Monthly Archives: February 2018

#8 – STARTUPS & MICROSOFT DISRUPTING INSURANCE INDUSTRY



When it comes to innovation, some old-school industries aren’t exactly the epitome of transformation.  But thanks to a number of exciting new partnerships between Microsoft and some cutting edge startups, dramatic change is coming to the insurance industry and other traditionally staid finanical services sectors.

It’s far more sexy than it sounds, according to Microsoft US insurance industry lead Colin McClive, who offers a wealth of insights in the latest episode of Series A-the Podcast.

The New York-based McClive works directly with all of the leading insurance companies across North America –  companies he says are just beginning to embrace the coming revolution, making startups relevant to the enterprise and vice versa.

Colin tells host Jim Brisimitzis his eyes were opened recently at a national industry conference where he expected mostly aging accountants.  Instead, he was overwhelmed by the number of ambitous and whip-smart young people he’d more likely run into at an incubator or hackfest.

“I said ‘why are you guys in actuarial sciences?’ And they said  ‘we’re all math and computer science majors.  It’s where the money is’,” Colin explains.

According to Colin, the insurance industry is a multi-billion dollar business organized around six fundamental areas – each one ripe for disruption: sales and marketing, underwriting, claims, actuarial, investments and financial controlling,

“Whereas Microsoft builds really cool platforms, we don’t necessarily build solutions,” Colin says.  “So it’s an ideal time to bring together the best of Microsoft with partners.”

That’s creating a world of new opportunities for startups.  But connecting the old school with the new kids on the block to come up with solutions isn’t always easy.  That’s where Tereza Nemessanyi, Microsoft for Startups Entrepreneur in Residence, comes in.

Nemessanyi is a veteran founder and startup mentor in New York City.  She’s been working closely with Colin and others at Microsoft to bring the resources of Microsoft to the most innovative startups poised to transform the enterprise.

“To me that means things like access to revenue, saving time, derisking stuff, finding ways to get to solutions you might otherwise not,” she says.

A great example is a recent trip Colin and Tereza took to Colorado, where they cemented a new relationship with Boulder-based Flyreel. The company is at the forefront of incorporating AI and big data to transform all aspects of the insurance industry.  That includes everything from sensors in cars sending accident data instantaneously to insurance agencies to automated visual identification of personal items in a home or business for identification.  Imagine being able to take a picture of your restaurant and having Flyreel rapidly determine the make, model and value of your equipment, furniture and inventory.

And it turns out Flyreel was already building its solutions on Azure, but didn’t know how to get them to the C-level decision makers at the major insurers – insurers clamoring for just such a solution.

“It’s not just technology.  It’s a whole rethinking of the business itself,” Colin says.  “The fun thing for me selfishly altruistic is I get to have something that’s of value and relevant to my customers but  I also get to help a startup get to market. ”

It’s a powerful lesson for other startups across all industries, and one Colin, Tereza and Jim detail with insightful, thought-provoking and humerous accounts in the latest edition of Series A-The Podcast.  Listen now.


#7 – INTEGRATING ALL ASPECTS OF WEDDING PLANNING – VISHAL JOSHI – JOY



What do you do when a friend asks for help with her wedding? If you’re veteran Microsoft engineer Vishal Joshi, you hack an app. And before you know it, you’re CEO and co-founder of a burgeoning startup disrupting a $90 billion industry.

In this edition of Series A-The Podcast, Joshi details the improbable rise of San Francisco-based Joy.

You could call it a happy accident. Joshi was a rising star at Microsoft on the fast track to senior leadership. But as word got out about the app that combines all of the disparate services needed to put together the perfect wedding, the pull to focus full-time on Joy with his co-founder Michael became too strong. His co-workers began leaving Post-It notes on his computer with their wedding dates, telling him to make sure the app was done before then. “It was just going to be a project. But at some point in time it just got to a state where it was just not ignorable anymore,” Joshi tells host Jim Brisimitzis.

Joshi offers a number of valuable insights for any founder with a rare honesty and sense of humor. He details the learning curve for forming a new venture, starting with the creation of a legal entity. There were no high-powered lawyers. Just a visit to Legal Zoom to create the company and a basic site license. “By using Joy, you agree to not sue us,” he recalls the initial license read with a laugh. “I mean really, the entire gobbly-goo that’s written is for that. We said we are making this for friends and family, it’s for a happy occasion. Just don’t sue us! We are working really hard to make this thing work.”

Did it ever. The first wedding was a success, and traffic to the site quickly grew as people discovered a one-stop shop for everything from invitations to catering to photography. Joshi tells of the unique way they chose their first employee, an under-employed physicist who was working odd handyman jobs to make ends meet. “We were foolish. That foolishness was necessary for us to get started,” he says. Joshi talks about the need to hire initially from what he calls the “missionary bucket” in building an early team. “You have to eventually hire from the mercenary bucket because you need people who are like hired guns, who are extremely good at stuff. But the initial 15-20 people you have to have those people you can really count on,” he says.

Joshi describes the serendipitous meetings and circumstances that led to Joy’s acceptance in a cohort of Y Combinator, and the lessons learned thanks to his tenure there. The insights are extremely valuable as one of only 100 chosen from about 7,000 applicants.

Most notably, the keys to successfully pitching potential investors. “It’s just crazy that your entire life’s work boils down to these three minutes,” he says of the YC pitchfest before hundreds of the most influential VC’s in the world.

Joshi’s secret? Refining his pitch with waiters, bartenders or anyone else who would listen. “I think that helped a lot,” Joshi says. “Talking to a real normal individual who’s not invested in investing, who’s not judging you, who’s just listening to your story. And if it resonates with them, I think it will resonate with investors too. They are also humans, you know?

“What I learned is you can raise when you really need money, second is when people really want to give you money…It is easier said, but I think that you should probably put 10x more effort to get into the second bucket,” he adds.

The story of Joy has been a rousing success so far. The site has tens of thousands of users, significant seed funding, and a bright future making the biggest day of couples’ lives go smoothly. And it offers a font of insights thanks to Joshi’s candor in this revealing edition of Series A – The Podcast.


#6 – AI AND STARTUPS – JUSTIN BRONDER – MICROSOFT



Regardless of the business, artificial intelligence has become the holy grail for just about any startup. There’s been plenty of buzz but we’ve barely scratched the surface, according to Microsoft Applied Machine Learning Scientist Justin Bronder.

In this edition of Series A-The Podcast, Justin joins host Jim Brisimitzis for a revealing and fascinating look at the history, present and future of AI as it relates to the startup ecosystem.Justin says the AI offers huge potential implications to everything from data to cryptocurrency  “Some big breakthroughs are coming,” Justin tells Jim.

One area he points to is autonomous vehicles. Justin predicts not only a dramatic increase in the number of self-driving cars and trucks on our roads in the next few years, but the endless opportunities for car makers and supporting companies alike. “Microsoft not only works with Tesla but we work with a bunch of other startup-based companies that focus on autonomous driving systems that are independent of the actual vehicle. So, they can sell it to Ford or Chrysler or some other companies,” he tells Jim.

As for the easiest adoption opportunities for startups, Justin points to tremendous opportunity in the hardware space since Nvidia remains the dominant player. “Everybody runs on Nvidia GPU’s. The space is ripe for competition,” he says.

He also sees AI massively disrupting software development. “Right now, we have a human being who writes the lines of code. But we’re getting to the point now where a lot of the tasks that we hand curate can be done in an automated fashion by software,” Justin says. “We’re doing a lot of research into whether programs can be written based solely on intention.”

Justin also discusses the role AI and deep learning will play in navigating what he calls unstructured data, such as images, audio and video. For example, he details the potential for AI to allow home security systems to differentiate between a person moving in your back yard, an animal, or even a tree blowing in the wind.

“We’re doing work with reinforcement learning where those (AI-enhanced systems) are going to actually do more measurably useful things for us,” he tells Jim.

As for which companies will prevail on the platform side for AI, Justin says it’s still the earliest days or the “Wild West”, with many competitors.

So how should even the smallest startup prepare for an inevitable future? Justin says it’s critical for founders to make sure data science or AI is as much a consideration as traditional engineering.

“Some people have argued you need a Chief AI officer along with a CTO,” he says. But he warns small startups in the garage that AI requires petabytes of data. “If you don’t have a lot of data, it’s hard to build deep learning systems. You can design them, but you need some source for a lot of your data for training.”

As Jim often points out, data is the new oil. But not everyone will get in on the gushers. Jim’s conversation with Justin includes the sobering reality that the disruption coming could bring significant job cuts in many industries ranging from transportation to agriculture. And Justin says we could see a higher impact on white collar jobs than in past technological and industrial revolutions “It will be painful for some,” he says.

But by the same token, we can’t even begin to imagine the wealth of possible jobs that don’t even exist now once humans are freed from labor intensive tasks that can be done by systems instead. It’s an exciting and uncharted frontier for thought leaders like Justin Bronder, which makes this episode of Series A-The Podcast so fascinating, timely and relevant.


#5 – WORLD-CLASS CONSULTING FOR ALL – GERMAIN CHASTEL – NEWTONX



Harvard Business school.  A former Associate Partner with McKinsey & Company. A financier at Societe Generale Investment Banking. By most measures, you’d call Germain Chastel a business success.  But it wasn’t enough for the CEO and co-founder of New York-based startup Newton X.

“I was very comfortable in corporate life,” Chastel tells host Jim Brisimitzis of Microsoft for Startups in the latest edition of Series A – The Podcast.

Chastel says he saw a significant pain point for his customers at McKinsey – connecting them with more of the expertise they needed to further their businesses.  And he realized there were many businesses who simply couldn’t afford or didn’t have the resources or knowledge to connect with the experts generally only available through high-prices consultancies.  And Newton X was born.

“One of the metaphors we use is we’re the AirBnB of expertise.  Instead of going on AirBnB and renting time in people’s homes, you get on Newton X and you’re renting time in people’s heads,” Chastel says.

It’s a simple but brilliant idea that landed the company over $3 million in venture capital in just the past year.

Chastel pulls back the curtain on what he calls the three pillars of his organization: AI, engineering around specific marketplaces, and operations.  He shares his experiences in building both a company and a culture, something he calls critical to Newton X’s early success.

A big key?  Avoiding what he calls the “adrenaline engine” model most startups operate under, where everyone just goes non-stop until they often burn out and go bust.

“You can not run on this kind of fuel for a year.  You need motivation, you need purpose, you need friendship,” Chastel tells Jim.  Employees are your first stakeholder.  They should weigh as much as all the others together.”

Chastel details the company’s risky move from San Francisco to New York City, which he credits with propelling Newton X to newfound heights.

While the Bay Area offered an environment rich in technical expertise, Chastel and his team determined they needed to be alongside their customers – the biggest of which were financial institutions and consultants.

“We could say we were the best, but they need to see us and we needed to knock on doors.  And we needed to sit with them and train them and educate them for them to use us properly,” he tells Jim.

Newton X’s user base continues to swell with customers and experts alike.  And thanks to the platform, even the smallest of companies can connect with an expert in their field for as little as $300 an hour.  It’s a far cry from the $2,000 experts only available to enterprises.

The French national also offers profound insights into the differences between startup ecosystems in the United States and Europe, as well as business in general.

Chastel’s wealth of experience brings a font of valuable learnings and insights for any founder or startup, and we’re thrilled to bring them to you in this edition of Series A – The Podcast – Josh Kerns/Producer