In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rodz explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners.

InnovationMap: How did this partnership come about to provide this this unique credit card for small business owners?

Carolyn Rodz: We have been looking at ways to support business owners along their capital journeys for a long time. Since we started Hello Alice access to capital has been the number one barrier for small business owners, and that's only magnified when we look at business owners of color and our new majority business owners that we focus on. And so it made natural sense as we went down a path of conversations with MasterCard initially around how do we create something, particularly in a world where accessing capital, which would be daunting for business owners.

There's a lot of talk around venture capital and getting loans and what that growth journey looks like. But the reality is most business owners understand a credit card — they understand how it works. So, that was a great starting point for us. Then we looked at what are some of the issues with cards — all business cards particularly or commodities. They're typically an afterthought from a lot of the financial institutions that offer them. We're seeing a lot of these emerging fintech companies that are rolling out cards, but even for them, the small business audience is typically an afterthought. They're really focused on tech companies and very rapid growth businesses.

It felt like mainstream small businesses were really getting lost in this conversation, so that was where we really wanted to tackle. How do we solve some of these problems — how do we create benefits that are actually meaningful to small business owners? Things like one-on-one coaching and helping them get access to workshops that will help them along their growth journey. Things that they can redeem points for experiences and opportunities that that may not otherwise be accessible through a lot of these business owners.

The other piece that we wanted to support is the large group of businesses that don't qualify for a traditional credit card. And so we, in tandem with our unsecured credit card, also launched a secured card. And the idea for that was that we could actually roll out a credit quality tool. So, in conjunction with all the education and wraparound services that we're offering, there's a six- to nine-month process that a business owner — if they have poor credit history — can go through to build up that credit with a secured credit card and then seamlessly transition into an unsecured card. It's an opportunity to take that first step toward building and growing their business and accessing the capital that they need to grow.

IM: How does this initiative target the inequality in access to capital for small business owners?

CR: Well, nine out of 10 of business owners are relying on their personal credit card when they're applying for financing. When we look at entrepreneurs of color, the rate of low credit score for them is two to three times higher for Black and LatinX entrepreneurs specifically. So for us, this is the importance of building in conjunction with our creating equitable access to credit program that is much broader, frankly, than the card itself, but offering the wraparound services around it, making sure that we are providing the secured to unsecured seamless transition plan.

We're also working with the First National Bank of Omaha, and the reason we selected them at the bank, they're the largest privately held bank in the country. This also gave us the flexibility to really look at alternative underwriting models and the the opportunity to learn through all of the insights that we're gaining around these small business owners. We're trying to figure out how do we start to look at some of these alternative data points and identify not just the financial history of a business owner.

There are a lot of circumstances that lead to poor credit scores, whether it was for a health circumstance that they endured or veteran business owners who may have no credit history because they've been overseas for a long period of time. We're looking at what are some of the data points that are indicating that a business owner is more likely to succeed and more likely to repay the credit that they've taken on. We know already through a lot of research and data points that having a business plan automatically makes you more likely to repay your your debt. Or the fact that you are getting positive feedback from mentors is a strong indicator that you're going to be more likely to pay off some of those debts. And so we're really looking at what are some of these things that may be overlooked but are frankly more indicative of who the business owner is and the potential for their for their business and their opportunities to be able to repay credit that they take off.

IM: What type of small business owners do you feel like this is a really good solution for? What all can they expect from the program?

CR: As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had. When I started this company, I really looked at what was available to the market. This credit card, like many cards, offers benefits that are pretty standard in the market right now. Things like cash back, extra points, and kickers for certain spends that are relevant to small business owners. But again, we really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access.

What we discovered was there are lots of accelerators, programs, and workshops and things — but they're expensive. So, there's an opportunity here. We work with our network of partners that we have for Hello Alice that are traditionally paid or have a cost to roll them out and offer business owners points and earnings that can be spent toward that.

Mentorship, as you know, is a huge, huge barrier, particularly when we look at our new majority entrepreneurs, so all of our cardholders get access to one-on-one coaching for this card. And we've really focused on areas that are primary interest to them, things like business strategy, operations, and financing for their businesses.

And then the other important piece of this is leveraging our partner network. We have so many partners that we work with at Hello Alice, companies that are offering products and tools and services to small business owners. With this card, we're opening up additional discounts beyond what we've already negotiated standards for all of our community, whether it's an extra discount on things like QuickBooks, Salesforce, or different tools that they might be using. We have over 70 affiliate partners that we've already brought into the program working with more every week right now, which is really exciting.

We're also trying to find new opportunities — where can we bring the most benefit these business owners in a way that grows with their company and that, as they're spending and creating traction with their company, our team is working behind the scenes to unlock more and more opportunities every stage of that journey.

IM: Do you feel like this program is a response to the growing challenges small businesses have been facing over the past few years?

CR: I mean, our business certainly had a hell of a couple of years, and 89 percent of small business owners in our community, which is now over a million business owners strong, claim the access to capital is limiting their growth potential. Where we focus a majority of our energy as a company is unlocking those barriers.

As we dig into that, what we're seeing is access to capital — whether that's early days as a credit card or a grant funding, or later stage with loans or even venture capital — is that we need to address this by helping to unlock that journey for business owners, but also making sure that we're supporting them with the opportunities that are relevant to their own stage of growth.

The other piece is revenue generation. We always want to focus on the core and sustainable business health of a company and making sure that they're bringing in revenue and that they've created a business model that actually works and is scalable. We're working a lot on providing them not just money into their business or outside capital, but how do we actually help them generate revenue and clear capital in all the stages unless they have that capital? How do we actually help them deploy that capital in meaningful ways will help them grow their business?

All of the wraparound services that come with the core of what Hello Alice offers — and certainly with this credit card we're getting a deeper layer of insight, because we know more about the businesses, we know how they're spending, what they're doing. We're really learning about how do we additionally support this cohort of business owners with the right wraparound services, making sure that they're getting the right thing at the right time.

What's interesting is that and the reason we really started with the credit card is that 50 percent of small business owners have a personal credit score of 680 or better, and that's strong enough to apply for most business credit cards. However, that score locks them out of getting a business loan, which typically requires a score of 720 or better to qualify. So we're able to tap into a cohort and help them grow this pool of capital in the earliest stages. But really making sure that we're giving them the growth tools that ultimately free them up to go get that loan, to go walk into a main street bank and have that power of choice along their capital journey.

In general, we focus a lot on access to capital. We deployed over $37 million in small business grants to date, and we're continuing to grow that pool. We're actually working right now on an equitable access to capital fund, which will allow us to utilize those grants to actually pay the security deposit for select business owners who may not qualify for additional credit.

Ultimately, this is a really tangible way to work with financial institutions, MasterCard, and our broader partner ecosystem. We haven't seen the statistics move in decades. How do we actually open up more capital to business owners that otherwise wouldn't qualify for it? And this is our our first of many steps toward towards putting a really tangible stake in the ground.

IM: What about the challenges of the pandemic — how do you see COVID-19 and its shutdown affect small businesses?

CR: For us, like many businesses, I think the pandemic was it shook everything up. I think we had a plan and a path forward that always entailed unlocking access to capital and unlocking opportunity — that has never changed for us. But it accelerated a lot of things. We had planned to deploy grant funding in 2020 independent of the pandemic. When COVID hit and we saw these businesses struggling, we quickly pivoted. We accelerated that plan significantly. We started deploying grants within weeks of shelter in place — even before PPP had been announced and before businesses were accessing any government support. We were among the first to offer emergency grants and put us in a really strong position to grow that program and again to accelerate the rollout of that, which is now turned into a much larger program.

That really was, I would say, the acceleration of our entire early stage access to capital continuum. And what we learned from that was how much capital these business owners actually need. The process gave us a lot of information that that has really helped roll out the broader continuum of capital for us. We launched our lending marketplace with over 92 small business lenders all focused on fair and equitable funding, which is available over all as well. And so these credit cards round out that early stage access to capital.

But when we look at our new majority cohort — and even many white male businesses — we have to get business owners of all types that are struggling with access to capital. Everybody's willing to give money to business owners that have traction, that are doing well with their business, that are on a growth path. But it's very hard to get the traction that big investors need, and that's always really struggle.

The pandemic accelerated a lot in this space. It made us realize that the opportunity here is actually much greater to support these businesses and also got a lot of attention from partners. We've been having these conversations for years, frankly, prior to the pandemic. And everybody recognized there was an issue, but I don't think they realized the impact of the issue until COVID hit, and small businesses were the ones that kept operating and made sure that we were getting the resources that we needed to continue to live in a time when everything was a little bit uncertain.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tige Savage of Revolution Ventures and Sandy Guitar of HX Venture Fund explain how they're working together to fund Houston companies in a recent Q&A. Photos courtesy

This VC visiting Houston has eyes on investing locally in disruptive tech startups

Q&A

The HX Venture Fund is a fund of funds that makes investments as a limited partner in venture capital funds across the country — VC funds that want to add Houston companies to their portfolios. HXVF is is paving the way for those investments by setting up immersive days for venture capitals visiting Houston.

One of these HXVF Engage VC days is taking place this week on Wednesday, April 27. Houston entrepreneurs can hear from partners at Revolution — a Washington, D.C.-based firm with three investment funds and strategies — at a fireside chat kicking off the visit at 8:30 am at The Ion.

Tige Savage, co-founder and managing partner of Revolution Ventures, and Sandy Guitar, managing partner of HX Venture Fund, join InnovationMap for a Q&A about how the two organizations are working together to put funding in the hands of Houston tech entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: Tige, tell me briefly about Revolution and its family of funds. What types of companies are you looking for?

Tige Savage: We started Revolution about 17 years ago. I co-founded it with Steve Case, the founder of AOL and later the chairman of AOL Time Warner. I ran the venture capital group for that media company — that's how he and I got to know each other. AOL was based in Washington DC, so when Steve and I partnered up to launch our firm, we based it in Washington. We knew that to do the investing of the importance and scale that we had in mind, that it was an idea that was bigger than just Washington DC. So, we hopped on airplanes, and we went to where we thought the most interesting best ideas were. And as we spent our time in the market, we realized that there were a lot of opportunities in a lot of places other than New York City and Silicon Valley — we obviously have nothing against New York City or Silicon Valley, and we make investments in those places. But we realized that there was a lot going on in the country. It really gave us an opportunity to start building ecosystems and investing across the country. We looked back and realized we were generating returns in places like Florida, Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon, et cetera — and there were great opportunities and great entrepreneurs in those places. And the barriers to building companies in those kinds of places had gotten much smaller than they'd been historically — the internet enabled talent to be in more places we've seen that amplified in a major way through the pandemic.

We started investing, and we raised capital from the outside world — and we did that in three efforts. One is something called the Rise of the Rest seed fund that is a very ecosystem focused investment vehicle. They make hundreds of investments out of their $150 million fund — small investments really to be involved in those communities. Imagine that's a very large top of funnel approach for our organization that allows us to project ourselves in a major way. David Hall is managing director of the fund and will be at this event tomorrow. He's been involved in revolution from the very early days. In fact, he was the very first person I hired.

Revolution Ventures is the fund I'm involved in. We are mostly series A investment effort with a much more concentrated portfolio. We're very focused on this same strategy of investing across the entire country. Then we have a growth fund called Revolution Growth that's sort of a later stage fund — call it series C plus, maybe series D, investor. They take larger stakes, but it's also a concentrated portfolio.

We have a few things that we think are unique about Revolution. One is what we call "place" — it's this geographic approach that we've taken from the start we're real believers that there's opportunity everywhere. We've spent a lot of time, money, capital, et cetera, working on those ecosystems and being in them. That's why places lake Houston are so exciting for us. Secondly, is policy. We're in Washington, it's in the DNA of what we do. It used to be very out of favor for tech companies to say they cared about policy, where we've always known that that's very important. If you go to some of the biggest tech companies today they'll tell you that the most important thing to them and the biggest risk they have is policy and regulatory.

We have a history of investing in billion dollar categories where technology is ripe to make the the business model, the consumer value proposition, the supply chain, the margin structure — something like that — better. That's why we called the firm Revolution, targeting places where technology can revolutionize existing categories, largely for the benefit of consumers.

IM: Sandy, what is it about Revolution that makes it a good fund for Houston companies?

Sandy Guitar: We've met with and built relationships with over 400 venture funds, but have to date have only invested in 14. So ours is a super selective process and we are just honored to be limited partners of Revolution. The reasons that make Revolution such a fit are manyfold. One is we seek investment strategies that we think will find deals in Houston. Revolution's strategy of using both the Rise of the Rest at the seed level, but a concentrated portfolio at the series A level is exactly the kind of strategy that we think works. Their generalist approach, but with specific expertise within various technologies means that they can be nimble from a technology point of view, as they look for deal flow in Houston, and they can allow for a force rank that doesn't force them in one tech bucket. We think that's a great advantage to seasoned venture capitalists.

Second of all, we're looking for investment strategies that create high growth companies, which can be innovative to our investors, such as the HEB, Shell, Chevron, Insperity, Lyondellbasell, et cetera. Those investors at HX Venture Fund rely on us to introduce them to opportunities for co-investment at the company or fund level and for opportunities to be customers to the portfolio companies of our VCs. We believe Revolution is producing the kinds companies that are going to be and are of interest to our limited partners as they try to innovate from within. And then third of all, we're looking for really strong track records that show expertise in selecting, growing and exiting companies. We want Houston entrepreneurs to benefit from that kind of acumen. That takes a lot of track record and lot of time in VC to show proof points of all three of those parts of the company formation process, and Revolution has that in spades.

IM: Tige, do you have Houston startups already in your portfolio and how is HXVF helping you grow your presence in Houston?

TS: Across our funds, between the Rise of the Rest fund and Revolution Ventures, I think there are 19 Texas investments, one in Houston. We also have a company called Big Commerce, which is in the growth fund that's a Texas and Australia-based company. Goodfair is an investment of the Rise of the Rest fund. They made an early investment — love the strategy of really trying to make fashion more affordable and more environmentally conscious and more economically achievable.

We are equally fortunate to have HX involved. Not only are they a great investor, but they're also a great facilitator of intersections for firms like ours that are actively interested in deploying capital in interesting places. We're only a handful of folks, so it takes a lot of leverage. Our Rise of the Rest strategy is an institutional effort, but having partners in the market really matters. This is why we're so excited to be partnered with Sandy and the gang there, because we really view that strategy as a unique and interesting one.

IM: Sandy, tell me about these events you’ve been putting on for your portfolio funds at HXVF.

SG: This is our second event this year already, and we've done about half a dozen of these so far of what we call VC engage days. The idea of the VC engage day is to really connect all of our communities together. In the mornings, we like to make sure that the venture capitalist coming in has an opportunity to speak with our ecosystem and that anybody for free can come and listen to these very experienced and successful venture capitalists. From there, we curate one-on-one meetings between select entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that are part of the day. We also do one-on-ones with our limited partners and the venture capitalists. And then, at the end of the day, we have a private dinner to provide more bespoke conversations either with our limited partners or with the Founder's Circle — 20-plus serial entrepreneurs here in Houston that provide a voice to us at HXVF.

TS: What was just described — that's is not a typical thing. LPs don't do that. We're obviously excited about it. It's a thing unique to Houston. HXVF is doing a lot of work to make these things happen.

IM: Tige, as someone looking in from DC into the Houston market, what do you see happening in the Houston market? What are you most excited about getting to tap into on your visit?

TS: Houston is known for a number of industries and is smart to leverage its engineering talent and try to focus that on ways to amplify it in technology. We think that the opportunities around sort of innovative manufacturing or around logistics around climate are particularly interesting to our funds, because when we talk about revolutionizing large categories in ways that make things better for consumers, those are all major elements that can have that kind of impact.

Houston's an extremely multicultural place. The engineering talent is extremely robust. The ability for large corporations to invest in and take advantage of what's going on in tech is extremely exciting. Finding a way for catalytic activity to happen within within these large businesses is sometimes a challenge. What we're most interested in is seeing where that's happening.

The ecosystem is really blooming. This is sort of the bread and butter of what we do. Collaboration, capital, and network density are what we've always thought are the three key things that are differentiators for a market. And those things are all coming together.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Greentown Houston's Juliana Garaizar and Emily Reichert look back on the climatetech incubator's first year. Photos via greentownlabs.com

How Greentown Houston accelerated the local energy transition in its inaugural year

q&a

This Thursday, Greentown Houston officially celebrates the completion of its first year in town, as well as the impact its made in just the 365 days since its grand opening.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, officially cut the ribbon on the organization's first location outside of the Boston area last Earth Day. Reichert, along with Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A looking back on this past year — including what surprised them most and where members are moving in from.

Greentown Houston's anniversary event is Thursday, April 21, from 1 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston (4200 San Jacinto St.) or livestreaming online. Click here to learn more.

InnovationMap: Looking back on the first year of Greentown Houston, what was the thing that most surprised you about the process and the community you created here?

Juliana Garaizar: What really surprised me the most was the eagerness to be a part of Greentown. We were very surprised by the pandemic — it caught us in, in the middle of fundraising and we thought things were gonna slow down and actually it became sort of a of a blessing in disguise for the community here in Houston. The Boston community had to go virtual, and then when they did, we realized that we were much more connected to the Boston team, but also why can't we offer the same services to the Houston community since we didn't have a building yet anyway. That created a huge opportunity to convene a community even before our building. We had these early access members and when we finally opened our building, they all converted to in-person members because they had already felt what the community could bring. In Boston, they took a little longer to fill in the space at opening, but we came in at grand opening with our inaugural member list in Houston — all of them super eager to join us. That conversion happened so fast happened because of the virtual aspect of COVID.

Emily Reichert: For me, there were really three things that were surprising. Throughout the whole process of building the momentum towards Greentown Houston and from the very first meetings I had with the GHP and potential supporters of a future Greentown Labs, there was this warmth of welcome. I can't compare it to anything else. Houston just really embraced this opportunity, embraced Greentown labs, and embraced our team — as well as really embracing having a climate tech incubator located in what has traditionally been called the oil and gas capital of the world. I just wanna note that that is very meaningful and it just shows that when Houston gets behind something, Houstonians go all the way they are committed and they take action. And we just felt that from the very beginning,

Second, I think that the momentum of the energy transition itself surprised us, but also felt it felt to us like we were riding a wave that wasn't just about Greentown Houston. It was about all of these different businesses, business leaders civic leaders, and just general citizenry in Houston understanding that the future of energy is different than the past of energy. And that, that was something that was going to need to happen more quickly than folks had anticipated. And again, I feel like Houstonians are leaning into it and thinking about, "well, if we've been the energy capital of the world, can we now be the energy transition capital of the world and how do we do that?" The speed with which this transition is happening is just incredible. And, increasingly in the circles that I move in outside of Houston, people know about it. It's changing the outside perspective as well. That's been really exciting to see.

Finally, the amount of talent that exists in the energy industry and in general in Houston and in the local universities that can be deployed and is interested in being deployed in climate tech and addressing climate change and the energy transition — it's really remarkable. Whenever we have a job posting out there for Greentown Houston, we are getting a lot of applicants. And now when we're going to universities to engage with students around — whether they're interested in building a startup that could address a challenge in the energy transition — it's just overwhelming the interest, the excitement, and the level of talent that I think is going to be available to apply to this energy transition that Houston can absolutely lead.

IM: Greentown Houston has not only attracted Houston-based companies, but also companies outside of Houston that want to be able to take advantage of Greentown Labs and the support there. You have both virtual and in-person membership options. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.

JG: This was something also that the pandemic exacerbatedAgain, if you compare Boston to Houston — Boston is much more difficult to find prototyping lab space and wet labs. I would say that the cost of space is much higher there than in Houston. You there's plenty of space available for coworking, for prototyping, but the connection services to the whole ecosystem, to investors, to corporate partners, to universities to mentors — all that is key for our startups. And that means that space takes a second place. That's what we've seen. Member companies from Austin join Greentown Houston because they are connecting to a community that is more like hard tech driven and less software driven than in Austin. They wanna connect to the customers and the pilots, right? Even some of our Boston companies have moved or at least established a presence in Houston. There's also the diversity aspect that Houston is the most diverse city in the U,S. There are plenty of companies from Latin America coming over and choosing Houston as a landing pad and choosing Greentown as the place to start settling. We help them with funding. We help them with hiring local people.

IM: As you mentioned, Greentown Houston's membership grew really fast — how did you grow your team to support that?

JG: Our Houston team has quadrupled since last year and, and that's a lot — we were three and now we are 12, but we also had the whole Boston team behind us. The way we did it was through this matrix model where our team members report to someone in Boston. And although it creates an extra layer of complexity I think it was perfect for such a rapid growth because we were able to download the DNA of Greentown Boston to Houston at a much faster pace. We thought it was very important for us to distill that DNA but without forgetting about also having local people in Houston. It was the best of both worlds.

ER: We really needed to have the Houston local knowledge embedded, just like we needed to have the way that things have been done in Boston embedded. But I think as we look forward from now, you're going to increasingly see that we have embedded a lot of the practices and ways of doing things that we've done in Boston, but we're doing them with a Houston flavor, and we are doing them in a way that meets the local needs. And I think that you will see as we grow and continue to evolve, that we're gonna take our learnings from being in Houston and continue to evolve what we doin Houston. Our mission is to create an inclusive community and to convene connect, and inspire entrepreneurs and ecosystems to address climate solutions — and that's going to be the same in both locations. But how we do those specific pieces, I think will be a bit different. Now, Houston is a young ecosystem in terms of climate tech, so that convening piece is a little bit different from how we have done it in Boston.

IM: What's next for Greentown Houston — and what's next for the energy transition in Houston?

JG: For Greentown Houston we've figured out that our members need different things, and we wanna make sure that we listen and we adapt to them. It seems that a wet lab might be a need that we need to incorporate. So we're trying to figure out how, how to do that. We're growing at a much faster pace than Greentown Boston did, of course, because of the timing of the energy transition. That means that we need to think about, about expansion. We've become the convener place for climate tech.

In general in Houston for the energy transition, there's gonna be three pillars that I think are very important and that Greentown has to be apart of. One of them is the workforce development and the transition of the workforce. We're working with key partners like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, and we're putting together a program with universities to make sure that we also extract the, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to Greentown and to the energy transition capital.

The second aspect os access to capital there's a lot of capital of available in Houston and a lot of capital in general being poured into climate tech, but we need to make sure it comes earlier. We are very early on, and there's still a gap there for early stage investing. I think one of the key elements to be able to unlock that capital early is to make sure that our companies have pilots and demonstration at corporations.

I think the third part for the energy transition in Houston is unlocking the potential capabilities we already have, like in hydrogen by trying to become a hydrogen hub. And that will only happen if we all work together. So I think Greentown also has to play a role there of convening.

ER: Continuing to support entrepreneurs in Houston to really bring talent in, to not only help our entrepreneurs build their companies, but in general into the energy transition and climate that's something that will be leaning into the deployments of the technology at scale. That's something that Houston can uniquely do.

IM: What can people expect from both the livestream and the in-person event on Thursday?

ER: We're gonna have some great voices on that from across industry, and we are going to be showcasing our startups, both through pitches and then through a startup showcase where folks will be able to see and touch or at least talk to our entrepreneurs and learn about their companies and the opportunities to support them. I believe there will be a few other surprises, which I won't reveal.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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.

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

Q&A

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed.

InnovationMap: Earlier this year you saw an exit for your company Preventice Solutions, a company focused on the development of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring, which was sold to Boston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal. What did this deal mean to both you and the company?

Larry Lawson: It validated what I started back in 2004. I had an idea, And I moved forward on my idea — in the beginning completely financed that idea myself. I tried to raise funds, and it was very difficult here in Houston back in 2004 to do that. I put my money, you might say, where my mouth was and I started the company and funded it and built it to a point to where we attracted some venture capital from one of the world's largest VC groups out of California called Sequoia Capital. That allowed me to really increase our exposure and our footprint nationally. And it just grew and grew and eventually Boston scientific got interested in the company, along with Merck, a pharmaceutical company, and they bought smaller pieces of the company.

Then at the end of the year of 2020, Boston Scientific made a play to acquire the company completely. Frankly, it have been better. I would have never dreamt that my original company would be worth that much and sell for that much. So it was very nice for not only me, but for many other people that were employed by Preventice, because as a founder of the company, I knew how important it was to share equity with the people that really make the company run and make it run well.

IM: I noticed that you’re on the board of several Houston health tech startups — most of which I’ve covered on InnovationMap. What do you look for in a company before joining the board and what role do you play for the companies’ growth?

LL: First of all, I look at the people who are in the company — from top level executive level all the way down, even including the existing board members of the company. I only invest in medical device companies. That's what I know, and that's why I've spent over 50 years in, and I feel like I know it very well. I do not venture far off of that line or that path at all.

I look for a strong operating group. I look for strong leadership — and if I can bring even stronger leadership and have them get from point A to point B, I like to get involved. Given my medical as the chairman of the company.

IM: You started your investment firm in 2018 — what inspired you to create LAWALA Capital and what do you look for in potential portfolio companies?

LL: I really limit my investments to the medical device segment of health care. LAWALA is just me — it's the first two letters of all three of my names: Larry Wayne Lawson. How I got into investing and starting companies is I see opportunity, and I see voids in the industry.

IM: Speaking of, you founded Proxima Clinical Research in 2017, which has a very hands-on approach to accelerating health tech innovation. Why did you decide to start that up?

LL: I saw a void in the clinical research industry, specifically at the medical center here, the largest medical center on the face of the earth. And it was doing all of this attracting all of these companies, all of these health science companies into Houston, and they were building and budding their companies, but there was no centralized clinical research company to be there for them.

I thought, "my gosh, somebody ought to do this." Well, I'm a doer. So, I went to the powers to be at the medical center and got their approval to be the founder of a company, called Proxima Clinical Research, and the key is putting it right there in the heart of the largest medical center in the world.

It's been really, really good for these companies who are coming into Houston to take advantage of the life science growth that's taking place here in Houston.

IM: How did COVID-19 affect the work that you do?

LL: COVID really did not affect our business that greatly. It affected the investments that I was doing. I pulled back and cut my, expenses and that, because I just needed to see, you know, how the COVID thing would shake out. I'm watching my investments a lot closer today, and think that it's affected the startup companies, more because to be a startup company, you have to go out and find investors to invest in your company. And I think that process has been slowed, I won't say considerably, but I think it's been slowed quite a bit over the past year and a half.

It just so happens that in the industry that I've been in, which is patient monitoring — cardiac arrhythmia monitoring — COVID has heightened patient monitoring more than anything else. What we learned from COVID is that we've got to be more in tune ourselves than ever before in monitoring all aspects of ourselves. What has come out of this COVID pandemic is telemedicine, which has struggled for years, now all of a sudden telemedicine is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

And I think that's one reason why you see the big companies — the multinational, multi-billion dollar companies — getting more in patient monitoring.

IM: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world — but it’s often times not listed as a top city for medical innovation. Is that changing? And if so, how?

LL: When the medical center purchased the old Nabisco building and turned that into a technology center and a startup center, it changed the whole complexion of the device and medical startup community here in Houston. We've had a lot of former development here through MD Anderson in oncology, but we'd never had very much in devices. Now, we have companies coming from Europe and Asia coming to Houston to promote their technology and the devices that they have built.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest in the United States. We fund more startup companies out of RBPC. I'm talking Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley — Houston is number one. And that has a lot to do with what has happened in the medical center over the past seven or eight years.

IM: What more do we need, now that we've come this far to really push us into that innovative healthcare city status?

LL: Well, I think what we need is for investors investing in healthcare and not oil and dirt. For years and years, the whole economy was driven by oil and gas and real estate. And I can remember starting my first company, the early eighties, I went to banks to borrow money to start my first company, and all I wanted was $200,000. Well, that was still a lot of money back then, but they would literally fall asleep on me because they couldn't understand and didn't understand exactly what I wanted to do. And so I wound up having to fund myself use my friends and family as investors, but that's changed quite a bit. The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world. It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.