A demo day, if you don't know, is like a debutante's coming-out ball for young companies. After a three-month incubation at PIE with mentoring from local tech gurus and seed funding and free office space and the general feeling that anything can happen, the companies present themselves to potential funders and customers out in the world. In this case, the event happened at the Gerding Theater at the Armory, on the set for Fiddler on the Roof. It was seven fledgling companies' chance to be the belle of the town, courted by angel investors or venture capitalists and trundled off to luxury mansions.
PIE's been a successful proposition on this front. Over its four and a half years, the 41 companies that went through the program have raised a total of $110 million dollars. Take note, however, that a mere three companies account for about two thirds of this total: Alum Urban Airship has collected a whopping $46.6 million, while other past PIE companies Vendscreen and Cloudability pulled in $15 million and 9.8 million, respectively.
An interesting trend among the seven companies in PIE's 2013 class was the number of startups whose business model is predicated on the ecosystem of other startups: meta-startups, let's call them. So many young tech companies are creating mobile apps or social services or database services that a secondary or even tertiary economy is forming around them. Venture capital money is being spent to soak up excess venture capital from elsewhere.
Teak, formerly Carrot, is a company that helps mobile app/game companies market themselves by posting social updates on Facebook related to their apps: Think Mafia Wars on your Facebook circa 2009. This one, as any Facebook-based marketing, depends on how well the company can stay ahead of Facebook's post-EdgeRank throttling algorithms, thus allowing app marketing messages to actually pop up in people's feeds.
Stand In uses PhotoShop to allow graphic designers to participate in the creation of mobile sites, thus cutting down significantly on development costs of phone apps. The presentation by CEO Asa Miller was a little vague on the complete functionality of these prototypes or how easily they might translate into public sites, but if the company's product does indeed cut down on oft-prohibitive risks and development costs for mobile apps, they've got a doozy of a product.
The most promising of the crew is probably Orchestrateâwhich already has an impressive $3 million in funding. Essentially, Orchestrate promises to manage the mess created by the utter proliferation of data-gathering and marketing start-ups that have proliferated in the past few years--and also the complications of adding new features to web sites that require databases to function. The company offers a single interface to view information from several different sources that may otherwise have several different formats. It's a combination of abject wonkiness and utter simplicity, which in tech is usually a solid formula. Doesn't hurt they've already got 50 clients.
Otherwise, the companies in this class of PIE companies are often in fairly early stages and are still at relatively low-level seed funding. One entry with potential, Cloneless, co-founded by Wieden and Kennedy's Adam Nikolaidis, is a media company centered around making same-day video content for the webâessentially the video equivalent of that timely "dunk in the dark" Oreo ad that appeared during the power outage at the SuperBowl.
Of those in early stages, one seemed to have very high potential, if also a high risk of falling flat: Switchboard is yet another social networking site, the thing we need another of like a hole in the head, etc., etc., but it has two specific benefits: 1) It takes place in closed networks, such as its initial roll-out at Portland's Reed College, so it doesn't fill up quickly with spammers and assholes and 2) it serves a specific function that makes it intuitive and easy to use. Users post "offers" and "asks" within a networkâa volunteer community, a conference, a network of alumni and faculty and parents and students associated with a collegeâfor things they either want or have on offer. So it's a bit of a simplified craigslist, without all the crappy spam, amid a theoretically trusted community.
We'll see how it goes. But for now, the presentation by co-founder Mara Zepeda seemed to show a very impressive start (and adoption rate) at Reed College, with additional roll-outs at the PSU graphic design department and elsewhere. (Incidentally, also: the place this'd make amazing sense? Young evangelical church congregations. Seriously. Lefty-techie people in Portland always forget churches.)
All in all, the crowd of companies seemed to be evidence of a maturing tech scene in town, with six companies from Oregon (Fleck is from Santa Monica, Calif.), plus fewer pie-in-the sky pieces of whimsy (e.g., dog-dating sites) and more actual nuts-and-bolts products that seemed potentially viable. It's a good sign.
The remaining companies:
- Smart Mocha, a sensor-management device company for things like thermostats
- Fleck, a photo-sharing community based around specific interests