Jay Steinfeld (left) looks back at his successful Blinds.com exit, and Omair Tariq shares how Cart.com is growing. Photos courtesy

When Blinds.com was acquired by Home Depot in 2014, it was a big moment for Houston's nascent tech and innovation ecosystem. However, Jay Steinfeld will be the first to tell you he did not expect to go through a major exit when he founded what he describes as a marketing experiment for his interior design store.

"I heard about something called 'the World Wide Web,' and I thought for $1,500, I'll create a website," Steinfeld says. "I wanted to see what it was and if I could attract people to my store. Next year, Amazon started selling books, and in 1996, I thought I'd see if I could sell this stuff."

However initially unintentional, Steinfeld created a profitable business and very intentionally grew his team with the addition of entrepreneurial-minded individuals, which included Omair Tariq. Tariq is now the founder and CEO, Cart.com, an ecommerce company that's raised $380 million in funding and is providing a suite of software services for merchants. The two sat down to discuss their entrepreneurial journeys with Scott Gale of Halliburton Labs at a Houston Tech Rodeo fireside chat.

Both entrepreneurs credit business success on creating an unparalleled employee culture that fostered a positive workplace environment that reduces turnover.

"We were very deliberate at making people knew that they were important and consequential," says Steinfeld, who recently wrote a book about creating a core culture. "We were doing consequential things by helping people become consequential. ... It really comes down to being respectful to people."

Tariq says setting up Cart.com's culture was a task he dedicated a significant amount of time to. Cart.com grew from 0 to 1,000 employees in just 14 months, so maintaining that culture at that rate of scaling was going to be difficult without the right structure in place. Tariq and his team created six core values, and decisions get put through the lens of these values.

"Building a culture — while you have to be intentional and deliberate about it — the reality is it just happens, if you get the framework right," Tariq says.

And it's not just about putting your core values in the employee handbook or on a wall in the office, but actually celebrating employees who are excelling at the execution of the values. Tariq gives the example of Cart.com's slack channel dedicated to this type of shoutouts.

In terms of hiring at such a quick pace, Tariq explains his mentality when it comes to making sure employees are a fit for the company.

"You've got to be coherent in the way you execute," Tariq says, adding that a lack of coherency leads to major mistakes in a nearly $400 million-backed tech company. "We have a very intentional policy — hire fast, fire faster, promote fastest."

Another ingredient in a successful business is developing a brand. Tariq says this is something that's more crucial than ever — especially for Cart.com, which is competing with the likes of Amazon.

"In today's world, the importance of brand is exponentially more than it was in the pre-Amazon world," Tariq says, explaining that a brand can include exceptional customer service or a best-in-class product.

Cart.com's brand and culture were intentional from inception, but the actual business plan pivoted, Tariq shares with the audience. Originally envisioned as a marketplace, Cart.com's first acquisition was a cardboard box company, which in retrospect Tariq says wasn't the best move. But, the business accounted for the majority of Cart.com's revenue, which showed promise to potential investors, he says. The business did evolve to what it is now — merchant enablement technology — but that didn't happen overnight and came with time.

"You rarely know how to get to C, until you get to B," Tariq says. "If you spend all your energy trying to figure out how to get to C, you're never going to get to B. Sometimes you have to make really dumb moves or mistakes and just pivot and iterate and improve."

The latter half of the discussion included a question from Gale about the role the city of Houston played on business success. For Steinfeld, he says the lack of competition allowed him to attract the best team members.

"While all the investors outside of Houston said, 'you can't run a tech company out of Houston — there's no talent,'" Steinfeld says. "Any talent there was came to us. We weren't competing with Facebook or any other companies."

He continues saying he wishes there were more venture funding and activity coming into Houston, but the people in town are so entrepreneurial, that he says it's confusing how the city's innovation ecosystem hasn't taken off more than it already has.

Tariq has a different perspective of hiring out of Houston. While he says he loves Houston and has no plans to relocate himself or his family, being headquartered in Houston was difficult and the city's lack of appeal in terms of recruiting is what led to him moving his HQ to Austin.

"It's an amazing city with the most amount of diversity I've seen than anywhere in the country. Every third person is a minority or an immigrant, and that is valuable. It brings different perspectives and allows you to get people with different ideas to contribute," Tariq says, adding that the cost of living, tax incentives, academic institutions, capital, are all huge appeals.

"Why is there not more innovation happening here?" Tariq asks. "The things we struggled with at Cart.com is people didn't have the right perception of Houston. What I mean that is people never think of Houston (as a really cool place to move to). It sounds really shallow, but there are little things that I think other cities do better than us that create a good perception of a city is what we need."

Regardless of HQ location, Tariq says Cart.com is a remote-first business and is continuing to grow its team with plans to IPO within the next year.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes entrepreneur and author Jay Steinfeld, Clemmie Pierce Martin of Houston Exponential, and Matthew Costello of Voyager Portal. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup development to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jay Steinfeld, author of Lead From The Core

Blinds.com founder Jay Steinfeld has released his new book last week. Photos courtesy of Jay Steinfeld

After Blinds.com successfully exited to Home Depot, founder Jay Steinfeld started thinking about what he wanted to do next. The entrepreneur is now on the boards of five companies and has taught at Rice University before publishing his new book, "Lead From The Core."

"The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies," Steinfeld says. Click here to read the full interview.

Clemmie Pierce Martin, director of marketing and strategy at Houston Exponential

Clemmie Pierce Martin will oversee marketing and strategy for Houston Exponential. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.” Click here to read more.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Matthew Costello Voyager

Matthew Costello is the\u00a0CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal. Photo courtesy of Voyager

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform, closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.” Click here to read more.

Blinds.com founder Jay Steinfeld has released his new book this week. Photos courtesy of Jay Steinfeld

Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Featured Innovator

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.