Startup Spokane Blog

News and Happenings From Spokane’s Startup Scene

2018 Startup Weekend Spokane

Mark your calendars for Friday, November 16th through Sunday, November 18th for Spokane’s 11th Startup Weekend, which will be held at Spokane Valley Tech in Spokane Valley.  The 54 hour event kicks off on Friday evening with dinner and networking, followed by the opportunity for any of the approximately 125 participants to pitch their idea in under 1 minute.  Participants will vote on their favorite 10 ideas, and teams will be formed with participants, who have a wide range of backgrounds and skills. Teams will spend all of Saturday and Sunday conducting market validation and developing a minimum viable product (prototype) that fits the needs of their target customers.  They will receive feedback and guidance from mentors and subject matter experts, which will help to refine the ideas.  The event concludes with final presentations  by each of the teams in front of five very friendly judges.

This year’s event aligns with Techstars Global Startup Weekend, where 15,000 entrepreneurs at 200+ locations around the globe believe they can build a startup in a weekend.  Startup Weekend Spokane encourages participants of all ages, and you don’t have to come with an idea – we want your energy and enthusiasm!  If you are interested in becoming an entrepreneur, or working with entrepreneurs, you should definitely consider participating.  Click here for more information about Startup Weekend Spokane.

EWU launches new tech commercialization academy

Original content by Virginia Thomas
(Journal of Business |


Eastern Washington University’s Bruce Teague says the tech commercialization academy has attracted students from a diverse mix of majors.

Eastern Washington University’s 2-year-old Center for Entrepreneurship is launching an eight-week collaborative summer technology commercialization academy that aims to provide students with real-world experience in finding useful applications for existing patented technologies.

During the academy, scheduled for June 25 through Aug. 17, 12 students will form three teams to find commercial applications for a biodegradable, super-absorbent hydrogel created by Washington State University researchers, says Bruce Teague, associate professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.

“They will go from introduction to this invention, to developing and vetting out possible applications for it, and they will take it all the way to developing a commercial launch plan for those businesses,” Teague says.

The academy is a “co-curricular” that’s not part of EWU’s entrepreneurship degree program, partially due to the fact that students will put in over 120 hours of work over the eight weeks and likely wouldn’t be able to complete other courses at the same time.

“It’s an incredibly powerful kind of learning, but it’s a kind of learning that I just can’t fit into a curricular design,” Teague says of the academy’s emphasis on experimental curricular design. “We try to bring them really good solid information, solidly grounded advice, but then it’s a matter of going and doing.”

The academy is unusual in its collaboration with WSU and with local startup and investment organizations, Teague says.

“I am not aware of anybody else in the state that is doing anything quite like this, and I am aware of very few across the U.S. that are doing something quite like this,” Teague says.

Teague says the original idea for the academy came from EWU provost and vice president for academic affairs Scott Gordon, who had a similar program in 2012 while serving as dean of science, engineering, and education at the University of Southern Indiana, in Evansville, Ind.

“The (Southern Indiana) program has been highly successful and resulted in many students joining together and starting successful business ventures,” Gordon says. “This is a program I was very excited to bring to Eastern.”

Gordon and Teague began searching for funding sources and patented technology for students to work with. Gordon later brought together Teague and Brian Kraft, WSU assistant vice president of innovation and research engagement, in a meeting on technology the students could use.

Ahmad Tootoonchi, dean of the College of Business and Public Affairs at EWU, says that despite the fact the two universities often compete against each other in several areas, the collaboration necessary to create the academy rises above any rivalry.

“Collaboration from two institutions would create an environment where, yes, there would be competition, but education is so sacred that even in our competition, we can help each other grow in a healthy manner,” Tootoonchi says.

Gordon says the academy wouldn’t be able to survive without an emphasis on collaboration.

“Being involved with the concept of technology commercialization for over the decade, it has become more and more evident that the creation of new ideas, business start-ups, and a thorough understanding of the technology and ideation around the commercialization of intellectual property requires a team,” Gordon says. “The collaboration of universities, business, industry, national and federal laboratories, and subject matter experts is vital to the success of such a program.”

Kraft says the students will be working to find commercial applications for a biodegradable polymer created by WSU professor and researcher Jinwen Zhang.

The material is derived from soy protein.

“We take soy protein, digest it in a certain way, and then we apply some chemistry to polymerize it,” Kraft says. “The result is a polymer that has an affinity for water. It’s made of amino acids, so it’s totally biodegradable.”

After Teague secured $124,000 in grant funding from the Seattle-based entrepreneurial education advocacy organization Herbert B. Jones Foundation, the search for students began.

“I was really worried as to whether we could get a good pool of students together this quickly,” Teague says. “But the students who have been applying to this are just so impressive. We’ve got this great mix of degrees coming from across the campus.”

Kraft says he and Teague share a common vision of incorporating students from multiple disciplines into entrepreneurship. Bringing together students of diverse academic fields is key to preparing them for the reality of entrepreneurship outside a university setting, Teague says.

“They get to understand and appreciate what it’s like to work with people who have complementary skills, which is critical in an entrepreneurial startup,” Teague says. “You never start these things alone, and you need people who can do the things that you can’t do.”

Yanxin “Fred” Liu, assistant professor of management at EWU, will lead the academy, but Liu says he won’t be the only instructor.

“It’s not just me teaching this. It’s more like students drive the academy,” Liu says. “Instead of the instructor dominating the classroom, Bruce (Teague) and I position ourselves as facilitators.”

Students will meet for four hours a day, four days each week of the academy. During that time, they will generate ideas for how the polymer could be used, conduct market research, create an investment pitch, create prototypes, create a business model, and discover financing sources. The rest of their time, Teague says, will likely be spent at Startup Spokane, which has provided discounted memberships for all 12 students.

Startup Spokane entrepreneurship program manager Megan Hulsey says, “We are providing a place for the students to work and collaborate, to interact with other entrepreneurs, and to convene and collaborate with experts in other fields. We have also collaborated with some local experts to provide some supportive educational opportunities to help students who are actively working on what could potentially be new businesses here in the community, to understand how businesses are built.”

Teague says experts from startup and investment organizations, including Startup Spokane, will visit the academy to provide their advice and expertise.

There is no tuition for the academy; at the end of the eight weeks, each student will receive $1,500 and the designation of EWU technology commercialization fellow.

“If they’re successful at the end of this program, they will develop a number of document-style deliverables,” Teague says. “When they go out and interview, they will be able to talk about real hands-on experience taking a technology all the way through to how you would launch it as a business.”

Teague says the students will be able to enter their ideas into student business competitions, and if an idea proves viable, they can begin the process of launching the business without relinquishing part ownership. The nature of technology startups requires early investment, which often leads to entrepreneurs selling equity in exchange for investment. Teague says one of the ways to delay that involves participating in business competitions, which can enable students to raise money without giving up equity.

“It helps them build the value of that company before they go out and ask somebody for an investment,” Teague says. “If they happen to go on and launch the business, then there is also an additional fund in place that is kind of a catalyst fund, where six months down the road, if they’ve met certain benchmarks, there’s an additional award for business they can compete for.”

Teague says he sees the potential for the academy to expand to other institutions.

“If we can figure out how to move these ideas forward and really make them viable and to make them launchable, then hopefully we can scale it up and maybe even make it accessible to students from other universities,” he says.

If the first summer academy proves successful and receives enough funding to expand, Kraft says he hopes to be able to include students from WSU’s Pullman campus in future EWU entrepreneurship academies and may someday start a similar academy at the Pullman campus.

Gordon says that the academy will serve an important role in Spokane’s entrepreneur arena.

“With the ever-growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Spokane, this academy will serve as a feeder of early-stage startups to regional entrepreneurial networks, such as Mind to Market,” Gordon says.

Mind to Market LLC consists of a group of Spokane-area investors in early-stage startups.

Hulsey echoes Gordon’s sentiment.

“By integrating students in a very early phase in the whole entrepreneur system, what we’re doing is creating a pipeline of potential founders, leaders, and the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Hulsey says. “I think they are a critical part of building up our ecosystem.”

Teague says he’s optimistic about Spokane’s future entrepreneurial prospects.

“This next five to 10 years is just going to be so dynamic, so incredible for this area, and I think there’s a number of reasons behind it,” he says. “There are a number of institutions, not just university institutions, that are playing collaborative and really important roles in creating opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

StartUp Spokane is showing how economic development gets done down in the trenches where jobs are created

Original content by
(The Inlander | June 7, 2018)

Among the bright spots in Spokane’s Economic Development is StartUp Spokane. StartUp’s program manager, Megan Hulsey, describes StartUp as, “the front door for all entrepreneurs in the Inland Northwest,” providing co-working space, access to mentors, events and workshops and introductions to funding sources and other service providers.

“We cater to all entrepreneurs from those with an idea on the back of a napkin to those having already launched a company,” says Hulsey. “The goal is to provide entrepreneurs a clear path without confusion: where to go next and who to talk to, from inception, to financing and to scaling.”

Spokane has experienced a shrinkage in the number of publicly held companies and large private enterprises. Grant Forsyth, Avista’s regional economist, was recently quoted saying, “To help counter such shrinkage, economic development advocates should focus on supporting policies that make capital available to local companies positioned for growth. Many such funding vehicles are in place, and a continued emphasis on growing our own is essential.”

StartUp serves at the epicenter of Spokane’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and is fueling the creation of new businesses in Spokane.

Here are some details: StartUp provides a physical home for companies to launch, collaborate with mentors, recruit employees and meet potential customers, all for just $100 a month. It is differentiated from other co-working spaces because it is focused on entrepreneurs, offering resources, education and networking for new and emerging companies.

“It serves more as an incubator than as a co-working space,” says Hulsey.” At any given time, StartUp has up to 30 members using its facilities.

One key feature is how StartUp matches entrepreneurs with mentors and provides workshops guided by these seasoned veterans to share the experiences. Jim Fowler, a founder of Jigsaw and Owler, Steve Tabacek, founder of RiskLens, Chris Wood a serial entrepreneur, Rick Repp, a securities attorney with Witherspoon Kelley, Scott Martin a valuation expert with Anastasi, Moore & Martin, and Chris Lynch, an intellectual property attorney with Lee & Hayes, are among the experts who have offered mentorship or have been featured presenters at StartUp.

Rover, the Seattle-based company that recently announced a $155 million financing infusion and is referred to as the “Airbnb for pets,” chose StartUp as its initial Spokane location prior to leasing permanent downtown space. Rover did much of its recruiting of early Spokane-based employees at StartUp.

StartUp organizes and holds at least one networking event and two educational workshops per month, all of which are free to attend. A recent event was focused on crowdfunding and featured two Spokane-based companies — Cyan and Spiceologist — that have completed successful crowdfunding campaigns. The “pitfalls of partnerships” was the focus of another event. These and other resources are available on the StartUp YouTube channel.

StartUp’s programs are a magnet for first time entrepreneurs. Hulsey observes aspiring entrepreneurs generally attend two or three programs before talking to her about an idea. Often by the third visit they approach her and say, “I have this idea but have been afraid to discuss it.”

“We are a place where you don’t need to know everything about how to build a business or secure investment,” says Hulsey. “We will provide connections and resources to help you vet ideas. When you are ready you will have all the information you need,” she continues.

Hulsey actively participates in the Knowledge Network, which consists of representatives from 57 organizations who meet once a month to collaborate and assist entrepreneurs. StartUp is also a partner with the Spokane Angel Alliance in organizing the Triangle Venture Expo on Oct. 4. Mind2Market, a funding source for pre-seed stage companies, leverages StartUp to qualify, coach and prepare new businesses seeking capital from Mind2Market.


A program of GSI, StartUp is funded primarily by private and public sponsors and operates with a very lean annual budget of under $200,000. This is just the kind of economic development infrastructure Spokane and the Inland Northwest must add and support to be a competitive 21st century city. And it’s already paying off, as StartUp assisted in the creation of more than 450 jobs in 2017 and nearly 200 jobs in the first five months of 2018.

Perhaps the most meaningful indication of success is the increasing number of calls Hulsey is taking from Seattle entrepreneurs asking, “What’s it like to do business in Spokane?”

That’s exactly the kinds of calls we need to not only answer but also follow up on. While Seattle is now charging a head tax, which creates a disincentive to successful, growing companies, StartUp Spokane is encouraging and supporting the formation of new businesses. I predict the impact of these opposing developments will be very favorable for Spokane. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined “Laboratory of Growth”

Shared experience can be the most rewarding part of business

A few weekends ago, my son Connor had a group of entrepreneurial friends out to my lake cabin. We hung out on the dock, played games, enjoyed meals together and talked around the campfire. I admired the creativity and enthusiasm of the young men and women as we discussed a wide range of topic.

On the following Monday, Connor was reflecting upon the weekend and commented that one of his friends had said, “Tom will dad anyone.” Initially I was unsure what he meant by this, with “dad” as a verb, nor was I confident it was a compliment. He clarified that the statement implied I took interest in other people, adding that I wasn’t shy to offer unsolicited advice and guidance.

Viewing what Connor said through rose-colored glasses, I made a parallel between my interaction with his group of friends and mentorship. Mentorship is frequently discussed as an important component in the development of successful entrepreneurs, yet it’s a subject that is vaguely understood and often misinterpreted.

As I look back upon my career, I benefited from four different mentors, each at key moments, undertaking new jobs or professions. Interestingly, however, I didn’t know they were mentoring me, or realize the impact of their influence until many years later. Equally enlightening, I doubt each of my mentors consciously intended to become a mentor to me. Mentorship cannot be arranged or forced, it generally occurs naturally.

Mentorship begins as some form of relationship between an individual and someone in a position of influence over them (a boss, co-worker, colleague, investor, etc.) and develops as they gain mutual respect for one another. The mentor sees tremendous potential in the mentee, and the mentee values the experience and contributions of the mentor. They also enjoy each other’s company and, often, a close friendship develops.

Although mentorship may be accidental and unintended at the start, a presumptive mentee needs to be open to accepting advice. They cannot have a naïve or brash sense that they know it all.

A mentor is not someone who always tells you what you want to hear. They support you in decisions they agree with, open doors for you, point out opportunities and challenges and constructively warn you of potential pitfalls.

On the other hand, mentors need to allow a mentee to make poor decisions and learn from those mistakes. One of my mentors frequently said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So true, but it is also important for a mentor to prevent a mentee from making fatal choices.

Effective mentors warn mentees of potentially poor outcomes and steer them away from destructive ones in various ways. Most obvious is simple, direct communication, as in “don’t do that.” I haven’t found this to be an effective means of altering decisions otherwise made by bright and tenacious young adults. War stories from a mentor’s experience, however, are more influential.

Leading by example is of equal impact. When I was a fresh investment banker, I shadowed my mentor as he solicited clients, prepared for meetings, led discussions, performed analysis, negotiated deals and celebrated the closing of a transaction. What I learned from observing and working alongside him continues to serve as my north star in business dealings.

One surprising subtlety in the mentor/mentee relationship is that the mentor is not always right. Since mentors typically have several more years of experience than mentees, and because business models, markets and technology are constantly evolving and being disrupted, mentees may have more innovative or efficient solutions. Additionally, a mentee likely has a different style, approach or risk tolerance than their mentor. It’s important for mentors to understand these dynamics.

I feel I’ve been successful if someone I am mentoring accepts 60 percent of my input. In those cases where my guidance has not been followed, the constructive dialogue has often resulted in better results. I aspire to learn as much from those I have mentored as they have learned from me.

The motivation to mentor is altruistic. It’s purely out of selfless interest in the success of the mentee based on recognition of their talents and the opportunities before them. Having said that, mentorship is among the most fulfilling of life experiences.

A close friend of a person I was mentoring once interrogated me as to why I was being so helpful and what was in it for me. It wasn’t clear to her at the time, but it is now.

As time goes on, life happens, people move and mentors and mentees may lose contact with one another. Yet the nature of the relationship continues. My last mentor, community leader Dave Clack, continues to influence me today — in all walks of life.

I was recently skiing in Sun Valley and ran into Dave, who is very gifted on the slopes. After a few runs together, he asked if I was open to some pointers. Two hours later, although I fell a couple of times, I was skiing better than ever. Dave and I each had a great day on the mountain. And for me, that pretty much summarizes mentorship. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined “Mentor It Forward”

Developing an APP-etite with WildRide

Original content by Treva Lind
(Journal of Business | May 24, 2018)

WildRide Inc., a new Spokane venture created by recent Gonzaga University graduates, serves up a twist on culinary adventures.Hope Morgan and Chloe Sabo are among five Gonzaga seniors who co-founded the business providing a free smartphone app for users to download that will send them to a mystery restaurant or bar. WildRide’s app launched in late April, and is available for download on iOS and Android devices.

Deciding on where to eat can be a challenge as people kick around ideas, Sabo says, so WildRide’s app is designed to guide them to restaurants that have positive ratings. The secret locations are usually within a 15-mile radius of app users.

“The problem we’re solving is you’re sitting around and trying to decide where to eat for the night,” Sabo says. “Usually with the conversation, it just goes back and forth. We want to make that decision-making process easier.”

Based on choices people make using the app, including menu prices, it loads up guidance to an eatery without revealing the destination.

WildRide’s other owners are Cody Lippert, Stephanie Forsyth, and Max Eckhardt. All five owners graduated May 13 with GU business degrees. Two weeks before graduation, they launched the app, after developing the business in a GU accelerator startup course last semester.

Everyone in the group is 22 years old. Passing down other job offers, Morgan and Sabo say they’ll devote full-time efforts in Spokane this summer toward WildRide. Other co-founders will work for WildRide part time around full-time jobs, Morgan says.

WildRide has about 50 Spokane restaurants among app options, and that number will expand, she adds. Most eateries are in downtown Spokane, but others are in the Perry District and north Spokane. In the first two weeks of operation, WildRide had about 500 app downloads.

“We are doing our test phase in Spokane this summer,” Morgan says. “We’re looking to expand most likely into Seattle next.”

While people use the app without charge, they separately pay for their restaurant or bar tab, as well as for Uber if they’ve used that service.

After app testing, the restaurants that want to continue using WildRide will pay $1 per person in a WildRide party coming to eateries, Morgan says. The source of business income will be total fees paid by restaurants and bars using it as a marketing tool.

“We have incorporated Yelp into WildRide,” she says.

“We’re testing the app, so the restaurants are on WildRide for free currently,” Morgan adds. “We’re hoping in six months to go to restaurants and say, ‘We’ve sent you about 100 customers. Do you want to continue using WildRide? And if so, please sign up,’ and they’ll start paying.”

Morgan says WildRide is using a business model similar to OpenTable, a reservation website and app, which charges eateries a fee per person booking at a restaurant.

Users of the app can select a bar, restaurant, or place that offers both among three top icons. People also can select a location by price ranges, starting from a single dollar sign to four dollar signs—a restaurant industry standard, Sabo says.

With confirmation of how many people are going on the ride, users then can confirm a nearby location, although they don’t see the name of the place or address at first. From the app, people can select an Uber ride or turn-by-turn navigation if driving themselves to a site. With that confirmation, app users press start to receive navigational steps.

Why the mystery? Sabo says, “Because it gives you a wild ride, an adventure. It gives you something to talk about on the way.”

Sabo says the business can’t guarantee customers haven’t previously visited a restaurant before they’ve used the app, but as people continue to use WildRide, its technology makes sure it doesn’t send people to the same place in a subsequent app-directed journey.

The group behind WildRide all studied together, although they pursued a mix of business majors. The inspiration for the business started after Morgan in an earlier entrepreneurship class picked up two random words on pieces of paper.

“We were taking an entrepreneurship class all together in fall 2017, and we were doing an in-class exercise where you’d have pieces of paper and write random words, then take pieces of those papers and put two together,” Morgan says. “I got Uber and roulette. I thought how can we make Uber roulette work? We came up with WildRide.”

Morgan adds, “After that, we worked on it for the rest of the semester just as an in-class project, and we got really excited about it, so we got invited to another class for this semester called Startup Accelerator.”

Sabo explained that in the startup course, entrepreneurship professor Todd Finkle takes mostly a hands-off approach, mainly bridging business connections and basic advice.

“We could go to him and bounce off ideas,” Sabo says.

The group also worked with another professor, Tim Krauss, who runs a business called App to Market. “He has coders in India,” Sabo says. “He watched one of our presentations and came to us and said, ‘I can help you do this for a little less.’”

This summer, Morgan and Sabo plan to add more restaurants in Spokane Valley and Coeur d’Alene. WildRide can track the number of customers sent to restaurants, because once a party arrives to within 500 feet of each mystery destination, a pop-up screen shows the restaurant’s name, phone number, photos and address.

“On the screen, there’s a button that the customer clicks that says, ‘I’m in,’ and it means you’re actually going to dine there,” Morgan says.

The co-owners have invested privately in the company and received startup funding through an entrepreneurial contest. Additionally, they recently presented to the Spokane Angel Alliance seeking investors. Any investor funds will be used for marketing, further app development, and expansion costs, Morgan says.

Morgan says, “The founders each put in $10,000 of their own money, so $50,000 has been invested into the business. We also came in second place in the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition at Whitworth University this year.”

That entrepreneurship contest secured a $3,000 award and two months of free office space at the Startup Spokane headquarters. That’s where Morgan and Sabo plan to work.

Morgan adds, “We’re determined. We figure right now is the best time in our lives to take a risk.”

A collection of quotes to guide your entrepreneurial acumen

Original content by Tom Simpson
(The Inlander May 3, 2018)

“Culture trumps strategy,” author unknown, is among my favorite quotes and one I frequently pass on to entrepreneurs seeking insight on how to build a successful business. Creating a differentiated product, targeting a rapidly growing market and establishing a profitable business model is important, but none of those guarantee success if you don’t have a team that is aligned, empowered and excited to show up to work every day.

I often use quotes as a concise and colorful means of motivating and inspiring teams. Effective quotes are like commercial jingles — they are punchy, memorable and drive action. They’re among the building blocks many founders and CEOs deploy as they develop a desired culture or outcome. I regularly observe famous quotes stenciled on the hallways and in the conference rooms of innovative and emerging companies or in their marketing materials.

Avis, for example, famously made good use of, “If you can’t fix it, feature it,” by Sir Ernest Shackleton. In 1962, Avis was second to Hertz with 11 percent market share and had not been profitable in 13 years. To fix this, the company embraced their No.-2 status by proudly featuring it in advertisements along with a new tagline: “We try harder.” Avis’ campaign, and supporting maniacal focus on customer service, changed everything. By 1966, Avis had a 35 percent market share and was making money.

Wayne Williams, former CEO of Telect and currently general manager of Amphenol Telect, and one of our region’s most prominent entrepreneurs, has assembled a slide deck of leadership quotes he features in presentations to management teams. His favorites, as well as the context under which he uses them, are shared below.

“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success,” by Thomas Edison. Williams uses this to communicate to engineers and others that no matter how great an idea is, unless you can exchange money between two parties, it’s just an idea and not a commercially viable product.

“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and move on with improving your other innovations,” by Steve Jobs. This quote reminds teams not to focus so exclusively on perfection that they can’t stop, learn, develop another innovation and pivot.

“Only the paranoid survive,” by Andy Grove. Williams highlights this quote by one of the founders of Intel to instill a healthy dose of fear in the minds of team members. “The competitor you know is trying to take your lunch away,” Williams likes to add, “and there’s another one you don’t know also trying to steal it.”

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” by Albert Einstein. Doing something with movement, even imperfectly, is better than sitting idle or with fear of failure, per Williams.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” by Abraham Lincoln. Although Williams uses a chainsaw today, what he likes about this quote is that it drives home the importance of preparing for the task; readying the tools, equipment and people.

Williams himself is quite quotable, and I often preach one that he coined more than 20 years ago, “It is who you know that gets you the look, it’s what you show that gets you the work and it’s what you do that lets you keep it.” This summarizes the fundamentals of old fashioned yet solid business practice.

Other local entrepreneurs I have worked with also maintain a repertoire of favorite quotes.

Andy Barrett, founder of Berg Co.: “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way” (author unknown).

Jordan Allen, co-founder & CEO of Stay Alfred: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got,” by Tony Robbins.

John Pariseau, local real estate developer: “Necessity is the mother of taking chances,” by Mark Twain.

Josh Neblett, co-founder & CEO of etailz: “If you dislike change, you are going to like irrelevance even less,” by retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki. Neblett also has one of his own: “Don’t make the mistake of making money.” The context for his quote is the incredible valuations money-losing unicorns often receive from investors. Although counter to my training as a certified public accountant, I tend to agree with him in situations where capital is no object.

Occasionally quotes get tweaked over time. Historically, I have aspired to “underpromise, overperform,” as management guru Tom Peters put it. That was until I heard Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, say, “overpromise and overperform,” which I now advocate as part of my personal “no excuse policy.”

My own made-up quote is, “Don’t get Netflixed.” Blockbuster could have and should have pivoted to the business model ultimately deployed by Netflix. Instead, Blockbuster’s management either misread the future, were resistant to change or couldn’t rally the troops. Which leads to my final quote for you to ponder: “Onward and upward,” also by President Lincoln. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined “Words of Wisdom”

Building Successful Teams: The Importance of Humility in Leadership

Building Successful Teams: The Importance of Humility in Leadership

You have a great idea. You founded a company.  Congratulations! You’re now a CEO. You have a great team and now it’s time to perform…Unfortunately, that could make everything that’s come before seem easy. I know that sounds crazy, but building a strong, competent and productive team is one of the most important things you will do to set your fledgling company on the path to success, but it’s also one  of the hardest.

Fortunately, many of the founders who came before you have struggled through this, and few have passed on what Moz founder, Rand Fishkin , calls “cheat codes” to help you through this phase. Even if you’re not a startup CEO, if you manage people these “cheat codes” are ideas, tips and hacks will help you leverage the strengths of your team and help you elevate the quality of your team’s contributions.

Kim Scott, a former team leader and executive at Google and Apple shares many fantastic strategies in her book, Radical Candor.  One of the keys to being a great boss and building a highly functional team is humility.  According Scott, humility is “absolutely essential when delivering both praise and criticism.” Leaders who are humble invite and encourage candid dialogue from their employees. This shows that they are invested in their employees, interested in their ideas and committed to finding the best ideas for the company. These leaders recognize that they can learn from and alongside their team members through robust debate.  Steve Jobs likened this process to placing rocks in a tumbler: you put in ordinary rocks with a little grit add a little time, energy and noise and like the polished stone, your ideas are more refined and beautiful.

A great team leader understands that her job is to create a safe environment for debate, and also manage the debate to ensure that it is robust and productive. Some hints for managing these debates include:

  • Keep the focus on ideas, not egos. The goal is to find the best idea, not to “win.” Encourage your team to keep an open mind and be willing to accept new information and ideas.
  • Create an obligation to dissent. If your team is in complete agreement when a new idea or process is laid out, assign a team member to play the Devil’s Advocate, and try to present the best ideas they can come up with on the opposite side.
  • Pause for Emotion/exhaustion. Read the situation. Sometimes debates become too emotionally charged or your team is too tired to engage in a productive debate. When this happens, take a break and reconvene at a later date.
  • Use humor and have fun! Set the tone for the conversation with a humorous anecdote or an explanation of why you’re excited to work with your team on this initiative.
  • Be clear when the debate will end. Some topics can be decided in a single meeting. Others may need more time for participation and deliberation. In those cases, you may want to have a “decide by” date so that all participants know what the deadline is to submit ideas and share feedback.
  • Pull the facts into the decision, but keep ego out. Help guide the team to make the best decision based on the facts. In most cases you will not be (and should not be) the decision maker. The decision makers should be the people with the best information. As a leader, your job is to make sure those people have that information.

Your team can be your biggest asset, but only if you exercise humility as a leader.  Invite them to apply their skills, their intelligence, their commitment to the organization and its goals by fully integrating them into your decision making processes.

GSI Investor Highlight: Gravwell

Gravwell co-founder and CEO Corey Thuen

For Gravwell co-founder and CEO Corey Thuen, data is king.

Thuen wanted an easier way to sort through data, the foundation for any modern technology company. Using existing data products proved difficult and expensive, so Thuen and Gravwell’s co-founder, Kris Watts, built their own platform to help their cybersecurity jobs at the time. It turns out that their data platform was able to handle more data, and provided opportunities for businesses to pull out more information that can improve their operations.

For Thuen, it was easy to see that this new platform had wider applications than just cybersecurity. Gravwell is a data analytics platform to help companies make sense of the vast amounts of data generated by the Internet of Things and Humans.

“Everything from databases to dishwashers are spitting out ones and zeroes,” Thuen said.

One of the main products in the data industry was built in 2003, but few others have broken through to become heavily adopted.

Gravwell’s Leah Figueroa and Corey Thuen speak on camera at the Wild West Hackin Fest in South Dakota.

Watts’ work with the Department of Energy essentially centered around rebooting the Internet, in case of a widespread issue. That work helped fuel the desire to build something new, which meant starting from the ground-up. Gravwell was born shortly after, helping companies understand the data that comes from consumer interactions.

“We’re using more data now than ever before,” he said. “The amount of data being used since 2003 has exploded.”

Although the company is still in its infancy, Gravwell has received coverage in several influential media outlets. In October last year, the BBC highlighted the company’s recent analysis of comments submitted to the FCC regarding net neutrality. Most of the 22 million comments were submitted in bulk, and had several reasons for being labeled suspicious. According to their findings, only 17.4 percent of the more than 22 million comments were unique. Gravwell was also featured in Ars Technica for their data reporting regarding net neutrality.

Gravwell’s Leah Figueroa speaks at ShmooCon in Washington, D.C.

The business started running full-time in August 2017, growing to a team of five engineers and developers, all working remotely. Gravwell’s provides businesses with a different pricing model, one that doesn’t hurt someone on the amount of data they use. Instead, pricing tiers are based on the amount of equipment used.

While the business is still in its infancy, Gravwell’s board of directors is very enthusiastic about its position in the marketplace. Among their board includes Ron Gula, former CEO and co-founder of the Tenable Network Security from 2002-2016. During Gula’s tenure as CEO, Tenable Network Security grew to more than 20,000 worldwide customers and achieved annual revenues of more than $100 million.

Thuen says Gula is passionate about Gravwell’s future, and even aids developers in finding bugs before software releases.

Unlike some modern businesses coming from Silicon Valley, Gravwell is focused on sustainable, long-term growth.

“We’re not in it for a get rich and get out approach,” Thuen said.

While Gravwell is still pursuing their first large sale, Thuen said reception around the company at trade shows and conventions has been overwhelmingly positive. The business is active in the Startup Spokane community, attending regular networking events, and became a Greater Spokane Incorporated member in November 2017. Startup Spokane is a program of GSI.

“Being a new company in enterprise software is challenging. Finding the right customer is important,” he said.

Thuen said he hopes businesses are open to discussing the value and opportunities available from using Gravwell’s platform.

To learn more about Gravwell, visit

2018 Northwest Entrepreneur Competition Fosters Innovative Ideas

The 2018 Northwest Entrepreneur Competition featured 24 teams across three categories – Technology, Traditional Business, and Open.  More than 60 teams from our region’s colleges, universities, and even high schools entered the competition with their pitch video and executive summaries in February, with the field being narrowed to 8 finalists in each of the three categories for the final presentations that occurred on Tuesday, April 17th.  A total of $42,000 in cash prizes, plus in-kind coworking space memberships were awarded to the top three teams in each category.

I had the opportunity to participate in the Technology category and was very impressed with the quality of ideas and presentations.  I’ll provide a brief recap of the top three teams in this category:

First Place Team – PickItUp

The team from University of Idaho knocked it out of the park.  PickItUp is an on demand service for hauling, transporting, or delivering your large and bulky items that won’t fit in your car, with a simple pricing model and one goal in mind – to streamline getting your items from point A to point B while saving you time and money. Whether you are moving apartments, needing to get a new couch home from the store, or you found that treadmill on craigslist you can’t live without, they are there to help you move it.



2nd Place Team – WildRide

This team from Gonzaga University has created a web-based application that connects people to bars and restaurants in a creative and adventurous way.  Users set parameters for what type of destination they are looking for and the app chooses a mystery bar or restaurant, and provides transportation.  Here’s the business model – the app is free to download and use.  Restaurants and bars pay a fee for every person in the WildRide party that is dropped off at their establishment. The team has already invested $50K of their own money into the launch of WildRide, and are seeking an additional capital investment.

3rd Place Team – UpKeep

This team from Gonzaga University has created an app that bridges the gap between landlords and tenants in a new way that will be a stress relieving and money saving asset to any landlord. UpKeep will be a platform for direct deposit of rent payments to the landlord’s bank account. Landlords will be able to monitor which tenants have and have not paid, while relying on UpKeep to automatically notify tenants when rent is due or when late fees are owed. When tenants need to inform landlords of repairs/maintenance, they will utilize the repair request offered by UpKeep. This team has already invested $15K of their own money into the launch of UpKeep.

All three teams are planning to commercialize their ideas, and have been invited to pitch at an upcoming Spokane Angel Alliance luncheon in hopes of securing additional investment from angel investors.

Startup Spokane Community Manager (New Position)

Are you interested in contributing to the success of local startups? Join our team!

Greater Spokane Incorporated is hiring a Community Manager for Startup Spokane. This exempt position will support the program as the membership and space management guru. Additional responsibilities will include event coordination, developing and implementing a social media plan, and filling the role of editor for our weekly newsletter among other duties. The ideal candidate will have strong business communication and writing skills. Business management or entrepreneurial experience is helpful.

For questions about this position, contact Startup Spokane Program Manager Megan Hulsey at 509-701-5257

Click here for the Startup Spokane Community Manager Job Description