I 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.
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.