Pitch Deck Inflation

I see a fair amount of pitches and I’ve come to expect the unrealistic projections of hyper growth, the comparable buy outs slide, and the lack of clear use of proceeds.   However in the last year the pitches have had more of a “high pressure sales” vibe.

Many of these companies are pitching in front of hundreds of investors at Pitch Days, Accelerator Graduations, and other Pitch contests.  The number of companies fighting in the $500k arena has grown and in recent discussions with young entrepreneurs they’ve told me they feel pressure to “pump up” their results, projections, and team credentials to get investors interested.

I can see how this can happen when you’ve got 5 minutes to stand out over the other 12 companies pitching at the same time as you. Let’s take a look at a few of the things I’ve seen lately that make me take pause.

The Chief XXX Officer syndrome.

I’ve addressed this in the past  so I won’t go into it again here, but it’s still something I see all the time.  I recently saw a company pitch with seven employees. Five had C-level titles, including CEO,COO,CPO,CMO and CFO. I should’ve asked if the other two were EVPs.  It’s not a huge deal but one that still makes me give an internal sigh.

“World Class”

Be careful using over the top adjectives. Recently a friend asked me to take a look at a pitch deck for one of their accelerator companies.  The first thing that jumped out at me was the CEO was a “World Class UX designer”. Now when I see the adjective “World Class” I think “Holy crap I want to meet this person and talk about UX design”.  Unfortunately the same adjective set “World Class” showed up again in the deck and at that point I realized he might be good but probably wasn’t “World Class”.  I informed my friend that I’m pretty sure a kitten dies every time someone uses “World Class” in a pitch deck and being in favor of kittens they took out all references.

“We’ve had 2 Exits”

This one can be tricky.  Recently I’ve seen pitches that led with slides about their exits.  Now exits are awesome right?  But when someone puts this out there my response is going to be “So tell me about your exits.  Did you have investors?  Did they consider it successful? ” Unfortunately often the answers aren’t so good.  If you’re going to lead with your exits you should be prepared to discuss them in detail.  Otherwise maybe that’s something best left for later discussions.

“Data Science”  “Platform” ” Proprietary Algorithm”

The more buzz words in a deck that are meant to make the tech appear “magical” the more I grow suspicious.  I’m a little torn on this one as I understand that most pitches are going to non-tech people and it’s hard sometimes to get tech concepts across.  But be careful that you don’t get too carried away with statements like “Our data scientists have invented various proprietary algorithms that allow us to deliver a unique platform.”  I mean really what does that mean?  I could probably use the same sentence to describe every single SaaS startup I’ve seen in the last 3 years. Which leads me to the next section that is a little off topic but goes hand in hand with this problem.

“Talking down to investors”

You’ve got to know who you’re pitching to.  At a minimum use Google to get some background on the people you’re going to ask for money.  If you haven’t figured out that I was CTO of a software company for many years then you’re going to get in trouble if you try to “tech buzz word” me.  I can tell the second the presenter is trying to snow me, which I usually let pass by unless the language used implies we’re too dumb to understand the solution.  Start doing that and I’m jumping right in with hard questions about your tech.

“The aggressive follow-up”

I seem to get about a 90% rate of follow up emails from entrepreneurs.  A tip to the other 10%, even if there is no chemistry a follow up “thanks for meeting with us” is just common courtesy.  What’s just as bad is the other end of the spectrum. Instead of “Are you available to meet?” I get “I have an opening at 12:00 on Thursday so we can discuss your investment”.  I usually just answer these with “Sorry I’m busy at that time” and don’t try to negotiate another time.

Here’s my suggested format:

Dear (Insert Investor Here)

Thanks for taking the time to meet with us earlier today.  We’re hoping you have time for a short follow-up meeting.  We’re available (insert 4 options here).  If none of these work please propose another time or if you’ve already got all the information you need just let us know. We’re always happy to provide anything you need via email.

Obviously you can embellish it but I like something short and sweet that gives me a few times to pick from or the ability to completely opt out if I’m not interested.

I’m hoping these notes help a few of you adjust your pitches. I know you’re trying to compete with everyone else for investor mind-share but just like padding a resume can get you in trouble so can over extending yourself with your pitch deck.

 

Cutting the Charter Cord

Today I ran across this article on the cable industry losing subscribers in droves. I’m not sure if they think that what happened to the music industry can’t happen to them or they just aren’t sure how to stop it. What I can tell you is they’re not helping their situation by continuing to provide such horrible customer service.

After an incident this weekend I’ve decided to quit giving my money to them.  It’s not the first time.  About 10 years ago I switched to Dish+DSL for a few years after a long battle with Charter over an internet connectivity problem in our neighborhood.  When I moved back downtown I decided to give them another try.

For the past few years I’ve put up with video and audio drop-outs, the horrible DVR interface, and other occasional issues.  However, it was this weekend that finally got me fired up to “cut the cord”.

Saturday night around 7 P.M. my wife and I were watching a streamed movie from Amazon when all of a sudden our Roku lost internet connection.  After a quick look around I realized that not only was our internet out but so was our cable TV. We gave it 10 minutes to come back but then I figured it was time to call Charter.

Our internet was out but luckily I had my cell phone to search the web for Charter’s customer support line.  I dialed in to the automated assistant and was provided with the choice of tech support for “internet” or “TV”.  Unfortunately I made the bad choice of saying that it was a “TV” issue.  At this point the Charter robot told me that it was sending a signal to reset my cable box and that I would be put on hold for 5 minutes unable to do anything until after that time was up.  When the horrible hold music started playing I hung up.

I called back and this time asked for “internet”.  I was greeted with a message saying there were known outages in my area and did this answer my question.  I assumed that they were having some system problems so I answered yes and hung up.  When I finally went to bed there was still no service.

When I woke up at 6 A.M. it was still out so it was time to get back on the phone.  I called Charter and this time I didn’t get the “outages in your area message”.  I explained my issue to the tech support person and she said someone would get back to me within an hour to schedule a service call. I waited 90 minutes then called back to find out where my return call was.  After jumping through all the usual hoops to get to a live operator and re-explaining the problem, I was told the first person had been incorrect. I would have to wait until an hour after the dispatch office opened at 9:00 am.  I waited a few more hours and finally called back again at 10:00.  After re-explaining everything for a 3rd time I was told there was nothing she could do. The problem had been escalated and I would just have to wait until someone called me from dispatch. Awesome.

While I was waiting on dispatch I noticed that my cable boxes were all occasionally flashing the word “hunt” on their 7 segment LED displays.  Since I still had my phone as a hot-spot and my IPad, I did a little search around the internet and happened across this long discussion on a guy with the exact same problem. It suddenly made me remember something.  Our apartment building has always included basic Charter cable for free but recently they quit offering that amenity.  I had remembered that Charter had sent some piece of mail to that extent but I just figured since I had all the extra tiers and internet they’d start billing me for the “basic” cable. Perhaps they just went ahead and disconnected everything when they were no longer getting their basic cable payment.

It was right after this revelation that someone from dispatch called me back.  She told me that they were full for the day and I’d have to wait until Monday unless there was a cancellation.  I explained to her what I thought might be going on and asked her if she could check the levels on my modem to see if she had any connection to it.  She said she couldn’t see the levels and agreed that it was possible they’d come out and disconnected me.  However she couldn’t actually look at my bill to see what was going on as that wasn’t in her abilities.  After unhappily scheduling an appointment I decided to try calling Charter’s billing department back.

So once again after explaining everything another CSR verified that I didn’t have basic cable on my bill even though I had everything else.  He agreed it was a bit weird but once we discussed the removal of the bulk service by my landlord he said it made sense.  After much wrangling he said it’d actually be cheaper for me if I added on telephone service for their “Triple Play” offer. Although I didn’t want a phone I figured what the heck and went ahead and signed up for it.  It was now around 11 am and my wife I and I headed out for the day.

Upon returning around 7:30 later that evening I walked in and noticed that everything was back. TV and internet were all working just fine.  After making sure everything was good I called Charter back one more time to cancel the service call for the following morning.  I’m not sure if they actually got someone here to physically reconnect us or if it was some internal switch they flipped when I got the billing thing sorted out.

On Monday morning I received an automated call from Charter reminding me that later that week they’d be coming out to install my new phone.  It was at that point that I decided I’d had enough.  I really didn’t want a phone with them and I was still unhappy they shut us off in the first place.  I took a couple hours to read a number of articles on “cutting the cord”  and felt it was time.

It seemed better to do this in steps so I called up Charter and told them I wanted to get rid of all our extra channels packages, 2 DVRS (we had 3), and I didn’t want to get a phone.  We’d still be keeping internet, basic cable and 1 DVR for now. I immediately got the Charter hard sell.  The salesperson asked me if I watched HBO.  I said yes but I’d be purchasing HBO online straight from HBO.  She said “why would you do that when you get all these extra channels if you buy it from Charter”.  I told her because I would much rather just give my money to HBO than a company who only cares about me when I call to cancel services.  We went round and round about how I was missing out on such a great deal with Charter.  At one point she asked me why I was even keeping internet if I was so upset with them.  I told her I didn’t have much of a choice in my area.  She also gave me some grief for not paying attention to that letter they sent me.  I said, “Hey I’ll give you that that’s on me, but then why did you come out and shut off my internet?  That has nothing to do with the TV service.  If it weren’t for the fact that I get my phone through AT&T I wouldn’t even have been able to contact you when you turned off my service.”

She then decided that I owed them for part of the month for the basic cable that had been missing for 2 weeks so she put me on hold for a few minutes while talking to a supervisor. Finally at the end of it all she also informed me that I’d be billed for the other 2 DVRs until I returned them to Charter.  They pretty much yelled at me on my way out the door making me even more motivated to get rid of the rest of my services.

I would think that I’d be the customer they’d want to keep.  I’m a 50 year old guy who was spending somewhere between $150 – $200 a month.  I don’t call and hassle them every few months to get a lower rate, I’m never late in payments, and every now and then I add some other feature (the Latino tier was the last one). Throw on a few on demand movies and the occasional pay per view event ($60 so my wife could watch Ronda Rousey spend 30 seconds in the ring) and I gotta think I’m exactly who they’d want to keep happy.  It’s really not that hard. Just care even a little about providing me with a decent service or be quick to react when something is wrong.  Better yet, offer to give me the $4.99 back that I had to pay Amazon to watch the rest of my movie that we were half way through when the internet went out for 24 hours.

We had been looking at newly developed high end apartments a couple months ago and I found it interesting when the landlords told me they hadn’t been concerned about providing cable to the apartments just internet as most of their renters didn’t care about cable TV.

Add this all up and it’s looking like Charter has got a fair amount of pain in its future.

Helpful Tech Flowcharts

One of these days I’ll get around to writing some posts on my product “accelerator/incubator” space, and the variety of security and bitcoin things I’ve been working on. In the meantime to make things easier for me I thought I would start making some very simple flowcharts to answer the questions I’m often asked.  So here’s the first one.. enjoy!

sweatervest

Silicon Isthmus

So there was this article titled “Silicon Isthmus (San Jose. San Francisco. Seattle. Madison?)” in our local newspaper the Isthmus. The introduction follows:

When most folks think about computer software and where it’s developed, Madison isn’t the first city that springs to mind. More than likely, cities like San Francisco or Seattle, home of software Goliath Microsoft, top the list.

Think Again. The West Coast may have the ocean and the weather, but when it comes to the software development scene, Madison is in a league with the big players.

According to the Greater Madison Area Directory of High Tech Companies, an annual guide published jointly by the city of Madison and Madison Gas & Electric, there are dozens of local companies churning out cutting-edge software in fields as diverse as biogenetics, entertainment and business solutions.

Of course it’s hard to have a successful software company without the person who has the ideas, the technological know-how, or both. Madison’s a chip off the silicon block in this department too. More than half of the aforementioned software concerns began as shoestring operations, the sweat of an inspired entrepreneur’s brow.

Many of the entrepreneurs were born in Wisconsin, and most of them set up shop here for the same reasons other people do: a relatively low cost of living, more than a modicum of cultural and political goings on and a stable business climate.

The interesting thing is that article is from 1996 profiling my company Sonic Foundry, game software company Raven and a few others.  It goes on to talk about things like the difficulties of hiring tech talent in Madison, I’d bet that many Madison techies would assume it was written today instead of 18 years ago.

The more the things change, the more they remain the same.

No Bitcoin Campaign Donations For You!

Mark Clear who is running for the Assembly in Wisconsin held a fund raiser on Wednesday. I’ve known Mark through the start up community in Madison so when the Facebook invite showed up I figured I should head over to the “Beer with Clear” event to show my support.

Lately here in town I’ve been “that guy” when it comes to Bitcoin. Whether I’m getting a coffee, a haircut, or paying my office rent I’m always asking “Do you take Bitcoin”? I’m amazed how it’s usually met with curiosity and lots of questions. So of course when I arrived at the donation table I jokingly said “So are you guys accepting Bitcoin”? I wasn’t expecting the answer from the candidate, “We can! I’ve got a wallet on my phone.” I probably should have expected that Mark being a Tech guy would have a Bitcoin wallet.

I told Mark that I’d be happy to donate $100 worth of Bitcoin and we initiated the transfer. Within seconds the transfer for .2213 Bitcoins appeared on Mark’s phone evoking that empowered feeling that many Bitcoin users know so well. Realizing we may have just transacted the first Bitcoin campaign donation in Wisconsin we happily tweeted our interaction.

Well it only took 12 hours to find out no can do. It turns out that just about 6 weeks ago the Wisconsin GAB had taken up this very issue. See here

http://gab.wi.gov/sites/default/files/event/74/march_2014_open_materials_with_agenda_pdf_38483.pdf#page=230

So it’s good to see the GAB is trying to deal with Bitcoin but much of what is in the minutes is either technically inaccurate or misapplied. Unfortunately this meeting also took place around the time of the Mt. Gox/ Transaction Malleability fiasco. There is much discussion in the report on Transaction Malleability and how it throws doubt on the process. This is technically incorrect. Although TM allows the ID of a transaction to change before it is placed in the block chain, once the ID is in the chain it is immutable.

From the GAB minutes:
“While core information in a transaction ID cannot be altered, additional information that would be critical to any committee (such as address and employer information) could be changed through transaction malleability.”

The problem here is that additional information is not stored within the Bitcoin system. Campaigns would just enter a bitcoin transaction ID in place of the information they use for a monetary donation (check, Visa etc). So even if TM was a problem (which it isn’t) it’s not relevant as donor information is stored separate from the transaction.

In fact using Bitcoin for transactions is actually more transparent than any other means of donation. Had we done this via check or credit card this transaction wouldn’t be a public record like it is with Bitcoin.

Here’s the transaction with me sending .2213 bitcoins to Mark
http://blockexplorer.com/tx/ab78d3a3ac00dad8a9bf64106626b3ae179b700e2608b775ac8c172573649b9d#o0

Less than 24 hours later Mark returned the .2213 coins to me here
http://blockexplorer.com/tx/6200a20e319fa2d29c32ab02a7cf2534d9f3641fedc67e52b1e2eecfc56bf978#o0

The FEC is currently deciding on Bitcoin donations. I hope if nothing else they’ll treat them like cash and allow donations of up to $100. I searched the Wisconsin GAB site but couldn’t find the cash limit there. My understanding is it’s $50. In the meantime I’m forced to use PayPal, Credit card, or check to contribute to Mark’s campaign all of which cost me more in fees and time than our simple 15 second transaction the other night.

Here’s a link to the local story on the transaction http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/writers/jack_craver/madison-ald-mark-clear-accepts-bitcoin-contributions-in-his-run/article_c6a94862-d16a-11e3-ac97-001a4bcf887a.html

CFO No No

One of the things I find fascinating is the titles that founders assign themselves. Why is the first thing thing on the agenda after coming up with an idea for a company is to assign C-Level titles to everyone involved? Here’s some observations I’ve made based around start-ups and those titles.

If three technical people start a company you’ll often find the guy who ends up being CEO is the least technically able of the bunch. Why? Because the CTO is almost always going to be the most technical of the group and probably the one with the idea for the company in the first place. When the time comes to raise money the three people look at each other and go “hmm we need someone to spend time talking to investors and creating presentations.” Usually what will now happen is that the least technical person offers themselves up to do this role. If they don’t then it will be forced on them by the other two using the logic that the most technically able people should be working on the product. Once the CEO and CTO titles are assigned usually the other person will get the title of COO. I honestly don’t know why people think a Chief Operating Officer is the next most technical person but for some reason this just happens.

Here’s where this can really go awry. I’ve seen in more than one case where the person who was chosen to be CEO just doesn’t have the skill set needed. They’re not as knowledgeable about the product, they’re often not as passionate about it, and in the worst cases they have really poor people skills. Many times I’ve been in a meeting where the person with the CTO title literally runs the meeting. They’re friendly and outgoing, they answer all my questions while the person with the CEO title sits back and defers all questions to this person.

What does this tell me about your company? You’ve got a really bad day ahead of you. It’s the day when the CTO finally wakes up and realizes that the CEO title isn’t right for the person to whom it’s assigned. More than once I’ve had this hard conversation when they’ve come to me asking me what to do. Unfortunately there’s no easy answer here. How do you go to a person, probably your friend, and explain to them that they aren’t cutting it as CEO? Now maybe you’ll get really lucky and they’ll know that they’re not right for the job. There is the slim possibility that they’ll actually be relieved that someone else besides them realized this and is saving them from drowning in the role. But the more likely outcome is that you’re now going to have to ask someone to either leave the company or take a demotion to a different role. Usually the latter turns into the former anyways.

CFO. Do yourself a favor and don’t ever end up with this title in your startup. What the hell are your responsibilities in a 2 or 3 person company as Chief Financial Officer? Are you the guy in charge of the quickbooks account? When I’m introduced to a company with less than 10 people who have a CEO/CTO and CFO I immediately jump to the following conclusion. CEO/CTO are the technical guy and the business guy or perhaps two technical guys with one of them being the leader. The CFO is the roommate or buddy who was with them at the bar when they came up with the idea. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but if you’re walking around with the title CFO in that size of company you’re probably dead weight.

My suggestion is in the early stages of your company it’s best not to assign these titles that really don’t mean anything. There’s nothing wrong with being founder or co-founder. In startups you should all be working together towards a common goal anyways. By not assigning those titles early on, you’ll save yourself the later headaches when roles naturally emerge that conflict with some arbitrary earlier assignment. However, please don’t take this as a pass to assign yourself a title like “Chief Code Grinder”. I know you probably think it’s original and super cool, but I can assure you it’s neither.

Funny story I was judging a student start-up competition and the two guys walked in with the titles CEO and CFO. This threw me for a loop as there wasn’t even a CTO. Either the CEO was the tech guy or they had no one on board as the technical person. So I told them that I’d like them to switch their titles to co-founders as it might serve them better in the future. They told me that they actually had been using those titles until a week prior when they had met with another adviser who told them to switch them to CEO and CFO.

Well played Coinkite

I was checking out Canadian based (my wife’s hometown of Toronto) Bitcoin processor Coinkite.  They’ve got a claim on their FAQ that says:

  • Reliable support—we answer emails—go ahead and try.

So I thought I’d give it a shot.  I found a typo on their developer page, which seemed like a good thing to report.

Check out the emails.. total time to fix the page and respond to me.. under 2 minutes.

Coinkite you are my heroes for today.

 

coinkite

Crypto hacking

As some of you know I’m pretty much swamped in crypto-currency programming, research, and promotion these days.  I’m sponsoring first prize and am working with Brian and Sheradyn in planning and running the Madworks Crypto-Currency Hackaton in 10 days.

We’ve already got great response and that was before this article came out. I’m looking forward to a really fun/hectic day. A special thanks to Greenpoint Funds and Foley & Lardner for ponying up the cash for the other prizes and meals.  It’s good to see people outside the programmer community interested in the crypto$ scene.

I’ve been doing a number of things in preparing for the hackathon including, getting miners set up, saving off preloaded blockchain data, and a few other tasks to help participants get up and running quickly.

Hope to see everyone there…

 

 

Techstars Cloud 2013 Demo Day – back to San Antonio we go

After having a great time at last year’s Techstars Cloud it was time to return. It almost didn’t happen.

Last Wednesday Kent from Blue Point Investment Counsel and I headed out to catch our flight to San Antonio. Our flight was delayed out of Madison meaning we were going to miss our connecting flight from Dallas to San Antonio. I figured it was no big deal since they have flights every hour going into San Antonio. I was wrong. Apparently the prior day American had computer issues that caused all the flights on Wednesday to be overbooked.

Now on the way to the airport Kent was bragging about his Tripit app that had informed him of the flight problems and he was going on and on about how awesome it was. He had given it his gmail account and the thing scanned his email, found all his flights, and then informed him of any changes, gate updates etc. I told him he was nuts for letting them have his gmail account.

We stood at the American service counter for over 20 minutes but our service person couldn’t find us an alternate route to San Antonio. She even brought in someone else who knew all the “secret paths” through the American booking terminal. The best they could do was put us on a bus to Chicago and then fly us in to San Antonio late on another airline. At this point we were seriously considering canceling the trip. I try not to fall for the old “bus to O’hare” trick.

Now while all this is going on Kent has got his Tripit app out and is saying stuff like “Hey my App says there are 4 seats on flight blah blah blah .. did you check that one”? She’s responding with “No sir nothing on that one”. I’m giving Kent the evil eye during this whole process. “Really Kent”?

Well guess what. He finally says, “Hey I see 4 seats on this flight can you check that one”? Of course she finds 2 first-class seats for us to San Antonio. Kent+Annoying Tripit App : 1 , Me: 0. But at least we were off to San Antonio.

We got into San Antonio Wednesday night and the pre-presentation-day meetup was in the lobby bar of our hotel. We got to spend some time with the teams who were going to present the following day. In particular we hung out with the guys from Drifty, the Madison based company, who were presenting but weren’t seeking investment. Drifty makes a couple of cool products one of which I’ve used, JetStrap, for designing web UI. If you’re doing any work with Twitter Bootstrap (this might actually be a requirement for all accelerator companies) and you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.

Thursday morning we headed over for the 12 scheduled presentations (only 11 actually presented but we’ll return to that). In usual Techstars fashion each company was introduced by their mentor followed by the CEO giving a short pitch.

IMG_1742

Some were better than others but overall all the teams pitched well. I didn’t feel like I was watching an episode of Shark Tank since none of them ended with “Who wants to join me on this adventure”? I’ve included the program below with the list of companies this year.

techstars 2013 flyer

I found a number of the companies interesting but here’s some more information on some I spent more time with:

The first was Ziptask who is outsourcing project management for outsourcing. Got that? It’s actually a pretty cool idea. For anyone who’s tried to do an outsourced project on the web through websites like ODesk or FreeLancer it can be a nightmare to select a developer or manage them through the actual project.

Shawn Livermore, CEO, gave me an in depth demo of both the front and back end software they’ll be using to manage projects. I was genuinely impressed with both the functionality and user-interface. This has been a labor of love for Shawn and it shows in the software.  It includes portions to manage the bidding process, deliverables with due dates, milestones and a host of other things that anyone who’s managed software projects will immediately recognize.

I will probably run a project through them to see how it goes.  I talked to a number of people at the event who were thinking the same thing.  The only problem I see is if they enter a period of hyper-growth they’ll be having to hire lots of good project managers quickly.  This could be difficult as it’s been my experience that good project managers are tough to come by. Overall a great idea with some cool software behind it.

The second company I spent some time with was Threat Stack, a company offering a cloud solution for intrusion detection.  For those of you with servers that are connected to the internet you may or may not know what’s going on with your boxes depending on your level of laziness.  I’ve got a server racked over at our local data center 5Nines (whoa! Richard Branson.. wait.. nope just Todd) so after the pitches, I created an account on Threat Stack.  What’s impressive is that within 45 minutes I had the intrusion software installed on one of my servers and I was collecting data.

The interface is pretty straight forward as you can see below.  For those of you who are familiar already with the product Snorby this will look pretty familiar.  The Threat Stack team are the ones behind the open source project for visualizing data from products like Snort and Suricata.  The thing that they’ve got going for them with Threat Stack is convenience.  I’ve been meaning to set up something like Security Onion for some time but just haven’t gotten around to it.  After a few days of  it running I’ve seen literally thousands of attempts from China trying to log into my servers as root.

threat stack screen shot

My recommendation is to go check it out if you’re doing any kind of server management.  I probably won’t continue to use it after the demo as it’s a bit pricey for me ($200/month) but for people with actual servers of importance there’s plenty of value there.

The pitch by the company Conspire quickly captured my attention. You allow them access to your email and they then analyze your interactions with others.  They don’t look at the content of the email, just the headers, so they can see with whom you’re emailing, when, and how often.  This has a lot of cool applications from figuring out the shortest path through your network of connections to helping maintain relationships with people before they fall by the wayside.

One example CEO Alex Devkar provided was searching their network for someone you don’t know, but to which you need an introduction.  Their software will allow you to find the most relevant path to that person searching through your most contacted connections, your connections connections, and so on and so on.  The thing to remember is that you don’t have to build those connections it’s already been done with your email history.

I didn’t get a chance to meet with Alex at the show and I was concerned about handing over my email as well as some other privacy concerns so I reached out to him. After a 90 minute call I was sold. He was passionate and knowledgeable about the problem and their solution.  It’s always nice to have a first meeting with people who know their stuff.

After the show I was discussing their solution and there was some confusion with how they would compete with Linked-In and after further reflection here’s my answer to that.  Linked-In is the Rolodex of the web.  Instead of handing out cards we just connect on Linked-In.  The problem is that after time your Rolodex is overflowing and it takes conscious effort to keep track of who’s who within it.  With Conspire they do that analysis and work for you. These guys are definitely on to something.

The last company I want to talk about is DataRobot.

dr small

Above I mentioned that only 11 of the 12 presented at demo day.  DataRobot was the one that didn’t present, due to the fact they were not looking for any more investment.  I ended up talking to their CEO Jeremy Achin by accident. At the end of my conversation with Shawn from ZipTask he said, “Hey! You have to meet Jeremy he’s one of the smartest guys here”.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that Shawn was right.

DataRobot is all about predictive analytics.   Basically it’s using computer modelling to predict outcomes based on huge data sets.  This is used in insurance, banking, stock markets, bio-med and just about everything of importance in the world.  Jeremy and his team have been at this for a while including winning competitions on the site Kaggle, where it appears anybody who’s anybody in this field hangs out.

After my discussion with Jeremy I headed back to my hotel to check out Kaggle and the whole predictive modeling thing.  If you want to understand what  DataRobot is all about I recommend you take 5 minutes to watch this video with Jeremy Howard.  It does a really good job.

At the after party I again met up with Jeremy and his cofounder Tom Degodoy. What sets DataRobot apart is their plans for the company.  Most of the start-ups I’ve met with over the last couple years are always about the technology and when I ask for a business plan I’m met with a blank stare.  I spent a fair amount of time talking with them about company strategy, and things like pricing and customer acquisition.  You can tell that they’ve given a lot of thought not only to their technology but to how they’re going to monetize it.  There is no doubt in my mind that DataRobot is a company to keep an eye on.

So back to Kent and Tripit. Turns out on our way back to Madison our flight from Dallas to Madison got its gate changed 5 times. After the first gate change we ran into my buddy Duke from Garbage coming back from their concert in Mexico City. Here’s a picture of him and Kent looking nonchalant so I can send a picture to my wife and surprise her with the weird coincidence.

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Every time the gate would change Kent would know about it first and inform us all. After an hour of plane maintenance and a few beers we finally got on board.

After we boarded a guy looking particularly 70’s rock musician sat in front of Kent. I happened to know that Steppenwolf was playing at Ho Chunk Casino in Baraboo, Saturday, so I leaned forward and asked him if he was with Steppenwolf.  Sure enough, he was the guitar player.  So Kent ended up sitting with Garbage in the seat behind him, Steppenwolf in the seat in front of him and I spent a good portion of the flight discussing 70’s rock.

If you want to know how I knew Steppenwolf was in town it was this text message to me and Pdub a month ago from Duke.

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Phone companies still suck

So my wife has a phone number from when she lived in South Carolina.  This causes problems when people are expecting her to call her from Madison and instead they go “who the heck is calling me from South Carolina”?

So I set out to fix this with our wireless provider AT&T.  For those of you who use AT&T I bet you’re already cringing.

I started out by searching online and logging in to our wireless portal.  I learned that they will charge you to change phone numbers but if you have moved from one region to another that they will change your number to a local provider for free.   Ok sounds good.  But there was one issue I wanted to deal with.  My wife has had this number for at least 5 years and I knew it would take some time to notify all her contacts that she was changing phone numbers.  So I thought “Hey they must offer some 3 month forwarding service or something from an old line right?”  I thought wrong.

I was told that the minute that the number was switched she would no longer receive calls from her old number and that anyone trying to call her would get a disconnected message.  So this is my rant.  AT&T WHY THE HELL DO YOU NOT OFFER A SERVICE TO DEAL WITH THIS?  (Sorry for all caps.  I rarely use them for emphasis but this seems like an appropriate place).  I mean really, I would have been more than happy to pay for an additional forwarding service for a few months to make it simple.

Fine, OK, so how to get around this.  I told the representative what I was trying to do and we came up with a solution of getting a cheap secondary phone for a few months with a new Madison number.  When the phone arrived I would activate the new number, call AT&T, and switch the new number to her IPhone and put her old number on the cheapy phone.  That way she could start using the new number for outgoing calls yet still receive incoming calls on her old phone until she informed everyone of her new number.  Not a perfect solution but workable.

The phone arrived last night as we were headed out to dinner so I left it until this morning.  They sent me some crappy LG phone with a horrible UI which actually saved me.  I had to call in and activate the phone but every time I needed to type in a number on the key pad the LG phone had locked me out so I ended up with an actual human operator.  This would turn out to be lucky for me.  She told me I needed to activate the agreement for the phone and hooked me up with some automated recording which notified me I was signing up for a 2 year contract.  At this point I’m telling her “Whoa whoa whoa that wasn’t what I wanted”.

I explained what I was trying to do and how the original sales guy somehow decided to sucker me into a 2 year contract.  She explained to me that anytime you get a phone provided by them that there was a 2 year contract involved, and that if I didn’t want the contract I’d have to go buy a phone and then activate that phone on the new line.

So now I have to send back the phone on my dime to get a credit for this crappy phone.  I also have to head out to a local store to buy another phone so that I can then hook that up to the new line.  It really shouldn’t be this hard.