Biz Launch Program Seeks Applicants For Next Cohort

Graduates of last year's Founder Institute cohort (from left): Iqbal Ashraff (Mentors Guild) Jon Shear (ReadyZoneHQ), Jared Eden (Holoplex), Michael Gifford (Dodecki) and Brittany Jones (Illium) | Photo by Russel Cheng

Graduates of last year’s Founder Institute cohort (from left): Iqbal Ashraff (Mentors Guild) Jon Shear (ReadyZoneHQ), Jared Eden (Holoplex), Michael Gifford (Dodecki) and Brittany Jones (Illium) | Photo by Russel Cheng

Last summer, 21 hopeful individuals stepped into the Manoa Innovation Center to share their ideas and aspirations to start their own companies as first-time founders. By the fall, five of them emerged as business owners with all the trappings of a company – they went from having an idea to producing a product or service as an incorporated business. Some already have clients and are generating revenue.

As the first graduates of the Honolulu chapter of Founder Institute – an entrepreneur training and startup launch program with chapters worldwide – these newly minted entrepreneurs went through an intense (nine out of the 21 quit or were kicked out in the first week alone) process, in which they refined their ideas, developed their product or service, and attracted early funding and customers.

“The reason that Founder Institute was started was because it is very difficult for first-time founders to get started and launch their company,” explains Russel Cheng, who co-directs Founder Institute’s Honolulu chapter with Brent Kakesako, chief operating officer of Hawaii Alliance for Community-Based Economic Development. “The default of starting a company is failure. There is no question about it.

“They come in with an idea – and through the Founder Institute program, we help shape that idea and form a company around it,” Cheng adds.

Founder Institute begins its next semester June 25 and currently is accepting applications (due June 1) for its second cohort. The semester lasts 13 weeks with classes held Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30 at ZenWorx in Kakaako (685 Auahi St.). During that time, founders are actively working to build their business, including conducting market research, developing a revenue model, tackling intellectual property laws, recruiting team members, identifying and attracting paying customers, and garnering investors. Throughout the semester, founders also will be coached by visiting mentors – all of whom are founders/CEOs themselves – and the co-directors.

Cheng hopes that by the end of the semester, each student can “build their own dream company.”

When it comes to starting businesses, Cheng knows his stuff – he’s launched several successful ones. While studying finance at UH Manoa, he took a break from “surfing and chasing girls” long enough to launch two companies: an import/export service and a graphic design business.

After graduation, following stints at a Tokyo business magazine and in corporate communications, Cheng worked for an ad agency, where he started building websites for various companies. Capitalizing on the early days of the Internet, he later launched his own company, and then a second, doing Internet consulting. When he moved back to Hawaii in 2007, he launched two more companies: an e-book rental startup, followed by Web developer bootcamp Dev League (which he still runs).

Soon Cheng was tapped to launch the Honolulu chapter of Founder Institute. Compared to its counterparts in other parts of the country, the entrepreneurial community in Hawaii is still very new and relatively small, according to Cheng.

“We are trying to do our part in building up the startup community,” he says.

While the Silicon Valley-based Founder Institute has its origins in tech, it is open to any type of business. The success stories from last year include ReadyZoneHQ, a disaster-preparedness website targeting small businesses; Mentor’s Guild, a consulting service for business executives; Holoplex, which allows virtual gaming to be a shared experience; Dodecki, which enables restaurant customers to make orders and payments from their phones; and Illium, a library for romance e-books.

Cheng recalls a somewhat goofy collection of aspiring founders with messy business pitches when the group entered Founder Institute. But by the end, he says, “they transformed.

“They’re essentially CEOs. They come in with an idea, and they graduate as CEOs of their own company. It was so inspiring and so uplifting to see that journey week in and week out, and to see their progress. We get the privilege of watching that and participating in their journey – that is such a rush!”

For more information and to get an idea of what a typical class at Founder Institute is like, stop by Sullivan Center at Iolani School May 14 at 6:30 p.m. for a lecture by pitch adviser Tyler Crowley. To RSVP, visit

For more information on Founder Institute, visit To apply for the next semester, visit