Alumni follow unique paths to entrepreneurship

When Kate McDill entered the iSchool a little more than a decade ago, she had aspirations to find a career in the "ascendant dotcom world."

"I was drawn to dotcoms because I had entrepreneurial skills and felt more comfortable in the start-up milieu as opposed to the staid, established business world," McDill said.

At the time, the 25-year-old graduate student had already tasted entrepreneurship as a proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast. "I thrived on independence and creativity," McDill said. "Things changed, and I got a bit bored. Thus, off to graduate school."

The lure of the "dotcom money train" was initially strong for McDill. "I was willing to work hard, but definitely wanted the pay-off," she said. At the time, Google was new. "Search was known as information retrieval' and done by geeky scientists," McDill said. "Smart phones were on some drawing table, not in people's hands. Yahoo was the search engine of choice. More people used AOL."

During her pursuit of an MLIS, McDill landed a directed fieldwork position with Amazon. "I was hired to assign new toys into categories," she said. "I spent long hours glued to my computer monitor looking at tiny pictures of toys, associating each item with a specific area."

Among other things, McDill said "there wasn't enough people interaction."

After completing her fieldwork and earning her MLIS from the iSchool in 2002, McDill worked as an information architect for a large bank, then as the assistant to the associate dean at the iSchool.

Eventually, she began working independently as an information and project manager, building a clientele of eight customers. "I was quite happy," she said.

In 2009, McDill and her life partner purchased Medical Management Planning (mmp), a 30-year-old health care consulting company. "The purchase of mmp offered me the opportunity to take my entrepreneurial talents and information management skills to a much larger stage."

Her new company, mmp|BENCH, is a pediatric performance improvement and database company with 20 children's hospitals as customers so far. "We provide a suite of online analytical tools." McDill said. Her company is on the list of approved vendors for submitting hospital accreditation data and offers customers an online knowledgebase using a password-protected website.

Informed by her own path to entrepreneurship, McDill advises future iSchool alumni to keep an open mind about professional goals. "The world of work is reforming and I don't think anyone knows where it will end up," she said. "Keep your focus as wide as possible."

While the boom and bust of the dotcom era helped catalyze McDill's entrepreneurial spirit, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 is what got Ben Brigham started.

After graduating from the iSchool in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in Informatics, Brigham began conducting research for his master's thesis on tourism recovery in Thailand. He wrote computer code to help monitor online news outlets for mention of the deadly tsunami.

"The skills I needed to write that code came directly from (iSchool Associate Professor) Terry Brooks and the work I did in his web tools and development class," Brigham said. "I later discovered that my news monitor code could be used to 'ferret' out leads of car buyers for car dealers, which was the beginning of AutoFerret."

AutoFerret, Brigham's Bellingham-based company, launched in January 2007. "We provide technology and web tools for the automotive industry," Brigham said.

Brigham's company employs 18 people and serves nearly 3,000 auto dealers. One of AutoFerret's products is the Automated Virtual Assistant (AVA), which Brigham says "uses artificial intelligence to carry on a conversation with people over e-mail."

"Auto dealers around the world use AVA to help with their leads," Brigham said, noting that AVA recently sent her three-millionth message. Brigham, who later earned his master's degree in marine affairs from the UW in 2007, advises current iSchool students to pursue "something that really interests you, something you enjoy digging into and spending really late nights working on."

"We are our generation's inventors," Brigham said. "The more ubiquitous technology becomes, the more problems and opportunities for solutions will arise."

Julius Schorzman is fond of a quote from the late Steve Jobs: "Real artists ship."

Prior to earning his bachelor's degree in Informatics from the iSchool in 2005, Schorzman honed his computer coding skills on a solo capstone project titled, "New York Subway Trip Planner."

More than five years later, the same core code-base powers his new company Shopobot, which recently received funding from GoogleVentures and has been featured in The New York Times and TechCrunch.

"Most education is focused around learning, but the iSchool's capstone project is unique in that you're given the freedom to take a project from concept to reality," Schorzman said. "Being smart is easy -- lots of people are smart -- but execution is hard. My capstone helped me learn how to push things forward with limited oversight."

Since graduating, Schorzman has become aware that good code is not enough to be successful. "In fact, good code is not really that important at all during the earliest stages of a company; it's not going to get you a single customer," he advises. "What is important is being able to communicate with and learn from your users, and to approach things from their point of view. User-centered design is a real competitive advantage, and that approach is what I learned at the iSchool."

Shopobot launched a public beta in the summer of 2011 and has four employees. The service "helps users find great deals on the items they really want, like cameras and computers," Schorzman said. "Shopobot tracks price fluctuations across top stores and finds the best time and place to buy."

"Many tech companies that are launching now are convoluted and confusing without a real value proposition to the end-user," Schorzman said. "We saw an opportunity to help users save money and built the company around that core idea."

Schorzman encourages iSchool students to not shy away from challenge. "Don't pick something because it seems easy," he said. "Pick something that seems a bit too hard and keep doing that after you graduate."