First, Matt Younkle helped customers digitize their music collections. Now, the serial entrepreneur is working on technology to digitize the age-old ritual of swapping business cards with new acquaintances.
Madison, WI-based Cardigan has developed software allowing people to exchange contact information using their smartphones. The company’s mobile app became available on the App Store and Google Play late last week.
While he acknowledges that the concept of a digital business card isn’t new, Younkle says he decided to make a bet that “it’s the right time for this product,” and that the team he’s working with can succeed where others have stumbled in the past.
Jim Remsik is Cardigan’s other co-founder. Remsik is also the founder of Adorable, a software company based in Madison. Adorable, which develops mobile apps and other software products for its clients, had spent years working on digital contact-sharing technology, but it wasn’t an especially high-priority project at the company, Younkle says.
“The Cardigan project … was always on the backburner [at Adorable],” he says. “It just kind of was slowly brought along but never really got commercialized in any meaningful way.”
As Cardigan simmered on the backburner at Adorable, Younkle was thinking about what he wanted to build next. He is perhaps best known as one of the inventors of TurboTap, a device that pours beer from kegs faster than a traditional tap. Three years after selling his ownership stake in Laminar Technologies, the business built around TurboTap, Younkle in 2010 co-founded Murfie, an online music marketplace that will convert collections of compact discs and vinyl records into high-quality digital audio files. He spent nearly six years overseeing day-to-day operations at the Madison-area company before stepping down in early 2016. (Younkle remains a “strategic advisor” at Murfie, and continues to serve on its board of directors.)
Late last year, Younkle was chatting about his future plans with Remsik. The two had become friends over the years by attending some of the same entrepreneurship-focused events in the Madison area, such as Forward Fest, which Younkle helps organize.
“All the projects that I was considering getting involved with needed software development skills, so I wanted to talk to him about this team and his availability,” Younkle recalls. Remsik brought up the languishing Cardigan project, which piqued Younkle’s interest: “I liked the idea a lot. I told him if he’d be interested in turning it into something, I’d love to get involved.”
They eventually decided that instead of having Younkle join Adorable and try to bring Cardigan across the finish line, it made more sense to spin the technology out into a new company. Now, less than a year later, Cardigan’s app is available for download.
Younkle viewed early June as a good time to launch publicly. One reason is that the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference is taking place this week in Madison, and there tends to be plenty of networking in between sessions and at the end of the day. Cardigan will be one of 13 startups giving pitches on Tuesday as part of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Younkle pitched the company’s technology at least once previously, in March, which he wrote about in a LinkedIn post. But Cardigan had mostly been operating in stealth mode until this month.
Younkle demonstrated Cardigan to me at a coffee shop in downtown Madison earlier this spring. One key design feature is that it’s possible to exchange information even if the person providing it does not have the Cardigan app installed on his smartphone. This is not the case with apps made by some competing companies, including Bump, an electronic business card startup that Google reportedly acquired in 2013 for at least $30 million. According to a report from Mashable at the time, “the fact that both parties needed to download Bump for it to work was a road block to truly mass adoption.”
Since Younkle was the only one of us who had installed the Cardigan app, he had me enter information about myself into a form—I just put in my name and e-mail address, and left the other fields blank—then tap a button marked “Connect Us!” Tapping this button did a couple of different things.
First, it saved my info so that Younkle can add it to his phone’s address book with just a few additional taps.
Second, it sent me an e-mail with a button to download Younkle’s digital business card. Clicking that button took me to a webpage showing Younkle’s name and picture, as well as the information you’d typically see on a business card: company name, title, address (both e-mail and postal), and phone number. The page also has a box saying when and where we connected.
“Those are the two things that I usually write down on a [paper] business card,” Younkle says. “I always like that context, to be able to refer back.”
The webpage displaying Younkle’s business card also has a button allowing me to add him to my phone’s list of contacts.
The process was surprisingly streamlined considering I didn’t have the app installed. But what gets Younkle really excited is what’s possible when both parties already have Cardigan on their phones and want to trade information.
“If both of us happen to have the app, then it’s just going to be a gesture-based exchange,” he says. “I use the idea of zipping up a Cardigan. Literally, you have a zipping-up motion that pushes our data back and forth to each other. At that point, it’s very quick and very seamless.”
Whether this will appeal to a broad audience remains to be seen. The electronic business card sector is crowded. CamCard and Evernote, which allows for integration with a user’s LinkedIn connections, both offer popular services. So far, a clear winner has yet to emerge.
Cardigan is attempting to compete with a long list of technologies, many of which have deeper pockets and more refinement. Younkle says Cardigan has raised about $100,000 in pre-seed equity financing. Most of the funding came from friends and family, says Younkle, who adds that he put in some money himself.
Younkle says that a significant amount of the product development has been done by people who are still employed at Adorable, and agreed to work in exchange for an equity stake in Cardigan.
(Cardigan also pledged to give a 1 percent equity stake in the company to United Way of Dane County, as Remsik and Younkle wrote in the Wisconsin State Journal on Monday.)
The pre-seed funding should be enough to tide the startup over for a while, Younkle says.
“We’re pretty lean,” he says. “Jim and I aren’t paid. We don’t have offices. We’re able to tap our talent at Adorable when and how we need it. I’m not anticipating raising a lot more money for this out of the gate until we start to see how the product gets used.”
For now, Cardigan is free to download and use. Eventually, the startup could shift to a “freemium” model where certain features are free, but others cost money to use. For instance, the software is designed so that people who network in different types of settings can choose from a list of “personas” to share with someone. Cardigan might eventually consider charging for the ability to maintain additional personas beyond a certain number, Younkle says.
But like with many aspiring high-growth startups, the idea is to focus on accumulating Cardigan users initially, and then down the line think more about ways to make money.
“Let’s try to get hundreds of thousands of folks on the platform before we even think about monetization,” Younkle says. “I’m pretty confident in our ability to monetize if we can get any sort of scale out of this thing.”