There may not be a wilder tale of a Disrupt success (though plenty of startups would beg to differ), which is why we’ve chosen GroupMe to kick off a series I’m doing on “Disrupt Startups: Where They Are Now.”
We sat down earlier today to chat with co-founders Jared Hecht and Steve Martocci to find out their perspective on Disrupt as a launchpad. Try as I might to snip down the interview, the whole thing is basically gold.
GroupMe is one of many Disrupt alumni startups that we’ll be looking at over the next week and a half, so stay tuned for more “Where They Are Now” posts.
And if you’re interested in checking out Disrupt and/or the Hackathon yourself, tickets are still on sale here and info on the Hackathon can be found here. Companies itching to join the Battleground can apply for the last remaining spots in Startup Alley. You can find the full agenda here.
Here’s that interview I promised:
TechCrunch: Tell me how this all started.
GroupMe: We were at the first Disrupt Hackathon in New York. We had group SMS working on Twilio’s API. You could add people to the group using commands on SMS, or you can use an HTML5 webapp. The only problem was that you had to know numbers and type them in. I mean, it kind of sucked. But we added in an offers tab, and in the demo we were talking about the LOST series finale. In the top corner, when you clicked on the offers tab, it took you straight to an actual ad for half-price if you check out the LOST series finale event at Brooklyn Bowl. We basically demoed that we had a working group chat with a functional business model.
Back then it was called Groop.ly.
We had investors interested right on the floor of Disrupt, and we ended up talking about fundraising.
TC: So if you had to quantify it, how would you say that Disrupt affected your company?
GroupMe: 100 percent. We probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Disrupt.
I had won a Hackathon that was an internal contest at Gilt Group, but what was really interesting and intriguing was the chance to build something and show it on a real stage. We had the idea a couple days before, and after we decided to go in we found it was a massive springboard for acceleration and growth.
TC: So, were you guys the first to do group messaging?
GroupMe: People had tried to do it for a long time, even 10 years before us. But we kind of nailed it at the right time and the right place. The service was ripe for adoption once we got the ability to interact with the address book. Mobile had really taking off and with access to the address book, the timing was right to go to the next level.
TC: What’s changed since then?
GroupMe: Honestly, there hasn’t been a ton of change when you’re looking from a very high vantage point. When we think about why we were doing Groop.ly back then, not much has changed from that night at the Hackathon. We were talking about how we can turn Groop.ly into a business and how we would quit our jobs the next week. A lot of those initial thoughts from that night were right on point.
We wanted people to be able to speak with groups that are important to them, buy better, and get together in the real life better. You can still see us executing things we talked about that very first night.
At the same time, a lot has changed from then. We built a company, built a big team, sold the company. But we’re still trying to accomplish the things we’ve dreamed of on day one. We had a whole discussion on how we can rapidly iterate, and we continue to build an awesome company culture with that great seed as our core. We stay true to why we were building our product and how we were getting it done.
TC: Do you think that being a part of Disrupt gave you a better platform with the media in general?
GroupMe: We think it’s a great story to tell. It was a fortunate sequence of events, fun and relatable. It’s actually a bit of a fairy tale. The fact that this happened at a Hackathon, the TechCrunch Hackathon no less, made it something very easy to talk about and compelling and fun to tell a story about. It’s an even more fun story to hear.
People were aware that we had built it at a Hackathon and they wanted to know how things were going. We kept up our relationship with TechCrunch and Disrupt and went back to later Disrupts and participated in the Hackathon again. That’s where we built our sponsored groups feature. We launched it the very next day on stage.
But it really was the perfect case of timing.
TC: What are your future plans?
GroupMe: We can’t talk too much about that, but we’ve been cooking up some fun features but if you stay tuned you’ll see what we mean.
TC: Would you recommend Disrupt for other startups?
GroupMe: We think Hackathons in general have become crowded places. What we saw is people going in having the same idea. But the Disrupt Hackathon is fun, whether you want to build something or learn it’s a great place to be. Disrupt in general is getting a lot of visibility for startups, and it has this huge impact on getting mind share, which we think is really important.
The Hackathon and Disrupt are great ways to network and meet people, whether you’re focused or having fun. We aren’t the only ones to come out of the Hackathon with a successful business, but what’s great about it is that you can just test out your ideas without much to lose. Once you’ve done that, Disrupt is for visibility.
TC: What have you been up to since the acquisition?
GroupMe: We love the culture we have here. Skype wants to foster that and let it grow. We’re working with them on some pretty awesome stuff. It’s been a great process so far. We’re happy and they’re happy and it’s a great thing.
TC: What advice would you give to Hackers and young entrepreneurs in general?
GroupMe: Think about it, but don’t put a lot of pressure on building a company in 24 hours. You should just go and have fun meeting great people and really take advantage of the fact that it’s a big stage.
Don’t try to build too much. It’s hard to focus and get stuff done, but all we wanted was to get to a certain proof of concept. So try to get there and have fun doing it. Stay focused if you can, and think of a goal. Past that, all you have to do is meet the goal you entered with.
But you’re also trying to learn new tools and test things out. If we hadn’t finished Groop.ly we wouldn’t have been upset. We were there to push ourselves.
TC: OK guys, last question. I see a lot of beer at the Hackathon, and I see a lot of Red Bull. What would you recommend as the perfect sustenance.
GroupMe: There are two options. A mix of 2/3 Red Bull and 1/3 beer, or a lot of coffee and water.
GroupMe helps people stay connected and get together better with their friends. GroupMe’s two core offerings are: GroupMe, the group mobile messaging service, and Experiences, a service for finding, planning and purchasing group activities. GroupMe is based in New York and was founded by Jared Hecht and Steve Martocci in May 2010 at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon. In August 2011, GroupMe was acquired by Skype, which was subsequently acquired by Microsoft in October 2011. For more information, please visit...
Steve is a co-founder of GroupMe.
Skype is a software application that allows users to make voice and video calls and chats over the Internet. Calls to other users within the Skype service are free, while calls to both traditional landline telephones and mobile phones can be made for a fee using a debit-based user account system. Skype was founded by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis who were also the founders of the file sharing application Kazaa. Skype has also become popular for its additional...