Featured on Feb 11, 2011
"We've Only Just Begun"
Sam is the founder of SpeakerGram, which aims to make the process of setting up speaking engagements simple and easy to manage. He recently announced that he moved to San Francisco to join Dave McClure's 500Startups accelerator program. Previously, Sam worked at Citi as a corporate banking analyst and received a B.S. in Commerce from the University of Virginia. He's a life long hockey player and proud to have an earthy-crunchy side. Sam also co-founded the Young Professional Committee for the Gift of Life Foundation, which helps patients suffering from leukemia find donors who anonymously offer life saving bone marrow transplants.
- Title: Founder, SpeakerGram
- Age: 25
- Location: Hoboken
- Contact: @SIR
Everyone that plays a sport as long as you’ve been playing hockey has stories that they tell others. What’s your personal favorite hockey story from your past?
Growing up playing hockey in New Jersey is a little different from playing on the lakes in Minnesota or up in Canada, where 6 months out of the year you can head out to the local pond and play puck. When I grew up, the sport was less popular and there were only a few rinks. I'll never forget the countless hours they spent driving me to practice or games.
The memory that sticks out the most though is the winter after I used my first paycheck to buy a real metal hockey net, as opposed to plastic ones. My parents live right on a lake in northern New Jersey which only freezes over a few days a year, so I was very excited to take the net out to the lake and take some shots. There was literally no one else on the lake to play with me until all of a sudden my dad came walking down the dock dressed in full makeshift goalie gear. We didn't actually own goaltender gear, as I was always a defensemen, but he took out his old baseball catcher gear that must have been 30 years old an suited up so he could play with me. He literally had on shin pads, a chest protector, a catcher's mask, a baseball mit, and used one of my backup sticks. I thought he was crazy standing in the way of 60 or 70 mph slapshots in the freezing cold. I mean, the catcher's mask would stop a baseball but there was no chance it would have stopped a puck from smashing into his face. I don't remember how long he played keeper, but it didn't matter. That's the type of memory that a son, let alone a life long player, will never forget.
How did you come up with the idea for SpeakerGram and what was your biggest hurdle in getting started?
SpeakerGram was an idea I had that came out of attending the Hoboken Tech Meetup. It was their second event and a panelist dropped out and the organizer, Aaron Price, had to call on a friend to fill in last minute. I started thinking about how it should have been easier for Aaron to find someone to come speak at his event. At the same time, I was planning my own event for entrepreneurs in NYC who also graduated from the University of Virginia. Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit with his best friend while at UVA, had recently moved to NYC and I wanted to ask him to speak but he didn't respond to any of my emails. I figured he was ignoring me, but that he's a well known person and gets a ton of email. I was curious if this was a problem for people other than Alexis, so I sent a few tweets to Gary V, Dennis Crowley, and Jason Calacanis and asked how many speaking engagement requests they receive a year. I found out that they all received between 300-500 requests and figured that most came through email. I figured there had to be a better way to book these people for an event.
As a non-coding sole founder (I like to draw the distinction from "non-technical"), I had no way of actually building my product. I talked to as many people as I could about joining my team, but I never found the right one. One day I met a friend, Reece Pacheco, for coffee and he gave me a much needed Jim Valvano-esque pep talk. He just implored getting to an MVP. So I called up a developer who previously joined me for one week, until his previous co-founder asked him to start working again on their forgotten project, and offered to pay him to get me a prototype as soon as possible. It's a very classic problem for non-coding founders and Vin Vacanti has an excellent post on what your options are in this situation.
How did you become involved with the Gift of Life Foundation and how did you come up with the idea of co-founding the Young Professional Committee?
When I was a second year in college I went to Hillel to celebrate the Jewish holidays. Gift of Life, who has a partnership with Hillel, had a table set up and was asking people to take a swab of their cheek cells and join the bone marrow registry. Eastern European Jews have a much harder time finding matches for bone marrow donations as the Holocaust severed many large familial blood lines. So I signed up thinking that the chances were pretty low that I'd ever get called. About 4 years later, I received a call from my mom saying that Gift of Life sent me a letter and informed me that I was a match for a 57 year old male suffering from acute myeloblastic leukemia. I immediately called Gift of Life and began the process of going through the anonymous donation. Knowing that I could save a man who was the same age as my father and likely also had children my age really gave me a sense of purpose. About a month after the initial blood test, which indicated I was a perfect match, I found out that the patient had already found another donor and they were weeks away from a donation. It was an absolutely miracle and I was so happy that the patient was going to get the transplant he needed, but was personally a little crushed that I couldn't be the person to help save him.
After the process, I didn't hear back from Gift of Life and about a year later I still felt like my gift wasn't given. I volunteered at a bone marrow drive where I met a girl my age whose sister was saved by a transplant through Gift of Life. We talked about how Gift of Life didn't have a presence among the very social, active, jewish young professionals in New York City which has the highest population of Jews in the world. We contacted Gift of Life and proposed starting a young professional committee that would piggy back on all the events thrown by the multitude of jewish charity and community groups in the city and set up donation tables at their events. In just a little over a year, we've raised almost $30,000 and have registered almost 500 people. Our goal is to register someone in NYC who eventually donates bone marrow and saves someone else's life.
After you completed your 2 year program at Citigroup you decided to move into the startup world. How did you come to that decision?
I knew on day one at Citi that I didn't fit in. I recall specifically sitting down in that cubicle and feeling walled off from the world -- I even asked my cubemate if she thought we could take down the wall between our cubes and she looked at me like I was crazy. About half way through my program, I was physically deteriorating from the stress and frustration. I wanted something where I wasn't so stressed out all the time. I remembered back to an internship I had in college at SeamlessWeb as a sales and marketing intern. I was young and I didn't think of it as a "startup," rather a fun and cool place to work -- they even had a dog! I wanted to run a company like SeamlessWeb and became obsessed with reading blogs about the types of businesses where 24 year olds could be their own boss -- turns out that only happens in startups :)
In the next week you are moving to San Francisco to join Dave McClure's 500Startups accelerator program. Can you promise us now that after the accelerator program is over that you’ll be coming back to New York? :)
I'm thinking more about my move to California before I'm evening thinking about moving back! I only met Dave a few days before he made the offer and had to move across the country within one week. This has all happened very quickly and I'm only thinking about how in the next three months I can: get more speakers on our network, have more people use our tools to manage engagements for others, build my team, and work with great investors. In the meantime, if there's anything I can do to help out a fellow New Yorker, please feel free to reach out.