06.26.2017People

Starting a business? Here’s how to turn your idea into a success

By: Libby Jacobson Fox
Four passionate founders share how they turned their ideas into businesses at a recent “Dolphin Tank” event.
Group of people in a meeting

Among the luckiest are those who say they “get to” go to work in the morning, instead of “have to.” But is it fair or accurate to attribute that kind of life outcome to simple luck? No! “Getting to” go to work is often the result of putting in the hard work in pursuit of an idea. Whether it’s a dream job, a dream employer, or building your own business from the ground up, recognizing that goal and pursuing it requires dedication, grit, and perhaps even a little help from your community.

Connecting dreamers and ideas at the Dolphin Tank

On a recent Thursday evening in Washington D.C., several members of the local startup and venture capital community gathered at the Verizon Technology and Policy Center for an evening of sharing ideas and connections. Verizon Ventures and startup accelerator SpringBoard Enterprises were co-hosting a “Dolphin Tank” event, a feedback-driven pitch session where founders can crowd-source constructive criticism, technical or legal expertise, or personal connections from the audience.

This event wasn’t the dramatic, confrontational performance popularized on prime-time television. Instead, Dolphin Tank offers participants, no matter what stage their company is in, something immeasurable value: a community of well-connected experts and investors who are happy to make an introduction.

Panelists that evening included Springboard president Amy Millman, Springboard veteran and serial-entrepreneur Linda Broenniman, Verizon Ventures portfolio director Michelle McCarthy and Verizon engineer-turned-policy-expert Sanjay Udani. Each founder gave their three-minute-pitch, then answered whatever questions the panelists had about financials, scalability, and to define what problem they were solving and what their specific “ask” for the community was. At the end of each pitch and Q&A, Amy stood up and turned to the audience to ask: “Who here can make an introduction?” As she says, everybody knows somebody in Washington. 

The founders make their pitches. From left: Justin Park, Denise Tayloe, Marissa Germain, Carey Anne Nadeau.

Math games

Justin Park is a consultant for NASA and a space enthusiast, with advanced degrees in both computer science and space studies. His company, Intergalactic Education, merges his two subjects of expertise into a space exploration video game for the classroom that teaches kids algebra. The idea came to him a few years ago during the “Angry Birds” craze – what gamification could be used to help students learn a notoriously difficult subject like algebra? Justin’s app adapts to the user’s skill level to keep frustrated players from quitting the game or their math studies for good. “We don’t want to discourage kids. Everyone can be a math person. Everyone has the capability.” 

Parental controls

Denise Tayloe has spent sixteen years building PRIVO, a kid and family customer identity and consent management service that allows parents to control their children’s access and information shared with online services. Foreseeing a future need for online identity and privacy management, Denise says PRIVO was primarily a regulatory consulting business helping companies comply with COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) while she waited for the market to catch up (remember that way back in 2001, social networks didn’t exist and few people were using their real names on the Internet). After a decade-plus of waiting for the marketplace to evolve, PRIVO has begun to catch a break in the last few years. How does a person with an idea manage to stick with it for so long? When I asked Denise her advice for would-be founders who are ahead of the market, she had two answers: “I knew we were right. I don’t know how to give up.”

Iteration and learning from what works well helps to improve your product. We started with a not-so-brilliant idea. We’re not all unicorns, but some of us are pretty amazing rhinoceroses.

Carey Anne Nadeau, Open Data Nation

Employment verification tools

Through her work in international development, Marissa Germain has seen first-hand the struggles faced by people in countries where identity and employment records are scant or nonexistent. Her company, Reedoe, aims to solve the problem of verifying and hiring local staff for international development organizations by building a low-cost employment verification system for residents of developing countries. Marissa’s company is still in its early stages and she still maintains her day job, but the calling that led her to the field of international aid animates the mission of Reedoe to help provide people with access to jobs, skills development, and opportunities. “All people are capable, and all people are talented.”

Making cities safer

From her experience as a data scientist at two prominent Washington think tanks, Carey Anne Nadeau’s company seeks to make cities safer and improve life for its most vulnerable residents. Open Data Nation’s mission statement is to “predict the greatest risks of your life.” Open Data Nation compiles disaggregated city datasets (police reports, permit requests, inspection results, etc.) with private partner data, and using machine learning, offers cities predictive data for reducing the risk of traffic collisions, improving the safety of intersections, or identifying safe places for ride-share drivers to park. A graduate of MIT’s school of Urban Studies and Planning, Carey Anne says cities already collect a lot of data that could be used to evaluate their programs. As a founder of a relatively young company currently raising capital, she has advice for anyone with an idea for using technology to improve their communities: “Iteration and learning from what works well helps to improve your product. We started with a not-so-brilliant idea. We’re not all unicorns, but some of us are pretty amazing rhinoceroses.” 

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About the author(s): 

Libby Jacobson Fox (@LibbyJ) is a communications strategist at Verizon.