This is the first post in a series of profiles with student founders and entrepreneurs. Know someone I should feature? Email me.
Great founders love their products. If you can solve a problem for one person (ideally yourself), maybe you can solve it for others.
Jack McDermott, a junior at Tufts and founder of Balbus Speech, has done just that. While Balbus is growing into a special education technology company, its first products were targeted at a major pain point in Jack’s daily routine: his speech therapy. Jack stutters and realized that there was a better solution than a tape recorder in one hand and an iPod in the other.
Balbus has impacted thousands of lives since its launch in 2011. It’s used by students, parents, therapists, and educators to bring speech therapy with them wherever they are, in their pockets. Jack is also a recent recipient of the first seed investment made by Rough Draft Ventures, a student-run venture fund providing seed capital to student founders in Boston. He was overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Rough Draft is providing seed funding, office space, mentorship, and legal advice.
Jack and I spent a lot of time discussing what role Tufts has played in his success—almost none. He isn’t closely involved with student groups. He shares my skepticism about business plan competitions. Their emphasis on ideation and flashy presentations rather than traction is precisely the opposite of what he’s found so unique about Rough Draft and its strong emphasis on great products. These competitions, he said, “attract great ideas but don’t build great companies.” He praises Tufts only for its one credit independent study offering, which gives him time to work on Balbus with minimal administrative oversight. The opportunity is under-publicized and few students take advantage, he told me.
There’s something decidedly wrong when a young founder pursuing his passion is best served when a world-class university gets out of his way. The university has the capacity to pump much more funding and support into companies even younger than Balbus. Jack’s experience, however, suggests that this would be counterproductive. Balbus had substantial traction (thousands of downloads) before Rough Draft invested. Balbus has a growing product which needs a bigger team, better marketing, and more operational investments to continue that growth.
It’s unclear whether a similar influx of funds and resources is the best way to support brand new ventures. By successfully juggling other commitments (school, varsity lacrosse), bootstrapping his company, and building out his team himself, Jack proved that he could build and grow a great company. There’s some value to entrepreneurship being grueling, self-driven work. Only the best survive.
Keep up with Jack at @JackRMcDermott