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The New Deals


By Becky Ebenkamp

Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM

What's the Wise Idea?

Do entrepreneurs have a patent on innovation? Depends on whom you ask.

Stengel notes several big brand innovators, including Burberry, whose interactive London store engages shoppers, and Delta, which has embraced mobile. “Google, of course, is constantly innovating, as is Amazon,” he notes.

But Kawasaki — now chief evangelist of online graphic design tool Canva — is hard-pressed to name names of large companies leading the way.

“Apple led the pack before, but it’s fallen behind,” he laments. “I’d say that adapting innovative ideas is still the domain of start-ups: They don’t know what they don’t know, so they try more risky ideas.”

UCLA alumni are at the forefront of innovations that impact their fields and alter the way people shop for everything from financial services to pet care.


Keith Chen

For dog lover Hirschhorn, necessity was the mother of invention. He found entrepreneurial inspiration after returning from a 10-day trip and learning of Rocky and Rambo’s Unfortunate Kennel Experience: “Our bill was $1,400, and one of my dogs hid under my desk for two days!” Hirschhorn recalls.

In 2012, he launched DogVacay, a more humane and affordable kennel alternative that pairs pet owners with one of 15,000 carefully screened hosts/sitters. With 500,000 nights booked and $15 million in new investment, the web-based dog-sitting network is disrupting pet services and Hirschhorn’s main competitors: 1) kennels and 2) your friends and family. (See “Dog Days,” UCLA Magazine, January 2013, for more on his business.)

Technology helped The Bouqs reinvent the floral supply chain. The e-retailer eliminates waste by bypassing the industry’s many middlemen and delivering directly from farm to consumer.

Tabis launched in 2012 with a novel notion: Buying flowers should be simple, transparent and affordable. Cut on order, they are sourced from Ecuador — eliminating the waste of one out of three stems that occurs in conventional flower retailing.

“We’re the opposite of Amazon,” Tabis says. “We use technology to offer an on-demand service.”

The JOBS Act (a 2012 bill to loosen regulations on small-business investment) included regulatory-rule changes that make this prime time to upset stale financial sector processes. In 2009, Thomas Foley ’06 cofounded Xpert Financial — which markets Xpert ATS, an online platform for investing in private companies — with fellow Bruin Adam Draper ’12. Foley also cofounded Venovate, an online platform where accredited investors can access alternative assets, such as real estate, natural resources and venture capital.

On the B2B side, TargetClose devised an “intelligent routing” system that enables direct-response sites to tailor each visitor’s experience.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you, me and my grandmother get the exact same website experience,” says Kelly Perdew J.D./M.B.A. ’96, co-founder and CEO — and winner of The Apprentice 2. “Our technology learns individual buyer intent and gives each person a different user experience by responding with the optimal offer, content and product recommendations.”

TargetClose uses “anything knowable” to know us better: browser and device types, whether there are media playing, the search term, or whether the visitor searched at all.


Caprice Willard

Boston Retail Partners, an independent retail management consulting firm, observed a disconnect among retailers. While 95 percent consider customer engagement a top initiative, only 3 percent can identify shoppers via their smartphones when they walk in the door.

Meet the outlier: Macy’s. Caprice Willard ’94 is vice president/regional planning manager of women’s apparel for the retailer’s Southwest region, about 100 stores. As liaison between them and Macy’s HQ, her eyes and ears — and excellent analytics — ensure that each store stocks the best assortment for its shoppers.

“We are the voice of the customer, and we tailor every single retail area to that customer,” Willard says, explaining the art and science of slicing and dicing shopper data and gleaning insights. If one store always runs out of size 4 jeans in Brand X, Macy’s adjusts the local mix. Macy’s even made Fast Company’s 2014 “World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Retail” for “mainstreaming everywhere retail.”

“People are so busy now,” explains Willard. “They want to be able to shop wherever and whenever, and omni-channel opportunities allow them to click and get what they want on a mobile device.”

Kyle Cobb ’06, M.B.A. ’12 works as a product manager at an innovative solar installation company, SunPower Corporation. Last year, he and his partners’ company Greenbotics was acquired by SunPower. Greenbotics developed a robotic vehicle system called CleanFleet that automates solar-panel cleaning at power plants.

The innovation? A cost- and time-saving technology, since dirty panels can lose 15 percent of their energy yield.