Two Raleigh brothers join the Innovators Program to scale their SaaS startup

We’re a few weeks into the 2016 Innovators Program Raleigh, an accelerator program for early-stage, high-growth startups supported by Red Hat, Citrix, and HQ Raleigh. Each week, we’re featuring a Q&A with one of the teams in the three-month program. For this feature, we chatted with Zach Milburn, co-founder of Nebula, a modular, customizable workstation suite that he launched with his brother Geoff.

With Nebula, users have access to an adaptable, “pay-as-you-go” SaaS tool to manage their various business needs. Below, Zach tells us about their startup journey thus far, and where they hope to go after the Innovators Program.

Innovators Program (IP): Why did you decide to apply for the Innovators Program?

Zach Milburn (ZM): Our dev/design shop LaunchLab has been doing quite well since we founded it a year ago, meaning there is some opportunity cost involved in attending all of the design sprint workshops, meetings, etc. That being said, the connections and exposure from the program will likely be invaluable, and the grant funds certainly don’t hurt. One of our goals this year is to move away from relying on consultancy work and to tackle a more scalable, recurring business model. This program will help us make that transition with more ease.

 IP: What are you most looking forward to in this program?

ZM: Connections, connections, connections. Our belief is that most successful companies or entrepreneurs, if they already have the right work ethic and skill sets, “make it” largely due to a few valuable connections — whether that be an investor, customer, or mentor — likely a combination of all three. We are hoping to meet a few of those connections during this process.

IP: What skills or backgrounds do you each bring to your team?

ZM: We’ve been building web applications for the past 5 years or so in one form or another. We only started getting paid to do this about 1.5 years ago, and have been very successful in that space. We both do a bit of everything, but as far as our current roles go: I (Zach) am the hustler/business side, and Geoff is the design and development side. Geoff is arguably one of the top developers in the country. That isn’t by our own words, we’ve heard this multiple times from other successful entrepreneurs who know the space.

We are strong compliments and thoroughly enjoy what the other hates and vice versa, minus a few areas such as design, gamifying everything, and making money. We both graduated from NC State with degrees in business/entrepreneurship and have several years of experience both in working closely with dozens of start-ups as well as being a startup ourselves.

IP: What was the “ah-ha” moment that led to starting your company?

ZM: It was more-so a series of “ah-ha” moments, or more accurately, a few “hmm…” moments. The more we dealt with customers, the same patterns began to consistently emerge, and we eventually arrived at Nebula as a solution to those problems.

 IP: What problem are you trying to solve?

ZM: We are building a platform to help technically-averse companies consolidate and simplify their cloud software using our easily customizable content management system (think, a dashboard). We do so by offering a few of the most popular API integrations as well as the simplest pieces of the most common cloud software services, such as CRM and website management.

Our theory is that we use and pay for way too many cloud services, and these services are often so cumbersome and complex that they are no longer useful. We’ve also found that many companies are already paying huge sums of money to have contractors build custom solutions for them, and we will be able to provide superior service at a fraction of the cost.

IP: When you are not working tirelessly to launch a company, how do you spend your time?

ZM: Eat, sleep, watch Netflix, hang out. Nothing too different from the average person, although we do theorize in unusual amounts about the future, politics, and MBTI. We play a lot of chess too, and other strategic games. We probably do come up with a new business idea everyday, and have to painfully accept we have no time for it. For example, last week we decided we could probably lease a Tesla Model S, use it for half a month and rent it for the other half and make a profit.

IP: Any big takeaways from the design sprint that you’re excited to integrate into your business?

ZM: It gave us an opportunity to really throw everything — criticisms, concerns, ideas — at our current plan of action. We didn’t actually change much, and we think that’s a good thing because now we can be more confident with what we started off with. It did really help us simplify how we explain what it is that we are doing to different audiences.

IP: How do you stay energized for the long workdays of entrepreneurship? go-to snacks? rituals?

ZM: Coffee. Sometimes MATI.

Stay tuned for more updates from Nebula and the other Innovators Program participants in the coming weeks!

A closer look at Raleigh-based Malartu Funds

Now that the 2016 Innovators Program Raleigh has officially kicked off, we’re taking a closer look at each of early-stage, high-growth startups embarking on the three-month journey. Our first feature in this Q&A series is with Sean from Malartu Funds, a Raleigh based online investment platform.

Malartu is on a mission to efficiently deliver capital, deal flow, and domain expertise from accredited investors to startups, VC’s, accelerators, and investment groups. Simply put, the company seeks to optimize the seed fundraising process for early-stage startups. The founding team includes Sean Steigerwald and Jon Spinney, both NC State alumni, as well as Lewis Sheats, Director of the NCSU Entrepreneurship Clinic. They’re been fundraising over the last year to gear up for their upcoming launch, so if you’re early-stage entrepreneur looking to raise, a VC ready to invest, or a startup competition in the market for a new partnership, make sure to keep an eye on these guys!

Innovators Program: What made you want to apply for the Innovators Program?

Sean Steigerwald: The companies from years past were really strong and with the launch of our new business intelligence product, we thought it was perfect timing to join the program, get focused, and execute.

IP: What are you most looking forward to in this program?

SS: We sell to and work with accelerators all over the country, so we are really excited to join a top program like Innovators to help establish a strong direction for our product map and rollout. [We’re also interested] to understand the dynamic between the accelerator and the companies within, since they are both our customers.

IP: What skills / backgrounds do you each bring to your team? What makes you two great co-founders?

SS: Jon and I have similar backgrounds in finance but have very different approaches to problems, which are incredibly complimentary. Jon tends to take time and fully analyze a situation before tackling the problem and I like to move very quickly toward a solution. The combination leads to well-thought out and swift solutions to problems, which is incredibly important as a startup in a highly-regulated space. We move like a startup, but we stay within the confines of the law.

IP: Why did you decide to start Malartu?

SS: We knew that fundraising was a huge pain for any company and we knew we could find a better way. As we rolled out our investment platform, we started to notice an array of more specific problems leading to this pain point, like measuring performance, managing your team, and meeting potential investments at the right time. Originally we thought the solution was simply that the administrative part of fundraising was antiquated, which it was, but we also learned that was the tip of the iceberg. With the introduction of our business intelligence tool, we’re confident we’ve made a big step toward bringing efficiencies to the whole financial growth process, not just the collection of funds.

IP: Any big takeaways from the kickoff design sprint that you’re excited to integrate into your business?

SS: Absolutely, we’re feeling great about where we are after the sprint. It helped us to really focus on a few specific things to reach our goals of launching the platform within the next 2 months.

IP: Were there any lessons from the expert coaching sessions that really left a mark?

SS: Our coach, Alex, gave us a few fantastic ideas about our rollout strategy and where the key moments would be in our user on-boarding process. Really, really valuable stuff for our next few weeks.

IP: A lot has been happening for Malartu over the past few months. Any recent milestones, updates, etc. that you want to highlight?

SS: We just spent the last week in Silicon Valley (San Jose, specifically) at the Innovate | Celebrate Conference. The conference brings together their top 50 startups from all over the country (narrowed from a pool of 1000 top accelerator graduates and pitch competition winners) and narrows them down to 5 finalists. We have just launched a Malartu Fund to invest in all 5 companies and have had tremendous traction with the fund. We’re expecting to invest at least $100k in each company within the next 60 days. The fund is also getting interest from some heavy-hitting celebrity investors that we’re excited to announce…[coming soon!] Working with this conference has set the standard for working with future conferences, accelerators, universities, and corporates that is surely going to set us on an exciting trajectory.

IP: Being an entrepreneur is a roller coaster ride. What keeps you motivated? How do you stay energized?

SS: There are TONS of ups and downs. The most valuable thing about being cofounders so far is that we don’t usually experience the ups and downs at the same time. We have had a lot of success dividing and conquering, and our wins have been able to balance out the other’s setback so that we’re always moving up and to the right with a good attitude. We also make a real effort to take breaks. We realized early on that it’s impossible to tackle a problem as big as ours while burning a candle at both ends. Although it’s not always possible, we make an effort to disconnect from work on at least one day of the weekends….We also drink a ton of Mati.

Read more about Malartu in features on WRAL TechWire, Forbes, and a recent inside look from Sean himself on ExitEvent.

Innovators Program Raleigh announces ten startups selected for 2016 accelerator cohort

The Innovators Program, a three-month accelerator sponsored by Citrix Systems and Red Hat and supported by HQ Raleigh, announced today the ten early-stage, high-growth technology startups selected for its 2016 program.

Now entering its third year in Raleigh, the cohort-driven, mentor-assisted program will include five external startups, two internal innovation teams from Red Hat, and three internal teams from Citrix. This unique grouping combines entrepreneurial thinking with large-scale enterprise expertise and seeks to foster both new startups and corporate innovation.

In addition to a $10K grant, each team will gain access to weekly group classes, one-on-one coaching and mentorship, co-working space, corporate resources, and capital connections.

Over 60 applications were submitted from startups as far as Alberta, Canada; Bangalore, India; and Myanmar, as well as U.S. hubs like Nashville, Silicon Valley, and New York. Coincidentally, all but one of the selected teams are Triangle-based ventures.

The external teams:

Nebula is a modular, customizable workstation suite founded by brothers Geoff and Zach Milburn. Calling it “Salesforce meets Squarespace,” the team is building a user-friendly, adaptable, and pay-as-you-go SaaS platform for businesses on the Internet. The team has launched several web and app-based startups and graduated from the inaugural ThinkHouse accelerator in 2014.

Geospatial (d/b/a VisionLTC) is a geospatial market analytics platform for the senior housing, medical office, and healthcare industries. The platform provides operators, owners, investors, lenders, developers and other industry stakeholders with critical market analytics to facilitate improved strategic decision-making. The team includes co-founders and serial entrepreneurs Arick Morton and Grant Hamm.

Malartu is a fully functioning online investment platform created by co-founders Jon Spinney and Sean Steigerwald. The company plans to develop and integrate metric-tracking tools for startups to automatically generate and report KPIs for potential and/or current investors. North Carolina State University’s Entrepreneurship Clinic director Lewis Sheats is a founding advisor.

Glance is a text-messaged based job search platform founded by Chris Comrie and Kameron Kales. Students can be notified of part-time jobs via text message, and can send a one-word reply to easily apply for the role. The co-founders are also current Fellows of the ThinkHouse, a living and learning accelerator for young entrepreneurs.

ShineBig is creating a multimedia platform that makes it easy for businesses to ask engaging questions and receive engaged responses. Founder Tola Oguntoyinbo is a serial social entrepreneur and former The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s CUBE Entrepreneur in Residence.

The two internal Red Hat teams (focused on creating next-generation people programs for internal use):

The Red Hat Performance Management and Development team plans to create a performance management process that focuses on associate development and is scalable for Red Hat’s future. The team includes Arrie Brown, Jorge Herrera, Beverly Heustess, and Kim Jokisch, and is supported by Geri Duncan.

The Red Hat Ambassadors team aims to create a transparent, efficient, and scalable referral program that can enhance both the associate and candidate experience. This team includes Jonathan Edwards, Jorge Herrera, and Jenna Slawson, and is supported by Rob Trout.

The three internal Citrix teams:

MediFlow is an intuitive patient intake solution reducing frustration for patients and medical institutions while resulting in secure, timely and accurate information. The internal innovation team is led by Joseph Saponaro, Domenico Matteo, and Brian Stengaard.

RecapIt enables workers who capture audio, video, and images as part of their daily tasks to do so more easily by streamlining that process into a simple capture, save, and share workflow that’s managed from a single mobile device. The team is spearheaded by Citrix employees Ben Robbins, Tarun Goel, and Nicholas Madariaga.

The CSP team, located at the Citrix Fort Lauderdale, Florida campus, is changing the way Citrix on-boards service providers. By changing the flow and eliminating lengthy processes, they shorten the on-boarding process from months to days. The team also hopes to reduce churn in the CSP program. CSP will be led by Citrix employee Nizar Tyrewalla.

The Innovators Program Raleigh officially kicks off today, Thursday, September 15, with a four-day design sprint. Over the course of the next three months, these ten teams will learn core principles of design thinking, lean startup, and go-to-market strategy with a goal of finding their first customers and validating their business model. The program will culminate with a Demo Day on December 12 in Downtown Raleigh.