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The latest news on Startups from Business Insider

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    happy numbers founders

    • Happy Numbers is an artificial intelligence-enabled math education platform.
    • CEO Evgeny Milyutin said the biggest lesson he's learned in his time in startups is the importance of knowing your customer.
    • This is pretty common business advice — but he's probably not the only founder who initially went about following it all wrong.
    • It took him a while to realize that meant visiting the classrooms where students and teachers would be using his product, talking to them, and watching them use it.


    When the iPad debuted in 2010, Evgeny Milyutin was a 26-year-old physics PhD student in France.

    On the side, he and his longtime friend Ivan Kolomoets had been tutoring their friends' kids in math. It occurred to them then that there was a prime opportunity to improve the quality of math education with emerging digital technologies.

    At the time, this was a truly novel idea — it was the same year Netflix CEO Reed Hastings invested in a math education startup called DreamBox Learning.

    Today, Milyutin and Kolomoets are the founders of Happy Numbers, an artificial intelligence-enabled math education platform. The goal is to help teachers personalize education: Milyutin described the program as a "virtual teaching assistant."

    Students are set up with iPads or laptops and plug away at interactive math exercises; then the program delivers feedback to the teacher based on the students' performance.

    Milyutin — who confesses that he struggled with math in primary school — cited a 1984 review by the late Benjamin Bloom, which reports that students who received one-on-one tutoring performed better than 98% of students taught in a conventional classroom.

    "It would be great to have one teacher for every student, but it's not always realistic," Milyutin said. "So this is where I feel technology can come into the game."

    Individual schools or school districts can purchase subscriptions to Happy Numbers (though Milyutin said he's also sold a few subscriptions directly to consumers). In the last year, Milyutin said, there have been 17 million exercises solved on Happy Numbers.

    Milyutin and Kolomoets skipped a crucial step before they started prototyping

    The years between 2010, when the idea for Happy Numbers first struck the founders, and 2014, when the company officially launched, were hardly glamorous. Milyutin said they created one prototype after another, but "didn't get much luck."

    For startup founders, it's almost inevitable that their product will have to go through multiple iterations before it's ready to market. And this wasn't Milyutin's first entrepreneurial rodeo: He'd already developed a biomedical sensor for identifying drugs in blood samples and impurities in drinking water, as Business Insider previously reported. (He subsequently sold the patent to a German sensor company.)

    But looking back, Milyutin can pinpoint one reason why he and Kolomoets struggled, at least in the very beginning: They were building prototypes before they fully knew the students and teachers who made up their core user base.

    "Everyone talks about 'you need to understand your customer' or 'you need to understand your user,'" Milyutin said. But it took him a while to realize that meant visiting the classrooms where students and teachers would be using his product, talking to them, and watching them use it.

    "Going to the actual classroom gave me so much inspiration and ideas of where the product should go." Specifically, they heard from teachers that their goal was to individualize instruction.

    Milyutin advises other entrepreneurs to spend more time than they think they need to on understanding their customer

    Milyutin has some insight into why he and Kolomoets skipped this step at first. "You kind of feel you're bothering people," he said, referring to his requests to sit in the back of classrooms and ask the teachers questions afterward. Eventually, he learned this wasn't as much of an inconvenience as he'd thought — and that it would be impossible to start his company without making these requests.

    What's more, Milyutin said, he'd sometimes get overeager, assuming that after he'd spoken to a teacher over the phone for two hours, he knew everything about their experience. "Talking to more people"— as many as you can — "is always better," he said.

    Those people included experienced education researchers. Milyutin said he would read blogs and books on education — and if he liked what he'd read, he'd get in touch with the author to learn more.

    Milyutin's single best piece of advice for other small-business owners is to invest time (probably more time than you think you need to) in your customer.

    In an email to Business Insider, he added: "Understand exactly what their day looks like and what keeps them up at night. A true understanding of all their pain points, even if they are not directly related to the problem your product is solving, will help you develop a solution that customers will trust."

    SEE ALSO: How a guy who used to struggle as a student went on to create a math startup that serves school districts around the world

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    away jen rubio

    • Cool small businesses emerge every day across the US.
    • We put together a list of 15 small businesses that make people healthier, wealthier, smarter, or happier.
    • Those small businesses include the independent bookstore Books are Magic and the beach-bound shuttle service The Free Ride.


    Across the US, new small businesses are popping up every day. And they're rapidly revolutionizing areas like transportation, food, fashion and beauty, and gaming.

    We scoured the web and asked our readers to identify some of their favorite small businesses (which the US government defines as employing 500 people or fewer). Below, we've listed 15 of the most innovative.

    Since we're largely highlighting reader-nominated businesses, the companies on the list below aren't definitively the coolest small businesses in the country, but they are some of the coolest. Our criteria for inclusion, aside from having fewer than 500 employees, was that the companies had to improve society at large, meaning they make people healthier, wealthier, smarter, or happier. The businesses are not ranked.

    Read on to learn about the small businesses that are making the world a better place to live.

    SEE ALSO: A physics PhD and startup founder explains how entrepreneurs can get the most basic business advice all wrong

    NextGenVest

    What it does: Helps students navigate the college financial-aid process. Trained college students provide assistance to college applicants via text message.

    Why it's cool: The graduating class of 2016 owed an average of $17,126 in student debt (in New Hampshire, that figure shot up to $27,167). But many students aren't necessarily aware of the financial burden they're taking on when they apply. NextGenVest is a way to get timely and accurate information in their hands.

    Read more about NextGenVest here.



    The Free Ride

    What it does: Offers passengers free rides to some beaches in the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, Santa Monica, and San Diego. How? Electric cars eliminate the cost of fuel and the service is sponsored by advertisers (like JetBlue, seen in the photo).

    Why it's cool: Beach-goers no longer have to drive themselves crazy looking for (and paying for) a few hours of parking. Plus, electric cars mean the service is environmentally friendly.

    Read more about The Free Ride here.



    Eu'Genia Shea

    What it does: This mother-daughter-run business sells high-quality shea-butter products while supporting fair wages for the female workers in Ghana who make those products.

    Why it's cool: Eu'Genia Shea donates 15% of its profits back to their female workers in Ghana, either in the form of a retirement fund or an education fund for their children. Each product comes with a personal touch — Akuete and her mother package them themselves in her Brooklyn apartment.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    neil grimmer habit

    • Habit offers customers DNA and nutritional testing, tells them about their individual needs, and offers them personalized recipes.
    • CEO Neil Grimmer is the founder and former CEO of baby-food company Plum Organics.
    • Grimmer's entrepreneurial success has taught him that every company you launch should have a personal meaning.


    Neil Grimmer was a walking paradox.

    A former Ironman triathlete, he was the founder and CEO of baby-food company Plum Organics. The startup was born out of Grimmer’s desire to provide his two young daughters with the best nutrition possible — and as it turned out, plenty of other parents wanted the same for their kids.

    Now, Grimmer was overweight, pre-diabetic, at high risk for a heart attack, and sluggish, a victim of what he calls "CEO disease": "too much travel, too much coffee, too much bad food in airports, too much alcohol, not enough sleep, exercise, meditation."

    Grimmer sold Plum Organics to Campbell’s Soup in 2013. Shortly thereafter, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

    "It was this huge wake-up call," Grimmer said. Prior to founding Plum Organics, he’d been a designer at IDEO, and was almost wired to solve problems wherever he saw them. Rather than feel sorry for himself and his family, he saw the situation as an "amazing opportunity to collectively get healthy again."

    Grimmer went to visit Leroy Hood, one of the fathers of the Human Genome Project, to have his genome sequenced and learn more about what he could do to improve his health. He also consulted TNO, an organization in the Netherlands working on innovations around personalized nutrition.

    Though he says he wasn’t thinking explicitly about starting another company at that point, Grimmer admits "that mindset always was in the back of my head," adding that it was about knowing that "I’m not alone in trying to figure this out."

    Grimmer found his 'tribe' of people who were just as passionate as he was about personalized nutrition

    Fast forward to today, and Grimmer is the CEO of Habit, which offers customers DNA and nutritional testing, then sends them personalized recipes based on the test results. He’s also back to a healthy weight and all his blood work checks out. His wife is cancer-free.

    Habit customers go through a multistep process. First they swab their cheeks and prick their fingers to provide bio samples. Then they drink a high-calorie shake and take their blood again, so the lab can see how their body responds to the different nutrients in the shake. They ship those samples to the lab, and four weeks later, they get a biology report and a personalized eating plan.

    This "Core" package costs $299; the "Ally" package, which provides more tools and guidance, costs $399. Habit also shares personalized recipes with customers.

    If there’s one thing Grimmer has learned from his entrepreneurial success, it’s this: "Whenever you’re thinking about starting a company, it’s got to be personal," he told Business Insider. In an email, he added: "Starting a business requires long hours and personal sacrifice, and can be tough on you as an individual so it has to be meaningful and something you believe will transform lives."

    Another takeaway is the importance of "finding your tribe," or the people who share your passion for the business you’re creating.  Ideally, the people in said tribe will have different expertise than you do.

    When Grimmer was launching Habit, he teamed up with scientists like Joshua Anthony, the vice president of nutrition at Campbell’s Soup (Campbell’s has invested in Habit). It was, Grimmer said, "a beautiful combination of core expertise and personal passion."

    This is also how Grimmer hires at Habit: He said his current staff is made up of CrossFitters and yogis who also have the necessary technical expertise.

    "It takes a rippling of that same ethos that you have individually to a group of people," Grimmer said. "I do believe that that is an X factor for any company’s success."

    SEE ALSO: A physics PhD and startup founder explains how entrepreneurs can get the most basic business advice all wrong

    SEE ALSO: This Silicon Valley startup wants to fix your nutrition with DNA tests and personalized meals

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    unicorn

    In the startup world, the odds of a company achieving a valuation of $1 billion or more is considered so slim, it's named after a mythical beast — the unicorn.

    In the entire US, there are just 135 private companies that are valued at over a billion dollars or more. Of those, only ten became so-called unicorns in less than three years, setting the speed record for all the rest.

    This list, based on data from Pitchbook, rounds up all of the companies in the US that hit the $1 billion valuation mark in record time. 

    SEE ALSO: Jeff Bezos says his advice to Amazon interns and execs is to stop aiming for work-life 'balance' — here's what you should strive for instead

    Desktop Metal is a 3D metal printing company that is hoping to make metal printing more accessible for manufacturers and engineers.

    Year founded: 2015

    How long it took to become a unicorn: 1 year, 9 months

    Total raised: $277 million

    Currently valued at: $1 billion



    Cancer detection startup Grail has received investments from Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

    Year founded: 2016

    How long it took to become a unicorn: 1 year, 9 months

    Total raised: $1.38 billion

    Estimated current value: $2.5 billion



    Smartphone maker Essential was founded by Android creator Andy Rubin.

    Year founded: 2015

    How long it took to become a unicorn: 1 year,  11 months

    Total raised: $330 million

    Estimated current value: $1 billion



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Jeff Bezos Amazon point

    • Amazon's early employees worked around the clock, barely focusing on anything else besides their job, according to Brad Stone's "The Everything Store."
    • Some employees even forgot about their cars.
    • While that's typical of an early-stage startup, some CEOs want their staff to have a better balance between work and life.


    The early days of Amazon were brutal.

    As Brad Stone writes in his 2013 book, "The Everything Store," there was no explicit rule that you couldn't take a day off on the weekend, but the assumption was that you wouldn't.

    This was in the mid-90s, after venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers invested $8 million in Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos realized his company had the potential to make it big. His new motto? "Get Big Fast."

    Stone highlights multiple instances of employees being so laser-focused on their work that they neglected everything else in their lives. For example, 23-year-old Christopher Smith had recently begun working as a warehouse temp. According to Stone, Smith worked basically 24 hours a day, biking back and forth between home and work.

    Over the course of eight months at Amazon (Smith would work there for 14 years), Smith completely forgot about his station wagon parked near his apartment. The car was eventually sold at auction, and Smith still owed $1800 on his car loan, which hurt his credit score — but he didn't really mind.

    Smith told Stone that "life just stopped" when you were working at Amazon. "You were stuck in amber. But inside that amber was frenetic activity that no one else could see."

    Something similar happened to the late Joy Covey, who was an Amazon executive until 2000. Stone writes that one day, Covey parked her car in the office garage and was distracted enough that she accidentally left it running, with the keys still inside, all day.

    It seems that Bezos liked it that way: Stone writes that the best way for job candidates to eliminate themselves from the running in those days was to talk about wanting work/life balance.

    Some CEOs today are pushing back against the idea that building a company has to be all-consuming

    To be sure, 90s-era Amazon isn't the only example of an early-stage startup that prioritizes work over... everything else. The internal mantra at Uber, for example, used to be "work smarter, harder, and longer." (Now it's just "smarter" and "harder.")

    Yet some tech execs are pushing back against the idea that building a company has to be an all-consuming endeavor, to the extent that you can't have a life outside of work. Take Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, which builds a web-based project management tool. Basecamp prides itself on giving employees freedom to work remotely and to take time off when they need it.

    "We're opposed to the prevailing idea in our industry that you have to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to do a good job. We believe 40 is enough," Fried told The New York Times. During the summer, employees work four-day weeks.

    Bezos recently addressed the topic of work/life balance, at an awards event hosted by Axel Springer and Business Insider US editor in chief Alyson Shontell.

    "It actually is a circle. It's not a balance," Bezos said.

    "If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy," said Bezos. "And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who's that person — who, as soon as they come into a meeting, they drain all the energy out of the room ... You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step."

    SEE ALSO: Early Amazon interviews were so tough, one comment could disqualify a job candidate immediately

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Jeff Bezos reveals what it's like to build an empire and become the richest man in the world — and why he's willing to spend $1 billion a year to fund the most important mission of his life


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    eu'genia shea naa sakle

    • Eu'Genia Shea supports female shea nut pickers in Ghana and sells high-concentration shea butter to US consumers.
    • CEO Naa-Sakle Akuete and her mother, Eugenia, are the company's only employees.
    • The No. 1 lesson Akuete has learned about entrepreneurship is the importance of failing fast and failing often.


    Naa-Sakle Akuete currently has thousands of containers of shea butter sitting in her basement.

    They're relics of a mistake she made early on in her career as founder and CEO of Eu'Genia Shea.

    Akuete, 31, is a Harvard Business School graduate who worked on Wall Street prior to launching the company. Yet she confessed, "There are a lot of things I learned in business school that in practice I didn't do."

    Case in point: Akuete knew that if she wanted people to buy her shea-butter products, the packaging had to be pretty. So she worked hard to draft up a design and ordered thousands of units to sell.

    Then she started getting feedback.

    "Your lids don't stay on.""This part of your story would be better told a different way." And so on.

    Looking back now, Akuete said, "If I had slowed down and spent more per unit on the packaging and gotten a smaller total number of units, I probably would have been better served." Instead, she had to create new versions of the packaging and ditch most of the original inventory.

    Akuete used classic business jargon to explain the mistake she made: She didn't fail fast or often enough.

    Eu'Genia Shea has streamlined the shea-butter production process, 'from the tree to customers'

    Eu'Genia Shea's mission is to harness the power of shea butter to, in Akuete's words, "support as many women as possible, as holistically as possible."

    The story starts with Akuete's mother, Eugenia Akuete. She was born in Ghana, left for the United States in 1979, and then returned in 2000, which is when she rediscovered her love of shea butter.

    In Africa, shea butter has been used for years to reduce the appearance of stretch marks, soothe rashes, and as a cooking oil, according to the website for Naasakle International, the company Eugenia founded to import shea butter from Ghana to the US.

    Yet Eugenia also recognized that there were women throughout sub-saharan Africa supporting the shea industry who weren't getting appropriately rewarded for their work. Many were illiterate; they didn't have access to technology; and they were geographically fragmented, Akuete said.

    Fast-forward to today and Akuete and her mother have landed on what Akuete called a "complete vertical integration" of the shea-butter process, "from the tree to customers."

    The company partners with roughly 5,000 registered shea-nut pickers in Ghana and pays them at a 20% premium to the market rate.

    Once the shea nuts are processed into shea butter and imported to the US, the resulting products that Eu'Genia Shea sells are at least 80% pure shea content, Akuete said. That's compared to much smaller concentrations in most other brands of shea butter.

    In 2017 (the first year Eu'Genia Shea was profitable), the company allocated 15% of its profits toward education funds for the pickers' children and retirement funds for the pickers.

    Eu'Genia Shea, whose only employees to date are Akuete and her mother, markets the shea-butter products both online and in brick-and-mortar retailers like Anthropologie and Credo. Akuete and her mother still package every single tin themselves in Akuete's Brooklyn, New York apartment.

    "The social mission of the company is the origin of the company," Akuete said.

    Akuete has learned that entrepreneurship isn't just about technical skill — it's about learning to advocate for yourself

    As her entrepreneurial career developed, Akuete struggled with some of the non-technical elements of running a company.

    In an email, she added: "When I first started, if someone offered to help me — whether it was to make an introduction or join my production line to meet tight deadlines — I would assume they were just being polite and say 'no thanks' because I was afraid of inconveniencing them. I've realized though, that most people don't offer to help you unless they mean it. Never turn down free assistance!"

    That favor "probably doesn't mean that much to them, but it can absolutely change your trajectory," Akuete said.

    Another lesson she's learned is the importance of talking yourself up. "In my normal life, I don't hype myself much. I'm just a normal person who feels weird talking about herself," Akuete said. "But when it comes to business, you have to highlight the good things about you because that gets other people excited and wanting to get behind your story and your brand."

    For women entrepreneurs specifically, she has a single piece of advice: "Don't be shy about being confident and hyping your company as much as you can."

    SEE ALSO: A physics PhD and startup founder explains how entrepreneurs can get the most basic business advice all wrong

    DON'T MISS: A former Ironman triathlete realized the key to a successful startup after 'CEO disease' pushed him off track

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you'll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from your purchase.

    25507773_1184025531731764_5433965408312328833_n

    • Mack Weldon men's apparel is made using proprietary fabric blends that maximize comfort in terms of fit, cooling, and support.
    • The company makes the process of buying clothes user-friendly, with a crisp website, easy-to-follow sizing and fabric information, and a hassle-free return policy.
    • Mack Weldon apparel is simple yet stylish, fitting perfectly into a lifestyle that involves athletics, travel, and robust social and professional circles.

    When it comes to underwear, men have three basic options: the brief, the boxer brief, or the boxers. When it comes to which brand a man chooses for his underwear, the list gets a bit longer. Actually, it gets dizzyingly long. And with every different underwear brand comes a different fit. In fact, often the same company will offer two slightly different products (say, briefs and boxers) that look and feel quite dissimilar despite sharing the same technical measurements. The same goes for undershirts, T-shirts, shorts, pants, and basically all men's clothing.

    It can be almost impossible to find a brand with a truly consistent fit. So when you find one, you commit, sir. That's what I've done, anyway.

    Every article of apparel from Mack Weldon starts with the fabric. The company offers clothing made using six different fabrics, two of with which you are surely acquainted: merino and cotton. As for the other four fabric choices from Mack Weldon, those are proprietary, and they're a cut above.

    The company offers its underwear, T-shirts, and socks in their 18-Hour Jersey, 18-Hour Mesh, Silver, and Airknit blends.

    The first two are named for the period of time the fabric is allowed to rest following fabrication and prior to cutting and stitching into garments; this rest period allows the fabric to naturally expand and/or contract, resulting in clothing with a softer feel and consistent fit. The 18-Hour Jersey is ideal for everyday wear, while 18-Hour Mesh garments are cooling and light and ideal for sporting activities. Their Silver fabrics incorporate actual anti-bacterial silver particles that prevent odors and keep you feeling fresher and cleaner. And Mack Weldon Airknit garments are form-fitting and flattering while remaining light, breathable, and comfortable. Whether worn to bed or to the gym, they're a fine choice for casual men's apparel.

    14691259_893761970758123_6071913297761976398_o

    I've said several times how Mack Weldon keeps things simple, but some concrete examples might help.

    First off, the company only offers a select handful of products. Beyond underwear, T-shirts, and socks, they currently sell two types of long pants, two types of shorts, a few polos, a few sweatshirts, one jacket, a bit of swimwear, and a few accessories.

    The website is laid out in crisp format, with the option to shop by fabric blend, by apparel type, or of course by specific item. Each garment has a link to a sizing chart, and when different cuts are available, they are explained concisely. ("Slim Fit: For a modern, refined look. Size up for a more relaxed fit" e.g.)

    When you blend a small, well-curated collection made from high-quality materials with a painless shopping experience, you get a brand worth your consideration, and likely one that will earn your commitment.

    Screen Shot 2018 04 30 at 12.11.14 PM

    Why is simplicity at the core of the Mack Weldon brand?

    If you believe their self-described origin story, the concept for a simpler, better men's apparel brand was born when founders Brian Berger and Michael Isaacman were "in a department store aisle full of brands that dominated [a man's] top drawer. Surrounded by a mind-numbing assortment of underwear and socks, [they] realized consistent fit and quality became a game of roulette… so [they] decided to take matters into our own hands."

    Now, do I believe that's exactly how it happened? That these two guys were shopping together and suddenly decided to found a men's apparel brand using their own brand new fabric blends, unique stitching, and a user-oriented online shopping experience? No, I don't, frankly. But maybe a plethora of such experiences over time led to the motivation.

    Regardless, I couldn't care much less what created the inspiration behind Mack Weldon. I'm just glad the company exists, because they make some of the best briefs, boxers, and shirts I've ever worn. The socks are nice, too.

    Check out Mack Weldon's underwear, T-shirts, socks, and more here.

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    woman email employee office

    • Rebel, formerly called Rebelmail, is an email-centered marketing company that lets businesses engage with customers without ever having to leave their inbox.
    • The company's most recent seed round closed at $5 million. 
    • Rebel has plans to use the funding to expand its enterprise offerings.


    Opening your inbox shouldn't be a static experience. This is the fundamental belief of Joe Teplow, CEO and founder of the New York-based email marketing startup Rebel, who, for the past four years has been working on creating marketing tools tailored to the inbox experience. Rebel's platform lets companies interact with their customers without ever leaving the confines of their inbox.

    The company has caught the attention of investors as well. Rebel recently raised $5 million in a seed round that included Courtside Venture Capital, Sinai Venture Capital, and Wisdom Venture Capital. The company previously raised a $2 million seed round in 2014.

    Teplow said that Rebel will use the new funding to expand its enterprise offerings.

    "Our thesis is that the inbox is only going to get more and more interactive," Teplow told Business Insider. "It's not going the other way."

    For Teplow and his team, the inbox isn't simply a fixed messaging system. "We see the inbox as an extension of applications," said Teplow. "It's one of the most powerful online environments today."

    Teplow works with heavyweights like Home Depot, eBay, WeWork, and Diane von Furstenberg. Using his company's enterprise-focused platform called Rebel Shop, clients can provide interactive inbox experiences that let users take retail-based quizzes, browse luxury goods, and make purchases all within an email itself.

    In the past, Rebel has been described as "the holy grail"of email marketing: A one-stop shop for companies to capture customers' attention and turn it into a profit.

    One of Rebel's chief selling points is that it's relatively more affordable when compared to other online marketing campaigns. "It costs you virtually nothing to deploy a message," said Teplow. "Email is a consistent, influential means of deploying marketing."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: How gross are your earbuds?


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    aurate bouchra ezzahraoui sophie kahn

    When Bouchra Ezzahraoui and Sophie Kahn decided they were going to launch a company, they dove in headfirst.

    As Ezzahraoui described it, the two women "were fed up with what we were seeing in terms of offers in the jewelry industry. We decided to go ahead and do something where we were the target customer."

    Neither knew much about the jewelry business; but instead of feeling intimidated, they took design classes for a semester. At the time, both Ezzahraoui and Kahn had full-time jobs: Ezzahraoui was an interest rate volatility trader at Goldman Sachs and Kahn was working at Marc Jacobs after a few years at The Boston Consulting Group.

    "It was hardcore," Ezzahraoui said, "having a job on the side."

    Today, Ezzahraoui and Kahn are the founders of AUrate New York, which sells affordable, ethically sourced, high-quality gold jewelry. The founders are also dedicated to giving back to the community: For every purchase a customer makes, AUrate donates a book to a child in need in New York City.

    AUrate's founders didn't sit around waiting for the perfect moment to launch their company

    Ezzahraoui's advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is based on her own success with AUrate: "Just do it."

    That might sound trite, but Ezzahraoui explained that the opposite — waiting for the perfect moment to strike — can be futile. "A lot of people spend years working on business plans and debating what strategy they should go for," she said. "In startups, unfortunately you can't be making a two-year strategy. That's not how it works given how fast things are moving. You're moving almost a quarter at a time."

    That said, Ezzahraoui added that "just do it" comes with some caveats. When you're thinking about launching a company, she said, it has to be something the market needs and it has to solve a problem. "Going after redundancies might sound great on paper, but actually are not needed in the market," she said.

    Once you establish a need for your product in the market, the next step is to figure out who your customers are and learn as much about them as possible. "The more precise you are about your target demographic, the better your business will be," Ezzahraoui said.

    The AUrate founders created focus groups with everyone they knew (they enticed people with free drinks) so they could ask people questions like how much different products should cost.

    While they'd previously believed their target demographic was millennials, they learned their ideal customer was actually slightly older, "millennial-plus."

    Once they'd created products, they tested the concept in two pop-up stores in New York City. Both sold out within a matter of weeks.

    In the very early days of AUrate, cash flow was a priority

    At first, AUrate was self-funded through the founders' savings and through family and friends. The founders' goal was to prioritize cash flow so that, when they pitched investors on their startup, they'd have something to show for themselves.

    "Cash flow is what makes or breaks a startup at the very, very early stage," Ezzahraoui said. "It's a huge mistake that a lot of people don't pay attention to."

    Kahn joined full-time in 2016; Ezzahraoui joined her in 2017, the same year the company raised $2.63 million in a seed funding round.

    Today, AUrate has more than 20 employees, and Ezzahraoui said they're planning to double the size of the team by next year. In addition to their online presence, the company has stores in New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C.; they're planning to open another store this year.

    Ezzahraoui remembers people laughing at her and Kahn when they announced they were leaving their jobs to "sell jewelry."

    Still, they stayed confident in their vision for AUrate.

    "It's not easy," Ezzahraoui said of her current career. "But it's much more rewarding."

    SEE ALSO: A Harvard Business School graduate and startup founder says her best business lessons came from her worst mistakes

    SEE ALSO: A former Ironman triathlete realized the key to a successful startup after 'CEO disease' pushed him off track

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    rising stars silicon valley venture capital 2018 4x3

    Silicon Valley is home to some of the hottest venture capital firms worldwide. In the valley, the stakes are high. To be a successful investor, you need a keen business sense and attention to detail, a forward-thinking outlook, and a strategic eye for investment.  A handful of venture capitalists have acquired these skills early on, before the age of 30.

    We've rounded up some of the top Silicon Valley investors under the age of 30 at leading firms. In addition to our own research, we reached out to VC firms and investors in Silicon Valley for nominations on noteworthy up-and-comers in the valley's tech scene to help come up with our final list. 

    Here they are:

    SEE ALSO: 30 AND UNDER: Rising stars in NY tech who find hot startup deals and manage millions of dollars

    Saam Motamedi co-founded machine learning startup Guru Labs before joining Greylock Partners in 2016.

    Age: 24

    Title: Investor, Greylock Partners

    Companies he's worked with: Blend, Spoke, and Avi Networks. Motamedi also works with several companies that are currently unannounced.

     

     

     



    Jennifer Kaehms kicked off her career with a cold email to Canvas Venture's co-founder Rebecca Lynn. Now, she's involved with the firm's Stanford and UC Berkeley liaison programs and hosts events to help out junior members of venture firms.

    Age: 26

    Title: Associate, Canvas Ventures

    Companies she's worked with: Gabi, Casetext, Vida Health, Figure Eight, Vida Health, Casetext, Luminar Technologies, Gabi, and HealthLoop.

     

     



    Before joining Unshackled Ventures, Lucas Rocha worked with Dorm Room Fund, JetBlue Ventures, and Underscore.vc. So far, he's assisted in the deployment of more than $100 million in capital.

    Age: 24
    Title: Investor, Unshackled Ventures

    Companies he's worked with: Joby Aviation, Salsify, Lily, Pluto AI, Filament, FLYR, CloudZero, and Volantio.



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    The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you'll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from your purchase.

    FoundersCard

    • FoundersCard is an exclusive membership for startup founders, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and just about anyone with that "innovator" mindset.
    • In addition to getting access to exclusive networking events, FoundersCard members get VIP perks, discounts, and extras from retailers and services ranging from airlines and hotels, clothing brands, and gyms to office services.
    • Until June 1, FoundersCard is offering a discounted rate exclusively for Business Insider readers, and a waived initiation fee. To get the discount, you'll have to apply through this page.

    If you're an entrepreneur, an innovator, a startup creator — in other words, a founder — there's a unique and exclusive program that you might be interested in joining. Beyond personal benefits, it can provide direct, tangible benefits to the business or project that you're trying to grow.

    FoundersCard is a private membership club for — well, founders — designed to provide members with various elite statuses, VIP treatment, and top benefits. In addition, FoundersCard fosters an ambitious, social community of similarly driven people from different industries, helping to facilitate networking opportunities, connections, and more.

    Despite its name, the FoundersCard isn't a credit card and doesn't involve transactions, which means that anyone can apply, regardless of what country they're from.

    FoundersCard was founded in 2009 by Eric Kuhn, a new Austin-based venture for a veteran entrepreneur of the 1990s and early-2000s. While the card initially grew its network and offerings slowly — and had a few early bumps in the road — it's made leaps and bounds over the past few years as an organization. Since running into a few issues in its early years, it has bolstered its membership, and made connections with a lot of travel, lifestyle, and business services companies.

    If FoundersCard sounds like something that could be useful to you, read on to learn more about how it works — and to take advantage of a discounted rate of $395 per year (compared to the normal $595) with a waived initiation fee (usually $95). This rate is a special exclusive for Business Insider readers who apply through this page.

    FoundersCard Rolex

    How it works

    To join FoundersCard, you have to complete an application — because the organization is designed to be exclusive and especially curated to be useful and enjoyable for members, everyone isn't always accepted. The process is fairly subjective, 

    You can apply for a preview membership to get a better sense of which benefits are currently active. From there (or right away, if you don't care about the preview), you can fill out the complete application. You have to enter your personal details, including your company name and your title — FoundersCard is open to people other than strictly company founders — as well as your contact and billing information. If you're approved, your payment method will be charged the first year's annual dues — $395, with FoundersCard's exclusive offer for Business Insider readers, or $595 without — and a one-time $95 initiation fee — waived for Business Insider readers. 

    Benefits of FoundersCard membership

    FoundersCard offers a wide range of benefits that can be loosely broken into three categories: savings and discounts, VIP treatment and perks, and exclusive events.

    FoundersCard hosts an ongoing series of networking events in cities with high concentrations of members — thanks to business travel, though, there are often different people and new faces at these mixers, even if you go to two in a row in the same city. Usually with 100–200 members, the networking events offer attendees an opportunity to mingle, make connections, and share experience with members from a wide spectrum of industries.

    Other benefits tend to change as promotions become active, things become available, or FoundersCard negotiates a new partnership or improvement to an existing one, so it's difficult to share a comprehensive picture of what membership entails. There are also a ton of different benefits — this is a deliberate move to appeal to the widest possible cross-section of member, so that there are appealing things to many different people.

    The following are examples of some perks available at the time of publication. FoundersCard provided Business Insider with a temporary active account in order to access the full benefits portal.

    JetBlue Mint

    Airline discounts and elite/VIP perks, including:

    • Cathay Pacific offers 5-25% off flights, as well as a complimentary upgrade to Silver elite status. That status includes priority check-in, complimentary advance seat reservations, access to business class lounges while traveling on the airline in any class, and an extra baggage allowance. The status is valid for a year, after which you'll need to re-qualify through normal methods.
    • British Airways offers FoundersCard members up to 10% off most round-trip fares between the US or Canada and the UK.
    • Alaska Airlines offers 5% off fares within the Continental US, Hawaii, and Canada.
    • JetBlue features preferred flat fares for Mint (business class) transcontinental flights, plus up to 5% off coach and business class tickets. Mint fares are as low as $800.
    • American Airlines offers a changing list of benefits, including extra frequent flyer miles, elite qualifying points, or the opportunity to receive complimentary Platinum status for three months, with the chance to keep it by flying a certain required amount within three months.
    • Qantas, the Australian flag carrier, offers a whopping 10–25% off flights from the US to Australia or New Zealand.
    • Emirates offers 5–10% off US originating fares. The airline serves more than 125 destinations around the world, and offers particularly useful routing for those traveling from the US to the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
    • Singapore Airlines discounts US originating flights up to 5%.
    • JetSmarter, a service that helps members find available seats on private and chartered flights as an alternative to flying commercial — but for a much cheaper price tag than flying private normally carries — offers FoundersCard members a free three-month trial.

    Rental car and chauffeur service discounts and elite statuses, including:

    • Complimentary Preferred Plus membership at Avis, and up to 25% off rentals.
    • Platinum membership at 15% off rentals at Sixt Rent a Car.
    • 20% off all Silvercar reservations — the founder of Silvercar is a FoundersCard member.
    • Credits and discounts with major car services including GroundLink, EmpireCLS, Carey, and Getaround.

    Exclusive FoundersCard rates, elite statuses, and perks at various hotels brands, including:

    • Starwood
    • Marriott
    • Kimpton
    • Hilton
    • Park Hyatt
    • The Standard
    • Mandarin Oriental
    • Kimpton
    • Omni Hotels & Resorts, and more.

    Lifestyle and retail discounts, including:

    • Discounts when you buy or lease a new Audi.
    • 20% off at John Varvatos.
    • Up to $10,000 off when you buy or lease a new BMW.
    • A complimentary $100 credit at Trunk Club— the founder and CEO of the company is a FoundersCard member.
    • Complimentary Diamond Total Rewards status at Caesars resorts and casinos, plus 20% off most rooms.
    • 20% off at 1-800-Flowers.
    • 15% off headphones, speakers, and more from Bang & Olufsen.
    • Discounts at other retailers including Adidas, Reebok, Indochino, Rent The Runway, Cole Haan, Tommy John, Todd Snyder, and Jonathan Adler, and more.
    • Discounts or credits at gyms, fitness studios, and wellness centers, including Equinox, Crunch, SoulCycle, Bliss Spa, Peloton, CorePower Yoga, and more.

    Business discounts, including:

    • 15% off voice and data plans with AT&T Wireless.
    • Up to 47% off UPS.
    • Up to 50% off Dell computers.
    • 20% off business card and stationary orders from MOO — the company's CEO is a FoundersCard member.
    • A free year of service from the Phone.com virtual office service.
    • A flat 20% discount off products and services from LegalZoom.
    • Loyalty pricing at Apple.
    • 40% off Lenovo computers.
    • 25% off classes at General Assembly — one of the co-founders is a FoundersCard member.

    This is far from a conclusive list. FoundersCard has hundreds of benefits, discounts, and offers available, and can offer enough value to outweigh the annual fee even if you're a sole proprietor just getting your idea off the ground, or even an individual who can take advantage of the retail and gym discounts.

    If your small business has grown a bit, though, you can get tremendous value from discounts on shipping, IT services and gear, travel, and more.

    Between that, and the opportunity to network with like-minded and similarly focused entrepreneurs, FoundersCard presents a unique and potentially valuable opportunity — whether it's worth the $395 annual fee (with the Business Insider discount) depends on you. 

    Click here to learn more about FoundersCard's offer exclusively for Business Insider readers.

    SEE ALSO: Every small business owner should consider signing up for this credit card — even freelancers

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    Nasdaq   MarketSnacks Show Photo 2   Friday 2.3.2017.JPG

    • MarketSnacks is a daily finance newsletter for millennials.
    • Cofounders and co-CEOs Nick Martell and Jack Kramer say they've learned that the best way to make business decisions is by gathering data.
    • One way to do that is requesting reader feedback, which they did recently to resolve a disagreement between them.


    Nick Martell and Jack Kramer don't always agree.

    The cofounders and co-CEOs launched MarketSnacks, the daily finance newsletter for millennials, in 2011. Since then, they've found a reliable strategy for resolving disagreements and making business decisions as efficiently as possible.

    Kramer calls it "I think versus I know," and the idea is not to guess what their readers want, but to confirm that they're right with concrete data.

    This strategy recently came in handy, when Kramer believed MarketSnacks should summarize five business news story a day instead of four, or go into greater depth with the current four stories. Martell cited "email fatigue," arguing that readers wouldn't be inclined to open an email if they knew it would be relatively long.

    To find out for certain what readers wanted, they placed a callout at the end of one of their week-in-review newsletters, asking readers to fill out a one-minute survey.

    "The results were pretty unambiguous," Kramer said. While he declined to share exactly what those results were, he said they gave him and Martell a clear sense of how to proceed.

    "We never want our readers to feel like they have to do extra work," Martell said, explaining why, in the past, they'd been hesitant to request reader feedback. "But we found that feedback is a gift. The more feedback you can get, the better you can sculpt the product to who your readers and your customers are."

    The cofounders of MarketSnacks have made time-management a priority since launching their business

    The idea for MarketSnacks was hatched over beers in 2011, when Kramer and Martell were bankers in their early 20s.

    "We knew from our personal experiences that financial news just wasn't working for our generation," Kramer said. "We had our mailboxes that were stuffed with The Wall Street Journal every day and we'd check our mailbox once a week and it would literally be packed with black-and-white paper — and we were just overwhelmed."

    Their goal was to create a "one-stop place" for business and finance news. They started by writing an anonymous blog, which over time evolved into the email newsletter it is today.

    Kramer and Martell are both currently enrolled in MBA programs, Kramer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and Martell at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, they devote three hours a night to writing and editing their newsletter.

    A near-obsession with time-management has been key to their success. One trick they use is to tack on something fun to an obligatory task in order to make it a habit.

    "Whenever Jack and I jump on a phone call, the first thing we talk about is rarely business," Martell said. Instead, they'll start with a personal update to make sure they don't get overwhelmed.

    Another helpful strategy is simply to "divide to conquer," Martell said. He and Kramer long ago delineated their roles in the business so they could "optimize without overlapping and wasting time." For example, Kramer tends to deal with the finances, while Martell is more suited to business development and relationship-building.

    "You have to be OK giving up a leadership role to your partner," Martell said.

    So far, the cofounders have never missed a business day. When they graduate from their MBA programs this year, they'll finally be running the business full-time.

    "Because we scaled a side hustle, our business is super efficient," Martell said. "It's caused us to really think about time-management as not something that's just nice to have. It's a need-to-have."

    SEE ALSO: 2 women who built a business while at Goldman and Marc Jacobs share their best advice for entrepreneurs

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    The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you'll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from your purchase.

    download

    Recently, I've been seeing a luxury handbag company called Senreve all over my social media feeds.

    Each time I saw it, I found myself drawn to the crisp lines of the bag and the way it seemed to instantly cinch the wearer's outfit together, whether she was wearing a flowy weekend dress or stylish business casual.

    Intrigued by what seemed to be the it bag of stylish women everywhere, I decided to learn more about the company that believes (rightly so) that women can have it all, down to the handbag they choose to carry.

    The first thing that's clear is Senreve was made for the modern woman who demands more from everything in her life, professional and personal, and needs accessories that can keep up. Designed for busy multitaskers who breeze from breakfast meetings to cocktail networking events, Senreve handbags are just the solution.

    Whether in food, furniture, or fashion, you can't fake craftsmanship. All you have to do is feel any of Senreve's bags to find luxury quality and sturdy construction that just isn't there with brands of similar price points. Made in Italy by craftsman who have been working with top luxury brands for over 50 years, the bags feature an Italian water-resistant genuine leather exterior and a supple, stain-resistant micro-suede interior. The pebbled leather is soft and smooth, yet scratch-resistant and clearly durable.

    Though some styles have more color options than others, they're all undoubtedly gorgeous. You can choose from deep and moody colors like forest, merlot, marine, and noir, or opt for soft and neutral tones like cream, blush, and sand.

    Senreve's sharp style, quality leather, and beautiful color options have earned the adoration of celebrities including Selma Blair, Priyanka Chopra, Jenna Dewan Tatum, and Jessica Alba, as well as popular bloggers Chriselle Lim and Rocky Barnes. Its a lineup of supporters as versatile as the bags themselves.

    The bags and totes range from $125 to $995, so it's not likely to be a quick buck you just drop on a whim. But if you're seriously considering a handbag investment for you or a special someone in your life, a Senreve bag will not disappoint. You can see the best styles from the site below.

    Having trouble figuring out what to get people for the holidays? You can check out all of Insider Picks' 2017 gift guides here.

    SEE ALSO: 50 thoughtful gifts your mom actually wants this Mother's Day — for every budget

    DON'T MISS: 23 unique Mother's Day gift ideas that are perfect for procrastinators

    Maestra

    This distinctively boxy bag looks cool no matter how you wear it: as a backpack, a crossbody, over the shoulder, or on the arm. 

    Maestra Bag, from $895, available in 15 colors



    Mini Maestra Bag

    A mini version of the Maestra, this bag is great for daytime outings. It has seven interior compartments and the central one can fit an iPad. 

    Mini Maestra, from $695, available in 14 colors



    Crossbody

    Trade the leather strap for a chain, detach the removable Bracelet Pouch, or even swap the Bracelet Pouch for a different color when you want to change up the look and feel of this bag. 

    Crossbody, from $495, available in 10 colors



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, founder and CEO of Founder Gym

    • Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon succeeded in Silicon Valley despite not knowing anything about the tech industry before she moved to the area — and despite being a biracial woman.
    • But Dixon recognizes she was lucky; entrepreneurs who are women or people of color have struggled to gain a footing in the valley.
    • Hoping to use the lessons she's learned and pass them on, Dixon's founded a new startup that offers training courses designed for non-traditional entrepreneurs like herself.


    When Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon launched her first startup, DemoLesson, seven years ago, you likely wouldn't have given her much of a chance of succeeding in the tech industry.

    At the time, Dixon didn't live in the Bay Area, didn't know anyone in the industry, and knew little about how to fundraise or how Silicon Valley worked. She's wasn't a coder or an engineer; instead, she had been a middle-school teacher and working on a PhD — in education. What's more, she's a biracial woman with an African-American dad and launched up her company at a time when there were few women or people of color founding startups.

    "My experience in this space was really isolated," she said. She continued: "I didn't know what i was doing most of the time."

    But Dixon succeeded even so. During an event sponsored by Startup Weekend, she connected with other founders and investors. That helped her secure venture funding for her company, a kind of LinkedIn for teachers, from famed tech investor Mitch Kapor.

    When her startup didn't pan out, the connections she'd made led to a job at Startup Weekend helping organize events for entrepreneurs in the education technology space. After Startup Weekend transferred her program to another organization, Dixon eventually went to work for Kapor's Kapor Capital, helping mentor other startup founders funded by the venture firm.

    And now she's got a new startup, this time focusing on helping other women and people of color succeed in the industry. Dubbed Founder Gym, the new organization offers a four-week training course for entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups that are intended to give them the knowledge and connections they'll need.

    Dixon's experiences in the industry have given her a view of it and insights into it that many women and people of color don't have, she said. Her decision to start Founder Gym was also fueled by being the child of civil rights attorneys and her experience as a former teacher.

    "I've navigated spaces and been in rooms with people most people never have access to," Dixon said. "I actually feel like it's my duty to share this information that I'm getting and spread forth this message."

    Founder Gym's program is structured like an online course

    Given Dixon's background, it may be no surprise that Founder Gym's program, which costs $400, is structured like a class, albeit an online one. Students have a curriculum and weekly coursework. The program features weekly video presentations from professional investors. And students collaborate with each other and critique each other's work.

    mitch-kaporAfter launching Founder Gym in November, Dixon trained her first group of 26 founders early this year. A second group of 44 entrepreneurs recently completed the program, and a third group of about 50 will start soon.

    The entrepreneurs come from a variety of backgrounds. Some had already raised venture funding. Others hadn't. Many live outside Silicon Valley. All are either women or representatives of groups that are underrepresented in tech.

    Dixon has tapped people in her network including Kapor, Ellen Pao, and Charles Hudson, who is one of the few African-American venture partners, to serve as visiting lecturers and mentors. She intentionally brought in people who were comfortable, willing, and able to have frank discussions with the founders about issues of race and gender — the kinds of conversations they couldn't have elsewhere.

    "When you go to Y-Combinator's startup school, those things aren't being addressed," Dixon said, referring to one of Silicon Valley's most well-known incubators for new tech firms.

    The program helps connect founders with others like them

    But for many students, the best part of the program is being able to meet and share experiences with other founders who come from similar backgrounds.

    Sunny Washington, the founder of Because Learning, an education startup based in Salt Lake City"When you're building your startup, it's a pretty lonely experience at times," said Sunny Washington, a Korean-American woman who was a member of the first Founder Gym group.

    "The reality is that if you are a person of color or female, you don't fit in this cookie-cutter mode. Your experience could be different," added Washington, whose three-year-old startup, Because Learning, sells software and hardware kits to schools that are designed to interest kids in science, technology, and math.

    Founder Gym's initial sessions have all focused on fundraising so far. That's on purpose, Dixon said, because having sufficient funding is crucial to a startup's success. And how to play the venture funding game is a skill that many founders, particularly those who aren't from Silicon Valley or don't have a background in the industry, just don't have.

    "There's no precedent for teaching underrepresented founders how to fundraise," Dixon said. "We are literally creating the textbook for this."

    She plans to eventually offer a whole curriculum for founders that includes a range of topics. Those will be inspired both by the questions entrepreneurs raise, but also by the topics investors affiliated with the program think founders need to be familiar with, she said.

    "We have both sides of the equation," she said. She continued: "We're bridge-building between these two worlds that don't really know each other."

    The tech industry has a big diversity problem

    Dixon's identified a real problem in the tech industry. Even though the Bay Area — Ground Zero for the industry — has a liberal bent, women and people of color, particularly Latinos and African-Americans, have long been underrepresented at tech companies. Despite public pressure in recent years from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the #MeToo movement, the situation hasn't gotten a whole lot better, as the diversity reports from companies including Apple and Google can attest.

    But the problem is particularly acute among tech startups. Only 17% of venture-backed startup firms launched last year had at least one female founder, according to PitchBook. Just 1% of startups had an African-American founder in 2010, the last year CB Insights made such data public.

    U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson speaks to reporters in Havana September 29, 2013.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan And the lack of diversity is a self-reinforcing problem, say critics inside and outside the industry and researchers who have studied the issue. Much of venture capital investing stems from what they call pattern matching.

    VCs often base their investment decisions on the pictures they have in their minds of what successful entrepreneurs look like, researchers and critics say. More often than not, that archetypal startup founder is white and male and has a degree from — or at least attended — a prestigious university such as Stanford or Harvard. That's largely due to the fact venture partners are overwhelmingly white and male and attended those kinds of schools — and because the startups they've funded in the past were founded by people just like them, researchers say.

    For founders who are women or people of color, "it's harder to raise money," said Fern Mandelbaum, a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and a partner at Vista Venture Partners. "We know it still is."

    The venture funding process is stuck in a "feedback loop"

    Because white male founders get a disproportionate amount of venture funding, a greater number of them are likely to be successful. Those entrepreneurs are then often targeted by venture capital firms looking for new partners. Once they fill those positions, the cycle repeats itself in a kind of "feedback loop," said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the founder and CEO of ReadySet, a consulting firm that helps other organization improve their diversity.

    "This is how power, money, wealth, and opportunity gets concentrated in the hands of the few and excludes the many," she said.

    That's obviously bad for women and people of color. But it's not good for the tech industry. Researchers have shown that companies with more diverse teams tend to perform better than those without them. Companies with leaders that come from a variety of backgrounds can recognize trends and customers bases that more monolithic firms might miss.

    Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, in Silicon Valley there's starting to be "a recognition that diversity is going to translate into better outcomes," said Dana Kanze, a doctoral fellow at Columbia Business School who has focused on gender discrimination issues in the tech industry.

    Non-traditional tech founders have few role models

    The flip side of the funding problem is women and people of color have relatively few role models or examples they can point to for how people like them can succeed in tech. Many may not realize that becoming a tech entrepreneur is a possibility as a career.

    ellen paoThose who do generally have few people like themselves who can guide them on how to navigate the industry. And because they often don't know anyone else who has gone through the process of building a tech startup, many just don't have the knowledge they need to succeed, whether that's about how to pitch a venture capitalist or even just how to get a meeting with one.

    That's the part of the diversity problem that Dixon designed Founder Gym to address.

    "There are all sorts of ways in which gaps get created in knowledge and preparation" between the traditional white male entrepreneurs and those who are women or people of color, said Kapor. "What Mandela is doing is, in an intensive way, helping close some of those gaps."

    Dixon is hoping to pass on what she's learned about the industry

    Dixon knows first-hand about some of those knowledge gaps and lack of preparation. While she successfully launched and attracted funding for her startup, she says she was lucky.

    She had no idea how to pitch a venture firm, but she gave her presentation to Kapor and his wife, who have placed a premium on diversity and made a point of backing founders who come from underrepresented groups. They overlooked the fact that she gave a non-traditional presentation and decided to back her startup anyway. Once they were on board, she was able to lure other investors.

    "I just stumbled into it," she said. She continued: "I'm not sure I would have been been welcomed in this industry if I hadn't gone through that door."

    Unfortunately, there are lots more founders who are women or people of color than the Kapor's small firm can back. So, not everyone can be as fortunate as Dixon was; other investors typically aren't as receptive to pitches that veer from the standard script. Dixon's trying to make sure other entrepreneurs are better prepared than she was — and hoping to help them succeed.

    "We need case studies" for what a successful woman- or minority-run startup looks like, she said. "I understand my privilege and the doors that have been opened for me.

    "I want to throw a rope down and help other people climb up."

    SEE ALSO: This Stanford grad went from living in motels to working in VC — here's his unusual path and how he wants to help others like him

    SEE ALSO: Silicon Valley's MeToo moment is changing the venture capital industry — but many wonder if it will last

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Jeff Bezos reveals what it's like to build an empire and become the richest man in the world — and why he's willing to spend $1 billion a year to fund the most important mission of his life


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    ben anderson

    • Business advice from entrepreneurs, startup founders, and CEOs comes in handy.
    • We asked 16 entrepreneurs to share some words of wisdom, based on lessons they've learned and mistakes they've made along the way.
    • That wisdom includes: Let other people help you, know your customer, and make decisions with data.


    Every business will face some unique challenges as it grows. But there are certain roadblocks in startup life that are common among entrepreneurs.

    So it helps to get advice from those who have been in your shoes.

    To that end, we asked 16 founders and CEOs to share their best business advice for other entrepreneurs (or aspiring entrepreneurs). Here's the wisdom they want to pass on, based on lessons they've learned the hard way.

    SEE ALSO: 15 small businesses that are making people healthier, wealthier, smarter, and happier

    Jacquelyn Ward and Ana Maes: 'Test, test, test'

    Our Story Bridal is New York City's only bridal consignment boutique. They sell designer wedding dresses at steep discounts.

    "Don't wait for perfect! When starting a new business, we have learned that there is only so much you can predict with the information you have. The only way to really know if something is going to work is by testing it in a quick and scrappy way.

    "We started our business by gathering 40 dresses from around the city and hosting a pop-up at a friend's showroom. During the very first pop-up, we only had a few brides stop by and we learned from that and quickly adapted our marketing and processes. By our fourth pop-up, we had a waiting list of over 300 brides. Our business needs have evolved as we grow, so test things with the information you have available but rest assure, it will not be perfect, but you will be one step closer to achieving your goal."



    Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis: 'Develop your story'

    Cousins Maine Lobster runs food trucks and restaurants across the globe, where they sell lobster that is sustainably sourced directly from Maine.

    "It took us a long time to understand that. The first week prior to opening, I started sending out tweets to our 200 followers, and it would be a photo of Jim and I and my grandfather on the rocks in Maine eating lobster. I didn't know at the time that this was our story; I just did it because I said, 'Hey, We're from Maine. We're cousins. Let me paint you a picture.'

    "But after a couple years, we really understood that we are a family, that this is a family business, that these are family recipes. And that should be shared and highlighted more."



    Naa-Sakle Akuete: 'Never turn down free assistance'

    Eu'Genia Shea is a mother-daughter-run business that sells high-quality shea-butter products while supporting fair wages for the female workers in Ghana who make those products.

    "When I first started, if someone offered to help me — whether it was to make an introduction or join my production line to meet tight deadlines — I would assume they were just being polite and say 'no thanks' because I was afraid of inconveniencing them. I've realized though, that most people don't offer to help you unless they mean it."



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    The Clear Cut

    • The Clear Cut is a diamond service that sells tailor-made jewelry online, communicating with customers over Instagram direct messages.
    • The company's founders are hoping to evolve their direct-to-consumer business into the next Tiffany & Co. for the millennial-set.

    The next terrain for jewelry sellers isn't the airy showrooms of luxury department stores  it's Instagram. This is the belief of Oliva Landau, a fourth generation jeweler and gemologist who comes from a long line of diamond cutters and dealers.

    "Selling diamonds is in my blood," the 27-year-old told Business Insider. 

    Landau is a GIA-graduated gemologist who was selling engagement rings at Tiffany's when her friends began asking her advice on making their own engagement ring purchases.  

    "They were confused and overwhelmed by the thousands of options to choose from," said Landau. "They were going into retail stores and feeling that they were getting ripped off."

    The Clear Cut

    Soon, Landau was using her access to wholesale jewelers to help her friends select diamonds and create their own tailor-made designs at a competitive price. Realizing that her friends weren't the only ones mystified by the process of buying an engagement ring, Landau created a blog and an Instagram account, both centered on buying precious stones.

    Requests began pouring in, said Landau. Not only were her readers seeking out advice on what sort of stones to purchase, but they too, wanted bespoke jewelry designs like the ones Landau had landed her friends. Landau realized that she may have inadvertently stumbled upon the beginnings of a business. 

    Landau's boyfriend Kyle Simon, a Columbia business school graduate who previously worked in Sierra Leone's fair trade diamond industry, suggested that together, they create their own company selling custom diamond jewelry over the internet.

    Their business, The Clear Cut, is an evolution of Landau's original blog and Instagram account and provides what Landau describes as a "concierge service" for purchasing diamonds. The company, which recently graduated from NYC's Techstars incubator program, is currently raising funding.

    To date, the duo's biggest sell has been a $70,000 diamond, sold over a text message exchange.

    The couple corresponds with their customers over Instagram DMs and text messaging, which they say appeals to their millennial-focused market. 

    "We're very big on communication," said Simon. "We usually hop on a ten minute phone call to start off the process. Having someone DM you is a friendly, familiar way of communicating."

    Simon and Landau said that the diamond industry hasn't been improved upon for decades and that there's few options available for people hoping to purchase custom jewelry in places like rural southern states and portions of the midwest. 

    The Clear Cut

    "A lot of the country is in a diamond desert," said Landau. Alabama, she said, is among the top states to use The Clear Cut's services. 

    "People are looking for a private jewelry experience, but they don't want to overpay for it," Simon said. 

    The median selling point on The Clear Cut is around $10,000 for an engagement ring. Landau said that the $10,000 ring is typically offered at around a $30,000 value at a luxury retailer.

    Among the service's fast-growing trends are requests for custom-lookalike rings modeled after those worn by celebrities like Meghan Markle, Cardi B, and Paris Hilton.

    And while a large portion of the couple's business is focused on engagement rings, they see this purchase as only the beginning for what could be a potentially lifelong relationships with their customers.

    "Engagement rings are the gateway drug," said Simon.  "If you can provide this service early on, then you can grow with your customers when it comes to making jewelry for other important life events."

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    Rare bits

    • Rare Bits is a marketplace where you can buy and sell digital goods using cryptocurrencies.
    • On Rare Bits, you can buy collectibles that you actually own through blockchain technology. 

    For the team behind virtual goods marketplace Rare Bits, dealing in digitized assets is second nature.  

    Three of Rare Bits' four co-founders are former Zynga employees who worked on FarmVille, the Facebook farming game. On FarmVille, users spent hours cultivating digital crops and tilling virtual soil. At its peak, FarmVille had more than 80 million active monthly users and its own payment system, called Farm Cash, where users could trade in real-world money for virtual farm animals and farmhouse decor.

    The idea that people will spend real money on intangible items is the thesis of Rare Bits, an online emporium that deals exclusively in digitized collectibles. On Rare Bits, you can use cryptocurrencies to purchase virtual items like googly-eyed cats, cartoon "CryptoBots," and pixelated "CryptoPunks."

    While digitized assets have been available for purchase in the past, Rare Bits co-founder Daniel Lee says that with the advent of blockchain technology, there's been a fundamental shift in the way people consider virtual ownership.

    "All digital goods that have been sold in the history of digital goods were locked within the server of one specific individual," Lee told Business Insider. "It was a one-way street: You could buy something, but the developer could take it away, and you couldn't resell or trade it."

    With the blockchain providing a digital ledger indicating virtual ownership, there's an influx of interest surrounding the buying and selling of digital goods.

    It was the blockchain, said Lee, that inspired both him and his co-founders to create an entire marketplace centered on virtual ownership.

    "Given all of our experiences based on building businesses that sell digital goods, we knew that there's a lot on the horizon for building a digital goods platform," Lee said.

    So far, the San Francisco-based company has received $6 million in funding from investors including First Round Capital and Craft Ventures. On Tuesday, Rare Bits announced the addition of Fan Bits to its platform, an interface that lets creators put digital artwork up for sale on the blockchain, all without having any prior knowledge of blockchain technology. 

    "The area of entertainment drives adoption, but there's going to be a progression," said Lee. "There's going to be a shift in the way people think of ownership, and we want to be the company at the center of that shift. Now, when you own something online, it actually means something."

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    Vlad Tenev, Baiju Bhatt, robinhood, sv100 2015

    • Robinhood, a zero-fee stock-trading app popular among millennials, confirmed its series D funding round of $363 million.
    • The round places the company's worth at $5.6 billion.
    • Robinhood says it will use the money to snag new talent, offer more financial-service options — among them a cryptocurrency-trading platform — and spearhead product growth. 

    In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that Robinhood, a commission-free stock-trading app, could be valued in excess of $5 billion. The newspaper's unnamed sources said the company was raising an estimated $350 million funding round led by a longtime investor, the investment firm DST Global.

    Now, Robinhood is confirming both the size of the series D funding round, at $363 million, and the company's current valuation of $5.6 billion, making the five-year-old startup a formidable contender in the fintech-stock-trading market.

    It's remarkable growth for the young company, which, in its first attempt to secure funding, was rejected 75 times.

    The round brought in new investors like Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, Iconiq, and CapitalG, said Vlad Tenev, a Robinhood cofounder. Tenev told Business Insider that Robinhood would use the money to launch new products, scale the product's growth, and snag new talent. Most recently, Robinhood brought on the Greylock investor Josh Elman as its vice president of product.

    "We're expanding our product suite so that we can offer many financial services at the lowest possible price," Tenev said.

    Robinhood's primary offering is a zero-fee trading app that has taken off among millennials. The company is rolling out a cryptocurrency-trading platform, where users in 10 US states can trade in fiat currencies for digital coins like bitcoin and ether.

    Tenev declined to share the number of users trading in cryptocurrencies through Robinhood's app but said there was a "huge demand" for the service.

    "We're working as fast as we can," Tenev said.

    Like its stock-trading options, Robinhood's cryptocurrency-trading platform is also commission-free. Tenev said Robinhood would buckle down on its cryptocurrency offerings in the coming months.

    "Cryptocurrency platforms have exorbitant fees, and they're hard to use," Tenev said. "I think it's fair to say that our goal is to build the best product on the market, where users can have all of their investments in one place."

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    klout 3

    • Klout, a startup that measured how important you are on social media, is shutting down by the end of the month. 
    • It was bought for $200 million in 2014.

    It's the end of an era for social media influencers and wannabe-influencers. 

    Klout, one of the buzziest tech startups circa 2011, announced on Twitter on Thursday that it was shutting the eponymous service down. 

    Klout was founded in 2009 by Joe Fernandez, partially as a way to get a job at Twitter, according to Business Insider. But ranking people by importance or influence turned out to be a strong enough idea to raise four rounds of venture funding from top-tier firms totaling $40 million.

    Eventually, it was sold in 2014 for $200 million to Lithium Technologies, which is the company that is shutting down the service later this month. Lithium is a private company that makes digital marketing tools. 

    Klout enabled users to share their Facebook and Twitter data, and parsed that data through a vague algorithm to give users a simple popularity metric between 1 and 100, called the "Klout score."

    Here's a screenshot of the software, taken on Thursday:

    Klout Screenshot

    Lithium CEO Pete Hess discussed the shutdown in an email to customers on Thursday. "The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy," he wrote. 

    To be fair, Klout scores are probably not aligned with anyone's long-term strategy, unless that involves becoming a huge Twitter star. Over the years, Klout scores became a punchline for techies and the Twitter-obsessed. "Klout has been one of my go-to punchlines for some time now," TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote in August 2012. 

    Klout also arguably inspired one of the most disturbing "Black Mirror" episodes. 

    Here are some of our favorite Klout stories from over the years:

    Here's the entire farewell announcement:

    Hi,

    I’m writing to let you know that Lithium has made the decision to sunset the Klout service, effective May 25, 2018.

    Lithium is committed to providing you with the technology and services that will enable you to differentiate your customer experience. Our recent launch of Lithium Messaging is evidence of our focus on this mission. The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machinelearning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy.

    Our goal with these AI and machine learning investments is to improve our customer care capabilities across the board, whether that’s self-service, peer-to-peer, or direct-to-brand. In the near-term, for example, we will be looking to improve agent productivity within SMM and improve the overall user experience in Community through the application of AI, while we are also planning the launch of a new social impact scoring methodology based on Twitter.

    Should you have any questions or concerns about this announcement, please feel free to reach out to KloutQuestions@lithium.com. We are honored to be your partner in delivering digital customer care experiences that delight your customers and we look forward to sharing news of ongoing innovations that support you in this journey.

    Thank you for your business.

    Pete Hess

    CEO

    SEE ALSO: 15 mind-blowing announcements Google made at its biggest conference of the year

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    Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, CEO of Founder Gym, on February 21, 2018 in San Francisco

    • Mandela Dixon, a longtime mentor of entrepreneurs, has a new startup that trains non-traditional tech founders on how to succeed in the industry.
    • One of the most important lessons she teaches is a concept she calls the "cosign," which is related to networking.
    • With her own startup, Dixon was fortunate when it came to getting a cosign, but many other non-traditional founders have a tougher time with it.


    It's a cliché that whom you know is more important than what you know — but that doesn't make it any less true.

    Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon found that out in her journey from being a school teacher to a startup founder. And now it's one of the key lessons she tries to impart at Founder Gym, her new company that trains women and people of color in the basics of tech entrepreneurship.

    Dixon's got a catchy name for the lesson. She calls it the "cosign."

    "It's one of the most important things in this industry," she said.

    The tech industry in general and the venture capital business in particular are fairly insulated and driven by networks of connections. If you're new to the industry or to Silicon Valley, it can be hard to break in.

    That's where the cosign comes in. If you're looking to raise money from a particular investor, one of the best way to get a meeting with the investor is to have someone who knows the investor introduce you, Dixon said. It's even better if the person who introduces you is a fellow founder in whom the investor already invested.

    "You need someone in the industry to validate you to who you're trying to get to," Dixon said.

    In her case, Dixon, a biracial woman, says she lucked out with her cosign. Her first company was an education startup. But at the time, she was based in Los Angeles and was completely new to the tech industry, so she didn't know anyone in Silicon Valley or in tech.

    But at an event organized by Startup Weekend, she met a bunch of different founders and investors. One of those founders introduced her to Mitch Kapor, a legendary investor who, along with his wife, has made a point of supporting startups founded by non-traditional entrepreneurs. Kapor and his wife ended up the first investors in Dixon's startup, which led to investments from other firms.

    "I had no idea who Mitch was until I met him," Dixon said. "We were so lucky. We really, really were."

    Networking is particularly important for non-traditional founders

    The cosign lesson is a crucial one for the types of entrepreneurs Founder Gym is focusing on, she said. After she closed down her startup, Dixon helped mentor other entrepreneurs, first at Startup Weekend and then at Kapor Capital. In that role, she saw firsthand the stark difference between the typical startup founders and the non-traditional ones.

    The typical founders were white, male, and affluent. And they generally had previous experience in the tech industry or knew or were related to someone who was in it. In other words, they already had networks in place and people who could cosign for them with investors.

    Al Nolan, founder of Notearise, which offers a note-taking app designed for students"They already have a huge advantage in this playbook," Dixon said.

    Not so the non-traditional investors, who might be women or people of color or people for whom English was their second language. It's those founders whom Dixon is trying to help with Founder Gym.

    In her courses, she not only tries to pass on what she's learned about the industry, but she gives her entrepreneurs the chance to network with founders like themselves and learn from each other. They also get a chance to meet and talk with investors such as the Kapors and Ellen Pao who are willing to invest in non-traditional founders and understand the challenges they face.

    Al Nolan, who was in Founder Gym's first group of trainees earlier this year, said it was great to be able to use the program to build out his network. Nolan, a black entrepreneur who created a note-taking app for students called Note Arise, loved being able to meet other founders like himself and some top investors in the space. He's already capitalized on what he's learned to get as many meetings with investors as he had all last year.

    "That's where I want to be as a founder, knowing who to talk to and what to bring them," he said. "Those are tools I just didn't have before."

    SEE ALSO: This female founder went from teaching middle schoolers to mentoring tech entrepreneurs — here's her unusual path and how she plans to help others succeed in Silicon Valley

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