Bear with me, guys, this is a long one. There's a lot to cover, and with 10 companies pitching, they all deserve some space!
A couple of nights ago, I was in a nightclub. I was standing on a balcony, chatting with friends, holding a drink and looking out at an overflowing crowd glowing green under tinted lighting. There was a waiting line out the door, the temperature was rising as people packed in, and the sound was deafening.
Okay, so it was 6 o'clock at night. On a Thursday. For a startup event. With one drink ticket. But still.
Hello, TechCrunch Meetup + Pitch-Off. We missed you!
Hosted at Prive in Midtown ATL (a location choice we'll talk more about in a minute...), and sponsored by Apriva, Total Server Solutions, Sticker Mule and WeWork, TC Meetup + Pitch-Off is a self-described "battle to the death to see which entrepreneurs can dazzle and excite the judges in under 60 seconds." They select 10 startups to showcase their companies and defend them to a panel of VCs and TechCrunch editors. The prize (aside from general bragging rights and industry visibility — never something to discount) is the chance to attend the "flagship event," TechCrunch Disrupt in NYC.
That's actually not just a chance to attend, but a little more: First place gets a table in "Startup Alley" at TC Disrupt NY, which is kind of a big deal and often results in seed and Series A funding. Second place and the Audience Choice Winner don't do too badly, either, still garnering two tickets and one ticket to NYC, respectively.
If you haven't made it to TC Meetup in years past, the big thing you should know is that it can be pretty terrifying to get up in front of the panel and audience and try to pitch your company. The judges don't pull any punches, asking about current competitors and picking apart weak spots, and there's a tough crowd waiting in the wings who will take to Twitter en masse and publicly rage about anything they feel the judges missed.
The judges were, of course, a Who's Who list from the venture capital and startup world: K.P. Reddy (managing partner at Change The World Venture Partners), Edwin Marcial (CTO at ICE), Marc Gorlin (founder and CEO at Roadie), Jonathan Shieber (Senior Editor at CrunchBase/TechCrunch), and Sig Mosley (president of Imlay Investments, managing partner at Mosley Ventures, and the "unwitting godfather of Atlanta angel investing." Side note: if you haven't seen his website, you should take a quick look sometime). These people have forgotten more than most of us will ever learn about startups, and they definitely asked the hard questions onstage.
Not to mention Jordan Crook, the sassy, blunt senior writer at TechCrunch who acted as the event's host while doubling as a sort of verbal bouncer to an increasingly unruly crowd. She also calls out recalcitrant presenters, as a few were unlucky enough to discover, and she WILL bring the pain to people who talk through the pitches!
<Side note>: Let's veryveryquickly chat about locale, shall we? Prive is a nightclub. Which, fine. That sounds cool, in theory. But the reality is, it is really, really, really loud! This isn't exactly a fault — nightclubs aren't made to hear people talk, they're made to hear music. They're made to hear crowd noise. But if you're pitching? You want to hear what people have to say; that's what everyone is there for! Last year, I didn't say anything about it. Events are hard to plan and logistics are a nightmare. I don't want to be the judge-y person. But this being the second year in a row held at Prive, the second year in a row that's the equivalent of holding a seashell to your ear and hearing the roar of the ocean and not much else, I have to say something about it. I am not the one having to plan it, I know, I get it. But I feel like there are a lot better options in ATL than an echoing nightclub, to do something that's such a pivotal moment in a career, in a company, in lives, like these pitch-offs are to the startups involved. Seriously, Atlanta Startup Village hosts 500+ people every month with pitches and Q&A and I've never seen it devolve to the level of chaos TC Meetup does. I'm not sure of the right answer here, but I don't think it's Prive. Sorry, Prive! I really do think you're great, in the right setting! </Side Note Ended>
So okay, let's talk about what you're really here for — the intrepid entrepreneurs and their pitches!
The Pitch Recaps:
CrashCalculator: The Diminished Value Experts | CrashCalculator uses a patent-pending algorithm based on hundreds of thousands of vehicle transactions to measure the diminished value a damaged vehicle gets hit with after a collision, unrelated to the cost of repairs. It's meant to help owners/sellers "cash out of your wrecked vehicle now, keep your repair check, get a new vehicle and avoid heavy depreciation later."
If you zoned out there a bit, don't feel bad, the audience got a little glazed as well. As a car girl and daughter of a current car lot owner, I was really interested in the premise here, but I'm afraid it got too dry and too technical too quickly for a 60-second pitch in a loud location. And once the crowd lost focus, it only got louder. It was hard to hear the judges' questions, but I will say that the answers were also pretty technical (about the algorithm, mostly, and how they got the "better than opinion and educated guesses and outdated physical inspection methods"), and the panel seemed really interested in the patent-pending part and how it pertained to competitors. I wanted to like this one, and I think the judges caught the gist of what it could do, but it maybe wasn't the easiest to pitch to a large, loud crowd.
Curricula: The Most Effective Cyber Security Awareness Training Available | Curricula works to "educate your organization about complex cyber security concepts, ultimately changing their behavior and building a stronger cyber security culture." I've recently had to go through privacy and security training at my job, and when CEO Nick Santora mentioned "death by PowerPoint," I almost applauded right there.
Curricula launched in October and has been collecting feedback since, basically doing testing during the learning period. When asked about competitors, Santora said they have one large primary competitor, and then they consider the "DIY" of human resources teams putting their own training together to be the other main area. With regulatory and utilities industry backgrounds, the team sounded comfortable creating training that's based on traditional security concepts, but making it more fun and with higher memory retention. They outlined an annual SaaS model as their primary revenue source as well. Overall, a solid showing and Santora fielded the judges' questions very well. I've even mentioned Curricula to my company's security people already!
DiaScan: The future of cancer diagnostics is finally here: Analyzing CT scans efficiently, affordably, and accurately. | Okay, it's hard to compete with a company that makes diagnosing cancer more accurate and affordable, right? DiaScan claims that "radiologists cannot accurately diagnose cancer when looking at a CT scan, but our software dramatically improves a radiologist’s productivity and experience by analyzing the scan for them." They use machine learning and data analysis to reduce unneeded biopsies, which sounds brilliant to me.
Now, this sounds like it was going to get really technical and boring ... but it didn't. The DiaScan team did the best job of the night taking something that's really in-depth and making it accessible to every single person listening. In fact, they won the Audience Choice award, taking the lead early on in the night and never relinquishing it.
Part of this was the statement that the standard radiologist has a very low accuracy rate (I'm fairly certain they said a 40% accuracy rate, but it was loud in there so take that with a grain of salt) in diagnosing lung cancer from a CT scan, which then necessitates a biopsy to confirm or deny. In contrast, with only 1,000 images to start building their product, DiaScan already has a 76% accuracy rate, which should only get better as more data is collected.
Fielding some tough questions from the judges on which centers of excellence the team had spoken with (the Nobel-Prize-winning chief of the Clinical Radiation Oncology Branch at the National Cancer Institute) and what BioScan's "secret sauce" was (the detail level, pattern/characteristic identification, and customized machine learning of the computer program), the team really nailed the presentation, taking something complex and distilling the key value driver. And at the end of the day, let's be honest, it's hard not to vote for a company that promises to make it faster, cheaper and more accurate to tell if someone has cancer. Really great job, DiaScan!
Fittery: Get Fitted. Look Great. Fittery is the free tool for men that finds clothes that fit and helps you look your best. | Fittery takes on the issue of online shopping returns. With 30-40% of items purchased online coming back to the retailer, Fittery believes the industry is broken. And what better way to help consumers find clothes that fit than taking that return data and getting companies on-board with fixing it? (Makes business sense to me — if your firm was told, "If you narrowed the waist in this one item by 2 inches, you'd sell twice as many of them," wouldn't you act on it?)
Founder Catherine Iger rocked the pitch and Q&A portions. She says the company has been live for five months, with a pre-revenue focus on getting the fit algorithm right. Fittery already has 40+ brands signed up, and Iger listed out multiple revenue streams, from commissions on sales to subscription models with the partnered companies. When asked about competitors, she said typically it's custom clothing (which costs more and takes more time), as the other companies out there with "fit" options don't support multiple brands as Fittery does.
People around me were definitely agreeing with Fittery's value proposition, quietly murmuring to each other about the problems they run into shopping online. When Iger said companies were "preying on the retail model of lies," the woman behind me even shouted, "Preach!" And although the audience reaction was strong for Fittery (Jordan Crook polled the audience and said Fittery's backers were louder but the DiaScan backers had more hands up ...), they still took home a well-deserved second place with the judges.
MyLumper: A unique payment platform in Trucking. | Yes, this is a real company name. Yes, we had our doubts as well when they were announced onstage. But it's a pretty specific industry niche — "lumpers" are freight handlers, and MyLumper offers "a real-time direct payment platform with shippers." Apparently there is a big disconnect between truck drivers, shippers, and lumpers, which requires either large (and unsafe) amounts of cash to be schlepped around, or there's a lot of waiting to get a company code for the lumper fees. MyLumper aims to combat the check, cash, fraud and time-wasting aspects in one little app that allows epayments from any phone, directly from the truck drivers to the lumpers.
There did seem to be some push-back from the judges regarding why this app was needed, versus just using Venmo or some other person-to-person payment option. Founder and CEO Akmann Van-Mary spent some time explaining not only why the app's ease of use would drive adoption, but also what I think was the hardest part — the need for the app at all. Lumpers are really just a foreign concept to most of us not in the shipping industry, and it's hard (apparently) for a room full of drinking techies to fully grasp the contracting logistics, need and market size. MyLumper is currently in testing with clients on the shipper side, though, and a viable revenue stream would go a long way towards a compelling demonstration of need.
NearbyNewz: Post The News You See, See The News Near You. | Okay, I had to spend a minute getting over the gratuitous "z" stuck at the end there (I'm sorry, I also despise "Krispy Kreme" for the same reason), and in case you were wondering, yes, if spelled with an "s," that website is already taken. ... Anyway, I digress.
NearbyNewz works on the concept that standard social media and news feeds are cluttered, and you're connected to friends instead of posts with actionable value. The presenters said that their location-based information-sharing is credible due to their unique design — when asked about competitors, they said that other apps do pieces of what they do, but their combination is unique. The judges pressed, asking about location-based services and competition. And then ... NearbyNewz threw local-startup-success-story YikYak (who were standing about 20 feet away) under the bus, making a wisecrack about some of the issues they've faced with illegal uses and false information.
I've never seen a room full of entrepreneurs take a step back simultaneously before, but there's a first time for everything.
That set the tone a little for the remainder of the questions — the judges asked about how they filter noise (user-defined preferences of what you want to know about), what the value is to users (do you want an update of a local sporting event from people actually at the game?), and how they were different from, say, NextDoor (it's not location-based on where you are, just where you live), but in general the crowd got rowdy over the whole episode. After someone yelled something about "warning shots fired!" it kind of devolved a bit.
NearbyNewz, despite your superfluous "z," I think you have a good idea. I'm interested. So were some of the investors. But maybe just don't target the local startup darlings and offer to kneecap them in the parking lot next time.
ReKindness: Swap to Shop. ReKindness makes it easy and fun to give away clothes you don't wear to get clothes you will wear. | ReKindness works on a sort of greater-good-in-everyone concept: You post a pic of an item you are willing to give away, you choose a credit value for your item (1 is less than $100, 2 is more than $100), and when someone else chooses your item, they pay shipping and you receive the credits, which you then use to take any other item from the community closet.
My friend Allie (who also has an Allie-in-Atlanta motif ... I know. We're the same person with parallel lives. We didn't plan this, it just happened), who was attending her first TC Meetup, catchily called it "crowd-sourced Goodwill." And yes, it is. It's a community-sharing platform for clothing.
ReKindness is also working on the theory that selfies are breeding a "wear-it-once" culture, and social media has prompted people not to wear outfits more than three times. (Y'all. Seriously. Who has this many clothes, and this much space for them? ... I know, I digress.) Anyway, the judges wanted to know more. A lot more: How do they acquire customers (localized and social approaches), how long have they been in business (private beta = social network effect with 250 members and 1,000 items), how do they get the items to the next person (the company emails prepaid, pre-addressed shipping labels and is trialling local porch pickup), what's the most compelling revenue stream in the model (the plan is to move large transactions through the system, and add accessories to purchase to complete the outfits), and how, if they were so inclined, would one go about getting such items as Jonathan Shieber's "Early American Hobo" scarf (there wasn't an exact answer for this one, thankfully, but you do have a list of preferences in the platform).
It was a good pitch, with plenty of research and attention to detail. My favorite part was a smooth cross-sell with Marc Gorlin and Roadie, but even without the puns on Jon's scarf and connection to the judges, there was some serious buzz amongst women nearby. Taking the friction out of the negotiation process while getting rid of old outfits and acquiring new ones sounded like a winner to me!
Spün Utensils: A calorie-counting, nutrition tracking utensil that will be your new best friend. | I've actually covered Spün before, but it has only gotten better. Founder Umar Bakhsh has even polished his (already great) pitch since last month's ATL Startup Village, reworking it so it doesn't depend on the actual demonstration (and the always-ephemeral Bluetooth connection), and ensuring it flowed smoothly into his 60-second time slot.
Dieters, do you know how much you're actually eating, especially out at a restaurant? Spün solves the dilemma of not knowing how much six ounces of protein really is (the size of a pack of cards? What?) and measures it for you. It knows what you're eating, from where on your plate, and tracks it for you, using things like the trajectory angle of the serving for its calculations.
The judges loved it (one even exclaimed "no shit!" when Bakhsh said there were both disposable and dishwasher-safe options available), asking only about market research and potential partnerships (both came back to things like MyFitnessPal and WeightWatchers), competitors (HAPIfork is a pacing sensor only), and the fact that many around the world eat with chopsticks (Spün has already been approached by manufacturers to make a chopstick version). So as Bakhsh put it, "stop guessing, start spünning!"
SwatchPop: Custom Solutions to Your Design Dilemmas. | The concept behind this startup is that many of us "regular" people, people who don't hire interior designers to do over our whole houses, sometimes just need a little help ("pops," if you will) here and there. Ideas for the tiny areas that just don't quite work in your home. With SwatchPop, you just pick and choose where you need help ("What do I put above my couch on this awkward wall?") and in only three business days, you get professional design advice delivered straight to you, with a shopping list/links and precise directions.
I'll be honest here, the entire panel of judges seemed a teeny bit baffled at first by the concept. I'm guessing none of them have ever really tried to decorate a home themselves, on a budget, and several of them said they thought it sounded like a lot of work. As anyone who's tried to find something for that awkward space above the couch, this is a lot less work and lot more direction than we normally get, and the people in my area of the crowd were loving it.
The way the site works is that you're paired with a designer who matches up to you, and one of the main questions the judges didn't hit was what happens if you just don't like the designer/resulting design? However, the Q&A was very insightful — the designers really like the app, as they get a piece of the service fee but can pick how much "extra" they want to pick up; the company has been in business for a year but they've had really low attrition with designers because they eliminate a lot of the hassles; SwatchPop has three viable revenue streams (services fees from clients, product-sourced referrals, and advertising); and they are contemplating a relationship with a retailer upfront (and several have reached out).
After one year, SwatchPop has completed 500 projects and cleared $40K, and with only a $5k investment from each partner, they're profitable and growing 20% month-over-month. Are you surprised they won the top TC Meetup grand prize for the night? Nope, I wasn't either. Congrats to a prepared team, a great pitch and a fantastic idea!
TrustStamp | Have you ever connected with a stranger online, and worried you'd be the victim of the next Catfishing scheme? (Okay, yeah, me neither, but I don't buy a lot of things from random people online.) If so, this one's for you. According to Hypepotamas, TrustStamp "gives you the relief of actually knowing who you’re connecting with by using social media, e-commerce and public records data to curate social-trustworthiness, verify subscriber ID and generate an objective 'Trust Score.' " (I'm borrowing Hype's recap because there isn't a lot online about TrustStamp that describes exactly how it works. TrustStamp, I'm for a little more info in your Twitter bio, for example.)
You pay only a dollar (!) to verify the person's trustworthiness, compared to other options which cost a heck of a lot more, don't use social media to vet and don't offer photo verification (this also answered one of the judge's questions about competition). They also do something fancy with locking down the camera used to authenticate the person. Additionally, TrustStamp says its research has shown that 50% of Craigslist users would use the service. When asked why they haven't gone into fintech rather than to consumers, they said that banks have in fact come to them, but they've started with consumers for now. And finally, all of their data is publicly available — the DMV, for example, is public. Who knew?
While a really interesting product (not to mention a terrifying foray into what's public out there about us all), the pitch needed a little more polishing as it seemed a bit scattered. Although, to be fair, they were the last to pitch and the crowd was really rowdy by then, which is enough to throw off even seasoned presenters.
And that's a wrap, guys! Whew! It was a fun night, and the entrepreneur energy in the room was great to see, let's do it again next year (though maybe not at Prive ...)