Writen by guest author, Justin Cerone.
It was the last Tuesday of October. More than 500 start-up enthusiasts had filled the Chase Auditorium to celebrate Chicago entrepreneurship in the latest edition of Technori Pitch.
In moments, seven of Chicagoland’s most promising start-up ventures would take the stage to demo, and in some cases launch, their newest solutions. Featuring the home inventory space, children’s banking tools, a recommendation engine, multiple mobile apps and a “Startup for Startups”, the most recent Pitch event spotlighted some of the brightest newcomers to Chicago’s tech scene.
As entrepreneurs, investors, developers, students, and others gathered in the auditorium around 7pm to witness the on-stage start-up extravaganza begin for the # time since Technori was launched, optimistic anticipation reverberated throughout the room.
This moment had been in the making for five months, thanks to a made-in-Chicago attitude and approach led by Seth Kravitz, who co-founded Technori.
Preparations were highlighted by the largest attendee and largest venue in the history of Technori Pitch. Since launch, through its organic fanbase growth and appeal, this was the third time Technori has been driven to upsize its spotlight/celebration of local (and aspiring) tech entrepreneurs and their cohorts.
Still, the third Technori Pitch had a familiarity to it. Attributable to the aforementioned organic fanbase growth, the crowd recognized familiar faces in one other. One could tell the third Technori Pitch was closer to an intellectually stimulating geek-friendly destination than the sexy startup showcase-turned primetime “show” that was on display tonight. Nonetheless, “freshmen” were allthesame welcomed by Technori veterans.
Enthusiastic about the content, outwardly intrigued by the context, and inspired by the palpable optimism unique to Pitch, one could tell the crowd had a unified sense of pride. This was an important night for the Chicago startup community, the strong attendance a sign of solidified hometown support.
And as the moment that attendees were waiting for finally arrived, that reverberating, optimistic anticipation reached a climax, and soon began to dominate the countdown-to-kickoff lead-in.
A prelude to the meat and potatoes of tonight’s Pitch, TechWeek Founder Jon Pansky began the on-stage presentations by announcing important improvements to their techweek.com website. The focus of his message was the site’s new content aggregation service, RSS options, and regionally-focused coverage, but the free ticket to TechWeek 2012 that Jon raffled off seemed to be all the crowd really needed to get into the flow of the evening. Congratulations to winner Jonathan Pirc of Lab42.
Now with the warmup lap over, the first startup of the night took the stage…
Have you ever wondered how much your stuff is worth? Lockboxer, led by exuberant Founder Jennifer Morehead, proved you’re not alone.
Lockboxer helps you catalog and value the items that make your house a home, then makes it easy and IRS-friendly for you to insure, sell or donate those very same wares – thanks to an electronic inventory solution and collaboration with eBay, Salvation Army, Goodwill, and 800-GOT-JUNK. Lockboxer’s freemium subscription model is complemented by sales of display ads and insurance leads – a combination that brings an inherent synergy to their monetization efforts.
Though there was some technical difficulty during the Lockboxer Pitch, one aspect was consistent: Jennifer Morehead is definitely passionate about her newly-minted concept. She displayed the pride and persona of a Founder that makes you want to buy from their company. And that bodes very well for Lockboxer, as it works to fill a need at the intersection of home cataloging and insurance, while wisely providing the necessary supporting documentation to keep users on the up and up.
Utilizing the age-old entrepreneurial approach of solving a problem that many people experience frequently, Brian Busche was next on stage explaining how his BankBadger venture would help parents teach their young ones about banking – in a way that banks themselves can’t even currently offer.
Inspired by two youngsters of his own, Brian recognized a problem (actually, two problems) when trying to teach them responsible money management. The first problem was that due to COPPA regulations, banks can’t legally offer online banking experiences to people under 13. That online experience, he mused on stage, would be beneficial to kids as they became adults. And the second problem? Kids, like many adults, see little but drudgery associated with the term “money management”.
Those experiences helped Brian learn that none of the existing online banking sources could fulfill the need for what is now BankBadger’s core offering: an online money management teaching tool. Confident his online banking would appeal to kids if they could earn redeemable, valuable badges (think Foursquare) for reaching money milestones, Brian built BankBadger to be a compelling solution to an apparently widely-reaching problem.
Still in Beta and admittedly Lean, Brian was searching for BankBadger’s sustainable revenue streams at Pitch time. But that uncertainty is contrasted by this fact: BankBadger is an early entrant into a new niche that serves a large potential segment which already has demand driven by Users.
Next on stage was Utellit, a mobile app that allows you to speak and send messages just as easily as sending an SMS or IM.
As text-based messaging has established itself as society’s communication medium of choice, audible messages now practically cause us to deviate from our everyday norm. But, for as fast and easy as textual communication can be, it can also reek of indifference and lack emotion. This presents a unique opportunity for audio-based messaging to stand out as a powerful and differentiating alternative to fast, easy communication.
At least that’s the theory that persuaded Founder Rishi Khullar to launch the startup app venture that he was now demo’ing on stage.
Like any sound entrepreneur, Rishi recognized a problem: our fixation with communicating through abbreviations, acronyms, and other short phrases had made our messages soulless – or, in his exact and, ironically, typed words: “LAAAAAAAAMMMMMEEE”.
So Rishi built Utellit to solve that problem and bring emotion and uniquity back into our daily messaging lives. The secret weapon to do this, he explained in his “my-other-job-is-a-comedian” Pitch persona, was (gasp) the human voice.
Everyday end-users, he said on stage, would find Utellit’s social media integration and voice filters compelling and fun enough to speak-and-share in lieu of typing. Developers, Rishi hypothesized, would want to incorporate Utellit’s functionality into their own apps for capturing user feedback. And for now, he’s counting on said developers’ payments for access to Utellit’s API to be the startup’s main revenue boon.
Will voice overthrow King Text in the near future? Extremely doubtful. But with Utellit, users will at least have the tools needed to wage a rebellion for injecting personality back into daily communication everywhere.
Next on stage was Berst, a mobile app venture led by Founder Caleb Foster that allows you to “chat with people who are nearby”. Though that tagline may seem abstract, the actual concept itself is concretely simple (in a good way) in what it offers users. And as we’ll soon see, it’s capable of increasing the “richness” of one’s daily life.
Users login with either their Facebook or Twitter account, and then start or participate in contextually relevant conversations. Context, according to Berst, is driven primarily by a user’s location. Tech.li writer Brian Koles probably described this core Berst offering best in saying that “it’s essentially a way to create location-based chatrooms”.
OK, but what about that whole “increasing the richness of one’s daily life” element that was mentioned earlier?
At an event filled with Tech-head jargon and web-based ideas, Foster delivered what was probably the most human element of the night in describing how he personally uses Berst. Recalling posting images of the time he’d spent in a local coffee shop for a friend who also enjoys that same location, Berst’s Founder intimated such actions can deepen relationships with friends. It’s hard to argue with his logic.
For all the clarity behind their offering, one element of Berst was still TBD: a monetization strategy. The iTunes price of ‘FREE’ may be good for building a user base, but its impact on revenue streams will need to be re-visited at a later date.
JumpRope, the next Pitch demo to claim the stage, brought smiles to the faces of seasoned urban bar-goers in every corner of the auditorium.
Founder Peter Braxton began with the story that sparked the app venture that Technori fans were now watching on-stage. That story was his problem recognition moment. Recalling an ill-timed experience at a Vegas club, or more accurately, in line at a Vegas club, Braxton then fast-forwarded the crowd to a live demo of his brand new mobile app.
Users can use JumpRope to skip those buzz-killing lines in front of popular nightlife venues by paying a “get right in”, cover-charge-included entry fee. JumpRope uses a proprietary algorithm that automatically adjusts the price of entry depending on a few real-time factors. And since nobody goes to the club solo, you can buy up to 4 passes at once for guests of your choice.
Currently monetizing by sharing the entry fee with participating venues, JumpRope debuted in our very own River North neighborhood. They plan to add NYC and Vegas venues to their network soon.
Clearly, JumpRope adds value for Users and venues alike. As with any solution that sells convenience, the more telling feedback will come when everyone tries using JumpRope at once. Once every user does get inside, however, something tells me there’ll be a toast (or two) to JumpRope.
All you need to know about the next Pitch is that it featured a local tech-trepreneur-turned-budding-reality TV star who is solving the explicitly stated problem of…drumroll, please……: “Yelp sucks”.
Kidding. Kind of.
WizOra, the recommendation engine for basically anything that one would do in an evening, helps users have fun while saving money. It does that by learning about each user’s interests, habits, and preferences, and then applying that knowledge to propose dining destinations and fun activities to enjoy. Savings are there to sweeten the pot, of course. Management’s hypothesis is that over time, WizOra will employ data from previous user behaviors to become uber-smart at proposing things you truly wish to experience in the future.
This “let us get to know you” approach taken by WizOra is how Founder Dan Novaes believes his website will solve the aforementioned problem of Yelp sucking.
Why does he believe that? Two reasons: 1. WizOra can make personalized recommendations that you’re actually interested in acting on (Yelp can’t) 2. There are no misleading – or “fake” as Novaes called them – reviews on WizOra (Yelp can’t say the same, he said).
And though WizOra promises those two critical elements that Yelp currently doesn’t offer, there’s one thing Yelp currently does that WizOra doesn’t: monetize their service.
Expect that to change soon. WizOra plays in a space that’s appealing to any number of local businesses or attractions. Novaes personally thought daily deal sites were the likeliest partner/affiliate. That appeal, coupled with already-proven demand, and an ever-growing addressable market makes WizOra a likely candidate to find their way to the revenue stream(s) soon.
When you close your eyes and picture a “Startup for Startups”, what do you see?
What our final Pitch venture of the evening – Junto – wanted attendees to see is a place where users can get help to launch their next big tech idea. By collaborating with a team of been there, done that entrepreneurs, mentors, technologists and investors, even the most non-technical Idea Man or Woman has the strong support and guidance needed to make it big with Junto.
And that’s a value proposition that many aspiring tech-trepreneurs will no doubt find attractive.
Here’s what working with Junto is like:
1. You send in your idea for a mobile or web app
2. Junto’s team decides whether or not to help you build it
3. They help you crowdsource necessary funding
4. Junto assigns Mentors from their rolodex to work with you
5. Junto develops your offering – in exchange for 5% of future profits
6. Your concept goes to a focus group for refinement
7. You launch (YAY!)
If you were like many in the crowd, your first question revolved around the types of strangers – err, people – you’d be working with on your next game-changing idea. On stage, Junto’s founding team wisely referenced their relevant experience (link to Polymathic), and then assured the crowd of two other important points: 1. Junto is not in the business of stealing your idea to build it themselves; and, 2. They offer a wide, qualified network of potential contributors for your startup to benefit from.
While Junto Founder and CEO Marcy Capron is certainly leading an innovative undertaking, I personally see Junto as a chicken-or-the-egg situation at the moment. Notable success with an idea may not come until they receive an application from a truly gifted entrepreneur. And at the same time, gifted entrepreneurs with something truly worth building may not bring forward their ideas until they see that Junto has contributed to a notable success.
The good news is that situation is nothing that time and dedication by the Junto team can’t cure. Nonetheless, Junto’s launch will be one of the more interesting to follow from Technori Pitch # 3.
And then finally, after nearly two hours of charismatic, on-stage start-up speak, the October 25th Technori Pitch had seen its’ last presenting venture. Seven businesses came, saw, and then began walking the path to conquering their respective spaces and niches. And as nearly 500 attendees paid their thanks by helping to close the show with an ovation, you heard guests almost simultaneously start saying the same thing as they exited Chase Auditorium: I can’t wait for the next one.