Hey, big spenders of The Woodlands and Sugar Land. Photo courtesy of Holiday Shopping Card

It appears that delivery drivers (and Santa) will be hauling sleighs full of gifts to homes in The Woodlands and Sugar Land this holiday season.

A new study from personal finance website WalletHub ranks The Woodlands and Sugar Land sixth and seventh, respectively, in the country for cities with the biggest holiday budgets. WalletHub estimates that consumers in The Woodlands will ring up an average of $2,729 in holiday spending; Sugar Land residents will spend $2,728.

Other Greater Houston-area suburbs on the list include League City, No. 15 at $2,501, and Missouri City, No. 98 at $1,264.

Elsewhere in Texas, Flower Mound came in second for holiday spending; residents there will ring up an average of $2,973. Only Palo Alto, California, had a higher amount ($3,056) among the 570 U.S. cities included in the study, which was released November 17.

The five factors that WalletHub used to come up with budget estimates for each city are income, age, savings-to-expenses ratio, income-to-expenses ratio and debt-to-income ratio.

Flower Mound consistently ranks at the top of WalletHub's annual study on holiday spending. Last year, the Dallas suburb came in at No. 3 (budget: $2,937), and in 2018, it landed atop the list at No. 1 (budget: $2,761).

Aside from Flower Mound, five cities in Dallas-Fort Worth appear in WalletHub's top 100:

  • Richardson, No. 36, $2,002
  • Frisco, No. 53, $1,684
  • Plano, No. 59, $1,594
  • Carrollton, No. 71, $1,492
  • North Richland Hills, No. 95, $1,303

Two cities in the Austin area also make the top 100: Cedar Park at No. 73 ($1,472) and Austin at No. 99 ($1,259).

Austin's No. 99 ranking puts it in the top spot among Texas' five largest cities. It's followed by Fort Worth (No. 306, $718), San Antonio (No. 394, $600), Dallas (No. 399, $596), and Houston (No. 436, $565).

Harlingen is the most Scrooge-y Texas city: The estimated $385 holiday budget puts it at No. 560 nationwide.

Overall, Americans predict they'll spend an average of $805 on holiday gifts this year, down significantly from last year's estimate of $942, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Outlooks for U.S. holiday retail sales this year are muted due to the pandemic-produced recession. Consulting giant Deloitte forecasts a modest rise of 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with commercial real estate services provider CBRE guessing the figure will be less than 2 percent.

"The lower projected holiday growth this season is not surprising given the state of the economy. While high unemployment and economic anxiety will weigh on overall retail sales this holiday season, reduced spending on pandemic-sensitive services such as restaurants and travel may help bolster retail holiday sales somewhat," Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's U.S. economic forecaster, says in a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Taken for granted

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges.

"Initially, it was scary because we lost some of our clients, but then a bunch of medical clients came to us and asked if we could help them find funding for COVID-19 outreach," Thornton says. "We've found that they have a higher probability of success right now because with COVID-19 outreach, the procurement cycle has gone from six to nine months down to 30 days, which is unheard of."

In addition to telemedicine companies, Grant Source has been helping write grants for clients that range from airports to technology companies in order to help provide them with a path forward in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Grant Source has created a database and a suite of resources for companies looking for grants. Photo via grantsource.com


Preventing federal funding waste

Outside of the context of a pandemic, the government uses grants as a way to fund ideas and projects that provide public services and stimulate the economy.

Grants are also essential when it comes to supporting critical recovery initiatives and innovative research, but on a fundamental level, very few even know how or where to start when it comes to applying for one and it becomes even more esoteric when it comes to getting funded. That's why so much grant money goes unclaimed, with millions of nonprofits and businesses going underfunded and not maximizing their impact.

"Over $3.2 billion in grant money goes unclaimed every single year," says Thornton. "We have a broken system and we wondered what we could do to change it, so we started Grant Source, our revolutionary grant funding system, to help organizations find and secure money for their mission."

Client-focused services and support

In addition to helping clients find grants, Grant Source assists with the necessary pre-work to apply for a grant.

"We started out as just a database where you could find grants and grant writers," says Thornton. "But in listening to our customers, they wanted us to do everything full service, too. So, I flew all across the country from Minneapolis to Kansas to Los Angeles to Toronto and put all the top grant writing associations on retainer and created what is Grant Source today, which is pretty much mobile for grants."

Thornton says Grant Source has more than 1,500 consultants across the U.S. and Canada, and these professionals each have different specialties — much like a lawyer or a doctor — and relationships in different states.

For a flat fee that ranges from $500 to $5,000 per month, Grant Source will set out to procure its clients grants that range anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million based on their goals. To date, Grant Source has helped businesses and organizations find and secure over $6 million in grant funding.

New clients first sign up for an assessment with Grant Source that establishes what the client's goals are and how the company is set up. Once Grant Source has established a few options for the client, they get started on submitting to the grants. In order to protect its customers from the uncertainty of the process, Grant Source offers investment protection for 12 months.

"We have the investment protection so customers won't be left empty handed," says Thornton. "It's risk free, so if they don't at least get their investment back within the first 12 months, we'll either continue their grant at no cost or we'll give them a credit for the difference."

Founded from a personal need

Treating customers with fairness is important for Grant Source because they started out as a nonprofit seeking grant funding themselves and soon learned that there was a lot that they did not know about the process.

"When I was at UTSA in 2006, the African American graduation population was less than 6 percent, which was unacceptable, so we started a nonprofit," says Thornton. "We made a lot of impact in just a few years. We increased the graduation population from 6 percent to about 38 percent, And, for the 2008 election, we were able to register over 3,200 students."

After graduation, Thornton says he saw an opportunity to expand to other colleges, but lacked funding to do so.

"We saw grants as a huge opportunity and they are, but unfortunately, they're also a huge hassle and it takes a lot of time and energy and effort to even find one that you qualify for," he remembers. "And even when you do, if you don't know how to write the proposal, you're dead in the water."

After the grant process failed, Thornton's money was gone with no communication or valid reason as to why. That frustrated him to the point where he wanted to provide coherent solutions to the problem himself.

"I spent a ton of money on education and researching top grant writing associations," says Thornton. "Most people don't know where to find grants, and there are so many different types of grants and places you can find them. For instance, we're working on a federal proposal with the federal government, there's 26 different agencies that still don't even know how to talk to each other."

Creating a lasting impact

From the outset, Grant Source started creating corporate responsibility programs and impact within a cost center for organizations that were for profit companies. They seek to put them in ideal situations to create the kind of impact that warrants grant funding.

"What we teach our clients is that you can't approach the process with the idea that you will get the grant money and then go out and create come impact," says Thornton. "You have to focus on being able to showcase the impact that you're already creating and then we can go find money for that. If you can articulate the impact of whatever you're doing is creating, we can find the person that cares about that.

In addition providing the software and platform for grant seekers, Grant Source offers a book, courses, seminars, workshops, and conferences that offer the baseline information needed to secure grant funding.

"At the end of the day, Grant Source is a technology platform that helps organizations find money for their mission," says Thornton. "We've streamlined the grant writing process and the grant finding process. At Grant Source, we don't focus on the money, we focus on the impact and then we give people a clear path to make it happen."

It's National Retirement Security Week — and to celebrate, you need to start thinking about saving. Getty Images

Young professionals should focus on saving for retirement today, advises this Houston expert

Guest Column

National Retirement Security Week is upon us. In 2006, the United States Senate passed a resolution establishing the third week of October as a time to raise awareness about the importance of retirement savings and to encourage Americans to contribute to their retirement plans. The sponsors of the resolution hoped Americans would think about their retirement goals and assess their progress.

The Senate had good advice. Consider this: less than half of Americans have calculated how much money they will need to have in retirement. Additionally, the average person will spend a whopping 20 years in retirement. This data means you need to be proactive in your retirement planning, especially if you plan to retire early. Experts project that the average American will need 70 – 90 percent of their pre-retirement income to continue to live in their current standard of living. Even with well-funded savings, retirees will face challenges such as high costs of healthcare and the future of Medicare and Social Security.

For young investors

Research has shown that younger Americans, approximately ages 18 to 35, say the ideal time to retire is 60 years old. However, young professionals need to remember that the full retirement age for social security benefits is 67 years of age. Therefore, saving early in their career is key to attaining a livable retirement income.

Additionally, many young Americans are simply not saving for retirement at all. Data has demonstrated that two-thirds of Millennials have nothing saved. A rule of thumb is to continually save 10 to 15 percent of your income throughout your career for retirement. If you would like to retire at 60 years of age, you should be saving 20 percent or more.

First step: Start saving

Therefore, your first step should be starting to save today, and it should be a priority. By beginning to save as soon as possible, you benefit from the power of compound interest. Each year's investment gains build on the next year's gains. Ideally, you should begin saving for retirement in your early twenties at the beginning of your career. Saving early can reap big rewards later. However, if you are further along in your career and have not been saving, start now.

Many employers offer 401(k) plans, allowing employees to save for retirement before taxes are taken out of their paycheck. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, ensure you are enrolled and contributing at least enough to receive the maximum matching contribution. In 2019, the IRS allows you to contribute up to $19,000, and for those 50 and over, you may contribute $25,000. While 401(k)s have many benefits, there are some restrictions. For example, the plan may require you to leave the money in for a minimum amount of time before you are entitled to your employer's matching contributions. To ensure you understand your employer's plan, consult the plan administrator.

Not all employers offer retirement plans. If that is your case, or you are self-employed, look into an IRA. These accounts are another smart way to save for retirement. IRAs are controlled by you, not your employer. You can choose either a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA. The difference between the two varies on issues such as age restrictions, income limits, and tax breaks. For an IRA in 2019, you may contribute $6,000 per person, or $7,000 for those 50 and over. Similar to 401(k)s, IRAs can be set up by automatic deduction if you so choose.

No matter your industry or the season of your life, take the time this National Retirement Security Week to educate yourself on your saving options, focus on your retirement goals, and begin the action steps necessary to be able to retire securely.

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Marcellus Davis is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

Andre Norman founded Jellifin, an options trading platform, flipping the script on the traditional investment process. Courtesy Jellfin

This new-to-Houston startup is simplifying trading for the next generation of investors

Easy options option

Say you're a young, working professional who wants to get involved in trading. Where do you start?

If you get involved in options, which are contracts that give investors the ability to buy or sell a stock at a specific price on or before a specific date, you might go the traditional route and seek out a brokerage that focuses on options trading. There's a major catch, though: most brokerages tack on a fee of anywhere between $7 and $20 per trade, says Andre Norman, founder of Jellifin, an online options trading platform, is disrupting that norm.

The company works with individuals and brokers to provide an options trading platform at a flat monthly fee. This allows investors to trade as frequently or infrequently as they please, and to not factor in the cost of a trade fee when considering what's best for their portfolio.

"A lot of people don't invest because of the high costs associated with trading," Norman said. "We allow them to get into investing without having to pay huge amounts of money."

Jellifin was founded in early 2017 in Gainesville, Florida, but relocated to Houston in 2018. Norman moved for his then-fiance's job, but had little to no expectation for the city.

"I did light research, and realized it was trying to foster an entrepreneurial community, as well as innovation, so I came in with no expectations," he says. "When I got involved with Station Houston, I was blown away by what's being done and what's currently in play. It was a great move. This is where we're going to stay forever."

Pivoting Jellifin
When he started the company, Norman says his goal was to provide investors with a cheaper way to trade options. Originally, the company worked commission free — same way of trading at a reduced price. The company worked that way until 2018, when Jellifiin pivoted toward more of a B-to-B clientele — brokerage firms, trading companies, and trading companies. It became more of a white label company where the brokerages could license the software.

"We realized our core expertise was in the software development itself, and we realize customers like our product, but we saw more opportunity in working with brokerage firms which will then inadvertently disperse our platform toward their customer base," Norman says. "So, in the end, we're still serving the same core customer and the same demographic, but now we figured out a way to target them more effectively at a larger scale."

The pivot was ultimately a good move, but it didn't mean it made things easier for Norman and his team — in fact, the opposite happened.

"Surprisingly, it's increased our workload. When we started working with brokerages, one of the core problems we realized is that they're small, and they don't have the in-house expertise or resources to build their own trading platforms," he says. "Our value proposition to them is that we can be their support."

How it works
The brokerage firms that use Jellifin's services license the trading platform — they agree to a minimum of two years — and they pay a monthly subscription fee.

"It's a volume-based pricing system — the brokerage payment covers what [the individual customer] would pay," Norman explains. "The brokerage pays for the software itself, and whatever sort of arrangement that the user has with the brokerage is up to them."

The current industry norm is $7 per options trade, Norman says, plus the contract fees. An option trade could run you anywhere from $7.50 to over $20 per trade.

"That's a big problem in the industry," he says. "What we've brought to the user base is [the ability to spend] $9.99 per month for unlimited trading. The actual cost per trade is pennies on the dollar, but brokerage firms still mark it up thousands of percent, because the average user doesn't understand what goes on when they click 'Place Trade.'"

Because of this ease of use, the company has attracted millennials — specifically the age range of 28 to 33.

"They invest quite frequently — I wouldn't say they're day traders, but they're very actively invested in the stock market," he says. "They're not a passive investor. They trade on a weekly basis."

Norman says, based on their assessment, that their average user earns an income of anywhere from $70,000 to $120,000 annually.

Weighing the options
The company plans to grow — and is even looking for sales and marketing hires.

"Right now, we're a team of six, and we're all engineers," Norman says. "I would say we're hiring, but for the right positions. … we're looking to grow more organically and not raise huge amounts of capital. We work closely with our partners, and we grow as they grow."

So far, the company has raised just under $500,000 to date, but is planning to raise an amount in the millions of dollars.

"We will be raising a new round hopefully sometime soon, but there's no rush to get to that," Norman says. "For us, personally, our generating capital from the companies we work with."

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

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Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

guest column

Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.