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Putting Team First


In your opinion, how important is the founding team to a company’s success?

If you said it’s the most important factor, and you believe your choice of co-founders is the biggest predictor of your company’s success, you’re not alone. The top early-stage investors agree. Ron Conway said “We start with the people first.”  Paul Graham wrote “The most important ingredient is formidable founders.” When Dorm Room Fund first launched in New York, First Round Capital partners Josh Kopelman, Howard Morgan, and Phin Barnes each told us that the quality of the founding team is the most important factor in their investment decisions. Team is paramount. It’s what makes companies successful and it’s the first thing investors evaluate in a pitch.

Given how widespread this view is, it can be surprising how little preparation some companies seem to devote to pitching themselves as a team. Discussing their market and product, they are thoughtful, polished, and equipped with killer slides and compelling research. When it comes to talking about their team, though, they often speed through a plain-vanilla slide (usually at the back of the deck) as though it’s an obstacle in the way of the interesting stuff.

It’s not an obstacle, it’s the entire race.

It’s evident when founders haven’t put time into figuring out how to talk about themselves and one another. The problem is not merely that this part of your pitch lacks polish. Rather, the lack of polish is signaling something much more fundamental – and negative – about you and your company. If you don’t invest enough effort developing the way you talk about team in a pitch, it calls into question whether you invest enough effort developing the team itself.

Do you?

Try answering these questions:

  • How many hours have you devoted to learning about your customers?
  • How much do you know about your competitors?
  • What’s the hardest problem for your company to overcome?

Now these:

  • How many hours have you devoted to learning about your co-founder?
  • How much do you know about your co-founder’s family?
  • What was the hardest problem your co-founder ever had to overcome?

If you had difficulty answering the second set of questions, and many founders do, then have you really dedicated enough time to understanding your co-founders at a deep and personal level? Are you really treating your ‘team’ like it’s the most important factor in your company’s success? I would argue not. (If you didn’t have trouble, good job, but keep going; those were easy.)

To value your co-founders appropriately – not to mention to manage your team well – you need to understand them beyond their skills and accomplishments. Learn about their motivations, their experience with conflict and hardship, their family, their philosophical views, and whatever else has been important to them in their lives outside of your company. These things shape how they will work with you, your investors, your employees, and your customers. They shape how a future argument will go down (it will happen) and how well your team will endure the hard-slog of bootstrapping.

It’s not just the state of knowing these things that is important, it’s dedication to the process of learning. Your relationship with your co-founder needs to scale as quickly as your company or else it will become a constraint. Like any feature, it needs to be developed deliberately. Conversations about personal history and goals, feedback sessions, and bonding activities; these should be as planned and frequent as feature pipelines, sprints, and releases. Even if your co-founder is your childhood friend, it is important to take an intentional approach to continuously developing your relationship. These conversations will feel forced at first. Over time, they will become natural. If nothing else you’ll get to know your partner better.

Turning back to the pitch, I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting you tell every founder’s life story – that’s probably too much. Then again, there’s no formula. Just spend time learning about your team, and once you know them better, spend time preparing how you talk about them. Find what resonates for you as people. It doesn’t take much for investors to notice that you’ve put work into getting to know each other as well as you know your market. If you actually have, you’ll appear genuine, and your team will seem stronger. More importantly, you actually will be stronger.

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BoardRounds: Improving Patient Care by Optimizing Emergency Room Efficiency


The DRF NYC team is extremely happy to announce our investment in BoardRounds, a startup that focuses on optimizing the post-discharge care of emergency room patients to save time and money for hospitals, health insurers and most importantly, patients. The team is led by CEO Benjamin Jack and CTO Aditya Mukerjee. The founders attended Columbia University as undergrads and met through a Columbia professor after graduating. Both continued along higher education as Benji received his MD from Weill Cornell Medical College and Aditya recently wrapped up graduate work at Cornell Tech. Aditya is also a former member of the DRF NYC investment team. Both bring a lot of medical experience to the table as Benji holds an MD and Aditya comes from a family of doctors. They have seen up close and personal the multitude of problems within the medical sector.

The medical industry in the United States has seen more than its fair share of problems and inefficiencies lately. Specifically speaking, emergency rooms typically struggle to deal with peak demand and often have a lack of beds for patients. Hospitals are looking for ways to reduce length of stay, decrease readmission penalties, and improve patient satisfaction. That’s where BoardRounds comes in.

CEO Benjamin Jack

CEO Benjamin Jack

CTO Aditya Mukerjee

CTO Aditya Mukerjee





BoardRounds provides a solution to address these issues. With BoardRounds’ application, hospital staff members can better identify, schedule, track and communicate with patients to improve process efficiency. The core idea is, the more that healthcare providers and hospital systems can improve communication with their patients, the more cost effective and efficient the overall process will become.

In addition to DRF NYC joining BoardRounds recent financing, other investors participating include Greg Pass, former CTO of Twitter, and strategic investors including individuals who have invested in Oscar and Flatiron Health. Thatcher Bell, Managing Director at Gotham Ventures and BoardRounds investor had the following to say: “Even the most advanced drug therapies and other treatments are irrelevant if patients don’t use them as directed. By improving patient adherence, the BoardRounds solution will lead to healthier patients and lower overall healthcare costs. Benji and Aditya have the healthcare domain knowledge and technical capability to bring that solution to market.”We are very much looking forward to the work Benji and Aditya are doing, and would like to extend a big welcome to the DRF Family!

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Forget NYC & SF: 11 Reasons Graduating Founders Should Stay Put


Where are you setting up shop post-graduation? University of Pennsylvania Graduation 2014 (Photo Cred: Steph Weiner)

Here at The University of Pennsylvania, the vast majority of technology and entrepreneurship oriented graduates have packed up and moved to New York or San Francisco. While that makes sense for seniors who have accepted full-time positions in the technology industry, I was surprised to hear that most student founders were leaving too.

As a Dorm Room Fund Partner, I have been lucky enough to speak in-depth with student founders from Philadelphia’s University City, Penn State’s Happy Valley, Ann Arbor, The Research Triangle, Boston, NYC, The Bay Area and more. When starting a company the choice of location really depends on the type of business you are building, the college you went to, and your unique business needs. For founders drafting their pro/con lists, I’ve listed eleven reasons for sticking around. Check out the key reasons below, and feel free to comment with your own opinions surrounding the decision of whether to leave or stay put.

1. Access To Cheap, Quality Technical Talent: While there might be hundreds of brilliant engineers running around campus, good engineers are a hot commodity in The Bay Area and NYC. Lucky for you, student engineers want real-world experiences that will help beef-up their resumes once they enter the working world. If you offer current students a rich opportunity to learn, which is flexible with their class schedule, then they might intern for you for free or next to nothing. Also, some universities offer students class credit for internships. With the cost per class at a private university as high as $5,000, you might have a very lucrative proposition.

It can seem that startups outside of the big two cities are at a disadvantage when hiring full-time, because engineers generally prefer to live in those cities. Your advantage is that you have the opportunity to access the brightest minds first, have them buy into your vision, and convince them to stay.

2. Confident Team Building: One of the hardest challenges when starting a business is finding the right initial team members who set the company culture. If you stay near campus and hire current students for semester-long internships, then by their graduation you will have a clear picture about whether you want to permanently add them to your team.  In addition, it is easy to learn about someone’s work ethic by talking to their peers who have worked in a group project or taken a class with a potential hire.

3. Be Scrappy: Without a meal plan or dorm room, graduated founders often see operating expenses skyrocket. New York and San Francisco are arguably the two most expensive cities in the nation, where rent, groceries, talent, and daily expenses just cost more. By staying where you are, you can bootstrap longer, stretch your round further, and hold onto more of your business’s equity. Plus, you’ll seem really scrappy and savvy to any investors you approach.

4. Stay Close To Your Mentors: As a young founder you will inevitably need guidance along the way, and you have accumulated mentors during your tenure as a student. The ability to pop into an industry expert, supporting professor, or administrator’s office as soon as something goes awry is invaluable.

5. Be The Center of Attention: Any potential partner, investor or customer will run a quick Google search, and it is a huge plus if you have an established web presence beyond your own site. In NYC and San Francisco, you will be competing for the attention of journalists with thousands of other businesses. One of the easiest ways to build your visibility when TechCrunch isn’t knocking is to have a strong relationship with someone at your school newspaper and keep them updated as you accomplish major milestones. They will probably also have connections to local reporters who can help you expand your reach even further.

Aaron Dinin of Rocketbolt has found this attention to be invaluable in gaining both investor and customer attention:

“By operating out of Durham instead of one of the bigger tech hubs, RocketBolt has been able to get plenty of attention from investors and customers around the country. One of the reasons for that success has been not having to cut through as much ‘noise’ coming from other local startups.”

6. Free Workspace: Besides the ability to bum around campus and do work from the library, many universities are actually offering students free offices. At Penn, there are several places that will offer you a free desk and access to a conference room. While you need to apply when you are still a student, once you graduate they generally won’t take the keys away.

7. Power Individuals Come To You: Famous and successful individuals frequent campuses for speaking engagements and come with the mindset of wanting to impart their wisdom. Keep track of when these events are happening, and go! Capitalize on their giving mindset and approach them with a genuine, thoughtful question that pertains to your business. Who knows? Maybe they will connect with you again and open up their network to you.

8. Test Market: If you are working on a business that is consumer facing, college campuses are fantastic test markets. By calling on your peers to try out your product, you can get quick feedback and iterate faster. This is especially true of products with a social aspect, where you can get a critical mass of connected individuals interacting quite quickly.

9.  Fewer Distractions: If you stay in your college town, you won’t feel the pressure to schmooze at every tech meetup and be seen at every event. With your class already having graduated, you can put your head down and get the job done. Isn’t that what building a business is really about?

Dorm Room Fund founder Dan Shipper has said that building his business outside “the echo chamber” has been invaluable.

10. You Snoozed Through Your Degree, Now What?: It can be hard to realize the value of the resources at your disposal in the college setting until you have real world experience to put them into perspective. By staying close, you can audit valuable lessons, make use of library databases, attend relevant conferences and speaking engagements, and perhaps even ask the professors to help you to apply their research directly to your business. Coursera has nothing on that.

Dorm Room Fund Founder Alison Berliner of PopInShop has reaped the benefits of campus content:

“You not only have access to professors but also to courses or content you want to apply to your business. I’m attending a conference at Wharton next week on operations in retail, and my team and I regularly tap into the market research databases that only students have access to.”

11. It’s Okay To Fail: There’s something about a college campus that rewards risk and destigmatizes failure. Even though you might have already graduated, you still started as a student entrepreneur and will have a forgiving network of supporters on campus.

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Dorm Room Fund’s Process


Dorm Room Fund is often the first institutional money our student founders ever receive. In fact, many of the companies we see pitch are led by first time founders with limited knowledge of the fundraising processes or the venture community. With that in mind, the goal of this post is to give student entrepreneurs insight into the Dorm Room Fund process and to ease the anxiety associated with a student entrepreneur’s first capital raise.

Dorm Room Fund engagement starts at the ground level. As you may expect, Dorm Room Fund Partners are all exceptionally involved in the student entrepreneurial ecosystem. I think the fact that our Partners and Founders attend the same events and are members of the same community significantly enhances the DRF portfolio company experience.  Student founders have consistently validated this hypothesis. They have told us that it is much less intimidating to go through the process with a peer whom they can trust and are more comfortable asking the “stupid” questions. Although many of our portfolio companies come from our immediate community, our team can only be in so many places at once. We strongly encourage student entrepreneurs to tell us about their company on our website, and to reach out to one or more of the Partners with any questions they may have. The NYC team bios are located here.

After a student founder establishes contact with Dorm Room Fund, she or he will have the opportunity to meet with one of the DRF Partners, preferably in-person. We love to see demos, but we put an even greater emphasis on the team’s understanding of the market and their vision for the company. Our Partners will also spend time during the first meeting to discuss Dorm Room Fund, our processes, and how we could potentially help the company succeed. If the initial meeting goes well, the company will have the opportunity to meet with a second Partner. The purpose of this meeting is for the DRF team to get a second opinion on the company, monitor the founders’ progress, and dive deeper into the business model.

For companies in conversation with Dorm Room Fund NYC,  if the Partners with the most relevant knowledge of the company would like to bring the founders in to present, they will announce their intention to the rest of the DRF team. There will be a discussion with the full partnership, and if the conversation moves forward, the company will be invited to present to the Fund. In my experience, these company presentations are illuminating and constructive for both the DRF Founders and Partners. Although we allow for significant flexibility, presentations are typically 30 minutes in length, with roughly half of the time dedicated to Q&A. We generally aim to get back to the founders with our investment decision within one week.

From my experience, the entire process is exciting and insightful for everyone involved.

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A salad a day in your own home with Grove



When I was younger, my family used to have two tomato vines in our yard in Florida that would produce the most delicious tomatoes on a weekly basis. Though I was too young to have to worry too much about them, after a while I grew accustomed to their freshness and couldn’t bring myself to buy another store-bought tomato. We didn’t have any other fresh vegetables, though, because the tomatoes were extremely high-maintenance! Watering, pruning, keeping out bugs, and seasonal unavailabilities eventually became too much of a hassle to keep them going.

Enter Grove Labs — having just raised $2m, they’re working to enable everyone to grow fresh produce in their home year-round. A true “dorm room” company, Grove was started by Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron while they were living in their MIT fraternity. Driven by a desire to eat well and an engineering curiosity, Jamie built an aquaponic gardening system that soon became the talk of their living group — a low-maintenance, low-cost, high-deliciousness way to grow fruits and vegetables. They now want to scale their technology so that every home in the US can grow a salad a day in their own kitchen, living room, or any room in the house with beautifully-designed modules. Tomatoes in a cabinet, wheatgrass in a drawer, and carrots in another. All monitored and re-stocked via a mobile app. It’s the next generation of agriculture.

The local and organic food movements are growing:  there were $1.3 billion in direct local-food sales in 2014 while in 2012, organic food saw $30 billion in revenue. Last year, according to a WSJ blog post, investors put $74.2M into horticulture companies, the most since 2000. I once asked Jaime, “who would be interested in this?” Not a whole lot of people grow their own vegetables because of the difficulty and limitations based on where they live (such as having to have a yard in many cases). Jaime’s answer was simple: “everyone.” This is an idea that could revolutionize the food movement — everyone eats (or should eat) fruits and vegetables, after all. Many people cook in their kitchens instead of going out to eat because it’s cheaper and more customizable. Why not grow your own vegetables instead of going out to get them?

Every once in a while a company comes along fueled by such a genuine passion that it’s almost contagious. When I first met the Grove team, I was astounded by their ambition and drive that the founders had around a focused vision: bringing this beautifully-designed farming appliance at the intersection of agriculture, hardware, and design into every home. This drive  has led them to raise a $2M ‘seedling’ round, enter the MassChallenge accelerator, and surround themselves with similarly amazing people. It’s been a pleasure seeing Grove grow, and I look forward to see what they can do as they expand their team and their company.

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Graduation Day


Reblogged from Josh Kopelman’s RedEye VC:

From the moment he stepped on UPenn’s campus as a freshman, Dan Shipper knew that he wanted to learn how to build a real software business. Fast forward four short years. Today, he’s announcing the sale of his first companyFirefly, to Pegaystems.

Firefly was founded two years ago to enable “co-browsing,” allowing people to share and see only what is on someone else’s browser, not their entire screen. It’s become an indispensable collaboration tool for small businesses and large enterprises alike.

We couldn’t be more proud to work with Dan and his team. Both he and the company have played a meaningful role in our community from the start. In 2012, Firefly was the very first investment of our Dorm Room Fund, kicking off a program that has since expanded to four cities and funded dozens of other entrepreneurial students.  And they are now the Dorm Room Fund’s first exit.  Personally, I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve gotten to spend with Dan as a thought partner, mentor and friend. With today’s news, I’m sure he’ll be in high demand as a mentor himself — he’s already a terrific example for students who want to shape technology and the world.

When I say this, I’m not just talking about Dan’s professional success. He’s a role model in many other ways. Even when he had his pick of job opportunities as early as his sophomore year, he committed to staying in school, and didn’t give up on the idea of building something as a student. As a former student entrepreneur myself, I know how challenging this decision can be, and what it’s like to choose the hard road.

Dan is one of those people who isn’t remotely interested in the easy road. He’d rather be learning — both by reading as much as he can, and soliciting input from everyone around him. When we’d meet up, he’d come prepared with a long list of topics and questions to discuss. He wasn’t just concerned with present needs and problems — he was already thinking several moves ahead. Actively seeking feedback is one of the most valuable qualities founders can have, especially young entrepreneurs who have yet to weather their own successes and failures. Dan never balked at declaring himself a beginner, and it became one of his strengths.

Whenever he did learn something new or discovered something that worked, Dan would share it with others. He started his blog in 2011 to chronicle his journey, and today it is filled with lessons, observations, experiments and findings that others can apply to build companies of their own. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re an entrepreneur at any age. You’ll find something helpful there.

With Firefly, it was great to see Dan surround himself with equally dedicated, growth-oriented people. His co-founder Justin Meltzer was literally always in the First Round Philadelphia office. Seriously. For a while, I thought he slept here. Together, they’ve made a formidable team, constantly improving the product and better serving their customers.  (And occasionally setting off our office alarm at 2 in the morning).

It’s always nice to see good things happen to good people.

While Dan and Justin both recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, the education that they’ve gotten building Firefly and navigating the M&A process with Pegasystems is truly enviable. In the past two years, they developed expertise in product development, marketing, sales, hiring, and fundraising that’s comparable to what most people learn over the course of a career.

Of course we’ll miss them around our Philly office — but we can’t wait for them to start their next company so we can work with them again.

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Passing The Torch: Welcome, New Philly Partners!


I was lucky enough to have joined Dorm Room Fund right at its beginning, in the fall of 2012.  It was a brand new concept, and we felt privileged to help figure out how the first fund would operate on a day-to-day basis. We were nervous and quietly wondered- who is crazy enough to give control of a half million dollars to a group of students, most of whom are under 21 years old? Mostly, though, we were excited to see how such a revolutionary concept could advance the Penn and greater Philadelphia tech communities.

When I was a freshman at Penn, tech was considered “uncool” and seemed risky in contrast to high-paying Wall Street jobs. Over the past four years, I have witnessed a transformation. Now that students have a clear outlet where they can receive the resources to develop their ideas past graduation, the business plans are bolder, the entrepreneurs are smarter and the community is expanding.

The Dorm Room Fund journey is still at its beginning, and we have a long list of items that we can learn from and implement as we strive to be our very best. We have formed a quirky little family that has remained strong through both our successes and our failures—including those weird moments at 2am when everyone is delirious and just kind of loses it. I am honored to announce that we have brought on four new Partners to the Philadelphia fund who will continue to cultivate Dorm Room Fund as well as the Philadelphia entrepreneurship community.

New partners Lauren, Nilesh, Matt and Tim bring a fresh perspective, with technical backgrounds in Materials Science, Computer Science and Computer Engineering. They have worked at established startups, high-tech companies, while also engaging with our own student entrepreneurs. I speak for all of the graduating Partners when I say that we couldn’t be more excited to pass our “baby” down to this bright new group of Partners.

Welcome to Dorm Room Fund Lauren, Nilesh, Matt and Tim!

Lauren Reeder


Lauren is a sophomore in the Jerome Fisher Management & Technology program at The University of Pennsylvania, where she studies computer science in the Engineering School as well as statistics and finance at Wharton. She loves to ski, bike, and travel whenever the opportunity arrises. Lauren is also part of the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund and has worked with Dorm Room Fund portfolio company Emerald Exam.

Matt Gibstein


Matt Gibstein is a junior at Penn studying Science, Technology, & Society and Consumer Psychology. Matt feels extremely lucky that he found his passion for technology at an early age, channeling his “inner-nerd” in high school as an intern for David Pogue of The New York Times, and as a Specialist at his local Apple Store. Since then, Matt has been fortunate enough to contribute at a number of exciting technology companies including Square, Uber, First Round Capital, and most recently Google.

Although Matt’s a Miami native, he’s even more excited to be heading to the Bay Area this summer to work in McKinsey’s Business Technology practice. In his spare time, Matt enjoys playing tennis and binge watching House of Cards.

Tim Miller


Tim is a sophomore enrolled in the Jerome Fisher Management & Technology program at Penn, studying both Finance and Materials Science. He is a member of the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund, the Men’s Club Lacrosse Team, and the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Tim has interned at Intelligent Concrete, Melinger Products, and most recently CB Insights. In his free time, Tim enjoys traveling (he has visited over 30 countries and territories!), reading, and working on his golf game.

Nilesh Kavthekar


Nilesh is a sophomore in the Jerome Fisher Management & Technology program at Penn studying Computer Engineering and Entrepreneurial Management. He formerly organized @Pennvention, and is now Director @WeissTechHouse, which helps students take their technology ventures from conceptualization to commercialization. Previously, Nilesh interned @GlobusGenomics and has also conducted research in tissue regeneration. He’s an avid fan of music, Bulls players with intact ACLs, and advancing the human condition.

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Beyond Culture Fit: Community Value-Add


Recently, a founder of an early-stage startup asked me for tips on evaluating culture fit when building an early team. As the founder of most successful startups will agree, picking the first few members of your team is important. They set the tone for your company as it grows.

Personally, I think that the term “culture fit” can be misleading. It implies a sort of homogeneity, which is actually the exact opposite of what most companies want. I make a point of the language here because I think it can be harmful to internalize the phrase “culture fit” when what you really want is to build a community. “Community value-add” might be a better term.

If you think of yourselves as evaluating “culture fit” you’re placing your brain in pattern-matching mode, using the team you already have as a pattern and evaluating individuals against that pattern to test their fit. Even if you don’t intend to, this means you may implicitly be looking for someone who is like you and your cofounder(s)/teammate(s). Those people aren’t necessarily bad to have, but it can be a limiting perspective. A good community has people who can create some tension (in the appropriate ways!), because that’s what creativity and thinking “outside the box” are all about: respectfully challenging the status quo, for the sake of improving the company, product, etc.

Taken to the extreme, a company trapped in pattern-matching mode might subconsciously only hire people who fit their background and demographics. Aside from being potentially illegal (discrimination, etc.), this is actually very bad for your company and product. A healthy company needs a variety of perspectives represented in product decisions and day-to-day operations.

So, what is it you really are looking to evaluate? You’re looking for someone who is excited to be a member of your workplace community, to build your product, and isn’t afraid to challenge your assumptions when necessary, but knows how to do so respectfully and appropriately.

Finding people who are excited to work with you is best done by letting them self-identify. Give them opportunities to express their interest, and they will make themselves known.

As for the last part (finding who knows how to respectfully disagree), pose tough questions in interviews. You don’t want to try to set up “mind tricks” (this usually backfires), but do give them a chance to play tug-of-war with you.

In short, don’t expect people to fit your existing company culture. Instead, ask yourself what that person brings to your company’s community, and then ask yourself if that is a valuable addition.

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Welcome, new Boston partners!


I’ll never forget the moment I was at one of DRF Boston’s Entrepreneurs Anonymous events, where the theme of the night was customer acquisition. As the night was wrapping up, another team member and I were talking to a founder when an attendee walked up and asked the founder how it’s been interacting with Dorm Room Fund. He replied: “They’re like a family — they’re so helpful!”

It’s been exciting to be a part Dorm Room Fund’s family in Boston since it started last year. We’re a diverse group from seven different schools across Boston, and together we’ve been able to combine our efforts to engage with entrepreneurs, and expand our community of founders and support them as much as possible. I’ve been really proud of the work we’ve done in our community and supporting our portfolio.

Today, I’m excited to announce the four new additions to the Boston investment team and the Dorm Room Fund family. Allie Mellen, Kanav Dhir, Nate Hajian, and Karine Hsu have tremendous enthusiasm, experience, and — above all — an exciting passion and curiosity for entrepreneurship and a desire to help give back and strengthen the Boston student startup community. Each of them brings unique talents and perspectives to the team, and I look forward to learning a lot from what they have to offer.

We’re also excited that Nate will be adding a new school to our community — Tufts University. After meeting many entrepreneurial Tufts students in the last several weeks, I know the whole team looks forward to working with Jumbo founders at a campus that has a thriving network of ambitious students working on the next generation of innovations.

I look forward to seeing how much this team can accomplish in the next year. Meet the new team!

Karine Hsu — Harvard University

Karine is a freshman at Harvard University concentrating in Statistics and Computer Science. Most recently, she took a year off to work at Shmoop, an educational technology startup in the Bay Area, as a Product Manager. She pursues her passions in finance and technology as a Research Associate for GGV Capital and as a Business Development Analyst for The Opportune Time, a financial news startup founded at Stanford. In her free time, she enjoys playing competitive badminton, running, reading about nutrition and health, and trying out new restaurants.

nate2 (1)Nathaniel Hajian — Tufts University

Nate is an aspiring product designer and is currently a junior at Tufts University studying Political Science, Media, and Studio Art. He has come up with and designed multiple iOS/web apps, and is currently working on designing a social ad-sharing app alongside a tutoring portal for Tufts. He was the first apprentice at One Mighty Roar, an impressive Boston product company linking the digital and physical worlds. He has done mobile-market research for Softbank Capital and rowed crew at the national level. Nate will be spending his summer interning in product design at Facebook in Menlo Park. He is passionate about growing the entrepreneurial community at Tufts and helping his peers turn their projects into companies. Nate loves art, music, and brunch.

bruno-drf-1Kanav Dhir – Boston University

Kanav Dhir is a junior at Boston University studying Computer Engineering. He works for ByteLight, a startup spun off from research at BU, that works on innovative applications of visual light communication. On campus, he’s a director for the BU Entrepreneurship Club and is passionate about making BU students more excited about entrepreneurship. He founded the BU Startup Fair which helps bring the startup community into the university. In his free time he mentors a high school FIRST Robotics team, loves playing ultimate Frisbee and cheering for the Yankees.

Alexandrea Mellen – Boston University

Alexandrea Mellen is a junior at Boston University studying Computer Engineering. She works at MIT with Group Sadowayresearching liquid metal batteries for grid scale energy storage. She is an iOS Developer and founder of Terrapin Computing, which currently has three iOS applications on the App Store. She is a member of the  BU Entrepreneurship Club and is an educational instructor for the Global App Initiative at BU. She is also treasurer of Make_BU, a student group on campus that organized BU’s first hackathon. Her interests include running, aerial silk, kiteboarding, and baking.

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Understand Your Users, and Their Brains.


“Understand your users” – what does that supposed axiom of startup knowledge even mean? Based on my own experiences with starting, working for, and investing in startups, I’ve come to learn that understanding users requires delving much deeper than expected, grappling with questions of user psychology and behavioral tendencies.

While discussing startups with the Dorm Room Fund team, I often do not adhere to such a level of analytical depth. During our discussions, I sometimes make unreasonable assumptions: “I think users will react to this product by doing  X”, “I doubt users will have trouble understanding Y”, “I don’t think people will buy Z because it doesn’t give them a feeling of surprise.” But really, who am I to know how other people, with different states of mind and different influencing circumstances than me, will react and think? I’ve come to learn that challenging assumptions about user behavior often leads to more robust conclusions about how to design products for users and their “brains”.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs who are growing their own ventures? Constant questioning of our own instincts about user behavior leads to better products; or, at the very least, a better understanding of user behavior in the context of said product.

Almost no industry has tapped into an understanding of user behavior as well as the mobile game industry. Take the game Clash of Clans, developed by Supercell, that has had astonishing growth since it was released in 2011.  Supercell’s CEO, Ilkka Paananen, prides himself on his obsessive commitment to understanding human behavior; however, Paananen, much like most of us, is not a psychologist, and hence acknowledges that his intuitions regarding user behavior are not reliable. Instead, his team and he have devoted many resources to developing an understanding of his users’ psychological tendencies, mostly through extensive need finding and user testing.

My experience with my own venture mirrors that of Paananen – in terms of certain lessons learned, not in terms of success. While working on a mobile application to better the post-disaster experience of disaster victims, my cofounders and I made some thoroughly misguided, but seemingly obvious assumptions about user behavior. Our product became anchored on these assumptions. Once we began showcasing our application to previous disaster victims, the pitfalls of our assumptions became quickly apparent. Through various controlled trials, we came to learn that, for some reason or the other, disaster victims care a lot about the color of our home screen. Why? We don’t know, but we do know that it is because of certain psychological tendencies that set in during disaster time.

In short, our intuitions about user psychological behavior — their “brains” — often tend to be way off the mark; accepting this can bring us substantially closer to the elusive goal of “understanding our users”.

Understanding the psychology of your users is an unobvious yet worthwhile goal. Check out the following articles for some additional psychology-driven insights that startups can leverage:

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