Tag Archive: startups


Skillbridge logo

A startup called Skillbridge is trying to create a new kind of marketplace for freelance work – not for the programming and writing jobs that you’d find on a site like Elance, but for strategy, finance, marketing and other professional services.

The company is announcing today that it has been backed by First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, the firm’s student-run investment arm that offers mentorship and $20,000 in funding to each company. (Skillbridge is also part of Highland Capital’s summer incubator and the MassChallenge accelerator..)

Co-founders Brett Lewis and Raj Jeyakumar have worked as consultants themselves – Lewis, for example, spent nearly three years at Bain & Company. They’re both recent graduates of Wharton Business School, and they said that when they were students, they wanted to use their experience for freelance work. However, they discovered that it was incredibly difficult to actually find interested companies, so they created Skillbridge to match qualified workers with businesses looking for professional services.

Lewis outlined the vision in a post for the Wharton Entrepreneurship Blog, where he said that the United States’ freelancers have grown from 6 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to 20 to 30 percent now: “Elance, an early talent marketplace, has focused on low-end providers of technology and creative talent. Yet the biggest growth trends are in areas of financial planning and analysis, accounting and legal strategy, where only behemoth white-shoe firms have dominated until now.”

Lewis and Jeyakumar said their core talent base consists of stay-at-home parents and graduate students who have either an MBA or at least three years of experience at a finance or consulting firm. These are people who either aren’t in a position to work full-time or aren’t interested, but they are willing to take on smaller projects or part-time work with flexible hours. And by hiring these workers, companies don’t have to pay for the overhead of a traditional consulting firm.

Not that Skillbridge is trying to replace the big firms. Jeyakumar compared them to Ferraris: “There will always be a need for Ferraris, but there are people for whom a BMW is just fine.” If the BMW doesn’t seem like much of a compromise, that’s Jeyakumar’s point. With Skillbridge, companies that probably couldn’t afford to hire a traditional consulting firm can still pay for high-quality work. He added that there’s already been interest in companies ranging from “pre-revenue startups that need help with market sizing for their pitch decks” to large e-commerce organizations.

The company supposedly delivers a “highly curated” experience, where it provides customers with templates for work requests, identifies two or three of the best matches that they can choose from, and helps to create milestones for the project to ensure that things stay on track. It’s currently in beta testing, with plans for a full launch later this year.

WorldMap-War

While iOS games started out as either simple physics or casual simulation titles when the platform launched about five years ago, the bar has gotten steadily higher and more hard-core. Midcore studios like Kabam started to rise in prominence.

Now the iOS platform might be seeing is most hardcore title to date – a very, very massive multi-player title from YC- and Menlo Ventures-backed Machine Zone.

The company, which started out doing text-based RPGs a couple years ago like iMob, is launching Game of War: Fire Age. It’s a title where players build and grow empires, train massive armies, forge alliances with other players to win kingdoms.

The game can handle hundreds of thousands of players concurrently in the same universe, which is not an easy technical feat. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in contrast, typically handles a few thousand players simultaneously in a single realm. All movement on the game’s map is visible to everyone else.

“We wanted to take the company to the next level and be really ambitious,” said Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon. “We decided to build some things that had never been done before. We had the capital to do it and the willpower.”

Leydon didn’t hire just typical game designers to build the title. He also found people who had experience in scaling massive systems. The game’s user interface is in HTML5 and is rendered natively, allowing the company to handle different screen sizes.

The other really cool thing about the game’s social capabilities is that there is a mechanical turk-like translation system where the players themselves translate chat in exchange for virtual currency rewards. That helps Game of War have really interactive play with a proper critical mass of users who can talk to each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. The in-game chat system helps Game of War get manage slang and gamer speak, which a third-party translation system probably wouldn’t handle correctly. If say, 50 players translate the same words in the same way, then the game will start using that translation automatically.

“It’s like a highly structured Facebook,” Leydon said. “My goal as a game designer was to create a feeling of what it would be to be a king, where you’d have a lot of people under you. You’d have to subjects, wealth and land.”

Assuming say, the game grows to 1 million players, there might only be 20 kings in the game. To reach that level, players have to woo others to form alliances with them. Within those alliances, there are ranks for different officers.

“This is a very hardcore game. This is not Candy Crush,” he said. “This is a complex system with a lot of potential trees of outcomes. If you’re the type of person that’s fascinated by systems like this, then this is for you.”

Machine Zone used to be known as Addmired, and rebranded last year when it took $8 million in funding from Menlo Ventures. Leydon said this is what the company took the round for, even though its older titles like Original Gangstaz and iMob 2 were pretty lucrative early on.


Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 5.48.16 AM

At TechCrunch Disrupt NYC back in April, former Facebook exec-turned-venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya delivered a deflating critique of the tech industry – in particular, the quality of its startups. Had he been issuing a report card, the Tech World would have gotten an “F,” with an extra side of “shame.” His frustration seemed to emanate principally from the fact that “Big Ideas” are few and far between in the industry today. Rather than aiming high, he intoned, entrepreneurs seem content to reach for low-hanging fruit despite the diminishing returns inherent to that approach.

While Big Ideas may not be at all-time high, today’s news brings some assurance that they are still alive and well in the tech industry – and that there’s even capital to support them, for-profit or not. Watsi, a Y Combinator-backed healthcare crowdfunding platform, is tackling one of the biggest: That more than one billion people can’t afford (or don’t have access to) adequate medical services. Even Chamath would likely agree that falls in the “Big Idea” camp.

Today, the non-profit crowdfunding platform announced that it has raised $1.2 million in what is its first round of financing, or “philanthropic seed round,” as the startup is calling it. Granted, if Watsi is setting its sights high, than $1.2 million will only be a drop in the bucket compared to the capital and resources it will need if it truly hopes to make a difference at scale.

A good start, to be sure, especially when considering the impressive roster of names contributing to its first financing, which includes institutional investors, like China’s largest Internet services portal, Tencent, Y Combinator partners – including personal investments from founder Paul Graham and YC Partner Geoff Ralston – along with the “godfather of angel investing” and owner of the most pristine coiffure in the Valley, Ron Conway, Sun Microsystems and Khosla Ventures co-founder, Vinod Khosla, venture philanthropy fund (and Kiva investor), The Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and Flixter founder and Rotten Tomatoes CEO, Joe Greenstein – to name a few.

While the list is impressive, it’s not a group of investors one would typically find contributing to a non-profit fundraiser. Watsi founder Chase Adam explains that the reason the company opted for this approach is that the traditional mechanisms for non-profit fundraising sometimes act as a counterproductive force by undermining the social movements they’re trying to support. Instead of devoting themselves to their “Big Idea,” socially-minded entrepreneurs often spend their time entering online voting competitions and hosting banquets to raise money to support their operations.

Instead, Adams hopes that the collection of VC, angel and institutional donations represents a move toward a new future of non-profit fundraising. Granted, Watsi is in the unusual (and fortunate) position to have been the first non-profit startup to be accepted into Y Combinator and to have had the vocal support of Y Combinator’s founder, Paul Graham, who also recently accepted a seat on the startup’s board – the first time he’s done so for a YC incubation.

In reference to this question, Graham suggested to Watsi that they call this raise a “Series N” (non-profit and n=variable).

On the flip side, Adams tells us that he set a three-month deadline for fundraising, deciding to go after industry leaders and big names in the angel and venture world, regardless of whether or not the efforts proved to be successful. By doing so, the Watsi founder hopes that this might help encourage other social businesses to consider forgoing traditional sources of fundraising.

Ben Rattray, the founder and CEO of social action platform Change.org and I recently spoke on this very subject after the socially-minded for-profit company closed its own $15 million round of funding. As a for-profit business, there’s more pressure for Change.org to raise institutional or venture capital.

As a non-profit, Watsi would likely be more attractive to investors, whereas Big Idea-based, for-profit companies have traditionally found it difficult to raise money from these types of investors. However, both Adams and Rattray share similar goals, as the Change.org founder that would enable them to remain independent without having to constantly be looking for a one-time liquidity event.

“These kind of social enterprise businesses are working over the long-term, 15 to 20 year windows, which is beyond the scope of most venture capitalists,” Rattray said at the time. However, he believes that it’s going to change: “I have no doubt this is going to change – that eventually more investors are going to start backing socially-conscious businesses,” Rattray says. And it’s for that very reason that I think the juxtaposition of Watsi and Change.org is worthwhile. Although perhaps idealistic – and, admittedly, Watsi is a non-profit, perhaps the startup’s funding is the first sign that it is, in fact, beginning to change.

Nonetheless, for Watsi, this raise is an important validation of its own ambitious, “Big Idea” goals. Of course, eliminating poverty or fixing global healthcare and covering the uncovered, don’t happen over night and aren’t solved by one person or one founder. That’s why Watsi is leveraging the “many hands” approach of crowdfunding to let anyone contribute to the funding of low-cost, high-impact medical treatments for those in need.

Furthermore, the platform automatically creates profiles for those in search of financial support for treatments or surgeries and makes it easy to make direct donations. Furthermore, these profiles, besides providing critical transparency into how your donation will be used and actually help someone, it also works towards attaching actual, human faces to global poverty – which sounds cheesy but is critical to conditions or problems like this that are so huge that providing real faces, one-by-one, can help discourage, say, just ignoring it and hanging for a lower-hanging fruit.

To further incentivize donations, Watsi offers 100 percent of the donations it collects from the crowd to those in need. Graham also says that the startup is paying “all their operational costs from their own funding, and none from your donations,” and in turn, even stomach credit card processing fees. A noble gesture in its own right.

The startup hosts the profiles of people in need but who can’t afford them, allowing donors to peruse profiles, donate as little as $5
, Watsi hosts profiles of people in dire need of medical care, but who can’t afford it. Donors can browse the profiles and donate as little as $5 to help someone get well. 100% of donations go to the sick, and Watsi funds its operations and even pays credit card processing fees on donations out of its own pocket. We name

canary

There are some 90 million homes in the U.S. without any security system whatsoever. Many of them are renters who don’t want to invest heavily in a place they don’t own, among hundreds of thousands of home owners who are simply priced out. There has never been a convenient, all-in-one system that could offer home security at an affordable rate, much less one you could pick up at the local Best Buy.

But that all changes with Canary, the latest crowd-funding sensation to hit Indiegogo. We caught up with NYC-based founder Adam Sager to discuss the project.

Canary is a little console, slightly smaller than the size of a paper towel roll, that’s packed with a host of sensors, a mic, and an HD camera.

For $200 down, this little guy will connect to the Wifi, sync with your phone, and constantly watch your home. I say watch, and not monitor, because Canary can only see as far as its sensors will allow, whereas most home security systems are wired in to monitor every crack and crevice of a home. Canary can only hear as far as the mic allows, or the camera sees, or the sensors can sense.

However, Sager believes that when you place the Canary in the central part of your home, near the front door perhaps or watching over the living room, that a real threat, like a burglar, will likely set off the Canary no matter where it enters from.

Plus, if you have a larger space or want added security, you can always link more than one Canary (up to four, Sager tells me).

Canary’s sensors include night vision, motion detection, temperature, air quality and humidity, along with a live feed to the HD camera at any given time. The phone will instantly alert the user whenever the home experiences a random change, like a temperature fluctuation or sudden movement.

But Canary is also smart enough to learn your home, sensing the difference between a burglary and a pet. It even understands when regularly scheduled events occur, like the arrival of a nanny or a dog walker at the same time each day, so that you don’t have a panic attack each time Rover needs to take a wizz.

Canary’s distribution model is different from any other home security system in that you will eventually be able to go pick one up at a local electronics store on the cheap. This has never really been available before, and the potential market is huge with 90 million homes completely unprotected and priced out of the alternatives.

Sager admits that margins on the hardware itself won’t be that high, but the plan is to offer value-added services like monitoring (delivered by a TBD third-party) for $10/month.

Canary has been on Indiegogo for four days, and has blown far beyond its $100k goal to be at $550k at the time of writing. It only took a few hours to reach $100k, according to Sager.

If you’d like to back the project, head on over to the Canary website or check out the Indiegogo campaign.

loblogo

Want to build your own Postagram? You could with Lob, a new developer API for integrating printing and shipping services into applications that’s officially opening its doors today. The company makes it possible for a business to implement a programmatic means of printing, packaging, and shipping items on demand, including things like business cards, photos, posters, letters, postcards, checks, stickers, and more. During its brief testing period, Lob saw sign-ups from customers like CrowdTilt, ZenPayroll, LendUp, and others.

Founded just a couple of months ago by University of Michigan grads Harry Zhang and Leore Avidar, Lob is participating in Y Combinator’s summer 2013 program. Today, it already has hundreds of customers and is generating revenue, the founders say.

Prior to Lob, Zhang worked as a product manager at Microsoft, where he saw first-hand the need for such a service. “I was working on a campaign at Microsoft where we had to put together offers for all these different customers – all having to go to different destinations, all of which had to be customized,” Zhang explains. “And when it got to the part where we had to have them printed and mailed, we realized there was no good way to actually automate that process.” Instead, the company had interns sitting in a mailroom for a couple of weeks, stuffing envelopes.

Meanwhile, Avidar’s background includes time spent first at Citigroup then at Amazon Web Services, where he learned more about how cloud platforms work. He says that basically, with Lob, they’ve taken the AWS model and applied it to a different type of industry.

The service arrives at a time when many of today’s printers aren’t as technically savvy as the startups and other businesses that need to use them. Their older systems use SOAP and XML, limiting access to what’s possible. Meanwhile, the need for online printing grows – it accounted for 18 percent of all printing in 2011, and is expected to reach 30 percent next year, and 50 percent by 2017.

But unlike services provided by consumer-facing retailers like FedEx Office (formerly FedEx Kinko’s), or Uprinting.com, for example, Lob is not meant to be a consumer-facing solution, but rather a tool for developers. Using the company’s RESTful API, developers can send one-off print jobs as needed, or can request volume pricing when buying in bulk.

The founders see a few primary use cases for its service. One is fulfillment for businesses that don’t want to hold inventory – like a company that sells posters, for instance. Because Lob supports variable data and customizations, another area being targeted is in industries like finance or real estate, where businesses may be required to send things like bills, invoices or statements through the physical mail. It could also be useful in HR, where companies are continually mailing out forms to employees, like new hire packets. And finally, Lob can be used to send out physical checks, like those handled by a payroll service.

Lob’s API offers an address verification service (free for U.S. address and $0.15 for each international address), plus Smart Packaging, where it will pick the best packaging type automatically unless a developer specifies otherwise. And it routes jobs to the nearest printer in its network to save on shipping times and cost.

Avidar says that Lob’s network of printers is one of its strong suits. The printers are not ordinary print shops, but ones which have been standardized by having custom integrations built into their systems and workflows. The are the HP Indigo’s and the Heidelberg’s of the world, he adds, not the Vistaprint’s.

The Sunnyvale-based startup is only a couple of months old, and has been growing by 300 percent every week during its brief alpha and beta trials. Today, the founders are the only two full-time employees and they want to keep things small for now, and hold off on fundraising as they have paying customers. Interested users can sign up for Lob here or read through the developer documentation.

Prim Feature

You can call it a first-world problem. Or you can say it distracts people from their passions and contributions to the world. Either way, laundry is a chore, and new Y Combinator startup Prim wants to do it for you. You can schedule Prim online to come to your place, pick up your laundry, have it washed and folded at a top-notch laundromat, and deliver it back to you. $25 for a bag. It’s that easy.

Prim’s Stanford-educated founders originally came into Y Combinator to build an in-video advertising platform, but the business wasn’t there. The idea for Prim was scattered all over their floors. See, co-founder Yin Yin Wu’s boyfriend worked at Facebook, where they have free laundry service. His clothes ended up neatly washed, folded, and in his drawers rather than in heaps waiting to be done. That meant he could focus on his job and life. Yin Yin thought, “why couldn’t this service be available to anyone?” So they created Prim.

Uber For Laundry

Currently Prim operates in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park – home to the world’s busiest techies. You go online and select from their upcoming 9am-11am or 8pm-10pm pickup and drop-off windows. You throw your clothes in a garbage bag and wait for Prim’s text that it’ll be there in 15 minutes. The driver calls when they arrive. You can hand them the bag, leave it with your doorman, or if you’re comfortable, give them a copy of your key or send a photo of it and they’ll make a copy so they can just come into your place and grab the bag.

Their driver takes the sack of clothes to be tagged and brings it to a well-rated local laundromat with a track record of flawless jobs. Within two days you get notified to confirm your delivery, and Prim brings the washed and folded clothes back in high-quality nylon satchels. It even ties together your stacks of shirts or whatever you wouldn’t want wrinkled so they stay prim and proper. See! That’s where they got the name! You got that already? Sorry.

The cost is $25 for the first bag of each pickup and $15 for the additional ones. That’s a bit more expensive than you can expect from a laundromat’s wash and fold, but you get the pick-up and delivery included. Because Prim brings in so much business, it gets discounts from the laundromats so the price stays reasonable. Prim strives for perfection, but in case anything gets lost or damaged, Wu says Prim has insurance and will refund you 100% of the cost of your clothes. “If there’s any mistake, we try to bend over backwards for our customers” says Wu.

The idea is that as Prim gets bigger, it can use economies of scale to improve its margins and lower its costs. While it’s only in the Bay Area now, expansion plans don’t include the sprawl of LA (where Wash.io operates) or fighting the specialized competitors in NYC. Instead it’s looking at Seattle, Boston, and other dense cities full of time-strapped knowledge workers. In SF, Prim will have to battle LaundryLocker where you drop your clothes in a public locker, and delivery services like Sfwash (where you pay by the pound), Sudzee (which requires special lockable bags), and some other local services.

Prim differentiates through simplicity and its flat rate. The risk is that the price is too high and it can’t get traction, or too low that it can’t squeak out a profit. Getting the balance right and giving people a great experience will make or break the startup.

Luckily, I loved Prim. It got my laundry done in 24 hours, everything came back clean, dry, soft, unwrinkled, and nothing seemed shrunk. Oh, and I did basically zero work. No dragging my clothes to the laundromat, fiddling with change for the machines, and most importantly, no waiting for hours. Even if you have machines in your home or apartment, doing loads one at a time can be quite annoying. My laundry often languishes because I dread the rigamarole. With Prim, I’m a lot less likely to make it to the bottom of my sock drawer. A more flexible morning pickup schedule would help, but Prim says they’ll always work with customers to find some time that works. Adding in dry cleaning would also be a big plus, and help them compete with other services that handle all your clothes-washing needs.

Wash And Flow

No, Prim isn’t going to save anyone’s life, but it could still help improve the world if you think about it. Convenience doesn’t just breed laziness. It can enable productivity. In that way, I’d say Prim shares DNA with Dropbox and Asana, not just Uber and TaskRabbit.

Prim lets you concentrate on what you love to do, what you’re responsible for, or how you contribute to the universe. I’m decent at writing, terrible at laundry, and busy. Spending a ton of time washing and folding is just inefficient for me. I feel better stimulating the economy and letting someone good at laundry do their thing. And imagine how this could free up a CEO, doctor, charity director, or parent to take on the duties only they can fulfill?

Think how long it takes you to do laundry. If that amount of your time is worth more than $25 (or $40 if you’ve got a big wardrobe), use Prim.

And use Prim with the promo code “techcrunch” to get $10 off your first pickup.

Prim Co-Founders (From Left): Xuwen Cao and Yin Yin Wu

drawbridge-logo-1

Drawbridge, an ad targeting startup backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, is expanding its offerings today with a new feature allowing mobile advertisers to reach consumers with retargeted ads, regardless of whether they’re using an app or on the mobile web.

Founder and CEO Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan said that while ad retargeting (i.e., ads targeted based on your past visits and activity) is possible within apps, things get trickier when you try to cross the boundary between apps and websites: “It’s literally two devices on the same device, separated by an iron wire.” (I question her question use of “literally”, but I think you get the point.) App developers can also try to reengage their users through alerts and notifications, but users can always turn those off.

In order to solve that problem, Drawbridge is “piggybacking” on its core technology. That technology examines user activity to help advertisers identify when multiple devices are likely being used by the same person. That allows advertisers to use data collected on the desktop to target ads on mobile. The company’s two products launched last fall include PC-to-mobile retargeting and mobile app marketing. The mobile-to-mobile retargeting is intended to fill out the mobile marketing product, Sivaramakrishnan said.

Drawbridge has already run test campaigns with e-commerce companies, who were either trying to bring old customers back to the site or to convince current customers to buy more. Sivaramakrishnan said that in a campaign targeting lapsed users, the client reached 100 percent return on ad spend within three weeks. Another campaign targeted active users and reached 100 percent ROAS within a single day.

Advertisers will have a chance to test this out for themselves, Sivaramakrishnan said, because the new capabilities include an A/B testing framework. So advertisers can run part of their campaign with Drawbridge’s retargeting and part of their campaign without it and see which ads perform better.

Earlier this year, Drawbridge announced that it was partnering with TRUSTe to allow mobile consumers to opt out of its targeting. Since then, Sivaramakrishnan said that some users have indeed opt out, but that the rates haven’t been “heavy”.

timehop

While present-focused social networks like Facebook and Instagram make plenty of room for the narcissists in us, there’s not really a dedicated and focused place to reflect on the past.

Timehop, which started out as 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo, has evolved into a mobile-first startup that surfaces old memories from your social networks. The app will pull up status updates from a year or more ago, reminding you of friends you’ve lost contact with or thoughts you had a year ago on this day.

The New York-based startup says it just rounded up another $3 million in funding led by existing investor Spark Capital. O’Reilly Alphatech Ventures, which had also previously backed the company, participated as well. Andrew Parker, a principal at Spark, joins Timehop’s board.

Timehop’s CEO Jonathan Wegener says that the company will use the round to build out the team beyond seven people and focus on mobile apps. Timehop just shut down its e-mail service last week.

“The big, long-term vision is to be a place to reminisce online,” Wegener said. “Basically in this world, all social networks are real-time. They’re about what’s happening right now, but there’s no place online to discuss the past.”

While the Series A crunch has made fundraising tough for all kinds of consumer-facing mobile and web products, Wegener said it was Timehop’s stickiness that made a compelling case. He said one-third of Timehop’s user base opens the product on any given day, which is a very respectable retention figure.

“Users who try to the product fall in love with it. This helped us make the argument that people are working Timehop into their everday lives,” Wegener said. “At first, people don’t understand why they would want this. But they get really addicted to it. They see it as a mirror of their own life, and a reflection of their past self.”

He said he’s used the app to remember which friends he’s lost touch with over the years. The app will pull up old group photos, reminding Wegener to reach out and reconnect.

Timehop’s earlier investors also included angels like Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai and Alex Rainert, Groupme’s Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht, Rick Webb and Kevin Slavin.

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