Whether or not you heard about the ambitious yet, until now, fairly ambiguous student-lead on-campus J-term internship “StartupGrid,” it’s definitely time you get in the know. At Middlebury, we’re creative thinkers. We’re do-ers. We thrive off creation, innovation, and problem solving. And if any J-term project embodies this entrepreneurial drive, it’s StartupGrid. For four weeks this January, 25 students of diverse academic backgrounds banded together under the leadership of Jake Vacovec ’15 and Ty Danco ’77 (a tremendously successful venture capitalist) to create StartupGrid.co, an an early stage online resource providing advice, expertise, and instruction from top thought leaders in the startup and venture capital industries. StartupGrid self-defines with the following statement:
“Starting a company is hard – finding the right advice shouldn’t be. At StartupGrid, we connect you with specialized knowledge from seasoned entrepreneurs, so you can start bridging the gap between struggles and success today.”
As a member of the StartupGrid media team, I can confidently assert this project is pretty damn cool. And successful. After conducting 30+ interviews, collecting 50 hours of filmed interviews with top thought leaders in the startup and venture capital industries, and curating over 1800 multimedia articles, the StartupGrid team has created a one-stop resource for entrepreneurs looking for the right answers, accessible here.
To celebrate our team’s success, we’re hosting the StartupGrid Demo Day, aka the site’s official unveiling, this Thursday, February 18 at 5pm in Axinn 232. We strongly encourage any and all students, faculty and staff to come check out the awesome startup 25 Middlebury students built on-campus this J-Term, featuring a live StartupGrid interview with Pier LaFarge, Midd alum & CEO of SparkFund.
And, to get the celebration really going, the StartupGrid team invites everyone to join us for a reception with free food and drinks, including top-notch alcoholic beverages (of the 21+ variety for valid ID holders) in the Axinn Abernathy Room. The future of StartupGrid is bright – so please come see what we’ve done, how we did it, and our plans for the future. This night of innovative experiential learning, and the best craft beer Vermont has to offer (Heady Topper, y’all), is not to miss.
The whole idea of an online resource providing seemingly infinite startup entrepreneurial advice is intriguing to say the least, but the whole “internship” process is a little vague. So, to give you a sense of the StartupGrid leadership, team work, short and long term goals, and day-to-day work these 25 students engaged in, middbeat’s conducted an informational interview with StartupGrid co-founder and project manager, Jake Vacovec ’15. So, without further ado, read up, and show up this Thursday at 5pm in Axinn 232.
MB: So, what is Startup Grid anyways?
JV: Simply put, StartupGrid.co is an easily accessible website where you can find startup advice. It’s a collection of blog posts, videos, and interviews from thought leaders in the startup and venture capital industries. Our main goal is to curate the best startup media into a navigable website, a project which, until now, has not been done.
Entrepreneurship is on the rise, making startup advice more relevant than ever. But though demand for startup advice is fervent, such advice is largely disorganized and inconsistent in quality. So, rather than leave it to a time-starved entrepreneur to navigate the noisy world of startup advice, the StartupGrid team has taken on this challenge with great success. What sets StartupGrid apart is our library of exclusive interviews with 40+ entrepreneurship thought leaders providing the inside scoop on hot companies like Ello, IrisVR and Bridj.
MB: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved, and how did the idea for this project develop?
JV: My name is Jake Vacovec, I am a senior economics major and I am one of the Co-Founders of StartupGrid. When I graduate in May I will be working in Manhattan at a FinTech startup called Behalf. After working at Behalf last summer as an intern, I got a taste of the startup world and was immediately hooked. My ambition to start my own venture carried me through a network of Midd Alumni. Eventually, I was introduced to a member of the Board of Trustees, Rick Scanlon, who started a VC/PE firm, Marker LLC. Rick then introduced me to one of his employees, a recent Midd grad, Brian Foster. Brian worked with Ty Danco, a tremendously successful venture capitalist and also a Middlebury alumnus, while enrolled at Middlebury and for a brief stint before joining Marker LLC. Brian offered to introduce me to Ty, and after working with Ty for a few weeks we had outlined what would soon become StartupGrid. All we needed was a team to bring it together.
MB: At the beginning of J-term, what were your goals for StartupGrid? How did you go about preparing to accomplish those goals?
JV: I spend the entire first semester working on developing all the operations and processes for StartupGrid in order to accomplish our high-level goal – a useful website. After recruiting 25 talented, diverse students, I was hopeful that the semester would be a huge success, but also feared it could crash and burn given the limited time we had. We were essentially a case study for future projects of this caliber and I knew we would be under a microscope. It was a lot of pressure, so my main goal was to clearly define role expectations and have a strong process in place. Ultimately, I wanted to end J-Term with a tangible product that everyone involved was proud of and the larger community of entrepreneurs and “want-repreneurs” could benefit from.
MB: Who composes the StartupGrid “team?” How did you assemble this team and what demographics do they represent?
JV: The StartupGrid team is comprised of 25 exceptionally talented Middlebury students, all of which are either juniors, seniors, or were super senior Febs. The best part about the team was that it was truly an interdisciplinary group of students. We had majors ranging from English to Computer Science. The founding team was divided into five sub-teams: (1) Product & Project Management (2) Programming & Design (3) VC Research (4) Film (5) Social Media Strategy. Each member was put onto a team, but the group quickly learned that at a startup, it’s all hands on deck. Everyone did their jobs but also developed skills beyond their expected function.
MB: Over J-term, what did your day-to-day, week-to-week schedule look like? How did the StartupGrid team go about building the site and accomplishing their goals?
JV: Every week the team met 5 times for 2-hour period. Each meeting had a different purpose, some were to review the weekly goals, others to relax and enjoy a beer. My favorite meetings were our Wednesday night meetings – the Heady Topper brainstorm sessions. Before every Wednesday meeting I would drive up to Williston to pick up a case or two of Heady Toppers and buy a couple pizzas from Nino’s on my way back. These meetings were where we fostered our cohesive, collaborative team culture. We were able to accomplish our goals, and had a good deal of fun doing so.
The programming and design team assigned themselves weekly sprints and standups, for which we would define the goals for the week and each member would ‘standup’ and explain what they had accomplished the previous week. Every Friday Ty would come to campus and meet with each team over the course of 5-6 hours, which was an incredibly educative experience. We also benefited from advisement from Adam Bouchard, CEO of Agilion Apps. On two occasions, Adam invited us to his cottage off Route 7 and helped us define our product market fit using a lean vision exercise.
MB: Tell us a bit more about Ty Danco. What’s he all about?
JV: First off, this project would not have been possible without Ty. I was beyond fortunate to meet Ty and spend the past 6 months working with him and learning from his entrepreneurial expertise. Ty is one of the most passionate people I know, and is constantly overflowing with ideas; he epitomizes entrepreneurship. Ty has had a full career and I’m probably doing an injustice to him by only highlighting a few tidbits. After graduating from Middlebury in 1977, Ty became a two time Olympic athlete (casual, right?) before beginning his career in finance. Later, he founded a startup that was acquired by CalPERS. He is an angel investor and also works as a Director for the accelerator, Techstars.
MB: So, how’d it turn out? Did you accomplish what you aimed to?
JV: To be blunt, the StartupGrid project turned out fantastically. It’s not easy to pull together 25 students and give them 25 days to build a legitimate startup. In truth, we have collected more data than we know what to do with, which is exciting because the room for growth is exponential.
To date we have curated over 1800 multimedia articles, conducted interviews with 40 experts and amassed over 50 hours of film. All of this content has been fully integrated into StartupGrid.co. The real accomplishment was the duality of this educational experience. We studied theoretical learning through research, curating, and interviewing as well as experiential learning through the creation of a legitimate startup. This experience was like none other at Middlebury and gave us a taste of what it would be like to work for a startup.
MB: What do you hope for the future of StartupGrid?
JV: StartupGrid needs to be polished up a bit, but it’s future really depends on how we decide to pivot from here. We could make it an open source resource for the entrepreneurship community to add to, similar to a company like Wikipedia. Or we could make it a University package, where other schools sign on and build off of our platform – providing students with a theoretical and experiential learning opportunity. For the next few months its activity will flat line but once we decide our growth strategy it will pick back up. Some of the members, including myself, will be working on this for the rest of the year and even years to come. I see it as a great side project where I will eventually transfer into an advisement position.
MB: Do you think StartupGrid will ultimately be profitable, and if so how?
JV: Our main focus is to create a website that benefits our audience before we begin to consider how to make a buck off it. I guess it also depends on what you consider profitable, any website can be profitable through ads but another way to think about ‘profit’ would be to amass a badass email list of users, which in some minds can be considered even more profitable. For me it is less about the money and more about the future benefits an experience like this offers. For now we are not focused on profitability, but the avenues to get there are certainly available.
MB: What skills have you gained through this process? What skills have the group members at large gained? Continue reading