The Startups on the Hill
The Observer recently interviewed three young talents in the Boston tech scene.
Jack McDermott: A Tufts Senior who has produced two speech therapy apps to help people who struggle with stutters.
Foster Lockwood: A recent Jumbo Alum (A’13) who recently began working as an iOS Automation Engineer at Apple after years of local experiences in App design and entrepreneurship.
Alex Schiff: In the true startup spirit, Schiff dropped out of the University of Michigan and moved to Boston to focus on his app, a social organization system called Fetchnotes.
The Observer: Tell us a bit about your experiences in tech, entrepreneurship, and startups.
Schiff: I was one of the earliest employees at Benzinga (a financial media site), which I left right around when they were funded by Lightbank (a prominent venture capital firm) in 2011. After my Blackberry erased a year’s worth of notes from my phone, I tried finding something better. So I set out to solve that issue with Fetchnotes. We take the same conventions on social networks (hashtags, @-mentions) and apply it to note-taking and to-do lists, and you can keep all that in sync with the people those notes and to-dos actually involve.
Lockwood: My first experience was freshman year when, for a final project, I created an iPhone game from scratch and saw it have some mentionable success on the App Store. Since then, I have been involved in three personal ventures, and between April 2012 and August 2013 I worked on 12 contracts with startups and businesses in Boston designing and developing their iOS applications.
McDermott: Growing up with a stutter, I always wanted a way to take my speech therapy practice home with me, so I could continue to improve my fluency—but there weren’t any options, and therapy was expensive and inaccessible. So when the App Store launched in 2008, I set about creating Speech4Good and later Fluently, two speech therapy apps that help people in speech therapy through proven tools, such as delayed auditory feedback.
O: What risks and sacrifices did you have to make to make your product a reality?
Schiff: I quit what was a wonderful job for someone my age [at Bezinga]. I had way more responsibility than I’d get anywhere else, and huge growth potential. To start my company, I went two years without any sort of salary. I devoted myself to my startup completely during my junior year, so I didn’t have much time to explore much else (which is what college is supposed to be about—exploration). I also gave up my senior year when I left school, which included giving up my ROW A Michigan football season tickets!
Lockwood: I started working in the summer before senior year, and continued through the entire school year with contracts, and finally closed the business at the end of this past summer, only because I was hired by Apple. Working during the school year was difficult because I really enjoyed working on these projects, much more than doing schoolwork. I did manage to graduate just fine, but my mind was way more into my business than school during the majority of my senior year. It’s especially tough when I was getting paid for my work and conversely paying to do my schoolwork!
McDermott: I think there was very little risk involved actually—I put some money in, my parents and extended family put some money in as donations, and I worked another internship during a summer to finance the development of the product. In the end, the bigger risk would’ve been letting my idea pass me by—but by taking the first step, I can honestly say it’s changed my entire perspective and path in life.
O: Describe the startup scene in Boston, and how you fit into it.
Schiff: Boston’s scene has lots of health care, ed-tech, mobile, big data, pretty much anything you could ask for. That diversity is really quite amazing. What I really love about it is that it’s a huge ecosystem, so there are tons of great resources, mentors and institutions to help you—but it’s small and intimate enough that you can stand out and take advantage of them. It’s the right balance, in a lot of ways.
Lockwood: Growing and currently untapped. After living in the San Francisco area for just a few months, it’s very clear to me that everyone and their mother has some kind of start-up. Conversely, there are so many smart people coming out of Boston schools, it seems almost stupid that there aren’t more budding companies absorbing this talent and putting it to good use on new ideas.
McDermott: The startup scene is Boston is incredibly tight-knit and caring. I’ve been to NY and SF, and there are great companies being built in those two cities. But there’s also an element of transience, especially on the West Coast, I believe—everyone’s building or writing about the next big thing, whereas Boston has been (subtly) building meaningful products for decades.
O: In your opinion, why do you think Boston has been such an epicenter of entrepreneurship in the last few years?
Schiff: There are big anchor companies to provide veteran talent to up-and-coming startups or to provide founders. Also, people here seem to have a chip on their shoulders from everyone leaving to head out west, so everyone wants to help each other out.
Lockwood: My guess would be that Boston has typically been a traditional city built on older foundations and, literally, older companies. You can see this in the financial district in South Boston. Cities like San Francisco are newer, and the people are comfortable diverting from older business traditions. With the previous and current generation going through college and seeing the success of famous start-ups like HubSpot (Boston based) and countless others in the West, it’s only natural for us to be curious.
McDermott: Well, historically, it’s always been an epicenter. Most recently, I guess you could say post-Facebook (Boston’s biggest missed opportunity), there’s a feeling that Boston is building meaningful companies—you go to the Valley if you’re in social or mobile, but for enterprise, life sciences, education, or robotics, Boston holds clear advantages.
O: What’s the coolest app you’ve seen emerge recently? What technologies are you excited about right now?
Schiff: Other than my own Fetchnotes, I’ve been really impressed with Talkto.
Lockwood: An interesting app that I’ve used a couple times is called Layar, which turns normal pages of magazines and newspapers into interactive virtual pages. Watch the video on their website to better understand the app. I also like Knock.
McDermott: I really like Knock—it’s an app that uses low energy Bluetooth sense motion and unlock your computer. It’s novel, sure, but it’s just the beginning of how our physical interactions will impact software.
O: How has your conventional university education (or lack thereof) helped you as an entrepreneur?
Schiff: Well, Fetchnotes came out of a class at Michigan—albeit a very unconventional class. I also took a lot of entrepreneurial classes that did end up paying dividends in terms of laying a base foundation of knowledge. However, most of the stuff I learned during my time at Michigan was extracurricular. The biggest thing that universities do to further entrepreneurship is by creating an environment where talented, smart people can find each other and build cool things.
Lockwood: I minored in ELS (Entrepreneurial Leadership) at Tufts, and it may have been the best decision of my entire college experience. The professors were incredibly knowledgeable and willing to discuss ideas that went way beyond the topics we’d cover in class.
McDermott: As a Political Science major, I wouldn’t say my conventional education has advanced my entrepreneurial endeavors. I think Tufts could come a long way in promoting student entrepreneurship. The biggest thing I’ve been able to do is seek out classes that interest my entrepreneurial ideas—from taking a few computer science courses to a design course at the SMFA, to a child development course on technology tools for learning, a liberal arts education has allowed me to explore a bunch of new ideas.
O: How would you respond to the speculation that recent tech growth is actually an economic “bubble”?
Schiff: Honestly, I think the whole debate is silly. The only people worried about bubbles are price-sensitive investors and that old guy we all know complaining about how it’s taking young people out of the “productive economy” where we can be miserable and mediocre like he is.
Lockwood: There’s no doubt in my mind that there will be a “bubble burst” of some kind. If you look at this country’s economic history it’s almost impossible to miss. The sad truth is that very, very few start-ups get off the ground, and even fewer remain afloat for long.
McDermott: Short answer: no. I don’t think we’re necessarily in the traditional “bubble” that people saw in the late 90’s before the dot com bust, but we are seeing other inexplicable trends. The cost of starting a company today is so minuscule from 15 years ago that venture capital needs to adapt, and I think one way of adapting is investing earlier in seed deals and following on in Series A or B rounds for companies with soaring valuations [larger, later term investments to provide continued support to successful companies].