At AngelPad Demo Night, Ex-Googlers Share Plans to Overhaul the Web
It seems you can’t walk a block in SoMa these days without passing the door of a new venture incubator. The latest addition to the startup-school scene is AngelPad, which announced its existence in August and has already graduated its first class of founders. Eight AngelPad companies pitched their audacious ideas to a standing-room-only crowd of venture and individual investors last night at the incubator’s Federal Street digs, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge.
Below I’ve summarized the companies’ business ideas, which range from the merely ambitious to the potentially world-changing. In a coming article I’ll tell you about my post-game interview with AngelPad co-founder Thomas Korte, who explained the incubator’s philosophy and methodology in detail. [Update 11/15/10: The Korte Q&A is now online here.]
Formed by seven former Google executives, AngelPad is a classic “second wave” incubator, Korte says. “I would group Y Combinator, TechStars, and AngelPad all in the same category,” he says. “But we are all carving out our own niche, be it geographic or what kinds of companies and founders we attract.”
At the moment, AngelPad’s niche seems to be helping other ex-Google employees start new ventures—but that’s mostly because the incubator’s first group was hand-picked from among the AngelPad founders’ friends and colleagues, forgoing an open application process. Only now has AngelPad started soliciting applications, for the session to begin in February. “Our social network is very much around Google, so right now this group is 60 percent ex-Google,” Korte says. “Over time that is going to decrease.” If you’re a startup interested in joining Angel Pad, head here.
Ajit Varma, Carlos Whitt, Jesse Shieh
“Analyzes large real-time data sets to optimize e-commerce”
People used to say that the main advantage of online advertising over print advertising is that its impact is measurable: when someone clicks on a Web ad, you know it worked. Adku has a slightly different argument—that Web ads are powerful because they’re flexible.
The startup, led by three ex-Googlers, has built a platform that allows advertisers or owners of e-commerce sites to switch out one message for another depending on what’s going on in the real world. If it’s an unusually warm day in November, for example, North Face might want to replace the pictures of winter coats on its home page with pictures of people wearing sunglasses. “Pictures of jackets are great when it’s cold in New York, but bad when it’s hot in Texas,” says co-founder Jesse Shieh, the former tech lead for iGoogle.
And weather isn’t the only thing that affects online shopping behavior. “There’s tons of stuff that matters,” Shieh says, such as whether a site visitor is male or female, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, whether it’s payday, and even what topics are trending on Twitter. Adku customers embed a bit of code in their Web pages wherever display ads, photos, or other messaging would normally appear; for each site visitor, Adku’s statistical prediction engine churns through all the available contextual data, then fills the slots with whatever messages it thinks would be most effective. The company has already scored Overstock.com, Dreamwater, and Heels.com as paying customers.
“A vertical network for outdoor enthusiasts modeled after Yelp”
Outdoor recreation is a huge market: 285 million people visit the U.S. national parks every year, and American spend $243 billion a year on outdoor trips, plus another $46 billion on gear, according to AllTrails founder Russell Cook. The problem is that once all these people get outdoors with all their new gear, there’s precious little information on where they should go hiking, biking, or camping, and what information there is tends to be fragmented, inconsistent, or locked behind paywalls.
AllTrails has built an online geographic database of 42,000 trails around the country, many of them annotated by Yelp-style user reviews, to help prospective hikers figure out which trails are closest, easiest, or most popular. The company is beta-testing an iPhone app that will let users access the same information while they’re actually outdoors. Cook, an avid hiker who’s racked up miles in places like Australia, New Zealand, and Patagonia, says AllTrails drew in 400,000 unique visitors in October, and has 27,000 registered users, many of whom were invited to join via friends on Facebook.
(As a side note, Cook and Polaris Ventures’ Ryan Spoon, the overseer of Dogpatch Labs in San Francisco, were co-founders of a site called BeRecruited, which is still used today by high-school athletes looking to get recruited by college coaches. Spoon was at the AngelPad demo night to cheer Cook on.)
Bastian Lehmann, Sam Street
“A web & mobile application that lets ‘curators’ collect and organize real-time news into topics”
On Twitter, it’s easy to follow people, but it’s very hard to follow topics. Even if you set up a Tweetdeck search column to single out tweets with a specific hashtag, you’ll still have to sift through a lot of junk to find a few gems. Curated.by has come up with a scheme that gives Twitter users the power of curation—the ability to pluck choice tweets from the vast twitterstream and collect them in themed “bundles,” to which other users can subscribe at the Curated.by website.
Creating bundles is easy, once you’ve installed the Curated.by browser extension (currently available only for Google’s Chrome browser). The extension inserts a “Curate” button next to the “Favorite,” “Retweet,” and “Reply” buttons at Twitter.com. When you see a tweet that you want to add to a bundle you’re curating, just click on Curate and check the name of the appropriate bundle in the resulting pop-up menu.
Co-founder Bastian Lehmann says Curated.by, which is an invitation-only beta testing period, has 2,000 users who have placed 20,000 tweets into 1,600 bundles over the last 12 weeks. He calls the service “the Smithsonian for the Web”—meaning (the way I interpret it, at least) that curated bundles are like well-tended museums of the most intelligent, revealing, or surprising tweets. Eventually, the company may also extend its curation service to materials on Facebook. “Today, Google has the most content, but the most interesting content is shared by you and me on platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” Lehmann says. “For whatever reason, Google fails to surface that content. Curated.by is the platform that does that.”
Dan Zheng, Brian Lynch
“A mobile and social platform that makes buying and selling really easy”
Korte introduced this company by saying he’d tried, and failed, to get them to change their name. I kind of like it, though I have no idea what it means.
Egg Cartel wants to drastically simplify the process of selling things online; basically, it’s trying to do away with the pain of filling out page after page of Web forms at online marketplaces like Craigslist or eBay. “The Web has changed enormously in the last 10 years, but the way we buy and sell is still stuck in Web 1.0,” says co-founder Dan Zheng, who worked on AdSense- and Android-related projects at Google.
Using Egg Cartel’s iPhone or Android app, Zheng says, sellers can list an item such as a pair of sports tickets simply by taking a picture and naming a price. Egg Cartel notifies people in the seller’s social circles and contact lists about the item, and alerts the seller when offers come in. Once an offer has been accepted, the service takes care of payments via PayPal. (Listings for larger or more complex items can be sent in via e-mail or at the company’s website.)
An alpha version of the service has been online for 9 weeks, and so far “users love how easy it is,” Zheng says. A thousand people have signed up for Egg Cartel so far, and at any given moment, about 300 items are being listed for sale. “We believe in a future where selling is as easy as taking a couple of pictures on your phone,” he summarizes.
Marcus Tallham, Sean Plaice, Brad Schumitsch
“A software and Web application that help users track, cut, and share their energy consumption”
Another funny name: it’s Hug as in “Give me a big hug,” not as in “Huge Energy.” It’s a reference to the warm, fuzzy feeling that the startup’s users are supposed to get after installing its monitoring software and seeing how much energy they’re saving by doing simple things like putting their computers to sleep when they’re not in use.
Unlike similar software such as Google’s PowerMeter, HugEnergy’s software doesn’t need to communicate with a utility-provided smart meter. It’s simply a desktop app—it will be one of the first released through Apple’s forthcoming Mac App Store—that tracks the power usage of all the devices attached to a home network, including computers, monitors, and printers, and gives owners real-time feedback. For example, “Every time you open the lid of your computer, the app will tell you how long the computer slept and how much energy you saved,” says co-founder Marcus Tallham. “The idea is to make people feel really good about doing small things that, in the aggregate, can make a huge difference.” Or is that a hug difference?
The startup has plans for an iPhone app that would help users track their energy usage outside the home—that is, while driving or flying. And it’s in discussions with big corporations like Sweden’s Ikea about distributing its software through their organizations. The long-term vision, say Tallham and co-founder Sean Plaice, is for the Hug PC app to become the true energy information hub for a whole home, collecting usage information from smart appliances, smart meters, smart plugs, and everything else on the network and showing users how they’re doing on energy conservation compared to their friends.
The startup has already lined up investments from XG Ventures (another ex-Googler operation), Paul Blomdahl, The Astonishing Tribe, and Aardvark co-founder Nathan Stoll.
Jim Payne, Brian Atwood, Nafis Jamal
“A mobile ad server helping app developers optimize the monetization of their apps”
As former Googlers who have all tried building mobile apps, the founders of MoPub say they’ve run into the challenge of making money through in-app advertising. There are lots of mobile ad networks—InMobi, Where, VideoEgg, Apple’s iAd, and Google’s AdMob, to name just a few—but the problem, says MoPub founder Jim Payne, is that developers have to design around their requirements, then manually adjust and readjust the number of ads coming in from each network to get the most profitable mix.
By inserting a snippet of code into their mobile apps, developers can hand that whole job over to MoPub. By collecting data over time, the company says it can determine which ads are most effective and “improve the experience for everyone.”
Eventually, says Payne, “we want to serve every mobile ad through our platform, reduce friction between publishers and advertisers, and increase the relevance, monetization, and performance of ads—making more services available to consumers and making more money for publishers.”
Chuck Lam, Ibrahim Okuyucu
“A mobile application that lets small groups easily organize and manage casual get-togethers”
It’s much easier to dream up a spur-of-the-moment group activity like barhopping or moviegoing than to round up the required crowd. “There’s usually a flurry of calling and texting, and the coordinator winds up relaying lots of messages—it’s a messy process,” says RollCall founder Chuck Lam.
RollCall thinks there’s a technological answer. It’s building iPhone and Android apps—along with HTML5-based apps accessible from any Web-capable phone—that help groups of friends make plans through group SMS conversations. Users create “RollCalls” for new events sending SMS invitations to up to 10 recipients; those who RSVP will automatically receive all subsequent text messages about that event.
Lam says RollCall has already lined up all the seed cash it needs from investors Charles River Ventures, Storm Ventures, and Mitch Kapor, so his AngelPad presentation was brief compared to the others.
Zal Bilimoria, Abhijit Rao, Abhishek Amit
“A recommendation engine that serves up the best snips from any page on the Web”
Snip.ly co-founder Zal Bilimoria says the company wants to help ease information overload by “distilling massive amounts of Web content down to the best snips,” which he defines as “bite sized chunks of content worth sharing.”
If you sign up for a Snip.ly account, you can install a Snip extension or bookmarklet in your browser that will let you highlight and snip any portion of a text article on the Web. The snip can be shared on Facebook or Twitter, and it also goes into your “snipstream,” which others can browse or subscribe to.
And that’s about it, at the moment. Bilimoria says the company has 1,000 snippers so far, and that each snip gets viewed 50 times, on average. The startup also developing algorithms that will automatically choose the most representative snips from any page, so that the company doesn’t have to rely entirely on crowdsourcing to create a big archive of snips. Bilimoria says snips could be a new source of value and traffic for Web publishers, since they essentially make every phrase into a potential landing place for incoming visitors.
But so far, it’s not clear to me how snips will function as an antidote to information overload. Right now, Snip.ly makes sure snips get discovered by converting them into Tweets or Facebook status updates. So in the absence of some way to tame, organize, and distribute snips (similar to the bundling scheme devised by Curated.by, perhaps), they simply seem to add to the existing cacophony of distractions.