Imagine a community of learners and teachers that freely exchange their knowledge, and together emerge better off than where they started. That is the vision of Sarah Hodges and Dave Balter, who are working side-by-side as the Managing Directors of a new Boston-based venture named—not surprisingly—Intelligent.ly. As Ms. Hodges explained in a conversation with this reporter, “People are so willing to help, but it is hard to connect them with people who wish to learn.”
Sarah Hodges elaborated upon the concept this way: “For students, the idea is to provide an entre or easy way to get the legal, marketing and financial advice that they need. For teachers, it is a great way to elevate their personal brand, possibly get consulting gigs, and give people a preview of their skill set and a taste of their style. So many talented people are working inside companies, or inside consulting practices,” and would gain from the exposure. “Teaching is a great way to find and connect with people who can benefit from your services.”
By providing a venue where in-demand skills are taught, and a structure to acquire the best teachers who can teach hot topics, Intelligent.ly aims to fill the void left between the classic degree programs and the ultra-competitive and commitment-heavy startup incubators.
Knowledge exchange to create a larger talent pool for growing firms
“Our motivation [is] selfless, we want to offer their [the faculty’s] knowledge to the community. The offshoot of which might be to establish a new business idea, enable an engineer to acquire marketing skills, or simply bring people together,” explained Hodges.
In a city known for its exuberance of brilliant teaching institutions, is there really room for one more? It seems so, as this venture is a different kind of animal than the traditional schools of higher education, or even the incubators that serve as startup accelerators across the United States.
The startup accelerator is typically a place where a newly-formed company (or even a group of folks who aspire to form a company) apply, become accepted as a startup, and then get the benefit of a mentorship with venture capitalists and potential investors. Other incubators in Boston include established programs like TechStars, which also has locations in New York City, Boulder and Seattle, and new entrants such as The Startup School.
There are some similarities in the concept to General Assembly (GA) in New York, which opened its doors roughly a year ago, and in its first year of operation catered to over 6,000 students and is now planning to move to a larger space. GA, as it is commonly known, is a campus for teaching technology, design and entrepreneurship, but it is also a co-working space for the technology startups themselves, and is backed by some heavyweight players in the venture capital world, including Union Square Ventures.
By contrast, Intelligent.ly is a project that Hodges and Balter are doing on the side of their regular work. “We are definitely inspired by GeneralAssembl.ly, but we are not that,” said Hodges.
While Dave Balter is an angel investor himself, and the facility at 500 Harrison Avenue in the South End of Boston sits on solid ground for having had dozens of startups pass through prior to this, it is not a place that officially offers co-working or is meant to bring in profit. It is purely knowledge exchange as a way of paying it forward.
Just like GeneralAssembl.ly finds the best fit between instructors and subject matter, Intelligent.ly’s faculty is hand-selected to feature Boston’s best and brightest. Recently, this reporter heard the Chairman and CEO of News Corp.’s Digital Media Group speak on the topic of making your startup more attractive for acquisition, at GA. Along similar lines, Intelligent.ly will be offering classes such as “How To Tell your Startup’s Story Effectively, ” given by Mike Troiano, and “Fundraising for Geniuses: The Opposite of Fundraising for Dummies,” by Steve Cagnetta.
Currently, the website is fairly bare bones with an initial sampling of what future course offerings will be. Classes are expected to begin in approximately 1-2 months. Interest has been streaming in from every direction since last week, as news of Intelligent.ly was picked up by several local media sites, spreading the word. As a result, more than 50 inbound inquiries came from potential instructors, and hundreds of future students signed up.
The top-notch team behind the concept: accomplishment, brains and verve
Sarah Hodges is a well-known digital marketer, blogger and marketing strategist. She heads up Marketing at RunKeeper, which is a fitness app that has been downloaded more than 8 million times since launching. Her earlier claims to fame include managing online optimization before Carbonite’s IPO in 2010, and founding and growing an ecommerce site that made women’s clothing at a facility in Peru.
Dave Balter is the CEO of BzzAgent, which is a word-of-mouth marketing firm primarily in the consumer packaged goods vertical. He founded BzzAgent in 2001 and sold it to dunnhumby, a division of TESCO, the British retailer, in 2011. As a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, he keeps one eye on the companies that he is growing even as he looks to Intelligent.ly for his latest new-venture fix.
There are three Principal Advisors at Intelligent.ly, all of whom are seasoned entrepreneurs, i.e. Chris O’Donnell, Mike Troiano and Aaron White. Mr. Troiano and Ms. Hodges first connected as they collaborated to organize a “tech prom” event, a one-off event for the Boston startup community.
Currently, Mr. Troiano is a Principal at Holland-Mark, a Boston-based strategic marketing firm and an advisor to TechStars. His strength is in helping firms shape their brand’s identity. Mr. O’Donnell is Director, Product Management at Hubspot, which has itself benefited greatly from investment by A-listers in the tech community. Mr. White, in the words to his colleague, is “a phenomenal technologist” who also serves as Co-Founder and CTO of Boundless Learning, a startup with synergies in the education market. However, Boundless Learning lives online only. With an ereader component and open source content, it replicates textbook learning without the need for buying a textbook.
Together, these five tier-one entrepreneurs have raised millions from the venture community, earned great sums themselves, and established a blazing call-to-action for Intelligent.ly that just might become the envy of other knowledge workers, who thirst to find each other in the startup world.