My University of Maryland Transfer Application Essay

I applied to college the other day.

You might remember that about a year ago I asked the internet what I should do — return to university or not.

Most respondents said I should go back to school.

I’m excited to share (a year later) that I have taken the first step towards making that a reality. I’ve applied to become a part-time student at the University of Maryland.

I had a lot of fun writing my essay and I’m excited to share it here, online. The University of Maryland transfer application has no prompt. It’s pretty “wide-open”. The only restriction is a 300 word limit. It was a challenge to create a compelling argument in so few words. Hopefully I did.

The “prompt”

Please describe your past academic experiences and your reasons for wishing to enroll to Maryland at this point in your academic career. Students who have been out of school for several years, or who have a personal circumstance that affected performance, may wish to address that situation in their essay. Your essay should be no more than 300 words.

The essay

The University of Maryland has embraced the “Fearless Ideas” mantra. “Fearless ideas ignite bold invention.” “Fearless ideas drive passionate leaders.” “Fearless ideas launch daring ventures.” It is undeniable that fearless ideas are at the core of the University’s mission and vision.

At 21 years old I am fortunate to have experience pursuing “fearless ideas” — I founded a company from my dorm room while in college. Yet, one thing I am missing is a strong academic foundation. I’m excited to combine my experience with a world-class education.

In the past I have struggled to take schoolwork seriously, yet now with experience under my belt, I feel more prepared than ever to dedicate myself to the challenge. I am applying to the University of Maryland initially as a non-degree seeking student to help me pursue my own fearless ideas.

In December of 2014, my mother was diagnosed with a rare form of late stage lung cancer. When she told me, I knew that I needed to be at home to give and receive support. I withdrew from the University of Pittsburgh to live full-time at home in Maryland.

In the nearly two years since, I have started my career. I joined an established company called MarketSmart, founded by a University of Maryland alum, Greg Warner.

At MarketSmart I started as a graphic designer and web programmer — skills I had taught myself while in high school. Since then, my role has evolved. Now, I oversee an entirely new department that I helped create. I was given an opportunity to pursue a fearless idea, and I ran with it. Along the way I learned that it takes hard work to turn a fearless idea into a successful reality.

Returning to college is my latest fearless idea. I can’t wait to get started.

The decision

I was accepted as a student to the University of Maryland. I declined to attend.

One Year Later — Launching the Fundraising Report Card!

Back in October of 2015 I wrote an article titled Notes From Creating a New Product. In that post I shared my excitement about beginning to work with Greg Warner, the CEO of MarketSmart on a new software. Today I’m even more excited to share an update on our progress.

If you’ve chatted with me in person, I’ve probably tried to explain to you what the Fundraising Report Card is. But, to be entirely honest, I most likely left you feeling confused — I struggle to describe what I’ve been working on for all these months. By writing it out here I hope that I’ll be a little more effective in sharing what exactly I’ve been up to.

What is it

The Fundraising Report Card is a business intelligence and data analysis tool. The Fundraising Report Card empowers nonprofits to make data-driven decisions.

Data-driven decision making is such a buzz phrase, so let’s breakdown what it really means. And, more importantly, what it implies in the context of fundraising at nonprofit organizations.

First though, I need to share a brief overview of how donations work.

When you donate $20 to Save the Children (or any nonprofit organization) 35% (sometimes more, sometimes less) of that money goes towards overhead expenses. Overhead expenses include paying for consultants, investing in infrastructure, and sending letters to you asking for more money. (Yes, it’s a tough reality, but your donations are part of what gets invested in the “fundraising budget”). In a perfect world all $20 of your donation would go straight to the children that need to be saved — but in reality there are operating costs that need to be paid.

Okay, with that in mind let me frame how important data-driven decision making really is.

Right now, in this very moment your favorite nonprofit is spending thousands and thousands of dollars on direct mail appeals to try and raise more funds from you. There is nothing wrong with that (although some people might argue otherwise), they need to raise money and they need to ask you (and others) to help. Fine.

Behind the scenes most nonprofits are relying on a consultant (or a consulting firm) to help them decide who to mail to and what to mail to them — should this letter with a picture of a starving kid go to this list of donors or that list? This makes sense, right?

Like any good business the nonprofit wants a sound strategy before taking any action. Spending an extra $5,000 or $10,000 on a consultant to try and make sure you get the highest return on investment (ROI) makes sense.

This is the current system — hire a consultant, send out a bunch of mail, wait for results. You experience it, I experience it, it’s kind of shitty from the donor perspective to be honest (you end up with a lot of letters in the recycle can). Of course there are different techniques for different segments of donors (major donors don’t get mailed letters, they get a fundraising officer at their doorstep), but the process is generally the same.

It should be apparent that there are a few obvious issues with the current fundraising paradigm.

The Fundraising Report Card disrupts this pattern.

A user of the Fundraising Report Card (usually a fundraiser or executive at the nonprofit, but also consultants) uploads anonymous donor data to the Report Card. With this data the Report Card calculates fundraising key performance metrics. Also known as, “really important statistics we should have been monitoring and analyzing for the past few years”.

Here’s an example, taken straight from the for-profit sector — customer retention broken down by engagement channel. Think about it for a moment, what do you think the odds are that Netflix keeps track of how many users they retain each month? High, right? They have shareholders to report to every quarter, and you better believe those shareholders want to know how many users Netflix has been retaining. (More on this here).

Internally, Netflix may break down that metric even further. They might segment the data by plan type and demographic information. What is our retention rate among users paying $20 or more a month on the east coast?

Answers to questions like these help inform strategy and are fundamental in setting realistic goals.

Yet, when it comes to the nonprofit sector a void exists. Sure, data abounds, but how can a fundraiser, executive director, or director of development really be asked “what channel provides your best ROI?”, most don’t have the tools to answer that question. And if they have the tools, they are not easy to use. They are inconvenient and clumsy… not to mention expensive. This is the void that the Fundraising Report Card fills.

By providing fundraisers, executive directors, consultants, and and even board members with access to easy to comprehend key metrics and interactive reports, we’ve created a platform that allows for data to be a vital part of decision making.

For example, we generate a retention analysis report, just like the one Netflix would use internally. And, one of the great things we do right off the bat is segment that data by giving level. Users can take it one step further and upload historical data based around specific appeals, and before they know it, they are taking a peek under the hood of their fundraising machine.

http://imarketsmart.wistia.com/medias/o3evobpit8?embedType=async&videoFoam=true&videoWidth=640

How is our donor retention among mid-level donors who have received our end of year appeal letter? With the Fundraising Report Card the nonprofit can answer that question, and depending on the answer they can adjust their strategy. Ultimately the nonprofit cuts costs and invests in fundraising efforts that prove to have the highest ROI. Cool, right?

You can learn more about the Fundraising Report Card here, and you can read a short case study from one of our early users here.

What I’ve been doing

Since August of 2015 I’ve been working with Greg to develop our strategy for the Fundraising Report Card. Beginning in January of this year, I was given the resources (money, time, people) and the responsibility (hit deadlines, set product demonstrations, build my network) to take this idea and make it into a reality.

On April 4th 2016 we launched the beta version of the Fundraising Report Card. Leading up to that event I spent most of my time focused on product development. I consider this my “product manager” phase. A lot of my time was spent on:

  • developing a product road map
  • determining which features would be included in which release
  • managing expectations of key stakeholders
  • learning about software as a service business models
  • reaching out to industry leaders who were interested in providing feedback and testing
  • designing the logo and front-end of the application
  • and writing a lot of Angular and JavaScript code (user interface stuff)

The objective early on was to get a minimal, functional, viable product in the hands of our potential users. We started working towards our April 4th release date at the end of February. We hit our deadline and we got plenty of engaged users to test it out. We found a lot of bugs, got a lot of great suggestions and learned a ton about the market we were trying to position ourselves in.

After the initial product was out in the wild I pivoted my focus towards getting people to use it. And, most importantly, getting those people to talk to me. This was, and still is part of the “collect feedback” phase. I’ve spent a lot of time…

  • reaching out to people on LinkedIn
  • setting up screen-share demonstrations
  • holding phone calls with existing users
  • hosting webinars with industry groups
  • configuring automated emails to nurture and engage users
  • and playing the role of “support agent” on our live-chat widget

Today my role has evolved even more. Elements from the product management, and collecting feedback stages are still part of my day-to-day, but now I have started the transition into “sales”.

This stage has involved a lot of…

  • researching pricing psychology
  • developing relationships with potential “partners” (consultants, consulting firms, data CRM companies)
  • organizing sales materials
  • building the foundation of a sales funnel (deal stages, workflows, etc.)
  • writing marketing and sales copy
  • talking with more and more users
  • and getting people (nonprofits) to give me their money

Sounds kind of fun, right?

Moving forward

Taking the Fundraising Report Card from idea to fruition has been an educational, challenging, and unbelievably fun process. Yet, the most exciting and compelling moment so far has been receiving supportive feedback from users.

For example, I recently I completed our first case study. The client, the Director of Philanthropy at a multinational relief organization with over $60 million in annual budget, used our beta tool and had a great, positive experience.

Creating that case study meant talking with the client and learning how they used our platform. Hearing their Director’s comments and learning how powerful our software was for them made me feel vindicated.

Receiving positive feedback is some sort of validation for all the work our team has put into this project. For me personally it has helped frame how important what we are working on really is.

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fundraising Report Card please take a look at our website (press play on the video and you’ll even get to hear my voice!).

If you have any questions for me, like, “Zach, how the hell did you end up making some data analysis tool for nonprofits?” please don’t hesitate to reach out.

And finally, if you want to learn more about the nonprofit sector and how you can make an impact check out some of these resources…

Why Do I Check My Phone so Much?

In light of today’s article from the Wall Street Journal, Cellphone-Cancer Link Found in Government Study, I’ve come to question why exactly I spend so much time on my phone.

I don’t even have it that bad. I read a different article from The Washington Post a few days ago titled, 13, right now — This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing, which put into perspective what I thought was my constant use of a phone. (Turns out I’m actually not that bad).

It seems like people are always looking at a screen. When they drive, when they go to bed,  when they are with their friends — sometimes I really don’t get it. But, I’m a part of it. This phone-mania has led me to question why I participate.

Half of the time I don’t have a notification to check but I still swipe right to unlock my iPhone. Why?

Because being on your phone is like playing the scratch-off lottery. Every time I check Instagram I’m playing the odds. “Who could have posted a new picture?” I might ask myself.

Swipe right. Unlock the phone. Open my aptly named “Social” folder. Tap Instagram. Pull down to refresh. Swipe down 3 times. Close the app. Lock the phone.

I do that at least 50 damn times a day. It’s the same process as buying a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Go to the store. Buy a ticket. Go back to the car. Take a picture and post to your Snapchat Story. Grab a quarter. Scratch the first section. Scratch a few more. Crumple the ticket. Throw away the trash.

I’m telling you, its the same exact thing. So what is the psychology behind my behavior? If I don’t care about the photos why do I check? Is it addiction? Is it obsession? Is it to avoid interacting with people around me?

Man, writing that down really makes it sound like I have a problem. But if everyone is doing it then I guess it can’t be so bad?

Addiction

I just did it again. I’m sitting here writing this article and I just picked up my phone and went to Instagram. This is incredibly painful to write.

What would happen if you tallied up the number of times you checked your phone in a single day? How high do you think the count would get? 100? 200? 500 unlocks?

I’ve been keeping track during this past hour and I’m already at 27. This is humbling.

So, am I addicted? Do I check my phone to get pleasure or satisfaction?

If the answer to that question was yes, that would qualify as addition. But for now, in this very moment I don’t think that’s the case, at least I hope not.

But reading the textbook definition of addiction is making me start to question my initial reaction.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

I can’t sit here and type this without admitting that as I read the first line I said, “oh shit” in my head. Can I “consistently abstain” from checking my phone? Give me a second, let me tweet that to my followers to ask.

So maybe I’m addicted — but everyone else is too. At least I’m not obsessed, right?

Obsession

I’ve managed to not open my phone for about 20 minutes now. I think it is because I am making a conscious effort not to. I put it on silent and that’s helping. This is difficult.

What alarms me the most about how I interact with my cell-phone is how numbing it is. When I unlock my iPhone I generally have no objective, I’m just unlocking it to unlock it.

I’ve never kept track of how many times a day I unlock my phone and then simply close it. (I’m honestly afraid to even try). But I’ve read a few articles that try and make sense of this nonsensical behavior. They tend to point back to obsession.

The main driver in these articles is FOMO (fear of missing out). I don’t think that’s why I open the Facebook app — I truly, genuinely don’t. But for many people, the anxiety and fear of missing something cool or important can drive their obsession to check their phone.

I’m not afraid of missing out on something from Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook — at least I don’t consciously think I am. Yet I still check constantly.

To be entirely honest, I’m afraid to look up the definition of obsession. I’m nervous that I’ll realize that I actually am obsessed. Here it goes anyway…

An obsession is the inability of a person to stop thinking about a particular topic or feeling a certain emotion without a high amount of anxiety. When obsessed, an individual continues the obsession in order to avoid the consequent anxiety.

I was right to be scared, but I don’t think I’m obsessed. I’m not checking my phone to quell anxiety, I’m simply checking it to check it. Maybe I am obsessed and I just don’t realize it.

It’s tough to argue that you aren’t obsessed when you justify your behavior with, “I’m simply checking it to check it”. Oh man.

Shielding

Section three of this article and I only took a 10 minute phone break before coming back to my desk. That’s good!! I checked Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Seriously, LinkedIn. What the hell am I doing??

I don’t need to look up a “definition” of shielding to know that I do it. I use my phone as an excuse to not interact with others way to often.

But this is where things get really scary yet unbelievably interesting.

I find it really odd that I behave in this way, that I shield myself from others. I am an outgoing, gregarious person. I’m not shy, I’m not that socially awkward, and I get along well with most people. Yet time and time again I find myself consumed with my phone’s screen, especially when surrounded by strangers.

Being inline at the grocery store comes to mind immediately. I can’t think of a moment when I am not on my phone while waiting for a cashier. Think of all the missed opportunities to meet interesting people. I shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, there are some really weird people there! Instead of interacting with those that surround me I’m on my phone.

Why do I do that? Why do I consciously avoid interacting with the people who are near me?

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think I avoid real social interaction to instead concentrate on digital social interaction. Ugh, that was tough to write.

Why don’t I look up from my screen, crack a joke and potentially meet someone who can follow me on Instagram? I mean, grocery store lines are perfect opportunities to increase the number of likes you get on your photos, all you have to do is look up from your phone!

But really, I do this. And I see the people around me doing it too. Why are we so adverse to interacting in real life?

At this point, I think I shield because I’m so used to doing it. I concsiouly aim to portray myself as, “busy” or “important” by being on my phone. But in reality, I’m just like everyone else, sucked into my virtual world of Twitter streams and gym memes. It’s unhealthy.

What to Do

I think writing this was a good idea. I feel like typing out my thoughts has helped me better understand why I spend so much time on my phone. I almost feel healthier because of it.

I know there are countless articles online that recommend ways to ween yourself off of your cell-phone. I’ll take a look at those as my next step. In the meantime, I’ve got to go. I haven’t checked my phone in about 20 minutes — it’s time to see if anyone posted a new photo on Instagram.

How Important Is Sleep? (And Why You Should Get Better at It)

How many hours of sleep did you get last night? 6 hours? 7? Maybe 8?

Falling asleep is supposed to be easy. You lie down, your body temperature falls, and melatonin passes through your bloodstream. Before you know it you’re heart rate slows and you drift off to sleep.

That is the ideal, yet for many falling asleep is a tricky task.

Sleeping hasn’t always been so difficult. Have you ever taken a moment to think about how your great-great-great grandparents got their rest? Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past found that our ancestors previously slept in four hour intervals, commonly waking up once during the night before going to sleep for a second time.

How then has sleeping — a fundamental “skill” all humans share — changed so much? And why has it become increasingly difficult? First, it helps to understand why we even do it in the first place.

Do We Need Sleep?

No one is definitively sure why animals sleep. But, research across the board has shown that your body is very busy while you rest.

The most compelling example of your body at work has to do with your brain. While you get your shut eye your brain rids itself of harmful toxins.

While asleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically. Why? To remove waste proteins that build up around brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found.

Professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester, and author of the study published in ScienceMaiken Nedergaard says this process is, “like a dishwasher”.

Results from the study offer one of the best explanations for why animals need sleep. If the findings hold true for human beings they may help explain the connection between sleep disorders and brain diseases.

Regardless of what research literature you read you will find one common thread, sleep is overwhelmingly important.

Why Is Sleep so Difficult?

Many people proclaim that they would get more sleep if they could. College students pride themselves on “all-nighters” at the library and frequently confess to writing papers while they would rather be sleeping.

What then makes falling asleep infuriatingly challenging at times? Understanding sleep hygiene is a good place to start.

Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol all negatively impact sleep. The closer you get to bedtime, the further these things should be from you.

Exercise and regular mealtimes during the day will aid in your quest for a good nights rest. Eating too much or too late can make sleep elusive, while the opposite (eating too little) also has the effect.

Going to bed at different times every night will make sleep all the more difficult. Reducing variability in your nightly routine can help your body fall asleep easier. Rosalind Picard, the director of the Affective Computing Research Group at M.I.T.’s Media Lab and the co-director of the Advancing Wellbeing Initiative, found that sleep variability was one of the most important factors in determining how well someone slept. It is better to go to bed at a consistent time than to try to pull an all-nighter tonight and “catch up” tomorrow.

Yet, the most important aspect of sleep hygiene is exposure to light. The phone or computer screen you are reading this article from is emitting “blue light”. Blue light reaches deeper into your eye and is emitted on the short-wave spectrum. Blue light confuses your body. Don’t take my word for it, take Harvard’s.

Increasingly we are surrounded by these short-wave lights and that makes falling asleep incredibly difficult. Exposure to any light suppresses melatonin, but blue is especially damaging. When we spend time with a blue light emitting device we are essentially postponing our bodies signals to help us fall asleep.

How Much Do I Need?

Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study in the 1990’s about circadian rhythm.

The experiment called for a group of people to be immersed in darkness for 14 hours everyday for a month. It took weeks for the participants sleep schedules to regulate, but by week 4 they had settled into a very distinct pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Does that sound familiar? At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past exposed that our ancestors slept in this exact same pattern.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep everyday. Among the general public the idea persists that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours, yet research and history suggests otherwise.

Most people have adapted well to the 8 hour sleep cycle. For some though, waking up in the middle of the night is a reality. The human body has a natural preference for segmented sleep and that can be a difficult pill to swallow.

Exposure to artificial blue lights and a preference to segmented sleep are at the root of sleep maintenance insomnia. Falling asleep can be difficult, but for many staying asleep is even more challenging.

Yet, the goal is still the same — most people need 8 hours of sleep.

Natural Sleep Aids

  • Exercise. There are too many benefits of exercise to possibly list them all here. A 2010 study found that one bout of moderate exercise helped insomnia patients fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Temperature. Setting your thermostat a few degrees lower can drastically benefit your sleep. Recent research suggests that sleep may be more regulated by temperature than by light.
  • Sound. Quiet is key to a good nights rest, yet there may be something even better. Brain.fm offers AI-generated music to improve focus, relaxation & sleep. A recent research paper highlights how soothing sounds can aid your quest in a good nights rest.

How to Go to Sleep

  • Power down. 60 minutes before you want to fall asleep you need to stop looking at any blue-light screens. If you are determined to work later into the evening you should use a screen color adapter. Take a look at f.lux.
  • Have a regular sleep schedule. Your circadian rhythm is one big, natural schedule that your body follows. Find your routine and stick with it.

Final Thoughts

Sleep is key to optimal performance — everyone knows that. Yet, we still manage to find ways to trick ourselves into thinking, “one less hour of sleep is one more hour of productivity”. It isn’t.

Sleep is too important to be disregarded. Do your body a favor and get a little more shuteye, you owe it to yourself.

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Considerations for “Freemium”

Freemium – the combination of “free” and “premium” – has become a mainstay business model for many technology companies.

The theory is simple. Users get access to basic features at no cost, while they also have the option to pay a subscription fee for more advanced capabilities. There are examples of prominent freemium companies across every sector. If you have listened to music on Spotify, networked on LinkedIn, or sent an email through MailChimp, you have experienced it firsthand. Slack, HubSpot, and Box come to mind in the B2B world as well.

For businesses the primary benefit of freemium is obvious, it’s an organic marketing tool. For a small company, freemium can seem like an attractive way to get market share fast. In theory, free users will use and share your product or service. Eventually, some of those free users will upgrade into revenue generating premium users.  Yet, as with most theories, freemium is not quite that simple. Before an entrepreneur makes the decision to go freemium they should ask themselves a few questions.

What market type are you entering?

Taking a page out of Steve Blank’s book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, the first consideration you need to look at is market type.

Let’s assume you are entering the existing market of mobile music streaming. Since you are entering an existing market your goal in year 1 is to gain as much market share as possible. Freemium makes sense. Your free software should market itself and bring users to you. This does not mean you should overlook mature competitors who are offering similar products or services. Organic growth from free users may be stunted if your free feature set is not “good enough” to draw users from alternative free services. (Think about Peter Thiel’s “be a magnitude better” theory).

If you are not entering or re-segmenting a market you must be creating a new one. Your goal in year 1 is to educate your target market. Offering a free version of your product or service can be a cost effective way to do this. You may also mitigate expenses on traditional marketing and sales activities. Organic growth may be hard to come by because there is no community or industry to evangelize around your company yet. But, the benefits of empowering new users to learn on their own can provide meaningful long term benefits.

Freemium can work in any market type. Identify which you are entering to help clarify what potential pitfalls lay ahead.

What is free?

Imagine you are product manager of a new software with 15 distinct features. You decide 5 of the features are basic enough that any user can have access to them while the other 10 are only for those who pay. How do you know that you’ve made the right choice? What do you do if it turns out you were wrong?

Remember, the primary benefit of freemium is in attracting new users. That makes the “what is free” decision overwhelmingly important. A 2011 research paper written by Kim Joar Bekkelund, titled Succeeding with Freemium analyzes the thoughts of many academics focusing on this problem.

There are three main ways to differentiate your free and premium product.

  1. You can offer less functionality in the free version.
  2. You can offer less capacity in the free version.
  3. You can only offer the free version to some users. For example you let nonprofits use your service for free, but charge for-profit organizations.

These concepts are relatively straight-forward, the difficulty comes in executing one, or all effectively. One strategy to optimize your free vs. premium differentiation is to use beta tests as a crutch. Overtime you will be tweaking your free vs. paid differentiators based off of user feedback and the data you collect. Running many rounds of beta tests can be a cost effective way to learn what your users respond to.

Can you afford free users?

The freemium model is only profitable when the variable costs of free users are less than the profits generated by premium users. In the case of software products or services this concept is easy to grasp.

All expenses  that are not “one-time” are part of your variable costs. Money spent on servers, technology infrastructure and people must be less than the operating profit you realize from premium subscribers. If it costs you $1 a month for every free user you need to be realizing at least that much in revenue from every paid user.

By modelling future costs and watching expenses you can somewhat reliably predict if the freemium model is plausible for you.

More questions

This blog post touches on a few important considerations for freemium businesses. Below are more questions that you should pose yourself before deciding to go into the free/premium landscape.

  • Do users need the premium offer?
  • Are free users providing referrals?
  • Are you hitting your target conversion rate?
  • Do you have a large addressable market?

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