Alice helps entrepreneurs get ahead via AI and machine learning
When Carolyn Rodz started her first business, she didn’t know much about being an entrepreneur. And as with a lot of first-timers, she didn’t know what she didn’t know, causing her to feel her way along. She made many mistakes.
“I learned every lesson I could the hard way,” Rodz said, “and the expensive way.”
After starting two more businesses — a digital marketing and public relations company and a virtual startup accelerator aimed at female founders — she sought to create something that would help other entrepreneurs wandering in the startup desert.
And that gave rise to Alice, a database of resources that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to serve just the right information to startup founders at just the right time, based on who they are and what stage they’re at in the launch process. Co-founded with Elizabeth Gore, Alice is accessed through a website at https://helloalice.com.
“Alice is the answer to what I wish I had access to when I started my first company,” Rodz said.
Since its debut in May 2017 at Dell-EMC World, a conference hosted by the Round Rock-based technology company, Alice has drawn a steady stream of attention and press. It has also attracted some big-name money: Alice was the first for-profit investment by Melinda Gates, the wife of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and her Pivotal Ventures. She dropped $200,000 into Alice in its early stage, throwing a spotlight on the project.
Also investing in Alice: Jean Case, wife of AOL founder Steve Case. The couple have both directed their efforts at startups in neglected communities and those outside the traditional tech hotbeds on the East and West coasts.
So far, Alice has raised more than $1.6 million in equity financing, Rodz said, and fundraising is still underway.
Rodz, who lives with her husband, Oliver, in Houston, has focused Alice on communities that often lack resources for launching startups. The platform is aimed at women, minorities, the disabled and LGTQ communities, as well as veterans. But anyone can sign up and take advantage of its deep trove of information and opportunities.
So far, Alice has been a big draw. Rodz estimates that the platform “touches over 100,000 entrepreneurs daily,” and it’s an international audience. The resources categorized on Alice are grouped by city, with Amsterdam, Houston, Austin, Omaha, New York and Toronto in the mix.
And Rodz says it is hitting the target audience. So far, 76 percent of its users are women; 58 percent are non-white; 3.3 percent are LGBTQ; 2.7 percent have disabilities; 3.6 percent are affiliated with the military.
“Entrepreneurs are dealing with the same issues at the end of the day,” Rodz said, “but everyone’s path is so different.”
And that aspect is where Alice’s use of AI and machine learning comes in.
Users who sign up on the site fill out a profile and are asked a series of questions about where they are in the startup process. As they return, they are asked for more information, and that’s where Alice’s machine learning kicks in.
“They’ll see things that are relevant to what that user wants, based on what we have seen works for people with a similar profile,” Rodz said. “We look at the business goals in their profile, and that’s where we focus.”
So, someone who just has a basic idea for a business or product but no clue about where to turn sees a different set of resources from someone who has a business plan but doesn’t know the first thing about wooing investors.
Alice works with partner organizations in each city to provide resources, vetting those that apply to be part of the platform’s database. In addition, Alice has an area devoted to online communities that, for now, are extensions of existing, in-real-life entities. Eventually, Rodz says, open communities will become an important part of Alice, but for now all groups are private.
The amount of information Alice has gathered about its users and the resources they use is valuable, and one of the ways the platform makes money is by selling that information in aggregate to many of the governmental entities, universities and corporations that provide startup resources. Rodz stresses that individual user data is never shared, just data at the macro level.
“We care about the entrepreneur first, at every level,” she said.
Alice also hosts events and meetups in the cities it serves to provide resources in real life and raise awareness. That’s how Amanda Ducach, the Houston-based founder of a mobile app called Social Mama, discovered the platform.
“I take biweekly walks around Memorial Park and stumbled across a gathering where they were talking about the platform,” Ducach said.
Ducach was a year into the startup process with Social, which began as a way for mothers to find each other network on everything from parenting to business, when she found Alice.
“I wish I had had some of those resources right when I was starting out,” she said.
As it was, Ducach said, Alice was able to help her with finding money.
“Alice helped me get over some of the investing humps. It’s awkward to find investors when you have not been down that path before,” she said.
Alice also led her to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual conference aimed at raising the profile of women in technology, which was held in Houston this year. Social Mama was featured there, and Ducach learned about grants that, as a Latina, she could apply for.
“I would not have known about these grants if it was not for Alice,” Ducach said. “That alone made it worth it for me. It saved me thousands of dollars.”