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Author Archives: Monika Jansen

About Monika Jansen

Monika Jansen is passionate about sharing the stories and people behind startups. She’s a prolific copywriter and editor who can usually be found pounding out blog posts, website content, and other marketing materials for her clients, among them Groupon, Hargrove, Siteworx, Network Solutions, and GMAC.

SelfSpark Wants to Help You Optimize Your Life Through
“Serious Life Hacking”


SelfSpark Wants to Help You Optimize Your Life Through “Serious Life Hacking”
By Monika Jansen


James Norris, co-founder of SelfSpark, is a very, very interesting person. Aside from the fact that he is one of those people who just can’t sit still, SelfSpark is technically the seventh startup he has helped build, he was always destined to be an entrepreneur. During elementary school, he started selling candy at recess. During high school, he participated in nine NASA-backed international space settlement design competitions. And during college, he started life hacking, which you’ll read about more below. SelfSpark launched in January 2012.

 

 
Here’s James’ story:

Where did the idea for SelfSpark come from, and why did you decide to pursue it?

The key in my life is to do as much good as possible. I did some experiments in college to hack how we studied and got things done. We started bringing people together in one day events, called Get Stuff Done Days, and we found that personal growth should not be personal, it should be social. We realized there was power in numbers. That turned into a personal development group. We tried to see what was working and what motivated people to change.

Finally I attended an event, and it changed my life. I went to a self-help event, and I thought there was value there but I was uncomfortable with the sales pitch. They basically sat me down and tried to make me buy a lot of programs. I realized there were smart people in the audience, and we should crowdsource self help from them.

SelfSpark has done seventy one-day events and tested out techniques. We have learned through all of these iterations.

In 140 characters or less, what does SelfSpark do?

We use technology to help people optimize their lives.

Why is your startup useful?

One of the problems with behavior change is it’s hard to figure out what to do and how to do it. We, as humans, are not designed to be self-actualized and happy. There’s a lot of research behind this. We are not designed to eat well, for example. We are designed to eat for survival. You can’t fight it with willpower, you need to fight with a systematic design. What’s around you will help you with results. We are looking at apps, gadgets, and old school technology like meditation and integrating it into your daily life so you have a better chance of making those changes.

So, it sounds like you also really interested in life hacking.

It’s a great term if you know what it means. We redefined it as simple, effective short-cuts for improving your life. It’s about real change. We are actually debating calling it Serious Life Hacking.

What is your business model?

Selling tickets to SparkWeekend, the main event we do. We give you part of your money back if you reach your goals after 30 days. So you get paid to lose weight or improve your GMAT score. Another big part of this is corporate events. We’ll be doing one in Singapore on unemployment. It’ll be a SparkWeekend intervention, basically.

What do you need, and what do you want?

The beautiful thing about [being part of the first cohort at] Conscious Venture Lab is it gives us a chance to stop and breathe and decide what cities to do next and also push with our corporate side. As long as we keep testing, doing, and learning, we’ll be set up for global domination [laughing!]. We are really disrupting this. Self-improvement is an $11 billion industry. We want SelfSpark to be global and to reach a wide audience.

Who is your biggest competitor, and why are you better?

The status quo – or apathy. People want to do something, but they don’t know how to get started and continue. Everything we do is online. We are more like Wikipedia – let’s have people help support and increase changes.

Tell me something unique or interesting about you or your company that most people don’t know.

Personally, one of the first experiments I started doing was when I was sixteen and had my first kiss. I realized that the concept of a first was really important, so I started tracking how many firsts I had. Guess how many I have had?

Um, 189?

I have had over a thousand. It’s a fun game and it keeps the neurons fresh.

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Monika Jansen

Monika Jansen is passionate about sharing the stories and people behind startups. She’s a prolific copywriter and editor who can usually be found pounding out blog posts, website content, and other marketing materials for her clients, among them Groupon, Hargrove, Siteworx, Network Solutions, and GMAC.
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Use Your Smartphone to Create a 3D Model of Any Object with Replica


Use Your Smartphone to Create a 3D Model of Any Object with Replica
By Monika Jansen

 
When Brandon Minor won the Pitch George competition at George Washington University (GW) last year, he knew he was onto something – even though he had never planned on starting a company.

 
You see, Brandon is a PhD student at GW in the autonomous robotics lab; his thesis is on cold fusion research. He’s a hard science guy – Dr. Sheldon Cooper would love him. His cofounder is one of his lab mates, Vincent Spinella-Mamo. Vincent received his PhD two years ago, and he works at the lab as a post-doc during the day and goes to law school at night.

Some people in the lab had thrown around a couple of ideas for Pitch George, which got Vincent and Brandon thinking. They settled on the idea for reconstructing objects and exporting them for 3D printing. When they won, Replica was born.

They are still researching use statements for the technology, but the technology itself is close to completion.

In 140 characters or less, what does your startup do?

Brandon Minor: Replica brings the real world into the digital world. We turn your mobile phone into a state-of-the-art 3D scanner.

Why is your startup useful?

Vincent Spinella-Mamo: There’s a lot of people trying to break into the market and take advantage of 3D printers. Most Kickstarter campaigns out there require hardware or add-ons, which doesn’t work well for smartphone platforms. We’re basically releasing the consumer from those constraints. It can be used to bring digital objects into the real world – like an icon or avatar. We are trying to capitalize on that and be first-to-market and be there for whatever the consumers’ needs are.

How does it work?

BM: You take a video through our app of an object that you want to see virtualized. You send the video to us through the app and we run our algorithms on the video. The algorithms recreate the object and create a 3D model. We send that back to you for personal use. It’s all pretty fast. You send it to us and get it back within a minute; we are running our algorithms on cloud servers.

What is your business model?

VM: That’s one of the things we’re playing with now. Do we release the app for free, or do we do a markup on the printing? Our only cost is server space, so that let’s us have pretty decent margins.

What do you need now, and what do you want in the long-term?

VM: Long-term is easy: Make it a better user-experience, move away from the cloud to a smart-device platform, work on other algorithms to allow self-calibration and determine the position of the phone, make higher precision measurements, break into other commercial potential – construction, clothing, anything where there’s this full spectrum of capturing something in 3D and turning it into a product.

BM: In the short-term, we need to find our user base. If we knew our market, we could tailor it for what they need, and we’re still doing that research.

In terms of competition, what does the landscape look like?

BM: You’ll find some iPhone apps out there that do visual reconstruction, but they are incredibly bad at what they do. And then you have companies like 3D Systems that have unique hardware that make really, really nice 3D printers. Replica has the advantage of:

1 – making high-quality scans on phones and
2 – not needing specialized hardware.

Tell me something unique or interesting about you or your company that most people don’t know.

VM: My post-doc is funded by the CIA, so these algorithms are being developed to help create energy-efficient path planning for robots, so operators can be out in the field longer while navigating terrain and looking for IEDs. Most of the work I do is on that, and essentially all of the technology for this company sprang from that.

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Monika Jansen

Monika Jansen is passionate about sharing the stories and people behind startups. She’s a prolific copywriter and editor who can usually be found pounding out blog posts, website content, and other marketing materials for her clients, among them Groupon, Hargrove, Siteworx, Network Solutions, and GMAC.
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Millenials: Get Your Idea For a Company Off the Ground with StudentStart.IT


Millenials: Get Your Idea For a Company Off the Ground with StudentStart.IT
By Monika Jansen


I have been running into the same scenario a lot recently: I interview a millenial startup founder and immediately feel like I have done nothing with my life. Take Christina Nanfeldt. She is majoring in Entrepreneurship at George Washington University (GW), and because the school doesn’t actually have a major for it, she has created it by handpicking the classes she wants to take, and many of them are graduate level classes.Meanwhile she is running a startup with her co-founder Michael Rickert, a software engineer who graduated from GW last year. Here’s her story:

 

 
So, I have to ask: Do you have an entrepreneurial streak?

Yes, kind of. I’m the president of the Entrepreneur Club at GW, and I started my first company, called CauseAware, when I was a junior in high school. It helped Model UN programs. The whole philosophy around Model UN is debating global issues, but I thought we should do something to help the causes we were debating. That helped open a lot of doors.

I worked at Facebook in high school, I worked at Clear Channel, I worked at Hearst Digital two summers ago. Last summer I was at a company called Entrepreneur First in London, it helps recent college grads start their own business. Their offices were on the Google Campus, so I was really exposed to the whole startup scene.

I work for WeWork. I’m their intern, and that’s really opened my eyes to startups as well. I need to understand student needs, and by talking with a lot of students, I came to the idea for StudentStart.it, which is a website that helps students start their own businesses.

Why did you decide to pursue this idea?

I see a need with students. They are passionate about entrepreneurship and startups, and there’s nothing out there, resources are fragmented. There’s Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but a lot of times, students are intimidated by the fact that they need to create a video. Then there’s CoFoundersLab, and a lot of times they are older people and we are more comfortable working with people our own age. Personally, I’ve watched a lot of students struggle. I want to give them the confidence and resources they need to start a company.

In 140 characters or less, what does your startup do?

StudentStart.it is a website that allows students to build a business through crowdfunding, team building, marketing, and mentorships.

How does it work?

Only students can create an account. You choose whether or not you want to do a business boot camp, or you can just choose to use some of the tools. With the business boot camp, you start with an inspiration board. You have a short statement of what your idea is, and at least fifteen people have to validate your idea. Once you get past that benchmark, you have access to crowdfunding. We help you set realistic benchmarks about how much money you should be raising and how to reach people through marketing tools. Students can help other students and support their ideas. You can give as little as $1. Parents, alumni, and professors can give money.

The next part is mentorship. I’m also the student venture capital rep for GW through a company called CollegeFeed Ventures out of Darden [Business School at the University of Virginia.] I recruit student startups at universities and write due diligence reports and feed that back to venture capitalists. I’m tapping into that network to access a lot of mentors.

The next part is team-building. You can find by category what you’re looking for. You can just say I need a software engineer who knows Java, and a list of students will pop up and you can contact them. You can also find people at other schools.

Why is your startup useful?

The startup culture in the last five years has really blown up. Young people in particular. We’re go-doers and self-starters and we’re tired of working for something we don’t really believe in. I don’t want to work for one company and be a slave to their mission. I want to make my own success.

People want their work life to be more of a lifestyle than a responsibility. In that sense, StudentStart.it is really empowering. Young people can do what they’re passionate about and follow an idea they’ve been thinking about. Having someone guide you in the process is really helpful.

What is your business model?

We only take 2% of funding raised. From there, if the site is successful, we’re going to do what LinkedIn does and create a premium version. If you pay a little more, you’ll have more resources and the key part is having access to venture capitalists. There’s a lot of things we want to do down the line: online competitions, doing something with SXSW. My mom used to work at Harvard Business School, and I’d like to do things with universities so students can access those resources too.

Who is your biggest competitor, and why are you better?

VentureBoard, but they focus more on team-building and they provide a list of online resources that you can use, but they don’t actually provide those services. There are pieces and parts of everything, but I haven’t found anything geared toward students.

Tell me something unique or interesting about you or your company that most people don’t know.

To be honest, besides the company I started when I was a junior in high school, I haven’t done this either. In a lot of ways, I’m a customer of my own product.

StudentStart.it has not officially launched yet, so sign up on their website to receive notification when they do.

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Monika Jansen

Monika Jansen is passionate about sharing the stories and people behind startups. She’s a prolific copywriter and editor who can usually be found pounding out blog posts, website content, and other marketing materials for her clients, among them Groupon, Hargrove, Siteworx, Network Solutions, and GMAC.
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