Editor’s Note: Jacob is a Venture Associate with Shasta Ventures. Prior to joining Shasta, Jacob worked at Microsoft’s BizSpark program and was the “business guy” at VentureBeat. Follow @jacob on Twitter here.
It was an absolutely perfect day in Austin this past Wednesday, a temperate and breezy 89 degrees. The kind of day that seemed ripe with possibilities. Austin’s startup community gathered en masse at the University of Texas to hear the pitches from the five companies debuting out of Capital Factory, Austin’s summer startup accelerator. The vibe there was optimistic, and full of energy.
The startup community in Austin is doing very well, if the event was any indication (in the afternoon session we also saw demos from 15 of the best and brightest in Austin overall). While comparatively small next to Silicon Valley or New York, the “Silicon Hills” have one of the most tightly-knit and collaborative of any I’ve experienced.
Here is a quick look at each of the five 2011 Capital Factory companies. We saw very polished presentations and with a common theme of companies working on a really big opportunity, but focusing on initial verticals where they could show traction and make early progress. I think this is a (good) artifact of Austin’s pragmatism, and its strength in marketing, sales, and business development.
StoryMix Media was founded by husband and wife team Ariane and Mike Fisher, StoryMix Media finally makes all those short videos you shoot with your iPhone and Flip cameras useful. It’s kind of like Animoto for video.
With a proprietary backend auto-edit-and-splicing technology, StoryMix enables you to easily create, publish, and share short videos with family, friends, and Facebook. Taking a Color-esque approach with their upcoming iPhone app, they make it simple for people at the same event, like a wedding, to take videos and upload them to a cloud-based dashboard which can be collaboratively organized into one cohesive video and published to Facebook to tag all your friends in their embarrassing table-dancing moments.
The example videos we saw looked great. The company is focusing first on the weddings market, which is an obvious choice. The company told us that less than 1/3 of all weddings have videography, despite the untold billions that are otherwise spent on the occasion.
Critique: While they’re focusing on targeting a single vertical, reaching profitability, and raising angel money to fuel customer acquisition marketing overall, this is a pure consumer play where you want the absolute absence of friction and you want to encourage off-label use cases and creativity. Their starting product is priced at $99. They should consider a freemium model to gain as many users as possible and later monetize for premium service (see: Animoto).
Helpjuice automatically updates your company’s help page. Founder Emil Hajiric is an 18 year old wunderkind who recently moved from Bosnia to Austin.
Most startups are in the business of creating a solid company with stellar customer experience, and as such are tooled to respond quickly to product or technical support issues. However, the support team gets deluged 24/7 by common questions that could be easily answered on your company FAQ page.
The solution: CC: the support email to Helpjuice and their “Juicers” will aggregate the questions, write the response for your FAQ page, send it to you for approval, and post it. This saves you precious time and money while keeping your users happy. Your FAQ is always updated, you build an evergreen asset, and you automate repetitive issues. Their search functionality against common FAQ questions seems particularly good, too.
Critique: While Emil pitches Helpjuice as a software, the “Juicers” are humans who build out answers, so this sounds more like a tech-enabled service, bringing up concerns of cost, and scalability, as well as moat.
Also, he’ll want to focus on strong competitive differentiation to stand out from customer support incumbents like Assist.ly, UserVoice and Get Satisfaction—right now Helpjuice risks being just a great feature best used in tandem with a bigger and more holistic platform.
SpeakerMix was founded by two veterans out of the nation’s largest speaker-sourcing agency, SpeakerMix is bringing the painful speaker sourcing process online.
As an event planner for a national conference or a small company meeting, SpeakerMix makes it equally simple to connect with famous personalities or discover a niche speaker that will fit your tone, style, topic and budget. From the demo, SpeakerMix is like the Amazon-meets-Yelp-meets-OpenTable for speakers, focused around a Speaker profile page where planners can read reviews, comparable pricing, availability, and actually book the speakers, too.
They have over 6,500 speakers currently listed, from @GaryVee to Bill Clinton and have handled over $1M in speaker bookings since launch earlier this year. But importantly, the system surfaces the long tail of the market and the speakers you don’t know that you don’t know, making matches that the company says every planner loves.
Critique: The caveat here is that while it sounds like they’re making great speaker connections that might not otherwise be made, they will certainly get some pushback in being yet another intermediary in the process, which already includes the booking agent, talent manager, event planner, and potentially more.
Yes, those people will welcome new business and search traffic, but if successful, SpeakerMix will start to have a lot of leverage and things might get political (see: Kayak). Is there enough food at the table to keep everyone fed?
From the former Chief Technologist of Frog Design, Mason Hale, comes SwimTopia, which is a cloud-based swim team management system, spawning from his own need to manage his children’s 200+ swim team.
What was previously done on a single shared laptop in legacy Microsoft Access, is now done in an elegant web app Hale built that handles everything from registration, legal liability waivers, volunteer scheduling, equipment purchasing, payments and more.
Coaches can easily identify which children aren’t yet registered for events and they can send friendly reminders to parents about the upcoming meets. While SwimTopia is for now focused on the $500M US youth swimming market, they have higher ambitions to expand the tool to all youth sports organizations in the US and grab hold of that bigger $5 billion market. With this beautifully designed solution, they’re off to a strong start.
Critique: It’s a very large market, but getting traction in the long tail of local organizations is quite a challenge historically, and it can get very expensive, too. The targets are multifold—they have to sell the organizational leader(s) on the solution itself, but they also have to convince the hundreds of other constituents—parents, coaches, volunteers and more—to join in and actively use the product.
User experience will be key, as will word of mouth. This will succeed only if it has bottom-up momentum, not just a top-down sales and business development mandate.
GroupCharger is a simple, yet powerful, way of increasing member engagement and contributions to organizations.
Their first product, AlumniCharger, is already increasing alumni engagement and giving at University of Oklahoma, University of Texas Austin, and Texas A&M, with many more university alumni associations signed up and waiting to be let into the private beta.
Alumni association engagement and contributions tend to be lower where less value is realized between individual alums. AlumniCharger democratizes the efficient CRM and community software solutions effectively used to build value and connect alums at schools like Harvard, Yale and MIT. It uses existing alumni databases to identify alums on social networks, makes introductions between them, and provides other recommendations for the alumni association to increase member engagement.
GroupCharger is starting with the goal of bringing the 55,000 nationwide alumni associations online who spend an annual average of $125,000 on direct mail campaigns, but from there they see any membership-focused organization as greenfield opportunity.
Critique: Although the value proposition is clear, universities and foundations are slow-moving organizations who don’t like to spend money.
GroupCharger will want to focus on drawing a very clear ROI correlation demonstrating the direct increase of dollars and engagement thanks to their service—without such a clear cause and effect, it’s going to be hard to get past those lighthouse customers that were won mostly through existing relationships.
The more forward-thinking groups might be more willing than most, but once the company works its way through the low-hanging fruit, this is a tough market to crack without data that wows.
They may want to focus on being the direct connection between talent and buyer, and thus may end up in competition with their own suppliers anyway. They made brief mention of having an agency edition on the roadmap—that could be a nice middle ground, further embedding them in the ecosystem and enabling existing players, instead of threatening them.