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Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Secret to Fostering a Strong Startup Community Inside Your University

Most colleges and universities are finding it very challenging to cultivate strong startup communities like those found at leading institutions like Stanford and Yale. But if we take a deeper look at these leading institutions, and how others are responding to this challenge, we can build a repeatable model to support the the rise of the rest.

Certainly one component to developing a strong collegiate startup culture is having a strong curriculum, jam packed with not just theory but applied learning activities which enable students to develop skills required for jobs in today’s workforce. A good example of this occurred two years ago with the creation of a Software Engineering degree at St. Cloud State University. Many engineering programs have become dated in our region but SCSU’s Science and Engineering leadership are meeting regulary with industry leaders to identify the practical needs of employers and then developing new degrees in support of satisfying them. Many companies are looking for strong software engineers. SCSU has long offered a Computer Science Degree that includes required classed on Computer Architecture and Operating Systems that are less useful to software developers whereas the new Software Engineering Degree offers Project Management, Mobile Development, and Games Development (useful for 3D software such as VR/AR programming). Additionally, four years ago SCSU opened a brand new 100,000 square foot ISELF facility where student can work with industry leaders on projects utilizing the latest technology (VR/AR, Robotics, Nanotech, 3D printers, etc.) The vast majority of students today in Computer Science programs would rather be learning coding skills to build useful enterprise or consumer software instead of spending their college years learning how to build infrastructure they are not interested in building. The ISELF building is not just a place for engineering SCSU students to gather either, the facility is being utilized by students across a variety of fields from business to art in support of experiential learning.  Let’s face it, many software engineers don’t make the most aesthetically pleasing software!  It may go well beyond SCSU’s campus too. Recently, we held a meeting between SCSU and CSBSJU’s Director for Entrepreneurship, Margrette Newhouse, and both groups of academic leaders expressed an interest in collaborating to get more student led businesses from CSBSJU to work collaboratively with SCSU’s experiential learning offering.

It has become table stakes for a university to invest in equipping labs with cutting edge, disruptive technology to give students access to equipment that they otherwise won’t have access to. Some of America’s greatest start-up stories involved young founders taking full advantage of their school’s resources. Take the story of Google and how their founders waited at loading docks at Stanford for new computers to come so they could increase their network and computing capacity. It isn’t 2000 anymore students need access to an even greater number of tools. Ideally, universities should invest in labs that provide access to breakthrough AR/VR technology, robotics, drones, etc.

One often overlooked and easily corrected way to supercharge your universities startup community is to encourage it to focus its investing activity on regional venture funds that align with the universities mission as pointed out by Tim Schigel of Refinery Ventures’ recent post. In Tim’s post, he shares insights as to how universities like Yale are generating out-sized returns for their endowment than they would otherwise get in the stock market by investing in venture funds which align with their school’s regional impact mission. Today, most universities when investing in the venture capital asset class send all of their funds outside of their region. This far away distribution of venture capital creates a virtuous cycle where the universities in other regions end up dramatically outperforming them, which causes the original university to be less competitive. If there are no venture funds in your region, universities should consider adopting a policy to take small amounts of their capital and deploy it to first time fund managers who align with a regional investing strategy.

Startup competitions like the Minnesota Cup organized by the University of Minnesota bring awareness to many startups that otherwise would fly under the radar. Beautiful things happens when you bring awareness to startups in your region. The entrepreneurial community will start to rally behind them, bringing with them valuable business contacts, advice, capital, and more to ensure their success.

And then there is that all so important issue of connecting top employment opportunities to the most talented graduating students. The best startup communities provide organized apprentice programs such as Xtern by TechPoint in Indianapolis. Apprentice programs are critical to the success of new graduates so they can learn applied skills required for these new high demand jobs.

Finally, the university needs to identify regional founders who can lead this charge, and support them with a bottom up approach by spreading the word throughout various student groups across different disciplines. Top down approaches don’t work. Entrepreneurs are best led by entrepreneurs as Brad Feld’s describes in his book Startup Communities.


How Creative Innovation Drives Mobile Growth

In the mobile app world, innovation and creativity is required in order to grow and survive. Unique concepts, stunning artwork, and addictive gameplay have all contributed to breakout successes for many apps. However, in the recent GamesBeat Summit, Nexon’s CEO Owen Mahoney pointed out how acquiring new players these days is difficult because so many mobile games are all alike.

With that said, innovation does not necessarily mean you have to have a completely new idea. You don’t have to be first, you just have to be better. The following are a few examples of good ideas being taken to the next level.

1.Slither.io – ing to Success:

MobileAction recently studied how Slither.io has driven over 16 million downloads since its recent release, breaking through the App Store clutter of classic Snake game clones. With a nod towards Agar.io, the developers created an updated visual appeal with vivid colors. The simple controls ensure a quick “pick up and play immediately” experience. They also kept an eye on the most requested features and improvements by listening to players feedback.

2. The Evolution of Emojis:

Bitmoji innovation

Bitmoji innovation

With mobile devices becoming a primary mode of communication amongst teens, emoji is quickly evolving into a new shorthand language that is innovating the UX design of classic functions that can transcend language barriers. As the CEO of emoji app Riffsy pointed out at the Grow MAU conference, emoji’s are the most used apps on iOS. This is no doubt why Snapchat recently paid a whopping $100 million for personal emoji app, Bitmoji.

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Other brands are using emoji’s in unusual ways as well. Domino’s now even let’s their users tweet their pizza order with an emoji. The system is a product of Domino’s AnyWare suite of mobile ordering technology, which is developing software to allow customers to order food from multiple devices, such as smart televisions to smartwatches.

3. Deck Building Clash:

Through the years, physical deck building card games like Magic and Dominion have gained a dedicated fan base. So it was only natural for developers to create a mobile app that utilized the best of that gameplay.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is an example of a free-to-play online collectable card game which has had great success with both its theming (using the lore of the Warcraft series) as well as successfully monetizing through tempting in-app purchases giving the advantage of more powerful cards.)

SuperCell has previous found great success with Hay Day, which offered a FarmVille-type of experience without needing Facebook and many other user-friendly improvements to the experience. With just 3 games, Supercell made $924M in profits on $2.3B in revenue in 2015.

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Their newest release, Clash Royale, injects the massively profitable Clash of Clans brand DNA into their own version of a deck-builder game. Instead of feeling like a copy-cat clone, the combination of genres and gameplay mechanics in Clash Royale actually works incredibly well for a mobile game. And according to CEO Ilkka Paananen, SuperCell killed over 14 game titles in their quest to find their next hit with Clash Royale. The game has been No 1 in 44 countries and now boasts over 100 Million Daily active users. This success will most likely lead to a flood of clones. The challenge for those developers will be to find how to do it better and with their own distinct twist.

4. New Growth Campaigns that Tap into the Power of App Store Search:

Innovations don’t only come from the creation of the apps, but also in marketing them. Hundreds of mobile ad networks compete for advertising dollars. We have noticed that there is a lot of copying of best practices, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of innovation in how to give advertisers the best value for their campaigns.

With 67 percent of mobile users reporting that the last app downloaded was found through an app store search, ranking at the top of searches for relevant keywords has become a critical part of the success for mobile apps and games. Yet, almost all mobile adveritising campaigns have ignored the impact of ranking high in search results which can keep an app visible and can drive organic installs from users in the critical moment when they are actually searching apps in the store with the intent of downloading.

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NativeX launched Search Spike specifically built to drive major increase to your keyword rank. It impacts factors off-page factors like downloads and CTR. Search Spike is driving measurable increases in offer wall performance for both publishers and advertisers alike from real, engaged users.

In summary, the winners in mobile growth will be those who are innovative with original projects as well as those creative and savvy enough to recognize golden opportunities found in new twists on the familiar and who can make good ideas into great success.


NativeX Launches New Video Ad Format

Sponsored Post

Introducing a new Mini Multi-Offer ad format “Triad.” Triad combines the latest mobile video ad technology with NativeX’s industry leading selection of native advertising formats to give users the choice of which ads to engage with. Triad joins the NativeX Discovery Suite to give developers the right ad format to optimize strategic placements in their apps for a more native experience with higher impact.

Read the Full Post Here.

See Video:

A New Beginning for the NativeX Team

Being an entrepreneur is very fulfilling but also a grind at the same time. Thankfully, you get to share your pioneering experiences with a tremendous team of employees and board members. You also get to establish commercial partnerships with some pretty amazing people as well.

Yesterday, we announced our plans to merge NativeX with China-based Mobvista. This merger creates a new beginning for our team at NativeX. I’d like to personally thank all of our alumni, our current employees, and all of our current and past business partners for getting on the trail with us.

Here are four posts which offer some different perspectives on the merger announcement-

I look forward to our new beginning with the team at Mobvista.


Inspiring Books for Digital Media Professionals

Often times, people I come across in the digital media and entrepreneurial world ask me for book recommendations. Here are a few of my favorites-

Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Running Lean by Ash Maurya

Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People by Richard Shell

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh & Steve Jamison

Win the Game of Googleopoly by Sean V. Bradley

You can also download my company’s newest free white paper about App Store Optimization (ASO) for best practices and tools to improve your search rankings in app stores.


Start-up Marketing Lessons Learned from Cecil the Lion

Since it has been a while since my last entrepreneurial post, I thought I would blend three of my devotions (kids, work, and outdoors), and spout off a few nuggets of entrepreneurial marketing advice.

Advice for Marketing Your Start-up

Marketing your start-up can be scary, just like how this stuffed lion scared my then one-year old son.

What can we learn from the Cecil the Lion story to guide founders on how to market their start-up?

  1. Stay in Your Territory– Cecil the Lion was shot after wandering off protected habitat chasing a hunter’s bait. Many start-ups go out of business because they chase too many potential customer segments. Their founders boast about how lean and nimble they are, and how they are pivoting their start-up at a frenzied pace. Most successful entrepreneurs think deeply about who they are targeting, and they design their products with this specific audience in mind. For example, Matt Hall who created the 2015 App Store breakout hit Crossy Road said in an Unconsoleable podcast interview that he designed an earlier successful horse game with a specific young girl in mind he found in a photo with a pony. When someone suggested to Matt he should add an equestrian feature to his horse game, Matt was able to quickly shoot down this feature because he knew that this girl he was targeting wouldn’t want the equestrian features in her game. Crossy Road also has some great, user friendly monetization practices too.
  2. Be Resourceful When Going after High Probability Prey– Cecil the Lion did not follow his previous successful path when he chose to follow the hunter’s bait. Cecil lived to a mature age because he was successful at killing certain prey (probably antelope, or whatever). Cecil should have stuck with the prey that worked for him and avoided going after whatever flashed in front of him. In the start-up world, founders need to quickly assess which potential customers are closable and then be resourceful in targeting them versus constantly spraying random attempts at all kinds of customers. Usually involved in this process is finding good lists of qualified leads to go after. For example, a start-up friend of mine which is targeting local restaurants told me about some success he had had in getting Groupon sales reps to moonlight reselling his software. These Groupon sales reps already had many local relationships which he coveted, but he didn’t know how he could contact them. This founder looked into Zoominfo’s database and could quickly get contact info for all of the Groupon sales reps which he could market his reseller program to.
  3. Don’t Fall for Big Game Hunter Tricks– As your start-up starts to grow, a lot of “proven” sales managers will contact founders asking for a big salary based on their track record of success, usually at some other, much larger company. I’d highly advise against hiring these types to your start-up. Your initial hires should take a large salary decrease and be motivated by upside in commission and equity-based compensation. Don’t let these pre-madonna sales managers latch on to the lightening in a bottle you have without taking risk just because they have a nice looking resume.
  4. Don’t Believe Everything You Read until it is Verified– It was initially reported that Cecil’s brother lion Jericho was found killed by a hunter, then later retracted as it was then confirmed that Jericho was not Cecil’s brother at all nor was Jericho dead after all. Many blogs are quick to rush out stories about some major policy change which may impact your business. Often times there is some evidence to back up their initial post, but that doesn’t mean it is a wholesale policy change. For example, TechCrunch ran a story on how apps with a certain type of video ad format were getting banned. Over the days and weeks that followed, thousands of apps with this video ad format receive Apple’s approval without any issue. (Not that Apple doesn’t change its mind about what is acceptable, and what isn’t.)

Okay… okay. This whole notion of combining advice for marketing your start-up and Cecil the Lion is a joke. There is no relationship between the two topics but all this Cecil the Lion madness got to me. It is a lion people. Get over it. There are far bigger issues globally than a lion who is accidentally killed by a hunter. As for my specific views on this whole Cecil the Lion madness, the perspective I most agree with was written by a local hunter Dave Orrick here.


Football Wisdom for the Business World

[Originally posted on BuzzFeed October 4th 2013]

At NativeX, my colleagues and I are always looking for fresh perspectives on the mobile advertising business. Sometimes these perspectives come from unexpected places. As a lifelong Vikings fan, I wasn’t sure how much wisdom I’d find in “The Score Takes Care of Itself,” the leadership manifesto by legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. But the more I read, the more I similarities I saw between Walsh’s strategies and the strategies we’ve used to put NativeX at the forefront of innovation in native advertising.

Below are five winning business strategies based on tenets of Walsh’s philosophy.

“To Succeed, You Must Fail”

Innovation takes iteration. Most great businesses start with a great idea, but Walsh knew that even the best ideas need development and fine-tuning. Prepare to try out many different variants of an idea before finding a way to make it work. At NativeX, we never would have gotten into native advertising if we didn’t see for ourselves how standard banner ads flat-out don’t work.

“Be Obsessive in Looking For the Upside in the Downside“

Walsh’s famous West coast offense was born when he realized that though Cincinnati quarterback Virgil Carter couldn’t throw the ball deep like prototypical NFL quarterbacks, he could throw very accurately over short distances. Likewise, in business, supposed shortcomings can actually be clues about ways for you to set yourself apart from your competitors. This realization is often the outcome of the iteration and fine-tuning I mentioned in the first point.

“Control What You Can Control”

Walsh says 80 percent of football can be controlled. The other 20 percent comes down to referees’ decisions, bad bounces and so on. This is true in business as well, where politics, employees’ personal lives and even the weather can affect your business and your industry in ways you can’t predict or control. It’s important to think carefully about what aspects of your environment you actually exert influence over and focus your attention on them.

For the things you can’t control, recognize that you can at least make plans to keep yourself from getting caught flat-footed when they happen.

“Identify Problems that Need to be Solved, and Be Able to Solve Them”

Walsh recognized players that were negative influences on his team and took steps to remove them. Along the same lines, businesspeople need to be on the lookout for parts of their strategies or teams that aren’t working.

A big part of this is making sure you don’t fall into situations where you’re unable to make a necessary change even though you know it has to happen. This requires good planning and a lot of efficiency. At NativeX, even though we saw that native ad formats were yielding much higher results, most mobile ad networks didn’t allow for publisher based customization. It’s taken a lot of legwork and careful planning to get to a position where we’re able to build the ads we want to build without having to cave in to market pressure.

“Applied Intelligence”

Walsh was constantly looking for ways to get a different perspective on his situation and outsmart physically dominant competitors. Along the same lines, in business, it’s important to keep looking for fresh perspectives that might show you opportunities other, bigger competitors are missing.

At NativeX, we put a lot of focus on ad mediation, but even after integrating with multiple ad networks, the ads weren’t working very well. When we finally surveyed the market, we found that other app developers using ad mediation were getting the same bad results. When we actually analyzed the overall picture, we saw that every ad network was running essentially the same types of ad campaigns. This allowed us to see ways for us set ourselves apart, like format innovation and targeted programmatic technology.


Pursue the Lemonade Stand

[Originally posted on The Wall Street Journal June 13th 2013]

I’ve had the unique experience of being an entrepreneur for the majority of my life, even before co-founding NativeX. I launched my first e-marketing site with my brothers when I was 16 and never looked back. A lot of the wisdom that helped get me where I am today came from my father and stepfather—both of whom have entrepreneurial backgrounds in some regard. As such, I’m honored to pass on some of those same lessons to my own kids.

Entrepreneurship is a viable career path. One of the first lessons in becoming a successful entrepreneur is recognizing that it’s actually possible. I’m shocked by the amount of talented and driven people going through life without considering entrepreneurship as a viable option. Uncertainty, fear, and high rates of failure end the journey for many before it’s even started.

In Minnesota, for instance, we’re lucky to have a wide array of Fortune 500 companies like 3M Co., General Mills Inc., and Target Corp. Most young people here are force-fed the notion that success means doing well in school before getting a job at one of these giants. My kids, on the other hand, will have lemonade stands as soon as they’re strong enough to squeeze the lemons. I will drive home the point that there are opportunities out there besides working for someone else. To accept this, there are a few more lessons they need to understand.

Embrace failure and fail upwards. My father’s greatest hobby is nature photography, but it was always unclear how he would convert that content into a business. He tried creating a website for his photos, but it soon ran aground; he was more into art for the sake of art. Yet having tested the waters of website-building for his photography, my father was then able to successfully build out a business using his professional skills as a safety engineer. A popular “safety blog” is now one of his primary sources of income. Similarly, my brother and I have had our share of failed initiatives pivot, over time, into successful businesses.

Anticipate potholes before you run them over. Growing up, my stepfather was another entrepreneurial influence in our household. He was a software developer, but early in his career ran an automotive repair business. He was often telling us about potentially critical things that could have put us out of business. I didn’t even think about paying my taxes when I was a teenage entrepreneur until my step-dad brought it up.

Provide encouragement. Once you know what to do, focus! Work toward being the best at that, and accept that you can’t do it all. You’ll need the help of a team or partners for the other challenges that might take up your time.

Additionally, entrepreneurs-in-training should be open to new ideas and fields of thought. As a kid, I wanted to grow up to become a computer scientist. Though that didn’t pan out, the heavy encouragement I received around math, science and technology wasn’t lost on me. That education shaped my thinking, allowing me to identify opportunities overlooked by others. To that end, I’m encouraging my kids to develop these logical skills. My seven-year old daughter loves dance and will be going to dance camp this summer, but I also have her signed up for a Web-development camp.


Letting Go of Your Baby: A Founder’s View on Bringing in a New CEO

[Originally posted on Wired.com April 10th 2013]

As both a father and an entrepreneur, I can say with confidence there’s a lot of parallels between raising a kid and starting a company. Both take a lot of time and dedication, you invest a lot of yourself in both, and for both you need to know when to let go of the reins.

Like with a child, you pour your blood, sweat and, tears into making sure it’s the best it can be. However, you need to realize you can’t do everything on your own. Just as when there’s a time you’ll need to drop your kid off at school, there may come a time in a startup when you need to bring in a new CEO to augment the company’s growth and help scale.

In 2007, it was becoming apparent that NativeX could benefit from a new CEO. Since forming in 2000, the company had grown to about 60 people but it was clear that our growth had begun to plateau. The majority of our employees were young guns- most being under 25 years old.

At this time, I had won an arm wrestling contest with my two other founders so I was acting CEO. However, most of the founding team had drifted from the center and were gravitating to other roles such as product engineering and customer relations. It was about that time I recommended to the founding team that we look to bring on a CEO- we hired Andy Johnson to fill the role that year.

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Hangout with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak on the Role of Government in Entrepreneurship

I don’t spend a lot of time as a founder thinking about the government’s role in creating a thriving entrepreneurial community. I had the opportunity yesterday to participate in a panel moderated by Steve Grove, in charge of Community Partnerships for Google+ along with the Mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak and two others to ask the Mayor questions and to share ideas on building stronger community support for entrepreneurship.


INSTANT MBA: Stop Being a Perfectionist And Pay Attention To Customers

[Originally posted on Business Insider November 14th 2012]

“Owners of new products or new businesses really need to guard themselves against over investing themselves in a certain  concept. Otherwise they run the risk of really burning too much energy on  something that has no real opportunity to succeed.”

When entrepreneurs focus solely on their idea and get too attached, they lose  sight of what customers want. If you’re constantly working on perfecting your  idea or product, you become disconnected from customers because there’s no time  to check in with them for validation that you’re actually meeting their  needs.

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