Written by: Matthew Dooley
On October 3, approximately 450 people gathered at Great American Ball Parkâ€™s Champions Club to hear from the founders of Cincinnatiâ€™s latest â€“ and possibly greatest â€“ startup companies. While the 11 teams had just six minutes to showcase their product, each pitch represented the culmination of a 14-week journey and â€“ for some â€“ a real chance at turning their dream into reality.
While each of these companies is very unique, the one thing they have in common is that they were able to reach this major milestone thanks to the Brandery, an Over-the-Rhine-based seed-stage accelerator for consumer marketing ventures. Every year, the Brandery selects eight to 12 companies and gives each of them $20,000 in seed funding, mentorship, a rigorous curriculum, and the opportunity to pitch to angel investors and venture capitalists on Demo Day.
According to the Branderyâ€™s General Manager, Mike Bott, there were twice as many applications this year than the first two years combined â€“Â and more applications equals higher quality applicants. Altogether, they represented 48 states and 43 countries. Only 10% of them were from Cincinnati, which means the Brandery has truly become a national player. Case in point: they consistently rank as one of the top programs in the U.S. (2011 and 2012)
The average age of this yearâ€™s finalists is 28. On one end of the spectrum is the CEO of FlightCar: a 17 year-old who deferred admission to Harvard. His partners stopped short of obtaining degrees at Princeton and MIT. On the other end is an eight-year Google executive, who is launching SocialThreader (AKA 360 Pager) with a couple of others; one of whom is a former national championship tennis player from India.
In addition to seed funding, the Brandery surrounds the selected startups with advice and experience so that they donâ€™t have to go through things for the first time quite as much. Typically, startups have very specialized knowledge and often neglect the importance of branding. Without proper guidance, they typically have to backtrack because of inefficient decision-making. The Brandery differentiates itself by focusing on this, and its headquarters in design-rich Cincinnati positions the accelerator for continued success.
The first company to present at the 2012 Demo Day was Crowdhall, a free social platform that allows anyone to easily host efficient, crowd-sourced town halls. The platform, which was actually used by Demo Day organizers and attendees, empowers â€śthe crowdâ€ť to organize its thoughts, articulate its questions and voice its perspective in a democratic way. Social media sites like Twitter and Reddit just donâ€™t get the job done. So, this team created a central location for two-way dialogue where anyone can speak their mind, â€śvote-upâ€ť content so that the best stuff is addressed, and tune into matters that are important to the greatest number of people. Meanwhile, those â€śat the topâ€ť can be efficiently informed and personally responsive. And itâ€™s not just for politicians â€“ companies, celebrities, bands, and event organizers can all create custom town halls. Shortly after their pitch, I made this bold prediction:
Time will tell, but theyâ€™re clearly on to something. I think a couple of their biggest challenges will be: 1. Convincing people to â€śstep inâ€ť to yet another platform when other tools might be good enough (albeit not ideal) and 2. Adding enough features to create a rich experience without sacrificing simplicity and control.
Plus, theyâ€™re in competition with all of the other startups who pitched that day.
The other presenters
Social Threader (San Francisco, CA) helps brand managers create synergy from their social content, regain control of their social pages and consolidate their fan base into a one-pager with a 360-degree view of their brand. Instead of disaggregated, multi-channel content, brands can converse with fans in a single location. There are other solutions out there, so itâ€™s most important for Social Threader to really play up the value of the dashboard for marketers versus expecting users to jump off of Twitter or Facebook and spend more time on a companyâ€™s website.
Off Track Planet (Brooklyn, NY) is a travel guide brand re-inventing the way people use the social and mobile web to travel the world. They claim to have invented the mobile solution for trips â€“ dreaming, planning and traveling. They have the content down, and the key will be moving users from viewers to sharers and creators.
Modulus (Cincinnati, OH) provides companies a place to host, scale, and gain insight into their web-based applications. It helps developers spend more time building and less time on infrastructure. Sure, sounds good.
REPP (Cincinnati, OH) is a transferable badge system that shows potential dates, employers, friends, and clients the kind of person you are. REPP allows you to run a background check on yourself, ensure the information is correct, and share it with those involved in your daily digital life. The key to success for them will be this last part: the incentive and ability for people to share. This is definitely a product that depends on network effects.
SocStock (New York, NY) is a platform that allows small businesses to get community-funded, zero-interest cash to fuel their growth. It seems these guys could borrow some functionality from Giftiki. The challenge for them will be to simplify the process for small businesses to convince their customers of the value and ease of funding their growth.
FlightCar (Princeton, NJ) is the â€śAirbnb of car rentals at airports.â€ť It is a marketplace that allows owners flying out of an airport to rent out their cars to arriving travelers. Check out their video here. Obviously, they need to build really strong relationships and case studies with airports, and theyâ€™ll face an uphill battle of insurance premiums. And, this might be just me, but Iâ€™d be a little uncomfortable with the idea of someone else using my car for an extended period of time.
Woowho (Seattle, WA) fixes the slow and painful online dating process by taking you quickly from online introductions to low-pressure, real-life meetings. Sounds neat, but itâ€™ll be pretty tough to pull users away from the dominant players, like Match and eHarmony. Perhaps they already have an exit strategy in mind.
Andtix (Cleveland, OH) is a mobile app that allows users to create and manage social gatherings in a simple, personal and clever way. Check out their video demo here. The biggest issue I see with this app is that invitation to these gatherings depends on the organizerâ€™s list of contacts, and thatâ€™s often the most difficult part about getting the word out.
Impulcity (Louisville, KY) is a personalized, location-based, event discovery platform that helps you identify cool events and interact with amazing new people. Iâ€™ve seen enough of these types of apps come and go that I donâ€™t feel overly confident in its success. But, they may know something that I â€“ and others â€“ do not.
Ontract (Chicago, IL) is real-time analytics for education. The system replaces the once-per-semester â€śprogress noteâ€ť with a real-time feedback loop between parents, teachers and students. I love this idea, and I just hope that heavy reliance on technology (e.g. smartphones) wonâ€™t prevent students, teachers or parents from latching on. Itâ€™ll be important to upgrade the technology from email/text only as quickly as its users choose to adopt.
I asked Mike Bott if there is one thing that all of these teams have in common, and he said they all have the desire to do â€śitâ€ť themselves. They want to make a difference, take it on their own shoulders and create their own jobs (preferably, right here in Cincinnati). They see the world differently and pursue opportunities to shake things up a little bit. A perfect example is Flightcar, whose founder is not even old enough to rent a car. He was traveling with his family and noticed an inefficiency â€“ row after row of parked cars at their departure, along with row after row of rental cars upon arrival. It was an â€śa-haâ€ť moment for him and a â€śduhâ€ť moment for the rest of us.
While these â€śnewbiesâ€ť are off to a great start, each needs significant investment to really take off. Luckily for them, Brandery companies have already developed a solid reputation. Youâ€™ve already heard from me about Roadtrippers and Venturepax, but there are other awesome products that have attracted a lot of users (and investors). Giftiki, which was purchased by LaunchRock in August, was in the Branderyâ€™s first class and raised $1 million in funding. The unique tool allowed users to send small amounts of money toward a collective fund, empowering the recipient to buy something they actually want. Another early success story is Choremonster, which is a web and mobile application that gives your kids a reason to do their chores using technology they know and love. Both of these have lent credibility to the Brandery â€“ and to Cincinnati â€“ as a hotbed of innovation.
If you think you have what it takes, start refining your concept and apply to be in the 2013 class early next year. In the meantime, stay tuned to the Brandery on Facebook and Twitter for classes, networking events and hackathons.