Techstars Class of 2011 Roundup, Part 1
I spent my morning at the Techstars Demo Day for the Class of 2011 in Boulder. It was my first time at the ‘big show’, although I did watch practice pitches both this year and last at Boulder Denver New Tech Meetup (BDNT). For the uninitiated, Techstars is arguably the top startup accelerator on the planet, and it was started right here in Boulder. Each year, they give about a dozen teams $18,000 to start their own business, but even more valuable, they get 90 days with top minds in tech to guide them, all while working out of the Bunker together with the buzz that comes from so many smart and ambitious people in one place. Over the last couple of years, Techstars has expanded into a few other cities and now gets a few dozen companies started each year. They are a big deal, and Techstars is one of the reasons that I now live in Boulder. It’s the heart of this entrepreneurial mecca that I call home.
Now, onto this year’s class!
Simple Energy @simpleenergy This customer engagement platform for utility companies was an obvious crowd and local favorite. It’s the company that I heard the most buzz about leading up to Demo Day. Simple Energy has built a platform to engage utility customers where they are already–Facebook, mobile, email, and more. It’s a huge step away from the antiquated snail mail engagement campaigns that currently dominate the industry. When I first saw their practice pitch at BDNT on Tuesday, I wasn’t all that impressed, honestly. Much of their demo focused on the overlay of the social graph, basically putting friends into competition with each other on Facebook to save energy. It’s just not something I’m personally interested in, although it’s very Boulder. That’s what worried me. I was afraid that they were making assumptions based upon Boulder’s very skewed demographics. However, after today’s pitch and further reflection, it’s clear to me that they don’t need the level of engagement that they would be likely to get in Boulder to be successful. Current utility customer engagement is 1%. Out of one hundred people, I’m sure there are at least several that would be interested in making utility consumption a game. Even if it’s just three, they’ve increased engagement by 200%. That’s a win. Furthermore, the email campaigns and mobile application have a good chance of engaging me. Pair that with the deals with large utility companies that they have already secured, and I believe this team is set up for huge success.
FlixMaster @getflixmaster After an apparently large pivot and name change, this team has come out of their Techstars summer with a very sexy product. Their product is a web-based tool for creating what they call branching video. From inside the video player (on your website, youtube, etc), a user can have a choose your own adventure experience. Their HTML5-based platform allows content creators to drag and drop video, stills, websites, forms, and more to create a variety of paths for the user. These types of videos exist today, but they are created by high end web development companies, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and can still only connect to other videos. So why is anyone doing this now? These videos get sixteen times the views of non-branching videos. Even better for users of FlixMaster, they use Techstars Class of 2011 grad ReportGrid (more below) to deliver analytics about the path that the users take through the experience. Note, I called it an experience rather than a video, because with FlixMaster, it’s so much more than video. I do have a couple of concerns for these guys, though. 1) I’m worried about copy cats. 2) I’m also concerned that for smaller producers and companies that do this work in house, there won’t be a lot of demand. Sure, they’ll want to use it, but it will probably only be a couple times a year. It feels like they should be targeting mid-size to large marketing agencies. Even with the huge cost savings of this product over using a web development team, the cost of video production for multiple paths through a video feels like a barrier for smaller companies.
Creative Brain Studios @bookergames This is one of the products I want to get my hands on–like now-ish. Creative Brain Studios has built a game engine. You build it once, it’s published and deployed on all of the most popular platforms, both desktop and mobile. The game engine looks like it’s easy to use and will help you through the entire process from design & development through publishing & monetization. Gaming is exploding, especially the types of games that can be built with this engine. This team is well positioned to help new game developers into the market, as well as speeding up time to market for those already there. I’m excited for their future, and I really do want to play with that game engine. Guys, are you listening? ;)
Truant Today @truanttoday I’m going to be honest here. When I saw that the youngest Techstars team of 16 & 17 years old had built an app to cut down on school truancy, I thought ‘how cute’. I need to apologize to these two young men. They did what all entrepreneurs should do, build what they know, and it looks like they’ve done their research and built a great product. Truant Today automatically texts and emails parents when their children are absent from school. In a test they did earlier this year, they had a 50% rate of same day return and 75% increase in attendance. That’s wonderful right? But how are they going to make money from already cash-strapped schools? That school I just mentioned? They reclaimed $800K in funding due to increased attendance. That’s win, win. With more kids in the seats and more cash to work with, these schools will be much more successful. And if TruantToday doesn’t help the school reclaim more funds than its price, TruantToday will give the school a credit on the next year’s subscription. Considering that schools lose $30-50 per student per day missed, I don’t think that TruantToday will have to make good on that promise very often. While I so wrongly didn’t take these two entrepreneurs seriously at first, if I had the cash, I’d be happy to invest some of the several hundred thousand dollars they’re seeking.
That’s the first third. Keep watching for Part 2 and Part 3 to learn more about this year’s class!