Maximize a photo op with Spotted, Techstars standouts

Marketing in real life

It’s not too often that the perfect example to explain why your startup is necessary to the world comes along serendipitously, but this is what happened this week for Spotted.

Actually, this happened twice this week.

During one of last week’s Cavs-Raptors blowouts, Lebron James ended up in the crowd during what was a relatively easy win for Cleveland. The game was so out of hand that James mocked drinking a beer he had grabbed from a courtside vendor. The beer company used a photo of the moment on Twitter to take advantage of its product’s use by a sports celebrity. However, James’s reps threatened legal action unless the image was taken down by the beer company for illegal use of Lebron’s likeness.

There’s a bit more intrigue to the story (here), but this issue about the use of celebrity photos using a product, in media res, is why Janet Comenos founded her digital celebrity advertising platform.

Spotted allows brands to legally advertise using paparazzi images in which their products are used by compensating both the celebrity and the photographer.

The example of what happened with Lebron and Great Lakes Brewing Co. is exactly the type of scenario for which Spotted was created. As Comenos explained, “We built Spotted for the purpose of allowing brands to legally advertise with real-life paparazzi photos of celebrities using their brand.”

“LeBron’s attorney likely went after Great Lakes Brewery for infringing on LeBron’s rights of publicity, which are the state-by-state laws that dictate how a famous person’s name and likeness can be used for commercial purposes without their consent,” she added.

“Long story short, brands (regardless of how big or how small) should never use a paparazzi photo for advertising purposes without approval from the celebrity,” Comenos said. “Prior to Spotted, the only way for a brand to use these photos was via a costly endorsement deal with the celebrity. Spotted, for a small fraction of the cost of celebrity endorsement, now allows the brand to legally advertise with these photos.”

Comenos is definitely onto something as this wasn’t the only incident that was in the news this week involving celebrity social media endorsements. Jezebel had a story today about the Federal Trade Commission sending letters of warning to celebrity influencers for not disclosing sponsored content. As Comenos explained, this isn’t exactly similar to what Spotted does, because these potentially offending posts are organic, meaning they are set up by the brands and the influencers.

“All influencer marketing that I’ve seen requires the brand to script the content with the celebrity and requires the celebrity to post the content on their social channels,” Comenos said. “With organically posted content, the influencer must disclose the paying relationship with the brand by adding #ad or #sponsored at the end of the post.”

“Conversely, all of Spotted’s outputs are targeted ads (no organic posts) that automatically have “sponsored” at the top of the ad. Our ads feature real-life paparazzi photos of celebrities actually using that brand,” she added.

As Comenos told me in another recent conversation about Spotted, most celebrities have been open to what Spotted is doing and are happy to receive compensation from brands that they just happen to be caught using. It’s so been so successful that Comenos explained that more recently, once a celebrity realizes the value of getting “caught” using specific products, they tend to get captured using other products from the same brand.

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Under-the-radar

This week, we’ll focus on a few companies that are not getting quite enough of the attention they should, even though they just concluded their participation in Boston’s successful Techstars program.

I’ve said this many times over: Boston has traditionally had the most successful output of any of Techstars’ programs. Companies like DocTrackr, Localytics, GrabCAD, Evertrue, Help Scout, Placester, PillPack, Amino, and more, who have been acquired or raised significant amounts of money, have all come through Boston Techstars.

At last week’s Demo Day, there were quite a few great ideas pitched by the 13 ventures in the most recent cohort. But three stand out, having generated buzz prior to Demo Day, and, being the first companies mentioned when I asked investors at the event who impressed them most.

Nix – Nix is a bio-sensor company that tracks, in real-time, the hydration needs of athletes. CEO Meridith Unger has a wealth of experience, from leading life sciences companies in the past two stints in venture capital (Lux and the life sciences side of Atlas). She also has a few accomplishments to speak of, including a Blatvonik fellowship at HBS and completing all but one of the World Major Marathons. Nix is currently kicking off a new round of fundraising and is a key part of the robust sports technology market in Boston, which includes fellow Harvard Innovation Labs alum Whoop.

RateGravity – Another company in a fast-growing space, RateGravity is trying to change the way consumers finance their homes by removing the salespeople involved in the mortgage and refinancing processes. Led by Patrick Boyaggi and Mike Tassone, RateGravity announced on the morning of Techstars Demo Day that it had raised $2 million in funding from the likes of former Where and PayPal guys David Chang and Walt Doyle, Evertrue’s Brent Grinna, Diane Hessan and InsightSquared’s Fred Shilmover. Its list of advisors list is impressive as well, including Jere Doyle and Brian Kalma, among others. This is a busy market with a bunch of fin-tech startups taking different approaches to home financing, including Rocket Mortgage and Boulder-based Neat Capital.

Tive – While some major brands are rushing to research, test, and build out complex processes for driverless shipping, Tive is solving a less sexy, yet more substantial problem for the supply chain. Its multi-sensor tracker uses cellular connectivity monitor shipments in real-time. Hyperplane VC’s Vivjan Myrto mentioned Tive a couple months ago when I sat down with him to find out which companies in Boston weren’t getting enough love. From the reception at Techstars, I’d say this is definitely another company to keep an eye on.

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What went down this week…

Congrats to the team from Grammarly on their recently announced first round of investment funding. The company, founded in 2009, raised $110 million, for its AI-enabled grammar and spelling tool, from the likes of General Catalyst, Spark Capital, and more. You read that number right, $110M for the previously bootstrapped SF-based company. Although there isn’t any real Boston connection — Hemant Teneja was the lead for GC, and he’s based out west; Jeremy Phillips was the point man for Spark, and he’s in NYC — I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Grammarly because its services have been vital to the improvement of this newsletter in so many ways.

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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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Jebbit and startup evolution, Skok on Zaius, UB on Medium

Do young founders evolve?

Last Thursday, Jebbit, an interactive marketing platform that has recently expanded into more data-driven products, held its first-ever customer conference, which featured talks from co-founders Tom Coburn and Jonathan Lacoste, as well as HubSpot’s Kipp Bodner.

The long-planned event, however, hit a bit of bad luck that, in the end, was quite fortuitous.

You see, the Jebbit Customer Conference 2017 was supposed to be held at Fenway. But when one of the Pirates-Sox games was rained out during opening week, that game was rescheduled to Thursday afternoon, and Jebbit’s inaugural event was without a home. With some help from the Sox, Jebbit was able to move its conference to the Commonwealth Hotel in Kenmore —  a spot with a great view of the Green Monster no less. At the event, Coburn and Lacoste unveiled a strategic shift that has been a long time in the making when it announced its Declared-Data Platform to the 100 customers in attendance — folks like Expedia, CBS, Gannett, Sonesta Hotels, and more.

If that wasn’t enough, Jebbit ended up with a whole bunch of tickets to the game up in the Budweiser Deck to bring over the conference attendees for quite possibly the greatest event after-parties ever.

Showing a lot of flexibility, Jebbit made the most of an unexpected turn of events on Thursday. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the company has been quietly adjusting to changes in online marketing for the past few years.

As Jebbit is out raising its Series A, they are dealing with something that I’ve heard again and again in Boston from companies built out of college or by young founders. For whatever reason, there seems to be a belief that unseasoned or young entrepreneurs in Boston cannot effectively scale their businesses.

This is something that has plagued LevelUp, Drizly, VentureApp, Attend.com, CustomMade, and many, many other young startups. Many in the VC world don’t expect these companies to be able to evolve to the market and grow. And so, they either hesitate to invest, or, even worse, if they are already involved, they push for a change in leadership.

With Jebbit, which was borne out of BC as a way to advertise to students through quick online surveys, shaking what they were, to what they’ve become, has been quite challenging. Now, as Coburn explains it, customers of its products are using Jebbit as an enterprise data tool that allows them to take mobile experiences to capture valuable customer data. “This opens up new use cases that an enterprise can use outside of marketing,” Coburn said.

As Coburn told me recently, getting a meeting with a local VC can pose a challenge. “I think they assume that what a young entrepreneur’s company was two, three, or four years ago is the same thing that company is now.”

Just for some perspective, Jebbit is a six-year-old company. HubSpot had been in existence for eight years when it went public. (Although, Jebbit was bootstrapped for three years while most of the team was building the company AND studying at BC.)

The Jebbit CEO told me that during the meetings he has had, he has had to fight to explain that over the last four years, the company’s primary product has matured into a data-driven marketing tool and is no longer a college student engagement program.

“People here in Boston, because they’ve known us, still think of us as a survey company, even thought we abandoned that years ago,” he said. “Could you imagine people thinking that you haven’t changed at all in six years?”

“You can decide to stay the course and build out what you’ve started, and that has worked for some companies locally,” Coburn told me. “Or, if you think it will be better for you, you go in a different direction.”

“What everyone was saying about us back then was true, we were a survey company,” Coburn said. “But as we’ve grown up so has this company.”

From people outside the company, I’ve heard that one or two local VCs have changed their minds about Jebbit as they try to fill out their Series A. The rest of the local VCs might be out of luck if they realize too late that these aren’t kids tinkering with a college student app. Like a few other young, local startups raising funding these days, Jebbit might be heading west to talk to investors who don’t have outdated, preconceived notions of the company.

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Under-the-radar

This week, Michael Skok of _Underscore.VC suggested Zaius, a marketing automation, analytics, and CRM software platform, as a local company that isn’t getting enough attention. According to Skok, Zaius “has built the next-generation B2C marketing platform to address fragmented data and customer experiences caused by legacy marketing platforms and patchwork of point solutions.”

“There is a massive market opportunity — the problem is as big for B2C companies as it is for B2B companies and can you imagine a B2B company without a CRM?” he said.

When I asked Skok why they are under-the-radar, he said that until recently the team has been focused on “building a best in class technology platform.” Over the last year, they have really achieved tremendous customer traction and brought on stellar sales and marketing leadership focused on expanding their Boston team out of their North End HQ.”

“The team is nothing short of phenomenal and they will not stay quiet for long,” Skok added.

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Submissions for Utterly Biased on Medium

With a shortened Utterly Biased this week, I thought it would be a great time to reveal a new way that Utterly Biased is trying to help Boston tell its story.

This week I launched Utterly Biased as a Medium Publication. Separate from the blog and the newsletter, UB on Medium will serve as an outlet for anyone in Boston who has a good story to tell or some piece of experiential advice that could be helpful to others looking to be more innovative and impactful in their lives and businesses.

Anyone interested in sharing their stories on the Utterly Biased Medium page, shoot me a note at dennis@utterlybiased.com.

This is the first in a series of different products that Utterly Biased will be pushing out to continue to serve as a megaphone for the untold stories and the truly innovative people from Boston’s innovation and entrepreneur community.

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