Somehow we're already in May (I don't know about you, but my April was merely a blur of Yellow Pollen Hell), which means we're also already up to round three of The Consumer Show (hooray!).
Not to be deterred by the fact that the first Thursday of this month also happened to be Cinco de Mayo, the Switchyards team looped in the Tex's Tacos food truck to provide appropriately themed fare. Event planners take note: Tacos and beer are a great way to loosen up a crowd.
After encouraging the back-of-the-room lingerers to take a seat (PSA: When you linger, you get stuck sitting in the front row. If you sit early, you can sit wherever you'd like. Your call), Michael Tavani kicked it off with the standard housekeeping about tours, membership and event rental options for the space (somebody asked to hold their wedding at Switchyards. No lie). He also introduced Michael Cohn, who's the first managing director of Techstars Atlanta.
Techstars Atlanta is a part of "a global ecosystem to help startups achieve their dreams," which will be guided by experienced entrepreneurs Cohn and Tyler Scriven into the inaugural round of the 13-week program here. Applications closed Sunday night for this pass, but the slots are annual so not to worry, you'll get another shot at it next year if you missed out just now.
Alrighty, let's get into why you're here, shall we?
THE PITCH RECAPS:
Affordable College: Working together to help more community college students afford and attain a bachelor’s degree. | Okay, I'm going to get this out on the table right now: You wouldn't think someone who went to Princeton University would really understand the struggles community college students face. But you'd be wrong.
Sean O'Brien is incredibly passionate about the college affordability and transfer problem (almost as passionate as he was as a hockey player), and has spent years studying the issue. Community college attendees make up half of students who complete a four-year degree, but they face serious challenges to make that happen: They're more likely to be parents, with more debt, and have to make college fit into life rather than the other way around. It only takes one small thing to throw off their plans — something like the fact that community college students who transfer will lose an average of 13 credits, and they don't even know it.
What did they do really well? Learned how to go and speak directly to the students, and truly just listen. The ability to ask the right questions — What do they have? What could they use? — instead of just using the company's own ideas.
What can the community help with? Affordable College is looking to create a campaign of those impacted by the transfer issue, under the tagline #fighting4credits. They need stories of people sharing experiences of lost credits to make it visible and make it change.
— Affordable College —
Affordable College's app helps show these students how to make that transfer dream accessible, affordable and attainable. They merely select their major and the preferred transfer destination; the app then informs them about any loss of credits or changes in cost. And then the app offers them optional paths that mitigate or remove the drop in credits or rise in costs. This way, they're informed and secure in the decision they're making rather than going blindly into a situation that could set them back six months to a year.
What's in it for the universities? Turns out, those transfer students are actually ideal candidates. They're prepared, proven learners, who have higher college completion rates than traditional four-year students. Universities want these students but don't know to go about finding them, and that's where Affordable College comes in.
Audience questions focused around some clear logistical areas: How do they keep up with the changing degree programs (the universities report this, so incentivizing them to communicate is key — the technology is there, it just needs motivated people to use it); are all types of schools truly receptive to transfers (most below the top 100-200 schools are seriously interested and just don't know where to go as there's no structure to the current market); what's the revenue stream (the universities pay Affordable College for access); and how does the app factor in things like relocation as part of the cost calculation when it makes recommendations for transfers (that part's still in the works as AC is co-creating with partners, so how exactly that will happen will come after validating the marketplace).
As someone from a state with one of the lowest rates of bachelor's degree completion (hey, there, Mississippi), this entire topic really hit home to me. If there is some way to create a more educated populace, not to mention workforce, and it benefits everyone involved, I can't imagine the drawbacks here. I'm rooting for you, Affordable College!
Bohemian Guitars: Guitars, good times, & gear for all you creative wonderers & free-spirited thinkers. | The brainchild of brothers and co-founders Adam and Shaun Lee, Bohemian Guitars has its roots in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the brothers watched musicians unable to buy instruments build their own out of whatever was available. This creative determination so resonated with the Lees that, once in Atlanta, they began making guitars the same way, out of recycled and reclaimed parts like oil cans and scrap metals.
What did they do really well? Successful at crowdfunding, branding and the community service aspects so far. They were able to launch in a month due to a stellar crowdfunding team and exceptional customer service.
What can the community help with? Design. All the artwork on the guitars so far has been created by the Lees, but they need someone with those skills on the team to help out. They're also looking to raise some more money: Japan has the largest guitar market in the world, and they need more cash on hand to support more product.
— Bohemian Guitars —
Boho guitars are "an alternative to the bland and overpriced" standard options, Shaun says. He also says that traditional guitar companies tout bodies of various exotic woods, but that this is a false selling point: The magnets in guitars interact with metal, not wood, so those fancy Tasmanian Blackwoods are merely a bump in price, not quality. Boho guitars, with their metal bodies and strings, actually provide a better sound, with a range not found in other guitars. What's more, for approximately $350 and in only four weeks, Boho buyers can build "harmonically rich, fully customizable" guitars directly on the Web site, instead of having to find a licensed dealer and pay an upcharge.
Boho is also committed to a more ecologically friendly way to make music, using sustainable forest versus natural growth, with 50% less wood than the average guitar, and leveraging recycled metals for the oilcan shape. Boho partners with Trees for the Future, an organization dedicated to improving the livelihoods of impoverished farmers by revitalizing degraded lands, and plants a tree for every customer's purchase (so far, they've planted around 16,000 trees).
Crowd questions focused mainly on the non-traditional go-to-market strategy: What's the return rate (roughly two in 100 guitars, mostly for shipping reasons and rarely for sound issues); why are they charging half-price instead of the premium that niche items usually demand (because they want everyone to have an opportunity to access the guitars their heroes are playing, and because the market is so overpriced that they could cut prices drastically and still have high margins); and why is the marketplace happy paying more if that's the case (it's starting to change now, people are tired of paying more for guitars with overpriced gimmicks); how will they address scaling concerns (they have 150 SKUs in their line, and that seems like more than enough to them, as they think there is something to having a unique guitar).
With an impressive roster of artists picking up Boho guitars, the company is certainly off to a great start: More than 10,000 Boho guitars have made their way to 52 countries (the top three outside the United States being Australia, Canada and the UK), the company has taken on $600k in crowdfunding, and they participated in startup accelerator 500 Startups in Silicon Valley. They're just looking for a few assists (see "What can the Community help with?" above), and how could you not want to help out a company finding the beauty in oil cans? See if you can help them make the music world a little better, for everyone.
LuxerOne: Welcome to the future of package delivery. | If you've ever had a package delivered during the workday, had to rush home early to try to catch your apartment building's front desk while it was still open, missed it by minutes and then had to wait for them to open the next morning, and finally, ended up going into work late, all over a stupid Amazon box, then you are going to love LuxerOne.
What did they do really well? Number one advantage over competitors is the research: They launched a "terrible" locker program three years ago in San Francisco and pretty much intentionally ticked off carriers just to hear how it was supposed to work. They're also partnering with people already in a space (say, elevator installers) to allow them to cross-sell the locker system at the same time.
— LuxerOne —
With millions of package deliveries and a 15% increase year over year due to the rise in e-commerce, this is also a nightmare for the property owners. There are messy mailrooms to manage (it costs an average of $3.50 per package for the property manager to handle), resident alerts and staff schedules to juggle, and at the end there's still only about a 50% chance the residents are even actually going to get their packages. This is such an issue that property rental company Camden Properties recently decided to refuse to accept packages in their management office. (Good luck finding that package still on your doorstep when you get home, apartment dwellers!)
LuxerOne knows. They are now solving the package management problem in multi-family complexes with a slick locker system (which the properties purchase and then pay a monthly support fee for) that allows all carriers to securely deliver packages. They even take a photo of the package shipping label and the signature when picked up, and record this all on webcams through Nest with 24/7 onsite support. The resident gets a message with a secure code, which expires after use, and can access the locker at any time.
Nicholas Sanderson, CEO of parent company Laundry Locker, fielded primarily functionality questions from the audience. The trickiest part seemed to center around training carriers to want to use the system — instead of being able to get one signature for a dolly-load of boxes at once, they now have to locate a name in an iPad, select a package size, and put the box(es) in the resulting open locker. This takes about 15 seconds per package, versus 15 seconds per delivery. But Sanderson says the company spent a lot of time not only studying the shipping data from UPS, but also intentionally building scenarios around unsuccessful deliveries to see what worked and what didn't, so the system is designed entirely around how carriers already like to work.
With a successful background in laundry lockers for dry cleaning, a heavy emphasis on carrier behavior, and clever partnerships with other companies in the space, it sounds like LuxerOne has done its research and knows the right formula. Cross your fingers that your rental company agrees, and you may never have to rush home to grab that smiling Amazon Prime package again!
SparkFire Active: Performance Activewear for Teens, Empowering Girls Everywhere | As the mother of two daughters, Samantha Hodgkins saw a gap in the system. Samantha, founder and "Chief FireStarter" of SparkFire, recognized that teen adolescence is a critical period for girls in terms of self-esteem, body image and peer pressure. The fact that teen girls are dropping out of sports at six times the rate of boys made her think that something had to be done to help girls feel more confident and self-assured. SparkFire, a for-profit social enterprise "powered by girls, for girls," is that something, for the girls of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
What did they do really well? Samantha has an extensive background in brand, and has spent a lot of time immersed with teen girls to discover what they need to be inspired and creative. She says SparkFire is uniquely positioned to get the girls to open up and talk, and bring them into the brand.
What can the community help with? They're about to fully launch, and the initial test market is critical so they need help to engage, connect, and spread the word. As a direct-to-consumer product, SEO matters, so they need help there as well. The content and followers are growing but could always use an assist on Instagram and other channels.
— SparkFire Active —
SparkFire met with, listened to and measured hundreds of real teen girls, and has created a line of activewear specifically for them. The fabric is made in the U.S.: it's eco-friendly and sustainably produced REPREVE recycled polyester/spandex, and retains important properties like four-way stretch, moisture-wicking, breathability, odor resistance and quick-drying. The garments are responsibly cut and sewn in the Dominican Republic. The prints are custom-designed with a sublimation technique that allows the company to be nimble in changing to popular patterns and styles, with potential to be custom-matched for future partnerships as well. And, as a kicker, SparkFire aims to support global education with #BeTheSpark, donating proceeds from shirt sales to keep young women in school (500 shirts equals one year of education).
I know, it's hard to know what ask after that kind of presentation, isn't it? Crowd questions were mostly directed to financials: The idea of a referral program discount (they're already building this with community leaders who are regular girls, not celebrities, and they love the concept of doing a discount program for those influencers); co-branding (they are considering soliciting donations to sell directly to schools or like-minded organizations); the size of the sales team (it's a lean team of, ahem, one at the moment, though Samantha has been working with interns locally in key roles); and complementary products after the purchase (the initial offering is specific and narrow, but there are other items in the pipeline like leggings and tanks; it's more experiential than just the product, and will be rolling out mission outreaches and events).
SparkFire is in pre-launch at the moment, and will begin pre-ordering starting May 15. So help global education and empowerment by encouraging teen girls to #bethespark and join the tribe. After all, it only takes a small spark to create a huge fire.
Vestigo: Go. Nature Awaits. Discover an outdoor adventure guide near you. | Maybe it was the backpack, but co-founder Marshall Mosher walked onstage and about half the audience suddenly wanted to go on an adventure. I actually saw people sit up and take notice, and for the last act of the night after a lot of beer, that's a pretty nifty trick!
What did they do really well? The team has spent heavy efforts working on retargeting, as most trip purchasers spent a lot of time on pages looking at options but didn't buy the first time around. They've now finally created an effective way to do this, and have perfected it.
What can the community help with? Feedback on the user experience, which means they need you to take a trip, test the system out, and tell them about it. Switchyards members, there will be a private micro-adventure just for you, so keep an eye out! (And yes, there might be a trust fall. No promises, though.)
— Vestigo —
Vestigo says it's a platform for locals to share their outdoor expertise: Guide-sharing, as they call it, which allows companies to create "micro adventures." In an $87 billion industry dominated by traditional outdoor outfitters, the idea of small treks seems lost. Most of those standard expeditions are large experiences that are slow to adapt, and, Marshall says, they don't see the future. People don't always have the time for a week-long expedition, but there's plenty of small-scale local activities just waiting to be discovered with the right guide.
Vestigo is blending "the sharing economy and outdoor professional to host its own type of micro adventures that are affordable, easy to access and guided locally." They're focusing on the Southeastern U.S. first, and have had good traction so far, with 258 guides and more than 1,000 travelers already signed up. The revenue model is also reversed from the industry standard, and works more like AirBnB, with 80% going to the guide and only 20% to the company.
Marshall says that, basically, nobody wants to be "a tourist." Travelers want to feel like a local, even when they're clearly not, and nothing makes you feel "local" like knowing all the best-kept-secret scenic spots within an hour of your city.
Marshall weathered the audience Q&A pretty smoothly (even ably handling some blank slides in his presentation with barely a flinch), discussing the approval process for guides (they take it very seriously since it reflects directly on the company, going through a three-step initial application of experience, certification, and experience leading in the area, before the guides can even access the dashboard to create a trip, and then final approval before it goes live); whether the demand or supply side is more important (it's a bit chicken-or-the-egg, but you can't go on a trip unless it exists, so the first focus was guides, and now it's participants); what happens after (that's the best part of the advertising, since you can remarket to the customers who have now been on a unique, affordable experience); and affiliates (most are on the front end, such as Atlanta Trails, where users can get stats about a trail and then actually link to selecting a guide for it from Vestigo).
I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a mini-adventure — with the right Vestigo guide, of course!
That's a wrap for the third Consumer Show recap at Switchyards; see you there in June?