Our first visit started at 9:00am at 5221 Paramount Parkway in Morrisville, NC, the new home of iContact. As some may know iContact is one of the leading firms in the huge and growing email marketing industry. I knew they were started by two Tar Heels in 2004, but I had no clue that they had grown to employ close to 300 employees worldwide. They have a unique corporate culture – even by technology standards – that gives each of its employees a significant amount of autonomy and personal ownership. I found their sense of style to be on the wild side – 5 moose heads, several elephants, and 1 Bigfoot/Yeti/Sasquatch – but it definitely brought out everyone’s personality. Our host, James Bordeau definitely represented the average iContactor (can I say that?) well and we could tell they all loved coming to work every day.
This makes a lot of sense to me because much like Amazon, iContact seems much more retail-y then technology-y. What I mean by this is that they don’t seem to be engineering or design dominant ala Google or Apple. Don’t get me wrong, they have plenty of innovation and engineering talent, however the balance wasn’t 70/30 or more as it can be in many startups. I think this is partly why they created this environment to attract not just engineers, but creative individuals of all types.
Perhaps one of the more interesting tidbits we learned is where the company stands in its lifecycle. What they shared is that their goals for the coming year are to architect the company and solutions for long-term sustainable growth in areas beyond “just” email marketing. Of course the logical extension being social and simply overall growth of their larger margin managed accounts. Their aim is to get to over 1,000,000 clients and so in a cost effective way that doesn’t over burden their systems. It’s amazing how much a company can do with less than 200,000 clients.
The next company we visited was a smaller startup – around 50 employees – in the developing start up hub that is Durham, NC – Digitalsmiths. Now I’ve known about Digitalsmiths for a long long time – in fact applied for a position that didn’t exist and working right above them for 8 months – without really understanding what their technology meant. At a high level at the time I applied they said they managed and created time metadata for video so that studios and other premium video content providers could monetize their video assets better (say what?). Yeah that’s the same thing I thought. It wasn’t until recently when I read this post by Mark Suster that I began to understand (mainly because he spells it out) the potential opportunity. Low and behold that is exactly the direction that Digitalsmiths is going and technologically they are doing some amazing things. With over 35 patents in the field of video discovery, tagging, and search, they are in prime position to become THE video discovery company. Note it here and write it down, Digitalsmiths have a chance to be huge…HUGE! Good luck DS.
For our final act we had the immense pleasure of spending an hour and change with a star in the local entrepreneurial community, Jud Bowman. As some may know Jud was one of the founders of Motricity, which went public last year and quickly ramped up to $1B in value. He also had the smarts or fortune (he would say fortune, although many would disagree) of getting out when the getting was good, but he didn’t leave empty handed. He took a small part of the Motricity business – apps and appstores – and started Appia (formerly PocketGear) in the summer of 2008. A little company out of Cupertino thought that was a good idea and started their own appstore a few months later. He said that they had to pivot quickly after and began powering appstores for other companies and through this strategy have delivered over 400m downloads of apps in 18 months, with over 30m active users and may be the biggest app store in India. The potential is obviously there.
Our discussion with Jud centered mainly around the idea of getting ahead of the curve. His example was about why he started Motricity in the first place. He explained how his roommate brought home something akin to the Motorola RAZR from Japan, and how in Japan they downloaded ringtones, wallpapers and other entertainment. He knew right then that this would come to America and began developing a company to provide those services. Within 4 years, Motricity would go on to generate over $1B in sales. WOW. He sees a similar opportunity with apps and potentially even bigger given the explosion of smartphones and downloading apps. (Full disclosure, I work at Appia and hope he’s right). The key message I took away from our talk with Jud is that sometimes it about being early and waiting for others to catch up (Motricity) and sometimes it about doing something different in a growing market (Appia), but at all times as an entrepreneur you have to have conviction of your beliefs.
So there you have it. One day, three companies, three very interesting and unique stories. All three are on taking on industries – mobile, social, and video – that are primed for big changes over the next few years and have the potential to become big companies. A big thank you goes out to all of our hosts – James Bordeau, iContact, Tyler Winton, Digitalsmiths, and Jud Bowman, Appia. We will be doing another trek in the spring and hope to include some VCs and bigger technology firms as well. If you are interested in contacting any of the three companies from above, please reach out to the Business Technology Club at UNC Kenan-Flagler or to me directly at email@example.com.
Next event: BTC Networking on Thursday, at WXYZ Lounge from 5:00-7:00pm. If interested go here to register.