3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know include Dakota Stormer, founder of Footprint; Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder of SquareFoot; and Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal of CryptoEQ. Courtesy photos

Technology can make a huge difference, and Houston innovators are tapping into tech to disrupt various industries from real estate to sustainability.

This week's Houston innovators to know all have a focus on using tech tools to move the needle, whether it's to demystify cryptocurrency, track your ecological footprint, or find your next office space.

Dakota Stormer, founder of Footprint

Dakota Stormer created the Footprint app to help users be more conscientious of their personal contribution to climate change. Photo courtesy of Footprint

Dakota Stormer firmly believes that individuals can make a difference on climate change. And, maybe more importantly, individuals want to try to make that difference. So, he created an app to help. Footprint's algorithm calculates an annual carbon footprint, then averages it out to a per-week measure. This way, users know their goals — and the app sends them suggestions and challenges, like "meatless Mondays," to help reduce their emissions.

"For one person, it doesn't seem like there's much that you can do," Stormer says. "But the number of people across the world that care about climate change — it's actually a majority, at this point."

Click here to read more.

Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of SquareFoot

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Courtesy of SquareFoot

In 2011, Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum founded SquareFoot to use tech tools to improve the commercial leasing experience in New York. Now, almost a decade later and fresh off of the closing of a $16 million series B funding round, SquareFoot is set to expand. First on the list of places to grow — Wasserstrum's hometown of Houston.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

Click here to read more.

Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of CryptoEQ

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

Spencer Randall got sucked into the cryptocurrency world. He found it all fascinating, and started attending — and even organizing — meetups in Houston. But he and his friends started realizing something that would turn into him co-founding CryptoEQ.

"There really wasn't a go-to resource (for cryptocurrency," Randall says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we wanted to do and what our mission today is to be the most trusted and intuitive analysis for cryptocurrencies."

Click here to read more.

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

These three innovators are ones to look out for. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

From venture capital funding to nap research, these Houston innovators are leading the way in their industries. This week's innovators to know are a finance expert, LGBT leader and productivity expert, and a Houston expat making big moves in real estate.

Remington Tonar, managing director at The Cannon Houston

Courtesy of Remington Tonar

A banker, a crowdfunding specialist, and a venture capital expert walk into a room. It might be the beginning of a joke, or it might just be how Remington Tonar and a few other panelists contributed to Houston Community College's Small Business Summit.

The panel discussed different avenues for funding startups have. Tonar represented the venture capital firms — a type of funding that's currently. changing.

"There's a new phenomenon in venture where a lot of early stage investors and angel investors are looking at social impact investing," Tonar says. "They want to invest in women- or minority-owned businesses or companies that have a sustainability or social impact component to them. For those investors, the return demands are much more flexible." Read the full story here.

Khaliah Guillory, founder of Nap Bar

Courtesy of Khaliah Guillory

Khaliah Guillory needed a place to nap one day when commuting with her wife into the city from their home in Richmond, Texas. She usually resorted to a quick car nap to get her back to 100 percent, but it was weird to do that with someone else in the car. So, she created it, and Nap Bar was born.

Guillory, who also specializes in diversity and inclusion with her consulting company, KOG & Company, serves on the city's LGBT Advisory Board. She's the third installment of InnovationMap's Innovating Pride feature. Read the full interview here.

Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of SquareFoot

Courtesy of SquareFoot

Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum started a company and took it to New York City. He now has over 10 years of real estate experience and still runs that company — SquareFoot. But even he remembers the days of startup life that consisted of never knowing where your office might be in a year or even in a few months.

Wasserstrum wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about the things to consider before you take the leap and move to a coworking space. Click here to read the guest column.

Finding a new, larger office space is part of the startup growth process. Getty Images

When is it time to move? How Houston's small companies can find their next office space

Move it or lose it

There are a number of ways to measure the stage of growth a company is enjoying: funding, headcount, acquisitions, exit strategy, and more. But one telling indicator that often goes overlooked is the office space they call home.

In the early days of a startup, working out of someone's garage or at a nearby coffee shop, you dream of moving into a coworking space. Such a transition can mean a financial squeeze for some, especially when your prior solution was free. But paying for a space can mark a milestone — it signifies that you've made it to the next chapter. Houston has a number of great options for the many local early-stage startups undertaking this type of move.

Over time, though, as your company continues to grow, this solution may begin to cause strain. There's a big difference between a team of six sharing a room in a WeWork, and a team that's reached double-digits having to manage within a space that it has outgrown. Even external amenities like meeting rooms can become insufficient — as your team evolves, more meetings will be necessary, and the standards and needs at play will shift.

Finding your own private office space in Houston is not a challenge; it requires, however, acknowledging that the time has come to take this next step. Signals that it's time to move out and get your own space typically surface in two ways:

  1. What used to feel like an intimate setting has turned into an untenable situation. People are spending too much time talking about the coworking space and its limits.
  2. And, on the flip side, branding your company identity becomes a topic on your radar. If you find a great software engineer interested in joining your team, they might have some reservations about coming aboard with you if they discover you're sitting in a coworking space rather than your own space.

At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in Houston in 2011, I have given special attention to companies looking for their first office space. It can be daunting at first, but our brokers know better than anyone how to be trusted advisors for small business owners searching for their first locations.

The most important question at this stage, we've found, is not which neighborhood they'd like to be in, what their budget is, or what amenities they want. Rather, it's a common growth question: Where do you see yourself in three to five years? By asking this question of CEOs in initial conversations, we can get a better idea of what type of growth they project, and how we can most efficiently find them the right space to accommodate their current needs and future goals.

We see office space as more than segments of larger office buildings. These spaces mean a great deal to the companies that inhabit them. It's our responsibility to fit the right team into the right space, and to advocate and negotiate on their behalf.

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SquareFoot Founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, who hails from Houston, has worked for over a decade in commercial real estate. Outside of work, Jonathan is interested in the three Bs — bourbon, buffalo wings, and brass bands.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.

Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

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

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

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

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

University of Houston: Navigating between researcher and professor

houston voices

What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.

Let's take a quiz

The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”

Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.

Here's the question

“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”

Is Professor Researchit Correct?

Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”

“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”

Decision tree

When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.

According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.

The Big Idea

When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.