Start Me Up: Cambridge’s Tech Innovators On How They Did It (Part II)

wistiaWistia's Brendan Schwartz has classic advice—“just do it”—but he adds a caveat: “especially if you’re young.”

Whether they make solar-powered benches or develop applications that help you organize your inbox, Cambridge’s emerging entrepreneurs seem to agree on one thing: The key word in “startup” is just plain “start.”

But putting your idea into practice can get a little messy, especially here in the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. In 2015, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development recorded an estimated 4,800 individual businesses in the city—and that’s not accounting for the more than 3,000 Cambridge residents who file taxes as self employers or “unincorporated businesses.” Essentially, it’s a sea of emerging ideas.

Luckily, that means there are a lot of brilliant brains to pick here, too. We enlisted the help of the people behind 10 already flourishing local startups, who told us what they built and why they’ve been successful. Come for the certifiably cool products. Stay for the advice.

(Part I in this series, featuring wisdom from the folks who dreamt up PlateJoy, Soofa, nuTonomy and more, is available here!)

caredashWho’s this? Ted Chan, CEO and founder of CareDash.

What’s a CareDash? Think Yelp, but for physicians. Unlike other sites of its kind, the folks at CareDash don’t accept money to take down bad reviews. After all, as Chan puts it, “If you have a bad meal at an Indian restaurant, that’s not ideal. But if you’re selecting your healthcare providers based upon information that’s not accurate or fully representative, then that’s an issue.”

Where’d that idea come from? Chan has been a social entrepreneur ever since graduating from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2009, where he worked with health IT systems. “That was what got me looking at the whole ecosystem,” he explains. His overall goal is to narrow the gap between patients and their medical providers.

Cool, but how’s that working out? In just six months, the site has curated approximately 30,000 reviews.

Any advice? For aspiring savers-of-the-world, Chan advises taking on a sustainable idea. “Think of an organization that gives away rabbits to families,” Chan says. “You give them two breeding rabbits, and a year later you have 100 breeding rabbits. I think of my investments of time, money and effort in that way. I think you can build a company that does tremendous social good and have a huge impact, but it can also be a scalable, profitable entity.”

rejjeeWho’s this? Ken Smith, co-founder and head of product and operations for Rejjee.

What’s a Rejjee? Rejjee is a national recovery network that tracks down stolen bikes and other lost items. By working with law enforcement agencies around the country, the free mobile app finds and returns stolen bikes at seven times the national average. “You report it straight from your phone, and the notice goes straight into the cloud, where all the local bike shops and all the local police can see it,” Smith says.

Where’d that idea come from? “The company was founded about three years ago when I was teaching a class on entrepreneurship at the MIT Enterprise Forum, and one of my students came up to me after class and said, ‘I’ve got an idea for a business!’” An avid biker himself, Smith was interested, and development for Rejjee began soon after.

Cool, but how’s that working out? Aside from the numbers, Smith and others at Rejjee have been invited by former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and current Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to the regional cycling event HUB On Wheels. Rejjee was also chosen as the official bike registry of USA Cycling, which Smith calls “the NFL of bikes.”

Any advice? Smith’s motto: “Pay the mortgage first, change the world second. And my second piece of advice is to double your price.”

wistiaWho’s this? Brendan Schwartz, cofounder of Wistia.

What’s a Wistia? “I would say the shortest description is that it’s a video platform built for businesses,” Schwartz explains. His company develops easy-to-use tools to help businesses stay current and keep track of who’s viewing their content in these visually-driven times. “A lot of people just put a video up somewhere, and they’re not sure exactly what it does for them,” Schwartz says. “We’re all about measuring that and using it to actually drive business results.”

Where’d that idea come from? In 2006, Schwartz met co-founder Chris Savage at Brown University. “We used to do a lot of film stuff in college, very video-centric,” Schwartz says, adding that the company took a couple different forms before arriving at its present iteration. “Unlike the startup trope, we didn’t know what we were going for,” he says. “We built a portfolio website for artists. That was where we started, despite our friends and family asking, ‘Aren’t you guys starting a business?’ Sure enough, we did.”

Cool, but how’s that working out? Schwartz admits that growth was slow in the beginning but says people are becoming “much more fluent” when it comes to making videos and using them in different ways. Wistia has gotten bigger and better, and it isn’t done growing just yet; the company now boasts a team of about 80 employees, and they’re actively hiring.

Any advice? Schwartz’s advice is a classic—“just do it”—but he adds a caveat: “especially if you’re young.” He doesn’t see having loose strings and just a little money in the bank as a sign of inexperience. Instead, he says that’s an open door. “When we first started, our calculation was that if this crashes and burns, we will have learned a lot and met a lot of cool people along the way,” Schwartz says. “That is a really good position.”

jobcaseWho’s this? Fred Goff, CEO and founder of Jobcase.

What’s a Jobcase? Coined the only social media site dedicated to empowering America’s workforce, Jobcase is essentially a Facebook page for your career. It’s open-access, free to use and inclusive for all levels of the U.S. job market. Goff says it’s unique from industry giants like LinkedIn because of its natural, community base. “We’ve got an awful lot of folks here in Kendall Square with advanced computer science degrees, but the reality is that we don’t know how to get a job at Walmart or how to get a promotion at Target or how to get onto the path of becoming a nurse,” Goff says. Jobcase’s technology can connect people with the experts around the country who have the answers.

Where’d that idea come from? Jobcase ultimately came out of a hedge fund that Goff started years back, one “that had a lot of success— until it didn’t.” The 2008 economic crash happened, and Goff decided to take the opportunity to do something with his existing technology. “This system, we realized, doesn’t support modern worklife … everyone has to be a free agent now.”

Cool, but how’s that working out? Jobcase has 70 million members across the U.S., which is pretty impressive, given that it all started with three guys in a small MIT classroom.

Any advice? “I think it’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in this sort of company,” Goff says. “It’s easy to get resources. For a few bucks, you can get the best accounting systems, the best CRM systems. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the people.”

my blendWho’s this? Raffaele Colella, founder of My Blend (a new application out of Cannonball).

What’s a My Blend? My Blend turns your messy email inbox into a sleek, personalized online magazine. The app’s mom, Cannonball, is a similar content organizer.

Where’d that idea come from? The inspiration for these email curation tools was born out of the mobility of email. “We are consumed by email, but we also run away from it when we’re on the go,” Colella says. “What the app does is it turns a chore into a pleasant experience.”

Cool, but how’s that working out? Cannonball and My Blend have stacked up more than 200,000 downloads combined.

Any advice? Colella advises taking a step back and getting to know an industry before jumping in. Consider where the field is going and what the problems are, and talk with users and potential future customers. “You can always know better or more beforehand,” Colella says.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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