This week's Atlanta Startup Village was truly one for the books. I have never seen such a prepared, put-together group of pitches in one place, and that's including most of the 30-second volunteer lineups in between. (Did you know you could do that? Help set up chairs and get 30 seconds between pitches? You should do that, job-seekers and recruiters and generally anyone who needs help in the startup community. You should do that.)
I take notes on EverNote on my phone because I can record audio at the same time, and I was Swyping as fast as possible just to take down all the sheer brilliance that was raining down on me from the lectern. (No, I do not mean podium. Fun fact: You stand on a podium, behind a lectern, and in a pulpit. That's your moment of Associated Press Zen for the day, people. Now you know.)
Apologies, this one's long because there's so much cool stuff to share on each company. So let's get to it, shall we?
THE PITCH RECAPS:
Funding University | A better way to finance college education. Funding U is like that brash, independent, successful and slightly intimidating aunt who totally gets you and thinks you should follow your dreams regardless of what your parents think you should be doing and who is completely willing to help you do so, in an adult, businesslike sort of way of course, because there are no free rides in life and it's important to be responsible about money, okay?
Okay, this could just be the presenting personality of CEO and founder Jeannie Tarkenton, but I think it's the whole company's take on what's normally a pretty stuffy industry. Funding U (or, as their T-shirt says, "FU") believes that undergraduate students working hard towards academic and professional goals deserve a better loan. With an annual student loan market of $128 billion mired down in FAFSA, cosigners and lending caps, and a widening funding gap (college costs are up 1000% in the past 30 years!), I'd say they're right.
Their solution is simple: Low, fixed-rate loans that do not require FAFSA, cosigners or the like. With requirements that are fairly easy to meet for the standard struggling student (a 2.0 or above GPA, a prior job or internship, and at least 1.5 years completed at a four-year institution) and the world's shortest online application process (seriously, you just upload a transcript, which provides 85% of the info Funding U needs to decide if you're a good risk), I think their approach is game-changing.
Now, I know what you're thinking — you've gotta start at college somehow, so their loans don't really help much if you can't get them until you've already had to take a different one out for the first 1.5 years. Not so! They also offer to re-finance existing loans, so if you can prove you're a good student investment (that's where those 1.5 years come in), you can swap in your awkward loan for a streamlined one from Funding U.
Most audience questions were, unsurprisingly, primarily finance-focused: How are they funded (currently private funds with mostly impact investors); what's the revenue stream (an upfront fee and then a recurring revenue servicing fee, which are wrapped into the loan); what are the default rates (since they're new, they aren't sure yet, but the federal rate is 20%, and with their qualification parameters they expect 1-2% originally); and what are the acceptance rates (again, they're new, but it's 20% right now and they'll know more in 90 days or so).
Anytime you talk money you get some dubious questions, and the final one for Funding U was no exception: How do they make themselves a credible option to students? Tarkenton's response? "They absolutely can't get a loan anywhere else. We offer a product that's not available to people who need it." Now that sounds like a solid business plan.
Skoozi | Reach the Stars. Skoozi wants to answer the question, "What would it be like to have your idol wish you a Happy Birthday?" with the real-life experience. (Yes, that sound you hear is every tween girl on the face of the planet losing their shit right now.)
Oh, for a fee, of course.
Skoozi came about because co-founder Michael McCluney had a friend, Dennis Roland, who was the tallest player in the NFL. Roland was constantly bombarded by fan requests for birthday notes or other personalized messages, and asked McCluney if there was some way to put this into an app. McCluney and his cofounders realized other celebrities also probably wanted to sell their time to fans, and they jumped on the market opportunity.
Enter Skoozi, "a mobile platform for fans to connect with their favorite celebrities through live video chats and personalized video messages." Basically, it allows celebs to sell personalized messages to fans, under terms and pricing that they set. There's also an upcoming charity component that would donate percentages to the charity of the celeb's choice (Skoozi is working with nonprofits to leverage that for fundraising purposes as well).
Skoozi launched officially in February and is busy building up a roster of celebrities, but the early returns are already promising, with 25% of users returning to order multiple messages, and a high "engagement component" where users can view others' messages, even if they can't afford to purchase right now. Smart in-app advertising right there.
Audience questions ranged from the very detailed financial side (they're using Braintree for billing) to user permissions (yeah, Skoozi "owns" what it does with the messages, whether you make them private or not) to celeb acquisition (originally, personal contacts, but they've brought in professional "talent wranglers" and are working with a radio/TV host now as well... and if you know anyone, they do offer referral fees, "into perpetuity").
One of my favorite questions revolved around feedback on the celebs themselves — what happens if the B-lister you bought a birthday message from left little Susie a raunchy drunk limerick, for example? Well, Skoozi says they have a rating system from prior users, and yes, they can be reported if they're obscene or abusive (a least one audience member here yelled out "Kanye!" but let's be honest, it's your own damn fault if you ever thought you would get a clean message from Kanye).
ClientSide | Electronic signature system for law firms. Okay, keep up with me here, I know that (unless you're an attorney) this seems really specific and like it does not apply to you. However, you are likely going to need an attorney at some point in your life, and in that case, it behooves you to pay attention, because you are not going to want to wait (and pay billable hours for) the 21.5 minutes that it takes to get your paperwork processed.
That's right. Co-founder Andrei Tsygankov says it takes, on average, 21.5 minutes for your attorney to mail off the paperwork to you for a signature, then process it and return it. In contrast, during the time it took Tsygankov to present ClientSide (just barely over four minutes), his co-founder Chris Pozzi went through the entire process, from both client and attorney side, and completed the entire thing.
Did you know most lawyers bill in six-minute increments? Yeah, I thought that might catch your attention. With ClientSide, you're looking at the difference between one billable increment and four.
But what's in this for the attorneys then, if we're stripping billable hours away? That entire process takes up attorney, paralegal or secretarial time, time that could be spent on something far more valuable. And not everyone actually charges billable hours for those steps, so then you're losing even more time that could be used for billable actions. You're dealing with lost time and mailing costs, not to mention how you track which documents are where in the process. It's a messy, disorganized way of doing something that should be beautifully simple: You ask for a signature, you get the signature, and you're done.
Okay, you're saying (just like the audience was at this point), electronic signatures have been around forever. How is ClientSide different from, say, DocuSign or EchoSign? Well, ClientSide is "built by attorneys, for attorneys ... designed with you in mind;" it's a client-facing tool that enhances client interaction in a way that's easy for the client and the attorney. So much is electronic now that many clients don't think they should have to go into a fancy office to get things done, and a lot of law firms are, shall we say, a bit outdated. ClientSide (unlike the other sig companies) lets firms white-label the entire digital platform experience (their own branding is nowhere to be seen!), and uses a workflow familiar to attorneys to organize, track and categorize the documents and clients. You can even upload interoffice forms like credit card authorizations, and move them through the same channels.
Tsygankov says they're live and fully functional, with paying clients, and have gotten a very warm welcome so far; the attorneys get the value, and understand the product. As far as revenue goes, they have different packages for firms, which include usage-based pricing and other options depending on the firms' needs. They also protect sensitive data in transit and at rest, the same way your online bank does.
If you have a current law firm that you're working with, send them ClientSide's way. They'll probably thank you, and you'll certainly get your documents faster!
PRIVET | Ask. Tell. Anonymously. On a personal level, PRIVET was my favorite app up there. If you've ever seen co-founder Titania Jordan (of Atlanta Tech Edge fame), you know she looks and sounds like she has everything together. And she very, very bravely put that carefully constructed TV persona on the line by playing this video to explain the need for her team's new app. (Go on, go watch it. I'll wait. It's worth it.)
PRIVET isn't Facebook, Instagram, or anywhere else that shows the curated highlight reel society seems to expect. Instead, PRIVET is your "real reel," an "authentic, anonymous social network." It's a geo-local community that lets you crowd-source life, with adult problems. And before you tell me you don't need that, let me tell you why I think you do.
Jordan asked the crowd to raise their hands if they could say "yes," then asked a series of increasingly intimate questions — from issues with spouses/children, to heavy drinking, to smoking pot. Out of 500+ people, only about five were daring enough to admit to these things (and, hello, it's a roomful of entrepreneurs, we all know there's some heavy drinking going on). And this was after Jordan had practically bared her soul in front of them. This is why you need PRIVET.
With PRIVET, you get the chance to feel comfortable admitting to these types of things, to ask questions without worrying about judgment. You can embrace your "real reel" self, seek or offer support, and hopefully find a sense of liberation.
How it works: You can go to different topics within the app to read or post (they call them "channels," which means you can pull up a remote-like view and "change the channel" — especially helpful for those with identified trigger issues), and you can do this either anonymously or with a user name, for each post. PRIVET says it's different from Whisper, Secret or other similar-sounding apps because of the community, culture and technology. It's in many ways a self-policing community (with an adorable penguin named Jack to represent the culture standard), and they do not allow certain types of activities on there (there's also anonymous, automated technology that watches for and flags patterns). It's meant to be supportive, rather than destructive, and the devoted users (70% are in the app every week!) work to keep it that way.
For now, the app is free, and will likely move to a freemium and sponsored version later on. While assuring the audience that everyone is definitely, truly anonymous, Jordan did punt any technical questions to CTO Dale McIntyre, seated in the audience. (Dale is also very modest; he and his lovely wife happened to be sitting next to me, and he tried to duck when Jordan gave him a round of applause for building the entire app himself. We see you there being quietly awesome, Dale!)
They're still feeling out their exact target demographic, but currently they have a four-pronged marketing approach aimed at millennials, as they believe that generation is the one most sick of the "fake" reels society has now normalized. As the "mobile generation," I think this app is going to be right up their alley.
So see you on PRIVET? I mean ... anonymously, of course.
Sequr | Steroids for your call box. I'm going to sound ridiculous if I call this life-changing, but I feel like it kind of is. And if you've ever been stuck outside someone's apartment complex, repeatedly dialing them through that evil Callbox From Hell while an angry line of honking vehicles builds up behind you and yet you still can't get through ... well, you might call it life-changing, too.
Sequr, which "makes beautiful software for an ugly industry," wants to change living or working in a gated community for the better, forever. They plan to do this through cloud-based access control that assists visitor management in those self-same possessed-by-demons callboxes. As a resident, you maintain a visitor list (you can import directly from your contact list), and you can send passes via text or email to your visitors, which can then be used on the call box. No more buzzing people in who maybe just scrolled through and hit your name on the call box. No more visitors stuck trying to get through on your cell. Just easy, secure, instant access, when you need it.
The second-best part? The (provisionally patented) PIN code system is dynamic, which means you can set specific timeframes, on specific days, one time or scheduled. You can buzz in your dog-walker each day in the same timeframe, or your delivery guy just the once. And everything gets tracked and saved in an activity log for you, too.
From the management side, you get all of that activity log wonderfulness as well as a Web app to see and manage daily stats on the property, add and remove residents, and even send notifications to one resident or the entire community (potluck at the pool on Friday!). But the best-best part? Andrew Eddy, co-founder of Sequr, says they can integrate remotely with any call box on the market, within minutes, with no hardware needed. (The chorus of murmured "wows!!!" rippled out from the audience as Eddy said this, by the way. There's going to be no shortage of buy-in here.)
They charge a flat rate of $199/month, with a one-time setup fee, no matter what size the community may be. Since their target market is the large owner-operators and large office complexes, I can't imagine the downside there. (They did try working with smaller condos, but HOAs move veeeery slowly, and those large complexes have a quicker decision-making and buying cycle.) There's no current competitors with call box software, only visitor management systems, and we've already talked about how terrible those are.
People actually started running out of questions, which almost never happens; ATVSV is always hungry to poke holes in your great idea, but Sequr seemed to have very few to find. And I'll be honest, if I had money to invest, I'd be shoving it at them right now. Take my money, guys! (Sequr, if you're reading this, can I trade, like, cookies for stock or something? I'm an excellent baker, I swear!)
Anyway, the next time you're staring at a callbox that seems more like a brick than functioning technology, drop the management a note about a little company called Sequr. It could change their life, and yours!