make sure you act on it. This is where we differ from the rest of the competition. Instead of just showing a person where their money is located, MyFin will actually make sure that their money is in the right location.”
I ended by asking Nathaniel for some advice to young folk in what starting a tech company is like.
“Starting a company is one of the most difficult and rewarding things you can ever do. Every day there are ups and downs. You have to be super resilient, fearless almost. You have to be able to endure getting knocked down, but more importantly, to be able to get right back up. I remember as a little kid I used to go Sunday afternoons to the grocery store and buy Gatorades and candy to sell to all the soccer moms. If only all entrepreneurship were that easy. But as long as you hang on to your vision there’s little that can stop you.”
Better advice then telling me to go purchase a black turtleneck and move into my parents’ garage….
by James Xue, Columbia
by Jake Gutwein, Columbia
In his final days at Purdue University, Prahasith Veluvolu, who usually goes by â€˜Prah,â€™ was far from entirely focused on his computer science exams. What little free time he had available was spent buildingÂ Mimir, an EdTech startup with the goal of modernizing computer science education and that has become best known for its automated code grading abilities. The SaaS company is focused on replacing TAsâ€™ monotonous work in computer science courses, and attracting additional enterprise sales through the application of its technology to recruiting. The startupâ€™s team has participated in Y Combinator and received venture funding, but one more notable characteristic of the business is that the founder never received a college degree.
As one student out of hundreds in the classes at Purdue University, Prah directly felt the pain of poorly-run computer science courses. After turning in assignments, Prah and his classmates would wait weeks before receiving feedback and corrections, which often led them to make the same mistakes on exams as they would on the homeworkâ€Šâ€”â€Ša pain felt by students nationwide.
â€œWhen we received the assignment back a few weeks later, it was just a number, nothing else,â€ Prah said, and further noted that, â€œMimir really started because of personal problems.â€
Mimir is not Prahâ€™s first businessâ€Šâ€”â€Šhe previously started In0v8, a â€œweb and app design and development companyâ€ with Jacobi Petrucciani and Colton Voege, both of whom are co-founders with Prah at Mimir. Running this company helped the two develop skills applicable outside of the classroom and prepared the team for what was yet to come at Mimir.
How does Prah describe the decision to drop out of Purdue?
â€œIt was tough,â€ Prah began. â€œWhat kept me in college longer was the social aspect.â€
With the set of classes that he was taking, Prah found that he wasnâ€™t learning that much in comparison to the boundless development enabled by Mimir. Despite the exponential success of his startup thus far, Prah still questions whether he made the right decision. He noted, â€œBill Gatesâ€™ regret is not finishing college, and heâ€™s super successful in light terms.â€ If Mimir fails, Prah could be unable to find a job and rejected based on his lack of a degree.
Yet Prah sees the situation differently.
â€œBeing in the startup worldâ€Šâ€”â€Šthereâ€™s just another network there,â€ Prah explains. â€œIf Mimir closed down tomorrow we could probably get everybody a job within two or three weeks.â€
The continued investment of Prahâ€™s effort into Mimir made him more comfortable with the decision, and he noted that the risk dissipated as he spent more and more time at Mimir. Part of this was the network of the startup ecosystem, but what was more profound was the growth of Mimir itself.
â€œI was cold-calling professors between classes.â€Â
In the Spring of 2015 Mimir completed Y Combinatorâ€™s accelerator program, later receiving $750K in funding from investors such asÂ Chicago Ventures,Â M25 Group, andÂ Meridian Street Capital. PrahÂ emphasized that raising money was more difficult given his decision to leave a degree behind and noted that â€œ[my lack of a degree] was a hurdle to most people we approached.â€ Through the backing of some of the strongest Midwest investors, Mimir was provided both with capital that enabled growth and a valuable network of advisors and mentors.
Mimir looks to be focusing on scale in the coming months, which requires a heavy emphasis on sales.
â€œThe biggest thing for us is just being human,â€ Prah noted, as selling to college professors is a different challenge than the average consumer or business targeted by a SaaS startup.
What differentiates Mimir is their commitment to personal sales and approaching each potential client with thoughtful, researched sales material.
Prah and his team have gone through Y-Combinator. Theyâ€™ve navigated the Midwestern VC market and raised a seed round. Their software is in use at some of the top schools in the nation. Despite this, Prah has managed to stay humble and trust his teamâ€™s unending hard work, noting, in conclusion, that â€œI donâ€™t consider myself that smart, and if I took an IQ test Iâ€™d be directly average.â€
by Madeleine Steinberg, Columbia
Jeff Dachis is on a roll. Heâ€™s reeling off shocking facts about diabetes and the state of the U.S. healthcare systemâ€Šâ€”â€Šâ€œOne out of three Americans is affected by some function of food, medication, and physical activity and glucose, and itâ€™s affecting them in a way that a person dies every six seconds from diabetes.â€ Not only is it deadly, but it is also costly, indicating how the current healthcare system mismanages diabetesâ€Šâ€”â€Šwith $750 billion a year spent on diabetes each year in the U.S., thatâ€™s one out of every five dollars spent on healthcare going to diabetes.
His latest project, OneDrop, aims to take on these systemic issues, and his passion for it is evident. It is only the latest in a string of successful creative companies and ventures Jeff has undertaken over the past several decades. He is no newcomer to the entrepreneurship scene, having weathered the ups and downs of the digital economy (including the burst of the Dot Com bubble). His initial passion was in different forms of creative expression, deeply enjoying performing and being on the stage, but he realized that it would not be a viable career. â€œThe business of working with creative people, the business of creating things was really where my craft lied,â€ Jeff said. It was with this mindset that Jeff and his childhood friend Craig Kanarick launched Razorfish, now one of the worldâ€™s largest, most successful interactive marketing and technology agencies. Founded in 1994 in New York, the company was taken private and then acquired by aQuantive in 2004, which in turn was acquired by Microsoft in 2007. The latest change of ownership occurred in 2009, when Publicis Groupe acquired Razorfish for $530 million; the company now numbers over 2,000 employees worldwide.
For many people, such an immensely successful venture would be the pinnacle of their career. But for Jeff, it was simply the first in a series of innovative and ambitious projects.Â â€œFor me, Iâ€™m compelled to do this,â€ Jeff said of his drive to start and run companies. â€œI donâ€™t have a choice really. In fact, Iâ€™m probably unemployable.â€ He went on to found an information architecture and design firm, as well as Dachis Group, a data analytics and digital solutions company helping brands optimize their social marketing. â€œI think everybody has ideas, and some people are able to implement on them and execute on them,â€ Jeff said. â€œI canâ€™t say whether Iâ€™m much good at anything, but I do know that Iâ€™ve been able to take ideas that Iâ€™ve had and Iâ€™ve been able to convert that pursuit of ideas into business success.â€
With OneDrop, the latest idea he is pursuing is no less than an overhaul of the diabetes management process. The project was prompted by Jeffâ€™s own diagnosis with diabetesâ€Šâ€”â€Šhe was given â€œabout fifteen minutes or lessâ€ with a doctor, a reflection of the current healthcare approach. â€œWhat do we do with the other 364 days and 23 hours?â€ is the question OneDrop wants to answer. Its purpose, as Jeff puts it, is â€œfor helping people to be empowered, mindful and motivated.â€ In creating a solution for diabetes sufferers, the OneDrop team pinpointed the stressors and aspects of self-care (glucose levels, food, medication, activity) that are crucial to managing the disease. Not only that, but Jeff also emphasized the desire to create â€œbeautifulâ€ technology and software, a quality not often present in medical technology.
Taking on the entrenched medical practices and community is no easy feat, Jeff acknowledges. However, his passion for OneDrop is palpable. â€œItâ€™s worth itâ€Šâ€”â€Šthe letters that I get from our users every day remind me that itâ€™s such a blessing for me to be able to have this opportunity to serve our customers,â€ Jeff said. â€œI feel so grateful for our users and the support that they have given us.â€ A realistic assessment of the challenges combined with an unswerving devotion and dedication to the project seems to best characterize Jeffâ€™s approach, which has served him so well for so long. While the more superficial aspects of starting a company may have become easier, it still requires the same less quantifiable factors. As Jeff put it, â€œThe process has changed in a lot of ways, but I think the underpinning of courage is still the same, and the challenges associated with taking that very courageous step of having an idea and turning it into something is still the same.â€
by Kevin Chu, Columbia
â€œLord, let this election not be close.â€ So goes theÂ Election Administratorâ€™s Prayer, a phrase haunted by the United Stateâ€™s electoral meltdown in 2000 and the basic fact that elections are hard, complex operations to run.
If elections are hard, voting hasnâ€™t been easy either. The US Census Bureau estimates that 60% of non-voters missed Election Day in 2012 because of inconvenience and registration issuesâ€”not because of apathy.
This gap is where risk-wary government meets fast-moving tech: A crop of technology-enabled nonprofits are out to upgrade the infrastructure of democracy itself by making voting accessible and user-friendly. Here are just a few of them:
Sam Altmanâ€™sÂ VotePlzÂ is the latest in a string of efforts to create â€œthe TurboTax of voter registration,â€ adding on to the likes of voter registration initiatives such asÂ TurboVote,Â Vote.org, andÂ Rock the Vote.
VoterVOX connects multilingual Asian Americans and Pacific Islander volunteers to voters in their communities with limited English proficiency. VoterVOX isnâ€™t just a translation app:
â€œSmart tech and good organizingâ€ is what fuelsÂ 18MillionRising.org, the non-profit behind VoterVOX founded in 2012 to promote Asian American/Pacific Islander civic engagement.Â VoterVOX is the latest example of how a self-described agile online advocacy organization can marry smart community organizing with creative, tech-enabled solutions.
Ballot Scout provides local election offices with the technology to track the large volume of absentee ballots that go through the mail. Absentee ballots whiz through the mail by the tens of thousands during election seasons, and millions of vote-by-mail ballots are cast each year nationwide. Yet, many are lost or delayed.
Democracy Works, the nonpartisan nonprofit behind Ballot Scout (as well as TurboVote), describes themselves in terms similar to that of 18MR: as the crossroads of developers, policy experts, and civic organizers dedicated to upgrading the voting experience.
A messy and oftentimes discriminatory election system isnâ€™t an excuse to give up your political voice.Â Voter turnout and registration are no longer just in the realm of policy issues; theyâ€™re problems that demand solutions at the intersection of tech, community organizing, and creative thinkingâ€”all in service of continuing to make democracy work for all its citizens.
Meet AnkerBox. AnkerBox, a division of the battery charging company Anker, is hoping to make sure youâ€™re never stuck with a dead phone. Users download the app, locate a nearby AnkerBox (about the size of a toaster), rent the charger until no longer needed, and then return the charger at any AnkerBox location. This model is very similar to a bike-share system (like NYCâ€™s very own CitiBike). The first 30 minutes are free, and itâ€™s $1.99 to rent for the whole day. Available for now only in Seattle, AnkerBox is quickly growing and is looking to expand to other regions soon.
Ben Grossman, the Marketing Manager at AnkerBox, explains that Anker wanted to take advantage of the recent trend in â€œsharingâ€ economies:
â€œWe wanted to take Ankerâ€™s content portable and test that idea with the sharing economyâ€Šâ€”â€Šin this case, with the power-sharing economy. The demand for phone battery outpaces the use of that battery so we thought,why not provide on-demand phone chargers? Everyone at the end of the day has been stuck with low battery. Thereâ€™s nothing worse than being disconnected. We want to make sure that your battery never dies and reduce that anxiety that a dying phone gives.â€
Power-sharing is certainly a high-growth space to enter intoâ€Šâ€”â€ŠStarbucks at one point tried to introduce powermats, but AnkerBox is different in that it is truly portable. You can rent the charger and take it with you somewhere else, unlike having to sit at Starbucks while you wait for your phone to charge. When asked about competition, Ben says that the competitive space is quite new.
â€œWe have one company in San Francisco called Doblet. They have a very similar model, but the difference is that they charge a monthly rate.â€
During his previous role as Product Marketing Manager, Ben took on many hats. While focusing primarily on marketing solutions for AnkerBoxâ€Šâ€”â€Šâ€œsome of it on the product side,â€ he recallsâ€Šâ€”â€ŠBen also filled any other role that fell under marketing, including PR, sales, ideal customer segments, branding, logos, and creative content.
â€œI signed before we even knew where our officesÂ were!â€
While Ben is enjoying his time at AnkerBox, he notes that wearing all these hats can certainly be demanding, especially when it involves something that he lacks expertise. â€œAt the end of the day youâ€™re marketing a product,â€ Ben says, â€œso itâ€™s crucial to provide the right feedback to the product developers so they can target the product to address the ideal customer needs and make it a market fit.â€
But even with these difficulties, running a startup is a rewarding experience for Ben. His favorite part of the job is seeing someone go out and use AnkerBox.
â€œItâ€™s really cool to see your product in the hands of other people. You get to know that your efforts led them to the moment whereÂ
they decided to use your product.â€
by Helen Lu
A quick search on Craft.co for the company’s own profile brings up in-depth data with everything, from the number of employees down to the available job openings. It’s not surprising that a business would have this info readily available about themselves; however, Craft has also managed to compile this data on more than a quarter of a million businesses to date.
Founder Ilya Levtov’s vision of a free, structured index of sectors and companies led to the start of Craft. On the website, users have the choice of typing in a specific company in the search bar or browsing companies by industry. A complete business profile includes a company summary, growth metrics, Twitter information, key people of the company, locations, recent news, and photos of company life.
This sort of indexing and data compilation has proved to be a useful consumer resource for everything from real estate to restaurants. Levtov explains that many categories have a go-to online database.
“If I need to look up a restaurant, I need to go to Yelp. If I need to look up housing, take your pic; you need to go to Zillow or Trulia,” Levtov said. “Those companies have built really successful businesses by becoming the number one place that someone would go to when you think about ‘X’.
Now think of ‘X’ as a company. Where is that one place that you go to look up a company?”
Craft hopes to differentiate itself from other sites that provide company information like CrunchBase, Google Finance, and Wikipedia by consolidating the different information that each source provides into one location. For the the past six months, three developers, three content managers, and Levtov himself have been working on gathering more content for the site. One of Craft’s short term goals for the next six months is to look into more APIs, building up the technology, and improving the search functionality of the site.
Eventually, Craft’s challenge will be to become profitable which may be difficult considering Levtov intends to keep the information free for the public. The founder pointed out that current providers of company data charge large fees and operate as a business to business service.
“We absolutely want it to be free. What’s exciting is that we want to make this kind of data available to everyone: no credit card required, no fee. Just come in and say this is the kind of company that I’m interested in, or a sector that I want to explore,” Levtov said.
Another steadfast aim that Levtov hopes to accomplish with the site is to promote business transparency. Levtov, who currently lives in the United Kingdom, references the UK’s Companies House as an example of a method that keeps the public knowledgeable about financial information on public and private companies.
“In the UK and in most European countries, even private companies have to file summary financials and who owns the shares to Companies House. There’s a level of exposure that everybody’s accustom to. . . in the US we don’t really have that,” Levtov said. “Transparency, it just allows people to make better decisions. ‘Would I want to work for that company? Is that where I want to spend the next few years? Would I want to buy the product from that company?’”
Levtov’s experience in the UK, started when his family emigrated from Russia to England in 1980 in the middle of the Cold War. At the age of 11, Levtov moved as a transfer student to the Peabody Institute and continued to finish undergraduate studies at Columbia University. After working as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and completing a MBA at Stanford, Levtov got his first taste of Silicon Valley. The next couple of years involved jobs at startups and a venture capitalist firm, leading to Levtov’s realization that the job hunt process is “sub-optimal” for most people.
“Gallup does . . . a survey of the work place, and every year it comes out and says that around 13% of people are excited about their job and the other people are ‘eh’ or actively dislikes it. What a waste,” Levtov said.
Deciding to take his experience in building technology startups back to the UK, Levtov cites one of the toughest challenges that Craft has faced is getting funding.
“It’s really, really difficult to get some people to buy in and make those earliest investments. I heard ‘no’ dozens and dozens and probably hundreds of times, but I just kept going, listening to the feedback, and learning . . . so I kept doing that in the second half of 2014 and first half of 2015, until some angel investors believed, which enabled me to hire the first few people,” Levtov said.
With a current team of 8 employees, and $500,000 in funding, Levtov is going full speed ahead to craft the biggest structured platform for company data with Craft.