In a world where, as a tech founder, seeking VC funding seems as natural as applying to college after graduating high school, Emmanuel Straschnov of Bubble maintains a rare and refreshing vision for his company. That vision is a revolutionary change in software engineering—a democratization so to speak—that allows anyone to translate their ideas into a website. Coupling this vision with patience, Emmanuel has opted to avoid the funding route in order to maintain his autonomy and create a business that truly disrupts the industry.

Bubble is a visual programming tool that seeks to make coding a website as easy as creating a PowerPoint presentation. In the words of Emmanuel, Bubble represents “coding without the code”.[i] Users can simply drag and drop to create visual components of websites that (with the correct usage) culminate into fully functional, and often beautiful, websites. Becoming proficient still requires practice, but much less than is the case with traditional coding.

Given Bubble’s democratizing effects on the market for code, the company’s current monetization strategy fits a natural gap in the market by assisting small startups and companies that may otherwise have outsourced their code and allow them to bring it back in-house. Using this tried and tested method, Bubble boasts several superb sites built using its software, and continues to grow its revenue with success in this area. Indeed, several third party development agencies have emerged using Bubble to meet market demand, highlighting the effectiveness of this monetization strategy. Yet, with ambitions of revolutionizing the entire concept of coding, the potential avenues for expansion are much greater than purely the case of helping small businesses design websites. Education is one such avenue.

The term computer science (CS) has become a buzzword in educational debates of recent years. As the US economy becomes increasingly specialized the value of CS skills has become ever more apparent. Computer science jobs not only fit the criteria for most job postings, but also stayed open longer than any other post with a “national non-STEM job opening is filled in about 33 days, compared to 56 days for jobs that require programming skills and 65 days for mobile developing”.[ii] Yet despite the need for CS graduates, such skills are rarely promoted in high schools. Indeed, it is striking that 79 percent of students wished they’d been offered a class in coding but never were.[iii]

There are myriad reasons why CS has been neglected in US high schools. School administration issues and outdated educational rationale lie among the more frustrating bureaucratic grievances. However, perhaps one of the greatest hurdles lies in student’s nervousness and stigma surrounding the subject. Despite so many students wishing they had the opportunity to learn how to code in school, like math or physics CS maintains an intimidating aura. This is one space where Bubble’s impact could be monumental. By reducing the more mundane basics required to develop fully functional components and sites, Bubble would allow students to make instant impacts, and in doing so encourage students to continue honing their skills.

The beauty of Bubble is that it can be used as a springboard for more nuanced CS skill development for students. Functionally Bubble doesn’t delete code, it merely masks it to streamline the process of development. As a result, Bubble represents the perfect framework to inspire students and then allow them to continue their code development using HTML or other coding languages within Bubble, and then even outside of the system should they wish to continue developing their skills.

Yet Bubble’s impact could be much greater than simply that of an introduction to CS; its democratizing qualities could represent a cornerstone of youth entrepreneurship within high schools across the country. Dovetailing the process of weaning to more nuanced CS skill development with a goal of equipping young entrepreneurs with the tools needed to create a minimum viable product (MVP), Bubble holds unprecedented power for students to convert their ideas into reality.

The value of entrepreneurship, like the creativity of our students, is not to be underestimated. Eighty-seven percent of young people expressed their desire to pursue entrepreneurship at some point in their career, however, the current K-12 curriculum isn’t designed to teach financial literacy or business skills.[iv] Importantly, from a policy standpoint this is not only beneficial, but necessary for US economic growth. In 2014 25 percent of young entrepreneurs started their companies as a result of being unemployed — up from 21 percent in 2011.[v] Bubble represents a unique and powerful way to spark innovation and bolster an entrepreneurial future, and in return integration into education represents an unparalleled marketing avenue in which to raise Bubble’s profile and revenue.

As the founder of IvyMinded –a small online educational company focused on skill development for high school students— I have recently begun working with Emmanuel to do my part in helping Bubble integrate into education across the world. At IvyMinded we are currently developing online courses and video lectures on how to use Bubble as an introduction to coding, but more importantly as entrepreneurial tool. We are set to launch our entrepreneurial track in February 2016 and through partnerships with schools in China hope to integrate both Bubble and our curricula in a flipped classroom model towards the end of 2016 using our online learning platform. We seek to follow Emmanuel’s lead and hold true to our vision, and in the process help both companies succeed.


[i] Straschnov, Emmanuel. “The Online Economy, Benjamin Edelman, Harvard Business School”. Monday, November 2, 2015.

[ii] Kohli, Sonali. “America Is failing Its Children by Not Teaching Code in Every High School.” Quartz. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web

[iii] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

[iv] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

[v] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

By: Andrew Steele


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Last year I decided to found my own tech start-up.  MBA alumns with whom I connected advised me to recruit a technical cofounder early on in the process. At that time, I had some general knowledge about coding and software development. I had completed some basic assignments in C++ and Java.  “Hello World” was the most advanced coding exercise I had undertaken. Clearly, I was not an expert. Since my business was the usual technical start-up that required the creation of a phone application, I had two choices: develop the app myself or look for a technical cofounder. Like most non-technical cofounders, I opted for the latter. This is where my story begins, just two months into my MBA career.

The idea I was looking to develop was one I had envisioned long before starting school.  I had discussed the idea with a number of experienced entrepreneurs and friends. The overwhelming response was very encouraging and I was determined to spend as much time as I could to develop this idea. In fact, I was almost convinced that my business will be so successful that I would drop out of school

So how did I look for a technical cofounder? What strategies did I adopt? What are the key lessons I learned from my experience?

I wasn’t interested in outsourcing my work as my idea was tech heavy and required ongoing technical work. I also wanted a flexible option and a technical person with whom I could partner to meet advisors and potential investors.

First, I posted on a number of online websites that specialized in connecting cofounders. Browsing through these websites, I discovered that the majority of the people who posted were also looking for technical cofounders. Not surprisingly, I haven’t received a single response from anyone after almost a year.

Second, I proactively searched on linked in for potential technical cofounders. I was more successful as I was able to talk to two people who had prior coding experience. One of them was really interested in the idea and we eventually met in person.  We worked on the idea for almost a month and then he suddenly disappeared. The last message I received from him was about an emergency situation and I never heard from him again.

After that experience, I decided to visit the “headquarters” of technical cofounders: computer Science departments at local colleges!  I created fliers to post, and visited 4 major schools in Boston. On one of my visits, I met a faculty member who was not at all impressed with my pitch or my fliers. He told me that he sees 5-6 people like me every week looking to hire technical cofounders. It’s been a year now and no one really called.

This experience has taught me a number of lessons:

Lesson Number 1 – Be Humble

You may have heard this phrase many times but it’s not as easy in practice as it sounds. Sure you have an MBA degree from a prestigious school backed up by 4-5 years of experience. You may have negotiated the most complicated business deals, developed the most interesting sales pitches or created the most sophisticated financial models, but none of these qualifications help create a web application. During my quest to find a technical cofounder, I was genuinely humbled by watching 19 years old Computer Science students compiling open source data and creating some state of the art technologies in less than 24 hours at “Hackathons”.

Lesson Number 2 – Meet everyone in person

It’s nearly impossible to find technical cofounders online. You may find random people who have some technical experience but you won’t find the right people who are passionate about programming. You certainly won’t find the real passionate coders looking for a job on a random “find technical cofounders” website. I believe the best places to meet avid programmers are hackathons, CS classes and local coding events.

Lesson Number 3 – Build relationships

Finding and selecting a technical cofounder is not something that happens overnight, it’s a lengthy process. Even if you are eager to recruit someone, patience is paramount. I believe that it is critical to build a relationship with the person. Learn more about his or her experience, past accomplishments and current interests.  Try not to  mention your business idea on your first session and avoid sounding too eager to hire a cofounder.  Also, don’t overemphasize your MBA degree. It probably won’t make a difference to a young programmer.

Lesson Number 4 – Build a prototype

Create the design of your app/website/software.  You can create a static website using many tools available online and very easy to use. There are a range of design programs that you can use to create your MVP (Balsamiq, Bubble, and Appseed all convertyour sketches into app prototypes). This is a great way to show commitment beyond just pitching an idea that only exists in your mind.

Lesson Number 5 – Learn to speak the language:

Similar to when you travel to a new country, you should know at least some basic phrases to be able to communicate. Try to learn the basics of coding and characteristics of each language. It is important to spend some time researching general programming tools, differences between front and back end, APIs and when/how to use APIs. In fact, you can go online and search for potential APIs available that may be helpful for your business. You won’t be a coder in a couple of months but you will certainly be able to impress a technical person and make him more interested in your business.

It’s been a year since I started my journey. The business is going well. I have recently partnered with a CS student from University of Michigan whom I met at a recent Hackathon event. We just started work on creating the back end of our website. In my spare time, I am learning Rails and some other programming languages. Every week, I spend at least 2-3 hours reading about new languages, APIs, integrations etc.

Although, I am still at the beginning of my journey, I feel like I have learned a lot and I am certainly more confident about my technical capabilities.


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Relaunching America: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Disruption

A group of co-founders shut themselves in a sweltering, dimly lit room and were determined not to see the light of day until they had released their new system to the world. The beta system was currently in the market and users were anxious to see their new release. They had spent the entire summer scripting their platform, arguing over precise features to include, and deliberating over the future implications of this version. They were close to a release date, and failure was not an option. The room was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the year was 1787.

This story may have conjured visions of the Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, toiling in a Los Altos bedroom, Paul Allen and Bill Gates’ scripting marathons in Harvard’s Aiken Lab, or Zuckerberg’s hacking and face mashing in Kirkland House. However, this story refers to a different collection of founders – now we call them the Founding Fathers. The users were the citizens of newly independent United States of America. The beta release – also known as Articles of Confederation – had become insufficient to meet users’ needs. Now the stakes were high. More than their financial futures and reputations were on the line. Their very lives, and the lives of 3 million citizens hung in the balance. They weren’t just innovating a product or service, they were innovating a system of representative governance.

The Founding Fathers followed a proven tech startup model of learning from others’ mistakes, refining the best ideas of early adopters, and creating something familiar, yet completely new and disruptive. Think Google, iPhone, Tesla, etc. The early product launched by the French, Romans, and Greeks provided excellent user testing and case studies, while thought leaders like Montesquieu and Locke provided some key insight for experimentation.

However, just like any high-performing startup, over time this governing system has experienced growing pains. The user base has grown approximately 10,000% since that hot Philadelphian summer, while user satisfaction toward elected representatives – particularly Members of Congress – has remained remarkably low. The executive leadership and board of directors have been able to increase the opportunities for user participation incrementally over the past two centuries; however, as technology has dramatically improved over the past two decades and the ability to send communication has increased exponentially, the elected official’s ability to absorb, respond, and leverage these tools has remained relatively static.

Technology’s rapid development, and Congress’ slow adaptation, has crippled a system that is predicated on the idea of citizen engagement. Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” illustrates the power of network effects that bolsters online startups. Ultimately, the system functions more effectively as more users join the process.

According to a recent Congressional Management Foundation survey, over one-third of congressional staffers feel their office spends too little time on online communications. At the same time, 64 percent of senior staff believes Facebook is “a somewhat or very important tool for understanding constituents’ views and opinions.” The number is 42 percent for Twitter. Congressional offices seem to understand the importance of using new technologies, but they are unwilling or simply unable to maximize the potential of these innovative technologies. This story becomes even more concerning when looking into the future.

The United States is witnessing a growing disconnect between elected officials and its next generation of citizens. As the number of social technologies continues to grow, the connection between Members of Congress and younger constituents continues to shrink. The 2012 Institute of Politics Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service found that “young people of all ages, races and political persuasions care deeply about their community and their country… [However] young people continue to lose faith in the institutions and the leaders elected to govern our country and shape their future. And now, through this project, we have learned that potentially millions of young people will stay home on November 6, not participate in the election — choosing instead other paths of civic engagement, or nothing at all.” These young Americans are living their lives online through technology, and effective engagement depends on the ability to connect in this new digital world. They care about their country and they want to be involved if their elected officials can learn to speak their language.

This year I founded Connected Congress and held a bipartisan tech series for Members of Congress and senior staff on the Hill. The goal was to help Members understand not only what technology is available, but also how they can use technology more effectively. (http://ConnectedCongress.org) With over 20 speakers from Google, Facebook, Twitter, think tanks, House, and Senate, I realized perhaps the future is not so bleak. Not all Members of Congress are opposed to adapting technological advances into their offices. In fact, digital staff, administrators, and a handful of tech-minded Members are trying to influence behavior in the institution.

In a recent interview, Congressman Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, described this “technology-centered approach” as “disruptive to the government bureaucracy and many in Congress because it demands experimentation, data-driven analysis and actually listening to our users — the American people — about how to make government work better for them. That’s why social media and innovation are so central to my work: we in Congress do not have all the answers, but we can have a relentless drive to adapt technology to let taxpayers re-engage with government on their own terms.”

Now it’s our turn. My goal is to channel some of the innovation our system was founded on over two centuries ago to disrupt this market of representative and participatory democracy.

More Reading

Congress’ Wicked Problem. Lorelei Kelly, New America Foundation
http://oti.newamerica.net/publications/policy/congress_wicked_problem

Can Congress Work Like A Tech Startup?
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120509/03041418839/can-congress-work-like-tech-startup.shtml

Does Anyone in Congress Get Technology? Joshua Lamel
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-lamel/does-anyone-in-congress-get-technology_b_1465743.html

‘Virtual Congress’ Would Weaken Deliberative Process – Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.)
http://www.congresslink.org/print_expert_virtualcongress.htm

Congressional Management Foundation
http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects

Congressional Management Foundation: Communicating with Congress Project
http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects/communicating-with-congress

Dawn of a revolution (Bill Gates at Harvard)
http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/09/dawn-of-a-revolution/

Connected Congress series highlights struggle of digital staffers. Colby Hochmuth
http://fedscoop.com/connected-congress-series-highlights-struggle-of-digital-staffers/

Connected Congress: Tech for Members
http://ConnectedCongress.org

Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP) Public Opinion Project Survey
http://www.iop.harvard.edu/survey

 


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Entrepreneurship, especially in the form of start-ups focusing on online services, is clearly a hot thing in the US. In the last 5 years, VCs invested an aggregate amount of more than $130bn in 18 thousand deals. But what does this mean for the rest of the world? For increasingly many, the answer is geo-arbitrage opportunity.

Geo-arbitrage – also called tropicalization – is a broad term gaining popularity in the entrepreneurial space that mainly refers to the practice of backing start-ups that take an established business model and adapt it to an emerging market. There are many examples of this model around the world: Baidu (Google clone in China), Citydeal (Groupon clone in Germany), Trendyol (Gilt Groupe clone in Turkey), etc. There are even VCs/incubators – like the prominent Rocket Internet – that primarily rely on this model.

In light of this trend, there are probably two fundamental questions we should ask ourselves:

  1. Why do entrepreneurs in emerging markets clone businesses instead of coming up with new ideas?
  2. Are copycats in emerging markets actually good or bad for the original business?

People might have different answers to these questions, but here is my perspective:

Culture is one of the most important factors that influence entrepreneurs. In the US, where – regardless of the outcome – all sorts of entrepreneurial activity is appreciated and respected, entrepreneurs are empowered to try to come up with the next big thing. In Europe and many emerging markets, however, failure in an entrepreneurial venture can be perceived very negatively throughout one’s career. This might be one of the explanations why entrepreneurs in these markets tend to understand proven business models in the US and clone them in their home country. This way, they at least know that the idea is an attractive one, and they focus all their energy on successful execution.

The second question is probably a more controversial one. Clearly, it’s a dramatic event in the life of any start-up to see clones emerging in other geographies. Especially for those that seriously consider international expansion, it increases competitive pressures. However, having copycats overseas can have its own advantages as well: Seeing entrepreneurs in emerging markets picking up your idea can be a further validation of the original business model. On top of that, copycats can be an attractive acquisition target for original businesses, especially given that most US based start-ups don’t have expertise in markets overseas. This way, they can avoid the localization phase and takeover markets where the model is proven to work.

Despite the growing focus by entrepreneurs, there are still some hurdles in emerging countries that can make it difficult to clone successful start-ups. For instance, many start-ups in the US rely on cost and time efficient delivery services (like FEDEX or USPS) or solid address systems. However, this kind of infrastructure does not exist in many developing countries. Therefore, although they avoid the trouble to come up with a great idea, entrepreneurs in emerging markets need to battle other challenges that do not exist in the US.


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We have all had those moments of inspiration where our minds stumble across the perfect solution to one of life’s most mundane, yet oddly prevalent, problems.  More often than not we let these moments of genius slip away, attributing our non-action to too many unanswered questions around whether there is actually a market for our product, or how we would fund the endeavor.  Enter crowdfunding –with nothing but a dream and a webpage, platforms like Kickstarter and Circle Up enable entrepreneurs to connect their ideas with resources, allowing the most promising ideas a chance to be created.  These platforms leverage the very best of social media, allowing would-be entrepreneurs the opportunity to efficiently gauge interest in a concept, fund the project, and begin creating marketing buzz before the product has even been created.  For those who are able to successfully create a new product, their financial supporters are also their beta testers, likely to provide valuable feedback on future iterations of the product.   Use of these platforms is rapidly expanding –nearly three million people have helped over 30,000 projects meet their fund-raising goals on Kickstarter, the largest such site, through over $300 million in pledges.

Although it is still early days, crowdfunding has shown promise as a channel through which the world can benefit from innovations by the everyman –it has rallied millions of dollars behind some unique and potentially disruptive ideas, like the Ouya game console ($8.5M) and Pebble watch ($7M).  Kickstarter has found a way to successfully unite people with compelling ideas with people with cash, but the question that remains is the sustainability of these platforms.  At present, Kickstarter does not assist with nor is it held liable for the actual completion of projects for which fundraising is successful.  Yet, we know that the ability to actually execute on a good idea is often quite difficult, requiring a different skillset than that of a visionary.  If the most well publicized fundraising campaigns ultimately flop when founders are unable to deliver on the initial intent of the project, it may throw this whole model into question as funding contributors reconsider the value of their investment.  To ensure the long term sustainability of crowdfunding, these platforms need to consider finding ways to connect a third group to their platforms –people with execution capabilities.  This could be done in-house, as consumer packaged goods-focused crowdfunding platform Circle Up is attempting to do, by providing some limited support to its successful participants.  Alternatively, the platforms could look to find ways to engage, appropriately incent, and integrate people with operational expertise into their ecosystem.

Sources:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2088298

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/technology/success-of-crowdfunding-puts-pressure-on-entrepreneurs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/09/ouya-game-console-ends-kickstarter-campaign-with-8-5-million/

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/30/technology/kickstarter-sets-off-financing-rush-for-a-watch-not-yet-made.html?pagewanted=all


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