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Venture builders


Unstuck Labs helps startups take it to the next level

Unstuck Labs is a multidimensional small business that helps early-stage startups take their ideas to the next level through their three-month accelerator program. They're also a digital agency that provides companies with a variety of technical services, including website and mobile app development. And the founders are entrepreneurs and dreamers in their own right: They launch their own products and invest in other companies, as well. The Rosslyn BID sat down with Unstuck Labs CEO and Cofounder Wa'il Ashshowwaf at Spaces in Rosslyn to find out more about their work. 

Rosslynva.org: Can you tell me a little bit about Unstuck Labs?

Wa'il Ashshowwaf: We consider ourselves venture builders. We do three things. First, we’re a startup accelerator focusing on early-stage startups. We work with founders who have an idea that no one cares about and we make people care about it. Second, we're a digital agency, so people can come to us for websites, mobile apps, prototyping and design work. Finally, we're entrepreneurs, so we own our own companies, launch our own products and invest in other companies.

Rosslynva.org: How big is your team?

WA: We're pretty lean. We have a core team of seven people here as well as four developers in Panama. Then, at any given time, we have three or four interns who join us from all over the world. This helps to create more diversity of ideas and diversity of networks. We've had about 19 different backgrounds and ethnicities represented in the last year. Our interns typically spend three or four months. So, at any given time we have 10-12 people here, not including the startups.

Rosslynva.org: So, your business has three distinct arms. Is one more important than the others?

WA: The accelerator is our passion. We love seeing ideas come to life. They create value and jobs and opportunities and learning. Our motivation for starting the accelerator was twofold. First, we realized that it's very hard for early-stage startups to get help and find a place that will invest in them and help them grow. Plus, there was a diversity issue in the tech space. Less than 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to women and people of color. We spent a year researching the problem and found that most people find accelerators intimidating. They think of a shark tank. Another issue is that the people running accelerators aren't very diverse. So, even if you joined an accelerator that was all women, they weren't diverse women, so their networks weren't diverse either and they didn't reach out to as many people to feed into them. We decided to create an accelerator that would reduce barriers for everyone.

Rosslynva.org: How does your accelerator reduce barriers?

WA: One thing we've done is change the financial incentives for early-stage startups. So, instead of making it a competition where startups apply, get $10,000 to start their company and then don't know how to spend it, we charge them a small fee to be here for three months and deliver them a startup. We build them a website and a mobile app prototype. We get them incorporated. By the time they're done, they actually have a company. Our services are on average 50-80 percent cheaper than if they had someone build them a website, build them a first version of a mobile prototype, and then did coursework on their own. We do everything they need to do while they're here. 

Rosslynva.org: How do you choose the startups you work with?

WA: They have to qualify. For our first cohort, we got 120 applications online. Of those, we accepted six out of 120. We meet with the founders, talk about ideas, and give them some homework before we accept them. For instance, some say they know a lot of people would use their services. So we challenge them. We say, 'Ok, can you get us three letters of support from three customers?' We want them to have to put in some effort to come here. They apply online, interview in person and if it's a mutual fit, we move forward.

Rosslynva.org: What makes a startup stand out to you?

WA: The idea matters almost the least. These companies are all so early stage that we really just don't know yet. We look for resilience. Does a person have a track record of failing and coming back? If someone has failed multiple times, we see that as a positive. If they're trying and learning, that's good. Also, are they risking something to do this? There must be a cost for them to fail. Finally, is a person coachable? Some people are really smart and have good ideas but they just want somebody to execute their idea. They don't want to be told they're wrong. So, we look for someone who's coachable and resilient, and who has a track record of failing and overcoming challenges. 

Rosslynva.org: How did you start this company? What's your background?

WA: I went to school for marketing as an undergrad in California. I worked for Pepsi and Walt Disney World. I wanted to be in advertising and marketing, but I jumped into finance. I worked for the global bank HSBC and spent 14 years in commercial banking. I worked in New York, London, D.C. and throughout the Northeast. I was part of the division that did embassy banking, government accounts, and things like that. The nice thing about that job is that I dealt with a lot of different businesses and I learned a lot. At the same time, I'm a super tech geek. I love technology. After 14 years in banking, one day I just left the bank and joined a startup that was an idea on a napkin. It was for no pay and everyone was 15-20 years younger than me. I decided I wanted to learn everything. I designed an app, built it, and helped with fundraising and getting our first product out. The company succeeded and now has 20 employees. Other startups took notice and asked me how I did it. That was the genesis of Unstuck Labs.

Rosslynva.org: Have you had any other experiences an entrepreneur?

WA: Yes. I've had many, many failed starts. In college I tried to open a computer shop in 1990. In 1993 I tried to open a nonprofit that gets clean drinking water to Africa. I had an Amazon-type of business before Amazon existed. So I've always tinkered on the fringes of entrepreneurship. 

Rosslynva.org: Can you tell me a bit about your weekly meetup, Unstuck Tuesdays.

WA: Unstuck Tuesdays is basically an open house every week. Anyone can come. It's two hours and we don't try to sell people anything. We don't turn anyone away. We just help. We wanted to give people an easy way to share their ideas. They see that being in an accelerator is not that hard, and it kind of lowers the barrier to people who might be intimidated by accelerators. 

Rosslynva.org: You said Unstuck Labs' founders are entrepreneurs, and that you launch your own companies and products yourselves. Can you give me an example of something you've done? 

WA: We're really passionate about a product we created called Reyets, a social justice app we developed completely in-house. It helps people to understand the law and document potential rights abuses and tie them to the location where they are so they can be connected with help. You can record what's happening and the app will walk you through how to handle a difficult situation. It will tell you, 'Ok, an ICE agent needs a warrant. See if the warrant is signed by a judge. If it's not signed by a judge, don't give consent. If they make you come in anyway, don't resist, just document, be calm, don't lie. . . .' When you close the app, you can go to a list and find help. It can connect you with a lawyer or news media. Fast Company named Reyets one of 2018's World Changing Ideas.

How did you end up here at Spaces in Rosslyn?

WA: We've been here since November 2017. We were in Clarendon at MakeOffices before that. I've lived in the D.C. area for 10 years. I moved here from San Francisco. We like being in Rosslyn because we're so well connected to D.C. and Virginia. It feels like we're basically in the city. Plus, Rosslyn is a dynamic place. Large corporations are here, but there's also a good population of small startups and consumers, as well. So, this is the right mix of convenient and growing. It's been very effective for us. 

More info: Unstuck Labs

Related event: Unstuck Tuesdays Meetup: Take action and launch your startup 

Photo at top: Unstuck Labs CEO and Cofounder Wa'il Ashshowwaf with one of the company's interns in their startup lab at Spaces in Rosslyn. Above, Wa'il's office, where wall decorations include a copy of the U.S. Constitution and a poster for Reyets, a social justice app created by Unstuck Labs that helps people understand their rights and document any potential rights abuses. The app was named a World Changing Idea by Fast Company.
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