CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER AND CO-FOUNDER, BLASTPOINT | PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
When Alison Alvarez was younger, her father bought screen printing equipment in hopes of encouraging her to start a T-shirt business. After seeing the family business lost to the government in his native Cuba, he was eager to see his daughter pursue entrepreneurship in the United States.
But Alvarez wasn’t convinced that this was the path she wanted. After earning a master’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, she became an expert in wrangling large data sets. She applied to business school thinking she would wind up in a large company, putting her analytical brain to work for someone else.
When Alvarez experienced a taste of entrepreneurship in some case competitions and classes, she realized that she might be destined to follow her father’s dream after all.
A James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Fellow, she co-founded BlastPoint in 2016 to make big data accessible to everyone. The company is the grand prize winner of the 2017 UpPrize competition and also won first place in the McGinnis Venture Competition.
Alvarez’s daughter, Ada — named for the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace — has helped test BlastPoint’s software to ensure that it’s user-friendly. Today, still in its infancy, BlastPoint serves 70 customers and offers three tiers of products.
What is your elevator pitch?
Our whole model is basically connecting data with humans. There’s tons and tons of data out there, but in a lot of ways, it’s not built with ordinary people in mind. I spent years building data for huge companies, mostly for sales people. I saw an opportunity in moving that data closer to people’s fingertips — especially in the form of maps, which are really great for human cognition. If you have a spreadsheet, you can’t see patterns and clusters, so it’s hard to see what’s going on. But when we showed mapping data to a client for the first time, it was like watching people put on their first pair of glasses. It’s my life’s goal to get that kind of reaction from people.
What was the “aha” moment?
That happened in my Entrepreneurial Alternatives class at the Tepper School. We were a private equity team that assessed a deal for a factory. I knew buying this factory at the amount we had to offer would only make sense if we ran three shifts, which was a real problem. I wanted to know if there would be enough people looking for work in rural Minnesota who would work a third shift and were within a 60-minute drive. As a person who had the background in geospatial analytics, I knew what I needed to build in order to get that answer. Then I took Entrepreneurship for High Growth Companies with Dave Mawhinney [associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship, executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship]. I had a team and was able to ask: Is there a real market for this data?
What skills did you have to learn to get this off the ground?
I have a master’s from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, so I had the software expertise — but I didn’t know what I was capable of. Finance and marketing were important skill sets to learn. I did all the accounting for our company for its first year.
I had to talk to investors and didn’t know the terminology until I went to the Tepper School. The Accelerate Leadership Center was so helpful to me in figuring out that I had this potential business. How do I get people to believe me, the communication part of it? I’m not an organized thinker, so the communications curriculum helped me get better at it. And negotiation skills helped me today while obtaining a quote to purchase private data for a customer.
What were your pivotal moments?
In the past couple of months, things have changed. We won $160,000 in prize money from a venture competition for companies that had a social mission. A big part of our mission is to help organizations, no matter how big or small, use data to reach their goals — including nonprofits. So that prize money was a big difference maker. I have five full-time employees and three part-timers now, and we have somebody who believes in us.
How about growth?
We are starting to move into much, much larger deals. By the end of this year, I expect to be in the range of $50,000 in monthly recurring revenue. Over the holidays, my co-founder and I decided to skip Christmas and build the two newest tools in our platform: a heat mapping system and a customer location system. Suddenly, it was profitable to reach into a new tier of customers.
What skills did you have to learn to keep things moving?
I’m learning to be a better manager. It’s high-stakes and there are a lot of things on the founding team’s shoulders. We need staff to assume some of that burden as we move higher up, but we need to make sure they’re listened to and valued. It’s good for them and good for us.
What is next for your company?
Right now, we are focusing on franchising and utilities. One of our franchising customers is moving into cities all across the United States, cities that their partners don’t know much about. So we’re helping them build data for that.
One area of untapped potential is predictive analytics. I recently went to an industry data convention. Even at the biggest companies, people don’t know what machine learning is. It can be scary, but it’s a huge opportunity. If you can use predictive analytics to say what’s going to happen in an area, it’s the Wild West right now — so much potential, but no specific leader. So there is an opportunity for smaller players like us to really make a dent in that potential market.
What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?
Knowing exactly who your customers are. We try to build systems that can be general enough to move across a number of potential industries. But when you market to an industry, you have to use their language. If you end up overgeneralizing, you don’t speak anyone’s language and it’s hard to make a sale.
How did business school help shape your company?
When I first arrived at business school, I thought I’d get a job with a company that had good benefits. But Dave Mawhinney saw something in me and said, “No — this is what you’re destined to do.” Competitions showed me I was good at being an entrepreneur, which was a total surprise to me. And now here I am: I work 20-plus hours on the weekends, if not more, and I feel like I’m spoiled for ever working another job that wasn’t for my own company.
What is the best advice you have received?
Empathy is a business skill. I can’t build good products if I’m building them for me, and I can’t sell products if I’m talking in a way that customers can’t understand. I learned how to gauge where people’s levels were and meet them there. Everybody has intelligence in them; it’s just different kinds for different people. This advice has helped me grow as a person.
What “big ideas” would you like to pursue next?
For us, it’s machine learning more than anything. We’re looking at things like route optimization. I’m lucky that I have a Carnegie Mellon computer science education, and my co-founder specialized in machine learning — so we have a toolbox to build things that get smarter as people use them. Our products can’t be black box; the data has to be engineered to help you retrace your steps. I think we have the right thinking to build intelligent systems that go with our database but also will support customer needs in the long term.