In the Microsoft Accelerator with SD’s Embarke: ‘This is Not Easy!’
In their first 10 days at the Microsoft Accelerator program, Embarke CEO Al Bsharah says he and co-founder Bryan Hall have worked 16- to 20-hour days every day—“and we’re behind!”
Of more than 600 startups that applied, Embarke was the only San Diego startup admitted to the intensive business-mentoring program. The accelerator, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Jan. 17, was established in Seattle earlier this year under a partnership that Microsoft struck with TechStars, which was conceived by serial entrepreneur David Cohen and the Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group. As Curt has reported, half of the 10 Web startups enrolled are from the Seattle area, three are from California, one is from Germany, and another is from Australia.
When I talked with Bsharah recently by phone, he said he met his co-founder in early 2011 at the Founder Institute incubator program in San Diego. Since then, they have been developing a communications tool that gives software developers a way to link multiple social media channels. Using Embarke’s technology, a message posted in the comment section of a blog, for example, could be automatically disseminated across Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and e-mail.
In terms of Internet communications, Bsharah says some people simply prefer to use certain channels. So Embarke’s technology allows users to stay in their comfort zone—with e-mail, for example—and still be able to communicate with friends who prefer to use Facebook, Twitter, or text messaging.
“The value we’re providing really boils down to increasing that engagement,” Bsharah said. Embarke’s core technology provides the infrastructure that enables software companies and Software-as-a-service providers to incorporate private and social messaging, he said. “Our customers may just want to communicate with their users better, or they might want to provide our messaging application for consumers.” Embarke provides its technology on a monthly subscription basis, using a tiered pricing model based on the number of messages delivered.
Embarke’s first beta product, released in early 2011, could take the messages that Facebook users posted on their walls, and automatically insert them in appropriate Facebook Groups. User feedback prompted them to shift their strategy and focus instead on person-to-person communications through different Internet channels. Additional feedback on the next iteration prompted them to focus on their application programming interface, or API.
“We took six to nine months to figure out who we wanted to be, and what we wanted to be,” said Bsharah, a 41-year-old entrepreneur who told me he’s been involved in multiple startups over the past 15 years. A timeline they created for Embarke reflects their perseverance in developing and testing different versions of their technology. In other words, he’s spent years working to become an overnight success.
“We’re trying to solve as hard of a problem as we can that still has a significant customer user base,” Bsharah said.
In addition to the Founder Institute, they also participated in a variety of other local entrepreneur programs, including Lean Startup Machine and Startup Weekend. They also demonstrated their technology in San Francisco, at the Launch Festival and Founder Showcase, and in San Diego at the San Diego Venture Group’s annual venture summit.
So out of 600 applications, how did Embarke make the new Seattle accelerator’s starting lineup? In an e-mail, Bsharah writes that he can only speculate on some of the key factors:
—The founding team is crucial. The TechStars employees, he writes, “do not shy away from the fact that they are ALL about the team. Do you HAVE a team? Do you get along and have great rapport? Do you play nice with others? Can you execute, or have you executed?”
—Microsoft established the program—known officially in some quarters as the “Microsoft Accelerator for Windows Azure powered by TechStars”—to cultivate the ecosystem for Azure, the company’s cloud-computing platform. “Embarke’s been using Azure for a year and a half, and we love it,” Bsharah writes. “You don’t HAVE to be using it to get in, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt our odds.”
—“Finally,” he adds, “it probably didn’t hurt that at the time of [our] application we had just hired two developers, got our first customer, were working through a partnership deal, and were selected by SDVG [San Diego Venture Group] as a “Cool Company.”
When I asked Bsharah if he has any advice for other San Diego startups interested in the Microsoft Accelerator, he replied: “The application process is a great experience, it’s a well-oiled machine and they take it very seriously. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t have some fun with it. Be amazing, but be yourself (they’ll see right through it if you’re not)… Have an open mind, and be prepared to accept some truths you might not want to hear. We are 1,200 miles away from our families, and we’ve got 100 days to go. This is not easy!”