Three alumni entrepreneurs talk about going into business and the technical skills that helped them get there.
By Dan Tuohy
Steve Haas had an ear for music and a nose for business. He knew what he wanted to do during his years at Cornell University. Gavin McKay applied his expertise in a more traditional milieu before he had a professional epiphany and pursued a less conventional, more personal path. Cheryl Yeoh was working in New York when practical experience met opportunity and she went her own way. Once wedded, their personal drive and their formative educations transformed them into entrepreneurs. They are in different fields today, but they have much in common: They love a challenge. They love making a difference. And they love solving stubborn problems.
His great-grandfather was a mason who worked on some of Europe’s finest concert halls. His grandfather was a concert pianist and violinist who played in numerous orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra. His uncles were engineers, including one who would regularly quiz him as a kid on the three laws of thermodynamics. So destiny would find him early in life, and propel him as a versatile and industry-leading acoustical designer.
The elevator pitch. “I could say it very simply: We make spaces sound good. But there’s more to it than that. Basically what we look at is the quality of sound in a space, but also controlling the sound so that it’s not noisy or that sound doesn’t get from one space to another and interfere with any kind of functionality.”
Steve Haas has dedicated his life to making concert halls, museum spaces, home theaters, and private residences sound better. He has designed hundreds of acoustic spaces.
He has played a major role in the acoustic and audio designs for a wide variety of prestigious facilities, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Newseum, both in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in New York City.
It can be unsung work, and Haas is fine with that.
“I often tell people that when I do my job well, nobody notices.”
Haas works with architects and engineers, and other project members, to make sure that whatever solution is implemented works from a functional and technical standpoint, as well as from an aesthetic standpoint.
Haas and his team also work in audio system design to make sure the way that sound is delivered is appropriate. They are often involved with a project early on, and can be among the last on site to tweak and calibrate systems.
SH Acoustics has a proprietary “Concertino” system, which changes the acoustics of a place electronically. It is not a sound system, but more of an enhancement system, Haas explains.
“If you bring a musician, a cellist, or a pianist into a small place and you play naturally, it’s not going to sound like much. It’s going to sound like a small room. But by integrating our technology and our system in this space we can actually turn it into a virtual Carnegie Hall.”
The Newseum remains one of his signature projects. It was handed to him only two months after he launched his firm in 2003–after 14 years of working for a major consultancy. Completed in 2008, the Newseum may be the biggest project he may ever work on, and most complicated, given the size and number of technological exhibits.
“It was a challenging project but everything turned out incredibly well.”
Haas, a pianist, saxophonist, and electronic musician, does not often play professional gigs; but he does play in connection with his work. It’s very handy, he notes, to be able to sit down at a grand piano in a private studio to demonstrate the acoustics of an environment.
Haas has challenged himself since his days at Cornell Engineering.
There was not a lot opportunity to study sound at the time, so with the help of Professor Al George, he made his own. He basically created his own curriculum. His senior thesis was designing a recording studio for Cornell’s Music Department.
“It helped really introduce me to the industry and I never looked back from there,” he said. “I did not want to transfer out of Cornell to look for an acoustic engineering program. I really loved all that Cornell brought me and the opportunities to graduate from there, so I basically made my own path, so to speak, and it worked out. I certainly will be forever grateful because it has led to a very rewarding career.”
One friend went to Sonoma to become a winemaker. Another went to a start-up. Another became a Bain investment strategist. And Gavin McKay proceeded to work in consulting and marketing.
So there he was, in New York, a young man in love with the idea of getting ahead, when he realized his job was not stirring his creative energies. He applied to business school, having felt the pull of climbing the corporate ladder, and on a trip to California he got a taste of working for a start-up.
B-school would have to wait. His creative energies were firing, and he set out traveling the world. The farther abroad he went, the closer he came to purpose and meaningful living. “Getting so lost that you are kind of coming back to your core,” McKay describes it.
He made his way back home with a singular focus, an understanding that synergy has interplay in every single thing of import. It courses through his fitness company, Fusion Cross-Training: Heart. Muscle. Mind. “It’s the core of everything we do,” he said.
The exhilaration that comes with sense of place and purpose is one thing. Getting to launch is another. McKay still marvels at the challenge he took head-on.
“I’ll never forget how hard it was. The first piece was just getting a bank to give me a loan.”
The young entrepreneur eventually found a bank that was specializing in small lending. “The other hard part: just maintaining faith in yourself.”
His business was a different kind of fitness center—and he knew it would take time to build his brand.
Fusion Cross-Training has 12 employees at two locations: Philadelphia and Laurel, N.J. Heading into 2012, he was working on establishing two additional locations and becoming a franchise.
McKay is dedicated to group and personal training. Engagement is his key to success. There is coaching, counseling, and nutritional programming. His HMM Cross-Training (Heart. Muscle. Mind) features 30 minutes of cardio, 30 minutes of strength training, and then 15 minutes of yoga and stretching.
“We push people to do things in a smarter way, in a more efficient way, but in a harder way.”
His studio includes a cardio arena with treadmills, bikes, and rowing machines, and a separate area for the muscle and mind training.
“We kind of take you on a journey every time,” he said.
As he plans growth in 2012, he is putting himself through paces he first took at Cornell.
“I took ‘Entrepreneurship for Engineers’,” he said, recalling learning to approach everything in a structured way, to assess and evaluate. “It was the best course I ever took. It was exactly what you need. Above and beyond the best course I ever took.”
At one point in 2010 she had signed up for eight different daily deal websites and purchased close to 40 vouchers, everything from restaurant deals to spa treatments. So many that this highly organized person started to lose track of them.
So she created a tab on her food blog where she could list her growing number of deals. Friends quickly noticed and touted the value of a place to organize and track daily deals.
“That made me think,” she recalls in a light-bulb moment, “‘Hey, there should be a product for this.”
So the hands-on, practical user emerged as visionary: CityPockets, a “digital wallet” and secondary marketplace for online deals and discounts, was born.
“I like to say that I created the product to solve my own problem and it happened to work for a lot of other people.”
Before launching CityPockets, Yeoh was a management consultant for KPMG and Opera Solutions—with a focus in strategy, marketing, and operations. It wasn’t what she thought it’d be, especially during the economic downturn. She wanted to make a real impact in the world and launching a tech company seemed like a good way to do that.
The research, design, and development of a prototype came next. She and CityPockets co-founder Jhony Fung ’05 CS, then a senior developer at IBM Technology, logged many hours investigating the idea and crafting a user-friendly interface. After two months, they launched the beta version. A couple hundred friends joined, and it took off.
CityPockets tracks a user’s daily deals, sending reminders to use them before they expire. It currently supports more than 40 deal sites, including Groupon, LivingSocial, BuyWithMe, and restaurant.com.
Yeoh estimates 40 percent of CityPockets traffic comes from word of mouth. “That’s when you know you have a product that fills a need in the market,” she says.
In a logical extension of its service, CityPockets launched a secondary marketplace in April 2010 to help users sell vouchers they can no longer use. A quarter of users now profit from reselling vouchers, but at its core, CityPockets remains a digital wallet, according to Yeoh. “We’re the best organizer out there and that’s why people come to our site,” she said.
“People are putting money down for a daily deal—pre-paying for a service with an expiration date—and they need a helping hand to manage this new form of currency,” she said. “If you don’t use it in a given time you’re throwing your money away and nobody wants that.”
Yeoh has enjoyed watching her first Internet start-up take off. She continues to study the market as well as field user feedback. Heading into 2012, Yeoh estimated there were about 400 daily deal sites—with CityPockets established as the go-to organizer. The company has found plenty of investors who agree, raising $770,000 in seed funding.
In a way, Yeoh has returned to her business roots. She launched her first business when she was 8, manufacturing and selling a traditional game to school friends in her native Malaysia. She kept at it, even when she encountered obstacles from school administrators.
“The story there,” she said, “is to really put yourself out there, never give up, and don’t let anybody discourage you from realizing your passions.” cem