I’ll admit to being a tech startup cheerleader, but I’ve always loved new ideas much more than new gadgets. My favorite thing to watch in this region is how entrepreneurs are providing new experiences and aiming to save both consumers and businesses money. Next year, I’m not looking for a new device to take hold and change the world. Instead, I think we’ll see more companies using the “new normal”—fast wireless networks and always-on smartphones—to help their businesses make money faster.
Here are a few hot DFW companies to watch in 2016. All are taking advantage of the cultural shift that is making devices, consumers, and employees both smarter and more connected.
I wrote about Koupon Media in 2012, and I’ve since started using my smartphone as much as my wallet when I’m in a store. I’ve got Apple Pay working, the Starbucks card reloaded, and I frequently look up in-store promotions and sales online. Bill Ogle, who joined as Koupon’s CEO in January, says I’m not alone: “If I’m in a store, I’d love to know if there are any deals.”
Koupon still has fewer than 30 employees in its Frisco headquarters, but it has more customers—and bigger ideas, too. It closed a Series C funding round in 2014 (it won’t say for how much), and one of the investors was a customer.
Founded in 2011, Koupon Media started its software-as-a-service (SaaS) business for retailers right when mobile payments started taking off and free, in-store Wi-Fi Internet access was becoming the norm. SaaS businesses scale well, and in Koupon Media’s case, the underlying architecture for its systems stays the same, with every added feature becoming immediately available to all of its customers—the brands and retailers using its service. Koupon’s ability to enable, distribute, and track coupons and promotions on behalf of several thousand stores and brands puts it in a great spot to collect and analyze consumer behavior, which it can use to improve its product.
Koupon’s most recent idea is a marketplace for brands to make mobile offers directly to consumers while those consumers are nearby or inside participating retail stores. These offers can be targeted, timed, geographically locked, and specific. For example, a coffee brand could tempt commuters with a special offer during rush hour at DFW-area gas stations. Instead of requiring branded apps, these offers can come via Facebook, Twitter, and email.
Consumers are more connected than ever before, and they want to save money. I think the way Koupon has given brands and retailers different, compelling means to reach shoppers—formats that are truly relevant and helpful to the consumer—are good reasons to keep an eye on the company in the coming months.
The Citizenry could be the luxury brand of the future. It’s an online retailer with a backstory that connects shoppers more directly with products made by, for example, weavers in Peru or woodworkers in Uganda.
Co-founders Carly Nance and Rachel Bentley don’t use an elaborate network of export agents and wholesalers who mark up products along the way. Instead, they meet the people or groups who produce their products and establish direct relationships. And they run a quickly growing business using several of the same tools the rest of us use to run our lives.
“A lot of our secret sauce is around relationship building.”
A few years back, any piece of technology in an up-and-coming retailer would have been a safely guarded secret. Now, smart companies use whatever works. Xoom and PayPal help The Citizenry process payments to producers for their goods and services. Skype and WhatsApp keep the execs connected with their producers and suppliers in far-flung locations around the globe. Uber finds them reliable transportation while on sourcing trips. And Canadian e-commerce provider Shopify hosts and manages the cloud-based platform that runs The Citizenry’s online store.
“A lot of our secret sauce is around relationship building.”Rachel Bentley
“We’ve built our brand completely online, and we continue to invest in digital marketing to find our target customers,” Nance says. “A year ago we had five suppliers and now we’re getting close to 30 in four countries.”
“A lot of our secret sauce is around relationship building, brand, storytelling—and we just do it in a more scalable way because we have all of these tools at our disposal,” Bentley says.
The company’s online store is clean, modern, and arranges itself nicely on an iPhone screen. The ad copy plays it straight, and each item has several photos and a link to a story about the item’s creator and the materials that he or she used.
Will well-told stories and unique items be enough to motivate buyers, though? I think so, because this concept is unique, tech-friendly, and well-intended socially. And The Citizenry’s lean operation means that a larger percentage of purchases can be given back to artisans—typically three times more than the percentage given by traditional retailers.
Nance and Bentley have raised $1 million in total funding to date, and Nance says the company will soon open a second-floor “shoppable showroom” in the Knox-Henderson area where visitors can browse selected merchandise and hear first-hand the stories behind the stuff they’re buying and selling.
Daniel Stevens has created an overnight success with Kickbox, and, as these things go, he’s been working on the idea for a very long time.
For more than a decade, Stevens has been running MX Force LLC, an email security firm in Deep Ellum that helps ISPs and Web hosts filter junk mail and keep their customers’ inboxes safe and clutter-free. A few years back, he started Send Technology Inc. and developed Sendinc, a service that brings the big-company benefit of sending encrypted emails to consumers and small businesses. When using Sendinc, an email message is encrypted and the only thing required for the recipient to view it is a special URL and a browser, making it ideal for those who work with contractors.
After fighting spam and helping send more secure emails, Stevens’ new venture, Kickbox, provides a service that helps companies weed out bogus email addresses among their marketing and client databases, ensuring that fewer emails bounce back as undeliverable. The bounce-back rate from a company’s email campaign matters a lot because it could prevent a company from using some email service providers or ISPs, if they bounce back too many addresses too often.
“It’s a ‘good old boy’ network,” explains Stevens. ISPs, based on their experiences and unpublished thresholds for email bounces, generally know one another—and they know the bad guys. Kickbox helps legitimate companies avoid looking like bad actors by cleaning up their lists, and guaranteeing a 95 percent deliverability rate.
Thanks to his work at MX Force, Stevens has the infrastructure and network available to verify email addresses and help Kickbox clients safely avoid wasted effort. B2B companies love Kickbox, Stevens says, because so many people change jobs every few months, it saves them time to keep their marketing lists cleanly scrubbed.
The volume of worldwide global spam emails sent dropped by 2 billion from 2012 to 2014, according to analysis by security firm Symantec. Though email and spam levels are declining, the overall spam rate is still 60 percent of all emails sent. Spammers are getting more sophisticated and acting more like legitimate businesses, which puts Kickbox’s service in the spotlight.
Spammers are attempting to use Kickbox to check (and guess) legitimate email addresses, but Stevens won’t allow it. The reputation that MX Force now has took a decade to build, he says. “We couldn’t stand the irony of being an anti-spam pioneer and then getting into the pro-spam industry,” he says.
Kickbox has been shutting down an average of 30 accounts per day due to suspected spammers.
Though just over a year old, Stevens says Kickbox is already his “biggest venture by twofold.” The company has 15 employees in its Deep Ellum office and has raised $500,000 to date. The best news: It has quickly achieved profitability while taking on more and more clients.
Three More for the Road
Three other startups I’m watching are providing connectivity to cars, better health management to diabetics, and a real networking experience for realtors outside of their industry standard databases.
Vinli, which I covered briefly in D CEO’s September issue, has created a pluggable module that provides wireless Internet access to your car and provides a platform so other companies can build services especially for connected drivers. Installation is as easy as inserting a USB drive into your car’s data port, which, in newer models, is right under the dashboard.
Socrates Health Solutions, a Health Wildcatters graduate, provides a simple, wearable device called the Companion that allows diabetics to monitor their glucose levels without finger-pricking and spending on test strips.
HipPocket is creating a social network where real estate agents can discuss properties and list homes outside the industry-standard Multiple Listing Service (MLS), where more than 30 percent of homes are sold. The startup entered the iPhone app store over the summer and already has 1,000 agents signed up.