Fast Tracking

Author: Michael Rodio ’12

When Kelsey Falter and Stacey Milspaw ’12 and I meet on a June day in Manhattan, we agree our first order of business should be sandwiches. So we wander around Cooper Square, navigating the gnarled streets by iPhone, making small talk under a sky-scraped stratus.

We finally duck into Brad’s sandwich shop. Stacey remarks that it’s probably good for Kelsey to get out and get lunch, since they both admit Kelsey has a tendency to forget whether she’s eaten or not.

It’s not that Kelsey forgets to eat. It’s that she forgets if she has eaten. Once, Kelsey says, she was at a very important lunch meeting with several potential investors (all her meetings seem to be very important and with potential investors) but was so preoccupied with meeting and talking to people that she forgot all about the sandwiches she was supposed to eat. She even took half a sandwich back to the office, where she proceeded to forget it was there until 11 p.m., when a hungry Kelsey Falter tried to remember whether she had actually eaten anything. The napkin-wrapped sandwich implied not.

Falter, photo by Brian Bloom

In the middle of her senior year at Notre Dame, Kelsey put her undergraduate degree on hold, moved to New York City and devoted her time to launching her own startup company called Markover, which she later renamed Poptip.

Kelsey created Poptip and serves as its CEO and head of product development. She’s a sinewy dynamo with severely blue eyes and a blunt, bullet-point manner of speaking. No equivocation. She is a graphic and industrial design major, which surprises some people, given her ability to read HTML and Java fluently (or “full stack”). On her blog, she writes, “One friend has described me as ‘raw.’ I’m not sure what that means, but I like to think of it as an unrefined, unedited, upfront approach to getting things done.” Yep. Pretty much.

Stacey, who is Poptip’s happiness officer, is a bubbly, doe-eyed blonde with a newly minted Mendoza marketing degree. Stacey, who roomed with Kelsey in Pangborn and created an entrepreneurship magazine (Type E) with her, worked from Notre Dame and joined Kelsey after graduation. She writes all of Poptip’s correspondence, works on business development and keeps the team in good spirits.

By the way: Whatever stereotypes you’re leaning on about software developers being overweight, unshaven twentysomethings with caffeine habits and World of Warcraft addictions, forget them. Kelsey and Stacey are eloquent, deeply intelligent and look like they should be working at Saks Fifth Avenue or Condé Nast. (Although Kelsey has a soft spot for espresso and Cuban coffee. So, yeah, a caffeine habit.)

Since spring break of 2012, Kelsey has developed Poptip through a program called TechStars, a Denver-based startup accelerator founded by CEO David Cohen in 2007. TechStars acts like a launching pad for potential entrepreneurs and their businesses. If a company can win acceptance to TechStars, there’s about an 85 percent chance that company will succeed. TechStars owes its unparalleled success rate to its grueling selection process: Out of more than 1,500 applicants, TechStars selected exactly 13 companies for New York’s Spring 2012 program.

TechStars rewards each company with about $164,000 in perks: web hosting, free banking, strategic communications and PR. Then they invest up to an additional $118,000 to launch the company — generally to hire new engineers. But TechStars’ true value is mentorship from established entrepreneurs who guide fledgling companies through infancy. It’s also a venture capital magnet.

“We run a three-month, unsustainable, energy-filled, sleep-deprived process of getting your startup from wherever it is to a lot further,” New York program managing director David Tisch said in an interview with Mashable. “In that three months, a lot happens and startups do really change the course of their trajectory significantly.”

Kelsey hadn’t initially thought to apply to TechStars with her first startup, Markover, which her site calls “a community for creators, enabling fast, hyper-specific feedback over any sort of creative content online.” But after visiting TechStars and meeting Tisch, who encouraged her ambitions, Kelsey and her team applied at the last minute on the day of the deadline (“Maybe it was even 12:01,” she says with a grin). Tisch saw a rare spark. Markover was in.

“Kelsey is a standout entrepreneur,” Tisch told Business Insider. “She has an amazing product mind and an incredible passion for making beautiful products.”

When Kelsey first started working with her team at TechStars, she jetted between Notre Dame and New York as she simultaneously finished her last semester and built Markover and raised thousands in venture capital.

But fledgling companies are voracious. Kelsey’s workload roared into a vortex of time and energy. So she weighed her options. She talked to her parents and professors. She decided to skip her final semester and come back to Notre Dame when her senior year course load wasn’t competing with thousands of dollars in venture capital. (She insists she will, and I’m inclined to believe her.)

This is the world of tech startups: sleep-deprived, mercilessly competitive and relentlessly driven by the new new thing.

Ideas don’t matter

Even Notre Dame’s business professors admit that entrepreneurship’s definition is nebulous. But Kelsey makes one thing deadly clear.

“Ideas don’t matter,” she scoffs. “No one cares if you have an idea. Nobody cares. Because the real question is, ‘Can we build it?’ And most of the time, the answer is, ‘Yeah, but it’ll take three months.’ And in the tech startup world, three months is too long. Way too long.”

Poptip staff, photo by Brian Bloom

She adds: “Engineers and designers are so valuable in this industry because they are builders. Builders are the people that make things work. So you’ve got an idea. Great. Can we build it into something?”

To emphasize Kelsey’s point, Stacey whips out her iPhone and shows me an app called GroupMe, which lets people send text messages within a group of friends. It’s not a new idea, they note. Chat groups, after all, have been around since AOL Instant Messenger, which thrived in the Internet’s Jurassic period, when we were in seventh grade.

But here’s where Kelsey’s point about engineers makes sense. On May 22, 2010, at the eve of a New York startup conference called TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, about 300 computer programmers sat down for a day and half nonstop and wrote the code that later became GroupMe. After its founders raised venture capital, Skype bought GroupMe in August 2011 for $80 million.

This is why Kelsey says engineers make the best entrepreneurs. Dreamers can only create their ideas in one of two ways: They build things themselves, or they spend a lot of money for someone else to build their dream. Either way, engineers make it work.

Drawing up plans

Kelsey’s brilliance stems from her understanding that creative people depend on acute feedback to develop their ideas. Without excellent feedback, entrepreneurs are driving blind.

The proverbial light bulb zapped to life when Kelsey’s artistic younger sister, Hannah, scanned one of her drawings onto a webpage. “She got 40 comments on the first day,” Kelsey says. “Literally every day after that, she would come home and wouldn’t even change out of her school uniform — she would just start drawing. And I saw that these comments were . . . propelling her forward. And that made me want to start researching the role of feedback and coming up with ideas.”

So Kelsey envisioned a tool for better entrepreneurship: She and her team of engineers built a better feedback mechanism, then called Markover. It’s not an idea. It’s her vision.

“I’ve always had a fascination with innovation and creativity and how all that works,” she says. “Feedback is a key component to innovation and creativity.”

At TechStars, Kelsey quickly pivoted her initial product, Markover, into an elegantly simple tool called Poptip. With Poptip, users run polls on Twitter and analyze the responses in real time. Prior to Poptip, some poor intern had to manually count those Twitter responses.

Let’s say ESPN’s talking heads want focused college football coverage. Using Poptip, Hannah Storm ’83 tweets, “Who’s the best ND player in today’s game so far?” in the first quarter. She includes choices: #Wood #Te’o #Eifert. Twitter users reply to Storm’s question with their votes (“#Wood”), and Poptip totals responses as viewers tweet their answer. Poptip even accounts for misspellings, responses without hashtags and unlisted responses (“#Skylar for QB!”).

Poptip’s big selling point is analytics; its colorful graphs show poll results over time. When Skylar Diggins ’13 jumps in at quarterback and takes the college football world by storm, viewers respond to the poll and Poptip shows a spike in #Skylar or #Diggins. ESPN can then even share the stats (“67 percent think Skylar’s got a shot at Heisman!”). Feedback, rendered so effectively, is immediately and immensely valuable.

Our sandwiches long since reduced to crumbs, Stacey and Kelsey and I head back to the TechStars office, a “co-working space” that inhabits the sixth floor of an aging brick edifice overlooking Cooper Square. Forget cubicles: each company (usually with about six people) works at a row of computers. The TechStars HQ is essentially a high school computer lab commandeered by those kids who cut gym to learn Javascript.

The office is a beehive of nervous energy. Kelsey and Stacey explain that the startup teams, which look simultaneously haggard and inspired, are readying themselves for TechStars Demo Day in two weeks. They’ll pitch their polished products to potential investors and the press. Each seat at Demo Day is worth, on average, $50,000 in potential venture capital.

I wave goodbye. Kelsey is already submerged in her giant Mac desktop. That night, she and the team stay up until 3:30 a.m. working on a pitch — not for Demo Day but for potential customers. They deliver it five hours later. Stacey says it goes well.

Just out of curiosity, I later text: “So when does the team sleep? Never?”

Stacey’s reply is succinct: “20 minute naps are taken when absolutely necessary.”

The child entrepreneur

Ten days after our sandwich trip, Kelsey and I meet again on a Saturday morning at the mostly deserted TechStars office. We make a brief caffeine jaunt and then hunker down in a tiny conference room overlooking 41 Cooper Square’s modernist stainless steel folds. Demo Day is five days away.

Kelsey explains her background is design. She studied art in middle school. Because her mother, a dot-com entrepreneur, worked from home, computers perpetually surrounded Kelsey. She started teaching herself HTML, the primary website programming language, at age 8.

“I remember sitting at this desk and looking out a window, and seeing all my friends playing outside with one of those big, red exercise balls,” she says without a hint of sorrow. “And I was inside, like, on the computer, using AOL keywords.”

At Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Falter created her own school newspaper, The Aquinas Word, to learn page design. She designed MySpace pages for the Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times). Before she could drive, she hitched rides to Barnes & Noble to read InDesign guides for hours.

This may sound obsessive. It is, sort of. But by the time she was designing her first programs at Notre Dame, she had long since accumulated her 10,000 Gladwellian hours in entrepreneurship and all that came with them: independence, willingness to fail and an inherent dissatisfaction with the status quo.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you know about business things, because you weren’t a business major?’” she says bitingly. “I know that seems silly. But I think the reason I know about certain things are the situations I’ve been in. I’ve watched my mom negotiate with people. I watched her deal with customer service. I watched her talking with programmers.”

She became a design major after taking 2-D Foundations at Notre Dame. “Riley’s the best building on campus, in my mind,” she says. “I wanted a playground, a workspace where you could create cool stuff.” Professor Ingrid Hess’s typography class was her favorite (typography requires exacting attention to detail), so that’s one thing she has in common with Steve Jobs.

She delved into entrepreneurship. The Student International Business Council. The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. DormBooks, a student-run textbook exchange.

In the summer of 2011, Kelsey worked at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York so she could pay rent while accessing the city’s burgeoning tech startup sector. She woke up at 5 each day and started coding her project (which then developed into Markover) in a McDonald’s because it had free Wi-Fi and cheap breakfast. She then headed to her regular 9-to-5, stopping at a Starbucks during lunch to — again — write code, staying as late as she could before her boss noticed. She returned to the office until she could head to a co-working space in the Flatiron District called General Assembly.

“There’s no big players yet in New York,” Kelsey says. “There are some that are growing, like foursquare, Tumblr. But there’s still an opportunity to make something big in New York. To say, ‘This is the spot.’”

When she returned to Notre Dame for her senior year, Kelsey had an idea and the space — Innovation Park — to incubate her startup. She started coding nonstop, often staying up until 4 a.m., returning home for only a nap and a shower before arriving back at Innovation Park at 7 a.m. While some of her classmates reveled at Club Fever or football games, she crunched code.

“When I look at the typical Notre Dame student versus myself, I didn’t think I was an outsider,” she says. “However, I did always have lots of questions as to why people take things the way they are. Typically speaking, you could get out of class to go play a sports game, but you couldn’t get out of class to go interview for TechStars.”

One track mind

As we talk on that New York Saturday, Kelsey is visibly weary. She’s mashed her normally taut bun into a messy screwball. Somehow, she says, she’s lost weight since we last met less than two weeks ago.

At this point, Kelsey’s dedication seems positively robotic. I ask her if she ever thinks about something besides her business. I’m completely serious.

“I think the only time I don’t think about my business is if I’m on a date or something and I’m having an amazing time,” she says, deadpan. “I never wake up in the morning and think about, ‘Oh, I wish I could go to the beach.’ I never think like that. I will think about breakfast, but only sometimes.”

Aha, I think. She thinks about breakfast!

“I’ll specifically think about eggs,” she corrects. “They have more protein, and there’s a study that was done, something about protein and your mind working better. And so I’ll think that I should get eggs, because then my mind will work better, and I’ll be able to do better work for the business. That’s my thinking. Like last night, I got salmon for dinner because I was like: protein.”

Then Falter giggles, as if she’s realized that when she’s not thinking about her business she’s actually thinking about her business and the proof is right there on her plate.

I hazard one more try. I ask if social life even occasionally enters the equation.

“Yeah, you have to be social as well to know more people, so your idea can permeate more.”

Harnessing social media masses

Maybe Kelsey’s story wouldn’t be unusual at a tech-entrepreneur factory like MIT, but at Notre Dame — where weeks are punctuated by dorm Masses and dorm parties — it might seem hers is the path of an iconoclast.

She doesn’t see it like that. At all.

Creative ideas are what address poverty, injustice and oppression,” she says, riffing on Notre Dame’s mission statement. “If you can’t get to the point where you come up with a creative solution, then these things are going to continue to exist. The mission of Notre Dame, ‘where learning becomes service to justice,’ is that you’re taking your talents, your learning, your thoughts and using them to serve a greater purpose.”

She recalls someone’s suggestion: “‘You could just take Markover and put celebrity photos in your application and just become a People magazine where people can comment on the celebrity fashion piece that they like or didn’t like.’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that!’”

Poptip, she says, “can be used for everything from ESPN asking about what your prediction for a sporting event is to something like OpenIDEO, which allows you to crowd-source the creation of something like a toilet for a Third World country that doesn’t have sewage systems. That’s human solidarity.”

Falter and her team have effectively created a stand for Archimedes’ lever, a way to harness the tweeting masses into moving the world. By quantifying the world’s thoughts in short hashtag responses, Poptip gives the increasingly populated social media universe the power to push back at the people in charge. In a very broad scope, Poptip is a new tool for democracy.

“Imagine,” Stacey said afterward, “if a user with serious followers tweets a question of substance. We’re hoping it’s an idea catalyst for campaigns, television shows, sporting events, world and U.S. events coming up that actually have importance to people.”

Sure, Poptip is useful for deciding whether the NBA MVP was LeBron or Durant (the former) or if Rachael Ray’s cherubic face is more telegenic over cupcakes or brownies (the latter). Forget that. Poptip gives Twitter the power of the ballot box. Revolutions have already faced down totalitarian regimes, proving that social media can be a powerful weapon (see: Arab Spring). While traditional media powerhouses can hold sway because of their large Twitter followings, nontraditional sources can do it, too. The beauty of Poptip and the world of social media as a whole is that anyone — anyone — can wield the lever.

Glimpses of success

For all the team’s stress, Demo Day brought media praise and venture capital.

Peter Kafka of AllThingsD hailed: “While [Falter’s] youth makes for a good story, my hunch is that the company is going to get plenty of attention on its own merits.” As of late July, venture capitalists and companies such as ESPN, Twitter and Facebook had invested more than 1 million reasons for Poptip to succeed.

After Demo Day, I giddily watched as actor Jared Leto of Fight Club fame used Poptip for an inane question and received 1,600 responses. It felt like watching a space shuttle lift off.

Kelsey has lifted Poptip to its feet and says she’s gotten healthier. I’m inclined to think that happened when Poptip started gaining Fortune 200 companies as customers.

“I hadn’t really even connected with some of the most important people in my life in New York,” she says. “I joined a gym, so I’m doing physical, normal exercise. I’m going out to dinner with friends.” Then she catches herself: “But I’m still committed to what I’m working on.”
She has her doubts. Her vision. Hunger. Obsession.

“I want to be able to say wholeheartedly, this is the right thing, this was always the right thing. I want to say in modern times you can focus on one thing. It might not be widely accepted and you might have so many questions going into it, but it can turn out okay if you execute and stay focused.”

Michael Rodio, who was this magazine’s spring intern, recently moved from his boyhood home in Oceanport, New Jersey, to work for Notre Dame. He writes for the Daily Domer, a new Notre Dame news site.