Cozi Founder Talks About Dell Deal, a Great Mentor, and Why He Had to Start a Company
I recently had a good chat with Robbie Cape, the founder and CEO of Seattle-based Cozi. We talked about some key issues in tech startups and entrepreneurship, as well as the deal his company just landed in April with computer giant Dell—one that is helping drive some much-needed business to his consumer-focused startup.
The basic idea of Cozi is free software to help families coordinate their calendars, activities, to-do lists, and chores, and stay in touch better. The Web-based service can be accessed on PCs, laptops, and mobile devices like the iPhone, Windows smartphones, and BlackBerry. The recent Dell partnership means Cozi’s software comes pre-loaded on Dell’s new Studio One 19 machines (its touch screen desktop). The companies also formed a partnership earlier this year in which Dell ships Cozi’s software on other types of PCs through its retail partners.
Cape, a 12-year Microsoft veteran, founded Cozi back in 2005, and the company released its first product in early 2007. The startup has raised some $16 million from angel investors, family members, and the media company Gannett. It now has about 1.5 million customers spread among half a million families worldwide. Cozi’s revenues come from co-branding relationships and direct advertising.
Within the challenging space of Web-based consumer software, Cape had some valuable insights to share. Here’s a quick rundown:
—On how the Dell deal came about: “When we decided to integrate into family life, we spent two weeks considering doing a hardware play,” Cape says. “So much of our vision was related to there being computers, flatscreens throughout home where people could access Cozi. For our first user experience in 2007, we built it to run on Dell Studio One. One of the first calls we made was to Dell. We were talking to the team who report to the CTO, and they said they were looking out 2-3 years. They were like, ‘This would be perfect for us, let’s keep talking.'”
—On the effects of Dell on Cozi’s business: “They’ve given us incredible exposure through their retail machines. They’re signing up 1,000 new family members a day,” Cape says. “Orders are a lot higher than they thought they’d be. Retail response has been phenomenal. We’re seeing signups come through the Dell Touch machine. I’m amazed at how much focus the Cozi application is getting. There are a variety of different apps on the machine—Cozi isn’t front and center.” As for how significant Dell is to Cozi’s business, Cape adds, “They account for almost half of our signups right now. That’s across all Dell machines.”
—On software distribution models. “Most consumer websites grow virally,” Cape says. “There has been none of that for Cozi so far. We’ve been so busy doing work for our partners [like Dell and Gannett]. Only earlier this year have we started to focus on the next big feature area—sharing is really important.”
—On whether entrepreneurs are born or made: “I have entrepreneurialism flowing in my blood,” he says, noting that his brother, father, and uncle all started their own companies. “I always knew I wanted to start my own business. I came to Microsoft for an internship and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. I thought I’d stay at Microsoft for three years, but one thing led to another. Finally in 2001-2002, I needed to turn my energy towards doing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—starting my own business.”
—On finding the killer idea vs. the killer team: “For better or worse, I decided to focus first on who I wanted to start the company with. In early 2004, I reached out to Jan Miksovsky at Microsoft [now Cozi’s chief product officer]. Then we did research into what to do. We narrowed it down to delivering simple experiences with software throughout the home. We wanted to go build technology for the home, but we didn’t know what we were going to do. We formed in March 2005 without a clear idea of the first product. It took three months to figure out we would be fanatically focused on families. We wanted to build technology that would be integrated into home life.”
—On the importance of mentors: “I continue to learn modesty from Jeremy,” Cape says, referring to Jeremy Jaech, a board member of Cozi, and the founder of Aldus, Visio, and Trumba (and now CEO of Verdiem). “He is so modest, down to earth, thoughtful, he’s phenomenal. For someone with that degree of success to be that modest is amazing. He has this great way of pointing out the obvious. He’s so good at being outside, and taking a fresh look at a tough problem I’m faced with. Usually it’s personal dynamics—a partner debate I’m having around deal terms when negotiating with a deal partner, or a problem with feature strategy direction. He always asks enough fresh questions that it enables me to think about the problem in a completely different way.”