Boise Startup Week helps entrepreneurs

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The IGEM Resource Map shows business owners resources available in their area. Image courtesy of Idaho State Department of Commerce.

Boise is about to experience its third Startup Week, a series of events intended to help promote the city’s entrepreneurial community.

Scheduled for Oct. 17, 18 and 19, Boise Startup Week is one of the thousands of entrepreneurial events Techstars runs in over 100 countries around the world each year.

“Our mission is to help develop and support emerging startup communities all around the globe,” said Mark Solon, managing partner and former co-founder of Highway 12, an Idaho-based venture capital fund that shut down in 2011. “The best way we’ve found to do this is to bring together entrepreneurs in a way that they can connect, share and bond with each other. We’ve discovered that participants feel more connected to their community when they experience Startup Week.”

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Ryan Vasso

Boise State University’s Venture College is canceling classes and sending students to the event instead, said Ryan Vasso, associate director.

“You can study about entrepreneurship and read about it, but we’d rather have students engaged with it,” he said.

The college dedicated a part-time employee to help out with the $10,000 Trailmix competition, which had well over 50 applicants, he said. In addition, the Venture College is working with a number of teams to help them refine their pitch for a second $10,000 general competition.

The Venture College is also looking for participants for a newly launched project-based internship program, where students work for two weeks with companies without time to manage a full-time intern, Vasso said.

“We pair them with a startup and get a project out the door,” he said.

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John Williamson

Boise State’s College of Business and Economics (COBE) is also working on the pitch competition, said John Williamson, executive in residence. Compared with the Venture College, which is focused on designing and building a company from the ground up, COBE emphasizes ways to find financial capital to help that company grow, he said.

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Karen Appelgren

Williamson isn’t the only one interested in what happens after the startup stage. Karen Appelgren, vice president and director of the business resource center at Zions Bank, is co-chair of the Grow Track, intended for entrepreneurs who have already launched their ventures. The track, which is expected to draw about 100 people to attend, includes four marketing panels, a funding panel, and a panel on managing risk that includes experts on topics ranging from auditing to patents. The final session gives attendees access to business tools and mentors to help them develop a roadmap, Appelgren said.

“It’s an interesting spin on the traditional conference, where you take notes and that’s the end of it,” she said.

Annie Morley, president of the Idaho Virtual Reality Council, said the event “plays a vital role in connecting the growing startup community and giving people the opportunity to hear from a wide range of successful entrepreneurs with various backgrounds.”

Morley will be on the Oct. 19 panel, “The State of the Boise Startup Ecosystem,” and helped put together the Oct. 17 panel “The Future of Virtual Reality.”

“It’s a wonderful time to hear what’s new in our ecosystem and what’s on the horizon,” she said.

The Idaho State Department of Commerce, through its Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) grant program, is also releasing a map of state resources for entrepreneurs.

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Nick Taylor

“We see tremendous value in sponsoring these events,” said Nick Taylor, a corporate attorney with Stoel Rives LLP, who will be helping judge the pitch competition. “Their presenters will have an opportunity to pitch their companies, receive critical feedback, and potentially gain an investor or partner. On the other hand, I will have an opportunity to demonstrate to the presenters, and the audience in general, the type of counsel I can provide as a local startup lawyer. Plus, the following night, I do believe I get to hand out one of those giant check things to the pitch competition winner, something I have always wanted to do.”


For a complete list of Startup Week events, go to http://boisestartupweek.org/

Boise State financial technology startup raises $200,000

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Boise State University’s Venture College has opened an incubator intended to nurture Boise’s entrepreneurial community. Photo courtesy of Boise State University.

An Eagle startup has raised $200,000 as part of a new program at Boise State University intended to support Idaho’s entrepreneurial community.

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Adam Stein

SpriteRE, founded in April, helps match online consumers with digital lenders and expedite that process using artificial intelligence, said CEO Adam Stein.

“Digital lenders acquire hundreds or thousands of records,” meaning that acquisition costs for a new loan can be very high, Stein said. AI and machine learning helps those direct lenders look at digital leads and pick out the best prospects, potentially raising the companies’ loan conversion rates from 3 to 4 percent to 5 to 6 percent. While this doesn’t sound like much, it makes a difference.

“We can never get that from 4 percent to 8 percent, but if we can get that to 5 to 6 percent, that’s extremely meaningful to all parties in the food chain,” he said.

“He’s actually our first rapid launch startup resident,” said Mike Sumpter, executive director of the Venture College at Boise State University. (See box.) It’s part of a program the college started this spring called the Incubator. Sumpter and his colleagues met Adam this spring and introduced him to students as an example of the rapid launch process.

“He’s attempting to take something to market quickly,” Sumpter said. “It’s fairly ambitious, and that’s something I wanted our folks to be around, and see what that work ethic looked like, and what sort of prep you needed to be positioned to do that.” This fall, Stein will be offering workshops to students on how to pitch for large investments, Sumpter added.

“I thought it would be cool to work in the midst of students, and take the company from launch to exit in front of a bunch of students,” Stein said.

SpriteRE, which so far has been funded by Stein himself, has raised $200,000 thus far, including $100,000 from a single investor he wouldn’t name. Using engineering teams in Cleveland and India, including contracted help, he hopes to have a version of the product completed for beta testing by June 18. “It won’t have all the bells and whistles that a second generation would have, but the data learning will be all there,” he said.

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Mike Sumpter

After that, and further development, the program could go several different ways, ranging from being “white labeled” by a company, with the SpriteRE program used under the company’s name, to an early exit, where he actually sells SpriteRE to another company.

SpriteRE is an example of “fintech,” short for “financial technology,” or companies that provide financial services using applications without necessarily being banks or credit unions, though they may partner with them. “Removing friction from the customer journey,” such as what SpriteRE is intended to do with mortgages, is listed as the most important trend for the retail banking industry, according to the 2018 Retail Banking Trends Report, while “Use of big data, AI, advanced analytics, and cognitive computing” is second.

This isn’t Stein’s first fintech startup. He founded LoanTek in 2010, which he sold to Bankrate in 2015 for an undisclosed price.  It was funded by the Treasure Valley Angel Alliance and the Idaho TeCcenter, he said.

“He stays below the radar,” said Scott Fischer, who was chief financial officer for LoanTek. “His first startup stayed below the radar even though a big Wall Street firm bought him. He’s got the biggest companies in the industry and in online mortgage banking who have committed to start working with him. So I think he’s got something really cool there. “

Fischer, recently named president and CEO of Prosperity Organic Foods, also runs CFO Idaho, a consulting group of chief financial officers who outsource themselves to startups and high-growth companies who need the services of a CFO but aren’t big enough to hire their own yet. CFO Idaho is providing a CFO for SpriteRE, he said.

Entrepreneurial college functions as an interdisciplinary hub

Adam Stein’s work with SpriteRE is using an entrepreneurial resource at Boise State University, the Venture College, founded in 2014.

“We’re trying to create a culture here that runs the full gamut, from businesses that are already at revenue and doing well, to students just starting to incubate their ideas, so everyone can learn from each other,” said Mike Sumpter, who was named executive director of the Venture College a year ago.

The Venture College is an interdisciplinary hub of resources with an educational mission, Sumpter said. “We bring folks in, and do our best to get them what they need to move their business forward,” he said. “A lot of what we do is very much pre-launch,” so the college provides training in making pitches, networking, and canvassing markets. “All the basic kinds of entrepreneurial skills you need to acquire.”

At capacity, the incubator program in the Venture College will have six or seven businesses at different stages of development, as well as a number of students, Sumpter said. “We’ve been running about 100 a semester, counting all programs” such as courses and workshops. The fall semester at the incubator has already received a number of applications but he hasn’t yet determined the size of the class, he said.

Aside from Stein, the Venture College has two other residents, one of whom is the Women in Leadership resident, Tara Russell of fathom, a purpose-driven travel company, Sumpter said. “Her role is to show our students what successful women leadership businesses look like.” The other is Ryan Vasso, CEO of Reply Pro, an alumnus of the Venture College program, Sumpter said.

In return for resources such as space, mentorship, and advisor programs, residents also commit to being involved in the college’s programs. Sumpter said.

Finding the best local plumber, faster

BasedIn Founder and CEO Ryan Vasso didn't set out to make a local search company, but his frustration with existing options led him down that path. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.
BasedIn Founder and CEO Ryan Vasso didn’t set out to make a local search company, but his frustration with existing options led him down that path. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

Technology startup BasedIn has received $125,000 from angel investors, including two Boise-area angel funds, to develop and scale an online platform that ranks local businesses based on data from Yelp, Facebook, the Better Business Bureau and other websites.

BasedIn is the first company to come out of Boise State University’s Venture College to raise external capital.

Founder and CEO Ryan Vasso said the idea for the company came after his own difficulty searching online for information on local companies.

“I was a frustrated consumer. I hated looking through local search and having to call lots of businesses,” he said. Vasso’s original idea for BasedIn was a connecting service, where customers could visit the site and get five or six price quotes from a plumber or similar business. However, when he tested out the business, only one out of the six plumbers would get back to Vasso with a quote.

That frustration led to the shift to BasedIn’s current platform, which strives to give businesses a ranking from one to 10. The data for those rankings comes from customer reviews and other online sources that BasedIn can pull from Google, Facebook, Yelp and others.

“He’s done a very classic pivot. They started out with one idea a year ago, tested that idea, and found out it didn’t work,” said Wink Jones, CEO of Boise’s Meal Ticket and an advisor to BasedIn. He said that’s likely part of why the company has received investments. “That bodes well for Ryan and his prospects.”

BasedIn’s website only works in Boise right now, but Vasso said the company aims to be in 10 more cities within two months and 100 cities by the end of the year. The company will keep its workforce entirely in the Boise area.  The company also is planning on including prices for services like plumbers or massages, based on data from companies’ websites. Vasso said approximations, such as the one-dollar sign or four-dollar sign on Yelp, aren’t very useful.

“Consumers would much more appreciate having the actual dollars,” Vasso said.

The Venture College is a non-credit program that helps Boise State students launch businesses or nonprofits. Kevin Learned, director of the Venture College and an investor in all three Boise Angel Alliance funds, said BasedIn is probably the earliest stage investment made by the Angel Alliance. The investment, $25,000 from the two alliance funds still making investments in startups, is also less than a typical $100,000 investment. He called the investment a bit of a gamble to see if BasedIn can deliver on its promise.

Kevin Learned
Kevin Learned

“It’s an experiment. It’s a bet on Ryan, not the company,” Learned said. He also said the investment makes sense because the company is trying to solve a common problem.

“We all have the problem of trying to make sense of online reviews,” Learned said.  “He’s attacking a real problem, which is trustworthiness.”

Another investor, Steve Hodges, the former owner of M2M Communications, said he put in $25,000 because of Vasso. The two met early last fall to discuss an investment, but Hodges had several concerns with the company’s plan. Hodges said that in their followup meeting, Vasso addressed all of them.

“Almost every concern that I had thought of in my own personal review, he had thought of and addressed,” Hodges said. “He’s very passionate, smart, and more than anything persistent … in how he was going about talking to customers and people to get more ideas.”

Learned said that now it’s up to Vasso and the rest of BasedIn’s employees to scale the business and see if they can efficiently build software to aggregate the data as well as attract customers and businesses to their website.

“If he can do that for this relatively modest amount of money, then he’s going to need a lot more money to scale the company,” Learned said.

BasedIn is one of several companies seeking to improve local online search, Jones said. He cited Groupon and Grubhub as larger companies with similar aims, and said many technology companies are trying to help people find relevant services nearby.

Wink Jones
Wink Jones

“To be hyperlocal the way they are is a big trend,” said Jones. Like Learned, Jones said now it’s up to the company to execute its business. Launching in cities like Seattle can be a “chicken-and-egg” issue, because both customers and businesses attract each other, he said.

“Their challenge will be launching it in a way that’s successful,” said Jones.

The company’s aggregation and price data for local businesses should help BasedIn stand out, Vasso said.

“We make it easy to see on one site all the information that they’re looking for,” he said.

BasedIn's leadership team of Zach Richardson, Alex Janguard and Ryan Vasso (left to right). Photo by Patrick Sweeney.
BasedIn’s leadership team of Zach Richardson, Alex Janguard and Ryan Vasso (left to right). Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

BasedIn still works largely out of the Venture College’s space in downtown Boise. The company has a core management team of three, including Vasso and two other Venture College participants he says he “poached:” Alex Janguard, who is in charge of customer discovery, and chief technology officer Zach Richardson, who worked for Clearwater Analytics. The company has three other employees as well as eight interns from Boise State’s marketing department. Vasso grew up in Mountain Home and worked for Pets Best Insurance before quitting and selling some real estate to fund BasedIn.

With the company focused now on scaling its product, Vasso said the company doesn’t yet have a revenue source identified. The easiest path may be having advertisements on its site next to rankings.

“We’re in open discovery mode,” Vasso said.

Jones said that right now developing and expanding the product is more important, and that revenue comes if there’s a large audience.

“They’ll be monetizing the eyeballs that they draw to the service,” Jones said.