From the category archives:

Interviews

Hearing about Shoefitr during the presentations at AlphaLab’s Demo Day left me not only impressed but wanting to know more. I got in touch with CEO and COO Matt Wilkinson (who founded Shoefitr along with Nick End and Breck Fresen) for an interview to talk shoes, startups, and Pittsburgh.

Did you and your co-founders know you wanted to start a business, or did the idea to start Shoefitr evolve from the problem you saw that exists in online shoe sales?

We had each previously attempted our own respective ventures prior to Shoefitr so we are entrepreneurial and always looking for opportunities. With that said, Shoefitr was started from a problem we experienced first-hand when trying to buy shoes online. Although we knew it would be a challenge, we felt strongly that we had the technical experience and background to find a solution. Its not magic, there is a reason somebody fits better in a certain shoe than others, and there just had to be a good way to capture fit without trying on a shoe.

How did you find out about AlphaLab, and did it benefit you?

We heard about Alphalab through a friend/entrepreneur from Carnegie Mellon, Matt Humphrey, who is on the advisor board at Alphalab. The Alphalab experience has been extremely valuable. The mentoring and resources were crucial in getting us to the next stage but most importantly being accepted into the program gave us that extra push from working part-time on Shoefitr to going fulltime.

How did you balance growing your business while maintaining outside employment?

We had been working on Shoefitr part-time for over a year, including a complete revamping of our approach. We had mitigated as much risk as possible before quitting our previous jobs and going full-time.

For now, Shoefitr is integrated into affiliate sites, such as Running Warehouse. You mentioned during Demo Day that Shoefitr would like to build into “a comparative fitting site where consumers can search by fit before purchasing through an affiliate network.” Can you elaborate?

Shoefitr will be integrated into retailer’s websites, but at some point, it might make sense to reach customers through a fit-centric comparative shopping site as well where Shoefitr can drive more traffic to retailers. We think that there could be a demand for a site like this because 35% of shoppers first visit comparative pricing sites prior to purchasing; however, our market research shows that fit is a bigger concern than price when it comes to buying shoes online. Our vision is to create a comparative shopping site where customers can search by fit and price.

Has Shoefitr received funding?

Outside of Alphalab, Shoefitr has been self-funded and will be looking for funding in the future when the time is right.

If/when you expand to other markets beyond athletic shoes, will the technology be able to detect other possible fit problems? What do you see those being?

Our approach and most of our software will not change when moving to new footwear verticals; however, different types of footwear may require different fitting algorithms and measurements for our recommendation engine. For example, high heels will obviously require us to look into heel heights. Discovering exactly what those are will require some more research, user testing, and also understanding the shopping/fitting behavior of those consumers.

Where are you planning to move your operations after AlphaLab?

Shoefitr will keep its operations in Pittsburgh, and we are currently exploring our options for office space around the city.

How do you and your co-founders come to be in Pittsburgh? What do you like about it in general and for startups in particular?

The 3 of us are all from different places, Breck grew up outside Chicago, Nick came from Milwaukee, and I am from New Jersey but all came to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon. We all really enjoy Pittsburgh. Breck’s favorite spot is the Pretzel Shop across from the Alphalabs where he can be found eating for most meals. Nick and I enjoy Double Wide, their TV Dinners are awesome. Nick and Breck like running in Shenley Park and head there almost daily. Pittsburgh is a very start-up friendly city. We have friends working on startups in the valley and there are just so many out there that it’s hard to find people who want to help you. In Pittsburgh everyone is excited about all the new companies and willing to help.

How did Nick become a professionally sponsored runner?

Nick and Breck both ran cross country and track at CMU and Nick continued afterwards. He start runnning marathons last year and after a fast one in Boston he applied for a small sponsorship with Saucony. He really likes their shoes and gear. He runs daily and every month or so enters a big race. On most days he convinces Breck and I to run with him which I always regret as I am in no condition to keep up with them.

Last question, do you have a favorite startup company in Pittsburgh?

Our favorite Pittburgh startup is DeviceKnit. They introduced us to a bar that has 10 cent wings so it was the perfect place for all of us to hang out and talk about startups.

Editors Note: Shoefitr has also just won a global pitch competition. Check out the Alphalab blog for video of the winning pitch!

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Mark_DeSantis I recently sat down with entrepreneur of year and former mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis. Since he left the political spotlight two years ago Mark now leads two start-ups in Pittsburgh, MobileFusion and Apangea.

Mark recently came out supporting independent candidate for Mayor Kevin Acklin, while we got into the campaign a little, I wanted to know his opinion on what makes Pittsburgh the number two city to start a small business and what it will take to get to number one. For full disclosure, I was a student of Mark’s at the Heinz College and worked on his campaign for mayor.

So, what makes Pittsburgh the second best place to start a business? “Experience.” Mark sums it up in one word, “During the dot com bubble a lot of people found success and they’ve stuck around.” Because of these success stories, Mark continues, “Pittsburgh now has more and more sophisticated, angel investors who want to be involved and make their investments a success.” Of course, that’s not it. After the success of some university spin-offs like Vivimio (MobileFusion is a spin-off as well) the university community saw the path to commercialization being blazed. “Both professors and students are more savvy and better understand how their research and technologies create products that have a market.” Have the university transfer offices been better at encouraging and assigning spin-offs? “Not really. From my perspective it’s been more that the university communities are seeing success which encourages more success.”

Then what will it take to move to number one? “We’re overtaxed by a not business friendly government. When comparing the cost of business in Pittsburgh to other cities, or even neighboring counties, Pittsburgh costs too much.” There are many things that come into play other than taxes and city government, though. “AlphaLab and InnovationWorks are great for financing start-ups, but we need more later-stage financing.” Mark speaks about what gets more money to come to town. “Success. And luck. Successes attract more money and luck plays a big part of it.” How does success attract more money? “Success brings more money into the city, and when they are here, they look all around.”

Why Kevin Acklin? “Kevin would be a great mayor. We need someone that brings intelligence and maturity to solve our tough problems.” On day one Kevin needs to take action to attract more investments in Pittsburgh. What does he need to do? “We need to ask if we need all of this bureaucracy. Can we do what we need to do with less and be better at it? Yes. No one believes that we are delivering our services in a meaningful way – not even the people working for the city.” Having worked in government and business Mark speaks with a passion to see his city succeed – to see real leaders step-up. He is quick to point out that leaders do not always have to be in charge, but that this city lacks leadership.

To be one of the successes that you think Pittsburgh needs, what advice to do you have for those starting out? “Expand your social network outside of the city. Technology and money are not enough. What makes and will continue to make Pittsburgh great are the relationships our entrepreneurs have with the rest of the world.”

Mark isn’t just passionate about building businesses; he is passionate about building better communities. His ask of you? “Have faith in the future of Pittsburgh. Get engaged and take personal responsibility. Ask the tough questions, and then demand answers.”

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Here is another video interview by Jia from the iTwixie team. This time we talk to Anthony Closkey about how tween girls will use the site. He feels that tweens are better at social networking then any other age group.

After watching both of these interviews I still have few questions:

  1. With the growing popularity of Facebook is there room for a niche network like this?
  2. What happens when the tween is no longer a tween?
  3. Are they kicked off the site, left to start their online life over again on another social networking site?

The site has been live for awhile now so maybe these questions will be answered in time.

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iTwixie Logo

For the fourth part of our ongoing AlphaLab interview series, we are pleased to present three interviews with the team behind the recently launched iTwixie.

iTwixie is developing the ultimate online hangout for ‘tween’ girls. Today’s parents, educators and caregivers worry about how marketers approach their 8-14 year-old girls. iTwixie will inspire and unite ‘tween girls on a site that’s safe, age-appropriate and fun.

In this first team interview, Jia talks with iTwixie developer, Cynthia Closkey about how they developed their social network, why it’s like delicious and nutritious cereal, and the support AlphaLab provided them. Stay tuned more iTwixie interviews soon!

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For the third part of our ongoing AlphaLab interview series, we present a long free-form interview with the founders of InnomiNet about their recently launched BitBlinder network.

Marketers, corporations, criminals, and governments all monitor your online activities. Some even use filters to completely block your access to information. BitBlinder is software that gives you back your online freedom. BitBlinder aims to preserve your privacy and keep your IP address safe from them. It also allows you to avoid most restrictions and filters on you Internet access. BitBlinder supports both BitTorrent and normal web traffic. Go download it for free right now at bitblinder.com!

In this minimally edited interview, Jia talks with InnomiNet cofounders, Josh Albrecht and Matt Kaniaris about BitBlinder, online privacy rights, the Tor anonymity network, the MIT Open Source License, peer-to-peer filesharing, safe harbor provisions, government watch lists, and hacker honeypots. Don’t worry if you don’t understand most of those terms since the interview starts off with a proposed martial arts demonstration that quickly morphs into an awkward bromantic gesture.

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