Inside TechStars Seattle

Some have gone out of business. Several have changed course. And most are still hanging their shingle in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, looking to transform everything from the way we watch TV to how we manage airline miles.

As TechStars Seattle gets ready to launch a new batch of hatchlings on Thursday (full list here), I caught up with the founders of the 10 startup companies that graduated a year ago at Demo Day.

All of the entrepreneurs expressed enthusiasm for TechStars, and they were nearly unanimous in saying that the relationships they built with mentors and other hard-charging business leaders was the biggest benefit of the program.

“The mentors were amazing, the support during the program was great, and most of all being surrounded by people who pursue their passion made us all better people,” said Peter Schlichting, the co-founder of World Blender. “It’s an education which can’t be bought, and an introduction to a life path which is more fulfilling.”

Here’s a look at what happened to the class of 2010:

Cabin Fever Toys:

Location: Out of business

Founder: Adam Tratt

Idea: Toys and technology to promote outdoor active play for kids.

Financing: Unable to raise cash from outside investors.

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “Following Demo Day, I spent three months trying to raise money and find a technical co-founder. I was having trouble doing either without the other. As I was coming to this realization, Kevin and Kyle from Giant Thinkwell approached me with a similar problem. They were a technical team that was having trouble closing their round without a CEO. When they asked me to join their team as CEO/Co-Founder, I jumped at the opportunity.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “See above.”

What’s next for your company: “Sadly, Cabin Fever Toys is no more, but I’m super excited for 2011 Techstars Company EveryMove, who are working on very interesting new health-related technology.”

Deal Co-op:

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle.

Founders: Brothers Nate and Mike Schmidt.

Idea: A white label daily deal provider focused on empowering entrepreneurs to succeed at group buying.

Financing: Raised $500,000 from TechStars, Founder’s Co-op and individual angels. Plan to raise an additional round next year.

Nate and Mike Schmidt

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “After graduation we quickly closed our angel round, made several hires, and got to work on product. By electing to take investment from Founder’s Co-op and stay in the TechStars space, many of the TechStars’ benefits continued. Our software is light years ahead of where it was a year ago and we’ve seen a steady increase in revenue this year.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “Without a doubt it was the amazing TechStars mentors that took time to dig deep with our company. We brought Deal Co-op to Seattle from Alabama, and were operating a startup without any kind of a support system of people that had been through building a tech company. The mentoring we received in the program was, and continues to be, invaluable.”

What’s next for your company: “We’ve spent the last year creating the best white label software for any entrepreneur or publisher that wants to be successful at daily deals. We’re wrapping up several new product features in Q4, and going into to full marketing mode next year.”

Giant Thinkwell:

The Giant Thinkwell team on the GeekWire podcast.

Location: 511 Boren Ave. North, Seattle

Founders: Kyle Kesterson (who left the company earlier this month), Kevin Leneway and Adam Tratt.

Idea: Celebrity-based Facebook games.

Financing: Raised $600,000 in June. Planning Series A financing round early next year.

How have things changed for the business since you graduated from TechStars: “Since graduating from TechStars we raised our seed round from local angels and Madrona. This enabled us to hire a team of awesome developers. We launched two celebrity-based Facebook games before pivoting away from having celebrity as a central element of our business strategy. We’re now in beta of our third product, FlickMob, a social video platform that allows people with shared interests to watch and discuss video in realtime.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars:  “TechStars put Giant Thinkwell in a vortex of high-quality feedback from Seattle’s best entrepreneurs, investors, and technologists. Having regular and frequent access to great mentors was crucial in the early days of Giant Thinkwell.”

What’s next for your company: “We’re super excited about the future of online video and the opportunity to make that experience way better and more social.”

GoMiles:

Michael Komarnitsky

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle and home offices.

Founders: Michael Komarnitsky and Marc Kamaka

Idea: Take control of your frequent flyer miles, once and for all.

Financing: Convertible debt round, currently cash flow positive.

How have things changed for the business since you graduated from TechStars: “Less flash, more focus on solving customer needs and making money.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “TechStars acted as a huge stepping stone that enabled us to launch our business at much higher heights, and grow faster than we would have otherwise.  Put simply, TechStars accelerated our business.”

What’s next for your company: “Keep making the product better, adding users, and making more money.”

Highlighter:

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle.

Founders: Josh Mullineaux, Matt Blancarte, Nate Whitehill

Idea: “Solve the two biggest problems with higher education, dramatically decrease the cost of textbooks and enable student engagement on all online course material.”

Financing: Raised $318,000 in March, with plans to close another round later this year.

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “We launched Highlighter in July ’11 and immediately saw the biggest response from professors and universities. We are now concentrating on upper ed.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “The networking! Access to super star entrepreneurs and investors.”

What’s next for your company: “We’re hiring. We need to expand our development team to meet the demands of our growing customer base. Who doesn’t want to help save education?”

Kinizi: (RentMatch)

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle and coffee shops.

Founders: Phillip Lee, Bryan Leptich

Idea: “Not just another website where renters can view places available for rent or organize their rental search (too many of both those sites) but something truly disruptive in the rental market that will actually help renters get the exact place they want. (This is a pivot from our daily deals for apartments model).”

Financing: To be announced soon.

Lee

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “We’ve put our daily deals model on the back burner (will be relaunching with a large national partner in January, stay tuned) and pivoted to something new. We turned around and partnered with our former competitors (Rent.com, MyNewPlace, Apartments.com, etc.) and built a Kayak/Hipmunk for apartments with a new, pronounceable domain name, RentMatch. We’re revenue positive and growing but this is just something we built in a month to get money in the door. RentMatch will be changing drastically in the next three months and we’ll be announcing most of those changes at Real Estate Connect in NYC in January.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “Being able to find and work with mentors who support you through the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial rollercoaster. Best thing we ever heard from one of TechStars mentors is: ‘I don’t care if you end up selling pet food from your website, I know you’ll find a way to make it big and I’ll back you 100 percent.’ We talk almost weekly with some of our mentors from TechStars. Furthermore just having been apart of such a prestigious program just gives you additional clout with investors. It has opened a lot of doors.”

What’s next for your company: “We’re debuting our new site at Real Estate Connect in NYC in January, along with announcing partnerships with some of the largest players in the multi-family rental industry.”

RewardsForce:

Jeremy Wemple

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle

Founders: Jordan Greene, John Brunsfeld and Jeremy Wemple

Idea: Mobile based loyalty platform for casinos.

Financing: Raised a $200,000 seed round.

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “Well, since TechStars we raised an initial seed round, hired a sales team and have happy customers all across Washington. We have begun expanding our sales reach to California, Nevada and Montana this past month and we are excited about the growth opportunity ahead of us.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “Mentorship.  Let’s be frank, our group was a rough young group of talent that needed refinement.  TechStars threw us against the grinding wheel and polished us up by connecting our team with some of the nations most successful entrepreneurs.  Without the intense talks, challenging questions and key pep talks that these mentors delivered to us, I don’t think we would be where we are today.”

What’s next for your company: “We need to continue to drive sales and grow vertically.”

The Shared Web: (Frame)

Kareem Amin

Location: 70 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, New York

Founders: Nicolae Rusan, Nav Patel, Kareem Amin

Idea: “Original Idea: A social news reader that surfaces content curated by the people you
care about in the topics you are interested in. Current Idea: Turn existing e-commerce websites into multi-touch, HTML5 tablet shopping experiences that are delivered over a web browser.”

Financing: Raised $225,000.

Nav Patel

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “Since we graduated we launched our product and iterated on the different value propositions we believed it would deliver. We decided that although we think The Shared Web adds a ton of value it was not differentiated enough from the major players in the content space and we did not achieve product/market fit. We decided to switch to working on another business that we felt was a bigger opportunity in today’s environment.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “…Belonging to (a) fantastic community that is incredibly supportive, eager to help, and always there to support you when making the hard decisions that will be necessary as you run your business. For example, before switching our direction we reached out to many of our former mentors and other people in the community to get their feedback on our new idea and learn from their experiences in making a big change like this.”

What’s next for your company: “We are starting off by releasing our product to the Shopify platform. It will be available to their more than 15,000 shop owners, and then releasing it for larger platforms such as Magento and Demandware.”

Thinkfuse:

Thinkfuse at TechCrunch Disrupt

Location: 511 Boren Avenue North, Seattle

Founders: Steve Krenzel and Brandon Bloom

Idea: Thinkfuse is an enterprise software-as-a-service provider that turns status reports into a powerful business tool. It makes it easy to collect reports from a team, manage stakeholders, and improve open communication without changing the way you work.

Financing: Raised $520,000. Planning a Series A financing round early next year.

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “We’ve grown from two employees to six, signed over 1,000 users, presented at TechCrunch Disrupt, and had two of our TechStars mentors join as formal advisors. Our product has developed from a semi-usable prototype that was built during TechStars to a polished tool that teams find valuable every day.”

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “Prior to TechStars, we were just two software engineers that were much less skilled in marketing, pitching, sales, and other business topics. TechStars provided a stream of mentors, all of whom had valuable war stories from being in the trenches, to help us develop those areas. The biggest value that we got was the mentorship that helped us fill in the gaps where we were weak.”

What’s next for your company: “This week, we’re opening up our private beta to many more users. We’re very excited to let in hundreds of users that have been waiting while we finished up some final polish on the product.”

World Blender:

Location: 7201 6th Ave NE, Seattle.

Founders: Peter Schlichting, Jeff Huang, Mike Arcuri

Idea: Where you are could be part of the game you play.

Financing: $12,000 raised through TechStars.

How have things changed since you graduated from TechStars: “We actually mostly started on other things when we had a hard time raising funding or generating real revenue for three months after the program.  I helped Sparkbuy for a couple months before their acquisition, then started at Google about six months ago and have been hanging out in Silicon Valley (and got a front row seat to the Google+ roll out).  Mike is now the VP of Marketing at Zipline Games. Jeff went back finish his Ph D at the UW, and published a ton of research on usability in association with information retrieval in the last year and did some projects for Microsoft over the last year.”

Team World Blender

What was the biggest value you got out of TechStars: “The mentors were amazing, the support during the program was great, and most of all being surrounded by people who pursue their passion made us all better people.  It’s an education which can’t be bought, and an introduction to a life path which is more fulfilling.”

What’s next for your company: “Not sure, I took our games down months ago as customer service was just too much of a drain for projects which had no revenue, and I couldn’t feel proud of.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot from World Blender and I’ve asked myself this question a lot.  There still much of the promise of the company I feel we didn’t fulfill, and I see many ways we could have done things better.  Jeff and I have discussed several projects, and I still hope we’ll have a success in the future, but it’s possible it won’t be with World Blender.”

Editor’s note: GeekWire will be covering the TechStars’ Demo Day on Thursday, so return here for full coverage. GeekWire’s Jonathan Sposato and Rebecca Lovell are mentors with TechStars.

Related coverage: TechStars shines with $24M, looks to support grads with $100,000 checksMeet the lucky two percent: A peek at the startups that just entered TechStars SeattleWhy we joined TechStars

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/Seattle_Startup Seattle Startup

    Biggest values:  Mentors and networking.  Not sure entrepreneurs get their money (e.g. company ownership) worth given this (doesn’t NWEN provide both for much cheaper)?

    • Adam Tratt

      It’s not just access to mentors. The accelerant is the constant drumbeat of feedback during the formative early days of company building… Techstars is not for everyone, but speaking as someone who already had a great network and mentors, this was tremendously extremely valuable in and of itself. 

      Cool to see that 7 (soon 8) out of 10 companies funded from 2010. I’m looking forward to seeing 2011’s class do even better and the reputation of Techstars develops.

      • Adam Tratt

        *as the reputation….

  • http://blog.calbucci.com/ Marcelo Calbucci

    This kind of post is incredibly valuable. Usually you hear about a startup once the close a round or launch a product, and then you only hear again on new releases, when they were acquired or the crashed and burned in a “press-worthy” way. It would be interesting to get more posts on startups 12-months after they launched their product or raised money, independently if they have a big news to announce or not. It would give all of us a better sense a what it takes to build businesses. 

  • http://blog.calbucci.com/ Marcelo Calbucci

    This kind of post is incredibly valuable. Usually you hear about a startup once the close a round or launch a product, and then you only hear again on new releases, when they were acquired or the crashed and burned in a “press-worthy” way. It would be interesting to get more posts on startups 12-months after they launched their product or raised money, independently if they have a big news to announce or not. It would give all of us a better sense a what it takes to build businesses. 

  • Anonymous

    Hmm.  The only “out of business” company was a one-man show that really merged with another team.  So (frankly to my surprise) they are ALL still working away.  Cool!

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