With 11 rounds of its original monthly event under its belt, Switchyards Downtown Club is still going strong, and opened the new year with yet another sold-out edition of the Consumer Show. Not even the fact that co-founder Michael Tavani has been known to (loudly) hassle stragglers into front-row seats kept the crowd from staking out standing-room-only spots around the Western & Atlantic coffee bar. (I applaud you, standing-room-only people, who repeatedly refused the four chairs next to Tavani and Blake Byrnes and stalwartly remained standing near the beer. A strict strategy.)
If one of the many events Switchyards has hosted hasn't yet worked in your schedule, don't worry, Switchyards has something for you. They are rolling out not only a new startup development venture, but also a founder-in-resident program and "Made in Atlanta," a monthly event with Alternative Apparel about the best brands made here in ATL. (Shameless plug: My fantastic head of product, Butler Raines, also happens to be a co-founder at The Bitter Southerner, which is presenting the first one. He's really funny and it's gonna be great; sign up!)
Okay, okay. Enough housekeeping, on with the show!
THE PITCH RECAPS:
Ben the Rooster: A barnyard pen pal for kids ages 2-8. | If you think you've heard of Jason Sosnovsky before, you'd be right — the Ben the Rooster founder is also the Lightning Slinger at Switchyards. (Read more here about what a "Lightning Slinger" does.) His second job is managing Ben, his adventures, and his friends.
Ben is (clearly) a rooster, who lives on a farm. He's in second grade, he likes reading, books about space, baseball and more. But his favorite thing is to be a pen pal for little readers ages three to seven. He sends two real postcards each month about his life, telling a little story, and the kids write back to him. The stories range from his favorite chore (crowing as the alarm clock, of course!), to making pancakes with his little sister, to celebrating holidays and taking cardboard box space flights. Each postcard has a different prompt that asks the kids to respond on another prepaid, pre-stamped, specially designed postcard back to Ben.
What did they do really well? They just started in September, so Jason says they haven't had much time to do anything "well," but one thing he's proud of is their holiday package. They had an idea of something special for the holidays, and based on feedback from some SDC moms, they landed on a coloring book. Since their illustrator does most of his work in line drawings, they could just use those, and they ended up creating a coloring calendar in just two days which netted them a bunch of new subscribers.
What can the community help with? They have both independent subscribers and schools, so if you have connections with school districts, teachers, homeschool teachers, etc, they need inroads for connections. The ideal ages are pre-k, kindergarten and first grade, which do very well. Also, they are debating introducing a human character into the lineup, and are interested in talking to anyone who can discuss the psychology of human characters next to animals, such as animators or cartoonists. Finally, if you want to try the first month free with your little reader, use the code "switchyards" on signup!
— Ben the Rooster —
Jason says that, unlike one-sided activities like reading a book, the postcards use the excitement of getting mail to encourage kids to practice reading, writing and the art of having a conversation. The service is only $5 a month (and there's a promo code in the sidebar here as well).
So why a rooster? Jason says it came from an inside joke with a friend. They were discussing subscription services and Jason was giving him a hard time, saying that since he loves chickens he should get a postcard from a real chicken. (Jason then actually called chicken farmers to discuss getting them to take pictures of their chickens and send postcards, I kid you not. They were ... not so interested.) It ended up evolving from there (Jason: "I just like roosters..."), though now they're also looking at expanding the pen pal repertoire with some new barnyard characters.
Audience questions were around a feedback loop from parents (not a formalized one yet, though Ben gets a ton of emails, and they talk with a lot of mommy bloggers); what the team's background is (Jason was a real-estate attorney for three and a half years, then a Lightning Slinger, now a children's author, so ... no formal training); and if they feel it's a million-dollar business (well, sure. The end business plan isn't just postcards, but once brand trust is built, it could be flash-cards, follow-up books, alphabet postcards, and more in the educational children's space).
While Jason and the team may not have formal training in agricultural tourism or farming, his enthusiasm for Ben (and, yes, roosters in general) and helping educate kids certain shines through, and they are working to understand and improve on any knowledge gaps. It's a young company yet and I'm interested to see where it can go. And in the meantime, as Ben likes to say, "Have a sunny day!"
BuffBoxx: The ultimate fitness subscription boxx | Despite some technical difficulties with the walk-on song ("It was gonna be real lit up in here for a second!"), BuffBoxx co-founder Robert Kushner still kept the crowd's spirits upbeat with a high-energy presentation all the way through. Since BuffBoxx is a subscription service for delivery health, charity and technology to exercise aficionados, high energy certainly seemed appropriate.
After polling the crowd for workout warriors ("If you didn't raise your hand, don't worry, it's a new year, you still have time..."), Robert said one of the biggest drains of time, money and effort for fitness consumers is researching, locating and purchasing apparel, supplements, accessories, healthy snack options and even personal trainers. For fitness brands, problems range from targeting specific audiences to market saturation, distribution sources and product placement. The solution? BuffBoxx, a curated subscription box of fitness fabulousness, full of premium products (including Reebok apparel).
What did they do really well? Several things over the past year and half, but the thing that helped the most was social media, specifically Instagram, where they're at about 38,000 followers. Most conversions come from there, and they nailed down the process and learned a lot on that platform.
What can the community help with? The biggest need is contacts — investors who are interested in this type of thing instead of tech apps, or a friend who owns a gym, apparel line, supplements or anything else that could go in the box; even if it doesn’t work out, they like to network with the fitness community.
— BuffBoxx —
For consumers, BuffBoxx provides education, motivation, rewards, no hassles, and a charitable impact with minimal time and effort. For the service's partners, it provides marketing, distribution, Web traffic, conversions and a targeted demographic, and alleviates inventory build-up. And as for the charitable piece, customers select a charitable partner upon sign-up, and BuffBoxx makes a donation on their behalf at no additional cost. Additionally, the box offerings drive customers to the Buff Shop e-commerce store for full-size or extended line items.
BuffBoxx's revenue streams include recurring subscription sales; corporate wellness, high school and sport camp programs; Buff Shop sales; supplier kick-backs; and a branded point of sale.
Robert says they are the only subscription box with brand-name apparel, and they offer gender-specific meal plans, male and female options, high-quality products, excellent customer service and charitable tie-ins. This seems to be resonating with the market, as they have a solid social media following, counting nearly 38,000 Instagram followers, 4,000+ Facebook likes and 8,000+ Twitter followers. They've worked with influencers to grow the brand, from bloggers to Instagram models with 20,000 followers or more. They also have more than 1,000 brand-name suppliers, 1,700 customers and counting, and a Year One ARR of $300k, with 2017 projections of $825,000 ARR. They brought on Eastmont Ventures as acting CTO and have been entirely bootstrapped until now.
At this point, they're looking for investors as they need funding for marketing, inventory purchases to improve margins and expansion to their warehouse. Distribution is certainly a pain point, and they are in the middle of investigating fulfillment options. Robert says he wants to keep it in-house if possible, as he has concerns about packing quality if it's outsourced, but they are looking at all the avenues.
Mostly the audience seemed concerned (understandably) with what was actually in the boxes. Robert says he and his co-founder have been into fitness for their entire lives, and they are not only familiar with top brands but also try everything first before they commit to putting it into the box. The actual item makeup changes each month, and if a customer has anything they don't like, they can enter it into their profile and the box will be tailored accordingly. While consumers don't currently have an option to select a box based on goals (that's on their roadmap), they can put in clothing sizes or allergies. BuffBoxx is also not in an exclusive agreement with Reebok, as they're interested in possibly partnering with a few other top brands in the future.
While BuffBoxx can't (unfortunately) make exercising any less work, it certainly makes getting geared up for it a lot easier. If this is the year you're swearing you'll keep up with your NYE resolutions, I'd say signing up for BuffBoxx would be a solid start.
Colour: On-location, on-demand hairstyling for women of color. | If you are not a lady of color, I'm gonna give you a moment to go look up "#blacksalonproblems" on Twitter or on Instagram. Don't worry, I'll wait. (If you are a lady of color, give us a minute here.)
Okay, do you get it now? If you scroll through some of those, you'll see one of the most common things cited is how damn long they are stuck at salons. According to Colour co-founders Debra Shigley and Stephanie Belcher, getting hair done as a black woman is pain. In fact, it's absolutely the norm for them to wait six hours for a service that normally takes 45 minutes. Six hours, y'all. This is because the salon experience does not cater to black women. Forty-three percent of the world has curly or ethnically curly hairy, but the majority of the hairdressing industry is not geared to that. And for what's estimated to be a $500 billion industry, that is absolutely ridiculous.
What did they do really well? At the end of the day, they're a beauty and marketing company. Customers are salon-going pros, and Colour does a great job of managing the experience. They get feedback on each appointment, and have a 98% positive rating with their customer group. They're also a bootstrapped company with a great team (including principal advisor Jennifer Hyman, co-founder of Rent the Runway), who focused on projecting the right kind of image for the clientele they wanted to attract, which meant their design and aesthetic surpassed the actual stage of the company. They also have amazing stylists who bought into the vision and are taking the charge with them.
What can the community help with? They've tried many customer acquisition models, including Facebook, fliering, events, Instagram influencers, a discounted first month of service, etc., but they need help to think of more creative ideas for customer acquisition that push the envelope and get through the clutter in the marketplace. if you have creative ideas you've done or want to share, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Colour —
Debra and Stephanie say that black women are obsessed with hair because it's an extension of their image, and they spend $4,000 per year on hair services at a minimum, not even counting products, extensions and accessories. Yet they're mostly ignored by salons. So they created Colour to help women of color skip the salon drama and get amazing hair.
Say you have a Monday morning meeting coming up and you want to look your best, but the salon's closed on Sundays and doesn't open early enough on Monday. Now, you can just download the Colour app (it's under "colour beauty inc" and the VIP invite code is "colour"), choose a look, select a date and time for your service, and get a push notification that your stylist is on the way at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning.
There are two types of Colour members: Women who book single appointments for special occasions, and women who get the Colour Club membership at $200/month for unlimited services. Debra and Stephanie say the Colour Woman is a busy professional, or a busy mom with responsibilities who can’t be in salon for hours, or an aspiring student who's graduating and wants to show off a new 'do on Instagram. They want to change the way black women think about hair, and never have to "manage" it again.
Colour is focused on the underserved market of women of color, and currently does not have plans to expand to the concierge beauty space for men's hair. When asked if they have taken any learnings from Drybar's cancellation of their concierge hair services, Stephanie pointed out that Drybar's primary business model is brick-and-mortar locations where they've already invested in real estate, and sending people to a home was not the same business model and required different quality controls. Colour's stylists are well-vetted independent contractors, and there are many who work at other salons and freelance for them as well. They only provide what they call "short services," such as blow-outs, flat-ironing and other services of around 50 minutes, similar to Drybar's offering but geared toward black women.
As a Caucasian woman, I have my own set of hair problems, but I've never waited anywhere close to six hours in a salon. (To be entirely fair, I'm also really, really lazy about going to a salon in general ... though I do have a Drybar monthly membership and have a tendency to not go for awhile and then bunch them all together when I'm somewhere like Vegas.) I work at a startup, so I rarely have "good" hair going on, but I absolutely can't imagine having to deal with such craziness when I do go. Based on audience reaction near me, and on the media attention Colour has been getting, I'd say they've found a seriously underserved market and are going to become the stylist approach of choice. So skip the salon drama and take Colour for a spin, ladies!
Mixle: Meet, mix and mingle in realtime with like-minded people around you. | Kicking off his presentation with some enthusiastic dancing to the intro song, founder Adekunle Ayodele doesn't look someone who needs help talking to new people. But two years ago, he says, he walked into a lounge, didn't know anyone, and sat at the bar sipping his drink alone and playing on his phone — just like everyone else there. After about an hour, he looked up and realized people were interacting. Thinking about this interesting switch, he realized that the lounge got more crowded, which made it easier to lean over and say hello to the next person. Adekunle says that was a "Eureka!" moment for him.
But, you're saying, there are already apps to connect people. Sure, but those existing apps connect people online for possible future meet-ups, not right in the moment. They also fail to reflect users' current interests, and people have to approach multiple individuals to find the right match.
What did they do really well? They have done multiple local and national events and promotions, including winning a challenge with the Atlanta Braves when the team was looking for a way to improve fan interaction. That's an ongoing project!
What can the community help with? Download the app today and make one connection. (Apple users there on Thursday were automatically connected to someone at Switchyards due to the group chat feature.) Also, follow them on social, and if you know of businesses or event planners who would benefit, please make an intro (they do offer referral fees). Finally, they're looking to grow their team, please reach out if you're interested!
— Mixle —
The solution? Mixle, a social mobile app that enables faster connections by matching individuals nearby who share similar interests or goals for instant, in-person meet-ups. Just download the app, then check-in to nearby places, and you'll be presented with a location-specific list of options. When you select your interest, Mixl will connect you with someone else at that same location, looking for the same thing, and if you both accept the match, you'll go into a chat mode to identify yourselves and meet up in real time. Basically, you're telling others, "I’m at ___, looking for ___."
Some additional features include a "get me out of here!" feature (GMOOH) in case that match doesn't work out, as well as geo-tagged deals, moment-based ads, and a location-specific group chat that maintains the environment even after you've left the location.
With a ton of use cases, from sporting events to college campuses and restaurants, it also gives event planners and businesses a unique opportunity to service customers and enhance their experience, with very targeted ads and specials relevant to people's actual interests at that moment in time.
Though they've not yet discussed things like a points system that rewards users for interactions, their road map is primarily directed by users, including the new group chat feature. One audience suggestion was a "trending" section that identifies a location with lots of check-ins to suggest that others go there as well (which I think would be really smart). They don't plan to open it up on Facebook or other social media channels (though you can use them to log in) as they see it as a more controlled experience inside the Mixle app.
It's also globally available, not just in Atlanta, though they've been focused here at first to perfect the technology. They are also looking at integrating with other location-based apps such as Foursquare. Because those types of apps are more broad, they see them as possible cooperative partners versus competitors.
So what are you waiting for? Meet. Mix. Mingle!
Umano: On a mission to unleash creativity. | Umano is an online e-commerce platform to discover, celebrate, shop and share kid’s art. According to Alex Torrey, brother and co-founder, the company's dream is to be "the French door to the Internet." The kids draw the art, and Umano showcases it on a lifestyle product, from T-shirts to bags and more. And for each product sold, they give a backpack full of art supplies to kids. What's not to love here?
Alex and his brother Jonathan think the retail industry is ready for massive innovation. In one area that's already happened, such as vacuum-packing and drone delivery, but the second area is where Umano sees their opportunity: Connecting consumers with something bigger, a bigger purpose, a bigger story. (That sound you hear is Millennials everywhere perking up their ears.)
What did they do really well? They are coming up on the fifth birthday of Umano and have been bootstrapped the whole time (if you're applauding, Alex says you're clapping for his "pain threshold"). But the silver lining to being bootstrapped is that it lets you focus so much on building your own brand, and there's no pressure with fundraising and differing epxectations. They've also gotten great press in Vogue, Bloomingdales has picked them up, and they also had a successful run on "Shark Tank."
What can the community help with? The bootstrapped time is up, and they are in the middle of raising a seed round. If you're thinking of the "Shark Tank" episode, well, Alex says they're "called sharks for a reason." Umano is now ready for investing, so any connections would be great!
— Umano —
How? Umano calls it the "local everywhere approach to scale." They make Giving Trips to hand-deliver the charitable backpacks and pick up drawings, and then come back to Athens, Ga., and make collections curated for the target market in those communities that speaks specifically to them and the giving partners in those communities. And then, as Alex says, "rinse and repeat in a virtuous cycle." It's a "social shopping community" that builds on that something universal about kids' art that speaks to people.
It's also a multi-dimensional approach to repackaging the goodwill of the branded concept in a way that unprecedented partners can take advantage of. For example, they could get inner-city kids in Atlanta to draw airplanes, and Delta pilots could vote on them for a tie, so then Delta benefits with the repackaging goodwill, they get exposure and drive down customer acquisition costs, while the kids get the charitable boost back. It's no longer e-commerce, Alex says, it's "just commerce ... at the right place, right time, always, and everywhere" across multiple touchpoints that leverage tech to maximize lifetime value. Essentially, the canvas for Umano is limitless.
Umano had a successful appearance on "Shark Tank," and the audience was fascinated with what they'd learned from the opportunity. Alex says it's a bit of trial-by-fire and having to fine-tune your business model on the spot, fielding some tough questions, and they were fortunate to have a positive experience and came out supercharged to move forward. One area where they really shone on the show was supply chain logistics. Turns out that Jonathan is a supply-chain wizard, and had traveled to Turkey (with no Turkish language skills) and somehow found a company who agreed to produce their items at quantities 100 times smaller than their typical minimum runs, which produced a better quality at better prices.
Alex says they have been positively influenced by the many other excellent consumer brands, such as Everlane, who work seriously on the idea of social entrepreneurship and being able to take for-profit ingenuity to serve a social purpose. When a product becomes very popular, Umano creates a royalty program that goes back to that school or district.
Though there's no true age limit on submissions, the Umano team has found that there's more "explosive creativity" between first and third grades, and moving into the fourth grade something changes. They want to empower the kids to keep the creativity flowing past third grade, but many successful submissions do currently come from that age range.
I personally loved this entire presentation and company. Though Umano was the last presenter between the audience and beer refills (which is, as Alex put it, "a dangerous place to be"), their message resonated strongly with the crowd, who paid rapt attention until the last possible minute and mobbed them afterwards.
If you can distract a bunch of entrepreneurs from the free beer, I'd say you have a solid pitch! Can't wait to see what's next for Umano and the kids.
That's a wrap for the eleventh Consumer Show at Switchyards; see you there next time?