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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.