Plug and Play Portfolio company, Zoosk, files for IPO

Alex Mehr keynotes Plug and Play EXPO - Fall 2012

From Startup to IPO

It was only a few years ago when Saeed Amidi was first introduced to Alex Mehr and Shayan Zadeh.  At the time, Alex was attending UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and working on the early stages of a project–originally a product leveraging social media analytics.  It was from this early idea that Zoosk sprouted and would later become one of the largest online dating services.

Be the next Zoosk!

In 2007, the initial product soft-launched; self-described as, “a market research company that leverages social media.”  It was only a few weeks later that Facebook opened their applications platform.

As Alex and Shayan looked for ways to market their product and capture more data, they built out a number of Facebook games to drive adoption.  One of these games had “a dating connotation–and that thing just exploded,” said Shayan.

The Pivot

Alex and Shayan at Plug and Play Tech Center

Both Alex and Shayan came from a computer science and data-driven background–they were roommates at the University of Maryland while they completed graduate school for both computer science and mechanical engineering.

Alireza Masrour, Managing Partner at Plug and Play, shared the same sentiment about their approach: “For Zoosk, everything is about the numbers.”

Per Alex: “We’re both very comfortable with numbers and statistics… [you must] be able to instrument the product and measure how customers are responding…”

With this “numbers” paradigm in mind, one contributing factor to their success was implemented through an incredibly innovative approach to the dating scene: taking browser data and match-making consumer behaviors to similar profiles through their algorithmic solution, a “proprietary Behavioral Matchmaking engine.”

Plug and Play Investment

With Saeed, Alex and Shayan all sharing an Iranian immigrant background, the relationship naturally progessed to late 2007/early 2008, when Plug and Play jumped on the scene and invested with help from Shobeir Shoebeiri.  Shortly thereafter, Saeed introduced Zoosk to Mike Hodges at ATA Ventures.

Some time later, over a game of golf, Saeed brought up Zoosk to Deepak Kamra, General Partner at Canaan Partners.

Saeed says of Deepak, who had other dealings in the dating space: “He had the vision to fund in the very early days of the Internet, back in 1996 when most people were not on the Internet.”

It was a natural pairing between Zoosk and Canaan.  Tack on some of the most respected VC’s in ATA Ventures and Bessemer Ventures–Alex and Shayan had locked up perhaps the best “dates” available in Silicon Valley.

Zoosk’s traction skyrocketed in 2009, with “an average of 12 million unique users a month… [and] a member base totaling over 40 million.”

This growth trend has continued steadily: Zoosk raised over $60 million since their founding in 2007.  With over 650,000 paying subscribers across 80 countries and $178 million in revenues, Zoosk is one of Plug and Play’s greatest success stories.

Congratulations on the IPO!

At our Fall EXPO 2012, Alex Mehr returned as a keynote speaker–imparting his wisdom on trials and tribulations as a founder and scaling a startup to the 30 companies pitching.

We are so proud to have been a part of Zoosk’s incredible story.  With yesterday’s IPO announcement, and on behalf of Plug and Play, our alumni and our entire network:

Congratulations, Zoosk!

A quick word from our CEO & Founder, Saeed Amidi:


If You’re Going to Start a Company, Start One Like This

Starting a company today is EASY. So easy that 543,000 new businesses are started in the US each month. But as our partners over at Coca-Cola have pointed out, SCALING a company is hard. Startups need corporations to teach them how to scale. Fortunately, corporations also need startups (and lots of them) to function as agile and aggressive R&D units testing innovative ideas across a variety of verticals. This co-dependency, part of something we call the Innovation Trifecta, is driving major corporations to aggressively partner with accelerators and startups to start and scale companies together.

AJ Brustein of Coca-Cola visits Plug and Play

Strategically, you can increase your odds of starting a successful company by picking an industry with more corporate partnership opportunities. It will be easier to get funding, meet mentors, and find licensing or distribution partners.  Though we operate corporate accelerator programs in Auto, Telco, Health, Wearable, Insurance, Digital Media, and Bitcoin, we get the most interest and engagement from our corporate partners involved in our Brand & Retail Center of Technology accelerator.

Plug and Play Retail Mentor David Dorf of Oracle talks Retail Innovation

Before you run off and start the next digital coupon startup, take a minute to glean some insights from our Brand & Retail Center of Innovation Knowledge Base, including what type of startups are getting selected, funded, and accelerated through corporate partnership.

Retail, as defined by IDG, can be broken into the following product categories: Fashion & Apparel retailers like Gap or Victoria’s Secret; Hardline Retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond or Big 5; Big Box Stores like Walmart or Best Buy; Food & Beverage retailers like Coca-Cola or Hershey’s; Department Stores like Macy’s and Sears; and Etailers like Amazon, though it is worth noting that many brick and mortar retailers have their own significant online/Etail presence.

Retail technology often solves problems that cross over product categories, for example inventory management or marketing personalization. The crossover offers corporations that normally don’t interact a unique platform to collaborate. For example, at our last Retail Startup Selection day, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi, Sears, Clorox, Lowes, Staples, and Star Micronics participated in a round table discussion to select the startups in our latest Retail Accelerator class. Insights and experiences were shared. Ideas were generated. Startups were picked. To see what industry leaders are looking for in startup partnerships, you need only take a look at our Retail Portfolio Page.

Of the 236 startups who applied, 39 were selected with an average valuation of $1-10 Million. Though most of the startups came from the bay area, we also accepted startups from France, Poland, Germany, and Italy.

The companies selected were working on innovative solutions geared towards customer loyalty and consumer engagement, social engagement, predictive analytics and forecasting, in-store location, mapping, and beacon systems, perimeter and payment security, and Omni-Channel integration – the creation of a seamless approach to the consumer experience through all available shopping channels.

The Mentors who will work with these startups are an impressive group and include Kurt Kober from The Clorox Company, Aj Brustein from the Coca-Cola Company, Michelle Collins from Procter & Gamble, Jon Strande from The Hershey Company, Andy Chu from Sears Holdings, and Mike Calbert from KKR.

If you work at a Brand, Retailer, or Retail Enabler, or if you have a retail company looking for funding, business and customer development, or networking opportunities in the retail tech sector, check out our Brand and Retail Center of Innovation and join us at an event or contact us for more info.

The Great Data Unknown

If you were at Plug and Play’s EXPO last month then you saw emerging technology demos from hot companies in hot spaces like Retail POS technology, indoor mapping and location driven mobile advertising. You also saw, but may not have noticed, a startup working on a better way to leverage Unstructured Data in app development. Unstructured Data, data that is not organized in traditional database tables, accounts for somewhere between 70-90% of all data in organizations, depending on who you ask. A rush of companies are working on solutions to help developers search, leverage, and utilize this data. Stretchr, a Startup Camp Alumnus, is throwing its hat into the ring with a pretty powerful solution.

Part of the driving engine behind Unstructured Data growth is rich content. For the first 30 years of the internet, the majority of data shared was simple text. As platforms like Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and countless others have become more popular, so has rich content like photos, videos, music, and documents like powerpoint that combine various formats. This has led to a boon in Unstructured Data. How do organizations organize and utilize this data? How can developers build apps on top of it?

The problem lies in traditional database structures like SQL or Structured Query Language. SQL is a database programming language for relational databases. In a relational database, data is collected and organized into tables with rows and columns, similar to an Excel spreadsheet. It’s an efficient way to organize data, but it’s rigid and hard to scale.

Developers looking for a more flexible data model have turned to NoSQL, a database language that stores and aggregates data into documents. Data can be dumped in several formats without any formal structure. This makes it very easy to read and write new data (hence making it faster to scale), but duplication of data requires more storage. Since storage is so cheap, the tradeoff is worthwhile for companies struggling to keep up with massive influxes of data because it allows them to store the data without taking the time to parse and organize it. However, it doesn’t make it easy to later utilize that data.

Enter Stretchr, a 5-person team with a patent-pending technology designed to solve 3 major pain points in working with Unstructured Data.

1) Lack of NoSQL expertise

Developers who want to work with a database need to speak a database language. Stretchr’s restful API and open source SDK give developers a way to ingest their Unstructured Data then start writing applications in more common languages like Javascript.

2) Lost Data Relationships

Whatever relationships that existed between bits of Unstructured Data are lost when you dump it into NoSQL. Stretchr has a patent pending data agnostic nesting architecture that preserves the relationships, making it easier to access relevant data.

3) Constant rebuilding of backends

Every time you build an application you have to build a database to support that application. A database admin will have to structure data and forecast how it is going to behave. To scale the app, the database admin has to use a combination of scaling, caching, and sharding to optimize performance. Stretchr does that for you.

Add these three solutions up and you get a platform where app development on top of Unstructured Data is super fast and simple. So what kind of use cases is the Stretchr team addressing?

“Nobody has focused on the complexities that developers face when using unstructured data” says CEO Christian Wolfe. The potential of the data is enormous, he says. “It allows for very rapid application development using metadata that has not been seen before. You can find needles in haystacks. A simple app that takes a week to build could take an hour.”

Stretchr went through the Plug and Play Startup Camp and pitched at our last EXPO. To learn more about Startup Camp and apply for the next class, visit

Plug and Play Bitcoin Announces Inaugural Class

On Bitcoin and Startups

I was at CoinSummit last week, lucky enough to attend Pamir’s incredible showcasing of the thought leaders in Bitcoin, which included Marc Andreessen, Chamath Palihapitiya, Balaji Srinivasan and Naval Ravikant among many others (watch the videos here).

(Image courtesy of, March 2014)

A thoughtful question was posed to me when confronted as to my position in Bitcoin.  The inquiry: “Have you ever even been in a ‘third world country?’”

It struck me as both indicting and liberating at the same time.

Technically, I’ve never ventured into a third world country—So the argument must stand that I have no idea what obstacles are faced on a daily basis. While I’ve dug 20 foot deep holes for outhouses or built structures for the homeless, I’ve never have been faced with the reality that I might not have any locally available running water or other infrastructures we take for granted in the US and other “first world” environments.

Ironically, the term, “a third world country” is often intertwined with what I believe to be the gist of most statements when it’s used in relation to describing a “developing country.”

For me, Bitcoin represents an opportunity to uniquely and decisively offer opportunity for many people in the world who would ordinarily be stratified within the social statuses, political environments and the lack of mobility imposed upon them.

Whether it’s due to over-arching governments, or the lack of access to internet (or even electricity), I am very privileged to have grown up surrounded by luxuries often unparalleled—especially having had the lifestyle imbued on those in living in Silicon Valley.

However, I can understand opportunity.  I can understand that certain solutions might mean a new business or merely an avenue to raise living conditions for a respective community.

With Bitcoin, all you need is a cell phone.  Not even a smart phone—and as cell phone services penetrate the global economy, Bitcoin becomes even more tangible and ubiquitous.  And just like the cell phone leapfrogged a high-stakes and large capital asset entry requirement, I believe Bitcoin will do the same.

(Image courtesy of eMarketer, Dec. 2013)

Here is my quick list of why Bitcoin is incredibly important and what it means to the world:

With Bitcoin,

1)      …commerce is available directly to any merchant and is comparatively cheap.

2)      …value is available to be stored without any middleman.

3)      …security is enforced without any oppression.

4)      …a trustless and financially transparent infrastructure is available for nearly everyone.

5)      …financial services finally have competition.

This is why I’m working on Bitcoin. 

And if all you’re concerned about is Bitcoin’s price, you’re missing the point.  Bitcoin, the currency, is just one application built upon the protocol: the decentralized blockchain technology is the true innovation.

Of course, I’m not alone and I’m honored to have the ability to work with some of the best in the business.  Yesterday, Andreas Antonopoulos was kind enough to lend his time in helping our startups road map their security for product development.

Last Friday we had Terrence Yang, Vivy Chao (of Yang Ventures) and Chris Haroun (of Artis Ventures) speak on early stage startups and the obstacles involved in fundraising.  Today, we had Juan Llanos outline the compliance and regulatory landscapes.

Juan Llanos remotes into our Mentor Session April 1st, 2014

Next week, we’ll have Pete Dougherty speak on AML/KYC and David Chen of Lightspeed Ventures detail the fundraising strategies and obstacles Bitcoin startups face.

The best companies solve big problems with lots of help.

I believe there is an incredible opportunity for those who can develop solutions for people who are either unbanked or under-banked.  Where there are locations with incredibly restrictive capital controls or hyperinflation, Bitcoin can optimize the current or the lack of infrastructures.

With this paradigm in mind, I am incredibly proud and pleased to present Plug and Play’s inaugural class of Bitcoin startups, who are working on optimizing Bitcoin solutions for a better, faster and more powerful global economy:

37 Coins is your global Bitcoin wallet. It makes financial transactions as simple as sending a text.

CryptoTrustPoint: Instantly get your money when you buy, sell or trade Bitcoins, Altcoins and Dollars.

 Holy Transaction: A multi-currency wallet developed by Novelty Lab.

Purse.IO: Get and spend bitcoins!

Join us tonight to meet the teams at the Silicon Valley Bitcoin Meetup.

If you’re a startup or have an idea for a bitcoin solution, apply today for our next batch due to start in Q3 later this year.

Have questions? Shoot me an email:




Plug and Play Spring EXPO Round-up

55 startup companies from Plug and Play’s Retail, International, Media, and Startup Camp accelerators took the stage at our quarterly pitch event EXPO yesterday. Over 900 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, corporate partners, and tech geeks showed up to watch the 3-min demos which, collectively, demonstrate they type of companies that are securing funding and gaining traction today.

In Retail, Point of Sale technology at the grocery store continues to be a hot area, as does indoor mapping and location driven mobile advertising, particularly solutions that capture shoppers in-store.

Connected home technology was also received well, perhaps because Google’s $3.2 billion dollar purchase of Nest is still high on investors’ minds.

Ultimately, the judges picked 5 companies which are not only hot (measured by traction and/or revenue), but also heavily disruptive. Without further adieu, here are your Spring 2014 EXPO Winners:


  – Tulip Retail’s tablet app gives retail sales associates access to product, inventory and customer information that empowers them to answer questions, make personalized product recommendations and transact more sales.

 - Fast track for the checkout aisle.

  - Goji develops Smart Locks that provide home access control and information—including picture alerts—to your smartphone.

 - Hotels, Airlines, Car Rental companies and Airports can use Altitude to get booking details and verified IDs from nearby travelers.

 - Shippo’s API gives E-commerce stores Amazon-like shipping discounts and infrastructure.

If you couldn’t make it out yesterday to watch the pitches, scan through this list and see what kind of companies are getting funded today.

MORNING SESSION: Brand and Retail

 - xAd helps brands harness the power of accurate location data to produce measurable results from mobile advertising.

 - CartCrunch gives you real time prices for your grocery list in all local retailers. For US Android/iOS users.

 - Data, predictive, and prescriptive analytics for the physical retail world

 -  product authentication system used by brands to allow customers to assess the authenticity of their products.

 - Grability is a new way of shopping that mimics the best of brick and mortar shopping with the convenience of online shopping.

 - Bluefox is influencing in store shoppers with targeted digital signage. Their advertisements reach as many viewers as the Super Bowl…every day.

 - Experts in video analytics, Quividi does real-time audience measurement for ad-supported digital signage networks.

 - ReadyPulse software helps brands leverage social content from their brand ambassadors, their best marketing asset.

 - Retailigence powers and attributes Online-to-Offline marketing and shopping by leveraging unique access to local in-store product and brand availability data as well as location-based mobile shopper insights.

 - MIKA is an editorial shopping platform that features top fashion and lifestyle brands. MIKA utilizes innovative technology to create a visually stunning eCommerce experience unlike any other.

 - Sotrender provides companies with actionable insights enabling them to manage and optimize social media marketing.

 - The Machine Learning platform that gives organizations the power to discover deep analytic insights, predict future trends, make recommendations and reveal untapped markets and customers.

 - Cloud-based interactive advisors help customers choose products, services or things they’ll love – online, mobile and at the POS.

 - Profitect uses pattern analytics to identify revenue reducing activities, and integrated task management provides timely, detailed, and guided actions to resolve the issue. Improvements to the top and bottom line are continuously measured, ensuring sustainability across the business.

 - KaChing! makes coupon marketing more efficient, targeted and secure through a proprietary POS-integrated mobile coupon solution.

 - Indoor GPS technology to micro-locate
shoppers in-store and connect them with products, things, and deals inside the store.

 - Productsup is an intuitive and intelligent product data management platform. Easily collect product data from suppliers, optimize and structure the data, and distribute customized feeds to hundreds of shopping and
marketing channels.

 - MomentFeed dramatically reduces the effort and time needed to manage local communications at the corporate level while also making it safe and easy to take input from the field.

AFTERNOON SESSION: Startup Camp, International, Media & More!

 - All Square Golf harnesses and connects the passion and power of people’s love for golf on one completely free, accessible and engaging social media site designed exclusively for golfers.

 - WhalePath is an on-demand research platform where professionals can order business research from a group of qualified and vetted postgraduate students.

 - Gist uses natural language processing and machine learning to distill massive news feeds into key facts and informed opinions that are easier to digest.

 - “Sowt”, Arabic for “voice”, is an audio-based social networking platform, offering people the ability to engage and interact using short audio posts.

 - Bitlock combines hardware and software elements to enable bicycle sharing for bike fleet owners.

 - Grandata big data analytics platform integrates telcos, social media and third party data to generate actionable insights on human behavior.

 - Qwalytics natural language engines instantly turn business questions into reports (table/chart/pie) and dashboards.

 - Routezilla enables businesses and their customers to seamlessly book on-the-go personnel in real time.

 - OLSET is a big data company that enables any virtual assistant app or travel booking provider to personalize and simplify travel booking.

 - RedTroops is an auction-based eBay style marketplace for in-app advertising.

 - RaynForest is a marketplace for brands to hire influencers to create viral content.

 - Intentiva tracks your movements and infers your intentions to facilitate interactions with TVs and other devices.

 - Listnerd is the TripAdvisor for entertainment. Interest-based communities can create top lists about the best local events.

- Skimo uses machine learning to automatically convert a long-form video (in any language) into 2-3 minute complete video summaries.

 With Snip2Code, developers can easily add, search, or share code snippets through their web application, dev environment plugins, and desktop software.


 - brings curated, innovative design & home decor products from around the globe to Latin America.

 - NextdoorPros helps reward real estate agents for distributing leads to residential contractors.

 - CrowdProcess connects thousands of consumer devices through the internet, using the browser to make a massively parallel grid for supercomputing.

 - TalentCove mobile-first SaaS solution is a powerful “performance engagement” platform transforming how employees and teams engage, develop and excel at work.

 - is a tool that tells businesses where customers are on Google, Bing, Quora, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and 3rd party blogs.

 - Retailers can use ProxToMe’s bluetooth kit to capture shoppers info and influence their purchase experience in-store through branded apps and a web dashboard.

 - Stretchr helps developers minimize ramp up time (get started immediately), and query and leverage unstructured data through new applications.

 - Zighra provides effortless, automatic, and instantaneous user recognition by adding an invisible security layer to mobile authentication.

 - A virtual API to track and monetize or block web scraping on your website.

 - “e-Harmony” matching for financial advisors and the self-employed.

 - Schedule Savvy offers free scheduling and team management software to home cleaning businesses, lowering “slack time”. Customers get access to their availability, prices, and reviews before making booking.

 - Legittrader is a fully verified and transparent social trading platform to teach people how to invest through observation.

 - Home automation bluetooth hub maker Lithouse adds cross-device connectivity so you can control connected devices from outside of the home.

 - Right Relevance recommendation platform redefines mobile reading by unleashing the power of influencer communities.

 - Blue Perch helps Tech-savvy job seekers map their employable skills in a natural language, mobile friendly format.

 -  LoungeBuddy provides a platform for on-demand airport lounge access.

 - Chemisense makes a wearable air quality monitor to help people breathe smarter.



The Innovation Trifecta

There is something brewing in the way corporations interact with new technologies. Rather than pour millions of dollars innovating through internal R&D departments, corporations are putting their R&D efforts on the market and discovering new technologies through acquisition, investment in startups, and participation in accelerator programs like Y-Combinator and Plug and Play.

When a corporation, an accelerator, and a startup company work together, something amazing happens – EVERYBODY wins. To understand how this is possible, we need to look at what quality corporations, accelerators, and startups are looking for. Let’s start with corporations.

Good corporations have great management, right? From the CEO down to the customer-facing representatives, every process is planned and executed with precision. In other words, they are logistical geniuses. But operating at such a large scale comes with a cost – process makes it very difficult to act nimbly. Corporations struggle to innovate simply because they cannot test enough new ideas in real life situations. What they need is stake in a laboratory where 1,000 slightly different ideas run by 1,000 slightly different teams can all try their hand in the market. Instead of spreading thin their R&D investments, they could devote larger amounts to the most promising “experiments” after seeing what actually works.

Good startups have great products, right? They’ve isolated real world problems and discovered novel solutions. They’ve tested their products in small circles and iterated based on user feedback. But remaining nimble means breaking a lot of the process rules that large operations require to stay afloat. As startups’ businesses grow, they struggle with large scale operations. It’s one of the differences I see between startups and corporations – a corporation generally has to survive on revenue from its customers, whereas a startup can go for years on raised money if they show exciting growth potential or the possibility of massive market penetration. The kind of inefficient processes that could squeeze the narrow competitive margins that corporations make can go unnoticed at startups.

Accelerators need their investments to succeed. At the end of the day, Plug and Play invests in startup companies. Everything we do is designed to further our value as investors. Though the cash is helpful, our real value comes in connecting our 250 portfolio companies with our 150 or so corporate partners. We do this through a number of ways – we have two Venture divisions committed to sourcing, reviewing, interviewing, and vetting over 3,000 startups every year. Our complimentary Corporate division develops relationships with corporate partners then acts as an evangelist for the needs of those partners, constantly checking in with the new prospects from the Ventures department. When a strong startup is solving a problem that a Corporate Partner has expressed, an introduction is made. We held over 200 of these meetings last year. We also host over 300 networking events per year, giving all parties a place to mingle and network.

Here’s where it all comes together. We review thousands of startups to find the diamonds in the rough. Corporations spend a fraction of their R&D budgets to have our entire team researching and vetting startups for them. Startups piggy back from our office space, network, and funding. When a mutual fit is found, the three of us get into a room together – the company gets first access to cutting edge technology, the startup gets access to potential business, licensing, or acquisition partners, and Plug and Play’s portfolio gets stronger.

Plug and Play holds a quarterly pitch competition where our best portfolio startups, accelerator candidates, and international startups pitch to a room full of our corporate and investor partners. It’s a rapid, fast-paced version of the business as usual that goes on in these halls and if you’ve never been it’s one hell of a show. The best part is, it’s happening tomorrow, Thursday, March 27. Details and registration can be found here.

I hope you can make it. If you liked this article, let us know @plugandplaytc or on our Facebook Page.

How I Made My Way Through SXSW

If you have never heard of South by Southwest (SXSW), then I don’t believe you exist. It’s the largest interactive festival in the world AND the largest music festival in the world, at the same time and place. The venue is Austin, Texas – a vibrant city full of government employees (it’s the state capital), students (home to University of Texas), and musicians (I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I hear 6th street can hold its own against Bourbon Street). The festival takes over the entire town – more than 30,000 people gather to watch 1,000 interactive sessions and 2,000 bands across 100 official venues over a 13 day span.

Like small talk in a business meeting, planning your time at SXSW is both important and useless. Yes, you can maximize your chances of meeting the game changing business contact by planning meetings before hand and visiting as many networking parties as you can, but some of the best contacts I made at SXSW happened while I was taking time “off” to enjoy a band or grab a bite to eat. No matter how hard you try, you’ll only experience about 5% of the activity at SXSW. My advice to you – pick a few things you really want to do and let your SXSW experience develop in between and around those activities. This was my list:

Day 1: Eat BBQ

You won’t go hungry at SXSW – you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a food truck caravan, but everyone you know will ask you if you ate BBQ when you get home, so you might as well. Franklin Barbecue is famously good, so when I heard that Mopub, an Ad Serving startup recently acquired by Twitter, was serving Franklin bbq at their house party, I made it the highlight of my first day at SXSW.

A few beers and a full stomach later, I had met my first batch of contacts – a guy who started a music education program for underprivileged youth, a “well-known” “investor” with “great connections”, and a handful of enthusiastic sales people eager to make friends, collect business cards, and find their next clients. I didn’t discover the next early stage startup for Plug and Play to invest in, and I didn’t get hired to build an app for anyone, but I got my BBQ and added reconnaissance to my team – friends I could text to ask how long the line at the Spotify house was or whether the bars on Rainey street were checking badges.

Day 2: Watch Comedy

Seeing standup comedy was on my SXSW bucket list, so when I heard Sinbad and Jim Brewer were performing at Esther’s Follies, I made my way over. On our way there, we met Robert Morris and Dan McDuff, two guys who work in the MIT Media lab run by Joi Ito. They work on software that analyzes and integrates human emotion. Their research can be powerful – imagine a software that uses your web cam to analyze your facial movements, detect emotion, and predict how likely a youtube video is to go viral? It’s not hard to imagine big brands being interested in that kind of information. They had also just won an interactive award for creating a keyboard that shocks you when you spend too much time on Facebook. I mentioned I was competing in the SXSW hackathon the next day and asked if they would join us for the initial brainstorm. They agreed, and my hackathon team got smarter.

Day 3-4: Compete in a Hackathon

A hackathon is a competition amongst developers to create an app in a short period of time, usually 24 hours. SXSW hosted its inaugural music hackathon this year and I applied along with 6 developers and a designer from SF AppWorks, the dev shop working closely with Plug and Play to build their new website and startup community platform. The format for a hackathon is pretty standard – sponsors present their APIs and explain how developers can integrate their product into the hack. Want to stream music? Spotify and Beats Music will provide the library. Want to build a car app? Chevy has an HTML-5 API so you can build the next in-car dashboard app.

After the initial presentations, we brainstormed for 30 minutes as a team and decided to build a Silent Disco app for iPhone. If you’ve never been to a Silent Disco, it’s awesome. Hundreds of people gather to dance to electronic music – hands are waiving, the DJ is rocking, and everyone is wearing synchronized headphones. Outsiders hear nothing, other then grunts and extraordinarily loud “I LOVE THIS SONG!!”s. It’s hilarious.

Unfortunately, another company had already built a Silent Disco app and one of the criteria was to be innovative. We knew we had to go further. So we started to consider how to make the Silent Disco better. We wondered what was missing. Conversation, we realized. You can’t talk to other people with your headphones on.

We decided to explore this concept a bit more. Why would you want to listen to headphone music with somebody else and still be able to talk? We mapped out a few use cases:

1. You are in a dorm and want to have a party, but can’t be loud. You invite people over and have your silent disco, but add conversation so people can still talk.
2. You want to go running, snowboard, biking, or some other group activity. You enjoy listening to music when you do this activity alone, but when you are with a group you don’t listen to music so that you can still talk.
3. You are studying or working in a coffee shop. You want to listen to music, but from time to time be able to talk with your friends.
4. You are watching a movie with friends, but one of them doesn’t speak English. They want to stream a Spanish version of the language but still be able to ask occasional questions.

I asked myself the most important question before taking on any personal technology project – would I use this? I do run with my brother. We do talk. I do listen to music. I would definitely try it out and if we could get the VOIP working smoothly enough, I would love it. Let’s build a silent disco with VOIP!

3 hours into our 24 session and we had wireframed the app, prioritized the feature list, and delivered the roadmap to the developers. For the next 20 hours we furiously coded, trimmed features, made adjustments, and prayed that we would finish our prototype and successfully demo it on stage. The organizers were good to us – twice they invited musicians in to provide us with entertainment and a mental break. At one point I slept for 20 minutes and woke up in a panic because I thought I had slept for hours. 5 min before the demo we were still resolving a bug that prevented MUSIC FROM PLAYING. That’s how close we were to completely failing. Yet, when the bells went off and we took the stage, the app, which we called “Rock n Talk”, somehow held it together long enough to show the concept.

We used Gracenote to analyze your playlists and Spotify to stream them (we tried to integrate with BeatsMusic, but their streaming protocol RTMP is not natively supported by iOS). You could launch your own “music room” or join an existing one. Other people could join your room and listen to your playlist, and when you tapped a user in the room the music would dim and you could begin your conversation.

There were a hundred or so people that participated in the hackathon and 31 hacks were submitted for consideration. We weren’t picked as finalists, but we were proud to be a part of the experience and genuinely thrilled at the realization that we could build a working prototype in 24 hours. More importantly, we got approached by 3 major music companies who wanted to meet and discuss working together. They were the best meetings I could have asked for and they came to us because we took a chance, worked our butts off, and tried to do something impactful. If that’s not a lesson for startup hustle, then I don’t know what is.

There was a lot more to my SXSW experience that didn’t make it into the blog, including Plug and Play’s CEO Saeed Amidi speaking on our Berlin Digital Media startup accelerator. There is plenty of information available on that program here, and you can see our own technology EXPO next week if you are interested in some other top notch cutting edge companies.

I also didn’t mention the tragedy that occurred on Red River between 9th and 11th, not because it wasn’t important, but because there is a lot of in depth coverage and I didn’t want to casually allude to something so terrible. It was a sobering and perspective-rocking moment for us all and our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

Sellbox lets you buy files with Bitcoin

Another step has been taken in the march to make Bitcoin the leading digital currency. The Polish startup Sellbox is a startup company that created a platform that enables the user to sell digital good from their cloud in mere seconds.


“We give you this short link that you can post on your twitter, Facebook, or on your website. When someone clicks the link, they will see your product page with all your descriptions, images, and the price. When they pay you get your money instantly,” said Piotr Machowski, CEO and Founder of Sellbox.

With their platform, Sellbox facilitated the sale of a variety of digital products, such as video tutorials, indie video games, and any other file that can be uploaded to the cloud. A cooking blogger has even uploaded a PDF of her favorite recipes and distributed it to her followers. In that particular case, Sellbox facilitated the blogger receive donations in exchange for her recipes.

“We’ve made it very easy for our users to start using Sellbox. By utilizing the cloud transactions can be done in below 60 seconds. You don’t have to upload anything. One of the key benefits of using Sellbox, besides our low fee, is that you get your money instantly. So you don’t have to wait a month or even 2 weeks for the withdrawal,” per Piotr.

Sellbox was chosen as the second best company from over 500 European startups at the Webit Congress Startup Challenge. They has also joined the current host of startups attending the Plug and Play Startup Camp, and will be demoing their product at the Spring Expo on March 27th.

But you won’t have to wait that long to hear the Sellbox team give their pitch. At the next Bitcoin Meetup at Plug and Play on the 18th, they will be talking about how and why they recently integrated Bitcoin into their service.

“Bitcoin is a great innovation. We love the idea that it was born for the Internet, and that it’s the currency of the Internet. We believe it will grow in popularity and become the main tool to pay over the Internet. That’s why we are excited to include it in Sellbox,” according to Piotr.

With Sellbox users create digital market places where they can buy and sell products with Bitcoin. Any file that can be uploaded into the cloud can be bought using Bitcoin over Sellbox. It’s an exciting glimpse of a future where Bitcoin is used ubiquitously. Currently the company has integrated Coinbase, but a sellers can receive Bitcoins through their private wallet.

“We believe in the currency and we like to encourage people to start using it,” said Piotr.

The Road to Silicon Valley 3: The End Approaches

The final chapter of this round of Startup Camp is quickly approaching, and their demos at Expo on March 27th will give them the chance to prove themselves. For the past month the startups have had their heads down, polishing their pitches and making as many connections as possible before the camp comes to a close.

Stretchr, despite the fact they they have been missing the crisp Colorado air, has been thriving during their time at Startup Camp. They’ve been strengthening their market traction and refining their product and business development. They have undergoing proof of concept evaluations with several large companies who are considering signing on as a customer. A few other customers have already begun using Stretchr’s technology.

“We have National Association of Broadcasters trade show coming up and Front Porch Digital, a world leader in digital asset workflow management is going to be demoing their next generation of products, which have integrated Stretchr into the core,” said Christian Wolfe, CEO.

Stretchr has been making sure that that their product development is in line with the vision they have. Through hard work and brainstorming with fellow Startup Camp members, they have managed to hone the aspects of their product to realize that vision.

“The core of what we’re trying to accomplish with Stretchr is to make it as easy as possible to start developing, and all of out features have aligned with that goal. For example we’re launching a new aggregation feature which will allow companies to break down and view different slices of their data in a more condensed and summarized way as opposed to having to access the data raw,” per Ryan Quinn, a core developer for the company.

The benefits of being in the Silicon Valley community are only exaggerated when a selective program like Startup Camp singles out a few outstanding companies. Investors and customers alike begin to notice.

“Just saying that we’re apart of this program, the brand of it, opens doors. It gives us instant credibility with these folks. It’s also the fact that this class of 19 was selected out of almost 1000.  People hear that and say, ‘oh, I should pay attention to this little startup because they beat out 98% of everybody else,” said Christian Wolfe.

Be sure to apply for the next round of Startup Camp, and don’t forget to come to the Plug and Play Spring Expo on March 27th.

Meet our Retail Mentors: Mike Calbert

The Brand and Retail Center of Innovation has been growing and strengthening since it began last year, accelerating startups working within the retail vertical. They have amassed an impressive group of corporate partners, such as Sears Holdings, The Clorox Company, Hershey’s, Proctor and Gamble, Star, United Airlines, Deloitte, and Panasonic. On top of this network, they have also brought together a group of experience mentors in the retail space.

Mike Calbert of KKR’s Retail Industry is one such mentor offering his insight to the startups that take part in this 12 week program.

Mentor Mike Calbert

“A year ago Saeed and I were working with a company that was part of his incubator. This led to a conversation about the quickly evolving needs of retailers to find technology solutions for a whole host of problems. Saeed shared with me what he had done in automotive and I told him I thought the opportunity in retail and consumer facing business was much greater, partly because consumption is 70% of GDP in America. Solutions that deliver efficiency, solutions that build customer loyalty are worth a lot, and the retailers are quickly investing a lot more capital in these technology solutions,” Mike said.

The Brand and Retail Center of Innovation brings together retailers and CPG companies with startups working towards those types of solutions. The entire program operates under the belief that technology has changed the retail space forever, and that retail companies must evolve or lose out to their more innovative competitors.

Mike says: “The biggest driver is the fact that technology has basically changed the way consumers obtain, digest, and evaluate information, the way that they shop, and the way that they communicate. So the traditional role of a retailer, which was basically to open up a brick and motors store and advertise on television or through a newspaper, that’s all radically changed. Retailers now have to figure out how to engage with how to drive demand, how do they differentiate through technology.”

As one of over twenty knowledgeable mentors, Mike will help guide startups towards success in disrupting retail by identifying the best strategies and by asking the right questions.

“Start with the customer, start with the retailer, understand what are their issues, what are their big needs, what are they focused on, and try to develop solutions for that, because that’s what people are willing to pay for. They aren’t willing to pay for things that aren’t top of their issues list, even though it might be nice to have. Listen to the customer” per Mike.

There is a lot of excitement around the retail branch of Plug and Play, largely because of the endless possibilities available.

“One of the things technology is doing is really increases the speed of collaboration between people who haven’t necessarily collaborated. So what you see is closer collaboration between the vendors, the CPT companies, and the retailers in trying to solve the problems. They’re all trying to solve the same problem and focus these entrepreneurs on developing tools and solutions for their biggest problems,” said Mike.