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The True Believers

A Brooklyn-based boot camp readies the next wave of digital media's Next Big Things
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Weeks 9 and 10
Progress and Secret Chats

It is now early September, and the teams are finishing product development and starting prep for their final demos with the first round to be held at the Brooklyn Beta conference in just three weeks. The groups are quickly evolving. For example, Calzone has changed its name to Webe.at, and Maker’s Row now has close to 1,000 directory listings. “The factories have been excited about it,” says Burnett—excited himself that they seem willing to pay to be included.

Meanwhile, the budding entrepreneurs don’t know that Koczon is powwowing with Shapiro about upping the Collaborative Fund’s involvement. “I keep tabs on where they are with the camp,” Shapiro says, explaining that he wants Koczon to be the program’s lead voice. “I try to respect them and do not want too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Shapiro wants to keep his presence at a minimum—for now at least.

Week 12
Prepping the Pitch

The demo days are bearing down. “We are all in the death-by-1,000-paper-cuts phase,” says Skillcrush’s Birnir.

Having put away the polos and shorts and now clad in long sleeves and pants, the campers ruminate on how to write and develop narratives for two-minute videos to be presented at the Brooklyn Beta conference one week from now. Skillcrush wonders if it should target its online service to women, to which Coach Koczon offers a blunt reality about how investors might view a female focus. “They are 28 to 30 guys that went to Ivy League schools, and they are perfectly nice people—it’s just that they are a really homogenous group that decides what goes to market,” he explains.

The biggest news on this night is from the guys behind the farmers market app. Stewart and the Ford brothers have finally settled on a company name: Farmstand. The owner of Farmstandapp.com is willing to sell the URL for just 50 bucks, and the Twitter handle @farmstandapp is available for free. They’re so ecstatic that they gave the Seattle-based URL owner a 100 percent “tip” as they finalized the online transaction. “Getting the right brand name is the hardest part,” Stewart points out.


Having arrived in New York, partner John Ford reads aloud the copy for his team’s demo, referring to “tomatoes in your local supermarket that are from hundreds of miles away and taste like cardboard” and using buzz phrases like “CSA” (community-supported agriculture). Fellow campers call out the Farmstand crew. “You don’t want to be negative and talk down to your audience,” says Shiflett, a camp co-leader. “You also want to relate a little bit to the mind-sets of people who maybe aren’t yet using farmers markets.”

Demos, Oct. 10-13
Brooklyn Beta

It’s harvest time for the summer campers, and each group gets set to unveil its digital crops before a packed house of around 300 at the Brooklyn Beta conference. Their demos are not the main attraction at the three-day confab, featuring events ranging from a speech by Internet guru Seth Godin to a performance by indie singer-songwriter Ted Leo. Each day at 2 p.m., one or two of the summer camp groups will present as part of the mix.

The showcase takes place at The Invisible Dog Art Center, located in a defunct belt factory. So it seems apropos that Maker’s Row goes first, with team members hopping on stage wearing branded T-shirts to explain how their website can help the garment industry. Their video features colorful footage from inside manufacturing operations, boasting how their site has already signed on 1,000 factories. The crowd applauds. Offstage, Burnett beams. “It’s been under wraps for so long that it feels really good to get it out to people,” he says.

Skillcrush, Sticker and Farmstand are also rewarded with audience approval—and feelings of relief that the big moment has finally come and gone.

The final presenter receives what is probably the greatest ovation. It’s the guys from the social calendar product, Webe.at, who present a fun video about “blowing up calendars” that ends with a space shuttle playfully bursting through their brand name. The pitch kills it for twentysomething founders Ripps, Jules Laplace and Jonathan Vingiano. Minutes later, an investor hands them his card and says he wants to talk.

Weeks 13 and 14, Postscript
A final surprise: The $50,000 pivot

Ten days after Brooklyn Beta, the campers learn that a second scheduled day for demos has been cancelled. Some are relieved while others are surprised.

Here’s what happened. Putting the five groups on stage one after the other for a big VC audition would have made for an entertaining show, Koczon explains, but it also would have been a disservice to the teams. So he opted for scheduling individual sitdowns, so the campers wouldn’t have to compete against one another for cash. The first demo day was primarily about the teams unveiling their products to the public. The second demo was to be only about raising funds.

But Koczon’s thinking was evolving as his first incubator program wound down. “If you show them all off at once, if you are an investor, you couldn’t help evaluate all of them at once,” he figures. “I’d rather them get evaluated against everything that’s going on in New York City. All our products are great.”

The campers, ultimately, cheer the move. Merely an adviser up to this point, Shapiro is now officially the camp’s principal investor. He liked what he saw so much that he anted up $50,000 for each group, enabling the teams to continue tweaking their products and go-to-market strategies for several more weeks without worrying about funding.

“I knew early on that I was going to invest, though what the mechanics were going to look like were still being figured out,” he says. “And they also wanted to make it a big reveal later in the program. That way, the groups during the summer and early fall would stay hungry and clearly focused on the product.”

So what are the startups doing with the cash? Generally, gearing up to compete like mad in the coming year.

“It has already allowed us to hire extra people, which will get us to market faster with a better product,” says Kate McGee, 27, co-founder of Skillcrush. “The money wasn’t something we were expecting, so we are really excited.”