The Lull, through Grapevine, Maine and running

The “Lull,” reality or perception

This week, there is no central feature for Utterly Biased. Just a question.

What is your current perception of the Boston startup community, tech ecosystem, or whatever else you may want to call it?

Is it robust and thriving? Are there some incredible companies on the cusp of making national headlines or are there a whole lot of small wins that we are going to be seeing?

Or, as a few people have put it to me lately, is Boston in a lull?

For such a small word, “lull” packs quite an emotional kick. Webster’s defines it thusly: “a temporary pause or decline in activity,” and more specifically, “a temporary calm before or during a stormor “a temporary drop in business activity.” Whichever meaning you choose, it is not something you’d like associated with your business, and, it’s especially not the type of branding you’d want to saddle on an entire region’s innovation economy.

A slew of recent conversations I’ve been having with operators, founders, investors, and service providers have turned at some point to the theme that the Boston startup scene is eerily quiet at the moment.

Is this reality or just perception?

So, I ask you to send your thoughts my way. Is Boston in a downturn, or is this just the belief of a few. Is the ecosystem actually evolving as it should?

Send your thought to dennis@utterlybiased.com. I will publish some responses (you can request to have your opinion remain anonymous to the Utterly Biased readership.)

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Under-the-radar

This week, Dave Balter, a man who wears many hats, suggested a local company that he’s tight with that he believes isn’t getting the love it should. Balter singled out Grapevine, saying that the social media influencer marketing platform is “crushing it right now.”

Balter backed Grapevine through Boston Seed, and he is the head of its board of directors. According to Balter, who spends most of his time on his own venture Mylestone, Grapevine has really thrived since partnering with Chinese billionaire Bruno Wu’s Sun Seven Stars. That would make sense, Sun Seven Stars is an international private media and investment conglomerate that can help Grapevine take its social content monetization platform to a global market.

The market for connecting brands with social media influencers has been burgeoning as of late, but there have been two trends to keep an eye on. For one, YouTube, long the king of leveraging influencer marketing, especially with teens, has been seeing some blowback from major advertisers on how much control they have on the branded content that appears alongside their own advertising. While this doesn’t impact the influencers, per se, it is a signal to the marketplace, which has led some brands to look at YouTube alternatives like Snapchat and Instagram.

Second, Instagram has grown exponentially as a place for both branded content and influencer marketing.

Grapevine serves both platforms and should be able to whether changes in consumer tastes better than others in the space.

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-4-00-23-pmWhat went down this week…

Maine – I met Kerry Gallivan, the CEO and founder of Chimani, a number of years ago at MIT’s VC conference. He looked a bit out of place hawking his outdoor adventure app, surrounded by three-piece suits and overly-eager to network aspiring venture capitalists. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to him and his story. That or the fact that here was this guy building a massive, aspirational project out of Portland, Maine — one of my favorite cities in the US — of all places.

Last year, Gallivan was listed in Outside Magazine as one of the “next pioneers” influencing the future of the America’s national parks. This week, Chimani announced a new product that should help it continue to dominate the national park tourist space.

  • The new Chimani Perks program is a membership savings club program for national park tourists. The program offers discounts on lodging, dining, activities, and more throughout the national park system, both inside the parks and in the neighboring gateway communities. Since its launch, Chimani — which has maps, content, and more for all 59 US national parks as well as those in the UK and Canada — has seen some rapid growth with more than 1.5 million downloads for its niche product. It customers aren’t the hardcore outdoor enthusiasts you might expect, but a large number of families, professionals, and retirees, what Gallivan called ‘windshield tourists’; a classification that makes up about 90 percent of national parks visitors according to the Chimani CEO. The number of active users each year is 750,000 according to Gallivan, and many of those use the park-specific apps to plan their trips rather than navigate them once they are there.  “Customers love our products, but we had to figure a way to make this business sustainable, which is the basis for this new Perks program,” Gallivan said. One thing is clear, its great to see some innovation happening in Portland and a good outdoor-focused business growing in New England.

FitRaceMenu, a platform for road race directors to manage, promote and grow their events, announced that it has sold off its race timing business to Second Wind Racing. RaceMenu, a stalwart of MassChallenge when it was at 1 Marina Park Drive, has quietly built a nice little business in the health and fitness space. Boston is actually a hub for these types of companies with Runkeeper, Inside Tracker, Spartan Races, Tracksmith, and more playing a major role in the active lifestyle and athlete industry.

I spoke with RaceMenu’s J. Alain Ferry, RaceMenu’s founder about the sale and how he is positioning the company moving forward. His response, “It may sound nuts, but it’s to compete against Square and Paypal.” He added that RaceMenu is “playing the long game.” Here’s more from Ferry, who seems to have figured out a way to actually bring innovation to the racing circuit:

  • “As of last week’s sale, we are singularly focused on software, and more specifically mobile payments. The endurance events industry offers a unique (and incredibly lucrative) opportunity for mobile payments. Ever wonder why every half/full marathon and large 5K under the sun has a pre-race expo but no post-race expo? The supply and demand are still there after the race, and even more so in many cases. But there’s no currency, nor will there be anytime soon. While increasing numbers of people run with their phone, that doesn’t really help all the merchants who want to sell to post-race “runners high” consumers. They’re willing to pay for better food, beer, race merchandise, running clothing, running shoes, massages, GPS watches, other race entries, etc. But how do they pay? There’s one thing which every single runner has on them after the race which can help. It’s their race bib. Timing companies use the race bib to identify the runner for scoring purposes. If you can connect their race bib to the credit card they used when registering online, you can also use the race bib for payments. Now you add this currency to an equation where supply and demand already existed and BOOM: you have a new market.”

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The Anti-Travis, Nasuni and EverQuote, Next Move NextView

The Anti-Travis Kalanick

This has been a very, very bad week for Uber.

One of the most valuable private companies in the world, Uber was the focus of a blog post earlier in the week from a former engineer, which describes a culture of rampant sexism within the company. If that wasn’t enough, it was revealed later in the week that Uber is now the target of an IP lawsuit about self-driving trucks from one of its biggest investors, Google/Alphabet.

The eye of any Uber hurricane seems to always center on its CEO Travis Kalanick. Some believe that his bullish attitude has run its course. Exemplified by comments like, “Stand by your principles and be comfortable with confrontation. So few people are, so when the people with the red tape come, it becomes a negotiation,” Kalanick doesn’t shy away from controversy. But that approach doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Some are even saying it’s time for him to step down.

Take the constant swirl of trouble that seems to follow Kalanick and compare it to the how one local CEO — whose company is also pushing up against powerful industry incumbents and government regulations — has handled himself in the face of adversity. If you will, compare Kalanick’s approach to that of DraftKings CEO Jason Robins.

While DraftKings has faced a fair amount of criticism, I cannot think of a single instance of Robins leadership being called into question.

Word is that the culture inside DraftKings is intense, but I’ve yet to hear murmurs of anything like the widespread issues that are currently dogging Uber. Friends and investors have long praised Robins’ humbleness and his grace-under-fire during the most challenging days for DraftKings. And, while Uber and Lyft are undertaking a seemingly never-ending battle to the death, Robins (at least publicly) never attacked DraftKings competitor FanDuel. In fact, from what I’ve heard, Robins and FanDuel chief executive Nigel Eccles worked closely together, pushing for the companies to combine.The merger, currently in process, is something that would never happen with Lyft and Uber for an array of reasons.

While it’s possible there is another side of Robins that doesn’t match his public persona, I find that highly unlikely from my own interactions with him.

With all the negative focus raining down on Uber, which doesn’t seem to be going away time soon, it’s nice to have an anti-Kalanick in the world. And it’s also a good thing for the future of DraftKings/FanDuel and Boston.

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Who is under-the-radar?

Jeff Bussgang, general partner at Flybridge Venture Partners, points to cloud-storage company Nasuni, as one of the companies in Flybridge’s portfolio that isn’t garnering the attention that it should.Based not too far from Utterly Biased headquarters in an office park hidden amongst the rolling malls of Natick, Nasuni combines virtual and on-premises storage controllers with cloud storage for enterprises. As Bussgang describes it, the company is “Revolutionizing cloud storage.”

“Not sure why they’ve been under-the-radar,” Bussgang said. “But no one talks about them and they’re doing great and building a big company.”

Nasuni is an interesting company for a number of reasons. Its founder and CEO is Andres Rodriguez, who was a founder and the CTO of Archivas, an enterprise cloud storage company acquired by Hitachi Data Systems in 2006. Rodriguez was also once the CTO of the New York Times, and just happens to be the big brother of Matrix’s Antonio Rodriguez.

He’s put together a solid squad of old school and new school cloud and storage folks, including Scott Dussault, who was the CFO of Demandware when it went public.

Elsewhere, I hear that the company is doing about $20 million in revenue, with a solid and consistent SaaS customer base. If I were a betting man, I’d say that in regards to Nasuni, Dussault might have to dust off his IPO playbook soon.

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What went down this week…

The NewDrift just launched a new product, called LiveView which is a sales tool that can let you know who is on your website (including potential leads) in real time. Drift is probably the first company mentioned when you ask any insider in Boston which of the early-stage companies has the potential to be huge. This new product drop seems like a major step to achieving that success. Basically, the company is bringing the habits we use to communicate in our personal lives to our business dealings. But I’ll let Dave Gerhardt, the company’s head of marketing, explain:

  • “Basically it boils down to this: The tools that most businesses are using for sales and marketing are going to break. As consumers, we all expect answers in real-time. And if we don’t get them, we move on to the next product, the next business, etc. But then we go to our jobs and when it comes to sales and marketing, we do all of the things that drive us nuts as consumers: We force people to fill out long forms in order to contact sales, we put content behind lead forms because we only want “qualified” people to be able to access it, and then we chase people down via phone and email. But in our personal lives, we’re all using messaging to communicate with each other. So at Drift, we’re focused on changing the way sales and marketing work by helping them match the real-time behavior of buyers today. And that all starts with giving sales teams tools like Live View so they can see who’s live on their website and reach out in real-time — instead of waiting until someone submits a form only to follow up hours, days, or weeks later.”

$13 M – That’s the additional funding announced this week for EverQuote, the Cambridge/Woburn online insurance marketplace from SecondAlpha and Link Ventures, as well as Stratim Capital, Savano Capital Partners, Oceanic Partners, and T Capital Partners.

EverQuote could have been mentioned in the IPO window chat from last week’s newsletter, as it too has been talking about a potential initial public offering since 2015. The new funding is the last money in a round in which they had already raised $23 million.

By the numbers, EverQuote has over 5 million consumer visits per month according to data from October 2016. It also has 200 employees between its two offices and plans to add 80 more by the end of 2018.

Like Nasuni, EverQuote is an under-the-radar company that you will be hearing a lot more about in the coming year.

Name That Job – When NextView Ventures brought on Jay Acunzo as its head of platform, it was something different in the world of Boston VC. Since then, many other venture capital firms have added people to manage content and marketing, a position which has become known in some circles as the “Jay Acunzo Role.”

A recent blog post from NextView’s Rob Go shares the news that the original of the species, Acunzo himself, is moving into a different position in the firm, creative-in-residence, with Ginny Mineo taking over Jay’s role. The new position will allow Acunzo to focus on some of his other projects and will also see him working out of NextView’s NYC office.

  • I asked Acunzo about leaving a role he kind of made famous, and this is what he said, “All I’ll say is Ginny is gonna crush it running platform and I’m gonna crush it running the podcast and various creative experiments.” Modest as always. Good luck Jay.

Series A – There are at least two companies tied to Boston that have signed term sheets for Series A funding rounds that you’ll likely be hearing about in the next couple of weeks. Because the ink is still wet on these deals, names can’t be mentioned without potentially screwing up some of the last-minute deal refinement. But:

  • Some of the bigger names in VC are the leads, one East Coast, one West Coast.
  • One of the companies will soon be giving up its presence in Boston to consolidate at a central office that makes more strategic sense for its industry.
  • The founder of the other, someone who’s already achieved quite a bit of entrepreneurial success, told me it was the hardest process he or she has ever been through.

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