Keep all the contacts in your network apprised of what you are doing and where you are going. There is a serendipitous reciprocity in a strong network that can increase your effectiveness.”
Alex Kubicek started Understory after he received a Master’s in Atmospheric Science. His lifelong interest in weather drove him to create awarding winning curriculum for Weather and Climate 101 at UW-Madison, receive “Outstanding M.S. Thesis” for his work on cloud microphysics and hail formation, and revolutionize the weather space with next generation weather stations. Kubicek has lead Understory through an accelerator program, a hardware seed stage, and an institutional financing of $2M lead by True Ventures.
Understory is the global leader in new wave weather analytics. Their unique, on-the-ground weather sensor networks brings granular data to assess property-level damage by tracking weather in real-time. Companies and municipalities can use this information to better understand a storm in retrospect.
Where did the idea for Understory come from?
In 2005, I went to Louisiana to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup. I was studying engineering at the time but became interested in the economic impact storms could have, and how to help people prepare. This event led me to pursue a career understanding weather.
In 2012, I was studying atmospheric science (specifically cloud microphysics) with a research focus on hail formation. The microphysical models surrounding hail growth were placed into a short-term thunderstorm forecasting model. While these models were scientifically sound, there was no way to test them against real world conditions. Satellite and radar technology only provided part of the picture, but I needed to know what was happening at the ground level to validate them.
Out of my own desire for better weather data, I set out to create a network of sensors that filled that gap.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I don’t think I’ve had a typical day since I started Understory. Every day presents new and unique challenges. I find that my family grounds me in a routine and is really what keeps my head on straight.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Working with customers and potential partners are where the bulk of our ideas come from. In this setting, the opportunity to brainstorm how tech can have the most impact by solving customer pain points exists. From here, we take ideas to our team who then brings new ideas to life through actionable solutions. It’s sort of like reverse engineering a problem. We identify a pain point, understand how tech and analytics can be integrated then work to operationalize it.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The InsurTech industry is really exciting right now. The outmoded approach of insurance companies is under threat as innovative technology enables new methods – cutting infrastructure costs and driving the ability to offer policies at lower, customized rates.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Black coffee and and scheduled meetings with my high-performing team.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
One summer, I worked concert security at an outdoor music theater. The only issue was that as a ragtag team of teenagers posing as security, we weren’t imbued with any actual authority—we were just fifteen year old figureheads. It was hard trying to tell adult-aged patrons at a Jimmy Buffet concert to stop cutting through the fence. From this I learned that functionality without the ability to execute can never amount to much.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
If I were to start again, I think that I would have a better understanding of how vendors work with startups. Learning not to take offerings at face value when you are bright-eyed is a lesson hard won. Due diligence is key in identifying the right firms to partner with.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Networking. I recommend keeping all the contacts in your network apprised of what you are doing and where you are going. There is a serendipitous reciprocity in a strong network that can increase your effectiveness.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Iterating helps you not be afraid to try new things. Failing quickly and learning from mistakes enables you to move forward to identify the best strategy. At a bleeding-edge tech company doing something that hasn’t been done before, it’s imperative to try things in order to see what happens, then adapt in a way that makes sense.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When we deployed our first weather sensor, we placed it on top of a cell tower. But we might as well have sent it to the moon. Placing anything at the top of a cell tower requires a professional installer. After our first device was installed, we flipped the power switch and nothing happened. It was completely dead on arrival. We had an Apollo 13 moment where we had to figure out what to do with what we had. When this first live production failed we had to learn where we needed to go and together created a solution that paved our way forward.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’d love a CRM type product that would manage individual professional networks.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I travel a lot for work and I’d say that the best $100 I recently spent was splurging on a Uber to get from SF to Palo Alto. I was able to work on the way and maintain my sanity for the next business day.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
We use Slack, the chat platform, daily. With a remote team, having constant communication is incredible.
Another product is Microsoft OneNote. It syncs notes across devices and is great for sharing ideas.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Your Brain at Work” by David Rock is a great read on how to can engineer your day to make the best use of your time. Working at a startup has really made me prioritize mental fitness.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Picard Tips is a humorous, Star-Trek-based Twitter account that actually delivers insightful management strategies.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.