Open Angel Forum San Fran – Team Calacanis Raises the Bar

Posted on Mar 5, 2010 | 37 comments


calacanis crowleyI attended the inaugural Open Angel Forum in Los Angeles back in January and wrote about it here.  Jason Calacanis started this initiative in response to the pay-to-play network of angel events that he despised.  I’m a huge supporter of his initiative to help end this practice.

The first event was a big success and brought out many of LA’s angel elite.  It also attracted some big names from the Bay Area.  I know of at least 2 deals from that cohort that are either funded (Backupify) or nearly funded (can’t really disclose, I’m not sure if it’s yet closed and/or announced. But I loved it).  These were my favorite two deals of the night and everyone I spoke to liked the same two deals.  Some people liked the others but there was much consensus quickly.  This showed me that the system worked well.  Jason & Tyler brought forward 5 high quality companies and super high quality ones rose to the top and quickly got funded.  Success.

The second event was in Boulder.

Tonight’s event at the 5A5 Steak Lounge in San Francisco was even better than the LA event.  This was in large part due to the marketing efforts of Jason that created a great top end of the funnel (100+ companies applied) and the herculean efforts of Tyler Crowley who spent days going through all of the submissions and serving up 5 very interesting companies.  Also, the angels (some of whom are listed here) were very knowledgeable and insightful.  The San Francisco events will be run by Chris Sacca (of Lowercase Capital) and Kevin Rose of Digg.

There wasn’t a bad company tonight but I had a clear favorite.  I suppose I should keep it to myself but I guess Jason will be helping to hype up all the companies anyways.

My personal favorite and best fit for GRP Partners was Thumbtack.  Marco Zappacosta served up a cogent, business focused and nicely demo’d pitch of their product.  Thumbtack is marketplace for local services.  Like TechCrunch50 winner RedBeacon they solve the problem of people looking for local services – plumbers, nannies, contractors, etc. – and provide a way to facilitate a match between vendor and person needing service.  They’ve done some clever things to improve the trust factor like doing background checks and other verification techniques to improve the trust people have in working with service providers.  I’d be SHOCKED if they weren’t funded pretty quickly.  Watch this space.  Then let’s hope both startups can build national practices.  For me the sooner we get this stuff out of Craigslist and into real systems the better.

Team Pip.io had a very ambitious project.  They called themselves a “social OS.”  Essentially I see it as two things: 1) an aggregator of social content from multiple places including Twitter, Facebook and soon even Gmail.  It has some similarities with Brizzly in this regard.  It serves a similar role as Digsby (which I love using) albeit from a social media metaphor rather than an IM metaphor.  In addition they are a platform (the OS part) where they’re encouraging developers to build third party apps on their platform.  The pro’s (for me) – the UI was simply beautiful.  The idea of aggregation is powerful in a world where your social communications are fragmented and increasingly hard to manage.  The potential risks – trying to achieve too much (complexity / breadth of scope worried me a bit), they didn’t seem to have a tight enough use case that they were doing better than anybody else (again, possibly too broad).  Overall, exciting team.  They may figure out something interesting and get focused over time.

As I’m sure Pip.io would acknowledge – they needed to get to the demo more quickly.  They walked through 4 minutes of PowerPoint garble (of a 5 minute pitch) before unveiling a beautifully designed UI.  Jason let them run over their time slot by a long time – the demo was worth seeing and he obviously knew this.  I wrote about how to give demos in a previous post.

The two most ambitious projects were ThereNow and IQ Engines.  ThereNow has build a platform (physical camera + software platform) to help remote coaches help improve teachers.  They ‘re cameras have the ability to show 360 degrees and can zoom closely.  The classroom activities are recorded and the video is appended with comments from a remote coach.  Ambitious goals.  My concern: teacher’s union and lobby.  In a system that so clearly should be “pay for performance” and is not – a tool like this could go a long way.  The problem is that to really fix education you’d need to reform incentives and pay in addition to better teacher training.  I for one will be routing for them, though.  The government has already given them millions in grants so it’s a good start.

IQ Engines is an image labeling and photo recognition platform that relies partly on technology to identify photos and party on a crowdsourced team of people who review the photos and tag them with the idea of the system learning and automatically becoming better through the process.  Having watched the history of Riya / Like I was a bit cynical of the ability of this group to get the image recognition to a high enough quality level.  That said, they have 9 PhD’s and 4 MBA’s on the team.  They have received grants from the NSF.  So if it doesn’t work it certainly won’t be for lack of intelligence!

Last two companies were Xachi Pet and Udemy.  The former is a toy / games company that merges the offline and online world in similar ways that Tamagotchi and Webkinz have in the past.  In this case it is novel because kids download iPhone game apps for free to play with them. The game then suggest that to super power them you can order a Xachi Pet for $40 to be sent to your house.  The game then interacts with the physical world product.  Pretty cool.  I love concepts that merge physical world and virtual world games.

Udemy is an online education platform similar to EduFire and others.  I first met the team at TechCrunch50.  They have come a long way since then.  Their product direction and demo increased 10x.  Still, I think that to succeed they really need to focus on vertical niches where they can differentiate and have more focus on content quality and user acquisition.  Given how much progress they’ve made since last year I look forward to tracking them and seeing where they end up by the end of 2010.

Finally, it was a real pleasure to meet Manu Kumar of K9 Ventures.  It’s always great to meet somebody in person that you’ve interacted with on blogs and on Twitter.  I was impressed with his knowledge and thinking after every presentation.  Also enjoyed sharing notes with Joshua Schachter who sat next to me.  Big thank you to Caine Moss of Wilson Sonsini and the chap from the LA recruiting firm who didn’t bring business cards (which is why I can’t remember your name – sorry) for sponsoring the event.

** Yes, the image above is from TWiST and not Open Angel Forum – but it’s the only one of Jason and Tyler together that I could find on the Internet.

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  • http://walkercorporatelaw.com Scott Edward Walker

    Great to hear that Jason and his team continue to crush it. See you at the next Open Angel Forum – LA event. Cheers, Scott

  • Don Evenson

    Back in Town? Let's catch up. don.evenson@tcw.com

  • ldmangin

    Hi Mark -

    Great post – sounds like a great dinner too.

    Question though, related to something which struck me from the above: how for you, as an investor, does the business stage of a company equate with its investment stage/requirements? I ask because i've previously (and perhaps mistakingly) associated angel with seed, and seed with earlier stage startups then the ones you mention.

    I dont necessarily think it is bad thing if the investment bar is slightly higher and requires more 'traction' (in any the many ways it come) from the startup, but its an interesting trend if true.

    thanks!

    LD

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    It sounds like a great event. My one point of puzzlement is that none of these companies sound like they would have been the kinds of startups who *would* have paid to present at a sketchy angel group. So as a new angel network, I think it's really cool, but I'm wondering if it really does anything for the entrepreneurs falling prey to pay-to-pitch.

    That said, other than a lottery system for a % of the pitch slots (and to be clear, I don't know the selection process), I'm not sure that there *is* a solution. There are always too many companies who want to raise funding, and it's the least sophisticated, least connected people that would pay to pitch. At least events like OAF act to shame the pay-to-pitch events.

  • chase leigh

    do you really feel that backupify was worthy of the first oaf? i know that jason says it is mainly about the team, but i know that it couldnt have been the best idea/team that applied. the first oaf really didnt seem to impress anybody outside the jason calacanis boys club imho

  • http://twitter.com/steepdecline steepdecline

    Thanks Mark,

    The LA recruiting firm was Boris Epstein of BINC Seach — bincsearch.com
    Who looks to be on ongoing supporter for SF / LA events.

  • http://www.eahoy.com/ Patricia Drennan

    Nice to see! We are ROCKIN' the bar of those that showed at #OAF, we have a product that will take things to a new level regarding one of these showings…stay tuned and move with us @eAhoy1

    Good job Jason and friends! We look forward to meeting with you in the not so distant future!

  • http://walkercorporatelaw.com Scott Edward Walker

    Great to hear that Jason and his team continue to crush it. See you at the next Open Angel Forum – LA event. Cheers, Scott

  • Don Evenson

    Back in Town? Let's catch up. don.evenson@tcw.com

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Don Evenson. THE Don Evenson? Mate, look forward to catching up next time I'm on town or you're in LA. Flying out today. Next time.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think sometimes these categories merge. I think only 1-2 of the companies last night was “early” angel stage. But most of the people in the room were more “professional” angel or “super” angel. So the deals were somewhere between angel and seed – 1 or 2 could be VC fundable.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You've got it. It's more a shame-the-other events strategy. There will always be more volume than events so pay to play can prey on naive people – unfortunately.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think the first OAF was a great starting point. Like any startup the quality gets better over time. You gotta start somewhere and hats off to Jason for getting the ball rolling. re: backupify – time will tell. It obviously impressed some people.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the info and for a great event. You delivered.

  • ldmangin

    Hi Mark -

    Great post – sounds like a great dinner too.

    Question though, related to something which struck me from the above: how for you, as an investor, does the business stage of a company equate with its investment stage/requirements? I ask because i've previously (and perhaps mistakingly) associated angel with seed, and seed with earlier stage startups then the ones you mention.

    I dont necessarily think it is bad thing if the investment bar is slightly higher and requires more 'traction' (in any the many ways it come) from the startup, but its an interesting trend if true.

    thanks!

    LD

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    It sounds like a great event. My one point of puzzlement is that none of these companies sound like they would have been the kinds of startups who *would* have paid to present at a sketchy angel group. So as a new angel network, I think it's really cool, but I'm wondering if it really does anything for the entrepreneurs falling prey to pay-to-pitch.

    That said, other than a lottery system for a % of the pitch slots (and to be clear, I don't know the selection process), I'm not sure that there *is* a solution. There are always too many companies who want to raise funding, and it's the least sophisticated, least connected people that would pay to pitch. At least events like OAF act to shame the pay-to-pitch events.

  • chase leigh

    do you really feel that backupify was worthy of the first oaf? i know that jason says it is mainly about the team, but i know that it couldnt have been the best idea/team that applied. the first oaf really didnt seem to impress anybody outside the jason calacanis boys club imho

  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com/ Marc Winitz

    Seriously, next time your in SF, let me know.

  • http://twitter.com/steepdecline steepdecline

    Thanks Mark,

    The LA recruiting firm was Boris Epstein of BINC Seach — bincsearch.com
    Who looks to be on ongoing supporter for SF / LA events.

  • http://www.eahoy.com/ Patricia Drennan

    Nice to see! We are ROCKIN' the bar of those that showed at #OAF, we have a product that will take things to a new level regarding one of these showings…stay tuned and move with us @eAhoy1

    Good job Jason and friends! We look forward to meeting with you in the not so distant future!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Don Evenson. THE Don Evenson? Mate, look forward to catching up next time I'm on town or you're in LA. Flying out today. Next time.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think sometimes these categories merge. I think only 1-2 of the companies last night was “early” angel stage. But most of the people in the room were more “professional” angel or “super” angel. So the deals were somewhere between angel and seed – 1 or 2 could be VC fundable.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You've got it. It's more a shame-the-other events strategy. There will always be more volume than events so pay to play can prey on naive people – unfortunately.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think the first OAF was a great starting point. Like any startup the quality gets better over time. You gotta start somewhere and hats off to Jason for getting the ball rolling. re: backupify – time will tell. It obviously impressed some people.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the info and for a great event. You delivered.

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  • http://twitter.com/SyedShuttari Syed Shuttari

    One after another new blog posts are being written by you. I couldn't even finish all the previous articles, any chance of publishing a book of all the classic articles? so i can read it first at my convenience without getting distracted by the new current events articles.

  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com/ Marc Winitz

    Seriously, next time your in SF, let me know.

  • http://twitter.com/SyedShuttari Syed Shuttari

    One after the another new blog posts are being written by you. I couldn't even finish all the previous articles, any chance of publishing a book of all the classic articles? so i can read it first at my convenience without getting distracted by the new current events articles.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, sorry. Crazy trip! I'll ping you next time. Or if you're ever in LA …

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Syed. Yes, many people have asked. I'll try to get some time to compile it into a PDF or something some time over the next year.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, sorry. Crazy trip! I'll ping you next time. Or if you're ever in LA …

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Syed. Yes, many people have asked. I'll try to get some time to compile it into a PDF or something some time over the next year.

  • http://blog.jamiequint.com jamiequint

    What is your take on the differentiation between Thumbtack and their competition (ServiceMagic, Yext, etc)? It seems that the only company that has seen success in the “service directory” part of that market lately has been Yext (Redbeacon's traffic is flat after their TC50 win) and they've done it by picking off top yellow page categories one at a time, and generally avoiding ServiceMagic's space, whether intentionally or on purpose. It seems like Yext and ServiceMagic have a firm grip on their parts of the market in the top categories and have figured out how to drive traffic and monetize effectively.

    Is offering small business software (online appointment calendar, accept online payments, etc) enough to give Thumbtack an advantage here?

  • http://blog.jamiequint.com jamiequint

    What is your take on the differentiation between Thumbtack and their competition (ServiceMagic, Yext, etc)? It seems that the only company that has seen success in the “service directory” part of that market lately has been Yext (Redbeacon's traffic is flat after their TC50 win) and they've done it by picking off top yellow page categories one at a time, and generally avoiding ServiceMagic's space, whether intentionally or on purpose. It seems like Yext and ServiceMagic have a firm grip on their parts of the market in the top categories and have figured out how to drive traffic and monetize effectively.

    Is offering small business software (online appointment calendar, accept online payments, etc) enough to give Thumbtack an advantage here?

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    I was reflecting more on this post last night – and the “blinders on” brought back some memories. I think it's important for startup entrepreneurs to keep those blinders on and execute with the focus of Tomahawk cruise missile.

    The distractions now are exponentially greater than they were just 5 years ago. With social media, way more startup focused conferences & events, etc. founders risk getting lost in a sea of distractions-don't!

    Focus on the problem you're solving, iterating your product, delighting your customers and locking in distribution-oh yeah, and then monetize the hell out of it.

    And when it comes to conferences – certainly go if you're presenting your company to potential investors, media and customers and/or if you're asked to be on a panel. Otherwise, keep your head down and execute!

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    I was reflecting more on this post last night – and the “blinders on” brought back some memories. I think it's important for startup entrepreneurs to keep those blinders on and execute with the focus of Tomahawk cruise missile.

    The distractions now are exponentially greater than they were just 5 years ago. With social media, way more startup focused conferences & events, etc. founders risk getting lost in a sea of distractions-don't!

    Focus on the problem you're solving, iterating your product, delighting your customers and locking in distribution-oh yeah, and then monetize the hell out of it.

    And when it comes to conferences – certainly go if you're presenting your company to potential investors, media and customers and/or if you're asked to be on a panel. Otherwise, keep your head down and execute!

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    I was reflecting more on this post last night – and the “blinders on” brought back some memories. I think it's important for startup entrepreneurs to keep those blinders on and execute with the focus of Tomahawk cruise missile.

    The distractions now are exponentially greater than they were just 5 years ago. With social media, way more startup focused conferences & events, etc. founders risk getting lost in a sea of distractions-don't!

    Focus on the problem you're solving, iterating your product, delighting your customers and locking in distribution-oh yeah, and then monetize the hell out of it.

    And when it comes to conferences – certainly go if you're presenting your company to potential investors, media and customers and/or if you're asked to be on a panel. Otherwise, keep your head down and execute!