Archive for category Startups

Pitch Circus 2018 by the numbers

There’s so much more cooking in Savannah than butter at Paula Deen’s.

By the turnout at the annual Geekend conference put on by my friends at The Creative Coast this past weekend — and in particular to Pitch Circus, the venture pitch event held on Day 1 of Geekend — the digital and tech startup scene in Savannah is one that you’re going to want to put on your radar.

Green Badger wins Pitch Circus 2018

As the ATDC Startup Catalyst in Savannah, I’m extremely proud of the companies that presented and applied to present at this event. Getting up and presenting the merits of your business to 200+ people, 6 judges and to countless people online is no walk in the park.

Here’s quick look at Pitch Circus 2018 by the numbers:

5,500 dollars in cash given to the winner

1,500 dollars in in-kind services

4 sponsors (City of Savannah, Foram Group, Mallabo Communications, HunterMaclean)

1 winner: Green Badger

35 companies applied representing 3 states (Georgia, South Carolina and Texas)

6 companies presented

6 different industries represented

4 companies went through a pitch off for the sixth and last spot at the event

6 judges including 1 venture capitalist

1 emcee (Cindy Hill of Georgia Public Broadcasting)

1 fireside chat (with Mary-Cathryn Kolb, CEO of brrr°)

200+ in attendance

57 mentions in the media

500 views of the Facebook livestream (click image below)


Facebook livestream of Pitch Circus 2018

The only number that really matters is 1.

In my five years in Savannah, much has been said about the lack of integration and growth of the tech ecosystem within the broader business community. But, on Friday night I didn’t see that. I saw a single community with people from every nook and cranny of the area rallying together to support one another.

You did yourself proud, Savannah. Thank you for letting me play a small part.

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Hardest lessons from my third startup

Vireo Labs is now the third seed funded startup I’ve co-founded. And, it is by far my best work as an entrepreneur. But, its almost impossible to estimate how many hard knocks and lessons I’ve taken over the last two years. Running a startup — particularly in a market like Savannah with limited resources to support us (there are no first generation AOL or Yahoo! people and their money hanging out here) — is just plain hard.

Get a mentor and advisers. This wasn’t always easy for me to do as I have always worked in a network style — calling on my connections from all over the world to give me tips and advice on an ad hoc basis.  I think we’ve gotten further now than before because we as a team actually engage our advisers regularly and let them check our thinking back into reality. You can only process so much information to the point you go blind to what it is saying to you. A good mentor and advisers can add brain power, connections, motivation and guidance. The danger is using them as a crutch or as some kind of badge of honor that with them your company is somehow more relevant. It’s not. No one cares about my little startup and I know it. Until me and my team get traction and grow this thing.

It pays to be young. I had a colleague at LinkedIn once (pejoratively) tell me how anything worth doing was worth doing young (guess that was his way of calling me old and still grinding it out). My founding team is really driven, bright and qualified to build what we’re building and do what we’re doing. But as middle aged men, we have a boat load of distractions that the 23-year old versions of ourselves didn’t have — and we just can’t move as fast we once did. If you can recruit a founding team with a good mix of people at different stages of their career, it helps to have that diversity of thought, perspective and someone on the team who doesn’t have to pay a mortgage, feed kids or sleep more than 6 hours a night.

Recognize when you’re stuck. This is actually a bump I hit in my first two companies but didn’t know it at the time. Third time is a charm.  I recognized it about 4 months into our first product release and brought us back into a customer discover phase instead of continuing to bang our collective faces into the wall. The result has been one of the best pilot tests we could’ve imagined in the critical market of northern California (one of the biggest career and higher education markets in the country) and a smarter jumping off point for our go-to-market strategy.

Stay engaged in things outside of the startup. Its so natural to simply put your head down and work as hard and as fast as you can on your business. It’s how we’re socialized in this country — burn it at both ends and eat Ramen at your desk. Unlike prior endeavors, I’ve purposely been more involved with other activities by serving on the boards of directors of two other companies, speaking at and attending industry events, mentoring other entrepreneurs, consulting outside of my sector, and working part-time as a tech startup catalyst in my own front yard. Keeping a balance isn’t easy, but the relationships and connections I’ve created in those outside ventures have created immeasurable benefits for Vireo Labs that I couldn’t buy if I had the money.

Stay scrappy, my friends.








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To Phil Collins’ mum: Thank you for letting him drum

Hi, I’m Jose and I’m an entrepreneur. Starting and growing companies is my life. But in retrospect I know that it’s a path I unfortunately didn’t discover as soon as I should have.

All the telltale signs were there. Growing up as an immigrant, I had two parents who started their own businesses to support their new American lifestyle. When I wasn’t scheduling appointments or keeping the books in my mom’s beauty salon, I was watching my dad negotiate deals with his auto parts customers.

Phil Collins, professional drummer

Phil Collins, professional drummer

Raised by small business owners, you would think it would have been an obvious path. But I didn’t know it at the time – and no one helped me see it.

Instead, I did what I was expected to do, went to college, got a communications degree and ended up working in one of the most elite blocks of midtown Manhattan. I had all the trappings of success, but I’ll be honest. I was paid poorly and was miserable with the work I was doing.

It wasn’t long before I figured out that working for a large firm was not my calling, but I can’t help thinking that had I listened to the other voice on my shoulder, I might have gotten an earlier start. I mean, *I* might have invented Facebook!

STEM vs. STEAM — The “A” is the Game Changer

Everyone these days is into STEM – tech is going to save the world; engineers have it made; math and science isn’t just for boys, all that. It’s all true. What I think sometimes gets less attention is STEAM, where we throw arts into the equation. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most parents who are advocating for a strong STEM education for their kids would diss an art path if that was suggested. And that could be a mistake.

As we pilot our career match making app, I recently came across some fascinating, counterintuitive data. After testing students at a top STEM middle school, we found that they actually scored higher in their artistic component than students in any of the other traditional schools that participated.

The starving artist implication that comes with the suggestion that perhaps your son should go to art school, isn’t always the easiest pill to swallow for parents. I know; I ran marketing at a large art and design university and consult for a smaller design college.

But why not? Why the disconnect? As I help kids consider various career paths, they realize that their love of art can easily dovetail with the tech jobs they’re “expected” to get. Many designers and art majors go on to some really cool jobs at little old companies like Apple, Amazon and Facebook. And they probably end up being a lot happier and more fulfilled helping design a sleek new device or campaign than stress testing a metal alloy – if that’s their thing. Virtual reality. Gaming. All these tech industries have a major art and design component that can be overlooked by parents in their quest to produce an engineer.

Parents Fear Passion

Well, parents fear lots of types of passion in their kids, but what I’m talking about is the career passion that makes kids want to pursue paths that on the surface might look nutty. Being a drummer in a rock band or a professional skateboarder don’t strike many parents as smart options, but Phil Collins did more than OK for himself.

Passion isn’t a bad thing. If you love what you’re doing, chances are good you’re going to make it work. I didn’t have a passion for working inside big companies, but I am relentless in the pursuit for growing the ones I’ve started. But no one showed me that was a possibility.

Knowing What You Want To Do Saves Angst – and Money

I find that many parents need a good old-fashioned business case for choosing an alternate path. Sure, they think that getting a college degree is the price of admission to life – and for many careers it definitely is.

“all of us are going to end up where we’re going to end up”

But going to college to “figure it out” is a much more expensive proposition these days than it used to be. And the hard truth is that some kids might be better off taking a different path with a non-traditional school, such as an art school, a vocational school or no school at all. Why not help them figure out who they are and help them find out what path they should be on, before just pushing them down the path of “least resistance.”

The bottom line is that I believe parents need to be open-minded — to let their kids to become who they are. I firmly believe that all of us are going to end up where we’re going to end up. But I can’t help but wonder what I could have done if I’d found my sweet spot earlier. Sure, I’d probably have saved a ton on dry cleaning and commuting but I would have spent a lot less time listening to pointless buzzwords being throw about on conference calls. It’s much more than that: it’s about letting kids and young adults focus on where they’re headed, rather than just listening to parents and society.

– Jose Mallabo


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Stop using your great grandfather’s vocational assessment

What do you want to be when you grow up?

As kids, we were asked that all the time, and I bet no one answered, “information security analyst,” “operations research analyst” or “web developer,” just a few of the top jobs for 2016.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 1.02.20 PM

When counselors direct high school students to vocational assessments today, students might still not be able to mention those specific careers, only because they don’t know the wide variety of options out there. And that’s the problem with current high school vocational assessments: they don’t point kids in the right direction for modern career paths.

The most-used high school vocational assessment is the “Strong Interest Inventory®” assessment. At $200 a pop (or the price of a Chromebook), you have to wonder how widely used it is, and from my consumer product marketing background, that calls into question the “scientific validation” they tout.

How relevant can it be if a wide cross section of people haven’t taken it? MySpace and Facebook are both social networks, but can anyone argue that MySpace has any insights into consumer or social trends since no one uses it?Even the name sounds old-fashioned, and there’s a reason for that.

The Workforce When SII Was Born

The SII was developed in 1927 to assist military men returning from World War I looking for work. Let’s paint a little picture of what the world looked like then. First of all, there were only 119 million people, and as you might imagine, the typical worker was a white male.

No surprise, the top job was manufacturing, and Henry Ford was offering Southerners $5 a day to come to work in the emerging auto industry. (“Women and negroes” not welcome, the ads said.)

And that pay scale actually doesn’t sound bad when you consider that “super-rich Americans” were those making about $10,000 a year.

The Workforce Now

In 2016 you might say the landscape looks just a little different. First of all, we’ve got 325 million of us – and growing. Top-paying jobs all involve STEM fields; in fact, at some companies, coders are writing their own paychecks.

Henry Ford’s amazing $5 a day offer? That can barely get you a coffee. He probably wouldn’t need to recruit people from outside of area, anyway, since current migration patterns are from suburbs to urban centers, where today’s young adults are less likely to want a car. And, those “women and negroes?” Well Mary Barra is CEO of Ford’s competitor General Motors, and our president is black. (The $5 was actually split 50/50 between pay and bonus!)

Super-rich Americans are counting their money in billions rather than thousands, and three of the top five earned their wealth through technology-based companies.

The whole world is available on the smartphones we carry in our pockets, instantly updated rather than relying on the printing press and newspaper of 1927.


When you consider the evolution (or rather revolution) that has taken place in the workforce since the SII was introduced, it makes that assessment seem pretty quaint doesn’t it?

To be fair, the SII was updated in 2012, but four years in today’s world seems like an eternity: We were still using the iPhone 4 and Snapchat was just a ghost of an idea. The IoT, smart homes and fitness trackers were all just becoming part of our vernacular. And wrap your mind around this: Adele was blowing us away with her first album, and we were gaga for Gangnam Style. (Sorry, I know that’s in your head now.)

That’s why many career counselors and educators are wondering if there’s something more accessible and more current out there in the world of high school vocational assessments to help address today’s career path discovery and education planning.

A tool that hasn’t just evolved, but that has been created specifically to fit the needs of today’s workforce. An instrument that takes into account our growing expectation of work/life balance, telework and the gig economy. One that is not cost-prohibitive in a world where freemium is the norm.

At Vireo Labs, we believe there is a better way for all high schoolers to assess their potential. And, we look forward to keeping you updated.

– Jose Mallabo

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Is Savannah the next start up city of America?

When anyone considers coming to Savannah, Georgia for a visit or for work, it’s not for the abundance of game changing start ups. Yet.

Since leaving my last ‘real’ job I’ve jumped back into hanging out with a small, determined group of startups that call the Hostess City of the South home. Quickly, I’ve come to see that there are seeds in place that could add ‘entrepreneurship’ to the list of attributes when thinking of Savannah.

At the Aetho ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate its move into the Creative Foundry, I was invited to moderate a panel with founders from Aetho, Tour Buddy, The Quick it App and Oak.Works to discuss all the elements needed to build a great start up community.

And, in case my questions aren’t so audible here are the notes I was reading from on my iPad. I didn’t get to ask all of them, but maybe next time…

Questions for panelists:

1 – I’ve looked at each of your backgrounds and you’ve each come to Savannah for various reasons. None of you are native to the area. So why Savannah and why found and keep your company here?

2 – There’s a quote that has gotten a lot of mileage over the years about starting the next Silicon Valley:  “Take one part and two parts venture capital and shake vigorously.” What is your reaction to that? Is it over simplified and if its on mark where do you think we Savannah is on that path?

3 – When I launched my last start up (may it RIP) finding partners, vendors and talent of any kind to work at break neck pace, all hours of the night and on a start ups budget was a constant challenge.  Is it something you are facing and if so, how are you getting past it?

4 – Each of your companies has some kind of technology focus — as you continue to grow how to you plan to keep in front of the need for more technology talent?

5 – Are the regional and local universities providing enough talent into the start up community and if not, what more do you think we/they can do to make that happen?

6 – As a Savannah start up, what advice would you give someone who is in the crowd today considering
There’s an adage that you don’t want bureaucratic investors in the early rounds of a start up — how

7 – Do you ever think — hey why don’t we just up and move to the Valley or other community where there are bigger and more established start up infrastructure?

8 – If there was just ONE thing you can have more of here in Savannah that would make growing your company easier or faster what would it be?

The point that Tristan and the others made about the City of Savannah needing to get behind the startups in town is bang on. Hot shot designers coming out of SCAD don’t want to work in tourism or for the port — they want to be self made entrepreneurs.

If Savannah doesn’t get behind them by investing in the infrastructure to incubate their companies, they will continue to put the city in their rear view mirrors when they graduate.

– Jose Mallabo


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