Most Innovative Companies
Updates from the MIC alumni.
In June, Vasu Kulkarni was standing in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room, his hands sticky with Champagne spray, his ears ringing with screams. The team had just won the NBA championship game, and Kulkarni, CEO of Krossover, was invited in for the trophy presentation. It wasn’t his footwork or his coaching skills that landed him the enviable invite: The Cavs use Krossover’s data analytics tools to study their games to improve performance. “As a kid, I would dream of just being in an NBA locker room,” he says. “But to actually get to touch the championship trophy? It was surreal.”
Growing up, Kulkarni thought he’d be in the locker room thanks to his prowess on the court. “I don’t think a day’s gone by since I was 5 years old that I haven’t played basketball,” he says. As a child in Bangalore, he spent almost every afternoon on the outdoor dirt courts and filled evenings with old videotapes of American basketball heroes. But when he started college at the University of Pennsylvania, he was in for a rude awakening: “I was a star in India, but suddenly at college everybody’s a foot and a half taller than me,” he says.
The next four years weren’t filled with much court time, but warming the bench gave him a front-row perspective on how coaches slogged through game-day prep. “In India, there were no videos and no stats—you just played and kept score,” he says. “But in college, my coaches would sit for four or five hours at a time, breaking down film, taking notes, making giant charts in Excel.”
He graduated with a computer science major and then blasted his résumé to every sports tech company he could think of. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that his coaches’ pain might harbor his biggest chance to stay close to the game. So when his first round of job hunting turned up nada, Kulkarni developed Krossover. Anyone can upload game footage, and the service makes it searchable by player and play—so that, say, a coach could find every drive by his point guard, or every turnover. The software also analyzes the footage and spits out stats. “I didn’t have a dollar in my pocket when I left Penn, but for two years I passed the hat to anyone who would listen and maybe write me a check,” he says. He drummed up $300,000 in investments from a couple of Wall Street sports fanatics and crisscrossed the country to pitch the product at coaching clinics and sports conventions. The beta launched with 50 customers, mostly high school basketball coaches.
Today Krossover has 10,000 customers around the world, and is set to surpass $10 million in revenue in 2016. It has expanded to lacrosse, volleyball and football, and will add soccer later this year. “We think of basketball as our flagship product, but honestly, soccer could eclipse it,” says Kulkarni. “Until you do soccer, everything else is an afterthought in every other country but the U.S.”
High school and college teams are Krossover’s bread and butter, though the sports analytics company has pushed into the NBA and NCAA as well as amateur rec leagues. Kulkarni doesn’t think his target audience is limited to coaches and recruiters, either. Earlier this year, Krossover began selling directly to athletes: With a few clicks on the web platform, players can generate a personalized highlight reel from their last game, month or season in less than two minutes. “The analytics tool looks for your plays within context—it knows dunks are a good play, but it also knows that if the score is close in the final minutes and you hit a shot, it’s probably a good play,” he says. “We’re not perfect, because it’s being done by a computer, but it’s better than a high school parent spending $500 to have someone come and videotape their kid.”
Though he initially expected the highlight reel to be popular with hopeful athletes sending tapes to far-flung recruiters, social media has been fueling the product’s popularity. “People have always loved sharing their greatest sports moments once they’re off the court,” he says. “But now they post a video and let that do the bragging for them, instead of trying to describe how mind-blowing some shot was.”
Kulkarni has also done a little bragging on social media. When his parents—who had always chided their son to get off the court and focus on school—saw an Instagram photo of him in the Cavs locker room, they wrote him an email. “They congratulated me for being a part of the sport despite not having the genetic makeup to be on the court. Then they asked me when I was going to settle down and get married,” he says, laughing. ÑKate Rockwood
First came love, then came marriage, then came a fashionable denim label. Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough found their entrepreneurial niche when they tried making designer jeans that fit better than what they could find at the store. A chance meeting with Barneys—thanks to an intro from a friend—gave them a national platform in 2009, and their business cleared $2 million in revenue last year. The couple talks about their collaboration, both professional and personal.
Sarah Yarborough: Running a business with Victor is really lovely, but the first two years were hard. We thought every decision should be 50/50, but that’s unrealistic. Now we each have an area where one of us has 51 percent of the vote—Victor is the extrovert, and he does the business relationships, like financing and sourcing. I tend to be more introverted and behind the scenes, working on product design and operations support.
Victor Lytvinenko: We have a very idealistic way of making things, and what’s exciting about having our own workshop is that it doesn’t have to be compromised as we grow.
Yarborough: People like to buy better and buy less, and they’re excited to learn how the product came to be. Our focus at the beginning was craft, and it remains craft-oriented, but it doesn’t have to remain old-school. There used to be lots of denim factories in Western North Carolina, and when the production moved overseas, they shut down.
Lytvinenko: We naively thought we could hire people who had experience and revitalize this industry, but it had been too much time since the factories closed. Those people had either moved on to other jobs or retired. But we’ve been finding people in Raleigh who want to work with their hands and make things, and we teach them the process.
Yarborough: One of the benefits of teaching is that there is an investment of training time from both sides—them and us—so we have had less turnover than the traditional factory where anyone can come in and push a button.
Lytvinenko: We didn’t have any expertise when we started—in hindsight, I’d recommend first working for someone else who is doing it.
Yarborough: It’s the fastest way to learn what you don’t know. And when you do find mentors, ask very specific questions that lead to very specific answers. Then get out of their way.
Lytvinenko: Getting into Barneys in 2009 was when we kind of felt like we made it. It legitimized the brand and the way we were doing it.
Yarborough: It also kicked our butts into becoming a company in a proper way. It was a “made it” moment publicly, but the real “made it” moment internally might have been after we had a few seasons of production under our belts and knew that we were going to be around long enough to be on the shelves next season. We have people who are still wearing the very first pair of jeans they got from us 10 years ago, and we have people who go through a pair in six to eight months because they ride their bikes in them and wear them hard. They patch, patch, patch the holes and trade them out when they’re finally dead. —Matt McCue
As a recent transplant to Seattle, Tara Reed was sitting in her new apartment, staring at the blank walls. “I’d started to get interested in fine art, and it struck me how annoying and labor-intensive it would be to find art I liked for my new place,” she says. “For food, music, fashion, movies, I could just tap an app and get a personal recommendation. But the fine-art world hadn’t caught up to that.” So, Reed, who now lives in Detroit, helped it catch up: She launched Kollecto. “At first I thought it would be more service- based, like video-chatting with an art adviser, but I overestimated how comfortable my customers would be talking about art,” she says. “You know what you like and don’t like, but that doesn’t mean talking to a professional isn’t scary.” Reed, who worked in marketing at Microsoft and Foursquare, didn’t know a lick of code, but she used a patchwork of existing tech to create a more comfortable way of shopping: It’s a (very nonjudgmental) bot that walks users through a survey, and offers curated selections of art based on their tastes.
Kollecto’s success led to a TEDx talk on helping other entrepreneurs build apps without code (and a consulting side gig that brings Reed’s net worth to just over $1 million). “A lot of people get stuck trying to build the perfect thing, but being scrappy and not coding a full app meant I could move faster, and I wasn’t afraid to make changes,” she says. “When people ask me for advice, I tell them: Get going. Chances are, you’ll have something wrong, but you won’t know until you test those assumptions with actions.” —Kate Rockwood
His story: I served in the Marine Corps with a man who was killed in Iraq from an IED blast. The plate he was wearing should have held the shrapnel, but it didn’t. I started my business to make better body armor because I never respected the armor the Department of Defense produces—the structure hasn’t changed in a decade and a half, at least. I went to the drawing board in 2012 and broke down every single aspect of the armor plate to see what types of adhesives, threads and backings we could use to make it stronger. We came up with some prototypes that were a phenomenally superior product, and that’s how we got started.
After my honorable discharge in 2005, I was a police officer from 2007 to 2013, then cashed out my retirement to start RMA Armament in Wyoming. It caused a little bit of marital disharmony—my wife thought it was a stupid, reckless idea. I partnered with Burke Miehe, the founder of American Pattern in Cedar Falls. He asked how much I needed to get started. All I had was a garage, so I told him around $1 million. Without missing a beat, he said, “Come see me tomorrow.” I had to pull my car over, I was in such shock.
What we produce here is different, and proven stronger. To pass the standard muster, an armor plate has to withstand a single round from a .30-06 M2AP rifle. Last year, a National Institute of Justice-certified laboratory tested our armor, and it withstood six rounds. That’s a feat most in the industry have never even heard of. Over the past three years, business has been so good that we can't fulfill orders fast enough. We have nine fulltime people on our payroll and are looking to hire 15 more in the next year. Our daily output is anywhere from 300 to 400 plates a day, which sell from $120 to $330 each. This year, we’ll clear $3.1 million in revenue.
It’s very humbling to do what I’m doing. For us to have a 20,000-square-foot factory is a dream come true. I dive in and get covered in oil, grit and grease. I shake all of my workers’ hands every day and tell them, “Job well done.” My favorite quote is from Abraham Lincoln: “To test a man’s character, give him power.” I want people to look back one day and say I passed that test. —As told to Matt McCue
Ever contact a company for help with its product, only to have your inbox flooded with endless help-desk tickets? Nick Francis is here to fix that. As the cofounder and CEO of Help Scout—which hit $3.5 million in revenue in 2015—he has created software that helps such businesses as Blue Bottle Coffee and Timbuk2 streamline their customer service operations (so customers actually get help rather than endless frustration). He tells us his dos and don’ts of building a business—and keeping your customers happy. —Stephanie Schomer
“I waited tables for a couple of years at a fancy steakhouse, and I loved that job. Every shift was an opportunity to make somebody’s day. What juices me about a customer experience is that it’s just about creating a memory for someone. I could create a great time for whoever was there—and sell a lot.”
“Don’t cover your ass. Last week, we totally screwed up for a customer on the technical side. I apologized profusely and provided a credit for their next bill and told them what we were doing to correct the problem. You can earn a lot of trust in those moments just as quickly as you can lose it. But people are human—they’ll forgive you.”
“In the first three years, we had to fire nearly 40 percent of the people we hired. I was giving people a lot of credit for their enthusiasm—but enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to give everything they have to learning a craft. I had to start giving hiring a bit more structure and a bit more thought.”
“Having an opinion that resonates with a specific audience—even if that opinion won’t resonate with everyone—can endear them to your business in a very unique way. For example, Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, cares about the environment, and it communicates that to its customers."
3-D printing is sexy. Orthotics are…less sexy. But Schouwenburg attracted millions in funding by merging the two, and understanding everything about her customers’ feet.
Podiatrist-made foot supports don’t exactly leap to mind when thinking about 3-D printing. What sparked the connection for you?
I was working at a 3-D printing manufacturer and saw that most of the things that came through didn’t make sense for the technology. 3-D printing really works when it improves a product through customization. I have terrible feet and started wearing orthotics at 6 years old. It’s such an unsexy industry that no one’s really paying attention to it. But that means there’s plenty to do.
How does Sols work?
You download our app and take photos of your feet, and within 30 seconds those photos are processed and turned into custom inserts. They’re 3-D printed at our factory near Austin and shipped within a week. Sols are sold through podiatrists—we have more than 1,000 partners—but consumers can also buy them directly. The inserts are better than what’s out there and cheaper, so consumers come back and order multiple pairs. We’ve seen 50 percent month-over-month growth with orders. People do not want to move their orthotics from shoe to shoe to shoe.
You’ve raised $23 million and have more than 30 employees. What’s been the biggest challenge of scaling?
Hiring cross-discipline is way more challenging than I expected. Whether you’re building a software team when you’re not technical or building a product team when you’re not a designer, it’s just really, really, really hard. I used to try to do it all myself, but I’ve learned the best thing is to build a network. The tech world is one big network of Harvard and Stanford grads. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. If you want something, ask for introductions, work those relationships. That’s the way the world works. —Kate Rockwood
In five years, St. Louis native David Choi went from having $18,000 in his bank account to running a $4.5 million Korean-Mexican fast-casual-food chain with four restaurants and a food truck enterprise. Here’s how he did it.
FORBES pegs the GOP presidential nominee’s net worth at $3.7 billion—down $800 million from last year. From depressed real estate prices to new information, a transparent, asset-by-asset breakdown of his empire.
Ten pioneers are daring to cross boundaries, forge new paths, take their crafts to unexpected places and also improve the world. These are the creators, storytellers and advocates whose work will influence others in generations to come. Their lives reflect the promise of tomorrow.