At a cost of $49 a month, the subscription service sends a monthly box of curated men’s surf apparel to its members in 45 states and 11 countries.
Surf Shop Box’s curated boxes include apparel from well-known surf brands like Billabong and Quiksilver, as well as products from lesser known businesses, like Drifter Surf Shop, a surf store in Bali, Indonesia.
“Surf Shop Box isn’t just for the core surfer,” Tighe told Pacific Business News. “It’s also for someone who is aspiring to live the lifestyle.”
Surf Shop Box is one of seven companies selected to participate in Honolulu-based accelerator Blue Startups’ ninth and current cohort.
What gave you the idea for Surf Shop Box?
I got turned on to the subscription model by a company called Loot Crate. It’s called the subscription box for geeks and gamers. In the early days, I was at their office and I saw how quickly they were growing. I saw that one of the reasons was they have a really passionate interest group. And surfing — people change their lives for surfing. Whether you surf or don’t, people are attached to the beach lifestyle and the vibes around it. I was intrigued by the model and looking to start something in the surf industry, so I was just looking for the right business. I saw that no one had really done the subscription model with surf. And timing was really good because surf is growing, but so is stand-up paddle boarding. So now you have a new group of customers in the middle of the country, people who paddle board in a lake or river.
How many people work for you?
One of our biggest assets is that we have a really strong team that has done it before, in both surf and in subscription commerce which is really nice. We’re small in the day-to-day. We have about three people on operations, and then we have a marketing team with nine people. Not all nine are full time, but we have nine people that work in customer acquisition, our whole email marketing ecosystem, retention. Really digging into the data. It’s a really unique business model where you can dive into those things, dive into the psychology and use that to improve your marketing, but also improve your product and how you can make the experience better for customers.
What are your top markets?
Top markets are Florida, California, Hawaii, New York and Texas. Some of the most passionate members are in the middle of the country, like Minnesota and Indiana. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to make a product for the core surfer that loves it, but also someone that loves the lifestyle and can share in it too.
How do you choose what goes in each box?
We’re starting to roll out themes in June. If you have a theme box, everyone will get the same item, but it might be different versions. For instance, we’re doing a sustainable box. Every product in the box is from a sustainable company. Everyone will get the same three items, but different versions, based upon your style preferences. We’re doing a North Shore-themed box in August, so we’re teaming up with a local surf photographer named Zak Noyle to do a limited-edition round of shirts. … When we don’t have themes, it’s based upon where our member is. If it’s the winter time, someone in New York is not going to get the same thing as a guy in Hawaii. It’s based on their geographic location and their age. Everything is curated.
What is retention like?
Our churn is really low. It’s right now been 7 percent. In subscription commerce, 10 to 15 percent is good. So we’re well below that. We’re really happy with that, especially since we’re still very early stages. … People in general, we expect to stay 12 to 28 months. Then I expect to see them take a little break and then come back. Maybe they’ll start doing a quarterly box.
Are you planning on launching a women’s box?
We are aiming to launch women’s later this summer. We got a lot of demand for it. It’s a whole separate set of inventory, so it’s not as simple as it seems. Part of the fundraising we’re doing right now is to launch women’s. Women account for over 53 percent of spending on surf apparel now. There’s less of them buying, but they’re buying more. It’s a market you can’t ignore and we want to launch it as soon as possible.
What has been the biggest challenge in starting the company?
Growing the business in a smart way. We want to be really smart about it. Obviously, it’s a very cash intensive business, you have to be very on top of how you are spending your money to acquire customers, what that reflects in inventory costs, and how long it takes to break even and start profiting on those customers.
What’s the most rewarding part of owning a business?
I’ve been able to really connect with people around the world. I’ve become friends with a lot of the guys who are members. One of them became one of our first investors. If I go to an area and I know there are members, I’ll shoot them an email and say, “Can I take you guys out for a drink?” And I’ll just pick their brain. It’s really cool when you can connect with people that you normally wouldn’t have and also see that they’re excited about what you’re doing.
What’s your marketing strategy?
It’s a very ad-driven model. We spend most of our ad budget on Facebook and Google.
How do you find new products?
That’s where Mark comes in, since he travels the world surfing. He’s been everywhere and he knows everyone and all the cool places. A lot of it comes from his experience, traveling around the world finding the coolest products.
Founder and CEO,
Surf Shop Box
We all know the San Francisco Bay Area is home to Silicon Valley, but a few cities and states around the country are trying to recreate the region’s success. In Nebraska, you have Silicon Prairie, then there’s Silicon Alley in New York City, Silicon Roundabout in London, and Silicon Beach in Venice, California. Many of these have popped up in just the past few years, and some states are beginning to realize the importance of supporting these new innovation hubs.
Among these is one of the most isolated states, geographically speaking: Hawaii. Working with the local community, the government has been pursuing efforts to establish a tech hub that is being dubbed Startup Paradise. During my last visit to Hawaii, I spoke with Governor David Ige and others about the initiative, which is meant to further diversify the Aloha State’s industries and retain its talent.
Diversifying the economy
“I’m an electrical engineer by profession, a University of Hawai’i [alumnus], and I graduated in that first boom of tech,” Governor Ige said. “When I graduated…I had 41 job offers, 40 of them were on the mainland, and they were from everyone. My first time out of state was a job interview with Intel, IBM, and Hewlett Packard in Silicon Valley. So fast forward, once I became a legislator, I was on a mission to create more job opportunities for tech people and engineers…out of five friends in my EE class, four of them went to the mainland and never came back.”
Finding a thriving tech ecosystem in Hawaii is really difficult — I tried. During my trip, I sought out people I knew to see if maybe there was a startup market that remained relatively off the radar. Though there are accelerators, such as Blue Startups and Elemental Excelerator, and innovation centers, it’s rare to see a local startup make it big in Hawaii. But efforts are now being made to change all of that.
When I graduated from the University of Hawaii (UH), working in tech didn’t seem like a viable option — the focus was on travel and hospitality at that time. And unlike Stanford, Caltech, MIT, and others, Hawaii’s universities are perhaps known for their strong international business and research programs. So how can the state offer its young tech workers and entrepreneurs a reason to remain in Hawaii and contribute to the local economy?
During his time in the legislature, Governor Ige wrote all of the state’s venture capital laws, including creating the Hawaii Strategic Development Corporation(HSDC), which is tasked with making investments to boost economic development. “When I started, we had zero venture investments in the state of Hawaii..people weren’t interested in making this kind of investment,” he said. “We’ve had great tech successes, when you look at UH and the kind of things that started and evolved here, what should have been and could have been, but there was really no environment. When you talk about the ethernet and the core, it really started at UH. AlohaNet and the Aloha Protocol was really the beginning of TCP/IP — it’s the basic underpinning of the internet. None of it comes back to Hawaii, but it definitely was started here.”
He continued, “Clearly for me, now as governor, it really is about how we can complete the environment. How can we create opportunities for people so that the electrical engineering graduate from UH today has 40 local job offers and 1 from the mainland? Because that’s really what we want. And if you look at our economy from the 30,000 feet level, the hospitality industry is number one. We started this transition in 1950 when we knew that sugars, plantation, and big agriculture growth was limited and we started to think about the next economic driver in our community.”
While Hawaii is still largely focused on tourism, some believe diversification is the key to supporting the state’s economy, and the governor subscribes to that idea: “The challenge for us is that we’ve pretty much hit that ceiling to expand, and creating more jobs in the visitor industry really places too much of a burden on the natural resources that impact the community. So what’s the next great job creator for our community? It’s about innovation.” He alluded to how payment tech company Verifone got its start in Hawaii in the 1980s before eventually settling in San Jose, Calif. “If we had the right ecosystem and they stayed here, that definitely would be a great job creator,” he said.
Starting in Hawaii but ending on the mainland
Make no mistake, there are startups in Hawaii, but there are nowhere near as many as you’d find in cities known for being technology hubs. Startups based on the islands are not necessarily concentrated on consumer applications, but are more in tune with “non-sexy” technology fields, such as energy, biotech, and medicine, areas Hawaii is known for.
But, as the governor said, talent is escaping the islands and as people leave, so do the startups. To counter this trend, Hawaii is working to aggregate enough venture capital to incentivize entrepreneurs to stay. Last year, Governor Ige proposed that there should be consistent state investment in private equity and risk capital. He wants to have the HSDC work alongside accelerators and venture funds to invest in projects.
“Yes, it’s a big challenge,” he acknowledged. “I do think it’s about creating an ecosystem…I think it’s about creating an environment. I really do believe it’s a state of mind. People leave because they believe they have a better shot at being successful by going. I think it’s really about getting the startups here and it really takes just one that really commits to staying here. We have a couple of serial entrepreneurs that are committed to Hawaii. To me, that’s just as important as getting the equity. I mean, you want those business owners and entrepreneurs to be invested in Hawaii and really want to have their headquarters here.”
Some of the people I spoke with described a less-than-ideal venture capital environment and said that local investors tended to be gun-shy about putting money in unless they can get a mainland firm like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital, or Andreessen Horowitz to participate.
“It’s on us to show the world that we can create that quality, competitive company here. We have to create enough companies [in Hawaii] that a VC will see a pattern or trend,” said Chenoa Farnsworth, the managing director of Blue Startups, one of the more active startup accelerators in the state.
Governor Ige remains optimistic: “I do think that it’s a matter of mindset and if we can nurture enough of these startups and get them to the brink — and it’s really about getting one group of entrepreneurs who said that ‘we’re going to plant our flag in Hawaii’. And when they’re successful, other successes will follow.”
It’s about execution
Diversifying a state’s economy and moving forward with innovative technologies is definitely easier said than done, as the state has had at least one major stumble in recent history. In 2016, a Maui-based technology fund for early-stage startups, called Mbloom, was shuttered amid allegations that one of the investors engaged in securities fraud and that the fund’s initial investments were rife with conflicts of interest. The other major investment party to this was the state, and HSDC moved swiftly to terminate the venture, especially since it was supported by taxpayer money.
Hawaii did offer startups tax breaks for doing business in the state some years back, through a law called Act 221. But it was not renewed due to concerns about whether it was really effective. Governor Ige voted in favor of Act 221 when he was a legislator and has previously stated that he believes it was a good law that needed a few tweaks:
“Act 221 could be executed better. When we passed the law, we provided tremendous flexibility to the executive. We had a very broad definition, and we enabled the executive to implement. I believe that part of the challenges and the controversy truly was a result of poor decision-making on execution,” he explained.
While in his first term as the state’s chief executive, the governor has also proposed establishing a $30 million innovation fund, setting aside money from corporate tax revenues over six years to support startups. First announced in his 2016 State of the State address, Governor Ige revealed that he had submitted legislation that would take $5 million each year for five consecutive years. The money would go into a strategic fund that would be co-invested with a private provider.
“What we’re trying to do is commit a steady flow of income that would allow [the fund investors] to begin to program and set up relationships so they can create a sustained kind of investment pool,” he explained. “It would be $30 million over the next six years that they can count on. I’m pretty confident that in six years, we’ll be able to prove success, that we’ll be able to convince the other legislators to…make bigger investments.”
During this year’s State of the State address, Governor Ige touted the impact of innovation, announcing that 145 startups have gone through six accelerator programs, receiving $10 million in venture capital and generating more than $250 million in total capital. “That’s why the budget includes additional funds for the Hi Growth program,” he said in prepared remarks.
While the state executive and community organizations are behind this diversification effort, how does the general public feel about their taxes being used to boost tech companies? Governor Ige is bullish, telling VentureBeat, “I think that many of us who are residents see the same challenges. Our economy is doing great. Our unemployment is among the lowest in the country. The hospitality industry generates a lot of jobs, but they are living wage jobs. If you look at the median home price at $700,000, a lot of those jobs generated by the visitor industry would [make it] tough to be able to live here.”
As for the business community, he said: “I think they get it. I have three children and they’re all in school. What decisions do we make today to give them the best opportunity to call Hawaii home, to be able to have them graduate and find a challenging and enticing job opportunity in Hawaii that pays them a living wage and allows them to purchase a home so they can choose to call Hawaii home? I think for me, and many of those in our community, it really is about how we can create these opportunities.”
What Governor Ige, Farnsworth, and others in Hawaii are attempting isn’t new — others in the state have tried to establish a startup community of sorts. In 2012, the governor’s predecessor, Neil Abercrombie, signed into law HB2319, which would appropriate $2 million for a venture accelerator funding program. It was under Abercrombie that the aforementioned Hi Growth program, a state-sanctioned program to engage with the private sector, was created.
In 2013, then-Governor Abercrombie proposed providing $20 million in funding to focus on “the critical building blocks of research commercialization, entrepreneur mentoring, and the mobilization of startup investment capital.”
But while efforts have been made before now, the question is what it will take to make a real dent on the startup ecosystem.
In search of a startup paradise
“I’ve lived [innovation] and kind of understand how it works. I see the ups and downs in it,” Governor Ige said. “I understand how when it’s other people making investment, it’s about the money. So how do we create private equity and risk capital in Hawaii that believes in Hawaii?”
“It’s so funny how at one point in time, green companies were an outlier. People thought: ‘Who cares if your policies are green or if your company takes care of itself?’ Today, you can’t be a successful company if you’re not green,” he continued. “What we’re looking to create are companies that are truly doing the right things in the right way in every step of the way. These are the kind of companies that we want to build.”
To attract talent, startups, and investors, Governor Ige is backing the Startup Paradise initiative that was put forth by the local community and HSDC. As the name suggests, Hawaii believes that its real appeal lies in its being…well, Hawaii. The program also focuses on technological innovation, job growth, and economic strategies aimed at helping the state rival the tech hubs in other markets.
As of 2016, it was reported that 60 percent of the 145 startups participating in the program were based in Hawaii, and 78 percent of those are still operational. Nearly 40 percent of those participating in Startup Paradise are involved in software services, while 32 percent are in energy technology. The remaining startups deal with media (11 percent), hardware (6 percent), agriculture (6 percent), and life science or health care (5 percent).
“Most people think that they can start [in Hawaii], but if I really want to make it, I got to go [to Silicon Valley]. It’s really about creating the support structure so that [entrepreneurs] have the capacity to choose to stay here,” Governor Ige explained. “Once we can get the one or two breakthroughs, then I think it’ll be like a dam bursting. People, given the choice, will want to live in Hawaii. If their business can be successful, they’ll choose here.”
He doesn’t think Silicon Valley should have a monopoly on startups. “Nothing can be harder than Silicon Valley. Hawaii is a piece of cake compared to Silicon Valley, but Silicon Valley thrives. Why is that? It’s about the people. It’s about the human resource in the innovation economy that’s the most important resource.”
“I believe our environment gives us a competitive advantage because that human resource wants to be in Hawaii,” Governor Ige said, echoing statements that have been previously reported. “It’s about really changing the paradigm for our young entrepreneurs to show that, yes indeed, it can happen in Hawaii. And we’re going to create that ecosystem that supports them and that we’re going to be working really hard to make sure that they have a pathway if they want to start a company in Hawaii, that we’re going to provide them support they need to get the second, third, or fourth round [of funding] and that big expansion,” he said.
Major stakeholders concede that this is a long-term endeavor and that the current ecosystem is young, but they also see that it is growing and has potential. “Communities and cultures are not built overnight, and startup communities are no exception,” explained Dawn Lippert, a director at Elemental Excelerator, in a 2014 interview.
Rather than going head-to-head with every other technology hub around the world, Hawaii is opting to focus on a select group of clusters, areas where the state holds a competitive advantage. The state has pledged to support 100 percent renewable energy, ethnic and cultural diversity, biomedical and pharmaceutical research, Hawaii’s cancer center, and hospitality and tourism.
Is Governor Ige worried about any negative impact of innovation, such as gentrification and people being priced out of their home, things that have plagued cities such as San Francisco? He acknowledges the risk, but said: “It’s about changing the trajectory of Hawaii: What is it that we want? We want to support the innovators and creators that are committed to what’s special about Hawaii. It’s really about the integration of the host culture…celebrating diversity. I believe that Hawaii is the best place to raise kids and a family, bar none. So how do we keep it going?”
As part of that vision, the governor is in favor of disruptive technologies, even those that have run afoul of regulators, such as Uber and Airbnb:
“Uber is successful and the traditional business guys want to shut them down because their platform, their technology, and business model is so different from the existing. But the flip side is that their business models respond exactly to the concerns that the traditional business lived with and built…”
“So yes, it is disruptive,” he said, “and yes, we don’t want to clamp down and regulate them in the traditional sense. So how do we create an environment that is flexible? From a government side, that’s a challenge for us. I’ve challenged my cabinet to reinvent government to be flexible and innovate itself. How do we make sure that we don’t apply the same old regulatory tendencies onto these new areas? I’m not exactly certain, but I’ve encouraged the cabinet to think outside the box and encourage employees to not be close-minded and to think differently. I’m committed.”
As governor, Ige has also vetoed a bill that required online lodging services such as Airbnb to collect state and local taxes.
“It’s really about creating a vibrant innovation economy so that we can have the investment capital and we can find and grow the innovators here in our community that understand what it means to be in Hawaii, why it’s special, and why we have to take care of the environment, be respectful, and to celebrate the host culture, and celebrate our differences…Once we’ve gotten that first success, the rest of that will happen,” he said.
Having graduating the 500 Startups accelerator only a handful of months prior, I didn’t feel especially qualified to speak to members of another accelerator. My job as Founder CEO however, is to gladly accept such opportunities. So I showed up early and went to work. Paubox is on network time.
I was asked to talk about:
- B2B Sales.
I admittedly went off course and also discussed:
- “Behind the Cloud: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Went from Idea to Billion-Dollar Company-and Revolutionized an Industry” by Marc Benioff.
- “From Impossible to Inevitable” by Jason Lemkin and Aaron Ross.
- Creative ways to pump up your team.
- The true purpose of Social Mixers.
- Our homies at Clearscope.
- Leveraging Growbots to build out Outbound sales.
- The power of annual billing for a SaaS startup.
I am thankful to have been given the opportunity to talk story at Blue Startups!
About Blue Startups
Blue Startups is focused on recruiting capital efficient and scalable technology companies. This would include web, software, and mobile startups.
They recruit from Hawaii, Asia and North America. In addition, Blue Startups targets companies in certain sectors:
- Travel technology
- B2B solutions.
Lastly, they are keenly interested in companies addressing both East and West markets.
About Hoala Greevy
Sara Lin of the Hawaii Strategic Development Corporation wrote an article on Hawaii’s growing startup ecosystem, featuring Blue Startups alumni aXessPoint (formerly The Condo App) and Smart Yields, that describes the importance of having strong entrepreneurial actors to attract entrepreneurs.
In the startup community we talk about “the ecosystem” because it’s what attracts entrepreneurs. Accelerators, investment funds and co-working spaces are all critical pieces that help entrepreneurs hit the ground running.
Blue Startups just announced the seven startups that will participate in its ninth cohort.
Hawaii’s Blue Startups hopes a new partnership with a Japanese accelerator will encourage entrepreneurs in the Asian country to submit applications to join one of its future cohorts.
The Honolulu-based accelerator, which just announced the seven startups that will participate in its ninth cohort, said a partnership with 01Booster will hopefully result in Japanese companies applying for and completed its program.
“Japan is a unique market, it’s pretty focused on Japan as opposed to globally,” said Chenoa Farnsworth, managing partner for Blue Startups. “We’ve received applications from other Asian countries like Korea and Singapore, China and the Philippines, but Japan hasn’t really jumped in the global startup scene in a big way. We’re hoping we can help them reach that.”
Like most accelerators in Japan, Farnsworth said 01Booster is backed by corporations.
“What we’re talking to them about is probably doing some joint programming in the fall, specifically for Japanese entrepreneurs and Japanese intrapreneurs.”
Farnsworth said the accelerator is looking at holding a weeklong program at Blue Startups’ Honolulu headquarters that would instruct Japanese startups on about how to do business in the U.S. and how to market to U.S. customers.
“We’re trying to leverage our expertise and really target different foreign markets with specific programs for them,” Farnsworth said.
Farnsworth said the partnership will be mutually beneficial, with 01Booster also offering its expertise to Blue Startups companies that want to expand into Japan.
Farnsworth said 01Booster will also help promote Blue Startups through its corporate partners.
Pacific Business News
Ask Me Anything!
Can’t make it in person? Join our Managing Partner Chenoa Farnsworth on a webcast to learn more about our program and applying for Cohort #9!
When: February 21, Tuesday 10:00AM HST
She will do a short presentation about Blue Startups and answer any of your questions.
Three years ago, when the state-run HI Growth Initiative — created to attract private investment to Hawaii’s innovation sector — began to take shape, so did Blue Startups, a Honolulu-based startup support program.
The two are now teaming up to host the third East Meets West Conference, which will assemble scores of entrepreneurs and investors from Hawaii, Asia and North America in Honolulu next month. An opening party slated for Jan. 18 will be open to the public.
“There has never been a better time to start a company in Hawaii than right now because there are so many resources for that early-stage company to get off the ground,” said Chenoa Farnsworth, a managing partner at Blue Startups, which was
founded by Henk Rogers of Blue Planet Software and Tetris video game fame.
Farnsworth first lived in Hawaii as a teenager. After leaving for college on the mainland and a subsequent Washington, D.C.-based career in health policy issues, she moved back to pursue an MBA, and in 1999 — at the height of the dot-com boom — quickly immersed herself in the fledgling local technology sector.
“I got fascinated with the whole thing,” she said of her ongoing work with startup
business strategy and private equity investing.
After weathering the dot-com bust — followed in the islands by a slow-and-steady regrowth led by co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators — Farnsworth is encouraged by Gov. David Ige’s recent push to earmark $10 million in his proposed state budget for HI Growth’s continued support of public-private partnerships. With the initiative’s help, she said, Blue Startups has so far invested in 60 companies that have raised $60 million and created 200 jobs.
Question: You have said that the innovation sector holds the key to our future in Hawaii. How’s that?
Answer: While the tourism sector is strong, it cannot keep up with our growth requirements. We want to create more high-paying “knowledge worker” jobs. Really, the only solution … is innovation and technology. It is very low-impact in terms of the environment and very high-impact in terms of the pay that we can expect from that industry and also the level of interest among young people.
Q: Blue Startups describes itself as a “thriving early-stage entrepreneurial ecosystem.” How does an aspiring entrepreneur gain entrance to your program, or ecosystem? Is a good idea enough?
A: It’s competitive. So, yes, you need a good idea. More importantly, with the companies we work with, you need a good team. Initially, that’s what we look at most. Is this a team that can execute on this business plan? … We get to know the team and understand their strengths and whether they’ve got what it takes.
Our accelerator program is a little bit like an MBA on steroids. It’s 14 weeks of intensive learning. We take them through everything from how to incorporate to how to get funded and market your product. We provide space, services and funding.
Q: Who’s knocking at the entrepreneurial door these days?
A: We’re seeing a diverse group of people coming through Blue Startups. In general, we’re seeing a cultural shift in Hawaii with this new generation of young people. I do think that back in the day, so to speak, there was more reticence to go out on your own. That was not a culturally acceptable path. … You’d want to go work for the government or get a stable job. Now our young people are seeing entrepreneurship as a path. And I think what’s so hopeful about that is entrepreneurs and new companies create new jobs.
Q: If state lawmakers go ahead and allocate $10 million for HI Growth, how would the money be spent?
A: It would really go to a doubling down on efforts already underway. Now is the time to stay the course. … In other cities around the country that have really put an effort into building this type of sector, it takes about 20 years of concerted effort. … If we continue on this path, we will get there. I have no doubt about that.
Q: What are those efforts already in place?
A: There are three. One is supporting early-stage mentorship programs like Blue Startups. There are several of them, and all of those funds are matched by private dollars. … In order to get that money, we have to raise private funding. Then it’s just leveraged by the state funding. Also, some of that HI Growth money goes to match private investor money in early-stage venture capital funds. The third (effort) supports events throughout the community that bring investors and companies together. The networking activities are key to building an ecosystem. We need all of those parties, so to speak, to bring people together so that they can meet, mix, mingle, start companies, start conversations that end up, hopefully, in deals getting done.
Q: That’s what the East Meets West conference aims to do?
A: Yes. We’re showcasing, basically to the world, that Hawaii has startups, Hawaii can compete. Hawaii can be known for something other than beaches and palm trees. We’re bringing in investors from Asia and the mainland (managing a total of more than $1 billion) and are showing them what we have. Every time we do that — this is our third year — it really opens a lot of eyes.
Q: What do the visiting investors find most eye-opening?
A: The quality of our companies. I think there’s an assumption: “Oh, well, they might have startups out there but they’re probably not competitive.” And that’s not true. So many investors are now coming back because they have found good companies here that they’ve invested in and want to get access to that deal-flow again.
Q: What do you say to the complaint that Hawaii startups with big potential eventually take off for the mainland to tap the vast resources there?
A: That is totally true in a sense. We are a small economy. There’s 1.4 million people here. If we took a company that was based here and said: “You have to stay here,” it’s like tying a hand behind their back. So I think it’s really about re-framing what is happening. And the way I put it is: “Good news our companies are expanding.” Most of them stay here, too. They have offices here, they’re employing people here. But, yes, they are growing and opening offices in San Francisco or Hong Kong. I’m celebrating those successes.
For example, Volta Charging started here. Their electric-car charging stations are at Kahala and Ala Moana malls. They have staff here who service clients (on Oahu and Maui). They also have an office in San Francisco (and charging stations there as well as in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Chicago).
Q: When Blue Startups opened, it focused on internet, software, mobile, gaming and e-commerce. Is that lineup changing?
A: Our first priority is to serve the local market. Whatever our local, smart entrepreneurs are coming up with, that’s what we want to fund. Priority No. 2 is looking at companies outside of our local market that we think we can serve. In other words, we have strategic advantage in helping them — primarily that’s in that East-meets-West thesis. It is companies from Asia that are trying to get into U.S. markets, and U.S. companies wanting to enter Asian markets. We’re looking for that confluence.
The more those two worlds become closer together from a business perspective … it’s important for Hawaii to plant a flag and say: “We’re open for business. We can serve both markets.”
Q: What sorts of new technologies or related industries do you see on the horizon?
A: We’re excited about eSports — competitive video-gaming for money. That’s an industry that’s on a very rapid trajectory. Straight up. … There are teams that are funded and sponsored and go through training just like an NBA team, but it’s to play head-to-head video games in stadiums. The future of that industry is expected to be huge.
We have a couple of companies in that space. One that collects data analytics from the best players and sells it to the novice players.
Q: Looking back on your tenure of nearly two decades in business here, how has the local innovation sector changed over the years?
A: We’re getting smarter about what Hawaii can bring to the party. We’re not going to be the next Silicon Valley. I think it’s really important for us to understand that and stop comparing ourselves and thinking that formula is going to work for us. … We’re unique. We are finding out what works for us now. That vision has to be aligned with who we are and what we believe in as a community.
“You’re not even an engineer — why are you so involved in the movement to advance women in tech?” This is a question I’ve been asked multiple times since starting the Hong Kong chapter of the global nonprofit Girls in Tech earlier this year. The answer is simple: I’m not an engineer, true, but what I am is an advocate for gender equality and sustainable development across different issues and industries in the world.
The international lack of women in tech is one of the issues I’ve chosen to dedicate my time to, because it’s a problem both intrinsically and instrumentally: the fact that women aren’t in tech merely because of their gender is a problem in itself, and its negative effects bring another problem as equal opportunities to access and shape technology are essential to further equality in other areas. When solved, its impact also has the potential to snowball into immense benefits to technological innovation, which I believe would in turn advance international development.
As I spoke with more and more people working on this issue, it became increasingly clear that providing mentorship for women in tech is crucial as one of the solutions. However, not everyone will have access to mentorship programs or be able to get in touch with someone they wish to be mentored by, especially people who are just beginning their tech career in college. That’s why I decided to talk with some amazing women in tech whom I look up to — engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists — and to ask them, looking back, what advice would they give to their to their college selves. I hope their answers can provide a little online mentorship and inspire you the way they have inspired me!
“Don’t be held back by stereotypes. If it’s something you’re passionate about and you believe you can do it, go for it. So many times I’ve said to myself, ‘Is this something I can do? I don’t know, just try!’ And every time I try, I realize that anything can be done. It’s a matter of time, effort, and attitude.”
-Advice from Jenny Lee, Managing Partner, GGV Capital to her college self (BS and MS in Engineering at Cornell in 1995, and an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management in 2001)
“Take the time to explore as much possible. You have a unique opportunity to try out different disciplines, activities, and classes to discover interests you didn’t even know you had. Don’t worry so much about what it means for your ‘career’ — this exploration will ultimately open doors, not close them. By knowing what’s possible and what excites you, you’ll be able to forge your own path.”
“Collaborate to learn. Join different organizations that are representative of different industries and obtain positions that will help you learn different skill sets in each. For example, become the editor for your school newspaper but also become a producer for your school musical. This will help you learn much earlier on in life what you are passionate about and what you are good at. Keep an open mind, and have fun all along the way. The friends you make today will become your greatest business collaborates tomorrow, and looking back, you will be grateful for your ongoing relationship built on a history of trust and friendship.”
– Advice from Tiffany Pham, Founder and CEO, Mogul, Inc. to her college self (BA in Economics and International Studies at Yale in 2008 and MBA at Harvard Business School in 2012)
“Force yourself outside of your comfort zone to experience new things and establish relationships with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. The best part of college is the exposure. I did a lot of awesome things: studied abroad in Japan, became active in Stanford athletics, and spent a semester at an Historically Black University. However, my biggest regret was not stretching myself further.”
– Advice from Stephanie Lampkin, Founder and CEO, Blendoor to her college self (BS in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford in 2006 and MBA at MIT Sloan in 2013)
“Volunteer to work for the best people in the industry you really want to get into. No need to worry about title or pay. Once you get into the company, talk to everyone. Meet as many people as possible and learn as much as you can about how the business works. And remember to always follow up. Do what you said you would do.”
– Advice from Edith Yeung, Partner, 500 Mobile Collective Fund to her college self (BS in Industrial Management at Purdue University in 1998)
“Be aggressive. You have all the goods – be confident! Sometimes it may feel that’s not what society expects of women, but just keep going and be bold. In my experience, women tend to be over prepared and under-confident. It’s important to match your competence with your confidence.”
– Advice from Chenoa Farnsworth, Managing Partner, Blue Startups to her college self (BA in Political Science & Government at UC Santa Cruz in 1992 and MBA at the University of Hawaii in 2000)
“Don’t be afraid to take risks. You don’t have to have it all figured before taking the first step toward your dreams. Trust your intuition, believe in your brilliance, and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.”
– Advice from Brit Fitzpatrick, Founder and CEO, MentorMe to her college self (BA in Journalism at Howard University in 2009 and MA in Digital Media Marketing at the University of Memphis in 2011)
“Do not be intimidated by people who have experience, but know that it’s the young that change the world and just speak your mind — because that’s what the world (including the experienced leaders) need and want from you.”
– Advice from Shalini Govil-Pai, Director and Global Head of Partner Product Solutions, YouTube to her college self (BS in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1990 and MS in Computer Science at Penn State in 1992)
“Take initiative and create your own opportunities. I proactively sought out ways to network with employees of companies I wanted to work for (school events, community events, or other), then learn a bit more about their initiatives and listen for what their gaps were. After that, it was just a matter of proposing to the right team member a project that I could take on to help – even as an unpaid intern during the semester.”
– Advice from Isa Watson, Founder and CEO, Envested to her college self (pursuing a BS in Chemistry at Hampton University in 2008, an MS in Pharmacology at Cornell in 2011, and an MBA at MIT Sloan in 2013)
“Get to know your professors. They aren’t just people giving you lectures and homework. Think of them as your allies — they’ll be great future resources for you if you give them the chance. College professors became some of my most powerful early career mentors; they wrote reference letters for me; they also offered up their connections when I needed them.”
– Advice from Adriana Gascoigne, Founder and CEO, Girls in Tech to her college self (BA in Sociology and Economics at UC Davis in 2000)
“Be fearless and just do it. If you’re just sitting there and contemplating, things will never move forward. The world is so fast-paced now that there is no time to sit and think for too long. Don’t think about the pros and cons too much – if you have an idea that you can’t get out of your head, just go for it! I’m sure your family and friends will support you too, once they see the spark that your project lights in you. Always try and always ask – because if you don’t, you’ll never know. If you try and it’s a no, then so be it. You won’t lose anything. But if it’s a yes? You’ll open the door to infinite possibilities.”
– Advice from Sandhya Sriram, author; Co-founder, Biotechin.Asia; and Founder and CEO, SciGlo to her college self (BS in Microbiology and MS in Biotechnology at the University of Madras in 2008 and a PhD in Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in 2013)
Hawaii Gov. David Ige has pledged to propose $10 million of the state budget be used to help build the innovation sector.
Ige said he would request the funds be used for the state-run HI Growth Initiative, which was created to attract private investment to innovation in Hawaii.
“It really is about how we can encourage and invest in our people and our companies,” Ige said Monday as keynote speaker at a Hawaii Venture Capital Association luncheon focusing on a statewide startup collaboration called Startup Paradise.
Ige said he is committed to creating more innovation jobs to build career opportunities that young people want in the state.
“We all know the story of our children going away to college and never coming back,” Ige said. “It’s about stopping that brain drain. … That’s what Startup Paradise means to me.”
Ige said that to build a successful sector, the state needs to improve the quality of public education, and the government has to keep up with the changing community.
Meli James, head of new ventures at Honolulu investment firm Sultan Ventures, said a supportive government is vital to creating more opportunities for companies in the growing industry.
“Government support is crucial to the startup ecosystem,” she said.
Tarik Sultan, managing partner at Sultan Ventures, said the number of startups that are part of Hawaii’s Startup Paradise has grown exponentially. There are now 145 companies in the innovation community, up from 18 in 2012 when the collective effort to build an innovation sector in the state was launched.
“Startup Paradise has really taken off,” Sultan said. “Every year there is exponential growth, exponential momentum.”
Startup Paradise is a coalition of startup boot-camp programs, investment firms and co-working spaces in Hawaii seeking to promote and brand innovation in Hawaii. The coalition includes Blue Startups, Energy Excelerator, Sultan Ventures and the University of Hawaii’s startup program XLR8UH.
Sultan said that according to a survey of four accelerators in the state, startups created more than 1,000 jobs over the last four years and raised more than $251 million across the budding ecosystem.
James said in addition to HI Growth Initiative, investing in the University of Hawaii, Hawaii’s High Technology Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii also would help the ecosystem thrive.
©2016 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Bello Silitshena and Michael Harding of The Condo App and Blue Startups’ Cohort #8 were recently featured in a MidWeek article on entrepreneurs. The co-founders discussed the problem their company’s mobile application solves and their experience of being a part of Blue Startups’ cohort program.