No joke. Tech Cocktail does a great job of gathering founders and innovation seekers in a public forum. You know the drill: Startup founders demo informally at high, round tables and then pitch the crowd to be named a top company…in the room, at least. Sometimes the crowd gets it right. It just depends on who’s there. I went to their mixer in February because it was at 1776, DC’s entrepreneurial hub, and you never know who will stop by.
Fresh off the elevator, I ran into former Fortify VC mentor, perennial board member and serial entrepreneur/investor, Benjamin Wan, currently CEO of Urban Venture, who brings some Silicon Valley mojo with him. We walked into the event early together and I asked: “Hottest companies?” He pointed out potential “game changer” Macaw, whose founder, Tom Giannattasio, did take the #1 slot in the night’s pitch contest.
Macaw is Tom’s baby, which makes software to solve his challenges as a designer. “I was pretty frustrated with my own workflow, which involved a solid mix of Photoshop and hand-coding,” he explains. “I thought there had to be a better way to work directly with the medium and I set out to create it.” Tom committed to full-time 20 months ago. Last year, Macaw raised $200,000 over its Kickstarter goal.
Macaw enables designers to do:
- Create website layouts with responsive design, which can be read comfortably on every kind of device
Tom says Macaw’s biggest differentiator is the code it publishes. “Many people see it as a great learning tool because it uses industry-standards to write the code.” He notes that “Macaw’s fully functioning app is in private beta stage now” and his four-man company is prepping to launch publicly in late March.
But first, the startup will venture out of its space at Canvas Cowork in Dupont Circle this week to showcase at SXSW in Austin at MediaTemple’s Open House.
George Washington University represents!
Yapper took the #2 slot that night, winning the Reader’s Choice poll. I didn’t see that coming, but then again I was with the generation of investors who didn’t get Twitter on first look, either. Yapper is a location-based, ephemeral (disappearing) text communication app that promises to let users “Chat Right Here, Right Now.” Think: “Hey, guys, there’s free pizza left in the student commons.” Rob Wyant, President, and several of his fellow founders are George Washington University MBAs who are advised by Jim Chung, Executive Director, Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer at GW.
Other GW alum founders at the mixer, The Poshpacker’s Founder & COO, Tania Cruz, and Anna Kojzar, CEO got started by solving their own travel-on-a-budget challenges. The Poshpacker began as a directory for hip, high-end like boutique hotels and hostels around the world priced at less than $100 per person per night. It emerged from Hatch Accelerator, in Virginia last summer as a curated booking site with a $30K investment by Hatch’s Zack Miller and opened its office HQ at 1776. The same year, Guardian U.K. named the company a top travel site. By January 2014, The Poshpacker partnered with Booking.com and launched a booking engine with its first customers.
Hey, big data
The first thing I noticed at GovTribe’s demo table was the dozen pink cupcakes that founder Marc Vogtman’s wife had baked and decorated with the company’s logo. She knows what it takes to get someone to stop and talk about government contracting at a Tech Cocktail mixer. After a decade of competing for contracting work with the federal government and for limited partnership slots at a Big 4 firm, Marc understands two key things: “Government is not as sexy as some other industries, but I think we’re going to sneak up on people.”
The GovTribe mobile app, and soon-to-be expanded website, automates the process of pulling out and collating public data from the sea of publicly available PDFs. This enables government contractors to mine information on opportunities, projects, offices, agencies, contract officers or topic categories in real time.
That means that a commodity food vendor can understand how to propose to sell the government some of the $100,000 worth of food it purchases each quarter from the dozen or so vendors that have uncovered its request for quotes. Or, that new players can unravel the details of long-term “IDIQ” contract lifecycles worth over $100 million and perhaps reach out to awardees as subcontractors. You get the idea.
Since last August, the app gained over 1,000 users by word of mouth. Marc also has a three-to-four-man service provider team to provide customized analytical services. Spoiler alert: “We want to get things right in the government space,” says Marc. “We think there’s also definite value in our data-mining techniques outside the space.”
Speaking of “TMI”
On my way out, I ran into JD Chang, Founder and CEO of social media company, TrendPo, in the elevator ride down to his 8th floor 1776 co-working space. The former West Coast film producer and tech project manager came out to say a quick hello to his advisor, Benjamin Wan, and check out the scene. He’d presented at previous Tech Cocktail events. During the quick, four-floor ride, I learned that TrendPo is one of 5 companies pitching at the SXSW “Move Your Company to Austin” contest on Friday at the startup village in the Hilton. The new space would be for TrendPo’s tech team, with engineering headed up by technical co-founder, John Mao, a University of Texas graduate.
TrendPo combines metadata and social media with politics for real-time buzz and ranking trends. It started out as Fanitics.com, a fantasy politics game (still on Facebook) that JD, who loves fantasy sports, created with a politics-loving friend that he grew up with in Texas. When the company was accepted into the Fortify Accelerator, JD’s move to DC from San Francisco made sense. The House Republican Conference was among the early users, followed by current major user, the Heritage foundation.
The company’s technology can expand to other industries as well. “We like to think of ourselves as competitive intelligence,” says JD. “We target engaged audiences on social media and then our clients can do a lot of different things like advertise to them, reach out and message them and do market research around them.”
By 2016, JD says his team is aiming to “provide a daily approval poll in TrendPo and translate that into election results.”
I can only surmise that JD’s mom must be relieved to see him move on from Hollywood, where in 2009, under the name Damon Chang, he served as line producer on the horror flick, Hallettsville, starring Gary Busey as the Sheriff. No joke.