Badgers Building Startup Businesses in Madison, WI

Bird's-Eye View of Madison, Wisconsin, 1908
Image by Wisconsin Historical Images via Flickr

Madison, Wisconsin could very well be the next hub for startup businesses. When I was in school in Madison, I watched companies like Microsoft and Google open offices on campus in order to tap into the vast pool of engineering talent. The thing is, Madison goes beyond engineering and has very bright, motivated people looking to build the next “big thing.”

My friend Nathan is one of those people and he has had some nice success stories around building businesses. Moreover, he’s got a fresh outlook on what it takes to get things done, and more importantly, why he is doing what he is doing. This one will also be filed under “Student Profiles.”

Student Bio – Nathan Lustig
I’m the cofounder of Entrustet, a website that allows you to decide what you’d like to happen to your digital assets when you pass away. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2009 with a degree in Political Science. While I was a student, I started a tickets and textbooks trading website and grew it to 150,000 users and sold it to my ad network.  I also love sports, traveling, cooking and eating good food.

Dan Reich: Why are you an entrepreneur?
Nathan Lustig: I’m an entrepreneur because I learned at a young age that I really didn’t like the structure of school and being forced to do things that I thought were boring or useless. I was really bored in school growing up and always looked for interesting things to do. When most of my friends got traditional jobs in high school, I started reffing soccer when I was 12, cut lawns and figured out ways to make money. I was always starting things or looking for ways to improve existing products and quickly realized that I would hate living and working in a cubicle.

When I got to college, I bought and sold tickets my freshman year and realized that there was room for a well run website to organize the market. After being in business for a month, I knew there was no way I would be getting a “real” job anytime soon. I love the freedom, the new challenges every day and trying to create something that I know will help people in their day to day lives.

DR: What is entrustet all about?
NL: Entrustet is a free service that allows you to create a list of your digital assets (online accounts and computer files) and then decide if you’d like them transferred to heirs or deleted when you pass away. We came up for the idea after reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. He talks about a US marine who was killed in Iraq and his family wanted access to his Yahoo! account. Yahoo! said no and after a court battle, a judge ruled that Yahoo! had to turn the contents of the Marine’s email over to his parents.

We thought this was crazy. You shouldn’t have to go to court to gain access to a loved one’s digital assets. We also thought that there may be some assets that you’d rather keep private. The court case showed that your online accounts and computer files are real assets that should be dealt with during the estate planning process. Fast forward to 2010. Domain names, blogs, family photos, email, contacts, twitter and other digital assets dominate our daily lives.

We also work with attorneys to teach them how to add digital assets to wills and trusts. A few months back, my cofoudner Jesse Davis and I were the first people in North America to execute traditional wills with our digital assets included. It’s fairly easy for attorneys to add digital assets to estate plans, but most don’t because they don’t know how to do it. We teach attorneys and then certify that they know what they are doing.

The last piece of Entrustet deals with websites. Websites have no idea when their users pass away and don’t know what they wanted done with their accounts either. This leads to poor customer service, wasted resources and potential legal liability from identity theft, among other things. For example, three Facebook users die every single minute and Facebook has no idea who they are or what they wanted done with their profiles. We help websites by notifying them when their users pass away and what the user wanted done with their account.

Our goal is to help people deal with digital death so that they don’t lose valuable digital assets when they pass away.

DR: Why are you trying to start a business in Madison, WI, and more importantly what’s the deal with your relocation to Chile?
NL: I’ve lived in Madison for the past six years now and love it. It’s got a great University and high quality of life. While I was running my tickets/textbooks website, I’ve gotten to know pretty much everyone in town, so it was natural that we started our next business in Madison. Plus, it’s really cheap. I rent a 3 bedroom with a lake view for $1050 per month, total, for all three of us, utilities included. We rent awesome office space just off the Capitol Square for $250 per month. The money we raise goes MUCH farther here than in NYC or San Francisco.

The Chilean government wants Santiago to be South America’s startup hub, so they are offering foreign startups $40,000 and free office space to move there for up to six months. I applied after reading about the program in Forbes and applied on a lark. We got picked and after talking with our advisers, partners and investors, we decided to make the move. We think the Startup Chile program offers us some awesome networking opportunities, plus I’ve always wanted to live in a Spanish speaking country to get fluent in Spanish.

My partner Jesse and I do most of our work online or on the phone, so we don’t envision all that much changing. Chile is EST+1, so the time difference is minimal and we’re a direct flight away from NYC and 1 stop from San Francisco.

DR: What are you thoughts on Madison, WI as a technology or startup hub?
NL: Madison is already a technology hub, but for the past decade or so, it’s been in biotech. Over the past six years, it’s becoming an emerging IT startup hub as well. Madison was just named the 7th most innovative city in the US and I think it’s what Boulder was 6ish years ago and Austin 8ish years ago. In May 09, I started an entrepreneur meetup group called Capital Entrepreneurs. We had 10 web startups at our first meeting and now we have 65 in the group. Madison is starting to get on the map, with articles in TechCrunch and Read Write Web and Madison companies like JellyFish, Networked Insights, Alice, Brazen Careerist, PerBlue, Asthmapolis and other getting national play. Here’s some other Madison startup resources:

1. Capital Entrepreneurs – Founders meetup group
2. Merlin Mentors – Pairs up successful entrepreneurs with people who want to start businesses
3. Burrill Business Plan Competition – UW student business plan competition
4. Entrepreneur dorm – Dorm floor at UW for students who want to start businesses
5. High Tech Happy Hour – Meetup for high tech workers
6. Forward Technology Conference – Mini SXSW held in Madison

DR: Are there any past projects you worked on that were successful? Failures?
NL:
Successes

Failures

  • Facebook Foodcourt – Tried to create an online ordering website inside Facebook in 2007
  • Madison Independent Realty – Tried to create a website that would allow college students at UW to find houses not owned by the big property management companies. Failed because we couldn’t get the property managers to pay us anything to list in 2005.
  • Segway Sharing – Tried to do a shared segway system on UW campus in 2008, realized it would cost too much and people feel self conscious riding them.
  • Mobile Tickets – I wanted to build a mobile app that would show people buying and selling tickets in real time, in your area. The tech wasn’t there in 2006/7, but it is now. Someone please build this. It would be awesome.

I’m sure there’s more, but those are the ones that are coming to mind right now.

DR: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
NL: I really have no idea. I’m sure I’ll be doing something entrepreneur related, but 5 years seems really far off. As you can see by the Chile move, I hardly know where I’ll be in 6 months, much less five years. I hope I’m doing something fun, interesting and useful. At some point I really want to work on something education related, but I’m not sure when.

Nathan blogs at http://www.nathanlustig.com/

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Building Things For Your Pockets – A Unique Perspective On The Future of Mobile

There is no doubt in my mind that our dependency on mobile phones will continue to increase. I’m not going to try and justify this statement because this is quite simply a fact, and with that fact comes a tremendous amount of opportunity. A friend of mine has been digging into this space and I thought his current approach, tactics and projects were worth sharing.

David Alson shares his insights below in another post I’ll file under “Student Profiles.”

Student Bio – David Alson
David Alson was born and raised in the New York City area and is currently a senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, with hopes to pursue a career in the technology industry after graduation in the spring of 2011.

Dan Reich: I understand you’ve developed some iPhone apps.  Could you talk a little bit about those, and your experiences in creating them?
David Alson: During the summer of 2009, I bought an introductory book on iPhone programming and started teaching myself how to build apps. I built some basic apps to get used to the environment and Objective-C, learn about the Cocoa Touch framework and experiment with features of the iPhone I have never programmed for before, such as the accelerometer, camera and touch screen.

The first app that I released to the App store was a generic countdown to the 2010 New Year. I wanted to put something in the store so I could see first hand what the process was like and how the App store made and recorded sale transactions.

The second and third app that I put in the store was a game with a free version with ads and a 99-cent version called BallFall, which I decided to make for two reasons. The first reason was because I wanted to see how much I had taught myself about iPhone programming. I figured creating a game would be the most fun in the end and also be something that I would be willing to put in the store after it was done. The second reason was because the games category is the most successful category in the App store and I wanted to see how well ads do in free apps.

DR: What projects are you working on now?
DA: In addition to my electrical engineering course work, several projects I am currently working on include the Miami University App, Track ‘M, which will be integrated into the Miami App, and my first mobile game, BallFall.

The Miami University App was designed for current students, perspective students and parents, all Miami University faculty members, and especially new freshmen in need of a portable assistant to help with the transition into their new collegiate lifestyle. Some features of this app include a map of campus with building information, visitor parking information, dining menus to see what is being served in the dining halls across campus, sports and events news and a directory to search for contact information for all students, faculty and staff at the university.

Track ‘M is projected to be a live GPS bus tracking system for the Miami University transit system. This application is currently being designed to be incorporated into the Miami University App so those interested in accessing and utilizing the MU transit system will be able to access and view live locations of each bus and receive approximate bus arrival times at the desired destination.

Lastly, BallFall, which as previously mentioned, was designed as a personal examination of various aspects of the mobile market and a way to examine my own abilities with Objective-C. I am currently working on introducing an online leaderboard to feature high scores, which I decided to incorporate after taking a class on web services and SOA. I anticipate its release within the next couple weeks.

Those projects can be seen below.

DR: Where do you see the biggest opportunities in the mobile space?
DA: I believe there are two areas that have high potential for opportunity and growth within the mobile space—the medical industry and the education system. With a huge percentage of the population carrying mobile devices now, the medical industry has an opportunity to change how practitioners monitor and deliver vital information to their patients. After hearing about the implementation of mobile devices in the classroom resulting in higher engagement and participation levels, I feel the education system is currently presented with an opportunity to redesign traditional methods into a more modern system that is interesting to both students and faculty.

DR: What do you think about the current education system?
DA: I believe there is a technologic disconnect between students and educators. Many educators are resistant to having mobile devices in the classroom, while students are inevitably going to use them anyway, be it for texting or accessing the internet. Current students are growing up with mobile devices and the education system needs to expedite its transition into the mobile world of today.

DR: Do you teach things to yourself in order to get things done? If so, how?
DA: Absolutely. When there is a concept I do not understand, the first place I look for answers is the Internet. I feel it is the most efficient tool for finding answers because it provides a variety of perspectives on the subject.

David can be reached at davidalson@gmail.com

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Display Advertising – State of the Union

The Planet Data Center
Image by The Planet via Flickr

Just some high level thoughts on where things are at and where things are going in digital display advertising…

We may look back and call 2010 the year of the “DSP.” It was the year when agencies recognized they could leverage ad network technology and fundamentally change the way their businesses operated. In an instant, buyers had scalable, centralized access to auction-priced display inventory. This new shift realigned agency resources, buying habits and media planning workflow because now, display media could be bought and sold instantaneously. A commodity was now being bought, traded, and sold as if it were the stock market. But now, two things are slowly happening which will bring us to the next wave of technology, or technology protocols and processes. Data Management, or now otherwise known as a DMP:

1.       Buyers are hedging their bets with DSPs, but lack a centralized data warehouse.

As the DSPs or Ad Management Platforms continue to grow, in terms of scale and technical features, the buyers are continuing to explore competitive offerings. At the end of the day, if a DSP is going to power an agency trading desk or a buyer’s business, it will become imperative that the buyer maintains options. And as this diversification happens, the buyers will lose the ability to maintain a standardized, centralized, exportable data set. A data set that can be used in any DSP, any traditional network, or any publisher and more importantly, for any medium whether it is advertising in display, text, audio, mobile or video.

2.       Publishers are realizing the need to better segment and monetize their first party data.

Publishers face perhaps the most challenging problems of anyone in this ecosystem, primarily due to the fact that the majority of VC backed businesses in the last few years have been focused on the buy-side. As a result, publishers must consider the effects of working with ad networks, data companies, trading desks, yield optimizers, ad verifiers, privacy companies and must do so with inadequate or legacy technology. Technology that was built for the traditional ad network world. The value for publishers, outside of the content and the inventory they create, is unarguably the audience data. It is for this reason publishers are now focused on securing a comprehensive data strategy. A strategy that provides intelligence and protection to monetize data through direct or indirect media sales, or through direct or indirect data sales, all the while leaving that choice up to the publisher.

We will look back and call 2011 the year of the “DMP” and perhaps the year that a new Online Advertising Operating System was formed. The year when a loosely coupled system of advertising technologies (or few tightly integrated systems) began to work together in an attempt to empower media planners with the same capabilities of that of a sophisticated ad network.  And in the middle, will sit the delivery mechanisms (DSPs) and the intelligence (DMPs) so that young media planners can deliver data driven ad campaigns for their client across all mediums and platforms from right behind their desks.

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