entrepreneurship, innovation, start up

shaun abramhanson: on changing cities, 500 startups at a time.

“I think curiosity, empathy and resilience are a potent combination, so how can you encourage others to develop these attributes?”

I’d like to thank the International Startup Festival team for letting me help at this year’s amazing event, which allowed me to bring you this interview. 
photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen, AP photo

For all the talk about cities, and how the world is becoming one big connected network, the tech industry is driving a change an increasing amount of cities are trying to catch up with – for more information here’s a good read by the American Think Tank Brookings institution. It’s not everyday that I get to combine my first love – urban planning – and my current interests in the startup world. Both worlds got to happily collide at this year’s city themed StartUp Fest, a 3 day international event with the latest startups rubbing shoulders with Silicon Valley veterans. One of the amazing people I got to meet and talk with was Shaun Abramhanson.

An MIT grad with an MBA in Creative Leadership, he’s a self professed swimmer, but is rather known as an author, entrepreneur and advisor. Interested in how we better design together, he has written about crowdstorming as a way to leverage collective intelligence and blogs notably for the Huffington Post. Last year he founded Urban.Us, a network of investors, advisors and city reps that strives to support startups addressing urban challenges.
Their goal? Help close to 500 companies, with the hopes that 50 of them will have a significant impact in addressing urban challenges by 2020.

If you want to know more about Urban.us, read up on Smart City Startups 2015, next year’s two day event in Miami or check out videos from this year’s event  and some of the themes that were discussed.

I was lucky to catch him while he came to talk at the StartUp Fest, and he was kind enough to respond to my Q&A:

1. Your full name, age and occupation
Shaun Abrahamson, 40, Swimmer

2. What was your dream job as a kid?
I was always sure that I wanted to build, so architecture and engineering came up a lot.

“Friends have always been great sources of encouragement through the ups and downs of startupland”

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?
My family. And I have a great group of friends from living in different places and attending school on 3 continents :)

Family is most interesting because having kids really forced me to think about what the world will be like for them. Friends have always been great sources of encouragement through the ups and downs of startupland.

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?
I’ve never thought about doing my own thing. It sort of materialized out of thinking about different approaches to reaching a goal. I’ve become used to moving quickly and testing ideas and failing a lot. Most existing organizations didn’t have room for this kind of behaviour, though that’s been changing. After working in startups for more than 15 years, its harder to see how to fit into a larger organization.

“Is there a way to test 5,000 high potential ideas? And if a small percent succeed, can we change the viability of cities?”

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?
For urban.us its always been about the potential impact. Is there a way to test 5,000 high potential ideas? And if a small percent succeed, can we change the viability of cities? My sense is that we need to rethink our entire social and economic system if we dont figure this out. So I am excited about having a tiny role in helping bringing this change about.

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?
Oh, lots of things! It takes time and money to learn, but it’s a difficult question because would I have known some things, maybe I wouldn’t have started :)

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.
I love what I do now. I think I’d do it for free. I think there are always going to be less fun or inspiring or interesting parts to a day, but getting to work with founders who are solving complex, hard problems is perhaps the best way to spend a day. The only downside is the constant struggle to make enough time to do great work and spend quality time with family. I dont know that I will ever get this balance right.

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?
I love to know what motivates people and how they find ways to be great at work and at home.

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say?
If you have read this far, you are quite curious. This is fantastic news. You are also probably empathetic. This excellent too. And you also waded through some other not so good material, so you are resilient. Wonderful. I think curiosity, empathy and resilience are a potent combination, so how can you encourage others to develop these attributes?

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entrepreneurship, innovation

At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid at my job, it has to be creative. 

As a friend, Caterina personifies one of the things I love about Montreal – a “latin” anglo who speaks the languages of French and Arts. A West Island girl with an eye for nice things and an appetite for novelty, Caterina recently transitioned from the retail industry to the app/start up world by founding Breather,  along with her equally ridiculously talented friend Julien Smith. Breather will allow people like you and me to unlock carefully crafted creative living rooms and working spaces anywhere in the world through our smartphones. Oh, and it raised $1.5 million seed funding within its first year and just won the 2013 Canadian Innovation Exchange Award. Caterina is also the Creative Director for the SWAP Team, a North-American non-profit social enterprise that organizes clothing swaps for charity.

Here’s her take on my questions she was kind enough to answer over a Sunday tea on Park Avenue.

1. Age, name & occupation

Caterina Rizzi Co-Founder, 34, Head of Product & Experience at Breather

2. What was your dream job as a kid?

I am an only child, my mother kept everything, and early drawings showed I was doing colour theory without even knowing it as a kid, and for a brief time I wanted to be a vet too. I used to write bio profiles for myself, like the ones you’d read on the back of a book. Dream jobs varied, but it was always artistic. When I started working I said “I  make things pretty” and now I say “I curate things”. It was never a decision, I was born like this. I was able to explore all this thanks to my mother’s support.

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever.

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever. Part of the excitement for me with Breather is that I just really wanted to work with Julien (co-founder) because we work so well together. Everybody at Breather has +10 years of experience, and while part of my work is similar to a retail launching operation which I what I used to do, everything else about Breather is new for me, making it that much more interesting.

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?

I’ve been told for years that I should have my own company, but I didn’t want to . All I really want to do is paint or prototype but I have this leader personality that I can’t hide from. So I embraced  it – I never planned to own a company – it’s been a year and I’m still surprised.

At my previous jobs, I would look at the wasted potential, see untapped areas of improvement, and I would feel limited. At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid, it has to be creative.

This is also what got me involved in SWAP Team as creative director for the past 19 months. Everybody wants to be there and works real hard, all on a non-profit basis – it’s a great cause and that’s what boosts me. Money has never influenced me and it has never dictated my choices. I need uncharted territories, to figure it out for myself, I need to try something new. And as for Breather, we have an amazing team and it makes going to work really enjoyable.

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?

I loved the idea of creating something from scratch – I LOVE prototyping, researching, traveling, taking things in, building mood boards.

Now I also get excited about creating and making. I love making something so it is exactly what I need – I create experiences, not just copy an idea or an object and hope that it will translate into the expected simulation. Breather is about inspiring and creating the right space, you need it to be truthful.

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?

We made a lot of good choices – maybe we were lucky, but you still need to pace your energy, a little at a time. Julien changed the concept 2 months in and I told him “do you realize we’ve changed everything and we barely started?” – but he was definitely right. Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. We keep thinking we haven’t done anything so we need to stop and smell the roses to take it in and acknowledge how things are going.

Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. 

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.

I’ve actually written this out – I read this book about changing your life the way you want it to be, the author asking you to write down your ideal day. For me, it would be one third of the day working on a thing i’m passionate about, the 2nd third about revenue making and the 3rd one about cooking and reading. I’m not a couch potato, on the contrary I’m quite active, even if I won the lottery I’d still keep busy and help people, you need to keep you mind sharp aaaand I need a lot of stimulation!

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?

I would like to know what their process is – where do they get their inspiration, how did you get to that ? How did the great idea came about? I read about Steve Wozniak in the book “Quiet: the power of introverts” and how he would arrive early at work to work on his idea and transform it into something real.

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say? 

I would like to hear people say that I was kind to others, that I liked to help people. I hope I’m accurately portrayed – that they remember the good things about me. You want to be remembered well, hopefully my family and the people I know will have some good memories and that I did indeed have a positive impact on them.

Breather just celebrated their one year anniversary, the launch of their app and their new Mil-End office space, complete with Caterina’s prototyping room. 

Spring 2014 update on this post:

Caterina has just finished opening up a space in New York City. Read more about Breather in Elle Decor and Refinery 29 which just voted Breather as a Top 10 NYC Apps.

caterina rizzi, on app launching and creativity

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