When R2D2 and TARS Show Up For Work – My New Company, Troops

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

I’ve been thinking about R2D2 a lot lately and it’s not because I’m a nerd or a big Star Wars fans. Although on some days I’m probably both. I’ve also been thinking about the other sci-fi movie robots out there like TARS from Interstellar, Samantha from HER, or even Arnold from The Terminator.

I think Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been thinking a lot about this, too.

Once upon a time artificially intelligent machines, talking robots and self driving cars were just some figments of imagination but now we have Siri, Amazon Echo and Tesla’s driverless cars.

And these are just the pre-school version of what is yet to come. You can be sure these technology juggernauts like Apple, Facebook, Tesla and Google are cooking up some next level, world changing solutions. I mean, Google just created an entire holding company called Alphabet to do precisely that.

Our society has finally crossed a threshold with technology, and there is a shift underway.

Invisible apps, zero UI, artificial intelligence, messaging-as-software. These are all phrases I’ve heard over the past few months that are meant to convey that shift which is: We’re at a moment in time where software can adapt to humans whereas before humans were the ones adapting to software.

Microsoft calls it “Productivity Future Vision.” I call it, “just getting stuff done.”

The software, computing power, hardware, interoperability of platforms, and APIs are all there for this shift to finally happen and for highly complex systems to be built and deployed at scale.

I saw a tweet the other day that said API’s were the unsung hero of technology. There is certainly some truth to that. They allow us to move beyond stand alone solutions to a world where solutions can work with other another.

And to date, those stand alone solutions, at least in terms of software have mostly been about drop down menus, check boxes, field and forms, and some mediocre UI and UX. It’s been about making screens look pretty. Making buttons click so that you can turn to yet another pretty page.

But the next 10 years will be about machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and technology that is contextually aware to human beings and their preferences. It will happen through interfaces that are intuitive and commonplace to human behavior.

Ben Evans says messaging is the software and not the other way around.

I agree.

I’m personally interested to see how this plays out in an enterprise environment and so I recently started a company with some amazing people to put these thoughts to paper and ideas to bits and code.

Someone once told me that we spend a third of our lives sleeping, a third working and a third watching TV. And it seems like an incredible time to try to make that “working third” a little better for everyone and to do so with entirely new engineering and software development concepts.

And the new company?

It’s called Troops.

How These 20-Year-Olds Raised $13M And Built A Massive Food Tech Company

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

Being a young, first time entrepreneur is hard. Without a stunning success story or years of applicable experience, a new founder can face significant challenges starting and growing a company. A study by the University of California indicated that the average venture backed founder is 38 years old with 16 years of work experience. That’s quite a gap when it seems today that every new startup founder is in their early 20s.

What challenges differentiate a veteran entrepreneur and a newcomer’s experiences? What are strategies a first time business owner can employ to maximize the chances of success?

Eat Street's Office in Madison, WI
Eat Street’s Office in Madison, WI

Eric Martell started EatStreet, the largest independent food ordering company in the United States, when he was 20 years old with two classmates at the University of Wisconsin. EatStreet has raised $13 million and powers the online ordering of 15,000 restaurants nationwide. The startup, founded in 2010, exists in a cohort of foodtech and delivery companies that have some impressive deal flow: Instacart raised $220 million at a $1 billion valuation, Postmates has raised $138 million.

I recently chatted with Eric about starting a business in college and about the explosive growth of the food and delivery tech sectors.

Dan Reich: Speak to the challenges of starting a company at 20 years old.

Eric Martell: Early on, and to this day, we’ve had to convince others to take a risk on us, because we’re young and don’t have any pre-EatStreet experience running a tech company. In 2010, we had to convince the restaurants to take a chance on us. Matt was walking into every restaurant in Madison, WI with a simple pitch that our service would bring the restaurants more orders from new diners. Restaurants were wary of the entire idea, because if we took an order online and didn’t properly ensure that the restaurant received the order and could fulfill it, the diners would blame the restaurant for the poor experience. Additionally, we accepted payments online, which meant that we had to pay the restaurant every week, so they had to trust us with their money. Matt looked young for a 20 year old, and he heard more than once that the restaurant “just didn’t feel comfortable doing business with a kid.” Matt was able to sign up five restaurants when we launched February 1, 2010. With some results under our belt, we were able to expand that list to over 100 Madison restaurants within a year.

Additionally, in order to process online payments, we needed the trust of a credit card processor. We applied for six processors before getting approved… there was a lot of inherent risk to accepting online payments and transferring out the payments to restaurants on a weekly basis. It took over two months of searching before someone took the risk on us.

If it weren’t for those five restaurants and the credit card processor taking a risk on us, EatStreet would not exist.

Dan Reich: Do you still face challenges similar to these?

Eric Martell:  Although the nature of the challenges has changed over the years, we still face obstacles from being first time entrepreneurs. We’ve raised over $13 million from venture capitalists, and every single one of them has taken a risk in betting on our drive. We also form strategic partnerships with companies like Yelp, Google, Single Platform, and Hotel Communications Network. These businesses need justification to take risks on a company like ours. I’m glad to say that we’ve always been able to put up results, and the company is the strongest it’s ever been.

Dan Reich:  Do you think the current trajectory of food and delivery business funding and acquisitions will continue?

Eric Martell: We stand by what we’re seeing. GrubHub IPO’d a little over a year ago, and has consistently held its value as a multibillion dollar company. Over in Europe, DeliveryHero has raised over $1.5 billion, and Just-Eat also had a very strong IPO. With even Amazon and Uber eyeing the food delivery space, we’re happy to be where we are, with strong relationships with thousands of restaurants.

Dan Reich: Do you have any advice for first time entrepreneurs facing challenges regarding their experience levels?

Eric Martell: Persistence and results. Matt went to over 100 restaurants and only signed up five for our business’ launch. We could have called it quits after five credit card processor rejections. Our investment pitch historically has had less than a fifty percent success rate. Accept the failure as inevitable, and push forward. We’ve had restaurants that initially refused to sign up with us tell us today that when they finally did sign up with us, the additional orders we drove saved their business from going under.

Results might not always be present, but they speak louder than the best sales pitch. Focus on the aspects of your business you have control over, and grow like crazy. We didn’t raise a dollar until we had over $1 million in food sales, and that first million was the product of thousands of hours of promotion and hard work. It’s much easier to convince someone to believe in your vision if you have a track record of growth and hard work to back it up.

My Unhappy Customer Wanted to Kill Me

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

When I was in high school, I learned two important lessons about business and life.

First, if it’s too good to be true it probably is and second, know who your business partners are. Unfortunately, it was only after receiving death threats from an anonymous Russian, that I came to understand these valuable principles.

About five months earlier my friend and I were sitting in the back room of history class. As a 10th grader, the back room is prime time real estate. It’s where you can get most of your note passing, whispering, and sleeping done. We had been talking about different ways we can make money. This was a hot topic because just a few weeks earlier I was making some spare change by selling bouncy balls to my friends. I’d buy them wholesale on eBayand then sell them for $0.25 to $1.00 per ball depending on the size and color. It was my first lesson in wholesale economics and my friend took notice.


I sold these like hot cakes in high school.

The teacher continued on with the lesson and my friend leaned over, “I know a guy that sells urban clothing at wholesale prices. We should take a drive down there and see what kind of clothes we can buy. We could even resell them to our friends.” There wasn’t really much to think about. I already knew the answer. “Done” I said. “Let’s go after school.” I should of however asked, “how do you know this guy?” I would learn later that the wholesaler was involved with scams before.

Failure #1.

After a brief drive we arrived at some worn down residential home. We walked inside and immediately noticed that the interior was far from residential. It looked more like a warehouse. There were folding tables set up everywhere and the entire space was filled with piles upon piles of brand new clothes.

Jeans, shirts, shorts, blouses, skirts, you name it. It was all there. We sat down with the owner and peppered him with questions.

“Where did this stuff come from?”

“What kind of business is this?”

“Who are these other people in the warehouse?”

All of his answers seemed very legitimate and before we knew it, we were developing our business plan. We would pay someone to build us an e-commerce website, we would do the marketing, sales and advertising, and he would do our fulfillment and drop shipping right from the warehouse.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Within a month we had a fully functioning website and a full time client services representative taking and processing credit card orders. Each morning I would set up our Google and Yahoo ad campaigns and then my mom, aka client representative, would handle all client email correspondences and orders throughout the day. Slowly but surely the orders came in. First New York, then California, and soon enough, we were taking orders from all over the world. Including Russia. But as the orders and sales grew, so did the complaints.

“What did you send me? I want my money back.”

“Theses clothes have been worn. Is this a joke?”

We thought it was a joke, so we took another trip down to see our wholesaler. “What is going on?” And so his responses began. “We just had some issues with our shipment company. It’s being resolved now, and we’ll be able to replace and take care of those bad orders.” He continued with more of the same and again, the answers all seemed legitimate. In hindsight, my BS detector should have been ringing a whole lot louder, but what did I know? I was just some bouncy ball businessman.

We went through a few more rounds of bad orders and even worse complaints until we got the very descriptive email that said people were going to come after us. And so with a hit on my back and a dysfunctional business, we shut down the operation and returned whatever funds we could to the very unhappy customers.

I learned two very important lessons that day.

  1. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Know who your business partners are.

The wholesaler was eventually arrested, and I eventually bought more bouncy balls.

South Beach Wine And Food Festival Beginnings

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

If you’ve ever done sales before you know how important customer service is. At the heart of any sale, there is mostly always good old fashion communication and relationship building. That is why I find it fascinating to look at how some of the best people in the hospitality business do what they do and how they think about all facets of an experience or of a relationship.

Take Lee Schrager as an example.

Fourteen years ago, Lee attended the food and wine classic to represent his company, Southern Wine and Spirits. After a wonderful experience, he decided to try to create an event that benefited his brands in a place that he felt would be more conducive to a larger and more influential group of people. He realized that to win people over he would need warm weather and a closer location to NYC.

Shortly thereafter the South Beach Wine & Food Festival was born.

Today, more than 60,000 people attend the events, and Lee is able to attract big names like John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and others.

I was able to chat with Lee to learn about three things that he felt contributed to the successful execution of this event. Here is what he said:

Leverage your unfair advantage. Lee was very quick to admit that part of his success with the event stems from the fact that he works for a large and successful organization, Southern Wine and Spirits. Having the resources of a large organization gives him a tremendous platform to get things in place however, this is just a part of the puzzle.

Engage with tastemaker and influential folks. In the first year of the event, Lee had no track record to speak of when it came to producing such large-scale events. So he reached out to his network and engaged with friends who become early adopters which in his case, were people like Emeril Lagasse, Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay and Giada DeLaurentiis, all highly respectful folks in the food industry. Couple this with the amplification of social media and the popular shows on the Food Network, and building an engaging audience was not too difficult for Lee.

Create great products, programing and listen to your customers. Lee and his team are very conscientious of different demographics, price points and customer feedback. As a result, they recently revamped the festival’s signature event – the Grand Tasting Village – to offer a brand new layout and timing based on festival goer feedback. They also added more late night events with cocktail themes, instead of only adding more of their traditional daytime events, and intimate dinners with chefs ranging from international superstars to local culinary talents.

Lastly, everything Lee does is done with a mission in mind and in this case, it’s charity. To date, Lee and his festival have raised over $20 million for the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University.  The New York City Wine & Food Festival is hosted by and benefits the Food Bank For New York City and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and 100% of the Festival’s net proceeds go toward helping these community based organizations fight hunger.

That’s not a bad mission to have, and with right skills and groundwork, it’s easy to see how an event like this can become and remain a success.

Nice job, Lee.

The Most Unlikely Startup: IAF

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

In 1948, at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City, the most unlikely startup was created. It’s founding members dropped everything to fly across the country to Manhattan for secret meetings to launch their endeavor.

Just a year before, one of it’s founding members Leon Frankel was already running a highly successful business buying and selling used cars making $100 to $200 a pop on every sale. Not bad when you consider this is 1947.

But then Leon and a few others got a phone call that would change their lives and put them in one of the harshest environments to build a new organization.

As Leon put it, “I just made up my mind and nothing was going to stop me.”

When you’re building any new venture from scratch, that attitude is critical. When you’re building an air force amidst an ongoing war, that attitude is absolutely required.

Today, the Israeli Air Force ranks second to none globally, according to a study conducted by military experts for Business Insider. “Pilot to pilot, airframe to airframe, the Israeli air force is the best in the world,” said Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

In a new documentary called Above and Beyond, which debuted in NYC this past weekend, Nancy Spielberg tells the story of how a few young Americans started what is today considered the world’s leading air force.


Nancy Spielberg with Israeli F-15, Hatzor Air Base, Israel

I was able to sit down with Harold Livingston, another founding pilot who also happened to write the screenplay of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, to ask him a few questions about how this highly unlikely organization was formed.

Dan Reich: I can’t imagine the numerous challenges you confronted, but what was the biggest obstacle you faced when building the Air Force?

Harold Livingston: The United States Government who prevented us from taking the aircrafts out of the country. They enforced an embargo against any aircraft weighing over 25,000 pounds being sent without an export license.

Reich: In the beginning, there wasn’t a blueprint or playbook for what you were doing. How did you train and recruit new members?

Livingston: We played it as it was, with what we had. Recruiting was achieved through word of mouth, airline and/or ex-military friends of friends, various Zionist organizations, even to the point of scanning Air Guard rosters for pilots and crewmen with Jewish-sounding names. Training was another matter: everyone had to be thoroughly checked out by the handful of experienced people (obviously airline and military veterans) available. This was why we were always so woefully short of skilled crewmen, and towards the end forced to hire some dozen (non-Jewish) mercenaries.

Reich: In any new venture, partnerships are very important to achieve success. Were there any partnerships that facilitated the growth of the organization?

Livingston: Czechoslovakia of course was essential, without their assistance and cooperation, we would have been in deep trouble. Same for the Panamanians, although they (Panama) were led to believe we truly were establishing a national Panamanian airline. That “franchise” allowed us to fly the airplanes out of the U.S., and on to Israel.

Reich: In hindsight, what steps would you have taken differently in growing and building the organization?

Livingston: No, not even in hindsight could we and probably would we have done anything different. Under the circumstances, there was nothing we could have done differently. We were, as stated, a “start-up” organization, and therefore learned as we went. And, for sure, from our mistakes.

Harold and Leon’s “nothing was going to stop me” attitude continues to permeate throughout the rest of Israel’s high tech institutions today. With nearly $15 billion in exits through mergers and acquisitions and public offerings, 2014 was an all-time record year for the Israeli hi-tech industry, compared with a mere $1.2 billion raised in 2013, according to a PwC report for 2014. The exits were spread out between a variety of tech industries, including Internet, IT, life sciences, communications and semiconductors.

According to Hillel Fuld, CMO of Zula and startup advisor, “Last week there were $910 million in Israeli tech transactions. In one week!” This past week, the Israeli ecosystem continued to deliver with both VCs and startups raising substantial capital. Some of the financing announced include companies and firms like like Vintage, Singulariteam, ClickTale, Addallom and Kaminario. That amount of capital is highly unlikely for any set of companies, and yet, these businesses and others continue to grow despite the many challenges the region faces.

Native Advertising for Uber

Here’s an idea for Uber on how they can sell advertising that is unique to them and them only. We’ll call it native advertising for Uber.

Today, Uber passengers have the ability to split a fair with other passengers. But Why not let Uber passengers split a fair with brands or advertisers?

So for example, if I chose “split fare with coke” I might be prompted to watch a 30 second coke commercial or maybe I would have to fill out a branded questionnaire.

Either way, I opt in to the advertising, coke gets my full and undivided attention and I get a subsidy on my car ride.

Furthermore, if the brand or advertiser was providing me with real value then I might, keyword being might, be compelled to give them my email address or phone number. It’s already there in my profile along with my home address and other important travel destinations. And if Uber took this a step further, they could theoretically enable hyper targeted advertising based on who the passengers are.

And then when I’m riding solo in a car like I am now (yes, typing from the back of an Uber), I could get a better rate on my ride and Coke or whoever else can get a nice slice of my time and attention.

Brands and advertisers are already paying big money to advertise in airports, taxis, buses and trains so why not Uber? This form of advertising might be the first time there would be a truly interactive form of ‘transportation advertising’ because it wouldn’t be on some display in a taxi or on the back of your chair on an airplane. It would be on you personal mobile device.

I’m not sure I’ve seen this before and for all I know Uber could very well be working on something like this.

But that’s my idea of the day for Uber and now I’m at my destination.

A Student – Learning, Living at the Intersection of Business + Technology + Innovation + Culture.