Wow! What an exciting time for us. Last fall, I met with Julius and Sean to talk about our views on what we might do next, and we all shared the same passion: Helping early stage entrepreneurs. With that goal in mind. there were a number of good models in the market for us to consider:
1. Early stage venture capitalists like First Round Capital, and
2. Incubator programs like Y Combinator.
We felt that our biggest value was not just as investors, but as activist coaches to young entrepreneurs, and decided then and there to pursue starting an incubator program in Washington, DC.
We got a lot of questions from folk early on about the choice of location, but each of us had met enough individual talent over the years here that we knew that DC represented a great under-leveraged opportunity – smart people, but ineffectively networked and supported.
Right out of the gate, we got support from an amazing network of people who volunteered to be advisors to the companies – people like Ted Leonsis, the godfather of technology in Washington, Raul Fernandez, a great friend who has built two great businesses (Proxicom and ObjectVideo), Reed Hundt and Michael Powell, two amazing guys who, beyond being former FCC Chairmen, both have a huge passion and talent for helping early stage companies, Jon Miller, my dear friend and wickedly smart mentor from AOL days, and other successful entrepreneurs and executives too numerous to mention (Go to our site to see the full list – an all-star list of generous, talented folk).
This spring, we got close to 250 applications to the program from across the globe, and chose nine companies to join us in DC for the summer. We liked the teams when we first met them, but grew to love them all – so positive, so talented, so focused! With a little help and advice from the Founders and Advisors, they all did amazing things, and all in a matter of only 12 weeks.
This week, we present each of the nine companies to the world. Press, bloggers, angel investors, VCs, and a number of the big technology players will see first-hand the terrific set of businesses and products that have been built.
I have tremendous faith and confidence in the teams – I can’t wait for them to spread their wings.
To help you get a taste of things, I have pulled together brief descriptions of each company, and highlight some of the reasons why we think they can win.
BuzzHubb: A Better College Social Network
Founders: Satjot Sawhney and Ashish Kundra
My Perspective: Most people think the college communications market is saturated, but with 75% of Facebook users dissatisfied with their feed experience, and Twitter only in use by 7% of students in a poll we ran on several campuses, that is hardly the case.
BuzzHubb is best summarized as bringing the utility of next-gen Yahoo Groups to the mobile college student, but done in a creative, lightweight manner. The first fundamental element of BuzzHubb is that it establishes boundaries around the university campus – you can only join a school’s BuzzHubb community if you are part of the school (a great concept that Facebook championed). Once you have joined, you can join existing Hubbs, or quickly establish your own.
College students have complex, sometimes overlapping social group relationships. BuzzHubb makes communicating with those groups simple and engaging. A Hubb is a group of individuals who can share group messages quickly and easily from their phone, the web, or their social network. There are several types of Hubbs: Broadcast Hubbs, where you join, but there is a single author (e.g, the campus sports blog), Invitation-only Hubbs, where an existing member needs to invite you to join (a study group, a team, a special interest group) and all can contribute, and Open Hubbs, where anyone on campus can join and contribute (e.g., Obama 2008).
The UI allows you to quickly navigate all the Hubbs you are part of – a failing of the Facebook feeds metaphor. The mobile experience lets you opt to be alerted to new posts on a Hubb-by-Hubb basis, as well as share thoughts with friends or Hubbs via SMS or BuzzHubb’s WAP experience. The plan is to get it on 7 campuses in the Fall, learn, refine the experience, and then blow it out in the Spring.
Heekya: The Wikipedia For Stories
Founders: David Adewumi, Kwasi Nti, Rasvan Orendovici and Avner Ahmend
My Perspective: The current model of story telling on the web is pretty fragmented. There are really good individual repositories out there (YouTube, Flickr, and Photobucket are a few), but they focus primarily on a given category (photos, video), and have limited ability to address linear story telling. Blogging is a potential answer, but while there are close to 200 million blogs, only 600,000 posts occur each day – too many blogs die the slow death of neglect.
Heekya wants to encourage social story telling. They do this through several approaches.
First, they have a simple to use multi-media story builder that allows a story author to tap into their existing base of digital assets on Flickr, YouTube, PhotoBucket and Facebook. They also let the author use compelling public/shared content from those same sources. Good commenting and annotation tools help enhance the story, and simple sharing tools allow you to both share the story and post/embed it.
Second, they encourage alternate perspectives, allowing someone to clone a story and add or enhance it to create a linked, but unique story reflecting their own point of view.
Finally, they have a variety of browsing and discovery tools to let people see stories (and their related threads) along a variety of dimensions, including topic, geography, social connection, etc.
JamLegend: Guitar Hero Goes Social
Founders: Andrew Lee, Arjun Lall and Ryan Wilson
My Perspective: JamLegend is a new online music gaming experience, competing with the likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero with a disruptive offering. The experience is fun and engaging. It’s free, involves no client code, and has a very compelling social gaming experience at its core. The problems with the incumbents are:
• High price points. (Several hundred dollars to purchase the game, an instrument, and a library of music tracks)
• “Tethered” experiences – what I mean here is that they are console based games, which means you are effectively tethered to the living room, basement, or dorm room where your console lives
• Limited catalogs – the two incumbents focus on the major labels and English-language rock music. Rock Music is 34% of tracks sold on music sites. Other genres, artists (independents) and language groups are way under-represented
• Limited social gaming experiences, and infrequent releases to get new functionality into user’s hands.
JamLegend attacks these limitations head on. It’s free. It can be played whenever and wherever you are (using a full game guitar if you want, but it’s just as fun on keyboards or laptops)—play it on the road, at work, at a coffee shop. Its catalog will serve the indies, just as MySpace and Bebo have done, and include other genres like Country and Jazz. It also is built to allow artists to upload their work directly to the JamLegend community. And finally, it really has a compelling social experience that is much better than that of the incumbents, through fun head-to-head challenges as well as simulcast tournaments.
Koofers: Crib Notes For Picking College Classes
Founders: Michael Rihani, Glynn LoPresti, Patrick Gartlan and Doug Feit
My Perspective: Koofers – where were you when I was in school? Koofers started at Virginia Tech, with a campus rollout in 2007. In that one year, it became the third-most visited site by students, behind Facebook and MySpace. The reason? It allows students to make the relatively opaque process of class and teacher selection fully transparent, by providing grade distributions and teacher feedback to allow a student to shape their individual class schedule, based on their own needs and style (e.g., “I am fine with exams, but I hate teachers who give tons of quizzes”).
Once a student has started the semester, Koofers provides help by offering access to a collective repository of study guides, past exams, etc. This is something schools have had for over a century, but these vaults were only available to small groups of students (e.g., a fraternity). Now, those tools are available to all students. Koofers also supports ongoing communication between students and teachers through its community tools.
The reaction at its alpha deployment at Virginia Tech, coupled with positive feedback this Spring from a quick pilot during the last week of the term at the University of Maryland (where 1000+ users signed up), gives the Koofers team confidence that they have a winner here.
Koofers will deploy to 30+ schools this fall, to provide themselves a bigger test bed, and then look to launch more broadly in the Spring.
Mpowerplayer: Marketing Mobile Games On Facebook
Founder: Michael Powers
My Perspective: Mpowerplayer is targeted to fix the discovery problem in the mobile gaming market today. Unlike ringtones, where the explosive growth and repeat buyer habits of consumers has built a multi-billion dollar market, the mobile gaming market is stalled.
The biggest issues? No way for a consumer to know what they are buying in advance of the purchase, coupled with poor provisioning processes. With ringtones, consumers know the product they are buying—they’ve heard it on the radio, on TV, or own the track. With mobile games, there is no natural discovery process. It is click and pray for the purchaser. Only 5% of people with a games-capable handset have ever played a game on their phone, and less than a third of the people who buy a game ever purchase a second game. It is a huge problem for both carriers and game publishers seeking new sources of revenue.
Mpowerplayer solves this problem in two ways: It provides a PC-based means for consumers to play mobile versions of the games they are interested in (via an emulator), and, if they like a title, simplifies the purchasing experience. Once someone becomes a member of the Mpowerplayer community, the ability of Mpowerplayer to understand their playing preferences and purchases makes it a uniquely effective marketing partner to the publishers.
Mpowerplayer has supported over 15 million demo plays to date, and powers the mobile sites of both EA and Sprint. They have now built a Web-based demo experience, and will use that to accelerate their marketing efforts more broadly.
MyGameMug: Match.com For Gamers
Founders: Raymond Lau and Erik Yao
My Perspective: MyGameMug is trying to return the fun to online gaming . Take one minute and search “trash talking” on YouTube, and you can sample first-hand how bad is the current model of only matching players by skill level.
MyGameMug was started by a couple of avid gamers who wanted to create the match.com for online gaming. Their goal? To create a fun and engaging way to find the “gaming style” of a person, and use it to hook them up with people who are compatible with them to play with online. The core of the MyGameMug experience is a 36-question test that draws out important information about attitude, competitiveness, gaming interests, etc. The responses are then used to slot you into one of 16 different GameMugs. Think of it as a Meyers-Briggs test for gaming.
As you take the test, MyGameMug starts surfacing potential matches for you—the further you go in the test, the higher the matching accuracy gets. Once you complete the test, you can either see those people who are good matches for you and reach out in real-time to offer immediate game play, or use the scheduling tool to offer a potential future time/day to play.
In its first week of testing, over 12,000 people completed the entire test, reporting an 85% satisfaction of where they were slotted in the 16 different categories.
The goal is to start with getting people to take the test, and then draw people into being an ongoing part of the MyGameMug community with other value-added things like user generated reviews, group contests/tournaments, a reputation system, guild management tools, etc.
Razume: Resume 2.0
Team: Sam Blum, Kyle Stoneman (founders), Brian Turnbull, and Ryan Geist
My Perspective: Razume is addressing the needs of job seekers in the 21-35 year old demographic. While there are lots of businesses out there to help the employer (Job boards, etc.), there is a huge under-served opportunity to focus on the needs of the job seeker, especially ones without the power of a robust LinkedIn network to help them in their job seeking journey.
The opportunity: There are over 20 million job change events happening this year, and the average 18 year old today is expected to make over 10 job changes before they hit 38 years of age.
Razume helps the job seeker along three dimensions. First, it helps a person develop a professional resume, starting with powerful authoring tools and online tips, and then making it simple for a person to reach out and get tips on fine-tuning their resume from friends, associates, and just as importantly, the Razume community itself. Simple annotation and commenting tools allow people to give very specific feedback to turn someone’s resume into a better, more effective marketing tool.
After that, Razume helps get the resume into the market. That’s done through two means: a free one-click posting of the resume to the major job boards (a service that costs $59+ at other sites), and use of the Razume Job Finder to browse and bookmark jobs of interest from over 7 million job listings on the web.
Once a user has a call-back, Razume helps them prepare for that interview with useful tips and techniques, plus tools to help research prospective employers that, ultimately, helps a person get the job and make the right decision.
ShareMeme: Evite Meets Twitter
Founders: Ahson Wardak and Luc Castera
My Perspective: ShareMeme is an easy tool for sending messages, polls, invitations and other things to your friends and associated groups on the channels that they prefer.
ShareMeme is addressing a real problem today – inadvertent “spamming” of friends across all the channels you use to interact with people (SMS, Facebook, IM, email, Twitter, etc.). To reach our friends, we find ourselves broadcasting redundant messages across multiple channels to ensure our bases are covered. ShareMeme takes that problem head-on. It is built upon a powerful, self-learning platform that understands the nature of a given message, its priority, and recipient preferences to send the right message the right way to your targeted audience.
Interacting with ShareMeme is simple – you can use the mini-forms on the web site or its iPhone experience, or use its natural language interface via the web, SMS, Twitter, or Jott to say things like “Invite college friends to see the Opening Ceremonies at my house at 7pm on August 8″, and ShareMeme takes it from there. It understands the group “college friends”, the priority of the message, and users’ explicit or derived preference in interacting with you, and reaches out automatically via the most effective and user-respectful communications channel, be it SMS, Twitter, IM, your social network, or email.
The strategic desire of ShareMeme is to be the root location of recipient preference data on the web, as well as the place to define group relationships one time, in a manner that can then be leveraged by you anywhere you want, be it through mobile communications, email, or your social networks. Think of groups here as subsets of your social graph.
Zadby: Web Video Product Placement
Team: Tim McLaughlin (Founder), Beau Brewer (General Manager)
My Perspective: Zadby deals with the intersection of two phenomena: The continued lack of effectiveness of traditional advertising to reach the 18-35 year old demographic, and the poor means that independent web video producers have to monetize the value of the communities that follow them.
Zadby is a market maker for product placement in web video. It allows brand managers, agencies and others to tap into the network of independent web video producers, outline their needs and what they are willing to pay per CPM, and then producers create proposed videos, get them approved by the client, and offer them up to their communities, where they get paid on what traffic they generate.
The challenge is how to bring product placement to web video in a scalable manner. Zadby’s approach works to solve this problem (and we’ve seen it succeed with our trial efforts).
With YouTube only selling ads on 3% of its videos, producers are struggling to find a way to make their passion a real business. Yet, web producers are succeeding in building sizable communities who follow them. They may not be “Desperate Housewives”-sized communities yet, but at several hundreds of thousands of viewers, they rival the audiences of many cable TV shows. Zadby leverages the creativity and reach of these producers to create a useful pay-for-performance advertising option for them to add to their arsenal.