Thursday, November 20, 2014

unCon 2014 Recap: Views from an UnConference Neophyte

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the Mass Technology Leadership Council’s Innovation 2014 UnConference in Boston. I will start by saying I am an UnConference neophyte.  I fully admit I had no idea what such a beast the event was prior to attending; I did not even know what was involved. However, it turned out to be an amazing day of sharing knowledge, thoughts, and ideas with other technologists from around the area in a way that was engaging, interesting, and honestly more fun than any other conference I have attended prior.

Photo Credit: MassTLC

First, the logistics: how does one create an agenda for an UnConference?

The first unique aspect of the event I noticed was the lack of an agenda prior to arriving. All that was known were time frames for sessions and what rooms would be used, but there was no content defined. The only session with a defined agenda was the first one, aptly titled ‘Agenda Setting Session’. The room was full of attendees’ grouped in a circle. In the middle of the room there were two microphones and at the back, there were large poster boards with rooms and timeslots. People lined up from two directions at the microphones, each with a colored piece of paper in hand, and would propose a topic they would like to see discussed. The moderator then asked probing questions gauging attendees’ reaction to determine if this would be a popular topic of discussion. The person would then be sent to one of the coordinators to determine a time slot and room for that discussion. The piece of paper with the topic would be pinned to the appropriate location on the poster boards in the back. Multiple people were sitting on the floor in front of the poster boards with laptops, furiously entering the information as it was posted. Within moments, the agenda app on my phone (provided by the event coordinators) was quickly filling up with content.

Now mind you, this was happening at breakneck speed. The moderator reminded me at times of a barker at a carnival, talking quickly, getting consensus on a topic, and immediately moving on to the next person in line, alternating between the microphones. Within 45 minutes, my agenda app was full of topics for the days’ sessions with times and locations. I noticed in the next time slot that there was a session on ‘The Internet of Things – old and new’, which sounded like it might be interesting, so I headed to the room specified for the topic.

Just jump right in, feet first

On arriving at the specified ‘IoT’ room, I was impressed to notice that outside each meeting room was a small tablet device hanging on the wall proudly announcing it was powered by Roomzilla and displaying both the time, room number, and topic currently scheduled in that room – which I assume was courtesy of those people sitting on the floor with their laptops previously mentioned entering the data on the poster boards. In the room, there was the individual who had proposed the topic, Dr. Sheldon Borkin from StrategicAngles. The room quickly filled up and we started to attempt to do introductions, but the number of folks filing in made that problematic. Dr. Borkin explained the process: he would moderate the discussion, but that this was our session to talk openly on the topic; we, as a group, could drill down any additional areas we wanted to discuss. Dr. Borkin asked me if I would take notes and email them to the organizers-. I agreed as I planned on taking notes for myself anyway.

We then started on a very interesting and spirited discussion on the Internet of Things, covering a variety of topics, including such items as:
  • How do we setup the plumbing to facilitate all these devices?
  • How do we deal with security of the data?
  • Who owns the data? (very spirited discussion around this topic)
  • What do we do with the data? (analytics became a big discussion, which fed naturally into the next session scheduled for that room on data gathering and analytics)
  • How do we deal with product life cycle that might be measured in years?

The discussion topics were thought provoking, especially with regard to the last item. Bob Frankston raised the point in the context of medical devices, specifically implanted devices. This topic was near and dear to my heart, literally, as I had a pacemaker put in close to 10 years ago. In today’s fast pace world of technological changes, we easily forget there are some devices/technologies that must have a longer life span, a prime example being implanted medical devices. The software and the equipment that communicates with that device in my chest has to last more than a year or two, as constant surgery to implant the latest and greatest device is not a viable option. Planning for that and understanding the implications is critical in this particular area of the Internet of Things.

Brainstorming, crowd-sourcing ideas, and the feel of a tweetchat

The remaining sessions I attended throughout the day were just as energetic and enjoyable as the first. Being in a room and brainstorming with such amazing, diverse, technologically savvy talent from across a wide spectrum set this ‘UnConference’ apart. As much as I hate using the latest buzzwords, this really was ‘crowd-sourcing’ ideas and felt like a face to face version of a tweetchat (I have participated in many over the years). At the end of the day, all attendees went back to the same room the sessions were defined in. The hosts/moderators of the sessions reported back what the sessions were like and this recap was great because there were many sessions I was interested in that I could not attend.

Another upside to this ‘UnConference’ format was the large number of new people working in the technology space that I was able to connect and share ideas with. Overall, it was a great experience, great discussion and brainstorming of ideas and developing new contacts in the technology landscape of Massachusetts was invaluable. I look forward to next year, and will maybe even get up in line and propose my own topics/sessions!

Friday, November 14, 2014

unCon 2014 Session: Innovation in Boring Industries

Post by Adam Zand, principal at Almost Ubiquitous

This session was led by Ken Pickering, senior director of engineering at Enservio.

We first defined boring. It can be an “unsexy” or utilitarian industry that is underserved by the tech market. For example, insurance is slow to adopt. Technical solutions are slow to buy. The financial industry 20 years ago was harder to innovate. Banking, in general, is slow - still often done on mainframes. Recruitment was pretty standard, but now there is recruitment software. Security used to be boring - Threats made it exciting.

There is an opportunity and excitement to working in these industries. If there are fewer companies doing interesting things, it is easier to stand out and be a leader and have your innovations be adopted by industry.

How do you bring innovation to a company that already has revenue stream?
Extra growth is appreciated if the market is saturated. The challenge with boring industries is that people in them are risk averse. Newness means risk so need to find the champions. Advent of Internet-based companies can be a kick in the pants in markets like insurance. You see funny commercials for branding purposes - these companies understand that younger audiences need to be introduced to the offerings in interesting ways.

What other industries are ripe for this innovation?
We want to serve underserved areas. Boring industries can change quickly. Facebook was a status and photo app. Marketing ecosystem grew up around it. Now, there’s facial recognition opportunities.

All industries see a technology come in that makes changes. For example, PowerPoint was big within education, but is now common. Other industries built tools to support it. Practice of teaching became more interesting. Now, we have classes online anywhere, anytime.
Industry is changed by a technology that may not have been intended for it.

Incremental vs. disruption.
Most big business deals with incremental but it is very significant. There is great value in the volume. It may not be sexy for VC, but this is the foundation of our economy.

The session looked at how do you innovate -- balance incremental and disruptive. Helps to have a group that will support the disruptive ideas, sponsor, champion, and move forward if it makes sense.

A participant from Constant Contact shared that email marketing was looked at as spam, but an opportunity was convincing people who wanted to communicate in useful, welcomed ways. Needed to develop customer relationship and connections. Educate and shift the dialog. Technology pushed it along. At Constant Contact, some customers might be caught in the tradition of a three column newsletter that doesn’t work on mobile. Need to explain the changes and give them samples.

A participant from Trip Advisor shared: Hotels are not tech giants or often connected to the ecosystem. Lots don’t connect to online booking. Friction exists with potential clients. At TripAdvisor, they try to ballpark what people could get from an innovation or new approach. They share what competitors are doing. Some hotels will say our budget is done - they aleady bought an ad in a trade or business publication, but can’t show what the benefits were though.

Motivation for innovation often comes from:
  • Fear from outside
  • Demands of consumers

We discussed innovation as an in-house, incentivized program. A participant who once worked at  Warner Brothers shared there was an incentive program around DC Comics. They had a effort where anyone could pitch an idea. If your idea wins you get a huge TV. 75 people were competing to improve a process. Internal competition gets people excited. Can look at all the programs.

At Microsoft, you have a set amount of time to do whatever you want. Not part of your daily work. Lots of problems gets solved at those times.

This supports incentives with internal competition. One company shared that there is a pitch to VPs once a quarter. Facetime with VPs is important to many employees, however you might miss out on the introverts. Another person shared, this would spice up an innovation team that tends to meet monthly and can get stale.

Someone from Mitre shared that innovation is part of the defined research budget. Anyone can submit a proposal. There is a six month project that can be measured and continued if necessary. Eventually, needs to show successes. Homegrown innovation gets people excited. More buy in.

Are there people in your companies looking out for innovations, trends?
Need to ask: Is there a technology out there that will change our industry. Where is market going? What do customers want?

This discussion showed innovation is alive and well in seemingly “boring” industries. 

unCon 2014 Session: Branding in the Age of Fast Failure

Post by: Chris Nahil, Message & Medium,  Twitter: @cnahil

Iconic images though they may be, Nike’s “swoosh” and Apple’s “iEverything” are not the sum total of their respective brands. They are the expression of particular qualities and attributes, the combined power of which make up a brand. The authentic brand of any company is comprised of many factors from product strategy and customer service to Web copy tone and product packaging…and almost everything in between that can create an emotional connection with a customer or prospect. In an era when companies routinely pivot -- or fail fast – is branding still viable?  The answer in this session is “yes” and several of the digital marketing tools currently available make brand evolution less painful, more data-driven and more cost-efficient.  Some highlights from this unConference session, moderate by Meghan Gardner of Leap, included:
  • Customers today expect similar things from their interactions with B2B companies as they do with B2C brands. Today, even deep technology companies must have the kind of engagement and open approach to communications that most consumer brands have mastered.
  • The discipline need to define differentiated messaging still revolves around the central questions:
    • Who are we?
    • What do we do?
    • Why do we do it better than anyone else?
    • Why should anyone else care?
  • Every company has a community with which it can test messaging and positioning. Digital tools – surveys, LinkedIn company pages, email marketing, online forums, social media platforms, mobile – allow companies to quickly vet messaging and gather quantitative data on message effectiveness.
  • Brand is two-way conversation. If your company must pivot, having established a genuine rapport with your audience in advance is the best way to ease that transition.
  • Similarly, if a company has not bothered to engage its audience then it will wind up “branding in a vacuum” which is ineffective and expensive.

unCon 2014 Session: Bringing Code Literacy to Inner City Youth

Post by Adam Zand, principal at Almost Ubiquitous

This important session was led by Micah Martin, an 18 year-old Boston resident who codes and is active with Resilient Coders, a program focused on making web technology more available to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to it. He was joined by Tyler Mitchell and Fredy Meto, peers at Resilient Coders. Heather Carey, executive director of Mass TLC’s Education Foundation joined the session and there was active participation from the large audience.

The Need - A Personal Story
Micah set the stage with issues faced and the need for access and positive social change.
“Many people start using computers and coding as self-taught and then curiosity takes over. In my environment, the distractions take over and there are too many other temptations or even stigmas about education. We are being left in the dark too much. The inner city itself makes learning hard. Finding out about coding is hard. There are no formal classes in schools.”

His story is compelling and instructive as we look at helping kids break out from institutional and self-imposed boundaries, “At 15, I was in and out of foster homes, DYS. I tried to remain humble, but knew I was intelligent. Never used it. I didn’t see how that would make me money. I was tired of institutions. Change happened, when I changed how I looked at myself and the paradigm.”

Heather Carey shared a higher level look at tenets to guide us: Awareness, Exposure, Educate, Master, Thirsty learners. She talked about the importance of reaching kids beyond the sons and daughters of techies. She asked what can we do better as a tech community to reach a larger amount of students in urban areas?

Resources and Reaching Out
We started looking at groups and institutions. Chris Swenor from VSnap shared an economic benefit of working with inner city coders. He thought it would it be cheaper to have an inner city agency to improve. Less need to outsource. He wants to hire and work with passionate, skilled people.

Heather mentioned South End Technology Center as resource. Resilient Coders is connecting to other nonprofits, but it’s hard to get a plan down and coordinate. There is not really a place to work together. This isn’t systematic or organized. She is working to increase connections and collaboration through her work at the Education Foundation and mentioned monthly meet-ups they have started to host.

Heather asked Micah, how do we reach your friends?
Micah shared, “the main issue is development and maturity. We are told to have a negative self image - change the paradigm of an inner city kid who wants to improve and get opportunity. My friends are genuine and would get motivated by personal satisfaction and success. Overcoming something hard like coding helps you learn and grow. There’s a lot of failure in coding.”

Dan Bricklin, trustee at MassTLC added: “Failure is important. Success happens when you make something work. The coming together and the process of next steps is positive. Feedback from peers and the little steps will keep us going. Better to look at that before thinking about success in the app store. The steps along the way of coding is a type of life. How do you get that part - a drug so to speak - accepted as fun and build passion that gets people hired.”

Another participant shared that interaction with the physical world interests people. Having a maker space would help and robots in the schools to work with as ongoing activities.

We started a list of elements that could help:
  • Maker space
  • Awareness
  • In school access
  • After-school access
  • Resources (books, classes)
  • Mentors, volunteers from companies
  • Retreats, safe spaces
  • Site visits to companies
  • Internships for high school students at tech companies

The audience asked Micha if places like the South End Technology Center and lab at Madison Park HS are helpful to people?

Micha said maker centers and labs are interesting. However, every neighborhood and actual street has gang issues, history and potential conflict. A maker space or community center could turn sour.

Heather talked about work with schools being tough and the need for money and resources.
Micha shared, “In 9th grade, I was at Boston Latin. I learned so much quickly and was given O’Reilly coding books. I was expelled early. When I went back to normal school, I didn’t have any access to books or a facility.”

Heather mentioned CoderDojo, an online open source curriculum for kids. A Nokia employee is doing it in Somerville. After-school is a possibility and company involvement as a shared effort.

Dan Bricklin wondered if there was a virtual solution to access to knowledge and resources. Dan lives on Skype screen sharing. He asked if we should we provide mentors on Skype? People available to answer questions. “We have tons of O’Reilly books that we no longer need and could gift. How does one do the mentoring and connecting on Skype - how would you figure out who would be a good fit?”

Micah liked the idea, but need to have the kids realize that this is possible, ignite the passion. “I had it with game programming around 13 and 14. There is a technology gap in inner city. If you have Facebook and YouTube, many will think that is enough.” Micah shares his smart phone for access. Micha sees the potential and education of Internet. He stopped going to school at 16, but taught himself and got to go to college. “Coding can be cool in my peer group. My friends really like the idea of me doing it and making money.”

Micah shared that an off-site retreat would be cool, but that gangs will still be an issue. People need to change how they look at themselves. Eventually people grow out of it and realize they were being manipulated or put into risk for no personal benefit.

Fredy Meto, a peer at Resilient Coders shared that one of the things that attracted him were large groups of different people being involved - former DYS, gang members and prisoners. A problem with a Maker Space is you might have 5-7 people trying to teach 500 people. Lack of quality. If given the resources, he’d hire or involve as many mentors as could in order to go to DYS, prisons to teach.  

Some companies do mentoring and school visits as one day to help. Corporations need to be asked and connected. However, it really needs to be an ongoing organized effort - not just one offs.

Programming in Schools and Pressure on Government
Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka has filed legislation to help. She filed a coding in schools bill. There is an economic development bill that contains $1M for coding in school. Schools are being selected by MassCan (Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network). The Senator wants to build on that effort and shared that it helped her understand the issues by meeting with Resilient Coders.

She said, “The challenge is - we will never be enough, but more voices will get this from pilot program to curriculum. We need this as a country. In the short-term, people continue to mentor, contact Council and similar organization, get out there, look at overcoming the barriers as a pilot group. At same time, join forces and reach out to State Senator Spilka’s office and MassTLC Education Foundation. More voices mean it gets heard - stand out from the 8000 other bills that get filed annually. This is important to business, community.”

Heather said the Education Foundation is recruiting CXO signatures to show policy makers how important they feel computer science education in our schools is for the future of our kids.

Galen Moore, editor in chief at BostInno asked if coding is the best direction and use of resources: “Should we look at digital marketing, SEO, digital strategy?” Dan Bricklin answered, that “marketing is selling something. Coding is teaching what needs are and solving problems. That moves into wider entrepreneurship and life skills. Establish need and determine what will solve it.”

One idea was to adopt a “Start-up Institute” model with benefits to companies. If you mentor, you get access to potential employees. We can also have corporate coding or similar business projects that can be tackled short-term in a school.

Next Steps
In our wrap up, Heather asked if we should we all commit to doing something?
Micah asked us for the goals, and what an ideal program and collaboration would look like. What are the roadblocks?

There is a need for high level social change, but it is critical to have support at the grassroots with a combination of nonprofits, companies, educators and mentors.

Senator Spilka said, make sure Boston schools reach out to  MassCan funding so they can be part of next round. Heather can help make that connection.

Can we get lots of these people together? Tech companies opening up doors to high school students for internships.

Micah asked is there a group that can connect these parties?
David Delmar, founder of Resilient Coders and Heather are having meetings about this. Meet ups will be open.

Sign up for MassTLC’s #RandomActsOfCode, December 8-12. Build the connections. Meet up and continue these discussions. Get involved with Resilient Coders and reach out to communities in need.

Micah left us with the challenge: “Do something.” People need to link together to bring coding to inner city youth.

unCon 2014 Session: How to give a TED talk

By: Jiyoung Jeong

Led by UMass Amherst TEDx Group

During the second session, representatives from UMass Amherst’s TEDx group pitched a short lecture on how to give TED talks. They covered the main fundamentals of speechmaking: the importance of physical stance and position, visual presentation, and content.

Whenever one gives a talk in front of a big audience, it’s crucial to stand in a confident position. One of the representatives stressed the importance by noting that statistically, “people who [stand in] bigger positions” give more successful, effective talks. “[Standing in a more assured position] makes you more confident,” she said, stating that carrying an unruffled stance causes one’s body to produce hormones that makes him or her more confident.

The representatives also emphasized the significance of visual assistance in presentations. They mentioned that many use PowerPoint to summarize main points, while stressing that a slide shouldn’t contain long paragraphs that distract the audience from the talk itself. The worst that can happen while giving a talk, a representative said, is having so much information on a slide that “it becomes almost annoying.” “You do not want to put a presentation up and read the slides word for word,” she said.

Lastly, they discussed the significance of content. A talk becomes “more endearing,” a representative mentioned, “when they’re speaking in a relatable way.” He went on to say that a talk’s topic could be simple; he recalled the time he watched an effective TED talk on a topic as mundane as paper towels.

Although the UMass Amherst TEDx group did not discuss the process of making TED talks in depth, its members discussed the most basic skills needed for speechmaking—offering helpful advice to all aspiring speechmakers at the session. 

unCon 2014 Session: Is Attending College Worthwhile?

By: Jiyoung Jeong

Led by Sterling Dintersmith

As one of the few high school students at the Innovation unConference today, Sterling raised an important—yet rarely asked—question: “Is attending college worthwhile?”

At her session, she noted that many students, at first enthused to experience college, actually find their college academic life uninteresting. When she asked the group’s opinion on that issue, many responded that a college’s challenging classroom environment, nonetheless, teach students “how to think critically.” They went on to highlight the value of critical thinking; one participant mentioned that she, like many others, largely consider an applicant’s critical thinking abilities when hiring.

Many session members also pointed out the importance of network that colleges allow students to create. All of them agreed that connecting with others in such a “unique place” has allowed them to nurture various relationships both during and after college; one participant noted that college acts as a “cultural reference point.” He further noted that most people ask others what college they attended not to gain a sense of their intelligence, but to network; for example, long after graduating from college, a woman who graduated in 1994 may unexpectedly meet another who graduated in 2003— and they may get to make other acquaintances through each other. He pointed out that, in a society where work and opportunities chiefly rely on connections, the ultimate value of attending college—although extremely pricey— is excitingly unpredictable.

But should all students attend college right after graduating from high school? Most of the session group members brought up the option of gap year. “Find the path [you want to take in life] before paying that money [for college],” one of them advised. Many agreed, saying that having a clear goal in mind before attending college is crucial. These days, many students opt for college without knowing what they would like to do career-wise. With the huge growth in college attendees, many high school students are pressured to attend college “just because.” Although one member mentioned that attending college actually helped him define some significant life goals, the general consensus was: people that have clear goals, dedication, and focus are the ones that can get the most out of those expensive institutions. 

The session also touched on the importance of finding the “right school.” Participants stressed that, for a student, colleges’ names shouldn’t stand as the main problem; instead, the questions that they should ask are, does the school fit me? Can I fully apply myself in various areas at this institution?  A participant encouraged having flexibility during both the application process and the actual school life. “You’re [never] stuck,” he said; no matter what college one starts at, he or she always has the choice to drop out or transfer, if the college experience isn’t quite rewarding.
Toward the end of the discussion, Sterling asked the group members to raise their hands if they felt that they had gained crucial academic skills by attending college. Surprisingly, although nearly all of them had spoken positively of attending college, only about forty percent of the group raised their hands. Truly, the most significant value and reason for attending college may not root in the classroom material—but in the diverse relationships that college environments nurture. 

unCon 2014 Session: Primary Market Research

By Ellen Askey

Session led by: Elaine Chen, entrepreneurship lecturer at MIT

Building from the basics, that entrepreneurs must leave the office to interact with costumers, we discussed qualitative versus quantitative market research.

Elaine took the position that quantitative measures are best for pricing research – in fact, the only viable way to research prices is to try selling the product at various prices and see whether or not customers buy. Survey takers tend to respond that they would buy a product, though when faced with the purchasing decision, they would not follow through. Katarine Cai countered that qualitative research may be more useful B2B companies making more customized sales for which one would want to understand a given customer’s motives for buying the product.

Hardware companies follow a slightly different principle, too. Because they cannot iterate as quickly as software companies, they cannot use the “sell and see” method for pricing research. However, they can use surveys for which target customers rank their likelihood to buy a product on a 1-5 scale. Different prices are used for different groups of survey takers. Using such surveys, Kindle researchers determined that the best price for mass adoption was $99, which they eventually lowered the price to. Surveys can also help determine product-market fit. One can administer a test for how upset target customers would be if the product were taken away. If 40 percent respond “extremely upset,” the product fits the market quite well. Josh Bob challenged that even this tests is too qualitative; he holds that raising the price is again the only way to learn customers’ true responses. 

Survey tips include keeping it short – every 10 questions, 10 percent of responders stop – and asking only actionable questions, not just any and all interesting questions. Start by asking yourself what information you need to make the decision.

Yet, the heart of qualitative market research lies in interaction with target customers to gain insights. Observation can be a doorway to pain points. Market researchers can see how customers interact with the product or how target customers act with pain points lacking a given solution. Elaine noted the time she spend 8 hours in a car with a real estate agent to see how they passed that time.

Discussion, too, is a great way to learn about the pain points that target customers face. One cannot simply ask, generally, “Do you have a problem?” Instead, make a hypothesis about who you target customers are, bring them in, and have a conversation. Elaine once researched target customers with sleep problems for a sleep-tracking alarm clock. There, one could first ask, “What are your sleep issues?” Perhaps the interviewee does not even realize their abnormal sleep patterns are problematic; that’s also important to consider.

The conversation should flow from general to specific. The interviewer should let it flow freely, without guiding the conversation towards their own solutions.  Thus, the interviewer avoids leading the witness, and the witness avoids responding positively though falsely, out of kindness. Elaine suggests that the interview prepare 4 open-ended channels of conversation; the interview can listen to the interviewee’s story and follow them to narrow the conversation. Once the conversation is complete, the interviewer may talk about potential solutions and could even ask “If a genie cam with a solution, what would it look like?”
Elaine strongly recommends the free ebook, “Talking to Humans, Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers,” for more on this topic.

Regarding methodology, Elaine recommends recording the interviews on video so that the market researchers can use facial cues. However, the opposing school of thought holds that recording can detract from the interviewee’s honesty.

Elaine also recommends interviewing in pairs, with one person talking and one taking notes. The interviewers can debrief ever 5 or so discussions, sharing insights and looking for patterns among target customers. In this way, they test their target customer hypothesis, and they see potential correlations between the target factors and other factors.

Near the end of our discussion, one participant asked when entrepreneurs should disregard customer feedback completely, as Steve Jobs claimed he did. We determined that customer opinions typically have no bearing in aesthetics, from the fast-changing fashion world to user interfaces.

In the end, says one participant, customer feedback is a useful as a way to mitigate risk. Entrepreneurs can then choose whether or not too listen to feedback, weighing the risks and benefits of pursuing a potentially disruptive innovation. 

unCon 2014 Session: Reverse Pitches

By: Ellen Askey

We looked into pain points in the private and public sectors that could be addressed by local startups. Below, find a list of each sector’s needs.

Private side:
  • Constant Contact seeks tools for visual design that can keep up with the agile development. Contact Ken Surdan at
  • Agero, a roadside assistance company responsible for 75M vehicles, is looking to automate their large contact center; the replacement would follow a decision tree using cognitive automation. Contact Julian Bourne at
  • Konica Minolta, which provides digital product solutions and services, has an innovation division that seeks help starting a R&D center in Boston for graphene, 3D printing, and life sciences. Contact Jim Daniell at
  • Calling tech start-ups to show their product at the Innovation Showcase of MIT’s CIO Symposium, hosted by the Sloan Alumni Association. It’s an environment with a lot of visibility; the evaluators select startups that would be of interest to CIOs and CEOs there. Those CIOs may also be interested in the state’s innovation projects. To apply for the showcase, visit You may also contact Anton Teodorescu at

Public side:

Guiding questions included: How does Mass become easier to do business with? How can we look to municipal solutions and scale them for the whole state?

Bill Oates, Commonwealth Chief Information Officer, outlined many challenges that MassIT is trying to address:
  • Volume of people receiving health insurance
  • A way to do faster, more iterative projects
  • Education team – trying to improve how the education sector uses technology
  • Digital engagement with MA citizens (a platform over which people can cooperate with the Commonwealth; anyone can provide tech support)
  • IT support for local governments – MassIT can help through municipal services team 
  • Connect state employees to mobile
  • Challenges in procurement and contracting
  • Revamp
  • Take advantage of social platforms; general digital interaction

MassIT’s more specific needs include:
  • Online sign-up system, like for parks (something like Rapid Apps)
  • Platforms to keep track of:
    • Data sets (could Evernote work?)
    • Software inventory of the state’s assets (for example, how many copies of Microsoft Office do we have?). Steven Strassmann envisions a dashboard of the inventory. Contact him at
    • Licensing needs (i.e. hairdressing license) through the commonwealth – we need something more interactive. The platform could track different licensing types; users could fill in all applications and track their progress, all in one platform, avoiding the current frustration of filling out PDFs. Contact Kevin Martin at
  • Leverage open data for businesses (not secure or private data). Contact Mariko Davidson at
  • Use different types of data other than state sources. (For example, LinkedIn data cold help map out the business landscape of the state). Contact Christ Scranton at
  • Ideas for how to motivate and attract talent. Contact Steve Strassmann at Luella Wong mentioned the idea of a sabbatical between public and private work, like “public/private cross-pollination.” Contact her at
  • Repository for regulations/permits for large events – something like a state website for event organizers and participants. It could give heads up for traffic; it would integrate municipal/state events, regulations, etc.

A more effective way to track what’s going on in the business process between the business and tech side.  Instead of people communicating what they think is going on, we need a way to map what’s actually going on. We need a more agile, effective way to map out truth/fiction. Contact Joan Matsumoto at

MassIT has team members ready to talk with you about potential solutions. Don’t hesitate to contact them, and be sure to check out the twitter handle @massachusettsIT

unCon 2014 Session: Experiential Learning

By: Sterling Dintersmith

For the past century, school has been taught in the same way. The experiences of the teacher are transferred via lectures to students. But what if it was flipped around, and the students were having the experiences, and the teachers simply guided them? Nicole DeSantis and Remy Carpinito of CampusTap led an experiential learning discussion today where they presented the idea that maybe the best learning can come from experiences and that this method can be applied inside and outside the classroom.

Everyone agreed that inside K-12 classrooms, kids given more freedom to design their own projects and follow their own ideas would be more motivated and would learn more. However, one teacher mentioned that proctoring this kind of learning can be exhausting, and because of this many teachers end up letting textbooks and worksheets take over. Additionally, teachers are often uncomfortable with open-ended projects, because they symbolize a lack of control in the classroom. So, while we know what’s really best for students and how to apply it, that type of experiential learning is unlikely to become a widespread reality in the near future purely due to the amount of effort it takes and the longstanding tradition of lecture based teaching.

As a group, we decided to address the problem that if the curriculum of schools is not evolving with technology, students are not building the necessary skills in school. Around this problem, we developed several ways that students could gain that experience outside of the classroom. Gap years are often named as good times to gain experience and figure out what you really want to do. Of discussion member mentioned a possible creation of an experiential learning program between high school and college, backed by innovative startups. Another possibility for a student looking to gain experience 21st century skills before college could be trying different fields of entry-level positions, which don’t require a degree, in order to know what they when going to college.

With experiential learning a secondary roadblock is the lack of clear accreditation. It’s harder to put a letter grade or degree on an experience like you can with a standardized test, but what can show is a portfolio. Some group members argued that accomplishments speak even louder than a degree, and emphasize that someone is a problem solver and creative thinker. In some fields, such as programming, a degree from even the most selective college won’t earn a job without some kind of digital portfolio.

If the education system can over come high standards of accreditation and classroom strictness, experiential education would provide more productive and motivated students who are prepared to take on challenges in today’s innovated world. 

unCon 2014 Session: Sharing Startup Marketing’s Best Practices

By: Sterling Dintersmith

While developing a product or idea is a challenge in and of itself, marketing that innovation to the public can be even harder, especially for startups. Today, Steve Robins led a group discussion about finding the best practices for successfully marketing a startup company. The discussion walked through several tips and tricks of marketing, both pre-product, and post-release.

The group consensus determined that a pre-branding analysis of the customers of any given product helps avoid the costs and setbacks of rebranding due to an unforseen change in customer base. So, even if an in depth analysis may be costly in the short run, it will pay off when the startup is able to directly hit it’s consumer base.  Additionally, Steve Robins mentioned that whatever branding does happen must convey the message of the product clearly and concisely. Other members of the discussion chipped in, commenting on how the product’s message should reference the root problem that it is fixing. Once a prototype is created, multiple peopled suggested getting lots of feedback from the customer base through various methods such as Kickstarter, pitches, and getting direct feedback from people interested in buying and using the product. This feedback can also be used as testimonials. Another discussion member mentioned the possibility of analyzing the competitor’s products and businesses for flaws and building off of those.

While the suggestions mentioned thus far have focused mainly on improving the product, a marketing trend seen often in startups, our group was able to develop several ideas for the marketing itself. First of all, increasing awareness of the problem that the product fixes can increase demand for the product. This can be done through reaching out to news reporters or bloggers, and is more easily done in niche markets. In any market, giving a product to influential members is also effective, because other people see that someone important is using the product and would be more likely to buy it. Facebook, twitter, Buzzfeed and other social media outlets can increase awareness as well. These outlets can all lead to the product’s website, which many discussion members recommended by very simple, clear, and concise. Oftentimes, websites contain too many technical details, which can slow a buyer’s momentum and decrease their interest.

As the product’s initial surge ends, the most important factor to keep in mind is customer satisfaction. When customer satisfaction is high, customers will spread the product or business by word of mouth and it’s consumer base will continue to grow. Out of all the takeaways from the discussion, this was probably the most important, because regardless of any other factors, only satisfied customers will continue buying. 

unCon 2014 Sessions: Start-up Secrets Unplugged with Michael Skok

By Ellen Askey

Michael presented framework for startups’ value propositions.  He outlined the four “U”s for customer needs: unworkable, unavoidable, urgent, and underserved. We explored the four “U”s in a brief case study of VSnap, with Guillame and David representing the company. They pitched VSnap as a video messaging platform for sales reps that increases close rates by 34%. Michael helped fit their case to the 4 “Us”:
  1. Unworkable - VSnap fills the gap of personal contact and body language, lost over phone sales
  2. Unavoidable - How does VSnap address unavoidable situations? Find a segment of the market where VSnap is absolutely needed
  3. Urgent – Vsnap increases close rates
  4. Underserved – no one else is doing it

Promising companies fill the four “Us” while entering a “white space” free of competing solutions; a company should strive to address the four “U”s such that the consumer can’t live without the product.

We then looked at Brendan’s start-up, which he described as a platform that changes how people engage with art and culture. Michael suggested articulate his pitch using the four “U”s, framing his platform as a pain point solution: Brendan’s startup replaces audio guides with a platform that adds visual cues and social interaction; it’s non-linear. They pitch mainly to museums and galleries. The session participants could immediately grasp the gist of Brendan’s startup and how it could bring value to its customers - museums and galleries – and end users. 

Next, Michael described a second framework for B2B companies:  solving blatant/critical needs as opposed to latent/aspirational needs. (See picture)

We then looked at Crowd Comfort, a platform for people to report facilities problems in buildings (comfort, maintenance, hazards) so the managers can respond. Eric, of Crowd Comfort, placed it in the middle of the blatant/latent spectrum and the aspirational/critical spectrums. We discussed how Crowd Comfort in fact addresses comfort as a latent need and hazards as a blatant, critical need, for a company wants to avoid lawsuits or production setbacks, and the platform could possibly save a life. The maintenance solution could serve as an ally for revenue generation. Perhaps, then, Crowd Comfort could move more towards meeting blatant/critical needs by focusing its value proposition around hazards and maintenance.

Understanding where you are in the blatant/latent and aspirational/critical framework helps refine a value proposition; it even helps with pricing and with positioning around competitors. And, identifying “whitespace” with unmet, blatant, critical needs can certainly expose auspicious venture ideas.

The discussion then shifted from B2B to consumer businesses. Michael made the point that consumer needs can be broken down in the same way as business’ ones, though solutions for latent/aspirational consumer needs can be viable. Social and security-centered needs are at the top of the hierarchy of consumer needs. Take Facebook. It began by addressing what appeared to be a latent, aspirational, need – college student’s need to meet people. Facebook addressed that need, which has sense become more blatant/critical. Calling back to VSnap, the video messaging company addresses the key need of communication, which falls under social needs.

Michael then discussed prime audiences. Would Crowd Comfort’s prime audience, with the most critical needs, be the managers or the users? Say we chose the managers; then, the users would also have to benefit, completing the loop. Thus, it’s important to deliver value to both.

The discussion then moved to disruptive technologies, like Uber. Michael mentioned that one can spot the three Ds: disruptive, defensible, and discontinuous. A disruptive idea breaks the current solution so it’s unworkable; a defensible idea can retain value; a discontinuous idea gets its value from connection (for example, smart phones only have value when connected to the cloud). Spotting these disruptive opportunities opens a new, underserved market.

We next explored the question, “Is the problem worth solving?” Michael advised asking users what specific piece of their problem is unworkable, unavoidable, urgent, and underserved. If you’re looking to build a huge company, look for an even larger problem, because you’ll never have whole market share.
By the gain/pain ratio, the gain should be at least an order of magnitude greater than the pain in order to change something. We considered a start-up described by Mugdha as an ecommerce company for children’s toys aiming to expose them to different cultures. They sell, for example, a wooden toy for $35. Initially, the pain (cost and finding the product) seemed latent and aspirational, outweighing the gain (“an immersive cultural experience,” as opposed to, say, a random library book). However, enthused participant, parents themselves, stressed the great, buried values of this product for the buyer, the parents: they feel like a better parent, raising globally-minded children; they bring a worldly experience to their child, like a study abroad program or a family trip, but at a younger age, in a box, and for significantly less cost.

In the final minutes, Michael advised that we think broadly about the costumer – here, the parent, not the child. We should try to fully understand who receives the gain and who feels the pain. Rather than trying solve your own pain/gain experience, we should talk to the parents, and we may unearth how valuable they find travel or this alternative mode of cultural immersion. Entrepreneurs tend to be optimists; Michael noted that we should try being more pessimistic to see and fix the issues with a value proposition. We should focus on the buyer and ask, “What are all the things that are wrong here?” Then, we can switch back to being the optimists to share our vision. Then, we can then unpack the value proposition and see how to get more value out of your customers.

See Michael’s site – – where he gives further details about value propositions and other topics. Be sure to check out future discussions with Michael in December and January, listed on  

unCon 2014 Session: How Developers Learn

By Madeline Barnes

Moderator: Jeff Whatcott

Today, Jeff Whatcott led a discussion that focused on teaching developers new materials and skills. Considering this hurdle, how could one educate developers in a way that corresponds with both changing technology and the strategies of the already existing company?

In every company, there always seems to be a gap between the development teams needs and what the actual market is providing. How can you manage what you have to do for the company while bringing in new ideas?

We discussed why we think it is important for developers to continue acquiring new information as well as the process surrounding this.  Major points included the importance and struggle of acquiring talent, being able to keep that talent, the transition to new technologies, as well as and the balance of new technologies with the company’s current system and strategies. It was concluded that in order to help motivate developers and engineers to want to acquire new skills that would serve as an asset to the company, there would need to be a strong focus on the conceptual level of the information needed, before its implementation. Understanding how the product or application works is crucial in order to begin learning new material and skills that would help it progress.

Some successful approaches in teaching and expanding these skills include:
  • “Trial by fire”: This is where developer would be directly presented with a problem where, through self-fed research, they would need to find a solution and present it, regardless to the outcome
  • Peer teaching: Having developers teach other developers, rather than brining in an outside consultant, resulting in greater motivation towards learning the application or product’s system.

An unsuccessful approach that was discussed surrounded the attendance of conferences. When developers attend conferences, they are given the opportunity to learn new information about current or future innovations. However, in learning that their company may not be up to date and unable support such technological advances, developers are not able to apply the new technology. This sends a conflicting message. If we are empowering engineers and developers to learn this new information, then why are we not giving them the opportunities to apply it?

So, how do developers learn? In order to continue branching out and learning new technology and skills inevitable failure must be embraced and accepted. If developers and engineers are placed in an environment where this failure is accepted, such as hackathons, or internships, they are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge to real situations that matter, because learning is a skill that can be easily lost if it is not practice

unCon 2014 Session: Your Idea for Making the Eco-System Better

By Madeline Barnes

Moderators: Scott Kirsner, Dmitri Gunn, David Parker, and Bobbie Carlton

Today, Scott Kirsner, Dmitri Gunn, David Parker, and Bobbie Carlton lead a thought-provoking discussion on “Ideas for Making the Eco-system Better”. Spreading the message of start-up companies and entrepreneurs towards larger companies, and even students, is not an easy task. This session began with the participants giving examples of companies and organizations they know or are affiliated with that either target aspiring entrepreneurs or larger companies, in hopes of expansion or financial support. Some of the main discussion topics include:
  • Missed opportunity to connect old school ways to new school ways: Innovating from different generation’s perspectives
  • MetroWest Tech sandbox: creating a mentoring relationship that help the startups helps the student
  • Resources for students interested in startup community: Educate students who are not aware of future business opportunities. How can we help educate students on the startup community? Some students are aware of  an idea, but need the initiative to get more involved.
  • t=0 : celebrating MIT innovation, this is designed to create awareness of the opportunities that entrepreneurship can provide,through bringing together students with the common interest
  • MIT Beantown Throwdows: gives them the opportunity to pitch their business and get to know each other, helping to cultivate network in the community. Now that entrepreneurship is present in many schools, this serves as one event to bring them together. Happening at District Hall on Tuesday November 18th
  • Work bar- Centers of Excellence: This involves connecting startups with larger organizations leading to job opportunities within the startup world as well as an opportunity for larger, more successful companies to interact with smaller ones.

Connecting smaller startup companies to larger corporations not only provides them with stability, whether through finance or ideas, but also helps them to connect on a more personal level. This could lead to more mainstream and media coverage in the entrepreneurial world, bridging the gap between small business and large organizations. Further solutions include events such as “hackathons”, bridging the gap between the cultural and technological community, and having entrepreneurs speak to college students, lessening the culture and age gap that is often associated with creating a successful business.

Scott Kirsner said “culture is what we make it.” So, why not incorporate successful and accessible opportunities for entrepreneurship?