500 Startups demo day

I crashed my first demo day today at 500 Startups.  As with all good things, it came about via a stupid coincidence.  I’m an investor in 500 Startups, but hadn’t yet managed to get myself on the official LP mailing list so I had no idea an investor day was coming up.  I plopped down in seat 10A on the Alaska bus to San Jose, and of all the damn coincidences, my good friend and cofounder from Ontela, Brian Schultz, had the seat next to me.  I asked him what he was up to and he told me he was headed down for 500 Startups demo day.  I zipped off an email before the flight attended shut me down and had an invite by the time we hit 10k feet.

500 Startups is an interesting beast.  The fund has $29MM under management with over 250 investments, only half of which are in the valley.  Companies came from as far as Japan (cloud data processing) to Brazil (educational test coaching).  Here’s some of the companies that stood out to me:

TinyReview was super cool – like instagram + twitter + yelp.  You go somewhere, take a picture, and put 3 extremely short lines of text on it – two or three words per line, tops.  Looks like fun, good traction, and the service just feels like something people will enjoy playing with.  But I’m skeptical of the positioning as a review site.  My top use for a review site is to recommend stuff – not actually clear to me how you use microhaikus to find a great restaurant, unless you’re just reading a lot. It looks like a great creative palette but not like a great reviews site.

The concept behind Spinnakr is great.  They do lots of crazy analysis on a per-user basis and help you customize your content for the actual human being doing the visiting.  Bit creepy.  But the pitch is golden – a job site can highlight jobs that are relevant to you.  A news site can bubble up information that’s relevant to you.  They make a strong claim that the big sites are doing this already, so they can bring the same tools to the little guys.  The founders have a cool background too – fundraisers from politics who are experienced with targeting and what it does.

Switchcam is, in their own words, “blowing people’s faces off”.  These guys scoop up a bunch of online videos of events and stitch them together.  Imagine watching a video of a concert, as filmed through a dozen camera phones – complete with pans, cuts, and even the ability to grab the director’s chair and pick your “camera angle”.  Love the technology.   Not so in love with knowingly hosting large quantities of pirated content, and automatically categorizing it for easy takedown notices.

MeMeTales has a special place in my heart because they’re an ex-Seattle company that I mentored in the first Seattle Founders’ Institute class.  Maya is awesome, and she moved the company down to the valley (boo, hiss) to take 500s funding and really grow the business.  They’re doing online and mobile storybooks for kids – great growth, and spectacular stickiness with an average session length of 29 minutes.  The books look great; I was particularly partial to “Richard was a Picker”, about boogers.

Postrocket says they’re like SEOmoz for Facebook.  In English, they optimize facebook posts to make it more likely that a given post on Facebook gets seen and “like”‘d.  I didn’t catch quite how they do this, but they have a great story that includes dropping out of college to go on a 46 hour Boston-to-Palo Alto pilgrimage to the valley to start the company.

Fitocracy gets marketing: they’re about fitness, so they showed photos of the founders, before/after, chubby/sleek, XXL-t-shirted and… yes, shirtless.  The only thing they left off their pitch (and I can’t believe they did) was their own XKCD comic (http://xkcd.com/940/).  Nice way to game-ify fitness.

GoVoluntr has the distinction of being the only startup pitched by an actual Got Milk ad model.  But they had a great pitch: former Starbucks guy has hard numbers that community involvement drives growth and revenues.  So they get businesses to donate products and services to people who are volunteering, and provide tools to help volunteers track their engagement and pick up perks from participating companies.

All in all, a solid showing – 32 companies, plenty of which show loads of promise.  Great work to Dave and team!

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