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DSC_0911 TTechBash – Part 2

by Loop Lonagan

as told to John Jonelis –

Seems to me Christmas is all about givin’ to other people and I say we keep it that way. I love Christmas. Ever’ year I start my celebration on Thanksgiving and don’t take the tree down till January the Fifth. That’s Twelfth Night fer youse guys that don’t know. That night I throw a big party, hire cooks, a piano player, ‘n’ ever’body burns a branch from the tree before they leave.

There’s an outfit right here in Chicago that keeps the spirit o’ giving alive all the yearlong. They find people with talent, creativity, intelligence, hard knocks ‘n’ plenty o’ moxey. Then they pay ‘em to train fer big-time jobs. That’s one o’ the nicest gifts you can give a person with them kinda attributes—a chance to use what they got inside themselves. Think about it—all that potential just waitin’ to burst out so bad a guy could explode.

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And the corporations is eatin’ it up, ‘cause they need them kinda people more than anything else, and it ain’t easy to find ‘em. They need ‘em so bad they’ll pay for it in time and money. I think this outfit is gonna be one o’ the most successful self-sustaining social entrepreneurial ventures that ever started in Chicago. They call themselves i.c.stars.

Here I am at their huge TechBash party where I expect to find hoards o’ ravenous, greedy corporate Scrooges. What I really wanna find is a story about giving. The food and bar is open and maybe I take more’n my share of them good things ‘n’ by now I got lotsa Christmas cheer inside o’ me. But hey—it’s a party. I can be just as greedy as the next guy and I’m havin’ such a good time at it.

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Da Passion Project

I hold my MP3 recorder at arm’s length and stick it in the middle of a buncha i.c.stars alums. It’s a weird-lookin’ gadget and these guys freak out like I’m one o’ them Men in Black. I gotta tell ‘em, “It isn’t gonna erase yer memory.” They see I make the movie connection and that brings peals o’ laughter all around.

Two of ‘em stick with me—Nkosi White (Nik) and Christopher Butler. IMG_9829 BChris works fer WGN and the Chicago Tribune, which is a helluvalot bigger rag than this one.

“I love doing graphic design for them. It’s great,” he says. “What i.c.stars was able to do was show me the business end. I didn’t know how to market myself, how to present myself—just to be able to look at an interviewer and figure out what they’re looking for in that time. So they teach you how to assess those things very quickly and how to act on the fly. They put you on the spot but you learn how to rebound and jump into position faster than you could before.”

Nik landed a big-time IT job with WW Grainger just a month outa i.c.stars. We hang out a while and I find out he makes Craft Beer. Then he tells me something that grabs my attention:

“Passion projects,” he says. Passion projects are huge. That’s one thing they teach us at i.c.stars. Have a desire to learn technology, but then in addition to that, identify with what your passion is. Understand that you have a civic duty to fulfill—whether it’s from the neighborhood you came from or whether it’s highlighting others that don’t really get the visibility that you get. Have a passion project—have a civic duty. And then be great in technology as well. It’s a combination of the two. That’s what makes i.c.stars special.”

Now THAT—that right there is what I call the spirit o’ giving.  That’s what we need more of.

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Da Sponsor

I talk to one o’ the Big Honcho Sponsors—Jon Mathews from BridgePoint Technologies. (Yeah, he spells his name with one ‘t’.)

“We do a lot with i.c.stars,” he says. “Especially with the interns they take on—teaching them development. We work with a lot of companies who need young developers and need more people going into this avenue.”

So I ask him straight out: “D’ya find these interns come out fluent in programming?”

“Yes, they’re trained very well. It’s amazing what i.c.stars does for those who weren’t brought up in IT. We’ve had positive feedback from clients where we placed them.”

So that’s good news right from the source.

I wanna talk summore to Vera Shabazz. (See Part 1 of this series.) So I hunt till I find her ‘n’ ask just what i.c.stars did for her—personal-like.

icstarg 17 B“They teach you how to think technically—not just thinking—but thinking technically,” she says. “It’s just a great place to be. It’s a great place to learn. Through i.c.stars, I was able to re-invent myself from being in banking to now working IT at United Airlines. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t gone to i.c.stars. I don’t.”

Quashe׳ Granville joins our little circle: “i.c.stars is a place where you can bridge the gap between technology, business, and leadership skills.” That’s a good businesslike description. Just one line. I’m impressed. I drink down the last o’ my Scotch ‘n’ Soda and ask, “How d’they do that exactly?”

Vera smiles. “After the first few weeks of training, the purpose is to do a large project with a major company, build teams and camaraderie, and to get you in the mindset. It’s like a boot camp. Once you’re done here, you can secure a job.”

The music gets louder and I lean close to Vera. “So you do a simulation or some kinda practice project?”

“No, it’s real. When I was at i.c.stars, our company was TTX. You know who they are, right? Well if you ever ride the Metra, those are their cars. The CIO and two others were the mentors that helped us through our project. Their CIO was the one who helped me get my job at United Airlines.

Quashe׳ leans-in closer too, but even in all this noise, I don’t have no trouble hearin’ his deep voice. “Right now, our team is working on a mobile app that’s going to help UL with brand awareness.”

That catches me off-guard. “UL asked i.c.stars to do somethin’ that big?”

“Actually, WE put the project together. UL just told us they needed help with brand awareness.”

“The interns figure out the project,” says Vera. “What is it the company wants? What do they need? From the time you’re doing that project, they’re analyzing you. Asking questions. They want to know how well you handle yourself.”

I study these two. Both hard survivors—both soft hearts. “Sounds to me like a tough kinda program.”

Vera nods. “It is tough. But i.c.stars makes sure about you. If you think about it, they’re putting us back into the community and asking us to give back. If we’re not prepared, then what do we have to give back?

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Giving Back

“Everything is about giving back,” says Vera. “They let you know that if you don’t give, you can’t get. So once I graduated, whatever I have, whatever I can do, whatever I can give—I give it because I know that it’s coming back tenfold.“

This gal makes a wonderful spokesman ‘n’ she’s a terrific lesson in gratitude—somethin’ most of us just don’t seem wired for.

“I love i.c.stars!” she says. “ Whatever I can do, they’ve got my help. I think all of us who are alums still give back to i.c.stars. We volunteer for whatever Sandee needs.

“I also give back through Virginias House – a non-profit organization, which is for victims of domestic violence. My goal is to provide traditional housing for 1000 survivors and their children by the year 2025. I want to build a facility on the south side of Chicago that will allow them to leave their abusive homes and also stay for a year, getting themselves prepared to move on”.

“Whats the chance o’ gettin’ that off the ground.?”

“We’ve already got the programs together. We already did one function and we’re doing more. Since leaving i.c.stars, we have helped 50 families. They might need food. Their children might need clothes or school supplies. We help them with that as well. We have partnerships from Jewel and Dominick’s. Gift cards. Food. Clothing.”

Gettin’ In

I ask Vera, “How hard was it to get into the i.c.stars program?”

“The first thing I thought when I did the application process was, ‘What the heck? What is this for? Why do I need to fill out so many pages?’ It didn’t make sense to me. But I think it’s to see how badly you want it. I could have been discouraged and just said, ‘Forget it.’ But just because it was so lengthy, I decided, ‘I’m going to do this and they’re going to take me.’

“After the application, there’s a newbie puzzle, and that is a real brain twister. Then you go down for the written assessment and the technical assessment. And then once you’re done with that, they call you back for the interview.”

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Da Mobile App

I snag myself a snack from a passing tray and ask Quashe׳, “What’s with all these booths scattered around the place—all them people waitin’ in line?”

“Interns are trying to talk to CIOs,” he says. “Consulting firms too. They’re trying to get their idea out there and CIOs of all sorts are right here to listen.”

“So what about your mobile app?”

“It’s designed for 5-9 year olds to become junior scientists. Kids create an avatar. They’ll see science projects based on fire, water, electricity. Everything about it is going to be virtual. You get to play around with these things and the beautiful thing about it is that when you want to mix two compounds together, you can just shake your phone and you’ll be participating. Let’s say two sets of wires are not UL safe—that’s out of spec. So your avatar goes to touch the wire and gets a shock.”

“D’ya shock the kid’s hand?”

“Oh, no . . . no-no-no.” That deep bass again.

“Maybe give ‘em a vibration?.”

“We can do that. There are a lot of things we’re going into but at the same time we have to focus on one key area: You know how you always tell your kid, ‘Don’t touch the stove, because it’s hot.’ Well now we have to deal with, ‘Can you touch the stove handle? Is it UL safe? Is it UL approved?’

“Sounds kinda elaborate as a mobile app. So what’s your personal goal when ya graduate?

“My personal goal is to find a decent company that has a solid culture that will actually cultivate what I already know. Basically somewhere I can grow.


Da High Tea

I asks Vera, “When you was at i.c.stars, what was yer favorite part o’ the day?”

“We have what we call High Tea. Celebrities come—we call CIOs celebrities—and they tell us their stories. But first, each team member pours tea for the team member on their left and introduces that team member to the CIO and it goes around the table. We don’t talk about ourselves—we talk about the person whose cup we fill—what he does, what his likes are, what his super thoughts are, what he’s going to do when he graduates i.c.stars and why they should hire him. Just to go through that phenomenon, it will blow your mind. It is just something that you do not get used to. You need to come to see a High Tea for yourself.”

“Well, I dunno…  That’s all they serve?  Tea, I mean?”

“Just tea.”

“Hmff.” I stroke my chin to make her feel like I’m thinkin’ real hard about it, but to me it’s a no-brainer. I wanna check the place out anyhow. “Okay, you got me. Lemme know when I can come.”




Da Contacts


Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link . This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2013 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved



Filed under App, big money, Characters, chicago, Chicago Ventures, Christmas, city, Education, Entrepreneur, Entrepreneurship, Events, i.c.stars, Innovation, Innovation and Culture, jobs, loop lonagan, Mobile, Mobile App, Mobile Marketing, Social Entrepreneur, The City


Technical Ice Climbing - National GeographicMichael Pollack of Rocket Fuel Labs

Verbatim, Part 2 – John Jonelis

“My firm, adamant business philosophy is that I sincerely and always want to under-promise and over-deliver.” Michael Pollack

I’m in the belly of the beast—the huge 1871 incubator in the Chicago Merchandise Mart that hosts universities, accelerators, venture capital firms, and private companies that help the many startup ventures housed in their space.

Merchandise Mart

Chicago Merchandise Mart – jaj

Entrepreneurs need an array of technology services that separate the merely ordinary from the truly extraordinary. Rocket Fuel Labs proposes to supply that technology on a contract basis. They act as part development studio, part incubator, part product-development resource, part innovation think tank.

I’m continuing a conversation with a genuine thought leader—Michael Pollack, CEO of Rocket Fuel Labs. As I write this, his own company nears its launch date.

Michael Pollack—When I think about infrastructure, I think about our business. It’s about providing technology infrastructure that businesses can build on. That’s where I get really excited about what we’re doing here.

John—Would you mind filling in a little more of your own history? Maybe pick up where we left off and lead up to your new venture.


The Serial Entrepreneur

Mike—Sure. I happened to get into the logistics business—AFN—Advantage Freight Network. We were pretty successful. We grew the business to a very respectable figure in two and a half years. After the merger, I exited that business. I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I was immature.

John—You’re creative. You get tired of one thing and want to do another. I made the same decision after a merger.

Mike—I couldn’t have said it in a nicer way. Better coming from your mouth than mine. So I ended up in management consulting. I worked for a boutique firm here in Chicago called Sequence. Worked on some awesome projects.

We tended to do large not-for-profits, so I worked with AARP, American Chemical Society, Make a Wish Foundation. I got to work on one of my favorite projects—re-designing the “wish granting.”

If you think about the problem, the Make a Wish Foundation wants to create a wish—a different experience for every child in a cost-managed way. So we designed a process that could result in a little girl getting a princess wish and a little boy getting a wish to be a firefighter for a day, while controlling costs throughout the process, giving them visibility. It’s really cool—an amazing organization, an awesome experience.

In 2009; I started my own consulting business. One of my first clients was a freight brokerage in Chicago that was looking at buying a software package. I helped them audit it, picked out a vendor, and I think got a great deal on the software.

I enjoy software negotiation. It’s a purely theoretical, philosophical sales exercise and if you’re ideologically dogmatic about what you want, you can get anything. Because when someone is selling you a product with a 90% margin, you can pretty much negotiate all the way down. It’s a lot of fun if you enjoy that type of jousting, which I do.

John—As long as you don’t do a Jurassic Park—

Mike—Exactly. (We both laugh.)

Through a bizarre series of events, I happened to meet an entrepreneur who wanted to get into the logistics space. They were in the process of raising capital. I joined them, and we raised $3M in a Series A. Then we raised $6M in a series B from Charles River Ventures and Globespan Capital Partners. We took on $3M in venture debt so we had $12M invested in the business.

What we were doing, which was really exciting, was to disrupt those 14,500 brokers. We were trying to build the Kayak, Expedia, or Orbitz of the industry and put all the inefficient bloated travel agent-style firms out of business. Because what’s mind-blowing is these freight brokers operate at about 20% margins. We felt we could build a tech-enabled business, much more scaled, that could run at 7 or 8% margins.

John—I would think so, too.

Mike—So we did it. We were acquired by Echo Global Logistics here out of Chicago in March of this past year—and it’s pretty cool to know that the technology we built is powering parts of an almost billion dollar company. I guess we were so good that we scared them to the point they bought us.

So I get to the big company and there are a lot of smart people there, a lot of cool people, but I like to be able to control my destiny. I’ve worked startups and small companies the majority of my career. It’s what I enjoy. I felt being in a big company, I couldn’t—

John—You’d rather DO than MANAGE.

Mike—Yes sir! That’s exactly correct. And what happened was, I decided to leave Echo. And in one of these weird series of events, Lance Ennen, who is a lifelong friend of mine and a stupendously talented, gifted programmer, happened to call me that afternoon and say, “Hey, I got an idea. Let’s get together and grab a drink and talk.” We started talking and realized we had the same idea. I was in the process of forming another startup. He was thinking through Rocket Fuel. I realized that there were ways in which we could merge our idea. And so the big reveal is, Rocket Fuel Labs is trying to address what we see as a hole in the market.

Rocket Fuel Labs logo - Large

Lance is someone who, as a kid, got into developing video game design. Attended school to build video games. Worked at Midway, a big design shop. Worked on Mobile Combat. But he was on the design piece. Guys that were programming—that’s where the real money was, where the real challenge was. That was the exciting part. So Lance, over the past 7-10 years, transitioned over to development. Now, if you search for Ruby on Rails Programmers on Google, the first one you’re gonna find is Lance Ennen. When it comes to Ruby on Rails, which is kind of the Chicago school of programming, one could say he’s definitely one of the foremost authorities on the topic.

John—What did you think about the prospects of starting a new venture in Chicago?

Mike—I lived in Boston for two years when I was with Open Mile. And you look at the sophistication of that startup ecosystem, you look at the sophistication of investors, you look at the sophistication of entrepreneurs—at the time, the ecosystem was much more mature there. I left Chicago in 2010 for Boston and what’s amazing now is how much the startup ecosystem here has exploded since then. Groupon is—I credit Groupon with a lot of it…

John—Did you see my logo? “Chicago is the World.”

Mike—It is. And we see it and it’s amazing.

John—It’s because adversity breeds creativity.


Four Stages of Development

Mike—I would say adversity breeds camaraderie as well. I’ll give you an example: I used to do a lot of technical ice mountain climbing. I climbed McKinley in Alaska, Gannett in Wyoming. When you take kids out there and you train groups, you do Tuckman’s four stages of group development:

1.) Forming—The individuals start to get used to each other.

2.) Storming—Individuals may challenge your authority.

3.) Norming—The group really starts to come together.

4.) Performing—They’re ready to conquer a challenge together.

When you think about adversity; when you think about startups; when you think about groups as a business, Rocket Fuel, I think, is past norming and I can’t wait till we hit performing.

Eisklettern_kl_engstligenfall - Wikipedia

But to your point, Chicago has exploded. I think about the city I left in 2010. This didn’t exist (he waves an arm, indicating the 1871 incubator where we’re talking), the skilled people weren’t evident, the infrastructure didn’t exist, investors weren’t here—they were looking to invest in real estate, franchises and dry cleaners. And now you have investors say, “Wait. I see the potential!” Ideas don’t have to be good or crazy—we need to find entrepreneurs that can execute and some of these things are doable. The payoff, if you get it right, is tremendous. The risk is there but the reward is also there.

John—Chicago is a good cross section of company types. It’s not all mobile apps. It’s tech-enabled industry, too.

Mike—Exactly. And that’s what we love about Chicago as a city. You look at Boston: Overwhelmingly you see healthcare. You see enterprise. You look at San Francisco: It’s overly consumer. It’s overwhelmingly mobile.

In Chicago—you look at the businesses that are here—from real estate to advertising, to trading—there’s a lot of smart people here working on different things and there’s a lot of what I call latent technology skill that’s just waiting to get deployed. And that gets us excited. And that’s where we think Rocket Fuel Labs can really be a game-changer. We’re operating between incubator, startup services, and technology support.

A lot of entrepreneurs have an idea and don’t know how to execute it. You look at DashFire, a company that helps entrepreneurs visualize their MVP (Minimally Viable Product). We see that as cool, but we think there’s more than that. If you have a technology stack and you think about each of your team members, there has to be more.

For instance, my background spans across managing sales teams, designing product, designing process, management consulting. I think any startup needs some variation of those skills.

I look at my partner’s skills and I think, “I’ve got one of the best developers around, who’s also managed teams of developers. Who’s able to be a thought leader, an evangelist, and a really bright light in the space for our technology.”


The New Venture

John—Okay I’m lost. Are you telling me that you’re something like an accelerator or are you telling me that you’re somebody who provides talent for startups?

Mike—We’re more the latter than the former. We have expertise in startups. Our expertise is typically in the form of services, so what that means is we can deliver a team that can deliver a product. I can help you through a customer development exercise or help you through a product development exercise.

The challenge is, in Chicago there are a tremendous number of startups that can’t afford us that we’d love to help. When we look at the investor community, we say, look—we’re meeting with awesome entrepreneurs every day. We’re entrepreneurs and we know what makes a successful entrepreneur. In ten meetings a day one or two of them—and that’s a good ratio—one or two make you think, “Wow, I’d seed this if I could.” What we’re trying to do is build a development studio that hires the best developers in the world because we can retain them, because we have awesome projects. The prerequisite is that we have awesome projects.

John—So you develop for this company, then that company. So you might have 3, you might have 10 on your team. It’s a boutique outsource approach to an accelerator.

Mike—Yes. Yes, that’s exactly right.

John—Okay, then you’ve got all the services and the talent pool and you’re looking for these tremendous ideas that need that kind of help. Do you help raise their money?

Mike—That may be the next leg in our stool. Right now, we’re getting deal flow. Entrepreneurs come to us and the most common thing we hear is, “Hey, would you be my interim CEO?” or, “Could you be a consultative CEO?” Our long-term goal is to be able to help incubate those startups ourselves. As we build our brand, that’s something we think is a tremendous opportunity. But that’s long term.

I’m a big believer that focus is not about saying, “Yes,” it’s about saying, “No.” We don’t want to take on more than we can handle. My firm, adamant business philosophy is that I sincerely and always want to under-promise and over-deliver.






Rocket Fuel Labs

  • Specialties – Startups
  • Industry – Computer Software
  • Type – Privately Held
  • Company Size – 1-10 employees
  • Founded 2013
  • Expertise – Web Development & Deployment, UI/UX, Online Marketing, Product architecture, E-Commerce.
  • Headquarters – 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza #1212 Chicago, IL 60654 United States
  • Website – RocketFuelLabs.com
  • Email – Info@RocketFuelLabs.com
  • Phone – 855-4FR-LABS
  • Fax – 312-620-9655

Photos courtesy Rocket Fuel Labs, NASA, National Geographic, Wikipedia, John Jonelis

Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link . This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2013 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved


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