Moving Fast in Silicon Valley

For a company less than a year old, Lob.com has enjoyed quite a ride. Founded by Harry Zhang, BBA ’11, and Leore Avidar, BBA ’11, it was backed by Y Combinator, the incubator that spawned Reddit and Dropbox, and received $2.4 million in seed funding from some well-known Silicon Valley investors.

Even better, the cloud-based print solutions service is attracting new customers, hiring people, and growing revenue. Its journey shows how fast a disruptive idea can gain traction.

“That’s one thing about a startup: you really feel it evolve day by day,” says Zhang. “There’s such a direct correlation between every move you make and results.” He and Avidar say the knowledge they gained at Ross and the power of the alumni network gave them the confidence to quit their corporate jobs and become tech entrepreneurs.

The idea for San Francisco-based Lob.com was hatched when Zhang was at Microsoft and Avidar at Amazon Web Services. Zhang was frustrated because he wanted to mail notices to customers who were near renewal dates and there was no way to automate that with printers.

But both were familiar with application programming interface (API) tools and saw most of the printing industry wasn’t making use of it. Lob.com uses a cloud-based API to allow businesses to easily arrange printing needs, be it big or small. Customers don’t have to manually manage the process.

“Printing is a huge industry that’s been largely untouched by API engineering and it’s ripe for disruption,” says Dan Zhao, BBA ’11, who joined his classmates at Lob.com later. “So while printing might sound kind of boring, we’re really an API company. We connect the physical world with the virtual world so that businesses can be more efficient and agile.”

Things moved fast for Avidar and Zhang after the idea phase. They applied to be part of Y Combinator last year and were among those accepted from thousands of applications.

Y Combinator comes with a bit of funding and plenty of mentorship and access to Silicon Valley players. The subsequent seed funding that’s spurring growth was a direct result.

“This isn’t something we want to work on for a couple of years and sell,” says Avidar. “We want to build a lasting company that will have an impact for years.”

Ushering National Geographic Through the Digital Age

The man at the helm of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Geographic Society is not an explorer, photographer, or wildlife expert. But John Fahey, MBA ’75, has what National Geographic needs in the digital age — enough experience in publishing, entertainment, and cable TV battles to know you never get comfortable.

Even as he transitioned to chairman this year — he was CEO of National Geographic from 1998 to 2013 — he’s looking several moves ahead. The current cable TV business model has about five to 10 more years of life, in his opinion, and the NatGeo cable channels are a big source of revenue and engagement. He’s also eyeing the future of National Geographic’s famed photography and articles — What will people pay for online and what should be offered for free?

“Everyone understands the business models of the past and it works for everybody,” Fahey says. “But nobody has the magic formula for what comes next.” Dealing with what comes next is right in Fahey’s wheelhouse. He used every bit of the business and financial acumen he learned at Ross during his tenure at Time Warner Inc. He worked at HBO in the early days when it was a small money loser, and he helped launch the Cinemax channel. He also led Time Life, the book and music division of Time Warner, before joining National Geographic to first lead its for-profit ventures.

Taking overall command of nonprofit National Geographic also put his leadership skills to the test. Some resisted his moves to print the famed magazine in more languages and to launch the NatGeo cable channels. But change was needed to keep the famed organization relevant and serving its members.

It’s that sense of stewardship inherent in the National Geographic culture that drives Fahey.

“National Geographic isn’t just about media, it’s a mission,” he says. “It’s a mission to take care of the planet and its people. I’ve been fortunate to work for this remarkable organization that’s allowed me to see the world, and to help make it more relevant and stronger than when I arrived. I think it is, and I have to tell you it feels great.”